03/05/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Joe Nocera's Misguided Crusade

What's happening over at the New York Times? A day after the paper announced that it would be cancelling its Green Blog (while keeping it's essential horse racing blog), columnist Joe Nocera has published another piece going after NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen,, and the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline.

In Nocera's first attempt at Keystone contrarianism, he managed to come to the conclusion that a carbon tax would increase production of tar sands fuel. You can Google "Joe Nocera is Wrong" and read through a few of the 217,000 links to get a sense of just how backwards his argument proved to be. To his credit, in his next column, Nocera himself backed away from his claim and called his previous statement "pretty boneheaded."

Well, it looks like Nocera should start preparing his next apology. In his latest opus, Nocera turns his fire on Hansen, who has become an outspoken opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Nocera starts off by claiming that many scientists view Hansen's conclusion that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as "arbitrary and even meaningless." In fact, there has thus-far been no peer reviewed article that has challenged the 350 ppm target, while other top scientists such as IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri (not to mention 112 nations) have endorsed the goal. As evidence for his claim, Nocera links to a column by climate commentator Joe Romm, who has indeed disagreed with the 350 ppm target as a policy metric, arguing that 450 ppm is a more achievable goal, but has never dismissed it as "arbitrary or meaningless." In fact, Romm has provided some excellent commentary and analysis on the 350 ppm target, how it could be achieved, and how the recent string of extreme weather events suggests that we may already be passed safe levels of global warming.

Nocera goes on to criticize Hansen for getting involved in climate activism. He writes, "There is, in fact, enormous resentment toward Hansen inside NASA, where many officials feel that their solid, analytical work on climate science is being lost in what many of them describe as 'the Hansen sideshow.'" Nocera provides no attribution for his quote nor does a search online pull up any criticism of Hansen from fellow NASA employees. In fact, the only Google hit on Monday evening from a quick search of "The Hansen sideshow" is Nocera's own column.

Meanwhile, Hansen himself has made a compelling case of why he has gotten involved in climate activism. His TED Talk on his evolution from a laboratory scientist to his willingness to get arrested at the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline has gotten over 600,000 views online. Hansen doesn't gloss over the potential challenges of balancing activism and science, but dives directly into the controversy. For Nocera to paint in such broad, inaccurate strokes does Hansen a disservice.

Finally, Nocera ends his column by recycling the same tired claims about Keystone XL: the pipeline won't actually increase carbon emissions and Keystone XL is a distraction from more important fights like a carbon tax. All of these arguments have been disproven, discredited, and disproven again.

The reality is that Keystone is a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet, the Canadian tar sands. 17 other climate scientists along with Dr. Hansen have made the case that Keystone XL would be a disaster for the climate. The oil industry itself has repeatedly claimed that the pipeline is key to the future development of the tar sands. Why else would they be spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying for the project?

Charlie Pierce has a brilliant satirical take-down of this "we don't actually need the pipeline" argument in a recent column for Esquire, where he writes,

Jesus H. Christ on a respirator, they're not even trying very hard any more. We need the pipeline to become more energy independent, but building it or not building it won't have an impact on how much oil we refine. It won't speed up the development of the tar sands -- which, if we are taking the threat of climate change seriously, would be left in the damn ground where they belong -- and that's why the extraction industries and the politicians they've sublet are moving heaven and earth -- in the latter case, quite literally -- and taking people's land in Nebraska, and screaming bloody murder at every delay. They don't need the project, and that's why they want the project built so badly.

As to the argument that Keystone XL is a distraction from other fights, this too has been torn apart by political commentators. Dave Roberts over at Grist has been writing some excellent columns lately taking "Very Serious People" like Nocera to task over being activist scolds. Recently, beltway insider Michael Grunwald wrote in Time magazine.

The pipeline isn't the worst threat to the climate, but it's a threat. Keystone isn't the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it's the fight we're having. Now is the time to choose sides. It's always easy to quibble with the politics of radical protest: Did ACT UP need to be so obnoxious? Didn't the tax evasion optics of the Boston Tea Party muddle the anti-imperial message? But if we're in a war to stop global warming -- a war TIME declared on a green-bordered cover five years ago -- then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta. If we're serious about reducing atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million, we need to start leaving some carbon in the ground.

Of course, Nocera isn't serious about reaching the 350 ppm target. He thinks it's arbitrary and meaningless. So instead of engaging in an actual discussion of what could help address the climate crisis, he's using his column to launch personal attacks on Hansen, one of our nation's top scientists and someone who first warned us about the threat of climate change. Let's hope Nocera realizes that this recent column is as "boneheaded" as his previous.