Hansen on “civil disobedience”

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"Hansen on “civil disobedience”"

I won’t be reprinting Hansen’s e-mails in their entirety anymore, since he has now begun posting them online. For completeness’s sake, here is the rest of the July 23rd email (the whole thing is here):

My statement “It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants” raised a concern (of someone in Ireland) that “such a call amounts to incitement to civil disobedience”.

My “Old King Coal” write-up originated from a brief presentation at a dinner in London on July 4. It was noted that it was ironic that I was speaking on our “4th of July holiday” (I thought it impolite to note that we usually call it “Independence Day”). However, in considering what warrants civil disobedience, it is interesting to consider words from a certain “Declaration”.

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it… Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government… ” It then elaborates the tyranny of one King George (no relation to George Polk).

Another document warranting consultation is our Constitution.

It seems to me that, as yet, it is difficult to use actions of our government as grounds for civil disobedience, however egregiously stupid those actions are. (BTW, would dumping coal dust on someone’s desk or white shirt be civil disobedience? Just kidding.) After all, we elected the government and are free to replace it with another.

However, it is not quite so simple as that. We must also ask whether the nature of our government has remained true to that established by the Founders of our country. As discussed elsewhere (Swift Boating, Stealth Budgeting & Unitary Executives, see http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/worldwatch_nov2006.pdf), the American Revolution launched the radical proposition that the commonest of men should have a vote equal in weight to that of the richest, most powerful citizen. Our forefathers devised a remarkable Constitution, with checks and balances, to guard against the return of despotic governance and subversion of the democratic principle for the sake of the powerful few with special interests. They were well aware of the difficulties that would be faced, however, placing their hopes in the presumption of an educated informed citizenry, an honestly informed public.

Franklin, Jefferson, and the other revolutionaries would surely be distraught by recent tendencies in America, specifically increasing power of special interests in our government, concerted efforts to deceive the public, and arbitrary actions of government executives that arise from increasing concentration of authority in a unitary executive, in defiance of the aims of our Constitution’s framers.

Do these developments constitute a basis for civil disobedience? What other recourses are available? What is the specific relevance of these developments to climate change?

Congressional action to deal, effectively, with climate change is practically impossible now because of the huge, undue sway that special interests have over our law-makers. An extreme example is the almost comical well-oiled Senator who describes global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”. He has criticized me for taking a $250,000 “grant” from a left wing organization, referring to what was in fact an environmental award established to honor former Republican Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, who died in plane accident in the 1990s. Although I have corrected the well-oiled Senator’s statement, it continues to be repeated by his organization, apparently with the belief that if you repeat a statement often enough it will be accepted as true, especially if coming from a high office.

The problem, however, is not the comical extremist. It is the fact that a huge number of our legislators are under the influence of special interests. Americans recognize this. It is one of the main reasons that voters are fed up with Washington. As yet there has been no effective campaign finance reform and “campaign” finances are financing more than campaigns.

All that being said, it is hard to make the case that the avenues for citizens to affect policy have been exhausted. When I was a 5-year-old my mother would often give me a nickel when I went to school. On the way home my 5-year-old friend and I would stop at Denison Drug and get a drink (root beer or cherry coke) which we would both put our straws in. Now, as 66-year-old geezers we debate with his son generational responsibilities, one input being:

A question for Jim might be: Why are not more scientists involved in and working inside social movements instead of carping about them? If Jim wants more young people involved then he should go out and try to organize them or be part of a movement and network of organizations that is doing so. But then he would have to sacrifice time from his professional career to do this and he probably doesn’t like the idea of that. Granted it takes a very well-organized and driven person to be able to do both – Noam Chomsky is the most obvious example of someone who does both solid scientific research (in linguistics) and also participates actively in building social movements for the issue that he is passionate about – foreign policy. In contrast to Jim you rarely hear Chomsky crying about the lack of citizen involvement because he is directly involved in making it happen rather than seeing it as something that his life and work is separate from, and hence is out of his control. So there! You now have five minutes to make your rebuttal. Of course, I just like being a contrarian so don’t take my argumentativeness personally. It must be genetic!

It is worth thinking about. Of course, we also have to recognize where our talents lie, and where they do not. It does seem to me that what happens in 2008 is terribly important. The gleam of a new presidency, by itself, is probably fool’s gold. It will take an enormous turnover in all the states to get people really committed to needed actions. And it is not enough to ask candidates what they think or will do about global warming (as by the cute little snowman on CNN). It is easy for a candidate to say soothing words (as per the candidate in 2000, who declared CO2 a pollutant and then reversed himself as soon as in office).

Here is a suggestion. Some organization (I still think young people should be taking the lead) should concoct a Declaration of Responsible Stewardship (surely a better name exists; it might involve the word Earth and/or Creation and/or Climate). Each and every candidate should be asked if they endorse the Declaration. The Declaration should include some very specific statements, e.g.:

1. Will you support a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester CO2?

2. Will you support legislation to transform utility rewards so as to encourage increased profitability as they help achieve improved user energy efficiencies?

3. Will you support imposition of a fair and gradually rising price on carbon emissions, so as to encourage a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, with the price determined by apolitical authority based on combined economic and environmental considerations?

The questions need to be worked on, but they should be small in number. It would also be possible for candidates to endorse some of the specific statements without endorsing the declaration in

toto.
Of course, these are just personal opinions.

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