Hansen’s Holocaust Comparison: Or, Why Moralizing on Global Warming Won’t Work

November 26, 2007 |

For as long as I can remember, people have compared bad stuff to the Holocaust. Their unconscious assumption is always that, in doing so, their concerns will gain more power and credibility.

But with his comments about coal "death trains," NASA scientist James Hansen proved once again that this is a dreadful assumption to make.

Hansen was approvingly quoted by Joe Romm, former DOE official and blogger at the Center for American Progress, in an email, posted to Grist.org on July 26, 2007.

If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains -- no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

Happily, several Grist bloggers objected.

But Hansen apparently didn't listen to Grist bloggers. (I know it's hard to believe). Hansen kept on making Holocaust comparisons.


Today, the Times' Andy Revkin lowered the boom on Hansen, challenging Hansen's defense of the "death train" statement. Hansen said that his statements were not "scientifically invalid" -- as though scientific validity should be the only criterion upon which his statements should be evaluated.

Andy posted his letter to Hansen:

Your letter back to the coal rep says:

"There is nothing scientifically invalid about the above paragraph. If this paragraph makes you uncomfortable, well, perhaps it should."

As I said above, we live in a world where science is not the only thing that matters.

Indeed it's not, and bravo to Revkin for pioneering a kind of post-environmental journalism that takes the human environment (e.g., politics, language, and society) into account. And for standing up to a world-famous scientist like Hansen.


Grist's David Roberts, in sad comparison, ends up pretending like he doesn't know Hansen's Holocaust analogy was outrageous:

Is the analogy "appropriate"? Hell if I know. We are marching together in lockstep toward tragedy. I'll happily accept inappropriate analogies if they wake us up and change our course.

Roberts poses as a tough-minded blogger, but he can't bring himself to offer an even tepid rebuke of Hansen. It's inconceivable that Roberts would have shrugged his shoulders had it been a Michael Crichton or a Sen. Inhofe who had mobilized the Holocaust (or the Nazis) to dramatize their concerns.

Perhaps the reason Roberts treads lightly here is that he has been fond of his own Holocaust comparisons. Last year he called for war crimes tribunals for global warming deniers.

When we've finally gotten serious about global warming, when the impacts are really hitting us and we're in a full worldwide scramble to minimize the damage, we should have war crimes trials for these bastards -- some sort of climate Nuremberg.

You'll note how all of the bleating about "free speech" goes out the door when True Believers like David Roberts get frustrated.

The moral of the story: comparisons between the Holocaust and global warming are asinine, and should not be made by anybody who claims to want serious political action to deal with it.

But beyond this moral, the story reveals why climate scientists should stick to the science. When Hansen panics and goes all "death train" on us, he destroys his credibility as a scientist. Every indication I've seen is that he's a very good -- and very courageous -- scientist on climate. But, like Romm from the DOE and CAP, he's a lousy political advocate.


The motivation for the Holocaust comparisons by Hansen and Romm is panic. They're scared, and they want us to be scared with them. And, to be sure, there's much to fear: the amount of coal power that China alone will bring on-line by 2030 will be roughly five times the emissions that all of Kyoto would have reduced (had Kyoto worked, that is).

Message to Romm: fear is not an objective attribute of global warming. It is how you feel. As such, your politics need not rest so centrally upon it. Nor should you insist that we feel as you do.

Fear is a beautiful emotion. It can inspire reflection, and that reflection can result in wisdom. But for it to do so, fear needs to be balanced with security, optimism, and aspiration for it to be usefully politically. That's because fear and panic tend to paralyze rather than promote social change.

And we should take care when moralizing about global warming in general and coal in particular. We should feel grateful -- not only resentful -- toward coal. If it hadn't been for coal, we wouldn't be living the rich lives we live in the U.S. It was a step up from wood and dung. It helped build and then rebuild Europe. And it is creating prosperity in China and India.

Now we need to move away from coal as quickly as possible. For that to happen we need a new, aspirational and optimistic political discourse to replace the tragic one. And we need to invest in the technological innovation to make clean energy as cheap as coal. Clean energy investments should not be delayed as part of global warming legislation in Congress.


The past is as much a plague as blessing. The examples it furnishes us with are always out of date. And yet we keep turning to it for guidance, for it is all we have to imagine and create new futures.

As we do so, let us acknowledge that global warming is not slavery, not Jim Crow, not the Holocaust. It is nothing less than humans becoming the meaning of the Earth. And for that becoming to unfold, we'll need a politics of human triumph, human ingenuity, and human greatness -- not more tragic tales of ecological collapse, human cruelty, and mass murder.


Nobody says a carbon price is sufficient in itself, but it is absolutely necessary. New technology has just created new ways for us to use more energy. More efficient cars mean more driving and more sprawl, and only a little less fuel burning.

An explicit, predictable, progressive carbon tax is the most effective first step. With it, the technology will follow. Without it, we perish.

Fortunately, the House Ways & Means Committee is getting the idea. See http://www.carbontax.org. Video, petitions and letters to Congress at http://www.pricecarbon.org.

By James Handley on 2009 04 07

I have grave concerns w/ modeling our energy transformation after America's agricultural transformation. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan makes a very strong argument that American's agricultural transformation is a huge failure, harming the environment as much as our health. To get a flavor of what's in the book, you could watch the documentary "King Corn"...

By winbert on 2009 02 09

Ross Gelbspan has written a nice piece where he lays out a climate plan. Like TBI, he seems to understand that we need to invest in innovation. I think TBI readers would enjoy it. Read it here .

By schaefs on 2009 02 09

I heard the NPR piece. I wonder if the goal should be making low-carbon energy about as cheap as fossil fuels. We need to look at all the low-carbon options. Renewables are the most popular, but the energy storage issue needs to be solved to really open up these sources.

By R Margolis on 2009 02 05

We need to do everything in our power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.We have so much available to use such as wind and solar as well as technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There could be no better investment in than to invest in energy independence. Create clean cheap energy,create millions of BADLY needed new green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.The high cost of fuel this past year did serious damage to our society and economy. Record numbers of jobs and homes have been lost due to the direct impact on our economy.Oil is finite.We are using it globally at the rate of 2 X faster than new oil is being discovered. Added to the strain on our supplies foreign countries are bursting in populations and becoming modern.China and India alone are expected to add another 3 million vehicles to their highways in the next 2 decades. I just read a fantastic book called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now by Jeff Wilson.Great Book!

By sherry on 2009 02 04

Very insightful and important article. I hope the Obama administration frames their proposal as "energy independence-economic recovery-and-climate bill".

By PJ Park on 2009 01 25

You have to be kidding - almost 1/2 the votes were against him.

By Colin Suttie on 2008 11 06

I surfed all the web till found the best searcher. Films, picts, mp3

By relax on 2008 10 31

I am interested to see how this catch-all energy plan plays out for House Dems. What do you think the greens will do when offshore drilling enters as a part of the discussion? Isn't it already in there? What do the greens say to it?

Some green groups care a lot about wildlife and natural resources. What would you say to those who desire legislation that includes measures for adaptation to the unavoidable impacts of global warming? Could adaptation fit into a larger clean energy package?

Great post!

By Alisha on 2008 09 10

I used to hate them, but now I pity the OPEC countries and their people, they are running out of product to sell, It is pricing itself off the market, and we have found other ways to manage quite well without them. The days of parasitic oil barons and their countries are numbered. They will have to fold their tents and humble themselves and return to the deserts from whence they came - if they can!

By Uncle B on 2008 08 20

Great news, thanks to the journalist willing to look for solutions to our energy crisis. The more people read this kind of information in the NY Times and other main stream news - the more it will enter into conversations around the dinner table...leading to more investors willing to take risks.

By Barbara on 2008 06 20

If we can take control of our ruined for oil. government again perhaps we can redirect research dollars to efforts like this instead of subsidizing the petroleum industry with tax breaks while they make millions. The USA could be a beacon in the world with our technology instead of hated for our attempt to control the world's oil. The Iraq war isn't about freedom, its about oil pure and simple. Trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost and

By John on 2008 06 20

Nice post Michael!

By Peter Donovan on 2007 11 27