NASA’s James Hansen, Civil Disobedience and Mountaintop Removal Mining

  • Published on June 24th, 2009

NASA's Dr. James Hansen was arrested protesting mountaintop removal like this.

James Hansen is considered the top climate scientist in the United States. He first testified to Congress about the dangers of global warming as far back as 1988, and he has taken up the cause of ending the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. On June 22 in Yale e360, he published a “Plea to President Obama” on the subject, and yesterday he took it a step further: he joined in an act of civil disobedience by attempting to trespass on the property of Massey Energy near Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, and was arrested along with other protesters including Darryl Hannah and former US Representative Ken Hechler (D-WV).


What an incredible step for a scientist to take. I wrote here a few weeks ago about the question of whether or not environmental scientists should be policy advocates, and Hansen’s letter to Obama fits what I imagined completely. He took his knowledge of a subject and made a push to have something done about it. The actions at Coal River Mountain, though, have the potential to push the issues a scientist finds important so much farther into public consciousness; my guess is that the only people reading Yale e360 already agree with him anyway.

In that letter, Hansen says the following of mountain mining:

Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into streambeds — an undeniably catastrophic way of mining…. If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change?

New York Times writer/blogger Andrew Revkin posted on the arrests, and added this about Hansen’s actions:

“Dr. Hansen has pushed far beyond the boundaries of the conventional role of scientists, particularly government scientists, in the environmental policy debate.”

Revkin adds basically nothing of his own opinion on the matter, and I can’t quite tell from that quote if he is simply stating a fact, or praising or disparaging the idea that a scientist—a government scientist, no less, as if that somehow changes things—might have such strong opinions that he would leave the lab entirely and, to cliché it up a bit, take to the streets.

Saving Coal River Mountain

Although obviously I’m not sure what all these actions might do in the fight to stop mountaintop mining, I’m ecstatic that intelligent and in-the-public-eye scientists are even considering this type of idea. And Coal River Mountain is a good place to start. The mountain itself sits between several other mountaintop removal sites, and an elementary school lies not far away. In a conversation I had a few months ago with Rory McIlmoil, who works with Coal River Mountain Watch to try and bring alternatives to the mountain instead of coal mining, he told me that analyses have shown a potential for 328 megawatts of wind power. “The alternative is 10 square miles of complete destruction of a mountain,” he said.

Unfortunately, the West Virginia House of Representatives recently failed to vote on a resolution for a wind farm on the mountain, in spite of 41 co-sponsors out of 100. There are still permits to be filed and approved in order for mountaintop removal to proceed, but the chances of wind power making an appearance on Coal River Mountain look slimmer and slimmer.

That being said, if more trusted scientists decided to take their opinions and make them known in drastic ways, then maybe we really can start moving away from primitive and destructive ideas like blowing the top off a mountain.

About the Author

Dave is a science writer focusing on science, health and the environment. You can find other examples of his work at Follow him on Twitter @davelevitan.

1 comment

  • Well I think u need to find something else to do besides messing with me and my husband lively hood. And all of West Virginia's lively hood. Are u going to take care of all us when they shut the mines down. I should say not. That is how all of survive for some thats all they know. This would be a rich state if people like u would mind ur own business and leave West Virginians alone. And my dad works at one of the railroads and if u help shut the mines down then he also looses his job and he is a hard working man all of them are. Its like a domino affect u dummy. Now I think there should be some better laws to help prevent slush ponds. But there is billions of trees here. I don't think its going to hurt anything we have to make our money just like u do!!!!!!Now let me tell u a little about myself. My husband is layed off right now and we are trying to build on to our ONE ROOM HOUSE and that is very difficult right now because of people like u. I am educated. My husband is also educated. So when u and all of ur little high society buddies and the movie stars and the so called President shuts all of the mines down. What are we supposed to do? HMMMMM!!!! People like u piss me off I know there is global warming but its already to late to do anything about it whats done is done its over millions of years of damage. I recycle doing my part but when my husband looses his job I'm not going to have money to buy anything to recycle. And its not good when someone else messes with someone else's lively hood what if a lot of people messed with yours? U better watch out! It might come back to bite u in the ass.

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