In the 1970s, it was a photo of Earth from space taken by Apollo 17 that galvanized the environmental movement. The so-called "Blue Marble" photo showed earth as a lonely sphere adrift in space. To many in the struggling-to-be-born environmental movement, it suggested how fragile and precious our planet really is.
This photo of the world's best known and most outspoken climate scientist, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, handcuffed and hauled off to jail yesterday may not achieve the iconic stature of the Blue Marble photo, but as a symbol of our times, it's pretty potent.
Hansen's arrest was no surprise – in fact, it was deliberate. Hansen was taking part in a civil disobedience action at the White House organized to halt the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will bring dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands down to US refineries in the Gulf. Hansen is just one of more than nearly 1000 protesters who have been arrested since the action began on August 20 (it continues through September 3 – you can learn more about it at tarsandsaction.org).
Unlike most other climate scientists, Hansen has never been shy out speaking out about what's at stake. Before he was arrested, he characterized President Obama's impending decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline as a test of the President's moral seriousness: "If he chooses the dirty needle it is game over [for the earth's climate] because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction," Hansen said. "Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict."
But not as tough as this photo. Here is the war on science in a single image. This is guns vs. canvas hats. This is political power vs. the laws of physics. And it tells you everything you need to know about why, more than 30 years after Hansen first warned us that burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet, we have essentially done nothing to change our ways.