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James Hansen's Climate Future Foretold: Heroism on a Hot Planet
At 72, climate scientist James Hansen is retiring as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies to work even more actively on climate-change issues. Keep in mind that, in congressional testimony in 1988, he first put climate change on the national map. “It is time to stop waffling so much,” he told the congressional committee members, “and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” He then went on to suggest a future “probability of extreme events like summer heat waves... and the likelihood of heat wave drought situations in the Southwest and Midwest.” (Any of that sound faintly familiar a quarter-century later?) It was, at the time, a startling statement. Recently, in an email to the members of 350.org, the environmental organization he helped to found, former New Yorker reporter Bill McKibben wrote: “If 350.org has a patron saint, it’s Jim [Hansen]. It was his 2008 paper that gave us our name, identifying 350 parts per million CO2 as the safe upper limit for carbon in the atmosphere.”
That’s no small praise from the writer who, only a year after Hansen spoke up, first put global warming on the map in a popular book, The End of Nature. He was at least a decade or more ahead of the rest of us, and more recently he’s led the popular charge on climate change and especially, in the last year, on trying to block the building of Keystone XL. That’s the pipeline slated to bring tar sands, a particularly “dirty” (and in carbon terms, dirty to produce) form of crude oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Just the other day, as if to provide a little exclamation point on his energetic campaign, during which Hansen has been arrested twice in acts of civil disobedience, a pipeline through which Exxon was already running Canadian “heavy crude” (reputedly a particularly corrosive form of oil) burst in an Arkansas town. The neighborhood affected, according to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” was left “looking like a scene out of the Walking Dead.”
As a scientist and an activist, Hansen has proven a remarkable figure. (He will soon be awarded the prestigious Ridenhour Courage Prize.) After a February arrest protesting the Keystone pipeline, he told the Washington Post, "We have reached a fork in the road," adding that politicians have to understand that they can "go down this road of exploiting every fossil fuel we have -- tar sands, tar shale, off-shore drilling in the Arctic -- but the science tells us we can't do that without creating a situation... our children and grandchildren will have no control over, which is the climate system."
Recently, there was a striking New York Times portrait of him by Justin Gillis headlined “Climate Maverick to Retire From NASA.” That word “maverick,” while by no means wrong, might be a little deceptive in 2013, since a maverick is a loner, an outlier, and in climate-change terms these days, there is nothing terribly mavericky about Hansen’s suggestions that climate change is likely to radically transform this planet unless we begin to get our greenhouse gas output under control soon. These days, in fact, he’s surrounded by a worried mass of scientists.
In Gillis's piece there was a passage that, despite everything I’ve read, managed to shock me, and I thought it worth citing here (then check out McKibben’s latest piece, “Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the ‘Stonewall’ of the Climate Movement? And If So, Is That Terrible News?”). Writing about how early Hansen highlighted the dangers of global warming, and how he was doubted at the time, Gillis added, “Yet subsequent events bore him out. Since the day he spoke, not a single month’s temperatures have fallen below the 20th-century average for that month. Half the world’s population is now too young to have lived through the last colder-than-average month, February 1985. In worldwide temperature records going back to 1880, the 19 hottest years have all occurred since his testimony.”
Think about that for a moment and imagine where we’re still going as greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere at record rates.