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Dr. James Hansen in his famous speech before Congress in 1988. He is leaving NASA so that he can spend more time waging the political and legal battles he thinks are necessary to save the planet's climate for future generations. (Image via Wikipedia)

NASA's James Hansen, Leaving Post to Fight Climate Change Full Time

'As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government.'

Jon Queally

James Hansen, the NASA scientist credited with raising the earliest and most consistent alarm over the dangers of human-caused global warming and climate change has announced that he's leaving his government job so that he can put his full energies into the climate movement he helped spur.

After almost half a century working for the government, he told the New York Times on Tuesday he now considered it appropriate to step outside so he could more fully join the political and legal fight to limit greenhouse gases and runaway climate change.

“As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government,” he told the Times in an interview.    

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate action group 350.org—which takes its names from the scientific number 350 parts per million that Hansen himself warned was the safe upper limit for carbon in the atmosphere—called Hansen the "patron saint" of the organization and hero for the global climate justice movement that has formed in recent years.

"As much as for his science," McKibben continued, "we respect him for his courage. He’s always been willing to speak the truth bluntly, from the day in 1988 when he told Congress that the time had come “to stop waffling so much and say the planet was warming,” to all he’s done to bring attention to damaging projects like Keystone XL—even to the point of risking arrest to do so."

As the Times reports:

Dr. Hansen had already become an activist in recent years, taking vacation time from NASA to appear at climate protests and allowing himself to be arrested or cited a half-dozen times.

But those activities, going well beyond the usual role of government scientists, had raised eyebrows at NASA headquarters in Washington. “It was becoming clear that there were people in NASA who would be much happier if the ‘sideshow’ would exit,” Dr. Hansen said in an e-mail.

At 72, he said, he feels a moral obligation to step up his activism in his remaining years.

“If we burn even a substantial fraction of the fossil fuels, we guarantee there’s going to be unstoppable changes” in the climate of the earth, he said. “We’re going to leave a situation for young people and future generations that they may have no way to deal with.”

Responding to the news at Climate Progress, Joe Romm writes:

Hansen is our country’s top climatologist. He has been one of our most tireless public servants for decades and has been right about the dangers posed by climate change longer than almost anyone else (see “1981 Hansen study finds warming trend that could raise sea levels“). We ignore him at our grave peril.

And interviewed by the Washington Post, McKibben was once again effusive about Hansen's role and the outsized impact his work has had.

“When the history of our time is written, he’s going to be one of the giants,” he said.

In a letter to 350.org supporters Monday night, McKibben, always the activist, urged members to honor Hansen's commitment by submitting a personal comment against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which is still under review at the State Department:

Sending a message to the State Department might not seem like much, but I think it’s actually quite fitting tribute.

One reason we’re fighting the pipeline is because Jim Hansen did the math to show that if we combusted the tar sands on top of all else we burn, it would be “game over for the climate.” So far that message hasn’t gotten through: the State Department hired a bunch of compromised oil industry analysts to ‘review’ KXL, and unsurprisingly they decided it would have ‘minimal’ environmental impact. We need to get them to take reality seriously, and change that assessment.

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