By Ellen Frankman
On April 2, 2013, climate scientist Dr. James Hansen stepped away from his 46-year career at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In his retirement Hansen will work to educate the public on the urgency of addressing climate change, while also having the freedom to finally testify against the government that employed him for nearly five decades.
In a small step forward in this mission, Hansen addressed around 50 guests on Friday evening in a private lecture held at the home of Nisa Geller and Jeffrey Tannenbaum in Sagaponack. The talk, titled “Itinerant Farming to White House Arrests: A Scientist’s View of the Climate Crisis,” gave a gloomy view of the fate of our planet should we continue on our present course of consumption and destruction.
“The situation is that there is this tremendous gap between what scientists now understand and what the public knows,” said Hansen. “The truth is that we have a crisis.”
The son of an Iowa tenant farmer, Hansen was able to save enough money to attend college in 1963 where he began studying physics, mathematics and astronomy with a particular focus on the veil of clouds surrounding Venus. But increasing awareness about the effects of human emissions of greenhouse gases into earth’s atmosphere caused Hansen to switch his research focus.
In 1981, Hansen and his colleagues published in Science Magazine what became one of the earliest identifications of the effects of global warming in a paper titled “Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.”
“We predicted that the 1980s would be the warmest decade, and that the 1990s would be still warmer, and that in the 21st century we would see the creation of drought prone regions, the opening of the so-called northwest passage and rising sea levels,” said Hansen.
Since then, all of those things have in fact happened.
The research led to a request to testify before Congress in 1988 on the very real consequences of human-induced global warming, launching what would become a career dedicated to demonstrating just how serious the greenhouse effect was and would become if left unchecked.
Thus far, little has been done.
In 2001, Dr. Hansen was invited twice to brief Vice President Dick Cheney and the Bush administration’s Climate Task Force.
“What I realized was although they listened to us, they did not understand the basic point that had become crystal clear,” said Dr. Hansen. “We cannot burn all of the fossil fuels and we are already getting close to a very dangerous point.”
According to Dr. Hansen, global warming is increasing extreme weather events to the point where extreme summer heat anomalies now cover approximately 10 percent of land area in the Northern Hemisphere, up from a .2 percent average between 1951 and 1980. Wildfires in the western United States have increased four-fold in the past 30 years, a statistic that was brought to sobering reality when 19 firefighters were killed on June 30 fighting a blaze near the town of Yarnell, Arizona.
Our oceans are changing rapidly too. Global sea level is rising at a rate of 3.1mm per year and warming simultaneously.
“Sandy was stronger because the ocean temperature was two to three degrees warmer than normal,” said Dr. Hansen.
Dr. Hansen explained that the rate of global warming is now 10 times faster than it has ever been in earth’s history, and we are approaching global tipping points at an exponential rate.
“Once the ice sheets start to disintegrate increasingly fast you will reach a point where you can’t stop it,” said Dr. Hansen. “The sea ice in the arctic last year covered only 51 percent of the area that it covered 30 years before and the ice that remained was only half as thick.”
Dr. Hansen says fossil fuels are to blame. Globally, we have already burned 370 billion tons of carbon, but that is only a fraction of the recoverable resources of oil and coal that can be tapped. If we want to stabilize climate this century, we simply cannot burn all of the fossil fuels, said Dr. Hansen.
But according to Dr. Hansen there are solutions, and one in particular that will have far more impact than an individual driving a Prius or carrying reusable grocery bags – a tax on carbon.
“What we should do is have an honest price on fossil fuels, collecting a fee at the source,” said Dr. Hansen. Dr. Hansen envisions that not one dime would go to the government, but rather there would be a 100 percent return rate to the public in the form of tax rebates. He believes this would be a transparent market-based solution that could potentially stimulate the economy and leave energy decisions to individuals.
A registered Independent, Dr. Hansen has been tough on climate change discourse on both sides of the aisle thus far. Highly critical of the failed 2009 climate bill supported by Democrats and environmentalists, Dr. Hansen believed it would not limit emissions effectively while only continuing to enlarge the government.
Though Dr. Hansen is warily hopefully of individuals like Republican George Shultz who have come out in support of a carbon tax, he is disapproving of a party that for the most part has been comprised of climate change deniers.
“I think conservatives are beginning to understand that if they continue to pretend that the climate issue is a hoax then once the public realizes it’s not then they are in trouble,” said Dr. Hansen.
Dr. Hansen says putting pressure on the government is what’s most needed. He was arrested for the first time in 2009 at a coal protest, and has been arrested a few times more since then.
“It is a matter of intergenerational injustice,” said Hansen. “Our parents did not know that their actions could harm future generations, but we can only pretend that we don’t know and the politicians are doing a very good job of pretending they don’t know.”