An Interview with Climate Champion Dr. James Hansen

Care2 Editor’s Note: We’re so happy to bring you guys another great post from our good friends over at Earth Island Journal. This interview is with famous NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, aka the “father of global warming” … although he doesn’t think so. This is an abbreviated excerpt of the interview. To read the article in its entirety, head over to Earth Island Journal. Enjoy!

By Nell Greenberg, Earth Island Journal

A recent New York Times article pointedly asked whether NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen still matters. The subtext to the story was, has Hansen been too vocal and too unconventional in his criticism of Washington’s response to climate change to be taken seriously?

Hansen, dubbed by some as the “father of global warming,” has been connecting the dots between science and politics since his groundbreaking 1988 testimony to Congress about the greenhouse effect. In the last year, however, Hansen has gone far beyond talking about climate change. He’s now taking direct action to stop it.

I began talking with Dr. Hansen when he took part in the Capitol Climate Action, a protest by more than 2,500 people last March at the coal plant that provides heating and cooling for congressional buildings. What struck me most about Hansen was that after more than 30 years of working within “the system” to solve the climate crisis, he felt driven to protest. When a man who knows more about the science of global warming than almost anyone risks arrest to get attention for the issue, perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to take heed.

Young people certainly are. Hansen’s relevance may be in question among some reporters, but to the youth who are spearheading the climate movement, he is a heroic force. When Hansen announced that he would attend the Capitol Climate Action, it doubled the number of young people who signed up on the action’s Web site. While Al Gore and Thomas Friedman question why young people aren’t doing more to stop global warming, Hansen is in the streets, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, so that the task of protecting future generations isn’t left to them alone.

What was your dream job as a kid?

When I started university, my goal was to be an astronaut, and a scientist astronaut. That’s why I was particularly interested in NASA as a graduate student. Then I got so wrapped up in science that I never got around to becoming an astronaut.

You’ve been called the father of global warming. What does that means to you and is it actually true?

Of course it’s not true, in the sense that global warming goes way back into the 1800s. The first really good discussion was in the 1860s by John Kendall, who was a British physicist. He speculated that the climate changes from glacial to interglacial were related to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and that turned out to be right. We’ve only in the last several years realized and proven that about half of the temperature change in the glacial to interglacial changes is in fact due to changes of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide.

So it’s not accurate to say I’m the father of global warming. I think where that misimpression comes from is the fact that the public didn’t pay much attention to this science until the 1980s, when it became much more widely noticed in part because of the testimony I gave in 1988 [to Congress].

What would you say has made you different than many of the climate scientists who came before you?

I guess what seems to have made me different is that I am willing to say a little more bluntly what a lot of scientists are already beginning to think but are a bit reluctant to say publicly or at least not in a clear enough way that the public recognizes what they’re saying.

“You’ve got to cut off the coal source. Not only does Waxman-Markey assure that we will continue to run these coal plants, but it actually gives approval for additional coal plants. That simple test tells us that this bill is not adequate.”

You’ve been an advocate for a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade. Why do you think a carbon tax is not getting much traction?

It’s partly because of the poor choice of words. I have a new description and that is “deposit and return.” Either a carbon cap or a carbon tax affects the price of energy and so they’re qualitatively not different. And so it’s kind of a mistake to call one a “tax and dividend,” and the other a “cap,” as if the cap does not increase the price of energy. If it doesn’t increase the price of energy, then it’s not going to be effective.

We have to begin to move to the sources of energy beyond fossil fuels. And the way you do that in a way that is economically sensible and beneficial is to do it gradually but continually. The public and the business community need to understand that the price of carbon will continue to rise in the future, and then we would begin to move more rapidly to the post-fossil fuel era.

I want to turn to your recent role in some big civil disobedience climate protests: the Capitol climate protest in DC last March, and the protest this past June in West Virginia against mountaintop removal coal mining, where you were arrested for the first time. How did somebody who has worked inside the system for so many years get to a place where you decided that you not only had to be out in a protest but that you were going to get arrested?

I prefer the phrase “civil resistance” rather than “civil disobedience” for reasons that Gandhi gives.

When I give a talk on this, I show that the three options for getting the actions that are obviously needed are through the democratic process, influencing the elections of the administration and Congress; secondly, the courts; and then thirdly, civil resistance.

The first at the top of the list, the democratic process: Well, we’re trying that and you have to continue [trying]. It’s very disappointing that the democratic process ends up with the same old politics, which is exactly what Waxman-Markey is. It does not do the job and it is selling short young people and future generations. And that has gotten to be very frustrating to many people, including me.

And so, you look at these other things, the courts and civil resistance. The courts: In my talks, I draw attention to the fact that it has long been a basic tenet in our democracy that the current generation is using nature and the property that we have inherited from our parents in what Thomas Jefferson described in his letter to James Madison as “in usufruct.” Meaning that it’s in trust, it’s property that belongs to future generations, and we’re obligated to deliver it in equally good condition as we received it from our preceding generations. Jefferson was thinking especially about the quality of the land and that you can’t degrade the land with agricultural practices that just use up the nutrients and leave nothing for future generations. So that, I think, may provide a basis for the courts coming to the assistance of young people and future generations. But I don’t know how well that will work out.

So then we arrive at [civil resistance]: I think the point is – just as Gandhi did – to try to draw attention to what is just and what is unjust. It is kind of a last resort, but the problem is we are running out of time. That is what science has made very clear. It is very hard for people to understand this because the magnitude of global warming is so small in comparison to weather fluctuations, and yet what has become clear in the last few years is that it doesn’t take a very large global change in order to have enormous implications in the long run.

Do you think, then, that more people should start getting involved in civil resistance, in particular when it comes to stopping coal and mountaintop removal mining?

Yeah. We have got to get Obama to pay attention to this because, as I say, I think he is our best hope. But so far, he seems to be forgetting his obligation to young people.

Click here to read the rest of this interview.

Nell Greenberg is a communications manager at Rainforest Action Network, which helped to organize the Capitol Climate Action and the West Virginia coal protest where Hansen was arrested.

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photo credit: thanks to World Development Movement via flickr


W. C
W. C9 months ago


William C
William C9 months ago

Thank you.

William C
William C9 months ago

Thank you.

Jennifer C.
Past Member 7 years ago

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

Victoria B.
Victoria B8 years ago

Love the list of good reads that came with this article, it is great to be introduced by article, to these amazing individuals who have been beavering away in their chosen fields of expertise so that they can add to the betterment and sustainability of our environment here on earth.

Marianne Good
Past Member 8 years ago

Interesting. Thank you

Rev. Kaye Skinner
Kaye S8 years ago

Thanking you for the information, you guys are the best.

Dianne D.
Dianne D8 years ago

We have mountaintop removal in our state and it scars the earth forever. It has to stop. Coal is so outdated. We need to look for better methods of energy.

Daniel M.
Past Member 8 years ago

Thanks great read