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Citizen Hansen Continues to Battle Climate Change

RP Siegel | Friday April 12th, 2013 | 5 Comments

Global warmingMany of us, who are devoted to the idea of facilitating change in the world, find ourselves wondering whether this can be done most effectively from inside or outside of the system. Each has their own advantages. Being on the inside brings a certain type of credibility, more abundant information, the opportunity for direct contact with decision-makers, as well as certain vulnerabilities and constraints that result from the fact of your livelihood depends on maintaining amicable relations and, of course, toeing the company line.

Being on the outside, on the other hand, brings independence of perspective, more freedom to operate, license to criticize, but access is restricted by firewalls and impact is ultimately reduced to whatever influence and persuasion can achieve, when applied to those on the inside.

Perhaps no one has exemplified this dichotomy, or indeed lived it, more openly and clearly than Dr. James Hansen.

Hansen, as a government employee, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, to be precise, took the matter of public service to a higher level than he was asked to do. Not content to simply develop the information and then pass it along, he took the crucial steps of first, understanding the significance of the information, and second, making sure that the message was delivered, not just to the next person in the chain of command, but to everyone. I suppose you could say that put him somewhere along the continuum that runs between the employee who obediently keeps his mouth shut and Bradley Manning. The difference between Manning and Hansen was that Hansen’s information was not considered secret, though there were surely those, including the Bush White House, who, based on their subsequent actions, clearly would have liked it to be.

But, in fact, Hansen was merely following the first line of the NASA mission statement which says, “To understand and protect the home planet.” When he pointed out that this was his justification for going public with his information, the statement was then officially revised and that first line deleted. This change got little attention at the time, lost as it was among the other Orwellian horrors of George W. Bush’s presidency.

He tried keeping quiet and just focusing on the science, but the combination of the urgency on the one hand, and the inaction on the other, just simply would not let him remain quiet. So this February, he took the further step of getting arrested in front of the White House, while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a fairly unusual move for a government official of his ranking. Then Hansen wrote in a NY Times editorial that if the pipeline goes through, it will be “game over for the climate.”

Now, after 46 years at NASA, Hansen is retiring. He says he plans to take a more active role in pursuing legal channels to convince federal and state governments to pass legislation to limit emissions. In his talks to date, he has consistently emphasized the need for government action, expressing his frustration, apparently unimpressed by the accomplishments of the private sector in this realm, or the fact that, as was revealed this week by the EIA, that energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. were 5.3 billion metric tons, the lowest level since 1994 and a drop of 1.9 percent in each of the past two years. The market was really responsible for the drop, lower natural gas prices leading to significant substitution for coal in the electric generation sector.

But that is still too little too late. The fact is, according to the science, we need to get down to an atmospheric concentration of  less than 350 parts CO2 per million.

As of February, the number was 396.8, three points higher than a year ago. According to Hansen, if we had started pricing carbon back in 2005, it would have required a three percent reduction per year to stabilize the climate by the end of the century. If we start next year, it will take six percent. If we wait 10 years, it will take 15 percent. That is why, despite the progress we have made, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is still going up.

Hansen spoke at a TED conference back in February, around the same time that latest reading was taken and just after his arrest. He said that the energy imbalance that the Earth is experiencing from all that extra carbon dioxide in the air is actually twenty times more than all the energy used by humanity throughout history. It is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs going off every day.

He is recommending a fee-and-dividend plan, along the lines of what Bernie Saunders proposed, which will dramatically cut emissions, while boosting the U.S. economy.

So the question is, what will Dr. Hansen do now? Will he be able to accomplish more on the outside than he did on the inside?

He told the NY Times, that at age 72, he “feels a moral obligation to step up his activism.” He mentioned his grandchildren several times during the TED talk. As the man who probably spent more time living with the data than anyone else, wearing the special glasses, if you will, that allowed him to see what others couldn’t, he is trying to warn us of our peril. And though, what had once been an invisible truth is becoming more apparent every day, we are still behaving, by and large, as if it didn’t exist.

Hansen plans to work out of a converted barn at his home in Pennsylvania, where he will continue his lobbying efforts both here and abroad.

There are those who say politics has no business mixing with science, which, as Alice Bell writes in The Guardian, is convenient “for those who’d rather scientists didn’t think about the consequences of their work.” But if our scientists simply think about the science and our political leaders simply think about getting re-elected, and the business leaders only watch their stock price, who then, will look out for the people and the planet and all the living things that have no voice but whose destiny is suddenly bound to the whims of those who have so single-mindedly fought their way into their positions of power?

[Image credit:yeimaya:Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-A-Lewis/100002053666699 Michael A. Lewis

    Scientists do not say “we need to get down to an atmospheric concentration of less than 350 parts CO2 per million.” That’s the claim of Global Warming activists such as Bill McKibben and science policy and lobbying organizations such as the IPCC and Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Science says, “As of February, the number was 396.8, three points higher than a year ago,” and “Global average surface temperature exhibits no significant increase since 1998.” It is up to activists, environmentalists and politicians to draw conclusions about these findings regarding social, economic and environmental policies.

    When science is held hostage to political and economic considerations, science stops.

    • Christine Brook

      You really need to stop cherry-picking and read more to educate yourself, else risk demonstarating your ignorance and obfuscation.

      Has the heating stopped? No.

      Where is the heat going? The oceans.

      Read this:
      http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/07/us-climate-oceans-idUSBRE93608420130407

    • Christine Brook

      There have been higher global temperature since 1998, which was aligned to a very intense El Nino in the ENSO cycle. In fact 2010 and 2005 were hotter.

      Top 10 Warmest Years (1880–2012)

      Check out the table here:
      http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/2012/13#gtemp
      In fact it would pay you to read the whole report since you are obviously misinformed.

    • RPSiegel

      Actually, it was James Hansen who came up with the 350 number after extensive analysis. Bill McKibben is just the flag-bearer, trying to get it the attention it deserves. Are you suggesting that Hansen is not a scientist?
      You’re absolutely right about the science being held hostage, except that you’ve got it the wrong way around.

  • mjonesx

    I’m past 50 years old…been involved with the environmental issue for most of my adult life.
    Actually, remember back in the late 1980’s when climate change and global warming became a topic in the news. When I worked for a stint with Greenpeace it was more “urgent’ in the public forum than it is now, sorry to say.
    Even though we have tangible proof of climate change until something far more drastic than Superstorm Sandy impacts our society, change will then happen it seems. The problem is most of us benefit from consuming fossil fuels, and the companies profit by selling and pass it to our political officials. The senate will not pass a climate treaty. There is no world treaty, The underdeveloped countries have announce that they are even willing to cut emissions to shame us to do so! We in turn promise help with aid when it impacts them.
    If President Obama approves the XL Pipeline, that tells it all, business as usual, all the above energy policy and game over for the climate.