Wednesday, April 13, 2016

For James Hansen, the Science Demands Activism on Climate

Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism.  In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.

Sea level changes detected by NASA satellites between 1992 and 2014. Deep red represents 2.7 inches of rise while blue represents a drop in sea level. (Credit: NASA) Click to Enlarge.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 last week, Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, opened up about his unconventional career path, his frustration watching policymakers’ four decades of climate inaction, and what he believes the world could look like a century from now. 

“I don't think that I have been alarmist — maybe alarming, but I don't think I'm an alarmist,” he said.  “We have a society in which most people have become unable to understand or appreciate science, and partly that's a communication problem, which we need to try to alleviate.” 

Yale Environment 360: In a paper released last month in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, you and colleagues argued that 2 degrees Celsius of warming could be “dangerous,” setting the stage for abrupt climatic changes.  Can you describe more in detail what could happen under this scenario?  What would the world look like? 

James Hansen: We know from the earth's history that 2 degrees would eventually lead to sea level rise of several meters.  The last inner glacial period, 120,000 years ago, that's the last time it was warmer than today, sea level was 6 to 9 meters higher — that would mean loss of almost all coastal cities.  It's unthinkable that we walk into such a situation with our eyes open, and yet, the science is very well understood. 

There's no argument about the fact that we will lose the coastal areas, now occupied by most of the large cities of the world.  It's only a question of how soon.  That message, I don't think, has been clearly brought to the policymakers and the public.  More than 190 nations agreed [at the Paris climate conference last December] that we should avoid dangerous human-made climate change.  That loss of coastal cities would be a dangerous outcome.  It's hard to imagine that the world will be governable if this happened relatively rapidly. What we conclude is that the timescale for ice-sheet disintegration is probably a lot shorter than has been assumed in the intergovernmental discussions. 
e360: Fast forwarding a bit to November.  Polls show more and more people are concerned about climate change in this country on both sides of the aisle, but the issue has yet to be a major priority for Americans in the voting booth.  What do you think would have to change in order for that to happen? 

Hansen: Young people need to understand how much is at stake for them.  It became a significant issue in the 2008 elections, not a major issue, but Barack Obama did address it in his campaigning.  He did say we have a “planet in peril” a number of times.  For a number of reasons, young people supported him, and that played a major role in his election.  But they didn't know what to ask after he was elected, and so the policies that were proposed by Obama were based on the policies advocated by Big Green, such as cap and trade, and that unfortunately is completely inadequate.  The next time around, after this next election, we had better make sure that the new administration understands not only what the problem is, but what will work and what won't work in solutions. 

Read more at For James Hansen, the Science Demands Activism on Climate

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