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From the mouth of James Hansen

I went to a talk last night by NASA scientists James Hansen. Sure was depressing.*

You probably know Hansen as an outspoken climate scientist, developer of one of the earliest accurate climate models, and one of the first experts to testify before the U.S. Congress — in 1988 — about the dangers of CO2 emissions.

You may also know Hansen as a sharp critic of current efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. He thinks the Kyoto Protocol is worse than useless. He skipped out on the Copenhagen talks, which he feels are a waste of time. And he wants to scrap the legislation currently close to passage in the U.S. in favor of the tax-and-dividend policy that he tirelessly advocates.

So Hansen is a complicated figure. In his role as a climate scientist, he’s brought needed urgency and clarity to the issue of climate change. In his more recent role as a political activist, he’s managed to alienate much of the environmental community.

His talk didn’t break any new ground, but it was interesting to hear him make his case. A few thoughts:

First, there is something very poignant about James Hansen’s transformation into a climate change advocate. By his own description, Hansen is a reluctant and un-flashy speaker. He continues to think of himself primarily as a research scientist. After his early congressional testimony, he intended to stay out of the public eye, and that’s pretty much what he did — until his conscience compelled him to start talking again. When he speaks, he appears to be totally without artifice. Even when confronted during the Q&A session by a climate change denier, Hansen didn’t seem the least bit annoyed or flustered. He simply addressed the questioner’s specific points, and moved on.

Second, Hansen’s lack of artifice is probably what underlies a puzzling political naivete. During the talk, there was a constant dissonance between the criticisms Hansen leveled and the solutions he offered. He seemed incapable of connecting the dots between the systemic obstacles to progress and the compromises embodied in real-world legislation.

For example, he acknowledged the influence of coal state legislators over the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House of Representatives, but he still held Barack Obama personally responsible for not delivering a stronger bill. Even if we suppose that Obama somehow deserves this blame, one wonders: are we ever going to have a more progressive president than we have now? And if not, what hope is there for Hansen’s tax-and-dividend proposal?

Hansen is adamant that we need a market-based solution to climate change that puts a price on carbon emissions. He’s right about that. But he never makes clear why cap-and-trade isn’t good enough. Clearly he thinks the emissions reductions specified in Waxman-Markey are insufficient, but this isn’t a problem with the form of the legislation, it’s an indication of weak political support for more aggressive action. How will Hansen’s proposal change this basic equation?

These questions aren’t simply hypothetical. Hansen was twice asked by despairing audience members about how to close the gap between environmental necessity and political reality, and twice he had nothing to say. He himself has turned recently to civil disobedience; he was even arrested during a protest at a coal mining operation. I admire his integrity, but I’d rather see grassroots energy applied to passing current bills rather than opposing them.

Finally, the talk reminded me that climate science is just really damned interesting in its own right, and the resurgent anti-scientific sentiment in American politics and culture is a shame not just for the country but also for the people who aggressively court ignorance. Hansen ended the talk with a brief tour through the paleoclimate. Did you know that we have the Himalayas to thank for the ice ages? 40 million years ago, CO2 concentrations were about triple what they are now. The planet was completely free of ice, and sea levels were hundreds of feet higher. Then India crashed into Asia, thrusting up the Himalayan range and exposing a massive amount of rock to the atmosphere. Over millions of years, that rock acted as a CO2 sponge, reacting with carbon in the air to make carbonates. About ten million years ago, when CO2 levels reached roughly 450 parts per million, ice started forming at the poles.

Interesting! Also: scary. Today, many of these processes are running in reverse. CO2 levels stand at 387 parts per million and climbing…

\* Incidentally, if you live in New York, and especially if you live in Brooklyn, you should be checking out the Secret Science Club. Beer + science = fun. Unless the topic is catastrophic climate change, of course, in which case, add more beer.

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