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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  1. dlmchale - December 24, 2009

    hello & solstice greetings.
    Dr. Hansen is one of the smartest guys on the planet. We need this as MLK said:”Peace, Equity, Justice and the Power of Good Minds”.
    Am I afraid, yes and we all should be, but in a modern world that can identify random events and find a mathamatical formula so as to describe it and then apply it as a means of measurement: ie: broken stick principle-continuous sample-I have a half full glass.
    Cap and Trade, working (a bit); carbon tax would work better. Multi-nationals own the ‘other’ company that provides the credits to the gross ‘crapper’.
    Obama’s talk at Hopenhagen has no iron ‘cus it has no money. Could of taken some of the tarp pay back dough and spread it around for general good will providing international-funds that are ‘drying up’ to eco-groups funding international green restoration projects-like that San Diego non-prof that plants trees in Latin America.
    We did get that language ICA as a means of oversight, which needs ratification, but it does put the Chinese and Indians ‘to talking’. But Dr. Hansen is correct in his talk because it’s about-lead or ‘git out da way’. The very fact that the whole Hopenhagen thing did not hit the major networks says what; “we are making progress”? When what is really picked up is the feed of a ‘green interviewer’ talking to the Cato Institute talking head. So the fact that the petro-multi’s built Cato never needs to be discussed? Where was the NOAA spokesperson, Dr. Susan Solomon the 2009 winner of the Volvo Environmental award? Where was Ambroy Lovins of the RMI to discuss his comments (that were in that ‘rag’ all the Congress persons read) just the week before-that jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs come from green-not coal.
    I think the esteemed Dr.’s talk should p.o. a few ‘greenicks’ that believe ‘bamboo flooring’ is just so fashionable.
    Adam this is where your comment: ‘environmental necessity and political reality’ lives-somewhere between Walmat going green and children working in coal mines in China. Yes Jim Hansen was arrested for civil disobedience-at a Massey Energy mine site for assisting in raising a banner saying STOP MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL and chaining himself to a fence. ‘Cus they used the birds in the coal mines not for worker safety or NOSHA requirements but to see if the toxic gas would kill the Mules.
    Decentralize the whole mess, I’m thinking.
    Finally Adam, I hate to say this but your comments have a bit of ‘eletism’ to it and has lost fact that the progress todate is from folks having bake sales and square dances to raise the funds to PUSH FROM THE BOTTOM.
    This movement needs Heros like Dr. James Hansen-now I don’t agree with all his visions-but America LOVES is Heros. Adam I would have given a weeks wages to just sit in the room you where in; to hear someone that is smart enough to understand that basic science of: it takes 2 o2 moles to make 1 co2 mole.
    This is were it’s at(now that the mountain top blew in Indonesia) as an example: I understand that the polticos in Pompeii debated to the very last days about a course of action as the volanco erupted. Profits vesus doom, yea there is a bit of that in the message only because art does sometime resemble life.
    My good friend Judy told me recently: “What jobs are there on a dead planet?”
    Dr. James Hansen is telling us there is a lot to be done, it’s going to take a ‘huge’ bucket full of money to fix it and if we do not move NOW there is going to be major suffering. Kinda makes a person hope for a 2012 event.
    ‘Nuff said. Thanks for bring about this web site so folks like me can sound off.

  2. Doug Wallace - December 30, 2009

    Adam, you have again written up a fine commentary that is at once sympathetic and clear-eyed about Dr. Hansen, who has been of incalculable importance in educating the world about climate change. It’s enough for me that he is a superb scientist, and I don’t need him to be right on policy prescriptions as well.
    This is another example of the tension in what I think of as the principled versus the pragmatists. As a general matter, those in positions that require implementing actions tend to be pragmatists, and you artfully speak about the need to accept the baby steps we can achieve toward our goal. At the same time, we should continue to welcome the irritation provided by the more principled types, to keep the rest of us more honest.

  3. Anonymous - December 31, 2009

    Sir you are the perfect spokesman with words spoken in an intelligent and articulate, concise manner, kinda like a bio-instructor-which is a good thing, I’m thinking.
    thanks dm