Hansen on Climate: “We need to make clear to the public what’s really going on”


Editor’s note: This interview is from DailyClimate.org and Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by Daily Climate, presenting short Q&A’s with players large and small in the climate arena. Read other articles in the series more at Climate Query.

NASA’s chief climate scientist James E. Hansen built his career studying Earth’s atmosphere and modeling humans’ potential impacts on climate. Then he realized that laboratory work wasn’t enough. Hansen never thought his decision to study atmospheric models would lead to his arrest. But there he was in handcuffs this summer, protesting at the White House against a pipeline that would carry crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico.

It wasn’t the first arrest, either. Hansen, who has directed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for 31 years, earned the sobriquet “father of global warming” after testifying before Congress in 1988 on the dangers of global warming. He appeared again in 1989. Then he quietly returned to his work, turning aside television and media requests for the next 15 years because, as he said, “you have no time to do the science if you’re talking to the media.”

That approach changed in 2004, when he realized government climate policies worldwide failed to reflect the dangerous story his science was telling. Emerging from his lab, Hansen attacked Bush Administration officials for censuring and watering down climate findings. In 2008 he testified in British court on behalf of the “Kingsnorth Six,” a group of Greenpeace activists who successfully claimed their effort to shut down a power plant was justified under British law because it prevented the greater harm of climate change. In 2009 and 2010, Hansen was arrested protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Dr. James Hansen, arrested for his participation in a protest calling for abolition of mountaintop mining. Photo: Rich Clemen, Rainforest Action Network Flickr streamt

DailyClimate.org editor Douglas Fischer caught up with Hansen in December at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, where the scientist previewed findings about impacts the world courts with its unslacked appetite for carbon-based fuels.

Question: Do you fear you have lost some of your scientific credibility by protesting at the coal plants or by becoming more of a voice in the climate debate?

Hansen: If I was not publishing papers in the peer reviewed literature, then that would be a valid criticism. But I am still publishing. I’m trying to make that science clear to the public. It’s not easy: The scientific evidence has really become very clear, and we’re not doing a very good job of communicating that.

Q: Climate policy has become less a scientific question and more a cultural marker. How can science influence those values and attitudes?

Hansen: We need to make clear to the public what’s really going on. If they just listen to politicians, they don’t understand the story because nothing is being done.

Q: Do reporters ever say, “Look, I can’t touch you as a source because you’re involved in 350.org or the coal plants or these protests”?

Hansen: The fossil fuel industry and those who prefer business as usual – they will use that. But look at my coauthors. I’ve got some of the best scientists in the world.

Q: Let’s flip the question: Do scientists ever say, “Jim, I wish I could get out there the way you are, but I’m afraid, I don’t have the support”?

Hansen: There are consequences of becoming a target. Look at the people who have been the principal targets: Phil Jones, Michael Mann, Ben Santer. Their science has been confirmed. And yet (the attacks) took a toll on them. Of course that’s going to cause other scientists not to step out.

Q: Failure to develop a climate policy isn’t a fault of just one party or one person.

Hansen: That’s right, and that’s not understood. If you say, “Democrats are the ones who favor doing something,” look at the records of the last several administrations: Emissions increased fastest during the Clinton/Gore administration. And (Democrats) proposed a policy that is not going to do anything significant. It’s designed by big banks and it favors big oil and big coal and big utilities.

Q: You’ve never liked a “cap-and-trade” approach.

Hansen: The only way you can solve the problem is with a simple, honest price on carbon. There’s no reason to bring banks into this.

Q: Where’s the clear climate message?

Hansen: Obama could’ve done it if he had started out when he had 70 percent approval and if he followed a policy like Franklin Roosevelt and had fireside chats. It’s not that difficult. It can be explained.

Q: How long can emissions increase before we risk serious impacts?

Hansen: We really should be aiming to keep CO2 no higher than about 350 parts per million and possibly somewhat less than that if we want to maintain stable ice sheets and stable shore lines and avoid many other issues. That would require starting today. We’d have to reduce CO2 emissions at six percent a year if we began next year. If we began five years ago, it would’ve been three percent. If we wait until 2020, it becomes 15 percent.

So if we’re hoping to maintain a planet that looks like the one that humanity has known, we’re out of time right now.

Interview conducted and condensed by Douglas Fischer, DailyClimate.org

47 Replies to “Hansen on Climate: “We need to make clear to the public what’s really going on””

    1. Watching the current political right, I see a lot of thrashing incoherence rather than efforts to solve the problems we actually face. I think that’s inevitable, in that it seems to me that the world of the political right is either: (a) an isolated America (as in the 1890-1930s); (b) America against the world (cold-war, anti-communist); or (c) a proper Christian America (pure fantasy). None of those match the reality of the 21st Century – not even slightly close. So there’s a huge, messy, chaotic collective cognitive dissonance going on with the political right. It’s scary and it’s messy and at the end of the day it won’t work, which I think they all darkly suspect.

      The denialism about global warming, which has its co-equal quasi-scientific trend in creationism, is an example of the sort of mental cognitive dissonance which has come to plague our modern world. Sadly I think there are 3 to 4 generational or century period cycles of these events, which lead to episodes of chaos. The last such episode was from 1914-45 and prior to that 1788-1815, and there were cycles before then. These periods are marked by an upsurge in ideological or belief systems which are usually reactionary; retrograde in their vision, and which often oppose the intellectual trajectory of the age. In these instances it often is the case that money is used to facilitate this collective cognitive dissonance, where those employing this money do so with their own narrow interests in mind. In the case of global warming it is clear that the fossil fuel industries have been fostering this trend.


    2. Jerry Pournelle? Russel Seitz? Freeman Dyson?

      Gad! No wonder we can’t talk to chicken little and all her fanatics.

      Upon seeing algore’s disaster movie, Freeman Dyson said to his wife, “The Polar Bears will be fine.” – NY Times 2008. Dyson. Sorry believers, but you might as well have said, Einstein, or Feynman. More importantly, Dyson worked in climate studies.

  1. Anyone who doubts what the driver behind Climate Change Denial is should read Ben Elton’s Novel “Stark”. Big Business and Government know exactly what is going on. The simple fact is that global growth is driven by global population growth. Limit one and you limit the other. Consumerism is the accelerator pedal on this growth. The old adage “Think Globally-Act Locally has never been truer”

    1. Growth is independent on population density, look at the statistics of such areas.

      Since growth means increased efficiency, it is nothing inherent evil. Modern society uses ~ 1/10 the area per person compared to the first paleolithic communities, and only growth has managed to keep us from ransacking the biosphere.

      The problem isn’t consumption, the problem is what Hansen identifies, brakes on change.

      1. Consumption isn’t the problem? Larsson the root meaning of consume is “to destroy”. Also, if the world consumed like the united States (and it is going in that direction), we would need 5 more Earths to supply the consumers.
        Your reasoning is an example of taking part of the “truth” and making it ALL of the truth. A fatal flaw in human makeup.

      2. These ideas never cease to amaze me, or more that people can think this. Consider the Saturn-Apollo missions to the moon. There were 7 missions and 6 actually made it to the lunar surface. Each involved a 3000 ton rocket which sent a 45 ton craft to the moon, and where in the end a capsule weighing a few tons came back to Earth with its crew of three and a hundred pounds or so of lunar material. Let us now ponder the resource investment to resource return equation! Almost nothing really has to be said. It is clear that the expenditure is maybe millions of times greater than the mineral resource value of what was returned. The lunar rocks are valuable for their scientific information and historical connection, but they have virtually no industrial value.

        There is the He3 suggestion, but the operation required on the moon is quite large. Very large amounts of lunar real estate have to be scrapped up and processed to get much out of it. This idea is a very distant maybe, and frankly I think there are much less complicated way fusion energy might be worked out.


      3. The relationship between population, population growth and the consumption of energy and resources is a bit complicated. The trend so far indicates that increase in consumption reduces birth rates. The wealthy nations of the world have birth rates with around 2 births per couple or less. In the case of nations such as Italy and Japan that is almost 1 birth per couple, leading to population decline, and the rest of the technically advanced nations have declining birth rates which will lead to the same. Conversely, many of these nations are facing immigration of people from nations with high birth rates. This suggests that Europe may become an Islamic region of the world and the United States a primarily Spanish speaking nation in the next 50 years. Whether these nations will maintain their high rates of industrial production and consumption is difficult to prognosticate, and we do have issues of peak oil and depletion of other resources coming at us rather soon.

        The average American consumes 20 times the resources of a person in a mid level developing nation, such as in Latin America, and up to 40 times the average person in a very poor nation such as in Africa. So we might use this as a multiplier to consider our environmental and resource footprint on the planet. The economic trends in the world are changing very rapidly, and the economic growth and resource demands by nations in Asia, and to some extend Latin America, are ramping up. The economic dynamics may mean that the US and EU will economically implode into a neo-third world state and nations such as Brazil, China and India for some period of time will become the “developed nations,” but the economic top status might then quickly refocus to other regions of the world. It is very clear the whole world will not economically grow to a US/EU/Japan level at the same time.

        All of this is changing and shifting at an exponentially changing growth rate. The movie “Bladerunner,” based in part on the “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by PK Dick, gave a cinematic sense of the world materializing around us. The future is one that will be heavily polluted, crowded, and desperate. I don’t count on political leaders to solve anything. In my lifetime I have witnessed how the great problems of this nation and world keep multiplying, but that we have really not substantially solved any of them. I prognosticate that the next 25 to 50 years will see much of the same.

        I must confess that I suspect the only environmentally sustainable socio-economic system is that of hunter-foraging, or stone aged, cultures with a world population of a few million. Our species may rather violently return to much the same over the long haul.


  2. Going to get flamed here but… it is difficult for the public to believe in AGW when the scientists, activists, etc… seem to have no problem jumping on a plane and flying off to say… BALI

    Bali had 10,000 participants from around the world. What a carbon footprint that created!

    I mean with all due respect the carbon footprints of some of these people are outlandish. Former VP Al Gore for example lives on a huge estate and he flies everywhere to deliver speeches. And let’s face it… carbon offsets are not effective compared to simply NOT PRODUCING the CO2 in the first place.

    Why not utilize the Internet for these climate change summits?? Why not all meet virtually but stay in your respective countries? Imagine what a great example that would set instead of flying off to Bali, Qatar, etc…

    If you preach to the people that the world will end unless we repent, the last thing you should be doing is ‘enviro-sinning’ more than everyone else.

    But will that ever happen? No. So why should the public believe that AGW is real? How can anyone believe that this isn’t political; especially when the Penn State and East Anglia emails were made public where scientists went out of their way to hide data? It looks fishy and it looks like con job.

    I am not saying AGW is right or wrong but you certainly can’t blame the public for being skeptical. You expect the average Joe to give up his NASCAR and his speed boating while Prince Charles and entourage flies in to NYC to pick up an environmental award? At least David Miliband saw the hypocrisy and stated the Prince should have received it via ‘video-link’.

    Now I know I will get flamed here but I am just telling that the pro-AGW side has a real credibility problem. Instead of flaming me perhaps you should address it.

    1. I think you have a very valid point, but I would suggest that the “enviro-sinning” is not evidence against AWG, rather, it is evidence that the people involved are not serious about tackling it.

      The existence of AWG isn’t tied in to people’s actions, it is only tied in to empirical observation.

      1. Squidgeny,

        I agree and I want to make clear I was not choosing a side. I wanted to point out that it is easy for others to be skeptical.

        The problem with the empirical data is that it doesn’t state what the cause is. The data ‘suggests’ a warming trend, but one that started prior to large scale industrialization. There are also others that contend the data is skewed due to the urban heat island effect and the improper placement of temperature stations.

        Also empirical data hasn’t always been a driving factor. Much faith has been put into climate models as well.

      2. why should the public believe that AGW is real?

        Because the use of airplanes for an important conference that wouldn’t happen otherwise isn’t telling on AGW.

        Science _is_ wasteful with resources, mitigating urgent problems _are_ wasteful. That doesn’t mean the science isn’t true or or the problem urgent, rather the reverse. Arguing otherwise is a political claim.

        the Penn State and East Anglia emails were made public where scientists went out of their way to hide data?

        False and unreferenced claim.

        The problem with the empirical data is that it doesn’t state what the cause is.

        False and unreferenced claim.

        According to Stott et al review of last year, attribution, i.e. identifying causal influences that effects climate, is nowadays possible with 2 sigma certainty, globally as well as regionally, over the climate time basis of 30 years down to year wise change.

        And yes, it is likely “‘significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent except Antarctica.’ Since then, warming over Antarctica has also been attributed to human influence,”. Natural influences can no longer explain GW.

        I estimated at the time that we would see 3 sigma attribution, physics certainty of theory testing, at the IPCC 2014 summary of climate science with a ~ 50 % likelihood.

      3. “…False and unreferenced claim…”.

        Well I’ll be glad to reference one from the emails from Phil Jones. From http://www.ecowho.com/foia.php?file=1107454306.txt&search=freedom+of+information

        “….The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone. Does your similar act in the US force you to respond to enquiries within 20 days? – our does ! The UK works on precedents, so the first request will test it.
        We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind…..”

        I don’t think I need to tell you how incredible this is. I’ve requested data sets from various university studies and never once had an issue.

        Science Magazine for example says this about requests for data from published works:
        “Data and materials availability All data necessary to understand, assess, and extend the conclusions of the manuscript must be available to any reader of Science. All computer codes involved in the creation or analysis of data must also be available to any reader of Science. After publication, all reasonable requests for data and materials must be fulfilled.”

        That is a far cry from ” I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

        Like I said, the AGW side has a real credibility problem. You can publish reports forever but people won’t believe when your top scientists in the field behave like this.

      4. The article states: “The findings have neither been peer-reviewed nor published, so some skeptics and deniers are as yet unsatisfied…”

        That means it has not been debunked and it’s why you did not find a paper.

      5. Look I think everyone is missing my point. I am not arguing whether AGW is true or not.

        What I am saying is that those scientists and activist who are most vocal about climate change have lost much credibility in the eyes of the public.

        When climate change scientists write to each other how they want to “hire detectives” to investigate those that oppose them something is flat out wrong.

        The sad thing is that issue has become so politicized (by both sides) that the truth won’t be known… at least not in our lifetimes.

  3. At least he is an optimist.

    As a realist I don’t see how we can any longer avoid AGW change into another climate regime. The politicians that ideally was to see to everyone’s interest at the global meetings choose to pursue the minority agendas that their constituents wanted them to follow. Of course, what else could they do?

    The tragedy of the commons, still unsolved.

    1. Surely you meant lobbyist’s instead of constituents?
      If they were following what constituents wanted them to follow it would be a majority agenda and not a minor lobbyist’s (vested interests) agenda.

      The tragedy of the lobbyist’s, still unsolved.

      1. No, national constituents see to their own nation first. The last few UN climate conferences were split on minority agendas.

        Here is one example: “It was “taken note of”, but not “adopted”, in a debate of all the participating countries the next day, and it was not passed unanimously.”

      2. No, national constituents see to their own nation first. The last few UN climate conferences were split on minority agendas.

        Here is one example: “It was “taken note of”, but not “adopted”, in a debate of all the participating countries the next day, and it was not passed unanimously.”

  4. As so often happens, the debate has devolved into a false dichotomy. One can accept the scientific consensus that AGW is real, yet conclude that proposed remedies are more costly than AGW’s impact, are motivated by ant-capitalist sentiment, and are worthless without concerted global effort.

    1. I agree completely. Conversely, it’s possible for someone to reject that GW is artificial, yet still accept that we need to stop it and that geoengineering of any kind will help and is worth the investment. That’s not my position, but it is at least a possible position to take.

    2. GW is scientific real however the way the politicians are handling it is clearly a money grabbing scheme or a mean to get voters.

  5. arketed under the imprimatur of the IPCC, the bladder-trembling and now infamous hockey-stick diagram that shows accelerating warming during the 20th century – a statistical construct by scientist Michael Mann and co-workers from mostly tree ring records – has been a seminal image of the climate scaremongering campaign. Thanks to the work of a Canadian statistician, Stephen McIntyre, and others, this graph is now known to be deeply flawed.

  6. One does not have to look at models to see that AGW is real. Look to the receeding Glaciers, Ocean Acidification, Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice & actual rises in sea level and changes in climate extremes not seen even on an inter-generational basis. Dendo68 has a good point and I agree with him in fact. To take the high ground is to lead by example.

      1. It’s easy to see that this is a warmist site because it’s not easy to find realism and rationalism about climate issues. At the moment I think that the increasing media pro AGW pressure is caused by a reduction of popular consensus to AGW.
        Reduction also caused by wrong climatic forecast (Hansen is an expert in catastrophic, but fortunately, wrong forecasts) and data manipulation.
        So the Doom is always postponed, but “it’s worse than we thought”…
        Other causes may be the hipocrisy well explained in the post of dembo68, or the tendency to demonize and insult skeptics. Good luck.

      2. If you want to be a sceptic then you should also provide a list of why AGW is wrong. What are the weak parts of AGW? Where do they go wrong? How could they test their claims?

      3. Hmm, did I tell you about Hansen mistakes, isn’t it? I don’t “want” be a skeptik, I only think that the AGW is not convincing, not that is wrong. May be that a part of the climate problems (and what problems?) have a human cause, but it’s not certain, to me, how and how much. More: the claimed solutions are impossible to achieve without killing the whole western economy, and will never be done expecially on worldwide base. And all of this “State of Fear”, all of this “scientific consensus” smells of conflict of interests. It seems logical to me that Seichelles should be building dams instead of airports, if they fear to be submerged. Strangely they are building airports to increase tourism and at the same time they threaten to migrate in Australia when the ocean will finally rise.

      4. “Strangely they are building airports to increase tourism and at the same time they threaten to migrate in Australia when the ocean will finally rise”

        And that proves that GW is not happening?

        You have to separate 2 things, the science part and what politicians do. And I know one thing that politicians just use GW for personal gain.
        But that does not mean that it is not true.

      5. This seems to prove only that they themselves do not believe their claims on AGW

        But You told GW… Now, there is a big difference. It’s not the same as AGW
        Yes, I think that GW (which is essentially a set of measures extended to the globe and in the past even where there were no thermometers) is real, and that could very well be one of the many more or less cyclical fluctuations that the Earth’s climate has experienced in the course of ages.

        And I think there is a big difference between scientists and science.
        The latter is method, the former are men, less than perfect, anyway.
        You should separate the two things, science and scientists. And You may find that even scientists can, not only theoretically, abuse of science, make politics and, in doing so, earn money and power.
        Have a nice day.

      6. “Strangely they are building airports to increase tourism and at the same time they threaten to migrate in Australia when the ocean will finally rise”

        And that proves that GW is not happening?

        You have to separate 2 things, the science part and what politicians do. And I know one thing that politicians just use GW for personal gain.
        But that does not mean that it is not true.

    1. It is a science site, not an anti-science denialist site. Climate science is an accepted science, and AGW is the accepted explanation for current GW.

      1. Climate science is an accepted science, and AGW is -AN- accepted explanation … it isn’t the only possible explanation.

        Also, its a bit insulting to claim all “denialists” are anti-science. Just because I feel better data is needed to claim AGW is the cause, and that the long term trends appear to show natural cycles, not AGW, in no way means I am anti-science.

      2. Climate science is an accepted science, and AGW is -AN- accepted explanation … it isn’t the only possible explanation.

        Also, its a bit insulting to claim all “denialists” are anti-science. Just because I feel better data is needed to claim AGW is the cause, and that the long term trends appear to show natural cycles, not AGW, in no way means I am anti-science.

  7. The longer we wait- & deny- the more it will cost. The ‘inertia’ in the climate system is like a ‘Faustian bargain’ the earth is slow to warm- but once we reaching tipping pints- the warmth will accelerate and be impossible to stop- unless Draconian measures are taken to reduce our emissions – which means a total change of life for all Americans from the mass consumption society of the last 40 years. The time to do anything to stop dangerous climate change is up- the question we must answer now is how bad do we want things to get.

    1. Not the science obviously, but certainly the public political & denialist effort.

      It is _precisely_ as the repression of smoking as dangerous. No wonder, to my knowledge it has been uncovered that the strategy of the core political anti-science effort is adopted on that historical basis. (But don’t accept that unchecked, because I haven’t the references handy. I may well be wrong.)

  8. When you consider that water vapour is a green house gas and makes up about 96% of green house gasses, why is the focus on co2? The logical thing to do is look at the water vapour.

    The earths climate is constantly changing anyways. The earth was warmer in the medieval period – with no burning of fossil fuels! Southern Greenland was green, and Vikings had made it their home.

    The main concern is: are humans causing global warming? The focus on co2 rather than water vapour raises red flags.

  9. Can’t wait for folks to stop looking at “evidence” in words and see right before their eyes what is happening right now here on Earth. PBS just aired a show on “Ice” and that is enough for anyone with a right mind to know what we must do now to avert a diaster.

    1. Then I recommend you to watch PBS Nova “Secrets.Beneath.the.Ice”.

      It’s about learning how fast earlier climate changes has happened. The program brought to light a vast amount of information.

      Once thought to be locked in a solid deep freeze for the last 15 million years, it now looks like Antarctica’s ice has melted and frozen again dozens of times during that period.

      Earth has been through numerous times of Global warming, ice melting and rising sea level without human intervention, because life had not evolved to Homo Sapiens yet.

  10. Don’t matter what you all think…it’s already too late…the continued rise in population, economic “development” and consumer culture, and capital investment projects (ie Tar Muck Oil in Alberta Canada), has already sealed our fate…Just take in on the chin and no whining….we WERE WARNED!

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