James Hansen

James E. Hansen is a charter member of SCGI and is widely considered to be the leading voice in the field of climate change. After 46 years in government service, Hansen stepped down from his position as director (for 31 years) of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in 2013. Jim has also served as an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He continues his prolific research and writing on the topic of climate change and proposals for dealing with the problem effectively.

After graduate school, Hansen continued his work with radiative transfer models and attempting to understand the Venusian atmosphere. This naturally led to the same computer codes being used to understand the Earth's atmosphere. He used these codes to study the effects that aerosols and trace gases have on the climate. Hansen has also contributed to the further understanding of the Earth's climate through the development and use of global climate models.

Hansen is best known for his research in the field of climatology, his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in 1988 that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change.

Published in The Observer on 29 November, 2009

Never-Give-Up Fighting Spirit: Lessons From a Grandchild

Such negative questions and attitudes are increasing. How refreshing, on cold, windy Thanksgiving Plus One Day, which we spend with our children and grandchildren, when I went outside to shoot baskets with 5-year-old Connor. Connor is very bright, but needs work on his hand-to-eye coordination. I set the basket at a convenient height for him, but his first several shots banged off the backboard off-target. Then he said, very brightly and bravely, “I don’t quit, because I have never-give-up fighting spirit.” It seems his karate lessons are paying off.

Some adults need Connor’s help. A Scientific American article by Michael Lemonick, “Beyond the Tipping Point”, described our 2008 paper “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Lemonick concluded with the almost-obligatory “fair and balanced” opinion, delivered by Steve Schneider. In response to our conclusion that we must get atmospheric CO2 to peak during the next few decades, and then decline back to 350 ppm or less, Schneider opines “It has no chance in hell. None. Zero. The best we can do is to overshoot, reach 450 or 550 parts per million, then come back as quickly as possible on the back end.”

Everyone knows we are overshooting. The 2009 CO2 global mean is 387 ppm and it is
increasing 2 ppm per year. In our “Target” paper we showed that, if coal emissions were phased
down linearly to zero in 2030 and emissions from unconventional fossil fuels were prohibited,
peak CO2 could be kept at about 425 ppm – or even lower if a rising carbon price made it
uneconomic to go after every last drop of oil. But Hillary Clinton recently signed an agreement
with Canada for a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to the United States. Australia is massively
expanding coal export facilities. Coal-fired power plants are being built worldwide. Unless the
public get involved, young people especially, CO2 of 450 ppm or higher may become

What would make Schneider’s “450 or 550” ppm unavoidable is a defeatist attitude.
Humanity does have a free will. We do not have to accept the inevitability of extracting and
burning all of the most miserably polluting fossil fuels on the planet. What we need mostly is
some gumption, some never-give-up fighting spirit. I am sending to Steve, a friend of almost 40
years, the addresses of some karate schools located conveniently.

Cavalier “450 or 550” also warrants comment. Coming back to 350 ppm or less from a
temporary peak of 425-450 ppm is something that would be feasible this century, mainly via
“natural” actions such as improved forestry and agricultural practices. 550 ppm is a whole
different cup of tea, guaranteeing a chaotic situation with climate system amplifying feedbacks
and dynamics out of humanity’s control.

The most foolish no-fighting-spirit statement, made by scores of people, is this: “we have
already passed the tipping point, it is too late.” They act as if a commitment to a meter of sea
level rise is no different than a commitment to several tens of meters. Or, if a million species
become committed to extinction, should we throw in the towel on the other nine million? What
would the plan be then – escape to Mars? As I make clear in “Storms of My Grandchildren”,
anybody who thinks we can transplant even one butterfly species to another planet has some
loose screws. We must take care of the planet we have – easily the most remarkable one in the
known universe.

Let’s say we have passed a tipping point – say current atmospheric composition is
enough to cause a large eventual sea level rise. What do we do? Wring our hands? What we
must do is restore the planet’s energy balance, or make it slightly negative. That does not
guarantee that heat already added to the ocean will not further erode ice shelves and cause sea
level rise. But it gives us a fighting chance to minimize that problem. Of course, it would help if
we knew the current planetary energy balance accurately, and the climate forcings – that’s the
subject in chapter 4 of “Storms”.

Any Hope of Cutting Global Carbon Emissions?
Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of
the Copenhagen approach – “goals” for emission reductions, “offsets” that render even iron-clad
goals almost meaningless, an ineffectual “cap-and-trade” mechanism – must be exposed. We
must rebel against such politics-as-usual.

Science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued
high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating
climate conditions out of their control, as described in my book Storms of My Grandchildren.

Science also reveals what is needed to stabilize atmospheric composition and climate.
Geophysical data on the carbon amounts in oil, gas and coal show that the problem is solvable, if
we phase out global coal emissions within 20 years and prohibit emissions from unconventional
fossil fuels such as tar sands and oil shale.

Such constraints on fossil fuels would cause carbon dioxide emissions to decline 60
percent by mid-century, or even more if policies make it uneconomic to go after every last drop
of oil. Improved forestry and agricultural practices could then bring atmospheric carbon dioxide
back to 350 ppm (parts per million) or less, as required for a stable climate.

Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will
achieve with the “cap-and-trade” mechanism. They are lying through their teeth. Unless they
order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground (which
nobody has proposed), they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels.

Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil
squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal export.
Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide.
Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies – or, if we want to be generous,
they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves.

Is it feasible to phase out coal and avoid use of unconventional fossil fuels? Yes, but only
if governments face up to the truth: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will
continue and even increase on a global basis. Fossil fuels are cheapest because they are not made
to pay for their effects on human health, the environment, and future climate.

Governments must place a uniform rising price on carbon, collected at the fossil fuel
source – the mine or port of entry. The fee should be given to the public in toto, as a uniform
dividend, payroll tax deduction, or both. Such a tax is progressive – the dividend exceeds added
energy costs for 60 percent of the public. Fee-and-dividend stimulates the economy, providing
the public the means to adjust lifestyles and energy infrastructure.

Fee-and-dividend can begin with the countries now considering cap-and-trade. Other
countries will either agree to a carbon fee or have duties placed on their products that are made
with fossil fuels. As the carbon price rises, most coal, tar sands and oil shale will be left in the
ground. The market place will determine the roles of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and
nuclear power in our clean energy future.

Cap-and-trade with offsets, in contrast, is astoundingly ineffective. Global emissions rose
rapidly in response to the Kyoto Protocol, as expected, because fossil fuels remained the
cheapest energy. Cap-and-trade is an inefficient compromise, paying off numerous special
interests. It must be replaced with an honest approach, raising the price of carbon emissions, and
leaving the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground.

Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap in the face, to make them
face the truth? It will take a lot of us – probably in the streets. Or are we going to let them
continue to kid themselves and us, and cheat our children and grandchildren?

Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery
and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures is over.
Can we find a leader who understands the core issue, and will lead?

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