James Hansen is the world's leading--and most politically outspoken--climate researcher.

James Hansen, New york City, October 2006 Credit: Mark Mahaney

“They would have been better off if they’d just ignored me, rather than trying to shut me up. They brought the publicity about themselves.”

James Hansen is sitting in his cluttered corner office on the seventh floor of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, just blocks from the Columbia University campus in upper Manhattan, and upstairs from Tom’s Restaurant (of Seinfeld fame). A wiry scientist who looks young for his 65 years, Hansen speaks with a distinct Midwestern accent; as he talks, he gazes off into space, as if scrutinizing an invisible PowerPoint presentation. If he has a lot on his mind, it’s no surprise: Hansen is the number one scientist in America—and perhaps the world—who has been publicly speaking out about our looming climate catastrophe. And in so doing, he has shattered some long-held convictions in the scientific community, ones overdue for a challenge.

Hansen believes, as did Albert Einstein, that speaking out politically at key moments is part of a scientist’s responsibility. He also rejects the idea that scientists should pose as completely objective fact machines that refrain from offering opinions that aren’t purely scientific in nature (even about subjects that they know better anyone else). What’s refreshing is that he makes no apologies for that. “There’s a big gap between what is understood by the scientists at the forefront of the research, and what is known by the people who need to know,” he says. “And that’s partly because of this technical language, and limitations on what scientists are willing to say.” In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Hansen put it bluntly: “Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet.”

Ironically, if he weren’t a government employee and didn’t have to fend off political obstacles to his research, the media might not have handed him a megaphone. In particular, if Hansen hadn’t garnered the attention of 24-year-old George Deutsch—a NASA public affairs appointee who rejected an NPR request to interview Hansen—he might have been freer to speak, but also less heard. As it turned out, plenty of people wound up hearing from Hansen in the wake of the Deutsch incident—first, via a front-page New York Times story, then through a visit with CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Every flack’s nightmare, Hansen single-handedly forced NASA to review its public affairs policy and drew attention to the conjoined issues of global warming and political interference with science.

Wherever James Hansen learned his media savvy, it probably wasn’t in Iowa, where he spent his first 25 years. He was born “literally in a farmhouse” in Charter Oak township in 1941; his parents served food and liquor for a living. A fellow Midwestern climate scientist, former Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Director Jerry Mahlman (who grew up in Nebraska), says of himself and Hansen: “We shoot pool better than scientists are supposed to.”

Hansen attended the University of Iowa, where he studied with professor James Van Allen in the physics and astronomy department, later earning his Ph.D. for a dissertation on the atmosphere of Venus (which may have experienced a “runaway” greenhouse effect). Hansen moved to NASA and began running one of the earliest global-climate models, competing with colleagues at the Princeton-based Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory to see who could best simulate the Earth’s response to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. Hansen became the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in 1981 and, after publishing a paper in Science that used the term “global warming,” watched as the Reagan administration cut funding for his lab. It was an early brush with politics, and it prefigured what came later.

In the summer of 1988, Hansen had what a talent agent might call his breakout moment. He stood before the US Congress and warned that the human-induced greenhouse effect was underway. At the time, many of Hansen’s colleagues thought he’d gotten too far out in front of the science. And perhaps he had, a bit—but it also took some vision to put the issue on the map. Hansen, the New York Times noted, had “sounded the alarm with such authority and force that the issue of an overheating world has suddenly moved to the forefront of public concern.” It didn’t hurt that Hansen spoke amid drought and a heat wave, or that 1988 wound up being a record-high-temperature year globally. Throughout his career, Hansen has not only said the right thing, but he’s said it at the right time.

In 1989 Hansen testified before Congress once again. This time, the first Bush administration’s Office of Management and Budget altered his official testimony to weaken his conclusions. Hansen’s early dose of frankness, it seemed, had earned
him a commensurate dose of censure. And thus began a pattern: Hansen speaks out about the science…someone seeks to muzzle him…Hansen speaks out some more.

It wasn’t entirely obvious at first that Hansen and the current administration would wind up at odds. After rejecting the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the Bush administration brought in a number of scientists, including Hansen, for detailed briefings to a cabinet-level group headed by Dick Cheney. The group was interested in a proposal that Hansen had put forward—why not first deal with easier-to-cut greenhouse gases, like methane, and save the thornier problem of carbon dioxide for later? (This was before Hansen became convinced that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are far more vulnerable than scientists previously suspected.)

For a time, Hansen played along. “It was like hoping for Nixon going to China,” he says. If anyone could deal effectively with global warming, he figured, it would be business-oriented Republicans, who could bring corporate America on board. The notion also humored Hansen’s own political sensibilities. Hansen defines himself as “moderately conservative, middle-of-the-road,” and would’ve voted for John McCain in 2004 if he’d been on the ballot. That’s another thing Hansen is unabashedly explicit about: His own political views.

However, Hansen quickly became disillusioned with the Bush Administration, an experience he depicted in an essay he wrote and posted on his website. In “Parable of the Secretary,” an earnest-seeming cabinet secretary (a composite of Bush administration consciences Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill) asks an equally earnest group of students (the “A Team”) to come up with practical suggestions for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions—i.e., ones that won’t stunt economic growth. Led by a Hansen-like figure the group develops ideas on fuel efficiency based on existing technology. Along the way, they playfully shatter some more of the norms of “pure” science:

“Hey,” says the professor, “just for fun, let’s convert these oil savings into dollars.”
“Wait a minute. You have been told before that you are not an economist. Don’t muck around where you shouldn’t be.”
“All that I’m going to do is multiply the number of barrels of oil saved times the price of a barrel. Let’s say $50 a barrel. The moderate action scenario saves 5,470,000 barrels of oil per day in 2030. At $50 per barrel, that comes to $100 billion per year.”
“$100 billion here, $100 billion there, pretty soon you are talking about real money!”
“Let’s see, after 10 years— what could you finance with that?”
“We better stop it— that’s economics.”

When the administration rejects the A Team’s insights as too “naive,” the secretary concludes, “‘Naive’ is an interesting word. It has more than one connotation. Perhaps we were all naive.”

Hansen wasn’t naive in the days before the 2004 election, when he chose to deliver a speech attacking the Bush administration and endorsing John Kerry at the University of Iowa. He knew what kind of attention he would draw (the New York Times). And so, echoing a widely held sentiment in the scientific community, Hansen publicly denounced the political attacks on science: “In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now.” In particular, Hansen divulged that the Bush administration had instructed him not to discuss the concept of “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system. The administration had suggested that a scientist shouldn’t define what “dangerous” is, because that’s a question that necessarily implicates value judgments.

Yet Hansen isn’t afraid of value judgments either. With increasing stridency, he has been articulating a very political, very moral premise: We can’t take much more human-induced greenhouse warming if we want to preserve the planet in the state that we actually like. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change had originally united the world behind the goal of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”—but left the word “dangerous” conveniently undefined. Hansen, however, has been defining it explicitly, in the process outlining a scenario much more alarming than those produced by the more conservative U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to Hansen, we can sustain only one more degree (Celsius), at maximum, of human-induced global warming before we’re committed to consequences that are simply intolerable—most frighteningly, the disintegration of the ice sheets, followed by a catastrophic sea-level rise measured in tens of meters. Translating that into years, Hansen says we have maybe a decade to get the climate problem under control.

It’s this kind of talk, far more than bluntly stating the pure scientific facts about global warming, that enrages the dilatory Bush administration. It demands action. And it should be clear by now that if the Bush administration really wants to shut James Hansen up, it has only one option: It can actually deal with the climate problem—before it’s too late.

Originally published March 11, 2007

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