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James Hansen: The One Thing We Should Be Doing to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change

The country's leading climatologist talks about what our future looks like if we continue along with business as usual -- and what we could do to prevent catastrophe.

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But what's a little disappointing is that we've reached a point where we should really be pounding on the desk of leaders and saying, “Hey, you've got to do something. You have to do something in a hurry or we're going to leave our children and grandchildren a situation that's out of their control. There will be large impacts, which they simply cannot do anything about.” And the basic physics for that is very well understood that the climate system has tremendous inertia, it does not respond quickly as humans or nature applies forces to the system. But now we know those forces, those human made forces — the CO2 amount and how it's changing is known very precisely. And we know the consequences on the century timescale are going to be enormous. So there's really no disagreement about that and the fact that we won't be able to control it. 

So in that sense, the answer to your question is that I am disappointed that there aren’t more of my colleagues out there. On the other hand, it's not that most of them now disagree, I mean those who are in the category of knowing what you are talking about because of relevant expertise, actually say that they're glad I'm making noises because they think it's appropriate. 

TL: A lot of people in the activist community like to point their fingers at government for a very good reason, but what do you think the scientific community should be doing?

JH: Well, I think the government should be asking the scientific community. We have a National Academy of Sciences that was formed at the request of Abraham Lincoln to advise the government on technical matters, which require scientific expertise. So if the government wants to do something it could ask the Academy to give it a report to provide some guidance and that's not really happening. Instead, we're allowing the politics to control the discussion and that then ends up leading to little if any action because politics is not going to allow it simply because there's such a preference among the fossil fuel industry and the people who are making a lot of money off of it to continue business as usual. 

So the politics ends up in a stalemate. The scientific community has issued reports. The major scientific groups like the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society have pretty strong statements about the fact that humans are causing climate change and there will be consequences. So I'm not sure that it can do a lot more if it's not asked to provide specific guidance.  

TL: Why do you think we are so incapable of taking action when we are presented with the overwhelming scientific evidence?

JH: Well, what I've learned in going to several different countries is that the money has a huge influence on national politics not only in the United States but in practically every country in the world. And the fossil fuel industry is the wealthiest industry in the world, so it becomes difficult to get government action without more pressure from the public. And that, in the case of this problem, is something that is really difficult because of the fact of this inertia and delayed response so the public doesn't see that much happening. 

The difficulty is that because of this inertia of the system, we have only realized, the planet has only realized, about half of the effect of the gases that are already in the atmosphere — the rest is still in the pipeline and will occur over coming decades and this century. And that makes it very difficult. The public has many other issues on its mind like feeding their families and important practical issues. If they don't see a major effect then it's just not high enough on their priority list.

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