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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.

Photo Credit: Goddard Institute for Space Studies


This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who has done more to further our understanding of the impacts of climate change than Dr. James Hansen. After 46 years working a scientist and climatogolist for NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen wasn’t content to simply catalog the dangers facing humanity and our planet — he has been ringing the alarm bell. “On a blistering June day in 1988 he was called before a Congressional committee and testified that human-induced global warming had begun,” the New York Times wrote in a recent story about Hansen. “Speaking to reporters afterward in his flat Midwestern accent, he uttered a sentence that would appear in news reports across the land: ‘It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.’” 

Over the next several decades as scientific evidence poured in about the threats from climate change, and as governments — including the U.S. — failed to take any meaningful action, Hansen stepped out of the lab and into the media spotlight. He has participated in climate change protests, including being arrested several times, and has been outspoken about urging the Obama administration to kill the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. He warned that building the pipeline would mean “game over” for the climate.

This week Hansen was awarded the 2013 Ridenhour Prize for Courage from the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute. Ridenhour prizes are named in honor of the late Ron Ridenhour, who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War and went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist. 

At a moment when a debate is raging about the treatment of whistleblowers, the Ridenhour Prizes recognize those who put their lives on the line to challenge the status quo,” said Randy Fertel, founder of the Fertel Foundation, which co-sponsors the prizes. “The 2013 winners represent voices who have come forward to speak truth on the most defining issues of our time.”

Hansen recently announced that he is stepping down from his post at NASA. He talked to AlterNet about what he plans to do next, what may be in store for our future, and the most important thing we can do to prevent catastrophic, runaway climate change.

Tara Lohan. First off, congratulations on your Ridenhour Prize for Courage. They selected you for your decades of hard work ringing the alarm bell about climate change. Does it get a little lonely out there for you?

James Hansen: Well, that is an interesting question I have never been asked before. I am a little surprised that the scientific community has allowed us to go so far down the line that it's almost too late to avoid the rather substantial climate change and practical impacts. It was not surprising at all that the scientific community or at least many people in it objected to my testimony in the late 1980s and was illustrated so well by the article that Dick Kerr wrote in Science Magazine that was called "Hansen vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat."

It was interesting because in that article he interviews a lot of people at a meeting, which was described as a “get Hansen” meeting, but in any case, he got the comment from one of the scientists that said, “Well, if there was a secret ballot, a secret vote probably the majority of us would agree that this global warming was underway,” but they weren't ready to say so yet. And I can completely understand that, in the 1980s it was not yet statistically proven. 

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