Hansen’s History

During the summer heat wave of 1988,  James Hansen became a modern-day climate prophet when he testified to Congress about the perils of climate change. 1988 was the hottest year on record at the time, but few scientists were brave enough to speak out about what they thought was happening.


Twenty years later Hansen marked the anniversary by testifying to Congress again today. The message- our window to reverse climate change is almost shut – if it’s not already shut. And the oil and coal companies should be put on trial for crimes against humanity.  

History is often written in the footnotes so here’s his statement entero:


Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming – James Hansen

Tomorrow I will testify to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my 23 June 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.


Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.


The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.


Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.


Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals.

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year.

On 23 June, 1988, I testified to a hearing, chaired by Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, that the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible. I noted that global warming enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods.

My testimony two decades ago was greeted with skepticism. But while skepticism is the lifeblood of science, it can confuse the public. As scientists examine a topic from all perspectives, it may appear that nothing is known with confidence. But from such broad open-minded study of all data, valid conclusions can be drawn.

My conclusions in 1988 were built on a wide range of inputs from basic physics, planetary studies, observations of on-going changes, and climate models. The evidence was strong enough that I could say it was time to “stop waffling.” I was sure that time would bring the scientific community to a similar consensus, as it has.

While international recognition of global warming was swift, actions have faltered. The U.S. refused to place limits on its emissions, and developing countries such as China and India rapidly increased their emissions.

What is at stake? Warming so far, about two degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, seems almost innocuous, being less than day-to-day weather fluctuations. But more warming is already “in-the-pipeline,” delayed only by the great inertia of the world ocean. And climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.

More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.

These conclusions are based on paleoclimate data showing how the Earth responded to past levels of greenhouse gases and on observations showing how the world is responding to today’s carbon dioxide amount. The consequences of continued increase of greenhouse gases extend far beyond extermination of species and future sea level rise.

Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa. Forest fires and drying-up of lakes will increase further unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed.

Mountain glaciers are the source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people. These glaciers are receding world-wide, in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains. They will disappear, leaving their rivers as trickles in late summer and fall, unless the growth of carbon dioxide is reversed.

Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home for one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide. Ocean life dependent on carbonate shells and skeletons is threatened by dissolution as the ocean becomes more acid.

Such phenomena, including the instability of Arctic sea ice and the great ice sheets at today’s carbon dioxide amount, show that we have already gone too far. We must draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide to preserve the planet we know. A level of no more than 350 ppm is still feasible, with the help of reforestation and improved agricultural practices, but just barely – time is running out.

Requirements to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.

Oil is used in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal, tar shale or other fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel reservoirs are finite, which is the main reason that prices are rising. We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet.

If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source.

Moving from fossil fuels to clean energy is challenging, yet transformative in ways that will be welcomed. Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits. We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public.

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.
Washington likes to spend our tax money line-by-line. Swarms of high-priced lobbyists in alligator shoes help Congress decide where to spend, and in turn the lobbyists’ clients provide “campaign” money.

The public must send a message to Washington. Preserve our planet, creation, for our children and grandchildren, but do not use that as an excuse for more tax-and-spend. Let this be our motto: “One hundred percent dividend or fight!”

The next President must make a national low-loss electric grid an imperative. It will allow dispersed renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels for power generation. Technology exists for direct-current high-voltage buried transmission lines. Trunk lines can be completed in less than a decade and expanded analogous to interstate highways.
Government must also change utility regulations so that profits do not depend on selling ever more energy, but instead increase with efficiency. Building code and vehicle efficiency requirements must be improved and put on a path toward carbon neutrality.

The fossil-industry maintains its strangle-hold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.
We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success. If necessary, import duties on products from uncooperative countries can level the playing field, with the import tax added to the dividend pool.

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations. 

Funny. Even though we have plenty of access to weathermen on television, that doesn’t guarantee that we get information about climate change in our weather reports. Check out what climatologist Dr. Heidi Cullen has to say about it. She hosts the first weekly television series to focus on climate change issues on The Weather Channel.

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We’ve been trying to predict the weather for as long as we’ve thought our survival depended on it. 

Ancient farmers and herders studied plants, animals, and the heavens to make predictions. Those traditional methods actually have a scientific basis- animals are good at sensing storms, plants are good indicators of seasonal patterns, and the way a star looks in the sky can tell you a lot about atmospheric conditions.

People still use those methods today, but they’re not very reliable. But even modern meteorology has a tough time. Weather and seasonal forecasting involves overlapping natural systems in time. Anywhere along the way, a single variable can change the weather dramatically. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the wind or so they say. Chaos theory was actually developed by a meteorologist. So it’s no surprise that weather forecasts aren’t very good at predicting the weather more than three days in advance.

Still three days notice or even a rough idea can save lives. Weather forecasters saw Cyclone Nargis heading towards Burma several days in advance. But the people in the Irrawaddy Delta either never heard the news or never appreciated the danger heading their way.

Much of the developing world simply can’t turn on CNN or the BBC and hear a weather report. And climate change is making access to weather information more important than ever. Scientists say more severe storms, droughts, and unpredictable seasons are in the forecast.

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Burma continues to deteriorate and it’s heartbreaking to hear some of the reports slowly starting to trickle in. With regards to my question yesterday, there was a glimmer of understanding on the show today from Jeffrey McNeely, the chief scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He talked about Burma’s mangrove forests – or what used to be Burma’s mangrove forests. They’ve been cleared away to make way for shrimp and fish farms: Buma’s Mangrove Forests | PRI’s The World| May 7, 2008

The World’s Jason Margolis also did a story on the importance of mangroves for flood protection in Thailand:Protecting Thailand’s shores with mangroves | PRI’s The World.


I’m working on a story on the world’s weathermen right now and I have a lot more respect for the wacky weatherman.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, hurricane warnings used to be good excuses for hurricane parties -beer used to run out well before bottled water at the grocery store. We’d watch the stand-ups on the Weather Channel and crack open a nice can of sarcasm. That changed for me after covering the Asian Tsunami. And it changed for my friends after the bullseye hurricane season in Florida and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

And watching Burma makes me really appreciate the Weather Channel. The numbers being reported are staggering. As the country opens up to humanitarian aid, I’m sure the numbers will continue to change.  

Still, I still don’t get it. 20,000? Category 3 and Category 4 storms batter Latin America all the time and never result in casualty rates like this. Hurricane Mitch claimed half as many lives when it battered Honduras and it was a record-breaking Category 5 storm.

Can the difference in casualties really be an open society and access to information? Or does the geography of the Irrawaddy Delta and the poverty of the region make the difference? Asia has a higher density of the world’s poor –natural disasters tend to be more deadly? Still so many casualties from a single hurricane boggles the mind. Still so many questions. If anyone has any answers- by all means drop me a line.

We’ll continue to follow the story at The World.


Following up on the Burma college front. Last fall I interviewed some Harvard students in the Burma Action Movement. It was a story about how different generations of Burmese activists were uniting on American campuses to protest against Burma ‘s military government. But the different generations define their activism differently.

Burma’s pro-democracy movement comes of age – November 2, 2007. PRI’s The World.

Well the Harvard Burma Action Movement students are raising funds for Burma, selling T-shirts according to today’s Boston Globe. Now getting that aid to those who really need it when the government won’t let you in..….

Arctic Scientist’s Dilemma – January 30, 2008. PRI’s The World. 

Speaking of dilemmas, I did a story a few months ago about Arctic researcher Kate Moran, who studies the history of climate change. Not far from the North Pole her team found potential sources for oil and coal (oops). 

If exploited, those resources could actually make global warming worse. And current warming is making the Arctic all the more accessible.

While reporting the story, Moran lent me a piece of the Arctic sea core she found that “smells like oily coal.” The fascinating and frightening black crumb now sits in a glass jar on my desk at The World.

You can see a picture of it and learn all about Kate’s research in an audio slideshow: Arctic Dilemma Audio Slideshow


As a journalist I’ve covered quite an assortment of stories, but reporting on climate change and the environment is a little different. You see, unlike most other stories, I can never completely leave this one at the office or put it away with my passport.Climate change stories are embedded in the choices I make every day.

So it’s a bit of an existential dilemma. But hey, if there’s going to be a dilemma, it might as well be existential. Why mess around with ordinary dilemmas? 

When it comes to the environment, I’ve come to accept that I’m part of the problem and strangely that makes me part of the story. Actually it makes us all part of the story as we try to figure out the right solutions. And so a blog is born…

My curiosity about the planet knows no bounds, but I hope this will be place for frank discussions about how we really live on it. A place where I can admit that not so long ago I was running late for a workshop on climate change and hopped into an SUV taxi to get across town quick.

Yup. It ain’t easy being green, so why not talk about it honestly?

I hope you’ll swim along with me in this wordpress fishbowl, chime in, and ask lots of questions. Feel free to blow bubbles against the glass.