Monday, August 24, 2009

James Hansen: Nasa Climatologist & Activist


James Hansen was born in Iowa, USA on 29 March 1941. He took bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Iowa before joining Nasa’s graduate programme. His work started with modelling the climate of Venus and before long the models were extended to analyse Earth’s climate. In 1988 he testified to the US Congress that there was a long-term upward trend in average temperatures and that this was largely due to man’s carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. In the next 20 years his modelling developed in sophistication and his predictions became ever more bleak. In recent years he has stepped outside the world of science and become involved in a number of environmental campaigns to the delight of activists, disdain from some in the scientific community and even more opprobrium from climate change sceptics.


In Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, there’s a short clip of Senator Gore in a 1989 hearing bullying a civil servant into admitting that the science of climate change was being systematically suppressed within the US Government. Fast-forward twenty years and that same civil servant is arrested with actress and activist Darryl Hannah for trying to block the destruction of a mountainside to access coal. Google “James Hansen” and you will be met with an outpouring of professional and personal abuse – “the high priest of global warming alarmists” is one of the more polite descriptions. Why would so many go out of their way to make such personal attacks on a professor with over 30 years’ experience in his field and an impeccable track record in academic publications? The short answer is that Hansen has never been afraid to lift his head above the parapet.

Hansen’s scientific contribution to the climatology of Earth emerged from his analysis of the atmosphere of Venus. In 1974, a team of NASA scientists including Hansen published the GISS atmospheric circulation model for the Earth’s climate modelling, a major breakthrough in the field. This model has been through several stages of development as the science of climatology evolved. In 1981 Hansen was lead author for a paper in the journal Science concluding that the anthropogenic (man-made) contribution to global temperatures would become significant much earlier than previously thought.

In 1988 Hansen made his famous presentation to the US Senate that carbon emissions from man’s economic activity were contributing to a long-term change in climatic conditions. At this moment, the whole concept of climate change came out of the academic and environmental backwaters and into the public domain - and the bearpit of US energy politics. Hansen began his address by summarising three conclusions:

1. The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time since measurements began;

2. This warming can now be associated with the greenhouse effect with a 99% confidence.

3. The warming is already severe enough to start causing dangerous impacts such as heat waves.

Hansen presented three different scenarios to the Senate, relating to different levels of future carbon emissions and the effect of a potential volcanic eruption which did indeed come to pass. However when Patrick Michaels, a consultant representing oil industry interests, made a statement to Congress ten years later, he compared only one of Hansen’s predictions, which excluded the eruption, to what had happened in the intervening ten years to ‘demonstrate’ that Hansen had been 300% out in his analysis. As Hansen’s ‘eruption prediction’ was pretty close to what had transpired in that decade, Michaels lied by omission. This groundless attack on Hansen’s scientific competence is still a prevalent myth circulating in the ‘denialosphere’.

In 2005, after a speech warning of the impacts of climate change and alleging many of the implications of his work had been watered down by the powers that be, Hansen was informed by senior staff within Nasa that there would be “dire consequences” if such statements were repeated. A number of subsequent media interviews were cancelled by senior staff.

The attempts at censorship didn’t work, or even made things worse for the would-be censors, as Hansen has since broken out of the constraints of the traditional scientific and became a public voice calling for urgent action and attacking vested interests. He has lambasted fellow scientists for refusing to go public on likely sea level rises, claiming that they will predict catastrophic changes in private but are too frightened to publish their findings.

In 2008 he entered the public arena completely with his high-profile intervention in the trial of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’ Greenpeace activists who had shut down a power station in the UK. He testified of the dangers of climate change and the activists were found not guilty. He used the resulting publicity to call for the CEOs of fossil fuel companies to be “tried for high crimes against nature and humanity” and attacked them for trying to suppress the evidence. These blunt statements are a stark contrast to the careful, measured approach he took in his 1980s publications and presentations. Indeed, one media appearance where he came close to likening coal trains to the trains used to transport Jews to their death during the holocaust led to a retraction and an apology.

Hansen’s entry into the political/activist arena is an interesting one. He justifies it by saying that it is the right thing to do under the circumstances, which he claims are more urgent than ever.

"We must raise the pressure to do what is right – for our children and the planet – not for the wallets of the few.”

Environmental activists are jubilant that they have the heavyweight backing of someone with the scientific track record to justify their actions. But there have been grumblings from the scientific community that these actions conflict with the role of a scientist. Certainly his enemies can now use his ‘political’ activities to cast doubt on the objectivity of the evidence he has been presenting for the last 30 years. Should he sit back and risk being ignored, or stand up and be counted?

There are few other scientists whose contribution to the understanding of man-made climate change could be argued to be equal to Hansen’s. But he is included here for his role in developing the science and bringing it to the attention of the public and politicians – despite the backlash and personal abuse he has received in the process. One thing is certain, his story isn’t over yet.

© 2009 Terra Infirma all rights reserved

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At October 4, 2010 at 7:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some fantastic choices on this list. Well done!


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