James Hansen: Why The Wait on Climate Action?

Twenty years ago, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the Senate that man-made greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for warming the climate. Yesterday, Hansen returned to the House to deliver a simple message. ''It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” he said.

Hansen is not alone. For years, environmentalists and scientists have been urging government to act to reduce greenhouse gases. But the way in which Hansen’s message has been ignored, and the science distorted, reflects the degree to which politics have been placed ahead of science, and polluter money ahead of public health.

A little perspective here.

In 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Panel said: “Carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur.”

25 years later, NRDC joined with the City of Los Angeles to sue the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the climatic impacts resulting from a rollback in fuel economy standards. This was the first case on climate change. In its ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court supported the science of climate change. "[N]o one, including [the federal government], appears to dispute the serious and imminent threat to our environment posed by a continuation of global warming," the court’s decision said, and "[n]o one disputes the causal link between carbon dioxide and global warming.” That was 1990.

Yet today – almost 45 years later – our federal government has still not taken the kind of action needed. And until about a year ago, the government even participated in a systematic distortion of climate change science. As a result, we have delayed action on climate change by years, if not decades.

Let’s be clear here – there is no debate on the science of climate change. There is an overwhelming consensus that average global temperatures are increasing as a result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. We shouldn’t argue about the science of climate change any more than we argue about the science of gravity.

Moreover, scientists like Hansen, who have lead this country in advancing our understanding of climate change, have been subject to political appointees who worked to “control and distort” the agency’s findings about climate change “in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public,” according to report released in early June, conducted at the request of 14 senators.

And so what has happened?

In part, the answer is a decade plus long disinformation campaign lead by the coal and oil industries that has set us back almost twenty years and will make the job of combating climate change harder and the cost higher. More on this later.

But for now, it’s clear that Dr. Hansen, and his team of scientists deserve more – far more – for advancing our understanding of the natural world.

I hope that in the next decade, and the next administration, we will see great change. At the very least, we could let climate scientists do their jobs. Better yet, we could put a price on carbon, and help move this country to a low carbon, high efficiency economy.