By Elizabeth Kolbert
June 29, 2009 Issue
NASA’s climate expert delivers the news no one wants to hear.
A few months ago, James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in Manhattan, took a day off from work to join a protest in Washington, D.C. The immediate target of the protest was the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and chilled water to congressional offices, but more generally its object was coal, which is the world’s leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions. As it happened, on the day of the protest it snowed. Hansen was wearing a trench coat and a wide-brimmed canvas boater. He had forgotten to bring gloves. His sister, who lives in D.C. and had come along to watch over him, told him that he looked like Indiana Jones.
The march to the power plant was to begin on Capitol Hill, at the Spirit of Justice Park. By the time Hansen arrived, thousands of protesters were already milling around, wearing green hard hats and carrying posters with messages like “Power Past Coal” and “Clean Coal Is Like Dry Water.” Hansen was immediately surrounded by TV cameras.
“You are one of the preëminent climatologists in the world,” one television reporter said. “How does this square with your science?”
“I’m trying to make clear what the connection is between the science and the policy,” Hansen responded. “Somebody has to do it.”
The reporter wasn’t satisfied. “Civil disobedience?” he asked, in a tone of mock incredulity. Hansen said that he couldn’t let young people put themselves on the line, “and then I stand back behind them.”
The reporter still hadn’t got what he wanted: “We’ve heard that you all are planning, even hoping, to get arrested today. Is that true?”
“I wouldn’t hope,” Hansen said. “But I do want to draw attention to the issue, whatever is necessary to do that.”
Hansen, who is sixty-eight, has greenish eyes, sparse brown hair, and the distracted manner of a man who’s just lost his wallet. (In fact, he frequently misplaces things, including, on occasion, his car.) Thirty years ago, he created one of the world’s first climate models, nicknamed Model Zero, which he used to predict most of what has happened to the climate since. Sometimes he is referred to as the “father of global warming,” and sometimes as the grandfather.
Hansen has now concluded, partly on the basis of his latest modelling efforts and partly on the basis of observations made by other scientists, that the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected. Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it is already there. Unless immediate action is taken—including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades—the planet will be committed to change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with. “This particular problem has become an emergency,” Hansen said.
Hansen’s revised calculations have prompted him to engage in activities—like marching on Washington—that aging government scientists don’t usually go in for. Last September, he travelled to England to testify on behalf of anti-coal activists who were arrested while climbing the smokestack of a power station to spray-paint a message to the Prime Minister. (They were acquitted.) Speaking before a congressional special committee last year, Hansen asserted that fossil-fuel companies were knowingly spreading misinformation about global warming and that their chairmen “should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.” He has compared freight trains carrying coal to “death trains,” and wrote to the head of the National Mining Association, who sent him a letter of complaint, that if the comparison “makes you uncomfortable, well, perhaps it should.”