James Hansen is less radical than you think.

Trying to Save the World From Climate Change Is Not Radical

Trying to Save the World From Climate Change Is Not Radical

The state of the universe.
April 13 2016 1:19 PM

Is Trying to Save the World a Radical Act?

From James Hansen to the children suing for their future, radical climate activism is perfectly logical.

Our Children's Trust.
A bunch of kids suing the government may be the best shot humanity has left. Above, 21 plaintiffs celebrate their victory in Oregon U.S. District Court on Friday.

Our Children’s Trust

A group of 21 youth climate activists scored a major victory in the courts on Friday: The plaintiffs, aged 8 to 19, allege unconstitutional discrimination by a federal government more interested in burning fossil fuels than protecting the rights to life, liberty, and property of young people. The Oregon federal judge hearing the case, Thomas Coffin, said they have a point.

Denying the federal government’s motion to dismiss the “relatively unprecedented lawsuit,” Judge Coffin wrote:

The court must accept the allegations as true and those allegations plausibly allege harm, though widespread, that is concrete. … the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government.
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In other words, given the ultra-polarized political stalemate on climate change, a bunch of kids suing the government over decades of unnecessarily slow action may be the best shot humanity has left at addressing the problem before dangerous changes are locked in. The suit is a radical challenge to the status quo in an era of radical environmental change.

“The future of our generation is at stake,” said 16-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett in a statement. “People label our generation as dreamers, but hope is not the only tool we have.”

Underlying the victory was the testimony of James Hansen, the climate scientist–turned–activist whose latest bombshell study on sea level rise was written expressly to convince Coffin that the youths’ challenge had merit.

Hansen’s granddaughter, Sophie, is a plaintiff in the case, as is Hansen himself—as guardian of “future generations.” Hansen made his career as a founding father of climate science. Now, he’s given himself a second career: Making sure all that science actually means something.

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For this reason, Hansen is a fascinating—and polarizing—figure in contemporary climate discourse. Hansen’s latest study—controversial among journalists but not necessarily among other climate scientists—describes a world in which the fundamental heat-circulating capacity of the planet’s oceans could begin to break down in just decades rather than the predicted centuries, should greenhouse gas emissions remain largely unchecked. And the implications drawn from such a scenario are dire: “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization,” the study says.

But it’s the way Hansen is handling the publicity of his science that make his critics uneasy—for example, Hansen has publicly stated that he stepped down from his role at NASA in 2013 so he could more proactively fight global warming. While some claim that makes him radical, for Hansen, it’s just a matter of logically following where the science leads.

In a 2012 TED talk, Hansen described how and why his career has shifted from science to advocacy—starting with his prescient testimony to Congress in 1988. In the subsequent years and decades, Hansen became increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of government action even as the scientific evidence began to mount. I spoke with Hansen by phone last October, before the lawsuit was filed, and he explained more about this transition.

“After my testimony in the 1980s, I decided well, I just want to do science. The hoopla was not something I was comfortable with,” Hansen said. “But then, when I decided to give public talks again in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, I kept getting pushed. I kept thinking, ‘Well, this is just one talk.’ “

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Eventually, he became more comfortable with his role as an advocate for strong climate policy, ruffling the feathers of the Bush administration and getting arrested at the White House in 2011 during President Obama’s first term.

“I rationalized that to myself by realizing that I didn’t want my grandchildren to say that I understood what was going on but I did not try to make it clear,” he said. “I thought it was easier to make it clear than it has turned out to be. I still don’t think that there’s a realization that we’re in an emergency.”

Some journalists argue that Hansen’s style of work—which they derisively refer to as “science by press conference”—should no longer be covered at all in the popular press. The term refers to the idea that scientists overhype their findings to the popular press in hopes of receiving uncritical coverage—it has also been applied to anti-vaxxers and purveyors of cold fusion breakthroughs. Unlike these frauds, Hansen is hardly trying to pull one over on us; he’s trying to save the world from the climate scenario Hansen is uniquely positioned to understand.

On a recent conference call with reporters in advance of his latest study’s release, Hansen masterfully defended himself to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. Borenstein later said the exchange, along with his discussions with other scientists, convinced him Hansen’s new study was too “inside baseball” and not worthy of coverage. (That exchange is copied below, slightly edited for clarity.)

Borenstein: You mix so frequently your advocacy and your science, it’s very hard to tease apart what is what.
Hansen: Why should I or other scientists connect the dots all the way to the policy implications, which you call advocacy? I think that scientists who were trained to be objective have something to offer, all other things being equal. The math says that CO2 emissions would need to decrease at 6 percent per year to stabilize the climate system. That’s a scientific conclusion. That’s not advocacy, it’s telling you what’s needed. And, now, I would advocate that we try to do that as close as we can. If scientists don’t say that, then politicians will tell you what’s needed, and that will be based on politics rather than on science. I don’t see any reason not to try to make the complete story clear, rather than just drawing a line and saying, “I’m not going to step beyond this.”
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Who would you rather have deciding how to limit CO2 emissions—a scientist like Hansen or someone like Donald Trump? It’s really hard to imagine cities, corporations, and governments agreeing on appropriate climate policy without the advice of credible scientists like Hansen.

In a follow-up blog post, Hansen said exchanges like these illustrate the reason many climate scientists are nervous about speaking out about the implications of their work, calling this phenomenon “dangerous scientific reticence.” (Hansen further elaborated on his thoughts in a recent interview with Yale Environment360.)

If you acknowledge the validity of climate science, it’s abundantly clear we’ve got to change a lot of fundamental things about how our society is powered in a very short amount of time. To actualize those changes, what we need are people who can help hash out exactly the best ways of doing that. When medical researchers make a discovery about how a specific addictive behavior is harmful to the human body—for example, smoking cigarettes—as a society, we look to those researchers for advice on how to proceed. Why is Hansen’s claim that, for the health of the planet, we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions an unallowable example of advocacy when we trust a doctor’s recommendation that we stop smoking cigarettes?

For now, though, scientist-advocates like Hansen are being held to a higher standard when it comes to climate change.

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Richard Alley, a prominent climate scientist in his own right, thinks that for special cases like Hansen’s new paper, a very public review process might actually be a good thing. “For this case, with high-profile scientists led by one of the greatest in the field addressing large questions, the discussion has been fascinating, and we may have learned more through the nontraditional process,” he says. Alley is referring to the fact that Hansen released his paper to the public before it could go through the peer review system because he found the results so dire.

Such a system may not always be practical, however: “If this particular review path became widespread, the effort required would be too large to be practical; most of what we do is more focused, and thus more appropriate for a focused review,” Alley says. “Thus, I suspect that the traditional approach still will remain the workhorse, but that having nontraditional opportunities is valuable.”

This is exactly how science in an era of rapid environmental change should work: Hansen and his colleagues’ radical conclusion made it through a very public gauntlet. The logical result, of course, is to make sure that good science now does what it was conceived of to do: Motivate action on climate change. There shouldn’t be anything radical about that. 

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and a contributing writer at Grist. Follow him on Twitter.