Hansen: It’s time for the politics to follow the science on global warming


James Hansen under arrest at mountaintop removal coal protest at White House, 2010. Photo: Rainforest Action Network.

“President Obama speaks of a ‘planet in peril,’ but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public,” James Hansen writes in a powerful op-ed column in the New York Times today. “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.” Amen to that. Climate scientists are always called upon to communicate in a way that makes them more ‘relevant’ to policymakers and the public, but a greater problem is making policymakers and the public more relevant to climate science.  As for Hansen’s suggestion that climate policy can unify liberals and conservatives, one can be skeptical.

In “Game Over for the Climate,” Hansen leads with:

Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. …

Along with the staggering long-term implications of our current trajectory, there are nearer-term impacts of climatic disruption to (maybe) be limited if the world acts with a sense of urgency:

Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. ….

Hansen throws down the gauntlet to political ‘leaders’:

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business. …

Well.  Judging from empirical observation of the political situation – or am I being too jaded after many years in Washington – I think the argument needs a bit more of an edge than simply saying “This is a plan [i.e., a carbon fee distributed back to Americans on a per capita basis] that can unify conservatives and liberals.”  Unless by ‘conservatives’ one means the corporate Democrat element on the D side and a dwindling band of recognizably ‘conservative’ types on the R side, amidst the general takeover on the R side by what can probably be more accurately labeled as the radical right-wing. I don’t see anything about the problem of climate policy to ‘unify’ the liberals and the right-wing at this point.

Climate change calls for activist government, public preparedness planning, public policy to put a price on carbon, government regulation of emissions, government intervention to get new technologies into the market, international agreements that constrain national action for the greater good – things that deeply challenge the American right-wing ideology and identity.  No wonder they have such a problem with climate science.  This problem needs to be analyzed with the same empirical rigor – at the level of the institutional functioning of the political system – that  great scientists bring to analyzing the Earth system.

Other posts on Hansen’s op-ed:

Climate progress: Must-Read: NASA’s James Hansen Slams Obama’s Lack Of Climate Leadership And Our ‘Immoral’ Inaction

Climate Crocks: Hansen in NYTimes: I’m not Sayin’ “I Told you So”, but…

Rabett Run: James Hansen Doubles Down

Also see:

James Hansen, et al., Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature (forthcoming in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Video of Dr. Hansen’s TED talk, given in February 2012: “Why I must speak out about climate change.”

Earlier posts:

Hansen: Climate science and moral responsibility

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”

10/10/10 global warming rally at the White House

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2 Responses to Hansen: It’s time for the politics to follow the science on global warming

  1. Forest says:

    Reminds me of a snake in front of a mongoose or a deer in the headlights. North Americans seem more intent on growth, resource exploitation and self-gratification than on looking at their own and their children’s long term future. Too many people live in cities, spend their lives viewing screens, focusing on irrelevant “pop” cable news away from any touch with the natural world. Most have no idea how science works or how it informs us. Obama addressed gay marriage, good in itself, but not a deal maker when it comes to the planet. His next 4 years will be telling. Game over for most living things; the probabilities at this point are high, but sound leadership could make a difference.

  2. Jan Freed says:

    Speculation #1: Obama, the shrewd politician is carefully calibrating support of C/C and patiently awaits another four years to really address the problem in every conceivable way. This includes bringing in the world’s foremost climate experts, environmentalists, climate authors (such as the author of HOT), and acknowledge the profound seriousness of our peril. Then, the hundreds of billions necessary will be scheduled to be implemented (and of course the investment will be returned over the decades, many times over)

    Speculation #2: Obama is a tragic combination of uninformed, indifferent, cynical to the point of pathological, too “politically timid”, and easily distracted.

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