James Hansen: 30 Years on From His Climate Change Warning

06th July 2018

On a sultry June 23rd, 1988, James Hansen warned the US Congress that global warming was here and was being driven by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

While we’ve known about the greenhouse effect for many years, this was arguably the point at which climate change garnered international attention, and was our first global warning about the future that lay ahead. “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Hansen said at the time.

According to a report from Associated Press, Hansen stated that there was only a one percent chance that he was wrong in blaming anthropogenic emissions for the rising temperatures that were being witnessed. He had incredible foresight and given the relatively modest technology available 30 years ago, was able to predict more or less most of the changes we’ve seen to date. In the video above from Yale Climate Connections, many of today’s leading climate scientists agree that Hansen was incredibly prescient and got his forecasts right. This article for the New York Times explains in more detail what he got right and what he got wrong.

To commemorate the anniversary of his speech, Hansen wrote an article for the Boston Globe, where he explained, “Within four years, almost all nations, including the United States, signed a Framework Convention in Rio de Janeiro, agreeing that the world must avoid dangerous human-made interference with climate. Sadly, the principal follow-ups to Rio were the precatory Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement — wishful thinking, hoping that countries will make plans to reduce emissions and carry them out. In reality, most countries follow their self-interest, and global carbon emissions continue to climb.”

Hansen says that as long as fossil fuels remain cheap, they’ll continue to be extracted and burned, leading to higher emissions. He’s been a proponent of a rising carbon fee on fossil fuels and suggests this as a solution to tackle our addiction.

Climate change is the mother of all challenges, not just because of the magnitude of the crisis we face, but also because we’re up against the worst aspects of human nature which got us into this problem, and threaten to prevent us from tackling it. Speaking to the New York Times, Hansen said, “It’s very hard to see us fixing the climate until we fix our democracy.”

In his Boston Globe article, Hansen writes, “My advice to young people is to cast off the old politics and fight for their future on technological, political, and legal fronts. It will not be easy. Washington is a swamp of special interests and, because of the power of the fossil fuel industry, our political parties are little concerned about the mess they are leaving for young people.”

The Guardian covered the 30 year anniversary of Hansen’s testimony and interviewed the co-author of Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes for a comment. In the article, Oreskes says, “Poor Jim Hansen… He’s cursed to understand and diagnose what’s going on but unable to persuade people to do something about it. We are all raised to believe knowledge is power but Hansen proves the untruth of that slogan. Power is power.”

Success in tackling climate change is dependent on a group of unconscionable individuals in positions of power doing the right thing. While all hope isn’t yet lost, it’s increasingly difficult to see that happening. Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert, from the New Yorker asked James Hansen if he had a message to share with young people. Hansen replied, “The simple thing is, I’m sorry we’re leaving such a fucking mess.”

After 30 years of censorship, arrests and testimonies to governments and court cases about climate change, perhaps it’s the rest of the world who should be apologising to James Hansen for failing to listen and act on his warnings.

About James Hansen

Dr James Hansen. Image Source: http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/photo.html

Dr James Hansen is the retired director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). He was the first person to begin compiling temperature records from around the world, helping to detect the greenhouse warming signal, as it grew above the background noise of natural variability. He currently directs the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia University.

After leaving NASA in 2013, he was able to take on more of an ‘anti-government’ approach to highlight its many failings, including that of Barrack Obama, who had the opportunity to do so much in line with his promises and failed abysmally. According to the Associated Press, Hansen has been arrested five times for his environmental protests including one outside the White House, where he protested against the Keystone (KXL) pipeline, hoping that his cases would go to trial so that he could draw attention to these issues.

Hansen faced censorship under George HW Bush’s administration, a book about which was published called Censoring Science by Mark Bowen. His first book Storms of My Grandchildren was published in 2009. His next book dedicated to his granddaughter Sophie, entitled Sophie’s Planet is due out next year.

When asked by the Associated Press about his advocacy given his scientific background, he responded, “If scientists are not allowed to talk about the policy implications of the science, who is going to do that? People with financial interests?”

Climate Visuals Masterclass

Tuesday 5th September 2017

Yesterday I attended the inaugural climate visuals masterclass, run by Climate Outreach and hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Over the past few months, I have looked at various methods of climate change communication for my dissertation and had an interest in finding out more about the photographs and images that are used to portray climate change to the wider public.

I learnt that if you google ‘climate change’, many of the pictures that come up are variations of a small set of images. Also images containing people aren’t used as often as you’d expect, the bulk are made up of extreme weather events and the ‘posterchild of global warming’ – the polar bear. The problem communicators have, is that the polar bear is the most recognised and well understood image in regards to climate change.

Whilst there is an appetite for new visual stories about climate change, familiar images such as the polar bear have a clear advantage for a consumer’s rapid understanding. Interestingly, we are also better able to empathise when we see an individual, as opposed to a crowd in an image.

As with all forms of climate change communication, people respond better to things they can resonate with. In this sense, local images are good to use for your target audience. Would an image of a drought in China make someone in an urban area of the UK want to take action on climate change? Maybe, but probably not. Instead images of cities in the UK being flooded are likely to be more relevant.

One thing that really surprised me is that people can be turned off by seeing images of protestors and marches. One reason for this is because they sometimes doubt the credibility of the people in the pictures. However, when the person appears credible, this cynicism disappears.

On a seperate note – I’ve been shocked by how the media sometimes has rolling coverage of a climate related disaster (such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas), and yet only makes very brief reference to climate change. I think certain media outlets such as CNN, BBC News and Sky News (as well as most UK tabloids), need to rectify this issue.

The seven main principles for visual climate change communication are summed up as follows:

1) Show real people, and avoid staged photo opportunities.

2) Tell new stories.

3) Show climate causes at scale.

4) To engage people’s emotions, show the impacts of climate change (i.e. extreme weather events).

5) Show local impacts.

6) Be very selective with images of protestors/marchers.

7) Make sure you understand the audience who you are using the images for.

At the start of the day, it was noted how little reference in the masterclass there was to the role that artists play in communicating climate change. As someone who has spent the past year completing an MA in Creative Writing, in order to gain the skills I need to write novels about climate change (cli-fi novels), this was something that I had also picked up on! So you can imagine my excitement when Laurie Goering, who is the Head of Climate Programme at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, gave a talk and mentioned the role cli-fi could play as a form of communication!

This was by far and away the highlight of the day for me, and gave me a sense of validation. I believe cli-fi has a crucial role to play in educating people about the impacts of climate change and the solutions that are available to us right now.

If you visit the World Press Photo awards, then look out for a category on climate change images next year, which has been set-up in conjunction with Climate Outreach.