Having directed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for most of the past four decades, Dr. James E. Hansen retired this month to devote himself to the scientific activism that has brought both awards and catcalls during his long and distinguished career. On April 24, he will receive the Ridenhour Courage Prize in Washington, D.C., for “bravely and urgently telling the truth about climate change.”
Hansen recently spoke with The National Memo about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of nuclear power, the failures of both Republican and Democratic administrations, the imperatives of scientific advocacy – and how a carbon tax might actually replace “cap and trade,” which seems to be disintegrating in Europe.
Now 72, Hansen is the son of a tenant farmer who studied with the legendary space scientist James Van Allen at the University of Iowa, before going on to postgraduate work in the Netherlands and at Columbia University, where the Goddard Institute is located. He joined NASA in 1972, planning to study the effect of gas clouds on the climate of Venus, but eventually realized that investigating climate changes on Earth was “probably more important – a planet that is changing before our eyes and has people living on it.”
By 1981, his team at NASA-Goddard published its first major paper on carbon dioxide and climate in the journal Science, which prompted page-one coverage in the New York Times.
“We said we can’t burn all the coal without producing a very different planet,” Hansen recalls. But “it wasn’t until 1988 that I gave testimony which got a lot of attention, and that was because that was the year of a heat wave and tremendous drought in the Midwest United States.” Hansen’s warnings increasingly irked the Republican oilmen in the Reagan and Bush administrations, who tried to silence or fire him, but they never drove him out.
“Being at NASA and having the access to both computing capability and satellite observation capability is kind of the ideal research situation to try to understand global climate change. So of course I preferred to stay in the government — and I was fortunate that [the late] Senator John Heinz, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, came to my rescue when John Sununu [chief of staff in the first Bush White House] was on the warpath and wanted to have me fired.”
Publicly, he remained quiet for 15 years. “But the message in the science had become clearer and clearer…It was well accepted by  that the planet really was getting warmer and the cause was human-made greenhouse gases. And yet the policies still took no account of that, and the plan was to build more and more coal-fired power plants.”
He finally spoke out again at the University of Iowa – “to make clear that the Bush administration was not taking effective action.” That speech “drew the attention of the Bush administration,” he says, laughing, “and they decided to assign someone to keep track of me and prevent me from speaking out.” (Eventually the Times reported that, too.)