Hansen standing at a podium, smiling
Ngan Tran / Gavel Media

Former NASA Researcher Jim Hansen Addresses the Climate Crisis

Dr. Jim Hansen, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, gave a lecture titled “Shape Your Future: Energy, Climate Change, and Human Rights” at Boston College on Tuesday. The lecture was part of “Answering the Call: A Climate Justice Lecture Series” which the Environmental Studies Department, along with other sponsors, is piloting this year.

For most of his career, Hansen worked at NASA as the Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and pushed for climate change research.

In 1988, presented with an opportunity to bring climate change to the attention of the public, Hansen testified before Congress on a recent drought in the Midwest. 

“I am 99% certain that a long term warming trend had begun,” he testified. 

He was invited back in 1989 to testify again; however, according to Hansen, “the White House Office of Management and Budget altered my written testimony in order to make it appear that my conclusions were based on models, unreliable models.” 

After the publicity of his two Senatorial hearings and subsequent press coverage of his battle over “White House Censorship,” Hansen retreated from politics and focused on researching the trends of greenhouse gases and climate change.

His lecture revolved around three effects created by climate change and three ways to halt and reverse the effects of climate change.

The first effect is sea level rise. 

“The rate of sea level rise is still moderate, however, the rate has more than doubled, twice, in the past century," said Hansen.

The study he referenced declares, “multimeter sea level rise will occur within 50 to 150 years.” 

The second effect is “extermination of species, which is also irreversible.” Humans provide stress for other species in a myriad of different ways and Hansen warns, “we could commit a large fraction of the species to extinction.”

Hansen stressed that “we are now losing one to two percent of coral per year.” He said it is imperative we “reduce CO2 emissions enough to stabilize shorelines. Then we will also solve this problem.”

Finally, the third effect is climate extremes.

“The bell curve to describe the natural climate bell curve of the last century is shifting,” he noted.

This shift leads to warm climates, increasing droughts, and extending fire season, but it also affects wet climates, leading to storms with greater energy and more floods. These three effects are dangerous and need to be addressed immediately.

While the urgency of the crisis might not be clear to the general population, Hansen warned that ice sheets and the ocean have caused some of these effects to be delayed or “limited.” However, if the warming trend continues, “more warming already in the pipeline will drive amplifying feedbacks” that humans will have to deal with soon.

“There is a danger that young people inherit,” he said, before addressing what is necessary to reverse these effects.

The first step towards reversing climate change is to reduce and eventually stop using fossil fuels. From an economic perspective, Hansen said the best way to carry this out is “to make the price of fossil fuels include their costs to society.”

Hansen called for a carbon fee to be implemented in order to reverse climate change. In the question and answer session, he elaborated on his point, stating, “we’ll never get that big of a reduction from any of the caps they’re talking about.”

In tandem with the carbon fee, the technology needs to change.

“Nuclear power is our largest source of carbon free energy and our safest energy based on real world data” said Hansen. 

Hansen did, however, acknowledge the real fears people, especially from his generation, have about nuclear war and radiation. He confronted those fears by citing research that described how indoor air pollution kills more people a day than nuclear power has killed in 50 years. 

Finally, in order to meet the demands climate change imposes on us, research and development needs to be fully funded by the federal government. While Hansen did not advocate for any particular technology, he claimed that “we’ve wasted valuable time because of our government's failure to support research and development.” 

He objected strenuously to the “irrational failure to do the research and development” in order to combat climate change and its effects. 

Throughout the lecture, Hansen stressed that the effects of climate change “are heading young people straight to doomsday or serious consequences” and it is up to young people to decide how they want to respond.

He began the lecture with an anecdote about how powerful the youth are when it comes to enacting change; he finished the question and answer portion praising Greta Thunberg, the leading youth climate activist, for creating what “might be a turning point where we get more and more people.” 

Hansen recommended that anyone interested in combating climate change, should sign up for Citizens Climate Lobby. According to Hansen, it is not the only step people should take, but it is the first step in the right direction.

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