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2013 / James Hansen

On June 23, 1988, James Hansen, the then-director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He stated that there was a strong cause and effect relationship between observed temperatures and human emissions into the atmosphere; that “the greenhouse effect is here.” It was the first time that a leading scientist had unequivocally articulated this position on such a public stage, and the following morning the New York Times headline read, “Global Warming Has Begun.”

Over the decades since, Hansen has used his stature as NASA’s top climate scientist to convincingly argue that climate change is the work of humans, and that “global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.”

Hansen was born March 29, 1941, in western Iowa, one of seven children. He showed an interest in science from a young age, and was persuaded as a college senior to take the physics graduate school qualifying exam by a professor. Hansen subsequently received his degrees in physics, astronomy, and mathematics at the University of Iowa, studying at Dr. James Van Allen’s space science program.

Upon graduation, he went to work directly at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies where he studied the composition of the atmosphere of Venus. But after a decade of research he switched his research to the changing atmosphere of another planet: Earth.

Using data from Earth-orbiting satellites and climate models, Hansen created one of the world’s first climate models, nicknamed Model Zero, on which most of his climate predictions are based. It was known then that the increasing level of carbon dioxide being added to the air by the burning of fossil fuels was changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and that would likely affect our climate. His research led to his conviction that the continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself — and that the timetable for mitigation is shorter than anyone had previously imagined.

Since publishing his seminal studies on the effects of greenhouse gases in 1981, and following his Senate testimony, Hansen has steadily ratcheted up the pressure on public officials to take his warnings seriously. He spoke out against the Bush administration’s attempts to mute his warnings about the urgent need to address climate change, and has implored President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Hansen describes his transformation from a pure scientist to a “witness” — what writer Robert Pool described in a May 1990 issue of Science magazine as “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent. As he writes in his book, he didn’t want his grandchildren, sometime in the future, to look back and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”

Hansen also takes seriously one of the central tenets of NASA’s former mission statement to “understand and protect our home planet.” He has called for putting fossil fuel company executives, including the CEOs of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, on trial for “high crimes against humanity and nature” for spreading doubt and misinformation about climate change, as tobacco companies did in the early years to obscure the link between smoking and cancer. And he has argued repeatedly for collection of a carbon fee from fossil fuel companies with distribution of the funds to the public, thus “putting an honest price on carbon that makes fossil fuels pay their cost to society.”

In 1996, Hansen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He directed the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1981 to 2013; he stepped down in April to pursue political and legal efforts to cut carbon emissions. He is Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Hansen has received numerous prizes for his work, including the AASA Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for his “courageous and steadfast advocacy in support of scientists’ responsibilities to communicate their scientific opinions and findings openly and honestly on matters of public importance,” the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed by the American Meteorological Society, and the 2010 Blue Planet Prize, considered to be Japan’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In 2012, Foreign Policy named Hansen one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers “for sounding the alarm on climate change, early and often.”

In addition to his work on global warming, Hansen has also protested mountaintop removal mining in Raleigh County, West Virginia. He has said it provides “only a small fraction of our energy” and has called on President Obama to abolish it. More recently, Hansen’s activism has focused on the controversial Keystone pipeline extension that, if built, will carry synthetic crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. He was arrested twice in 2011 and also this past February at protests against Keystone XL outside the White House.

Dr. James Hansen, the 2013 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize, was recognized for bravely and urgently telling the truth about climate change, even when the Bush administration tried to silence and penalize him as director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Rather than giving in, or giving up, Dr. Hansen — one of the world’s most tireless and articulate activists — has courageously and continuously led the fight to save the planet ever since.

2013 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of Joe Romm’s speech

JOE ROMM: Thank you. Dr. James Hansen is being honored today in part because he told Congress that global warming now is large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect. The courageous part isn’t what he said, it’s when he said it: 25 years ago during the sweltering summer of 1988. It was the first high profile public statement by US government scientists alerting the country to this grave threat.

Jim embodies The Ridenhour Courage Prize. When he was still at NASA and their top climate scientist, he blew the whistle on government efforts to silence him and others on climate change. Jim is a modern day Paul Revere, if Paul Revere’s midnight ride had taken place in 1750 and the message was, “The British are coming, the British are coming in 25 years.” [laughter] Yes, climate change is a challenging story to tell, and Jim has been telling it actually since 1981 when he published his first warning that led to a major New York Times story headline, “Study Finds Warming Trend that Could Raise Sea Levels.”

And yet, carbon pollution has kept rising. We live in a spineless world where being scientifically right for over 30 years gives you no more credit with the national media than being a professional disinformer funded by the fossil fuel industry. How spineless is this world? If a doctor used the best science to diagnose a smoker as having early stage emphysema and the doctor did not urge the patient to start quitting cigarettes, he’d be charged with malpractice. But if a climatologist uses the best science to diagnose an entire planet as having early stage climate change and he urges the world to start quitting fossil fuels, well, then he is labeled an alarmist by industry-backed groups.

And the truth is we should all be alarmed. This is the great moral crisis of our time. By destroying a livable climate, we are stealing the future from our children and grandchildren and countless future generations. To save the spineless world from itself, supplying the truth isn’t enough. You need to supply the spine, too. You need to be courageous. And so Jim has been forced by the times and by his own moral convictions to become an activist.

There is a saying that applies to Jim: one man with courage is a majority. How many scientists have spawned an entire movement? Five years ago, Jim explained that if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adopted, we need to return carbon dioxide levels back to 350 parts per million. That led Bill McKibben to found the group 350.org. Then Jim said, burning the tar sands, the Canadian tar sands, would be “game over” for the climate. And that led to the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and the biggest protest and civil disobedience the climate movement has ever seen.

And because Jim has the courage of his convictions, he has had the courage to be convicted himself. He’s been arrested five times during peaceful protests. Fifty years ago this month, another great moral crusader was arrested for protesting and he wrote a letter from his jail cell in Birmingham explaining why. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 16, 1963. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Now more than ever, we are tied in a single garment of destiny, cloaked as a species in a protective climate that we are in the process of unraveling.

And so the need for activism, the need for courage, the need to speak out, is as great as ever. As King put it, “We will have to repent in this generation not nearly for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” It is my singular honor to give you a man who will not have to repent, a man for all seasons, literally. The winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Courage Prize, Dr. James Hansen. [applause]

Transcript of James Hansen’s speech:

DR. JAMES HANSEN: Thanks, Joe, for your kind words and especially for the huge amount of work, important and effective work, that you have done in informing the public about climate change. And thanks to the Ridenhour organization for its persistence in offering me this prestigious award. [laughter]

I would like to use my several minutes here to summarize the truth about our current predicament with human-made climate change and the opportunity that this presents for dealing with fundamental problems faced by people in the United States and the rest of the world. The carbon dioxide, CO2, that we put in the air by burning fossil fuels will stay in the climate system for millennia. We have only felt part of the climate response due to the CO2 already in the air.

The climate responds only slowly because of the great inertia of the massive global ocean and ice sheets. The irrefutable scientific conclusion is that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without handing our children and grandchildren and future generations a situation that is out of their control with enormous consequences for their well being and for the very existence of many of the other species on our planet.

We must leave most of the remaining coal in the ground as well as the carbon-intensive highly polluting unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and tar shale. The task of leaving these dirty fuels in the ground and moving on to a bright future for today’s young people cannot be accomplished by trickery and gimmicks such as carbon cap and trade and offsets, with its inevitable horse-trading and lobbying. We must have a simple, honest, across-the-board carbon fee collected from the fossil fuel companies at the small number of domestic mines and ports of entry.

And that money must be distributed to the public 100 percent, equal amounts to all legal residents. The fee must continue to rise gradually so the public businesses and entrepreneurs have the incentive to make choices and develop products that reduce and eliminate fossil fuel use. This will stimulate the economy as we develop new, more carbon-efficient products and energy sources. About 60 percent of the people will get more money in their monthly dividends than they pay in increased prices.

But to stay on the positive side, they must make wise choices. Yes, this implies some wealth redistribution. Low-income people, if they try, can gain somewhat. Rich people who have multiple houses and fly around the world will pay more than their dividend. But they can afford it. This approach can be made international via an agreement between the United States and China. China has many reasons to join, as climate disruption will hit them hard and they need to solve pollution problems.  Other nations will then join, in order to avoid border duties on their products and in order to gain the clean energy benefits.

The United States must exercise leadership. This is the last chance for the liberal left and the conservative right to cooperate for the good of the nation and the world, for the good of young people, future generations, and nature. What I have described is a progressive-conservative approach. It puts an honest price on fossil fuels, making them pay for their cost to society. It allows all alternatives to compete on a level playing field. We must demand that the liberal left keep their hands out of our pockets and off of our wallets. Not one dime of the carbon fee should be used to make the government bigger. One hundred percent of the money must go to the public.

Nor should any money, any of the money, be used for subsidizing research on specific government-selected industries. The government is incompetent to choose the best technologies. Let them all compete. There are existing resources and departments for research development and demonstration.

The public is fed up with self-indulgent partisanship. If today’s parties cannot cooperate on such a simple, honest approach that would stimulate our economy, provide millions of good jobs, a clean environment, and stable climate, then in 2016 there should be a new party. [applause] Not a fringe party on the left or right, but a centrist party, an American party, a party that will take Washington back from the lobbyists and give it to the American people. Thank you. [applause]