If climate change is dangerous, can’t a scientist say so? (Hansen’s keynote address at the AGU 2013)

Back in l988, physicist/climatologist James Hansen told Congress that that we had begun to change the earth's atmosphere. This was during a heat wave in Washington, and his testimony made headlines. That's rare for a scientist of any sort. 

"Global warming has began, Expert tells Senate" reported the NYTimes. 

"It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here," [Hansen] told a Senate panel. He added that it was "99 per cent certain" that the warming trend was not a case of natural variation.

He testified: 

''Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now.''. 

Since then the Kyoto Protocol — an international pact that grew out of a UN effort to begin a global conversation about climate change — has come and gone. The goal at that time was "stablization of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the cimate system."  

We have not yet succeeded in avoiding this oncoming disaster, and Hansen's views are not unique among scientists. A poll conducted by Naomi Orestes of UC San Diego found a 97% consensus of climatologists on the basic facts of global warming, and the fundamental idea that heating the atmosphere and the oceans poses serious risks to our civilization. .

Yet no matter how many times Hansen states the scientific argument, American culture continues to shrug off his warnings, and silence him when he speaks out. 

This month he revealed he and a formidable group of collaborators cannot publish a study warning of the consequences of inaction on climate in the in the most estemmed of public science journals, PNAS [an outlet associated with the National Academy of Sciences]. 

Hansen gave the keynote speech to a crowd of of perhaps 2500 scientists at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. The speech ranged from the potential extinction of the Monarch butterfly to the threat to coastal cities around thew world, and included numerous attempts to puncture our shield of denial. At one point Hansen pointed out that energy departments at the state and federal level publish graphs showing fossil fuel extraction skyrocketing, and emissions too, indefinitely, "as if that had to happen."

"Isn't there such a thing as free will?" he said. "It's still possible for us to get on another path, but not if we don't try to do it." 

Hansen went on to recount his struggles with the PNAS, which unlike most science publications makes its papers freely available to the public He mentioned that the paper that he and his esteemed colleagues, eventually published elsewhere was repeatedly slapped down for "normative" language. 

For, in other words, for suggesting that we should act to defuse the threat of global warming. 

"It tooks us three years to publish this paper, and part of the reason was that we submitted it to PNAS, And although it got the highest ratings by the referees, the editor gave it to the editorial board, and they insisted that we remove "normative statements" from the paper." 

Hansen smiled, but not happily. 

"Which is a little strange. It seems to me that pointing out the implictions of science should not be prohibited," Hansen said, in his dry, matter of fact, Midwestern voice. "It got to the point with one anonymous board member reviewer that even the word "dangerous" was considered "normative." 

He laughed — exasperated. And showed us a telling graph


He ponted out that instead of trying to reduce carbon extraction and output, politicians from both parties were "falling all over themselves" to take credit for more fossil fuel extraction, which would only add to the peril. His frustration was evident, and he appeared weary. The ambitious speech seemed to go over the heads of the crowd at times, and he suggested at the conclusion that just as he was struggling to communicate the crisis, we were struggling too, to understand it.

Here's perhaps the simplest form of this plea for action on global warming: 


A pic/quote from one of the early titans in the field, tweeted from the conclusion of another excellent talk — by RealClimater Gavin Schmidt — on the difficulty of moving the needle on this issue. 

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