Elizabeth Kolbert, Profiles, “The Catastrophist,”
The New Yorker, June 29, 2009, p. 39
James Hansen; Climatologists; NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration); Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS); Global Warming; Environment; Climate Change
PROFILE of climatologist James Hansen. A few months ago, James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), in Manhattan, joined a protest outside the Capitol Power Plant, in Washington, D.C. Thirty years ago, Hansen, who is sixty-eight, created one of the world’s first climate models, nicknamed Model Zero, which he used to predict most of what has happened in the climate since. Hansen has now concluded, partly on the basis of his latest modeling efforts and partly on the basis of observations made by other scientists, that the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected. Unless immediate action is taken—including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades—the planet will be committed to climate change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with. Hansen grew up in Denison, Iowa, and he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Iowa. From there he went directly to work at GISS, where he studied Venusian clouds. In 1981, he became the director of GISS. He published a paper forecasting increased temperatures in the following decades and his insights were immediately recognized by the scientific community. Mentions Anniek Hansen, Bill McKibben, Michael Oppenheimer, and Spencer Weart. Describes a talk Hansen gave on climate change at the state capitol in Concord, New Hampshire. What is now happening, Hansen said, is carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air some ten thousand times faster than natural weathering processes can remove it. There’s no precise term for the level of carbon dioxide that will assure a climate disaster; the best scientists have come up with is “dangerous anthropogenic interference,” or D.A.I. Hansen estimates the dangerous amount of carbon dioxide to be no more than three hundred and fifty parts per million. The bad news is that carbon dioxide levels have already reached three hundred and eighty-five parts per million. Hansen argues that the only way we can constrain the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to drastically decrease the use of coal. But if Hansen’s anxieties about D.A.I. and coal are broadly shared, he is still, among climate scientists, an outlier. Describes the cap-and-trade system, which Hansen argues is essentially a sham. Mentions the American Clean Energy and Security Act. In order to stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, annual emissions around the globe would have to be cut by something on the order of three-quarters. So far, there’s no evidence that anyone is willing to take the necessary steps.