Reflections of a climate veteran (2)

In the conclusion of Tan Copsey’s interview with James Hansen, the American climatologist discusses the role of science in global-warming activism, and says it is time to take the fight to the law courts.

Tan Copsey: You played an interesting role in a case in the United Kingdom, where your testimony was crucial in helping acquit protestors at the country’s largest coal-fired power plant. Is it right for scientists to play such an active role in society?

Jim Hansen: I think that scientists can be objective about the implications of science for policy. In that case, the Kingsnorth case, I testified on behalf of people who were arrested for blocking the operation of that coal plant. My point was to draw attention to the importance of phasing out coal emissions. The science shows us that if we don’t do that, then young people are going to be faced with a problem that is not of their making and they are going to have to face the consequences.

This was a trial by jury. They voted that these people were innocent because they were protecting property of greater value. It is a message that the government (of the United Kingdom) should have listened to. But instead they are challenging that decision and taking it to a higher court. There is going to be a retrial of the Kingsnorth case in the next three months. I’ve now written testimony for it.

TC: You also recently played a part in a demonstration against mountaintop removal mining outside the White House in Washington. Do you see yourself continuing to take part in political life and demonstrations?

JH: Yes, in the sense that we need to draw attention to a situation that is becoming more and more urgent. But I now think that the best hope for getting action probably lies with the judicial branch of governments rather than the executive and legislative branches. So I want to make the science and its implications as clear as possible to support the efforts to get the judicial branch to make decisions.

In our government, the fundamental principle that was behind the formation of our nation was the concept that all people are created equal. That is the first line in our declaration of independence and is the basis in our constitution for the concept of equal protection of the laws, on which civil rights were finally granted to minorities. The courts told the government that they had to desegregate.

I think that young people also deserve equal protection of the law. That means the courts should ask the government to provide the plan for how they are going to reduce emissions so as to allow the stabilisation of climate.

I think that the judicial branch is less subject to pressure and lobbying than the executive and legislative branches. So I really want to try to help to make that case. I think that has a better chance of getting action than demonstrations.

Hansen was arrested during a protest against mountaintop mining in Washington. Photo from Rainforest Action Network

TC: Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben cites your work as one of the main reasons he founded the global environment movement,, which aims to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million. What chance do you think we have of ever returning to this safer atmospheric concentration? Is it realistic or have we gone past that point?

JH: It’s still possible. It’s interesting because I’m writing a paper that shows that we would need to level out emissions over the next several years and then have them decrease quite rapidly, at a rate of about 5% per year, if we wanted to have a chance to get back to 350. This would need to be complimented by a strong effort to reforest marginal lands. When I say marginal, I mean land not really useful for agriculture. We are going to need to draw some carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and one way you could do that is reforestation.

TC: Recommendations for reforming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] were recently published. Do you think there is a need to reform the institution? Does it need to become more responsive?

JH: Frankly no. The reason they are doing it is to try to minimise criticism of the science. In fact that report [the IPCC’s 2007 report] was very effectively criticised because of what were really very minor misstatements. In a report that is several thousand pages long, they found a few errors. The principal one being that the glaciers in the Himalayas might be gone in 25 years. That is an exaggeration. But the fact is glaciers are melting all over the planet and the consequences of that are extraordinary. The whole objective of the people criticising this report is for governments to ignore its scientific implications.

The United Nations and IPCC will try to minimise the possibility of any misstatements, but they will never be able to implement that. Fundamentally I think the process was fine and that is not where the fixing is needed. The fixing that is needed is in the government responses to what is a clear scientific message.

TC: In an ideal world, what would the relationship between scientists and politicians look like? How would it be different to the one we have now?

JH: I guess the simple answer would be that in the ideal world the politicians would listen to a clear scientific result. In this case at least some governments continue to ignore it and try not to accept the science.

TC: Do you think so-called climate sceptics are likely to be a permanent feature of the media, if not scientific, landscape? Will they ever go away?

JH: No. They will certainly never go away. They are acting as lawyers not as scientists. They continue to try and find anything they can criticise the science on. The scientist tries to be objective and continually re-examine his conclusions and, as the evidence changes, alter his conclusions if necessary. But you see these sceptics are only arguing for one position. They’re arguing in support of the fossil-fuel industry and those people who want to continue business as usual. No matter what the evidence is, it doesn’t change their position.


Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue.

Part one: The urgent need to price carbon

Homepage image from Rainforest Action Network