Dr. James Hansen of NASA, one of the world's most eminent climatologists, spoke out on global warming despite warnings from the Bush administration to leave ''policy statements to policymakers.''
Writer Mark Bowen chronicled Hansen's struggle to bring the issue to light in the recently published "Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming.''
We asked three questions of Bowen from his Arlington home the other night, days before he and Hansen speak on climate change and censorship at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Lexington's Cary Memorial Hall. (More details on the event here.)
Q. How did you get on the Jim Hansen story?
A. Jim actually plays a significant role in my first book, “Thin Ice.” Shortly after it was released, near the end of 2005, I was speaking with an editor about writing a book about Jim. For some reason, this editor believed it would be less awkward if he, rather than I, were to contact him, but the editor never followed through. Then, in January 2006, Jim popped up on the front page of the New York Times as a result of a censorship attempt. I contacted him a few weeks later to ask if he would be interested in collaborating on a book. He responded enthusiastically by email within 20 minutes. This was in the heat of the censorship campaign, and he was still very much in fear of his job. Over the next month or so, I went to Jim's apartment on the Upper West Side and had two or three days with him and a tape recorder. This helped me write the book proposal, which went out in August 2006, just as an intense heat wave swept across the country. We actually sent the proposal out on the day that publishers in New York had turned down their lights to save electricity on the advice of Mayor Bloomberg. Dutton and I quickly came to an agreement, and for the next year, until September 2007, I was in contact with Jim more-or-less daily.
Q. What do think Hansen offers that others don't?
A. He has been leading the scientific inquiry into global climate change for 30 years. What Jim Hansen says today is what the IPCC will be saying in 20 years. He's been dragging the consensus along. And the amazing thing is that he really hasn’t changed his story much since the early 1980s. The climate problem is not as complicated as some would like you to believe.
Q. Why was Hansen targeted?
A. The Bush administration began censoring climate science almost immediately upon taking office, but it became particularly intense during the run-up to the 2004 election. ... I honestly don't think it is too far-fetched to say is that the reason the Bush administration has changed its tune and is willing to sign a statement like the one that was reported in the Times today is mainly as a result of Jim Hansen's courageous actions in 2006. At a conference I attended recently, an employee of a different government agency that is also involved in climate research and policy told me that he “wouldn't have been allowed to come to this conference if it hadn't been for Jim Hansen speaking out.'' Of course, the Gore movie was also a big factor in tipping public opinion and making clear the scientific consensus on this issue. But as I show in the book, Jim Hansen essentially handed the ball off to Al Gore. The censorship story had attracted a lot of attention. Andy Revkin’s first article on the matter, at the end of January, was the most heavily-viewed news article on the Times’ Web site in all of 2006.
Q. What's the situation today? Don't all three major presidential candidates have a climate change plan? Don't they all represent a significant move away from the politics of 2004 and 2005?
A. “Significant” is where you're going to have a little resistance from me. Even George Bush claimed that he would control carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants during the 2000 election campaign. Then, one month after he entered office, he did an about-face and put Dick Cheney in charge of climate change policy. It is hard to know how closely the policies of the three potential candidates will actually follow their campaign rhetoric. On the other hand, at least all three understand the basic science and agree that something needs to be done. Whether they will truly act, act quickly, and do things that really affect the amount of emissions from the United States, is another question. Emissions grew faster in the United States than in the rest of the developed world all throughout the Clinton-Gore administration, for example. Will any of these three candidates tackle the hard issues and succeed in decreasing US emissions over the next two or three years? They’re issuing motherhood and apple pie platitudes about decreasing emissions 40 years from now, but I haven’t seen any of them propose a serious and effective first step.
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