On June 23 1988, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of the Institute for Space Studies of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), stood before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and told them:
- The Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements.
- The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.
- Our computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is already large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves.
Then he elaborated on those points, supported by charts, facts and figures.
Hansen told Congress there was a 99% certainty that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, the rise in global temperature would cause a thermal expansion of the oceans and melt glaciers and polar ice, causing sea levels to rise by up to 4 feet (120 cm) by the middle of the next century. Scientists had already detected a slight rise in sea levels. Several Senators were impressed enough to call for action on a broad national and international program to slow the pace of global warming.
The concept of greenhouse gases and their effect on the Earth’s climate was not entirely new. Already in 1859, the physicist John Tyndall had demonstrated that some gases, notably water vapor, carbon dioxide, and ozone, block radiant heat, and noted that changes in the concentration of these gases could bring about climate change. But the enormity of Tyndall’s discovery was not appreciated at the time.
In 1972, the UN organized a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The “Stockholm Declaration” formulated a number of ecological principles including the conservation of natural resources and wildlife, prevention of runaway pollution including in the oceans, financial help for developing countries to safeguard the environment, and the importance of environmental education.
Late in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to prepare science-based assessments of climate change and its impacts – “Assessment Reports”. In 2007 the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Al Gore).
In 1992, the UN called an “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro to address environmental issues and sustainable development. Its “Agenda 21” was to be the blueprint for sustainability in the 21st century.
The Rio Summit created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the key international treaty to reduce global warming and cope with its consequences. The parties to the Convention meet annually in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change.
In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the period 2008–2012.
The COP21 in 2015 adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, whereby countries pledged to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C and preferably 1.5°C. Pledges are called “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDC’s).
So, how are we doing?
Well, 2017 was the third-warmest (NOAA) or second-warmest (NASA) year on record. The five warmest years in the global record have all come in the 2010s.
The level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, continues to climb. The December 2017 average concentration of CO2 measured at the NOAA Mauna Loa site in Hawaii was 406.8 parts per million (ppm), an increase of 2.4 ppm from December 2016. A reading in April 2018 showed 410 ppm. (For comparison, the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm).
What does James Hansen think, today?
Thirty years after his 1988 speech to Congress, the former Nasa scientist warns that the world is failing miserably to deal with the worsening dangers.
“All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem,” Hansen told the Guardian. “We agreed that in 1992 [in Rio] and re-agreed it again in Paris [in 2015]. We haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it.”
Hansen says that a major element of the solution lies in the imposition of a carbon tax or fee, which must keep increasing: “Emissions aren’t going to go down if the cost of fossil fuels isn’t honest.”
Successive US administrations have tried to dilute the power of the very institutions the US created to protect our environment and fight climate change. In February 2006, the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” was deleted from NASA’s mission statement.
Now the word “climate” is being removed from the NOOA mission statement.
Climate activist as well as scientist, Hansen was arrested in February 2013 for protesting the proposed construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. “We [can] go down this road of exploiting every fossil fuel we have — tar sands, tar shale, off-shore drilling in the Arctic. But the science tells us we can’t do that without creating a situation our children and grandchildren will have no control over.”
Refusing to be silenced or ignored, Dr Hansen unrelentingly assumes his role as both citizen and scientist. From a 2006 interview with the New York Times:
“It’s not our job as a scientist to determine policy but we need to provide the information so that the people who determine policy – the public and their representatives – have the full information. There’s a selection as to what will be presented, and the result of that can be unwise decisions.
“In my thirty-some years of experience in government, I’ve never seen control to the degree that it’s occurring now. I think that it’s very harmful to the way that a democracy works. We need to inform the public if they are to make the right decisions and influence policy makers.
“It’s become clear that we are nearing a tipping point of the climate system. If we don’t begin to take action within the next ten years, we will have a tipping point and there will be large consequences. What’s on the line is what we hand over to our children and grandchildren. “
James Hansen is a plaintiff along with 21 American youths who are suing their government for violating their constitutional rights to life and liberty by failing to take action against global warming. Hansen is the plaintiff representing future generations. The case is known as Juliana v. United States.
James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren (2010) explains climate change scientifically and portrays the catastrophic world our children and grandchildren will inherit if we follow the course we’re on. His new book, Sophie’s Planet: A Search for Truth About Our Remarkable Home Planet and Its Future, will be released in March 2019.