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James Hansen, Global Warming, and the Bush Science Police

“In my 30 years on government, I’ve never seen control to the degree that its occurring now. I think that it is just very harmful to the way a democracy works.”
- from James Hansen’s interview with the New York Times

James Hansen, the top climate scientist with NASA, has come under intense pressure from high Bush administration officials threatening him and essentially telling him to shut up and be loyal to the President. They are demanding that he stop telling the truth about the grave dangers of global warming, and the urgent need for global action. Hansen has courageously refused to bow down to the threats and has continued to speak out.

Hansen is one of the most important climate scientists in the United States. He has played an important role in developing the scientific understanding that global warming is real and that human activity is playing a decisive role in pushing it forward. He has also been an important voice raising the question of the importance of global warming to the public and to the government - and he has clashed with previous presidential administrations over these questions. He warns of the degree of suppression of climate science under the Bush administration: “In my 30 years of experience in government, I’ve never seen control to the degree that its occurring now.”

The Bush administration has consistently denied the scientific consensus about global warming, has actively harassed, suppressed, and distorted the work of climate scientists. This is part of what can only be called its criminal role in blocking, opposing, and sabotaging all international efforts to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, including most recently doing everything they could to prevent the most recent talks in Canada this December from taking any real action.

The scientific consensus on global warming has become very clear, and Hansen is a major and articulate proponent. His talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) convention in December 2005 was part of what triggered the latest, most intense attempt by the Bush administration to muzzle him. He said near the beginning of that talk:

“I present multiple lines of evidence indicating that the Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-reaching consequences. The changes include not only loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to worldwide rising seas. Sea level will increase slowly at first, as losses at the fringes of Greenland and Antarctica due to accelerating ice streams are nearly balanced by increased snowfall and ice sheet thickening in the ice sheet interiors. But as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by melt-water as buttressing ice shelves disappear due to a warming ocean, the balance will tip toward ice loss, thus bringing multiple feedbacks into play and causing rapid disintegration. The earth’s history suggest that with warming of 2-3 degrees C the new equilibrium sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica but a portion of East Antarctica, raising sea level of the order of 25 meters (80 feet).”

In that talk he hit hard at what he called “business-as-usual” - the policy of continuing to burn ever more and more fossil fuel and taking no serious measures to even attempt to reduce the amounts of dangerous emissions. He said : “If we follow a business-as-usual scenario, we will be creating a hammer hitting the earth faster and harder than it has ever been hit. Except perhaps when the earth was hit by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.”

The “hammer” - the rise in global temperatures which is coming if the emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, are not checked - is a rise which is extremely sudden in terms of changes of this kind in the entire 4.5 billion year history of the planet. This kind of rapid change will hammer all plant and animal life, with many many species dying out, and human society would face many different kinds of disaster. Hansen argues that this decade is decisive in avoiding that kind of catastrophe - that significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions must be made now. He also makes that point that in the long run the cuts have to be really deep to stabilize the atmosphere - perhaps as much as 60-80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions..

After his speech at the AGU convention (and after the release of data by Hansen and his co-workers that indicated 2005 would probably be the hottest year since records have been kept), top NASA officials threatened “dire consequences”, “if such things come out in the future, things that they (headquarters) had not approved.” The officials said that Hansen’s supervisors could stand in for him in press interviews.

In a 1/29/06 interview with the NYT, Hansen refused to go along with the threats and intimidation by the science police. He said:
“I think what is on the line is the future of the planet, and what we hand over to our children and grandchildren. I think that’s the big issue, and as far as I’m concerned, personal effects are small in comparison to that.”

* * * * *

For James Hansen to speak out in the firm and clear way he has, in the face of intense efforts to throttle him by NASA headquarters, is very important. It makes a big difference in terms of what happens with global warming. He must be supported. And he must also be emulated. The planet is at stake, and it will make a great deal of difference if many more voices come forward to speak the truth at this critical time.

Conclusions must be drawn from all this. There is a logic operating on the part of the Bush administration. The more firmly established the science of global warming has become, the more it is clear that there is an urgent need for a global response to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the more frenzied have been the administration’s attacks and attempts to suppress the science. And the story of global warming, as important as it is, is only one piece of an overall assault on science and scientific thinking that has many critical and urgent parts: the attack on evolution, the blocking of federal funds for stem cell research, the Bush administration’s efforts to replace science with fundamentalist morality in AIDS prevention. And on and on.

This is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. The stakes are very high indeed. This must be confronted and the assault on science defeated.

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