Activist Profile – James Hansen

Authored by: Hans Baer

Routledge Handbook of the Climate Change Movement

Print publication date:  December  2013
Online publication date:  January  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415839259
eBook ISBN: 9780203773536
Adobe ISBN: 9781135038878


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Like the social sciences, Steven Vanderheiden (2008) observes, climatology has the potential to serve as a form of social critique instead of acting largely as a descriptive endeavor. Indeed, various climate scientists, such as James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, based in New York, and David Karoly at the University of Melbourne, have become vocal climate activists. The summer of 1988 witnessed a series of record-breaking heat-waves and droughts in many US regions. In response, congressional hearings on planetary issues were held in Washington, DC, which propelled Hansen into the national limelight when he testified, along with other scientists, that a century-long trend of global warming had resumed after a period of leveling off during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s (Stevens 1999: 131). At the hearings, Hansen stated “with 99 percent confidence” that the planet was undergoing a significant and long-term warming trend and suggested that the greenhouse effect was the culprit (quoted in Weart 2003: 155). These developments prompted the environmental movement, which until then had only expressed passing concern about climate change, to take a closer notice and ultimately to engage in greater action. More recently, Hansen (2007a) has predicted the possibility of disintegration of West Antarctica and/or Greenland ice sheets in a “rapid, non-linear fashion,” resulting in a “rise of seal level of more than 5 meters (14.4 ft) by 2095.” He also argued in 2007 that increases above 1.7°C would be “highly disruptive,” therefore humanity needs to reduce atmospheric CO2 below 390–350 ppm to avoid irrevocable damage to human societies and the planet.

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