'Father of global warming' worries the climate young people inherit will be out of their control

James Hansen: ‘We could get multi-metre sea level rise on the timescale of 50-150 years’
Climate scientist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during a Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Dr. James Hansen has  been called the "father of global warming." He was the first scientist, back in the early eighties, to sound the alarm that the Earth's climate was warming.

In 1981, when he was the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, The New York Times published an article about Hansen's first scientific paper on the topic with the headline, "Study finds warming trend that could raise sea levels."

That's when the alarm began to ring. In 1988, it reached one of many crescendos when he testified before a US Congressional committee that global warming had begun and it was 99 per cent certain we humans and our greenhouse gases were the cause. 

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.- Dr. James Hansen testifying in front of U.S. Congress in 1988
Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen testifying in front of a congressional committee in 1988 (James Hansen / CPAC)
 Since then, Dr. Hansen's message has taken on a stark urgency, but in the face of inaction, Dr. Hansen increasingly began to take a stand as an activist against greenhouse gas emissions. He started protesting, even got himself arrested several times. 

Dr. Hansen is now the director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at the Columbia University Earth Institute where he's an adjunct professor of climate science. Bob McDonald spoke with him this week when he was in Canada for a lecture with the Royal Ontario Museum's "ROM Speaks" lecture series.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Bob McDonald: Now as I mentioned in the introduction you first alerted the world to global warming almost four decades ago. Now back when you first started, where did you think we'd be today in 2018 with regards to our fight against climate change?

Dr. James Hansen: Well I assume that as the signal observed warming came out of the noise and became obvious that we would take policy actions that are needed to address it - because you know the world had done that very well in the case of ozone depletion with the Montreal Protocol, but we have not done that in the case of greenhouse gases because it's a much bigger industry - the fossil fuel industry. 
Emissions spew from a large stack at the coal fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that it would repeal President Obama's policy on curbing greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power plants. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images )

BM: We've been hearing for a while now that we're on the tipping point. What do you see in the climate change tipping point or is there such a thing?

JH: Yeah there's a tipping point and point of no return in the sense that we can set up a system such that you've passed a point where you guarantee that things are going to happen over the next several decades. It's because of this slow response of the system, the inertia of the ocean, which you know is four kilometres deep. So it doesn't warm up quickly, but once we warm it up, it doesn't cool off quickly either, so if we start the disintegration process on the large ice sheets, then you may pass a point at which you just can't stop it.

It's because of this slow response of the system, the inertia of the ocean, which you know is four kilometres deep. So it doesn't warm up quickly, but once we warm it up, it doesn't cool off quickly either, so if we start the disintegration process on the large ice sheets, then you may pass a point at which you just can't stop it.- Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University on the climate change tipping point

BM: Well there was a recent report that our carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now the highest they've seen in the last eight hundred thousand years, so are we at that tipping point?

JH: We don't know. It's a real concern, but when you have a non-linear process where you build up a future response and then can reach a point where things happen more rapidly. That's very hard to predict.

BM: We are seeing that the trajectory here is not changing. We're still on the way up. What concerns you most when it comes to the kind of global disruptions that climate change itself could cause?

JH: I think there are two things. One is sea level, which we've talked about, because the global economy would be tremendously impacted because we have so much infrastructure right on the coastlines. So it would affect everybody, not just the cities that went underwater. But in addition, we're causing the low latitudes to become warmer. The subtropics in the summer, the Mediterranean, Middle East, is becoming almost impossible to work outdoors. And more than half of the jobs are outdoors, either agriculture or construction. And the tropics are becoming uncomfortably warm in all seasons. So it's going to increase the pressure for migration out of those regions.

"We argue in that paper that we could get multi-metres sea level rise on the timescale of 50 to 150 years. To people in the street, they may say, 'Oh, you're talking about something far in the future,' but that's in the lifetime of young people today. So we don't want to hand a climate system to young people, which will then be out of their control," says Dr. Hansen about his 2016 paper in the journal Atmospheric, Chemistry, and Physics

Climate expert and activist James Hansen and his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan, who is among 21 young plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit Juliana vs. U.S. Government, speak at a press conference at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 6, 2017. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BM: How big of a problem do you think that'll be?

JH: That depends. We're still at a point where we could deal with this problem, but only if we begin to make the price of fossil fuels honest, so that we begin to move to clean energies, but we're not doing that. We just have governments talking about, 'Oh, they'll have some goal for the future,' but that doesn't do anything. As long as fossil fuels seem to be the cheapest energy to the public, they will keep using them. 

We're still at a point where we could deal with this problem, but only if we begin to make the price of fossil fuels honest.- Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University 

BM: OK, so other than increase the cost of fossil fuels, what else needs to be done to turn around the climate change problem?

JH: Well, we do have to encourage the technologies that are needed for clean energy. And frankly, to go to carbon-free electricity, I think most nations will probably need to use next-generation safe nuclear power. And that's one place where Canada just might be able to be a leader because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Canada is much more sensible than in the United States where it's become a political operation, which basically prevents the construction of any new nuclear power plants.
Climate scientist James Hansen says we need nuclear energy to ween ourselves off carbon energy sources until we can fully transition to renewable energy. (RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)

BM: Well there's a public fear of nuclear.

JH: Yeah and it's unfortunately largely irrational. If you compare, you know, every day more than 10,000 people are dying from pollution from fossil fuels. That's more in one day, than have died from nuclear radiation in the history of nuclear power.

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