'Father of global warming' worries the climate young people inherit will be out of their control
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
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?
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.
- Trump is losing the 'war on coal' to the free market
- What happens when you warm the Antarctic seabed by 1 degree
- The Great Barrier Reef sounds sick, so baby fishes aren't attracted to it
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
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?
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.
To listen to the entire interview, scroll to the top and click on "listen"