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Why Jim Hansen Stopped Being a Government Scientist [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Why did James Hansen retire on April 2 after 32 years as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies? As he told the enterprising students of Columbia University’s Sustainability Media Lab who captured him in the following video, “I want to devote full time to trying to help the public understand the urgency of addressing climate change.”

It’s not exactly the “spend more time with my family” excuse often give by retiring government officials, but his family is nonetheless the reason for this change. He’s worried about preventing “climate chaos” and instead preserving the relatively stable climate of the past 10,000 years—when human civilization developed and flourished—for his five grandchildren.

That means full-time activism for the 72-year-old, and perhaps the risk of getting arrested at more coal-mine or tar-sand protests. “We can’t burn all the fossil fuels without guaranteeing that young people and future generations are going to suffer the consequences of that,” Hansen noted in the video of our loading of what he calls the “climate dice.” “We don’t make [the fossil fuel companies] pay for the climate impacts, which are already significant. The taxpayer picks up these costs or just the public. If you get asthma from air pollution, you pay the health cost, not the fossil fuel company.”

His preferred solution? A cap-and-dividend system in which a price is put on any carbon-based fuel and the revenues collected are distributed to every taxpayer to offset increasing energy costs. After decades spent trying to move society as a scientist—including the first testimony to the U.S. Congress urging action on global warming in 1988—he will now focus on educating and influencing the public and policy leaders as an activist.

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. G. Karst 5:06 pm 04/12/2013

    So it had nothing to do with the fact that James Hansen has been spending too much time in jail. Nor was it embarrassing to have a political activist as head of an important position, which was NOT supposed to be political. So glad we cleared that up. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. GK

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  2. 2. K.D. Koratsky 5:49 pm 04/12/2013

    This once again proves how ideology trumps all else–including the pursuits of most scientists. Climate Change is merely an excuse by which to push through more redistribution in the name of Climate Justice specifically or Social Justice generally.

    K.D. Koratsky, author if Living With Evolution or Dying Without It: A Guide to Understanding Humanity’s Past, Present, and Future.

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  3. 3. tsunami78 5:56 pm 04/12/2013

    So a cap and dividend plan in which the energy companies pay into a fund that pays consumers to pay the energy companies as they pass on the cost of the cap and dividend plan? I don’t see how that gets us anywhere…

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  4. 4. Geologon 6:13 pm 04/12/2013

    I don´t like this guy. We never hear him talk about science. He is always in the anthropocentrist carbocentric climate alarmism letany, while an institution like NASA should be more into speaking about things like space climate (sun cycles, cosmic radiation cycles, etc.). This guy has only one thing in his mind: money. We scientists have only one thing in our mind: truth. Preachers are not welcome in science.

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  5. 5. Carlyle 6:15 pm 04/12/2013

    Well this has been tried in Australia, against the wishes of the Australian people. The Socialist Government has spent much more than they have received trying to buy voters off. there will be federal elections on 14th Sep. We have compulsory voting in Australia. All the polls indicate a historic wipe out. There are other incompetency issues of course, but they have not been ahead in the polls since just after they introduced the carbon tax. With this result in mind, won’t it be wonderful if Obama follows his good friend Julia Gillard & introducing a carbon tax without taking it to the electorate?

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  6. 6. Shoshin 6:37 pm 04/12/2013

    Who gets the vig on the climate tax? Surely it doesn’t hand itself out. In Canada, the government sanctioned but eco-loon run Pacific Carbon Trust takes 100% of all carbon taxes from gasoline (40 cents a gallon) plus money from schools and hospitals and distributes it to…. well… no one really knows where. The Auditor General has asked for an accounting and they told him to bugger off and mind his own business.

    When the AG again asked for clarification, the eco-loons began a letter writing campaign to get him fired. The eco-loons feel that it is now THEIR money, not taxpayer $$. Sounds like an Bernie Madoff/ENRON scandal in the making.

    Why is it that we never hear of Deniers stealing money from greenie programs?

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  7. 7. N a g n o s t i c 7:08 pm 04/12/2013

    The petrol-burning bus traveling away from the scene had absolutely nothing to do with it.

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  8. 8. singing flea 7:37 pm 04/12/2013

    “So it had nothing to do with the fact that James Hansen has been spending too much time in jail. Nor was it embarrassing to have a political activist as head of an important position, which was NOT supposed to be political.”

    I see you still can’t see the forest because the trees are in the way, GK. Of course people who have a vested interest in the energy industry would never be prejudiced, Yea?

    I think the real facts here have a lot more to do with the energy industries influence in the government and their attempts to silence Henson because he was a top NASA official and knew the level of obfuscation and skulduggery that they are trying to shove down our collective throats.

    The fact is; G. Karst has always been a shill for whatever corporation he has invested stock in. People with no dog in the fight don’t need to root for one that defies all logic.

    Jim Hanson spent no more then a few hours in jail as part of a peaceful protest that was bullied by proponents of the proposed Keystone pipeline. He was following his convictions about a subject he knows one heck of a lot more about then then some of the know-it-alls on this forum.

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  9. 9. squidboy6 7:52 pm 04/12/2013

    Mr. Hansen will become more effective as a spokesperson for carbon taxes and a voice more often heard now that he is leaving the government. He will no longer be constrained by troglodytes in business and dinosaurs online, especially from paid-to-create-propaganda reptiles.

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  10. 10. dubay.denis 10:55 pm 04/12/2013

    I just hope you all live long enough to be ashamed of yourselves.

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  11. 11. littleredtop 11:51 pm 04/12/2013

    This old guy is only looking for the publicity and the financial gains that could come from his celebrity status. He, of all people, is well aware that man’s supposed influence on global warming is a hoax. One need not look any further than our sun to ascertain the true cause of our gradually warming planet.

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  12. 12. Fredrik_Fyhr 12:34 pm 04/13/2013

    James Hansen worked for NASA when it still had the “protect the planet” in it’s description of responsibilities. That was later removed. Reasons for this removal we can ofcourse speculate in but clear is that political forces did not appriciate NASA stand on the problem cumulative increase of GHG’s in the athmosphere. No one has better knowledge in the physics behind global warming than Hansen, he studied athmospheric physics already in the 70ties. That he is concerned should be a very clear warning sign foe everybody. I understand from the previous posts that a lot of people been influenced by the fossil lobby propaganda (unknowingly ofcourse) if you know the basics of earth climate mechanisms you are conserned, it’s only the ignorant that feel safe.

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  13. 13. Fredrik_Fyhr 12:49 pm 04/13/2013

    @ littleredtop

    The fossil lobby myth “It’s the sun” is from a few basic physical laws easily ruled out.

    If the athosphere were warmed from the sun (either by cosmic rays or increased energy output) It would leave it’s fingerprint of warming. For instance would the athosphere warm more at the equator than the poles, the opposite is what we measure (finger print of warming caused by warming from increased amount of GHGs). The upper layers of the atmosphere would also increase in heat if it was the sun, The opposite is what we measure. the upper layers of the atmosphere is cooling, yet another fingerprint of warming caused by increase of GHG’s. Further if the sun was the culprit it had been possible to find the correlation between solar activities and the warming trend, currently there is no correlation between the sun and warming trend, again very clear correlation is found between GHG’s and trend in warming. If you are a climatologists you can go on and on with these evidence as AGW has been shown from so many different diciplines of science. So it’s not surprising there is a scientiffic consensus. What is surprising that so many is so easily fooled by all “it’s the sun” myths floating around on the internet. Check the facts and who is saying what next time littleredtop a rule of thumb is not to trust “information” emanuating from think tanks as cato institute or Heartland institute. If you do not know where your information comes from well.. Then it’s simply not worth trusting at all.

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  14. 14. sethdiyal 1:26 pm 04/13/2013

    He produced a study peer reviewed and published in reputable journal showing nuke power saved several million lives.

    After intense lobbying from his Big Oil/Coal backers, Obama gave him ten minutes to resign before being fired.

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  15. 15. scientific earthling 7:55 pm 04/13/2013

    Carlyle: Julia Gillard’s loss of traction with the voters is more to do with religion than anything else. Her ever effort to do anything is being undermined by proxies of the churches in parliament and the administrative services.

    The church in Oz has lost the people, to maintain their power, they arrange for their proxies to run for parliament and work in administration. In the liberal party ‘The Lyons Forum” led by Tony Abbot represents the church, in Labour they have no such sub-group, but Kevin Rudd spoke to the nation every week-end from the pews of his church & the recent shanghais reflects the religious end of town.

    The church stands to loose about 31.1 billion in taxpayer funding. Reference: Australian Humanist 93 – Autumn 2009 page 6-8.

    There is more to Julia’s perceived incompetence than meets the eye. Remember Tony did not sign the law permitting the sale of the morning after pill after it had passed all legislative hurdles for 3 years, because of his religious beliefs. When religion interferes with a man doing his duty, he should be punished (as should Muslim priest who conduct under-age marriages). Dozens of mainly Catholic girls committed suicide after getting pregnant during this period. Good for population control in an extremely overpopulated world, but there are better ways to achieve this, not Pope Tony’s misogyny.

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  16. 16. Carlyle 5:22 pm 04/14/2013

    What she needs is a miracle then. Latest poll 29% & going down. Sure it is religion that is destroying her. Her AGW religion.

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  17. 17. infomebaby 2:05 pm 04/19/2013

    So from 1991-1993, where he managed to up the NASA Budget from the government back up to 1%, then let it drop and almost close down, getting neat looking Mars picks, repairing the space station….what exactly did he do in 32 years? They should hold terms nonrenewable after 8 years for this management. Too bad we don’t have enough management friendly scientists.

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  18. 18. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 6:44 pm 04/19/2013

    Ah…my nemesis, G. Karst, has returned! *strokes fluffy white cat*

    I am officially sick and tired of the sheer troll density on this site. I calculate that the troll:nontroll ratio of the comments on this post is considerably higher than 5:1. This is wrong, people. So wrong.

    This resource contains point-by-point refutations of all denialist points, which is useful because my time is too valuable to waste arguing with paid trolls 24/7.
    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Global_warming

    Thank you and leave the poor SciAm team in peace.

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  19. 19. Mark656515 8:17 pm 04/22/2013

    Money and stabilitywise, he would be far more confortable in his not-bad-at-all job. This is a man who will take disconfort and a smaller income for the well-being of mankind.

    My tribute to him. Hansen rocks!

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