Climate scientist has message of hope, concern

“Global warming is here. It is worse than it looks. But there is a way out,” said Dr. James Hansen addressing both his central message and the prescribed title of his talk given to a packed house at the Claremont United Methodist Church last weekend.

Dr. Hansen has been notably preaching this same message about the effects of climate change for years, and not without due authority. He serves as the director of NASA’s Goddard Space Center and is known as the nation’s top climate scientist. Despite the length of time preaching the message, Mr. Hansen maintains the same obstacle still persists.

“There is a big gap between what the scientific community understands and what the public, the people who need to know, know,” Mr. Hanson said. “It’s not obvious to the public, but we have actually reached a point that is actually a planetary emergency.”

Dr. Hansen now dedicates his time to sharing his accumulated scientific knowledge. Upwards of 300 people in Claremont answered the call, sitting in to his latest discussion informing of the extent of the global warming predicament. He was called upon by Progressive Christians’ Uniting, a collaboration of Christian Churches throughout southern California, to kick of the “Agenda for a Prophetic Faith” lecture series focusing on topics of social concern.

He began his talk presenting the basics of the current crisis, that humanity is in danger of pushing the ecosystem beyond the tipping point. There is more solar energy coming into the planet than there is heat being radiated back to space, he asserts. He describes the epidemic as a blanket enveloping the earth’s surface: “You are reducing the heat radiated to space, so you have an imbalance,” he said.

He offered proof in a recent global experiment. About 10 years ago more than 3,000 floatation devices with the ability to calculate heat were distributed across the world’s oceans, which absorbs most of the energy. Through the floating devices, which were able to dive up to 2 kilometers into the ocean, scientists calculated that the ocean is gaining heat at the rate of 3 quarters of a watt per meter square. Dr. Hansen put that in layman’s terms.

“It’s the equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, every day of the year,” he explained.

As the energy continues to be trapped within the earth’s atmosphere, the situation will only grow worse, even already has without any additional changes in the atmosphere, Dr. Hansen affirmed.

“The danger is that we can push the system beyond tipping points and lose control of the system,” he said.

While the earth is much cooler today than it was 65 million years ago, Dr. Hansen pointed out that the earth did not have the ice sheets that are in existence today, threatening to melt and bring the sea level to the point of losing much of the globe’s coastal communities. He also noted that civilization has only existed for a fraction of the earth’s existence and yet during that time humanity caused the sea level to rise drastically.

“If we want to have a planet that looks like the one today, we have to keep the temperature similar to what it’s been [during this time period] or we are going to have big changes,” Dr. Hansen said, and not because sea level will drastically change in the next 10 or even 20 years, “but on the time scale of our children’s lives it’s a totally different story.”

Despite all of this, he notes that we have burned but only a small fraction of the total fossil fuels. For Dr. Hansen, the scientific conclusion is crystal clear.

“We cannot burn all the fossil fuels without creating a different planet,” he said. “We have got to phase out coal and it makes no sense to develop unconventional oil and gas.”

He gave fracking as one such unconventional method that needs to be dismissed. Dr. Hansen arrived at the local church just a week after his arrest in Washington, DC, for protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed 1700-mile oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Texas. The protest drew between 45,000 to 50,000 demonstrators.

“There’s so much carbon in those sources, there is no way we can burn that and have any hope of stabilizing climate,” he said.

Most disturbing to Dr. Hansen is the fact that the government does not act more swiftly to reverse this. Instead, companies that use fossil fuels are given subsidies, keeping costs low and reasons to continue fossil fuel use high.

“If we could just get our governments to act in the public interest instead of special interests, the interests of a small number of people, we could actually move to a very satisfactory situation,” he said.

Dr. Hansen maintains that serving the public interest is the only way to end the problem.

“The only solution is to put a rising price on carbon to make an honest cost,” Dr. Hansen appealed to the audience. “To make them pay their cost to society…. it would provide the incentive both for people to minimize their carbon footprint, but also for entrepreneurs to develop low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources.”

The choice is ours, he says.

“We are really at a fork in the road,” Dr. Hansen said. “We either go down this path…and maintain our addiction to fossil fuels, which guarantees that our children are going to inherit a system that is out of their control. Or we can put an honest price on carbon and move to a clean energy system.”

The Agenda for a Prophetic Faith lecture series continues this Sunday, March 3, with the Reverend Romal Tune, author of God’s Graffiti: God’s Word Written on your Life, speaking on “Mass Incarceration and the Legacy of Jim Crow: The Urgent Need for a Faith Community Response.” For more information on the series, visit

—Beth Hartnett


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