It is with a mix of emotions that I read this week about the retirement of Dr. James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. Hansen has been an incredible leader within the government on climate change, and you really can’t say that about too many folks in the federal government these days. A brilliant climatologist and an outspoken critic of his own employer’s lack of movement on responding to climate change, Dr. Hansen has brought a very important and knowledgeable voice that has never shrunk from vocalizing what he sees as the utmost need for an urgent and meaningful response to climate change at the federal level. He has been willing to take this fight very personally, including his arrest a half-dozen times for participation in nonviolent protests to demand climate change action. His departure will certainly leave a hole in NASA’s leadership on climate science that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to fill.
However, Dr. Hansen’s retirement affords him the opportunity to be a more outspoken critic, including participating in suits against the government which formerly employed him to force the issue of meaningful climate change legislation, and lobbying European leaders to impose a tax on tar sands oil.
There are plenty of outspoken critics of Dr. Hansen, unsurprisingly, and some of the criticisms have some traction; some of his statements and claims about the immediacy and severity of climate change have been hyperbolic, and sometimes he has seemed to step out with pronouncements on the climate trajectory in front of the data needed to support his claims. However, as a planetary scientist at the University of Chicago said of him, ” “Jim has a real track record of being right before you can actually prove he’s right with statistics”.
My other gripe with Hansen is his unfettered admiration for nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. A recent article he published touts that millions of lives have been saved by the use of nuclear rather than fossil fuels, by avoiding the air pollution and resulting health damage and deaths. I grant you, from a carbon and immediate air pollution standpoint, nuclear looks a heck of a lot better than fossil fuels. But nobody has yet come up with a satisfying solution as to where in god’s name we are putting our spent nuclear fuel, and our current track record (Hanford, anyone?) ain’t good. We can argue all we want about the low rates of death from nuclear accidents to date, including Chernobyl, Fukushima, and 3-mile Island, but a) all it takes is one massive accident to change this statistic and b) that argument doesn’t account for all long-term damage done not only to human health but to the rest of the environment from these disasters, which to a great extent we have done a terrible job quantifying. I find this viewpoint myopic; small-scale nuclear is always likely to be some part of the global energy mix, but it is not a panacea and its not something I’d like to see us optimistically embrace without recognizing the real dangers of its use and our inability to find an appropriate way to deal with its waste.
All this being said, Dr. Hansen’s early entrance and long-term commitment to spreading the word about the urgency of responding to climate change is impressive and praiseworthy. I am very excited to see where he takes this activism and voice of concern in the next phase of his life. If you want to follow Dr. Hansen’s ongoing efforts, you can go hang out with him on facebook here.