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Monday, April 7, 2008

NASA scientist James Hansen presses U.S. on climate

Climatologist 1 of 4 Common Wealth Award winners

by Cris Barrish, The News Journal, April 6, 2008

WILMINGTON -- To stem the spread of global warming, the public must pressure governments and power companies to stop the construction of coal-fired plants that don't capture pollutants, one of the nation's leading climate scientists urged Saturday night.

"Politicians just don't seem to get it,'' said James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, before accepting a Common Wealth Award at the Hotel du Pont. "But we've got to get on a different path in the next couple of years."

Hansen, who has been sounding a clarion call on global warming for more than a generation, joined three other winners -- actress Glenn Close, NBC's Today show anchor Ann Curry, and former Australia Prime Minister John Howard [BLOGGER'S NOTE: OK, this is weird, i.e., having James Hansen share an award with John Howard; maybe Howard has finally come round] -- at the gala awards ceremony.

The four shared a $200,000 prize presented by PNC Bank, Delaware, which administers a philanthropic trust that recognizes outstanding achievement in science, dramatic arts, mass communications and government.

In a report he finished last week and is submitting to Science magazine, Hansen said he calls for an immediate moratorium on building coal-fired plants and phasing out existing ones as a critical step to halting the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that Hansen and other scientists blame in large part on the rise in the temperatures worldwide. Currently, he said, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at 385 parts per million and rising because of poor environmental practices.

The crisis is accelerating, and there is international disappointment that America, one of the leading emitters of carbon dioxide, has dragged in addressing global warming, said Hansen, who has often clashed with the White House over his views.

"The United States has not exercised the leadership that is needed to solve the problem," Hansen said. "But there's a recognition that you can't give up on the United States. It has to happen very soon, though, or it may be too late to avoid tipping points in the climate system that have major repercussions for humanity and a large number of sections of the planet."

Those consequences, Hansen said, are being felt already, with the melting of large parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets setting the stage for sea level to start rising around the world.

"More than half the cities in the world are located near a coastline," he said. "More than 1 billion people live within a 25-meter elevation of sea level."

Much attention has been focused on pollution, smog and carbon dioxide releases in China, host of this summer's Olympic Games, but the West is responsible for the bulk of excess emissions, he said.

"We are several times more responsible than they are,'' Hansen said. "Unless we begin to take steps ourselves, we can't reasonably expect them to respond in a positive way to reduce their emissions.''

Hansen isn't entirely pessimistic. As America prepares to elect a new president in November, he said, "both political parties recognize the problem much more than the current administration does.''

But his hope is tempered with the wisdom gained by observing political reality for decades.

"You still have to get change through Congress and Congress is influenced by the fossil fuel industry,'' the scientist said. "Everybody's about trying to influence the political process and people with a lot of money are sometimes effective."

Hansen believes the price of inaction would be devastating.

"The scary thing is that we build in future change without seeing it until much later," Hansen said.

"Right now we're getting the fruits of the fossil fuel energy yet leaving the problem for the next several decades for our children and grandchildren. That needs to be understood."

Contact senior reporter Cris Barrish at 324-2785 or

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