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Climate change not a myth, noted scientist declares

If the planet is warming up, why is North America having such cold winters — and where’s all the snow coming from?

According to an expert on global warming and climate change, there’s a perfectly logical explanation. Says Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “You shouldn’t be fooled by this weather. In fact, with global warming, we’ll get even more snow, because there’s more moisture in the atmosphere.”

Hansen spoke at Wartburg College, an ELCA school in Waverly, Iowa, last spring. His lecture capped a year of presentations in the school’s symposium series celebrating “The Year of the Liberal Arts.”

According to Hansen, too much greenhouse gas can kill you. “Venus was once an hospitable planet,” he explained. “But it got a runaway greenhouse gas effect. Now it’s a toxic planet. Its clouds are sulphuric acid.”

Hansen began speaking out on climate issues as early as the 1980s. He got a lot of blowback from detractors, including lobbyists whose clients saw that their profits would be imperiled, should people like Hansen be taken seriously. So he kept quiet until 2003. “By then I had grandchildren,” he said. “I realized the legacy we are leaving them is not going to be pretty.” So he wrote a book, Storms of My Grandchildren and went back on the speaking circuit.

A Point of No Return?

The Wartburg lecture was part of Hansen’s current effort to alert Americans to the dangers of rapidly-approaching ecological tipping points.

“There is a large gap,” Hansen says, “between what scientists know and what the public understands. We have a planetary emergency. We don’t see it because there is an ‘inertia effect.’” Simply put, he argues, changes leading to irreversible damage come so slowly, people don’t notice until it’s too late.

An example of a tipping point Hansen identifies is the disappearance of ice. “The world’s ice sheets are melting. This is caused by warming oceans. Icebergs are falling into the seas.”

The world’s big problem, he argues, is that fossil fuels are too cheap.

Another example is the accelerating extermination of species. At first, he says, animals begin to migrate to find survivable habitat. Then they begin to die off.

Wildfires in the western U.S. have increased four-fold in the past 30 years. That, he says, is not cyclical. It’s part of the new reality.

The world’s glaciers are disappearing. In 30 years Glacier National Park in Montana will need a new name. And the rivers of the world will need new water sources.

The best evidence for climate change, he says, comes from the earth’s paleoclimate history, and by looking at what’s changing now. He pointed out that we’ve had warm eons in the past. But the changes were very slow. Current human-caused warming is rapid. We may soon pass the tipping points that make human life on the planet impossible.

Hansen says the chief culprit is carbon emissions. And a significant cause is the use of coal. “Clean coal is pure mythology,” he says. “Cap and trade programs won’t work. They’re a scheme created by big banks.”

The world’s big problem, he argues, is that fossil fuels are too cheap. So, we use them. Even worse, we subsidize their use. And the industries providing them don’t pay for the damage they do to the environment.

Hansen’s solution? Put a price on carbon emissions. Do it at the source — at the mine or the source of entry. Carbon fees, he says, should be charged and provided to citizens as a dividend. “We could distribute $670 billion to citizens every year. That would be $8,000-$9,000 per family. It would stimulate the economy and would stop our addiction to fossil fuels.”

We need to make changes, and make them soon, Hansen says. “This is a problem of intergenerational justice.”

For more about James Hansen’s research, visit www.columbia.edu/~jeh1.

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