The Courage to Fight Climate Change

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Added by June 5, 2013

The Nation: James Hansen bravely told the truth even when the Bush administration tried to silence and penalize him.

The annual Ridenhour Prizes, which memorialize the spirit of whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour, recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. (For more on the prizes, which are awarded annually by the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, go to ridenhour.org.) This year’s Courage Prize went to James Hansen, who as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies bravely told the truth about climate change even when the Bush administration tried to silence and penalize him. Introducing Hansen at the awards ceremony in Washington, DC, was Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and founding editor of ClimateProgress.org. Their speeches are printed below.
Introduction by Joseph Romm 

Dr. James Hansen is being honored today in part because he told Congress: “The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.”

The courageous part isn’t what he said, it’s when he said it—twenty-five years ago, during the sweltering summer of 1988. It was the first high-profile public statement by a US government scientist alerting the country to this grave threat.

Jim embodies the Ridenhour Courage Prize. When he was still NASA’s top climate scientist, he blew the whistle on government efforts to silence him—and others—on climate change. Jim is a modern-day Paul Revere…if Paul Revere’s midnight ride had taken place in 1750 and the message was, “The British are coming, the British are coming—in twenty-five years.”

Yes, climate change is a challenging story to tell. And Jim has actually been telling it publicly since 1981, when he published his first warning that led to a major New York Times story, headlined “Study Finds Warming Trend That Could Raise Sea Levels.”

And yet carbon pollution has kept rising. We live in a spineless world, where being scientifically right for over thirty years gives you no more credit with the national media than being a professional disinformer funded by the fossil fuel industry.

How spineless is this world? If a doctor used the best
science to diagnose a smoker as having early-stage emphysema and the doctor did not urge the patient to quit cigarettes, he’d be charged with malpractice. But if a climatologist uses the best science to diagnose an entire planet as having early-stage climate change, and he urges the world to start quitting fossil fuels, well, then he is labeled an alarmist by industry-backed groups.

The truth is that we should all be alarmed by this great moral crisis of our time. By destroying a livable climate, we are stealing the future from our children and grandchildren and countless future generations.

To save this spineless world from itself, supplying the truth isn’t enough. You need to supply the spine, too. You need to be courageous. And so Jim has been forced by the times—and by his moral convictions—to become an activist.

There is a saying that applies to Jim: “One man with courage makes a majority.” How many scientists have spawned an entire movement?

Five years ago, Jim explained that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” we need to return carbon dioxide levels back to 350 parts per million. That led to Bill McKibben founding the group 350.org.

Then Jim said that burning the tar sands would be “game over for the climate”—and that led to the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and the biggest protests and civil disobedience the climate movement had ever seen.

And because Jim has the courage of his convictions, he has had the courage to be convicted himself—he’s been arrested five times at peaceful protests.

Fifty years ago, another great moral crusader was arrested for protesting—and he wrote a letter from his jail cell in Birmingham explaining why. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. on April 16, 1963. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Now more than ever, we are tied in a single garment of destiny, cloaked as a species in a protective climate that we are in the process of unraveling. And so the need for activism, the need for courage, the need to speak out, is as great as ever. As King put it, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

It is my singular honor to give you a man who will not have to repent, a man for all seasons, literally—the winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Courage Prize, Dr. James Hansen.

* * *

Thanks, Joe, for your kind words and especially for the huge amount of important and effective work that you have done in informing the public about climate change. And thanks to the Ridenhour organization for their persistence in offering me this prestigious award.

I would like to use my several minutes here to summarize the truth about our current predicament with human-made climate change and the opportunity that this presents for dealing with fundamental problems faced by people in the United States and the rest of the world.

I must emphasize the threat posed by our current energy pathway and the fact that we are rapidly running out of time for changing our course. Yet I should emphasize equally that a sensible course toward abundant clean energy is not only possible, but could yield stronger economies with more equitable opportunities for all. Such a course is needed if we are to preserve and enjoy the remarkable life on our planet.

The carbon dioxide, CO2, that we put in the air by burning fossil fuels will stay in the climate system for millennia. We have only felt part of the climate response from the CO2already in the air—the climate responding only slowly because of the great inertia of the massive global ocean and ice sheets.

The irrefutable scientific conclusion is that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without handing our children, grandchildren and future generations a situation that is out of their control, with enormous consequences for their well-being and for the very existence of many of the other species on our planet. We must leave most of the remaining coal in the ground, as well as the carbon-intensive, highly polluting unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and tar shale.

The task of leaving these dirty fuels in the ground and moving on to a bright future for today’s young people cannot be accomplished by trickery and gimmicks, such as carbon cap-and-trade and offsets, with their inevitable horse-trading and lobbying.

We must have a simple, honest, across-the-board carbon fee collected from the fossil fuel companies at the small number of domestic mines and ports of entry. All of that money should be distributed to the public—100 percent of it—with equal amounts going to all legal residents. The fee must continue to rise gradually, so the public, businesses and entrepreneurs have the incentive to make choices and develop products that reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel use.

This will stimulate the economy as we develop more carbon-efficient products and energy sources. About 60 percent of the people will get more money in their monthly dividend than they pay in increased prices, but to stay on the positive side, they must make wise choices. Yes, this implies some wealth redistribution. Low-income people, if they try, can gain somewhat. Rich people who have multiple houses and fly around the world will pay more than they receive in their dividend, but they can afford it.

This approach can be made international via an agreement between the United States and China. China has many reasons to join, as climate disruption will hit the Chinese hard, and they need to solve their severe pollution problems. Other nations will then join in order to avoid border duties on their products and in order to gain the clean energy benefits.

The United States must exercise leadership. This is the last chance for the liberal left and the conservative right to cooperate for the good of the nation and the world, for the good of young people, future generations and nature.

What I have described is a progressive conservative approach. It puts an honest price on fossil fuels, making them pay their costs to society. It allows all alternatives to compete on a level playing field.

We must demand that the liberal left keep their hands off of our wallets. Not one dime of the carbon fee should be used to make the government bigger. One hundred percent of the money must go to the public. Nor should any of this money be used for subsidizing research on specific government-selected industries. The government is not competent to choose the best technologies—let them all compete. There are existing government resources and departments for research, development and demonstration, which can assist early development of candidate technologies.

The public is fed up with self-indulgent partisanship. If today’s parties cannot cooperate on such a simple, honest approach that would stimulate our economy, provide millions of good jobs, a clean environment and a stable climate, then in 2016 there should be a new party—not a fringe party on the left or right, but a centrist party, an American Party, a party that will take Washington back from the lobbyists and give it to the American people.

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