James Hansen, who gave a climate warning in 1988 Senate testimony, says real hoax is by leaders claiming to take action
Oliver MilmanTue 19 Jun 2018 06.00 BST
James Hansen: ‘All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian
Thirty years after a former Nasa scientist sounded the alarm for the general public about climate change and human activity, the expert issued a fresh warning that the world is failing “miserably” to deal with the worsening dangers.
While Donald Trump and many conservatives like to argue that climate change is a hoax, James Hansen, the 77-year-old former Nasa climate scientist, said in an interview at his home in New York that the relevant hoax today is perpetrated by those leaders claiming to be addressing the problem.
Hansen provided what’s considered the first warning to a mass audience about global warming when, in 1988, he told a US congressional hearing he could declare “with 99% confidence” that a recent sharp rise in temperatures was a result of human activity.
Since this time, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have mushroomed despite repeated, increasingly frantic warnings about civilization-shaking catastrophe, from scientists amassing reams of evidence in Hansen’s wake.
“All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem,” Hansen told the Guardian. “We agreed that in 1992 [at the Earth summit in Rio] and re-agreed it again in Paris [at the 2015 climate accord]. We haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it. Promises like Paris don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s.”
Hansen’s long list of culprits for this inertia are both familiar – the nefarious lobbying of the fossil fuel industry – and surprising. Jerry Brown, the progressive governor of California, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, are “both pretending to be solving the problem” while being unambitious and shunning low-carbon nuclear power, Hansen argues.
There is particular scorn for Barack Obama. Hansen says in a scathing upcoming book that the former president “failed miserably” on climate change and oversaw policies that were “late, ineffectual and partisan”.
Hansen even accuses Obama of passing up the opportunity to thwart Donald Trump’s destruction of US climate action, by declining to settle a lawsuit the scientist, his granddaughter and 20 other young people are waging against the government, accusing it of unconstitutionally causing peril to their living environment.
“Near the end of his administration the US said it would reduce emissions 80% by 2050,” Hansen said.
“Our lawsuit demands a reduction of 6% a year so I thought, ‘That’s close enough, let’s settle the lawsuit.’ We got through to Obama’s office but he decided against it. It was a tremendous opportunity. This was after Trump’s election, so if we’d settled it quickly the US legally wouldn’t be able to do the absurd things Trump is doing now by opening up all sorts of fossil fuel sources.”
Hansen’s frustrations temper any satisfaction at largely being vindicated for his testimony, delivered to lawmakers on 23 June 1988.
Wearing a cream-coloured suit, the soft-spoken son of Iowan tenant farmers hunched over the microphone in Washington to explain that humans had entered a confronting new era. “The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now,” he said.
Afterwards, Hansen told reporters: “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” He brandished new research that forecast that 1988 was set to be the warmest year on record, as well as projections for future heat under three different emissions scenarios. The world has dutifully followed Hansen’s “scenario B” – we are “smack on it” it, Hansen said last week – with global temperatures jumping by around 1C (1.8F) over the past century.
These findings hadn’t occurred in a vacuum, of course – the Irish physicist John Tyndall confirmed that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas in the 1850s. A 1985 scientific conference in Villach, Austria, concluded the temperature rise in the 21st century would be “greater than in any man’s history”. The changes in motion would “affect life on Earth for centuries to come”, the New York Times warned the morning after Hansen’s testimony.