James Hansen on the “Young People’s Burden” of climate change (video)

  • Published on September 6th, 2017

James Hansen is the former NASA scientist who has been trying for years to make the citizens of the world aware of the imminent danger posed by climate change and global warming. Along with Michael Mann and Bill McKibben, he is one of the leaders of the climate change movement who has been assigned “watchers” by climate denial groups to harass, intimidate, and deter him from his self appointed task of being the canary in the coal mine.

By Steve Hanley 

Hansen is intimately involved with Our Children’s Trust, the group sponsoring a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to hold the federal government responsible for the effects of climate change. The suit puts forward the novel theory that young people are guaranteed a non-toxic environment that is fit for human habitation as part of all that “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” stuff the Founding Fathers baked into the US Constitution.

Every fossil fuel interest in America has joined forces to oppose that legal action, but it has survived the toughest challenges the highest paid lawyers in the world could muster against it and is now scheduled to proceed to trial early in 2018. The suit is predicated on meeting the intent of the 2015 Paris climate agreement and keep global average temperatures at or below 1.5º Celsius.

In a new paper published in July of this year, Hansen says that because of continued inaction since the Paris agreement was reached, limiting carbon emissions will no longer be enough. Now, he says, active measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will be required. Those measures will be staggeringly expensive, placing an impossible burden on the shoulders of young people and human beings as yet unborn to clean up the mess their forebears created — knowingly and willingly, according to Hansen.

Hansen’s latest paper on the subject has been published by the journal Earth System Dynamics. In it, he makes three main points:

Global warming in the past 50 years has raised global temperature (Fig. 1) well above the prior range in the Holocene (the current interglacial period, approximately the past 11,700 years) to the level of the Eemian period (130,000 to 115,000 years ago), when sea level was 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) higher than today.

James Hansen climate change 1

Fig. 1. Centennially smoothed Holocene temperature (Marcott et al., 2013) and ll-year running mean of modern temperature (Fig. 2 in our paper) as anomalies relative to 1880-1920.

Global warming can be held below 1.5°C (the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement) if rapid reductions of global CO2 emission (at least 3%/year) begin by 2021 and if there is no net growth of other climate forcings (Fig. 2). However, 1.5°C global warming exceeds estimated Eemian temperature and is not an appropriate goal.

Fig. 2. Observed global temperature and simulated temperature for four alternative fossil fuel emission growth rates. Temperature zero-point is the 1880-1920 mean temperature. Gray area is the 2σ (95% confidence) range for centennially smoothed Holocene maximum.

The growth rate of greenhouse gas climate forcing has accelerated markedly in the past several years (Fig. 3), a conclusion starkly at odds with the common narrative that the world has recently turned the corner toward a solution of the global warming problem.

Hansen concludes,

“An appropriate goal is to return global temperature to the Holocene range within a century. Such a goal was still achievable in 2013 if rapid emission reductions had begun at that time and if there were a global program for reforestation and improved agricultural and forestry practices. Now climate restoration this century would also require substantial technological extraction of CO2 from the air. If rapid emission reductions do not begin soon, the burden placed on young people to extract CO2 emitted by prior generations may become implausibly difficult and costly.”

Watch as he and his granddaughter, who is one of the young plaintiffs in the federal case, Juliana Vs. US., make their case on the accompanying video.

Check out our new 93-page EV report

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.