On This Day in 1988

James Hansen blamed humans for global warming before it was popular.


20 years ago, this NASA scientist sounded the alarm on climate change in a hearing convened by then Senator Tim Wirth, now President of the United Nations Foundation. The UN Foundation today, along with Worldwatch Institute, hosted Hansen as he talked to more than 300 people at the National Press Club about that fateful summer of ’88.

Since those days, terms like “global warming” and “greenhouse gas” have made their way into everyday discussions on the topic alongside more politically charged terms like “alarmist” and “denier.” These days you would have to live on Mars to have not heard of Al Gore and his now famous slideshow, while he and the IPCC have won one of the most coveted prizes on the planet for their work on the issue. Writers and bloggers have sprung up across the world offering ideas and information on the state of climate science and policy. As an issue, it has clearly come a long way in the public consciousness over the past 20 years.

But other than the fact that Belinda Carlisle is no longer a mainstay on the charts, how much has really changed since 1988? Hansen, in an interview today with Diane Rehm, laments the overall lack of action by policymakers in the 20 years since the hearing. He notes that the debate continues to be confused by groups of what he calls “contrarians” who try to cast doubt on the science of climate change. Energy still comes predominantly from fossil fuel burning, cars continue to be the main form of transportation for most Americans, and policies to regulate carbon still can’t seem to get off the ground. In the meantime, a few of the world’s most populous countries are following development models that allow them fabulous growth at tremendous environmental expense, continually altering the composition of the atmosphere in perilous ways.

It looks like the biggest change since 1988 is the climate. Extreme weather is becoming more and more frequent and increasingly severe. Summer arctic sea ice could soon be gone. Many predictions of climate scientists have come true sooner than expected, and Hansen warns that some tipping points have already been reached, with others not far away. It is more than disconcerting that the climate is apparently changing faster than society.

It is important, however, to avoid falling into the abyss of hopelessness and despair, as there has indeed been some positive change. To begin with, most now believe that the climate is changing and that humans are responsible, and the debate has shifted toward how to manage the problem. Mitigation and adaptation solutions are weighed against one another, and scientific debates focus more on how and when the climate will change rather than whether or not it will at all. Most of those who took the “wait and see” approach have now seen. Waiting is thus no longer a reasonable option.

In the interview, Hansen offers a more or less realistic prescription for improving the state of affairs. He cites the employment of carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS) and improved agricultural techniques as good starting points for change. Not to mention the potential of renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and the myriad other ways to make energy production more sustainable.

If there is an overall lack of progress in reducing emissions, policymakers are certainly partially to blame, but the private sector has also in many cases refused to be forward-looking. My favorite point that Hansen hits on in the Diane Rehm interview is that energy companies need to become energy companies, not fossil fuel companies. That is an interesting concept that I think should be more broadly echoed. Many often bemoan “big oil” for the benefit it reaps at others’ expense, but it often goes forgotten that these are energy companies who could reap benefits from improving energy infrastructure, if only they were able to make the great leap out of the industrial revolution.

It took 20 years to conclude the debate, and there may not be another 20 years to spend figuring out how to proceed from there. Since 1988, many things once thought to be great have gone by the wayside. Like legwarmers and big hair, burning fossil fuels for energy must also become the relic of a bygone age. Besides, fossil fuels are so 19th century.