Iowa alumnus and climate activist James Hansen earns an international award.
After studying under renowned UI physicist James Van Allen in the 1960s, James Hansen went on to make his own indelible mark in the scientific world by being among the first researchers to raise a red flag about climate change.
Today, four years after retiring as the longtime director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Columbia University climate scientist and activist continues to be a leading voice for our planet’s future.
In January, Hansen, 63BA, 65MS, 67PhD, was named the winner the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award, an international honor given to those making a broad impact in science and the arts. He also recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone in which he discussed the election of Donald Trump as president, the Keystone pipeline, and the Paris Agreement.
“In the U.S., we didn’t face up to the dangers of World War II until we were forced to, and then we did a lot,” Hansen told Rolling Stone. “But in this case, it’s particularly difficult and crucial because of the inertia of the climate system and the fact that the climate system gains momentum, and you’ve gotta stop that. We’re close to that point of no return. Whether we’ve passed it or not, I don’t know.”
In 2013, Hansen retired from his post as the U.S. government’s top climate scientist and became the director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia’s Earth Institute. The program focuses on climate research and outreach designed to drive policy and market reforms.
Hansen, who grew up in Denison, Iowa, earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in Van Allen’s physics program. After leaving Iowa, he joined NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where his early career focused on studying planetary atmospheres. In the 1970s, he shifted his attention to Earth’s climate as it became clear atmospheric CO2 concentrations were on the rise and temperatures were soon to follow.
His groundbreaking paper published in Science in 1981 was the first to incorporate global data for Earth’s temperatures using a new method for processing the information from meteorological stations. It also predicted how warming would affect other processes like oceanic circulation, Arctic ice cover, and droughts and flooding.
In the 1980s, Hansen’s testimony on climate change to congressional committees helped raise awareness of global warming. The UI Alumni Association presented him with a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1991. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 and was named by Time in 2006 as one of the 100 most influential people on Earth.
In an interview for the BBVA Foundation, Hansen said the goal laid out by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to keep global warming to below 2 degree Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels is not a safe target and more dramatic action is needed.
“The last time the planet was 1-degree Celsius warmer was in the Eemian Period, the prior inter-glacial period, about 120,000 years ago,” Hansen said. “Sea level was six to nine meters higher then. If we let that happen again, we lose all coastal cities. More than half of all the large cities in the world are on coastlines. So we can’t let that happen.
“We can’t say how long that will take before it will happen, but all the evidence is that the changes that are happening on Greenland and Antarctica are happening faster and faster.”
Watch Hansen’s 2012 TED talk here: