As human emissions slow-cook the world, a researcher known for his groundbreaking work on climate change is making a frankly desperate move to force the government to deal with it.
James Hansen, along with 11 co-authors, published a paper Tuesday outlining a stark picture of the situation we’ve found ourselves in:
- Our planet has now warmed about 1.25 degrees Celsius as compared to the period between 1880 and 1920.
- The last time the planet was this hot was the Eemian period 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, when glaciers melted and sea level was 20 to 30 feet higher.
- We’ve already so vastly overshot atmospheric greenhouse gas thresholds that further significant warming is pretty much inevitable.
- Though there’s an international consensus that climate change is a problem, governments are moving far too slowly and in too limited a fashion to prevent catastrophic outcomes.
The paper, still under review, doesn’t drop any bombshells. These are all things that climate scientists already know (some of which they have known for a long time). Rather, it collects and reviews all the available knowledge about climate change in one place, showing how well-documented, well-replicated, and backed up by a broad range of methods and sources each little corner of the climate picture is. Hansen and his co-authors make a point of writing in clear, digestible language so that non-experts can follow the details of the science.
The point of all this? The intellectual foundation for a quixotic federal lawsuit designed to force the government to address climate change.
Hansen, along with 21 children from across the US, filed the suit in the Oregon US District Court, claiming that in enabling climate change, the federal government “has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”
The federal government ‘has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.’
In a call with reporters Monday, Hansen said that since the White House and Congress have failed over the course of decades to meaningfully address climate change, it’s his hope that the third branch of government, the judiciary, will act.
From even a short distance, it might seem strange that a climate scientist would think the government has not acted on climate change.
True, Congress still includes many politicians who deny science.
But the US is a party to the international climate agreement reached this year in Paris. President Obama has committed to a 26% to 28% emissions reduction by 2030. One presidential candidate is somewhat out of touch with climate science, but the one most likely to win has a detailed policy proposal to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. So what gives?
The issue, Hansen et al write, is that the proposals on the table just don’t go far enough to reverse the damage that decades of political stonewalling and inaction have wrought.
If we actually want to make a difference this late in the game, they write, it’s necessary to achieve “negative” emissions by implementing measures to make fossil fuels too expensive for normal use and redevelop forests to extract carbon dioxide from the air.
Without those measures, they warn, future generations could find themselves with a bill of hundreds of trillions of dollars as coastal cities flood and it becomes necessary to build technology to extract CO2 from the air.
That’s a cost, Hansen argues in a blog post about the paper, that the present generation owes the future.
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