When a scientist becomes an activist

  • Auden Schendler

 

In my office, I have a picture of a man testifying to Congress. He is haggard, with the look of someone under great strain. Behind him, engraved on the wall, is a quote from the book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

The man in the picture is NASA climatologist James Hansen, best known for bringing the danger of global climate change to the attention of the modern world in the 1980s, and widely considered the planet's leading climatologist. Hansen has just published his first book: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

As you'd expect, the book contains enough charts and graphs to choke a rhino. And there's plenty of science, lots of it illuminating, even to jaded climate geeks like me. For example: How do we predict what a world with higher CO2 concentrations would look like? Do we use computers to create climate models? That's one method, certainly. But we can find even more accurate information about what a warmed world will look like if we go back in time and rummage through the geologic record. The information we find there is extremely accurate. It shows that when it was only 1 degree celcius warmer on average than now, the seas were several feet higher. Just 1 degree makes that much difference.

The science is fascinating, especially when presented in the context of a 30-year effort to make our government understand the dire need for aggressive action. But in the end, Hansen's book is about something else. It's about how one should live a life; the book is as much about Hansen's answer to this philosophical question as it is about climate change.

Hansen is, on one hand, a remarkable man with an exceptional intellect, perhaps a once-in-a-millennium, perfectly timed comet of a person, like a Muhammad Ali or a Jonas Salk. On the other hand, he's an everyman plagued with the same traits of regret and disappointment with himself that the rest of us also share. In the 1970s, the world's greatest climate scientist once froze up while giving an overhead slide presentation and had to simply sit down, humiliated. Then, after giving a talk to the Bush-Cheney White House, he agonized about whether he should have ignored the cooling effects of aerosols because it gave Cheney an "out," enabling him and others to make the specious argument that aerosols somehow balance out the trillions of tons of CO2 emitted every year.

Whatever his demons, Hansen repeatedly forces himself to do what he believes to be the right thing. Over and over, he swears that after one last effort to connect sound science to the policy it should inform, he'll go back to the lab. Fortunately for us, he never does; his conviction overrules his reticence. This month, Hansen publicly defended Tim DeChristopher, the student who faces jail time for bidding on oil leases, without any money, to prevent drilling.

In his office, Hansen has a picture on the wall, too; it's of Jackie Robinson and the legendary 1950s Dodgers. Robinson, a hero in another monumental human struggle, is known for doing the impossible. He didn't just integrate baseball; he became famous for stealing home base -- that consummate statement of daring and confidence.

The task Hansen sets out for the reader -- and for himself -- in his book is similarly audacious: It is to take to the streets and save the planet. It's a task of limitless difficulty, because it must overcome not only human inertia but also the fat-cat special interests and our glacially slow government. Hansen correctly notes that solving climate change is about solving money in politics, and that the future of democracy depends on addressing both.

As he ends his book, Hansen tells us that he has just undergone surgery for prostate cancer. With his grandchildren, Sophie and Connor, he has also planted milkweed for monarch butterflies to nest in near his home. Working in the ancient Pennsylvania earth, accompanied by two breathing miracles of existence, Hansen must have felt the crushing beauty of the world, the weight of mortality, the brevity and preciousness of life.

Hansen could have been content with just being a scientist. He could have done his work and felt -- with justification -- that he had contributed greatly to the world. This would have freed him from the personal attacks, the stress you can see plainly in his face, and the burden of being a living Cassandra, determined to try to change a world that stubbornly refuses to listen. But Hansen elected not to do that.

He chose, instead, to be a great man.

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the sustainability director for the Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado.

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