It might be hard to imagine how James Hansen could do more to help the climate cause than he’s already done. A well-respected climate scientist, he’s been more outspoken than virtually all of his peers on the need for climate action. He first warned Congress about the threat of global warming way back in 1988, and he’s been sounding the alarm with increasing urgency ever since. During the George W. Bush administration, his outspokenness irritated his superiors, so they tried to muzzle him — an effort that backfired when Hansen went to The New York Times with the story. In 2009, he started getting arrested at climate protests, including protests against the Keystone XL pipeline.
But Hansen wants to do even more. And to do it, he’s quitting his high-profile, influential day job. He will step down tomorrow as the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies after 46 years spent working there.
[R]etirement will allow Dr. Hansen to press his cause in court. He plans to take a more active role in lawsuits challenging the federal and state governments over their failure to limit emissions, for instance, as well as in fighting the development in Canada of a particularly dirty form of oil extracted from tar sands.
“As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government,” he said in an interview.
Dr. Hansen had already become an activist in recent years, taking vacation time from NASA to appear at climate protests and allowing himself to be arrested or cited a half-dozen times.
But those activities, going well beyond the usual role of government scientists, had raised eyebrows at NASA headquarters in Washington. “It was becoming clear that there were people in NASA who would be much happier if the ‘sideshow’ would exit,” Dr. Hansen said in an e-mail.
At 72, he said, he feels a moral obligation to step up his activism in his remaining years.
“If we burn even a substantial fraction of the fossil fuels, we guarantee there’s going to be unstoppable changes” in the climate of the earth, he said. “We’re going to leave a situation for young people and future generations that they may have no way to deal with.”
“When the history of our time is written, he’s going to be one of the giants,” [350.org leader and Grist board member Bill] McKibben said in an interview. “If anyone has ever served his country well, it’s Jim Hansen, to work that long in the same shop and to do it under that kind of pressure and scrutiny, and to do it with that kind of faithfulness.”
McKibben sent an e-mail to his group’s supporters Monday night calling Hansen the “patron saint” of his organization, urging them to honor the atmospheric researcher by lobbying against the pipeline aimed at transporting crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“Here’s what I hope you’ll do: honor Jim’s lifetime of work by making a public comment to the State Department about Keystone XL and tell them to reject the pipeline,” he wrote in the e-mail.
Though he’s stepping down from NASA, don’t expect to be hearing less from Hansen. You’ll probably be hearing more.