Scientist: Urgency Needed On Climate Change Action

The NASA scientist who accused agency administrators and the Bush White House of manipulating public releases of climate data to make global warming seem less severe says he is disappointed that President Obama hasn't taken more action on the issue.

James Hansen, who heads the earth sciences division of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, tells NPR's Morning Edition that "politicians now use the right words — they talk about a "planet in peril" — but their actions still consist of what he calls "greenwash."

"They basically want to continue business as usual," he says.

Hansen's remarks come as a 192-nation climate summit opens in Copenhagen. At a news conference in the Danish capital on Monday, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said the current decade is "very likely" to be the warmest since record-keeping began in 1850.

Also on Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said scientific evidence clearly shows that greenhouse gases "threaten the public health and welfare of the American people" and that the pollutants — mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — should be reduced, if not by Congress then by the agency responsible for enforcing air pollution.

Hansen, who first warned Congress about global warming in 1988, has stepped up his campaign to be heard. He has been arrested twice this year — in June in West Virginia for protesting mountaintop coal mining, and again at a climate change demonstration last month in Boston. He is the author of the book Storms of My Grandchildren: The truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

"After spending three or four years interacting with the Bush administration, I realized they were not taking any actions to deal with climate change," he says. That's when he decided he didn't want his grandchildren to say of him someday that he "understood what was happening but he didn't make it clear."

"So, I decided to give one talk, and then it snowballed into another talk and eventually to even protesting and getting arrested," he tells NPR.

But while Hansen says the change at the White House "might still be our best hope" on climate change, "we're not really seeing it."

The president, he says, is "allowing Congress to set the agenda for actions to try to deal with climate change."

He is critical of so-called "cap and trade" plans that would allow industries to continue burning fossil fuel as long as they offset their excesses by purchasing credits that go to reducing carbon emissions elsewhere.

"In practice, you'd be reducing it very little," he says.

"We already did this experiment. It was called the Kyoto Protocol," Hansen says, referring to the international climate treaty originally adopted in 1997. The U.S. failed to ratify the treaty. After Kyoto, "emissions globally actually shot up even faster," he says.

The NASA scientist says he doesn't think lowering emissions will require a radical shift in middle-class lifestyles in the U.S. and elsewhere because "energy is not the problem — it's carbon that's the problem." He says it's most important for people to get involved in the political process to push for a move to "energy systems beyond fossil fuels."

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