NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen Makes Personal Appeal to Barack Obama: Says Current Climate Policies Are “Failing”

James and Anniek Hansen offer personal plea for Obama on the urgent need to adequately address climate changeProfessor James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading advocate of action on global warming since his first congressional hearing on the subject in the 1980’s, has sent a personal plea to president-elect Barack Obama of the urgent need to come to grips with climate change, warning that prevailing strategies to address global warming simply are not up to the task.

In the letter, Hansen writes of a “profound disconnect” between current public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem based on scientific understanding and empirical evidence. Hansen particularly cites the international strategy of meeting targets through “cap and trade” schemes as woefully insufficient in dealing with the problem.

This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity”, wrote Hansen and his wife, Anniek, who co-wrote the letter with her husband.

In the letter to the Obamas and the cover letter to John Holdren, the president-elect’s recent pick as White House Science Advisor, Hansen stresses three principal strategic areas in which he urges Obama take swift and bold action:


  • Coal

    The critical need to cut off the coal source soon must be recognized. I was surprised that in 90 minutes I could not get the German Environmental Minister to understand that their proposed “carbon cap” would not allow them to build 20 more coal-fired power plants. I kept saying “if you burn more coal you must convince Russia to leave its oil in the ground” and he would say “we will tighten the carbon cap”. Japan thinks that it did fine in meeting its Kyoto obligations, even though its coal use and CO2 emissions increased. [Japan used Kyoto-allowed escape hatches. The Earth has no escape hatch.]”

  • Carbon tax

    A carbon tax (across all fossil fuels at their source) is essential, I believe, for effectiveness. Any less comprehensive cap will reduce the price of the fuel for any other uses.
    A rising tax (with all the other needed measures such as building codes, vehicle efficiencies, renewable energies…) will help constrain demand for the fuel. When gasoline hits $4-5/gallon again, most of that should be tax staying in the country and returned as dividend, providing the consumer the means to purchase more efficient products and incentive for entrepreneurs to develop them. A rising tax will help keep the price paid for the oil itself (or other fossil fuel) lower, thus making it unprofitable to go to the most extreme places on the planet to extract the last drop of oil. Instead we can move on sooner to the energies of the post-fossil-fuel-era.
    A carbon cap that makes one more stinking millionaire on the backs of the public is going to infuriate the public. Me too. There is no need to support lobbyists, traders, and special interests. The tax should be proportional to the carbon amount and the dividend calculation
    will only require long division, which even a civil servant can do. 100% of the tax should go into the dividends. However, if some countries do not apply an equivalent tax, a duty should be collected on fossil-fuel dependent products imported from that country. Such import duties might be used, in part, to finance reforestation, climate adaptation, or other climate or energy related needs.”


  • Nuclear power

    Nuclear power: it would be great if energy efficiency, renewable energies, and and improved (“smart”) electric grid could satisfy all energy needs. However, the future of our children should not rest on that gamble. The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear “environmentalists” could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on.
    That is a prescription for disaster.

    There is no need for a decision to deploy nuclear power on a large scale. What is needed is rapid development of the potential, including prototypes, so that options are available. We have to avoid a “FutureGen” sort of drag-out. It seems to me that it is time to get fed-up with those people who think they can impose their will on everybody, and all the consequences that might imply for the planet, by putting this R&D on a slow boat to nowhere instead of on the fast-track that it deserves.”

Hansen wrote the letter a few weeks ago while the Hansens when in London. Anniek Hansen was recovering from a heart attack and waiting for the doctor’s approval to return to the states when the couple penned the personal letter to Michelle and Barack Obama, opening with a personal appeal:

We write to you as fellow parents concerned about the Earth that will be inherited by our children, grandchildren, and those yet to be born … Jim has advised governments previously through regular channels. But urgency now dictates a personal appeal.”


Text of the Hansens’ full letter (pdf)

Image credit: World Development Movement, flickr

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Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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