James Hansen, arguably the world’s most famous climate scientist, is prone to shouting from the rooftops. The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, Hansen has, in recent years, become better known for his climate activism than his scientific research. Last July, he said on his website that “the global climate is near tipping points” and that the consequences would “be irreversible – if we do not promptly slow fossil fuel emissions during the next few decades”.
His conviction that a climate catastrophe is looming has led Hansen to increasingly take on the role of advocate, sending numerous pleading letters to world leaders and CEOs, and attending well-publicized protests against coal plants with the explicit aim of being arrested. It’s also prompted him, at the age of 68, to write his first book. The title, Storms of My Grandchildren, refers to the ferocity of extreme weather events that will greet the next generation if the unmitigated use of fossil fuels continues.
Due out in December, the book is also the silver lining of Hansen’s recent fight with prostate cancer. The illness afforded him a six-week recuperative period during which he hammered out the last chapters, Hansen tells me during an interview in mid-November at the rural Pennsylvania home he shares with his wife Anniek. Now cancer-free, Hansen is ready to take on the world again, and with it the politicians who, in his view, are simply failing to protect his grandchildren from dangerous climate change. In a wide-ranging discussion, Hansen focuses largely on the urgency of the climate problem and the political inertia against solving it, both prominent themes in his book. “I am sorry to say”, he writes, “that most of what politicians are doing on the climate front is greenwashing – their proposals sound good, but they are deceiving you and themselves at the same time.”
According to Hansen, that includes US President Obama. Even former Vice President Al Gore, who perhaps has done more than anyone to raise awareness of climate change, is evidently deceiving himself. “I saw him on Larry King last night,” says Hansen, “and what really worries me is that he sounds optimistic that we’re now on a track to solve this problem.” He lets out an incredulous chuckle. “We’re not, however, on a track, and that’s clear.”