State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

James Hansen’s Climate Warning, 30 Years Later

“The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Those were the words of James Hansen, then the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, to the U.S. Senate Energy committee on a sweltering June day in 1988. Thirty years on, the overwhelming consensus from scientists is that Hansen was right—and most would say that far too little has been done since to address the threat.

1988 turned out to be the hottest year since modern instrumental records began in the 19th century. That mark has since been broken, in 1990, 1998, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016. The global average temperature has not gone up quite as much as Hansen predicted—among other things, 30 years ago scientists lacked the sophisticated instruments, accumulated data and vast computing power informing today’s climate models—but he was remarkably close given the limitations, and was dead right on the overall trend.

Thirty years ago this month, James Hansen warned that the planet was warming, and would continue to do so.

A wide variety of media marked the anniversary. Justin Gillis, writing in The New York Times, noted that, among the confounding factors in 1988, Hansen’s models assumed that we would continue emitting refrigerant gases that contributed mightily to global warming. The following year, the nations of the world agreed to control those gases—”proof that scientific warnings, if taken seriously, can be acted upon at a worldwide scale,” said Gillis. “So while his temperature forecast was not flawless, in a larger sense, Dr. Hansen’s 1988 warning has turned out to be entirely on target,” said Gillis Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) recounted Hansen’s testimony in a 17-minute speech on the Senate floor, noting that “30 years of added science” have proved just how right Hansen was.”

Much of the press coverage hinged not so much Hansen’s prescience—that is old news—but on increasing hostility in the United States to scientific observations, and the actions they might suggest. The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein noted that “America’s political climate may have changed more than the Earth’s over the past three decades.” As late as 2008 the Republican Party platform called for action against climate change; today, the U.S. administration has exorcised those very words from web sites and we are the sole nation on the planet to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Predictably, the Wall Street Journal marked the anniversary with an opinion piece by two associates of the libertarian Cato Institute claiming that Hansen, and all the major scientific bodies of the world including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been wrong all along. “It’s time to acknowledge that the rapid warming he predicted hasn’t happened,” they write. Their recommendation for action: “a lukewarm policy, consistent with a lukewarming planet.”

Hansen himself has spoken up in an op-ed in the Boston Globe. “My advice to young people is to cast off the old politics and fight for their future on technological, political, and legal fronts,” he writes. He adds: “It will not be easy.”

FURTHER READING:

A 30-Year Alarm on the Reality of Climate Change Axios

Listening to James Hansen on Climate Change, 30 Years Ago, and Now New Yorker

James Hansen wishes he wasn’t so right about global warming Associated Press 

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

14 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jon
Jon
5 years ago

“‘My advice to young people is to cast off the old politics and fight for their future on technological, political, and legal fronts,” he writes. He adds: “It will not be easy.’”

I resonate with this so much. It’s like trying to change someone’s mind who’s had their neural pathways engrained for decades…it doesn’t happen overnight, if ever. We need to find a way to jumpstart a desire for change…that’s been the difficult part since everyone has their own self-interest.

Bill Garvey
Bill Garvey
5 years ago

Has it occurred to anyone that the warming, and the lessening of the ice caps, may have saved us from a global shift as predicted by the Mayans to happen in 2012, who could never have forseen the industrial revolution and it’s effects ?

H crrr
H crrr
Reply to  Bill Garvey
10 months ago

Just because the workd got warmer does not mean that greenhouse gases wete significantly responsible. It is gar more likely to be a natural warming trend that started in the 1700 due to many ither factors having nothing to do with Greenhouse gases and which may kead to a much hotter planet in 100 years from now. Wasting our money in trying to eliminate greenhouse gases instead of spending it in devising better air conditioners, sunlight reflecting paints, flood mitigation projects , and INCREASING energy from the cheapest sources,ie coal and petroleum, to increase wealth in Third World countries so they can afford to pay for these mitigation measures could be a fatal mistake for 3rd world people. There is NOT sufficient proof that the warming planet has been caused by humans. The planet more likely will get hotter even if we did not exist. Let’s get plentiful wealth from cheap plentiful hydrocarbon energy now so we can adapt to inevitable non-man made natural global warming.

JohnM
JohnM
Reply to  H crrr
5 months ago

Hmmm, what’s the best response to your post? Probably, just that you’re totally wrong. Unless you can come up with some other climate forcing that is causing the planet to warm then your observations are worthless. You say “other factors” – what are they? Not a single reliable scientific study has identified anything – indeed, if it weren’t for humans, the likelihood is that the world would be slowly getting cooler again. Global warming has been studied since the end of the nineteenth century, it is proven science. Pour CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and the planet will warm. It’s very simple. And that’s what we’ve been doing. But you won’t change your mind, I know that. You have what’s called an “ideé fixe” which is actually a form of delusion – when reality no longer has any power to alter your erroneous conclusions. It’s sad when any individual thinks this way, but when thousands of powerful people think this way and allow our societies to endanger themselves, then that is folly.

Peter S. Mulshine
Peter S. Mulshine
5 years ago

What will convince all americans ,as Hansen predicted is a carbon fee on all fossil fuels mined or imported in the US.Then distribute that fee equally to all Americans so they can decide what to buy.
Solar panels & wind power will be cheaper.Americans can buy & install more Insulation,better windows & doors,They can choose to heat their homes w Kochelofen,Thermal Mass stoves,That burn w less wood & can even heat homes w wood chips ,downed trees,branches
etc.
they can choose public transit,rail,walk or bike to work .They can invest in electric cars,that use no gas which will cause the price of gas to decline.thereby giving relief to those of us who want to drive older cars.There is no reason why we cars should be limited to gas,diesel trucks could burn natural gas which will cost less than diesel since it co2 content is 1/2 that of oil.Those of us who heat w oil will benefit if we have the money to change to gas for the same reason .& less diesel burnt w lessen demand .aka diesel & heating oil are the same product.

hansdzandstra@gmail.com
hansdzandstra@gmail.com
Reply to  Peter S. Mulshine
7 months ago

The issue with the above picture is not that Hansen was or wan not correct in his prediction that the earth will warm – which it has warmed. SOME predictions are ALWAYS correct. This does NOT mean the warming was caused by human emissions, nor does the graph of carbon increase and temperature correlate. CO2 is a very necessary life giving gas that has greened the planet greatly, and is given off by oceans and other means AFTER the earth warms, as all water does this same thing. The human carbon emissions are such a very small part of the climate picture as to be much more correctly deemed insignificant in comparison to the many other much large natural forces that affect climate change which is constant. The scientific data does not show any unusual rising in the oceans, the warming does not seem to be unusual in any sense when compared over long period of time and prior earth warming and cooling. The release of CO2, rather than drought, death of heat, has thus far resulted in saved lives from colder temperatures (nine times the amount of persons die from cold temps rather than heat issues), increased agricultural production, greatly increased plant life which data shows now increased wildlife which increases the predator wildlife. WORDS lie to persons about the cause and effect…the scientific data does not. A terrible waste of human effort and monies for something that is so very unlikely to affect in any positive manner the climate and condition of the earth that should and must be spent on some other issues.

Michael J Lenczewski
Michael J Lenczewski
3 years ago

“Thirty years ago this month, James Hansen warned that the planet was warming, and would continue to do so.” This wasn’t what happened. The warming stopped for a good portion of these last 30 years. Some have even said that the warming trend reversed a bit. His predictions and models were admittedly incorrect.

H crrr
H crrr
Reply to  Kevin Krajick
10 months ago

The world got warmer, but NOT for the reasons Hansen claimed in his model.

JohnM
JohnM
Reply to  H crrr
5 months ago

But as written above, you are unable to tell us what these “other reasons” are. There aren’t any of course, but it doesn’t seem to stop you telling the world there are. What particular scientific understanding do you possess that has escaped the many thousands of climate scientists, of which number James Hansen is just one? Unless you can come up with some cogent arguments, your statements here are worthless blather of a very ignorant person. Note, I say “ignorant”, not stupid. They are not the same thing. You may indeed in many respects be clever enough, I don’t know of course, but in regard to the science of global warming you are indeed, unfortunately, ignorant, and you seem happy to reveal this to the wider world. Sorry, old chap.

Sarah Fecht
Reply to  Michael J Lenczewski
3 years ago

It would be so nice if that were true, but sadly it isn’t: https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

James lee
2 years ago

My advice and my wish are that to young people are to cast off the old politics and fight for their future on technological, political, and legal fronts.we need to change his mind and it is time taking.

robert
robert
9 months ago

Vaclav Smil, “The Grandfather of climate change” has pointed out our dilemma since the early 1970’s, the only way forward is sacrificing our ‘good life’ for the benefit of have-not’s … AND the environment; return to a lifestyle of the 60’s and 70’s.

JohnM
JohnM
Reply to  robert
5 months ago

and there’s nothing wrong with that, societies and the world still worked.