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Ex-NASA Scientist James Hansen: There is a Clear Link Between Climate Change & Stronger Hurricanes

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Dr. James Hansen has been called the "father of climate change awareness." In 1988, Hansen first warned about the dangers of global warming when he testified before Congress. At the time, he was the top climate scientist at NASA, where he headed the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. We speak with world-renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen on what role climate change played in unleashing Hurricane Harvey.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the world-renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. He’s been called the "father of climate change awareness." In 1988, Hansen first warned about the dangers of climate change when he testified before Congress. At the time, he was NASA’s top climate scientist. He would go on to become the nation’s most influential climate scientist.

Dr. James Hansen, welcome back to Democracy Now! You come to us in the midst of this catastrophe. "Unprecedented," "historic," "apocalyptic"—these are all words that can also be used to describe climate change, climate chaos, but those links aren’t being made. Can we make those links?

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, in fact, there are—there are very clear links. Let me mention three of them. One of them is sea level. Sea level was stable for the last several thousand years. But with the beginning of changes in atmospheric composition, caused by burning fossil fuels mainly, the planet is getting warmer, and sea level has begun to go up, because the ocean is getting warmer and because ice is melting. Well, on the global average, it’s gone up by about 20 centimeters, which is about eight inches; however, it’s not the same every place. Along the East Coast of the United States and the Gulf Coast, it’s larger than the global average. It’s a good foot. So that’s a significant contribution to the magnitude of the storm surges that drive the water onto Houston and the other regions. So that’s one thing.

Another is, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is increasing because the atmosphere is getting warmer, and therefore the amount of water being dumped during these storms is larger because of the human, global-made—global warming, human-made global warming, which is now more than 1 degree Celsius. And the simple equations for how much water vapor is in the atmosphere as a function of temperature would be several percent, but, in addition, the distribution of the storms that release the moisture is changing. We’re getting more of the rainfall in extreme large events. So, that’s a significant factor.

And then, the third thing is the strength of storms. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical storms all get their energy from the latent energy of water vapor. And because the atmosphere now holds more water vapor, the strength of those storms can be greater. And so, there are substantial human-made effects on these storms. It’s not debatable now. These are all well-established facts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you say to those who seem to be reading out of, well, a handbook we’re very familiar with over the decades, the tobacco handbook.

JAMES HANSEN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t say this particular cigarette caused your lung cancer. In the same way, can you say climate change caused this particular storm or hurricane?

JAMES HANSEN: You know, you can’t say—the location and timing of each storm is, of course, very chaotic; however, you know, there’s even research that shows that the likelihood of the kind of event where we had here, where things stalled and we had continued rainfall for several days—the chance of that happening is actually probably increasing. That’s a research topic now. But because the Arctic is warming faster than the planet, on average, it does affect the jet stream and the chance of having blocking events, where the storms stall. So, that is very likely also influenced. The chance of that happening has been increased by global warming.

RENÉE FELTZ: Dr. Hansen, I am from Houston. I’ve been watching the flooding. I’ve lived through the flooding. Many Houstonians remembered kayaking through their neighborhoods during a flood—during a flood just last year. And so, as you said, these seem to be much more frequent, these extreme weather events, for people. You know, whether or not they are climate change believers or climate change deniers, they’re experiencing this. They’re also experiencing the president coming down to the Gulf Coast Tuesday, and this is the same president that withdrew from the U.N. climate agreement in Paris, the Paris climate agreement. You’ve been watching that closely. What do you say to Trump and to—how we should move forward? He’s withdrawn from the climate agreement, and yet we see the U.S. sort of diving head first into these extreme weather events. So, where should we go from here, in that regard?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, I think we need to educate him about the fact that the actions that are needed to begin to reduce emissions rapidly actually make sense from a conservative standpoint. We need to make the price of fossil fuels honest, by increasing—by including their cost to society. And if we do that gradually, it will actually improve the economy, create jobs, and do it in a way which is consistent with conservative ideas. So, there’s really no reason. If he could just get educated about this, I think we could—you know, there are conservative thought leaders—James Baker III, George Shultz—who have—who recognize this, who understand this. And he’s got to start to listen to these people. And we could actually move rapidly to reducing emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. James Hansen, you’re one of the top climate scientists in this country, but a couple years ago you were also arrested—well, maybe because you’re one of the top climate scientists. You were arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Now, when President Trump came into office, one of his first acts was to sign off on both the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL, saying he wants to revive this. Can you talk about the connection of pipelines like these to what we’re seeing right now in Texas?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, yeah. Exploiting the tar sands makes no sense at all, because they’re very carbon-intensive. It takes a lot of energy to get that stuff out of the ground and then to refine it, to make it usable. So, it doesn’t make any sense for us to develop those, because what the science shows is we’re going to actually have to extract some of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere. So, to go to all this expense to find a new way to get more of it to put in the atmosphere just doesn’t make any sense, economically or scientifically or in any way. So, that’s basically the connection.

RENÉE FELTZ: And it will be interesting, Dr. Hansen—I don’t know if you have any final comment on this, about moving forward. We’ve seen Trump recently rescind Obama regulations of how to build federal projects and to take climate change projections into account—for example, rising sea levels, flood projections. Those are no longer in place. Houston is going to go through a major rebuilding effort right now, and, in fact, a large swath of the Texas Gulf Coast. Do you have any thoughts on what needs to be in place there as they move forward?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it doesn’t make sense to build a lot of infrastructure on coastlines, unless we can stabilize sea level. And that’s going to be a very hard task. So, yeah, we have to be aware of what’s going on, because we do need to take actions to slow down climate change, but it’s going to take time. You know, we have not yet felt the full impact of the gases that are already in the atmosphere, just because of the delays in the system. It takes decades for the ocean to warm up and for ice sheets to melt. So there’s consequences for young people that are already built into the system. That’s why young people have filed a lawsuit against the Trump government to try to get them to take the actions that are needed.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about that with you, and we’re going to post in online at democracynow.org, that—a children’s lawsuit. Also, Energy Transfer Partners, that owns Dakota Access pipeline, has just sued Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, talking about them as "ecoterrorists" who hindered their building of the Dakota Access pipeline. Can you comment on this? And just today in the news, in Wisconsin, six people arrested after one person locked themselves to a piece of heavy machinery to stop the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. The proposed line would carry tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, facing resistance from indigenous leaders and others.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, I’m helping some of these people who have been arrested by trying to help them in their defense, to try to get them not penalized for what they’ve done, because they’re just trying to draw attention to what is crazy policies. But I think the main thing that most people should be doing is not locking themselves to pipelines, but trying to influence the democratic process. You know, we can. There’s the organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is now more than 300 chapters in the United States and more than 75,000 members. And they’re talking to their congresspeople, writing letters to the editor. And I think that’s the most effective thing that most people can do. Those few people who are going out and locking themselves to the pipeline, well, I’ll try to help them in their—when they go to court, but it’s hard to win those cases.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, got arrested, feeling this strongly about it.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask if you have a final comment for the media, if you’ve been watching the networks. And again, I’m not talking about Fox, that so often parrots—

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the line of the administration.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But I’m talking about those that are considered the oppositional media—

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the networks CNN and MSNBC, almost not a mention.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, it’s shocking, because it’s not a case of scientists disagreeing. It’s clear. The things that I mentioned are well understood by the scientific community, and the media should be reporting on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. James Hansen, we’re going to speak to you after the show about the children’s lawsuit, that your own granddaughter is involved with, as you are. Dr. James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA from '81 to 2013, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now the director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We hear a lot about the Red Cross now being in Houston. What does that mean? We’ll look at the Red Cross. Stay with us.

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