Dempsey Lecture Series features renowned climatologist James Hansen

What does James Hansen know that caused him, a reserved climatologist from Iowa, to be arrested for protesting in front of the White House?

“We know how much carbon dioxide reduction is needed to stabilize the earth’s energy imbalance, yet the government continues to subsidize and expand fossil-fuel use,” he said. “It makes no sense, but that’s what we are doing.”

At the March 20 Dempsey Lecture at Willamette University, Hansen discussed the dire consequences of global climate change, worsened by the world’s increased use of fossil fuels. He has studied global temperature since the 1980s and is one of the first scientists to show that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions contribute to warming.

Climate change is a global emergency because the consequences, including ice sheet disintegration and extinction of species, can be irreversible, he said.

Hansen has not always been outspoken about the consequences of climate change. After the media treated his 1988 conclusions on global warming with skepticism, he removed himself from public interviews for 15 years.

But in 2004, the conservative slogan, “Drill baby drill,” convinced Hansen that he had a moral obligation to advocate for sustainable energy.

“I didn’t want my grandchildren to say in the future that grandpa understood what was happening but didn’t make it clear,” he said.

Hansen calls for a flat fee across oil, gas and coal in proportion to the amount of carbon each contains. The key to the plan’s success is that 100% of the revenue from the tax would go directly back to the public, and most people would receive more money back than they would pay in higher energy costs, he said.

Stevie Gildehaus ’13, who attended the lecture, said she was inspired by Hansen’s portrayal of climate change as an intergenerational injustice, with young people suffering the consequences of their parents’ mistakes.

“The majority of Willamette students believe in climate change, but the reality is that about half of Americans do not,” Gildehaus said. “We need to get outside of our campus and educate people.”

Hansen is an adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. His lecture was co-sponsored by the Dempsey Foundation and Willamette’s Center for Sustainable Communities.