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The Snake-Licked Ears of James Hansen


“Our children are screwed.”

Fresh from his arrest in Washington, D.C., James E. Hansen, Ph.D., the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, spoke to a sold-out audience at the Lensic Theater on February 20. The scientist who has pioneered the alarm on global warming, Hansen was among 40,000 demonstrating against the Keystone Pipeline in front of the White House on February 13 and was arrested there.

As he went through his slide show making the case for urgency in cutting C02 emissions released by the use of fossil fuels, one had the sense of a man not expecting much. He has made countless such presentations since his first appearance before a congressional committee in 1988, but inertia prevails.

His attentive audience was probably already familiar with his science-based prophecies.  In the absence of swift action, he predicts that a large fraction of earth’s species will be driven to extinction. There will be more frequent summer heat waves, scorching droughts, and intense wildfires. Increased evaporation of warmer oceans will produce more violent and flooding storms. He expects that the seas will rise by several meters by the end of the century.

His effort reminds me of the story of Cassandra, the beautiful young daughter of the king and queen of Troy in Greek mythology. According to one story, snakes in Apollo’s temple licked her ears clean so that she could hear the future. When she later rejected Apollo’s attentions, he retaliated by making it impossible for anyone to believe what she said. Thus, when she tried to warn her people about the Trojan Horse, they ignored her and Troy was destroyed.

The history of Dr. Hansen’s frustrating effort to awaken the world to impending catastrophe reveals a search for the right words and the right images to mobilize action. The question, “What’s it going to take?” is ever present. He refers now to “our well-oiled, coal-fired government” that pretends not to understand the dangers. “Our children are screwed,” he writes in a recent post.

Perhaps in desperation, he is floating a new idea that could have populist appeal. His theory is that if the fossil fuel industry were required to pay for the cost of damage to the environment and public health, production would become too expensive to proceed. He proposes collecting a gradually rising fee that would be distributed to the public on a per capita basis. This would help citizens endure high prices until clean energy alternatives could be developed.

In a recent column in The New York Times, Joe Nocera complimented Hansen on his knowledge and sincerity but disdained his tactics. He framed demand for fossil fuels as relentless and the development of the dirtier resources like the Canadian tar sands as inevitable. He described opposition to the Keystone Pipeline as “bone-headed” and wrote that “The only way to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources is to lower the price of oil.” Hmm. How could that happen?

Dr. Hansen has a long list of honors and awards to his credit. Most recently, Foreign Policy included him in the 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers “for sounding the alarm on climate change, early and often.” However, in the way that matters most, and that is by the most powerful agents of change, he has yet to be heard.

On the other hand, there may be hope in the make-up of the audience at the Lensic. Usually events there draw a sea of silver-haired attendees, but there were a large number of young people in the audience Wednesday night from both colleges and high schools. The silver-haired will probably not experience the dark future Dr. Hansen prophesies, but the young in the audience will. Perhaps they really “get it” when Dr. Hansen speaks of the Trojan Horse at the gate. Let us hope they will have time to act on what they hear.

3 Responses to “The Snake-Licked Ears of James Hansen”

  1. Donald H. Campbell

    I am absolutely astonished by the climate-change denial comments relating to Hansen’s talk on climate change, as published by the New Mexican and Tom Sharpe’s article.

    Being a geologist myself, I find the climate-change deniers’ rhetoric and understanding utterly incomprehensible.

    I am a member of the local chapter Citizens Climate Lobby, CCL, a group advocating carbon tax and dividend legislation. A recent depiction of the percentage of scientists disagreeing with human-caused climate change was published by CCL shows 24 of 13,950 peer-reviewed articles reject global warming. The statistics of believers v. deniers is very impressive and conclusive.

    BTW, I do not use Facebook or Twitter.

    I graduated from Santa Fe High School in 1955 and really miss that part of the world.


    Donald H. Campbell, PhD
    DBA Campbell Petrographics
    4001 Berg Road
    Dodgeville, Wisconsin 53533
    Tel: 608-623-2387
    E-mail: campbellonharker@gmail.com

    • celeryellen

      Dear Dr. Campbell,

      I’m delighted to hear from you and am saving those figures on the peer-reviewed articles. I’m sure they’ll come in handy.

      Come back and visit.


  2. Kate

    Surely you aren’t going to leave a comment such as “Fresh from his arrest in Washington, D.C.” un-clarified. I kept expecting you to revisit that remark.