Outspoken American Climate Scientist Honored By WWF

LONDON, UK, November 22, 2006 (ENS) - American climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, who declined to be silenced by the Bush administration, is this year’s recipient of the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, awarded annually by the global conservation organization WWF for outstanding service to the environment.

Dr. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, was presented with his medal by the Duke of Edinburgh in a ceremony Tuesday at St. James’s Palace, London.


Dr. James Hansen, left, is presemted with the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal by Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh at St. James's Palace, London. (Photo by George Bodnar courtesy WWF)
"Dr. Hansen was among the first to see the looming threat of climate change and to sound the alarm,” said James Leape, WWF International’s Director General. "For more than two decades he has made huge contributions to scientific understanding of climate change and to raising awareness among decisionmakers and the public.”

In January, Dr. Hansen said that the Bush administration had tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture calling for rapid reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his upcoming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard website and requests for interviews from journalists.

Dr. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions which amounted to censorship. NASA officials said its scientists were free to discuss science but not policy issues.

Dr. Hansen, 65, is a physicist who joined NASA in 1967. Since the 1970s he has worked on computer simulations of the Earth’s climate in a effort to understand humanity’s impact upon it.

In 1988, he appeared before committee hearings of the U.S. Congress. His remark to reporters later that "the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now" helped take the "greenhouse" concept of heat-trapping gases into popular language.

Part of Dr. Hansen’s testimony to the U.S. Congress is featured in former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s film about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."


July and August 2006 brought a heatwave to much of the United States, with triple-digit temperatures linked to 136 deaths in California. (NASA image by Takmeng Wong with the CERES Science Team at NASA Langley Research Center)
More recently, he has spoken out about the concept of "tipping points," where, because of climate change, natural systems may experience sudden, rapid and possibly irreversible change.

In accepting his award, Dr. Hansen repeated his warning that urgent action to avert global warming is needed now, and he did not restrict his remarks to scientific topics.

"There is still a huge gap between what is understood about global warming, by the scientific community, and what is known about global warming, by those who need to know, the public and policymakers,” he said.

"We must close that gap and move our energy systems in a fundamentally different direction within about a decade, or we will have pushed the planet past a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid far-ranging undesirable consequences," Hansen warned.

"This fate can be avoided with policies that make sense for other reasons, policies that result in cleaner air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels," said Hansen, "but the changes must begin soon to avoid economic disruption and hardship.”

In September, Hansen released the results of a new study that finds the world's temperature is reaching a level that has not been seen in nearly 12,000 years.

Using temperatures around the world taken during the last century, Hansen and his team concluded that these data showed the Earth has been warming at the "remarkably rapid rate" of 0.36° Fahrenheit (0.2° Celsius) per decade for the past 30 years.

"This evidence implies that we are getting close to dangerous levels of human-made pollution," said Hansen in September. "In recent decades, human-made greenhouse gases have become the largest climate change factor."


The greatest warming is occurring at high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Here, snow covered terrain acts as a reflector that bounces incoming solar radiation back into space. As the snow cover melts, the amount of sunlight reflected decreases. The darker ocean and exposed ground absorbs Sun's rays and heats up, accelerating the melting. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Human combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other industrial and agricultural processes emit the greenhouse gases methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

The Hansen-led study found that the warming in recent decades has brought global temperature to a level within about one degree Celsius (1.8°F) of the maximum temperature of the past million years.

Hansen said, "That means that further global warming of one degree Celsius defines a critical level. If warming is kept less than that, effects of global warming may be relatively manageable. During the warmest interglacial periods the Earth was reasonably similar to today. But if further global warming reaches two or three degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know."

"The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about three million years ago, when sea level was estimated to have been about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today," he said.

WWF's Leape said, "From his plain speaking before the U.S. Congress in 1988 about the implications of climate change to his recent warnings that we have only a short time to act before we face irreversible damage to our planet and its natural systems, he has been at the forefront of climate science. At WWF, we are pleased to be able to recognize his outstanding achievements."

The citation for Dr. Hansen’s award reads, "In recognition of his groundbreaking research on man's impact on the Earth's climate and his courage in sounding the alarm; thereby helping to awaken the world to the fact of climate change and galvanize international action to address it."

The medal is WWF’s premier award. At its inception in 1970 it was known as the WWF Gold Medal, but on Prince Philip’s retirement as WWF International’s president in 1996, it was renamed the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal as a tribute to him.

Recipients receive a gold medal in a sustainable rosewood box donated by the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, a Rolex watch, and a certificate signed by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Director General of WWF.