James Hansen Awtt Portrait

James Hansen

Climate Scientist : b. 1941

“Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. . . . The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is that they are working for ‘clean coal.’
The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”


Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1981 to 2013, has studied the atmosphere of the Earth for years, and is referred to as the ‘father of global warming’ because of his early warnings about the phenomenon in the 1980’s.  As a leading scientist, his impassioned voice is important to the fight to combat climate change and the negative impact humans are having on the environment.

Hansen received his degrees in physics, astronomy and mathematics at the University of Iowa. He studied in Dr. James Van Allen’s space science program, initially doing his research on the composition of the atmosphere of Venus.  Later, Hansen switched his research focus to the Earth’s climate.  Using climate models built on information from satellites revolving the globe, Hansen studies the changes in our atmosphere, and consequently the effects these changes have on the environment.

Hansen analyzed changes in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, going back as far as 1880 when instruments began recording temperature data.  He also measured carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels from fossil fuels, primarily coal, dating to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Hansen found increasing evidence of global warming, which, if left unchecked, he warned, would lead to climate change so irreparable that eventually human lives and the lives of thousands of plant and animal species would be in jeopardy. His models suggested that emergency levels had already been reached.

Hansen bluntly said, “Several times in Earth’s long history rapid global warming of several degrees occurred. . . . In each case more than half of plant and animal species went extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world that we inherited from our elders.”

Hansen continued, “If we burn all the fossil fuels and put all that CO2 into the atmosphere, we will be sending the planet back to the ice-free state.  It will take a while to get there – ice sheets don’t melt instantaneously – but that’s what we will be doing.  And if you melt all the ice, sea levels will go up two hundred and fifty feet . . . producing a different planet.”

According to Hansen, burning coal creates as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as all of the other fossil fuels combined. Hansen was an early advocate for the cessation of coal mining and and expansion of other energy options, such as solar and wind power. The worst form of coal mining, according to Hansen, was mountaintop removal (MTR). Hansen attended a protest against MTR on June 23, 2009 and was arrested for trespassing on private company, Massey Energy’s property. Massey is a coal giant against which many Appalachian communities fought for years.

After the protest, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, offered to debate global warming with Hansen.  Hansen agreed to hold a discussion where he would make a presentation about the science, giving Blankenship equal time to speak either before or after he did.  Mountain State University offered their auditorium. Then Blankenship decided he would only debate Hansen in a TV studio with a moderator of his choice. Hansen reports that he “turned on the television news and heard: Blankenship offered to have a discussion with me, but ‘Dr. Hansen was still trying to check his schedule’ – this was a television station that knew exactly what had actually happened.  It seems that even the media is owned by coal.”

Although now retired from NASA, Hansen has accelerated his advocacy work on behalf of the planet. Among other ongoing efforts, he directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and provides scientific expertise to the youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States. At the age of eighty, he is still speaking truth to power on behalf of the planet.


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