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posted 10/26/04

Contact: Mariellen Gallagher
212-854-2583 or mgallagher@ei.columbia.edu

Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference:* A Discussion of Humanity’s Faustian Climate Bargain and the Payments Coming Due

Surface melt on Greenland ice sheet descending into moulin, a vertical shaft carrying the water to base of ice sheet. Photo credit: Roger Braithwaite

A Presentation by James E. Hansen, Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies

I have been told by a high government official that I should not talk about “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with climate, because we do not know how much humans are changing the Earth’s climate or how much change is “dangerous.” Actually, we know quite a lot. Natural regional climate fluctuations remain larger today than human-made effects such as global warming. But data show that we are at a point where human effects are competing with nature and the balance is shifting.

Ominously, the data show that human effects have been minimized by a Faustian bargain: global warming effects have been mitigated by air pollutants that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. This Faustian bargain has a time limit, and the payment is now coming due.

Actions that would alleviate human distortions of nature are not only feasible but make sense for other reasons, including our economic well-being and national security. However, our present plan in the United States is to wait another decade before re-examining the climate change matter. Delay of another decade, I argue, is a colossal risk.

The scientific method, exemplified to me as a student by Prof. James Van Allen’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, has the potential to aid the public and decision-makers in addressing the global warming issue in ways that have multiple benefits to our environmental and economic well being.So far, this process has been hampered, as the global warming story reveals various dangerous interferences with the scientific process.

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Related Links:

NASA Expert Criticizes Bush on Global Warming Policy -- The New York Times, October 26, 2004

*Presentation on October 26, 2004, in the Distinguished Public Lecture Series at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Iowa