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Players: James E. Hansen

Putting Some Heat on Bush

Scientist Inspires Anger, Awe for Challenges on Global Warming

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A17

In his worn navy windbreaker, 63-year-old climatologist James E. Hansen looks more like the Iowa farm native that he is than a rebel -- but he's both.

Hansen, a lifelong government employee who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, has inspired both anger and awe in the nation's scientific and political communities since publicly denouncing the Bush administration's policy on climate change last year.


NASA's James E. Hansen denounced the Bush administration's policy on climate change in a speech last year in Iowa. (Melanie Patterson -- Daily Iowan Via AP)

In Profile

James E. Hansen

Title: Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Education: Bachelor's of science in physics and mathematics, University of Iowa; doctorate in physics, University of Iowa.

Age: 63.

Family: Married; two children; two grandchildren.

Career highlights: Helped identify the properties of clouds that covered Venus so later researchers could determine the clouds were made of sulfuric acid; showed how scientists could use large volcanic eruptions to help predict climate change.

Recent reading: "Galileo's Mistake" by Wade Rowland and "Galileo in Rome" by William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas.

Pastimes: Teaching his grandchildren astronomy with his new telescope.

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Speaking in the swing state of Iowa days before the presidential election, Hansen accused a senior administration official of trying to block him from discussing the dangerous effects of global warming.

In the University of Iowa speech, Hansen recounted how NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told him in a 2003 meeting that he shouldn't talk "about dangerous anthropogenic interference" -- humans' influence on the atmosphere -- "because we do not know enough or have enough evidence for what would constitute dangerous anthropogenic interference."

But Hansen said that scientists know enough to conclude we have reached this danger point and that their efforts to get the word out are being blocked by the administration. "In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it has now," Hansen said. He added that although the administration wants to wait 10 years to evaluate climate change, "delay of another decade, I argue, is a colossal risk."

Senior administration officials deny Hansen's charges: O'Keefe spokesman Glenn Mahone said the administrator doesn't "recall ever having the conversation" on climate change that Hansen described, adding that O'Keefe "has encouraged open dialogue and open conversation about those issues."

But Hansen, who has worked for NASA since he was 25, has continued to chide the administration for not moving swiftly enough to address global warming. In a recent interview, he called Bush officials "reasonable people" who need to be convinced that climate change is an urgent matter.

"As the evidence gathers, you would hope they would be flexible," Hansen said in the slow, measured tones he has retained from his years growing up on an Iowa farm. "We have to deal with this. You can't ignore it."

The ongoing sparring match between Hansen and his superiors underscores a broader tension between President Bush's top policy advisers and many senior U.S. scientists, who have loudly blasted the administration's approach to environmental questions in recent months. Nearly 50 Nobel laureates endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for president; this year the Union of Concerned Scientists has collected more than 6,000 scientists' signatures on a letter questioning how the president applies research to policymaking.

After the barrage of criticism, John H. Marburger III, Bush's top science adviser, told Science magazine that if the researchers continue their protests, they might alienate influential lawmakers who set federal science budgets.

Hansen, who also took on Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, on the question of climate change in the late 1980s, is undeterred. An advocate for caps on carbon dioxide emissions and stricter fuel standards for automobiles -- two policies that Bush advisers say would hurt the U.S. economy -- Hansen said he has to oppose what he said is the government's choice to delay action on new regulations to limit emissions under the guise of seeking more scientific research.

"We have got to be an independent voice. We should not be influenced in any way by funding," Hansen said.

Hansen is no stranger to controversy. In 1989, he accused the Office of Management and Budget of watering down his congressional testimony on climate change to make the situation appear less dire.

"I'm strictly trying to understand the Earth as a planet," said Hansen, who started his career studying the clouds around Venus but switched in 1978 to climate modeling.


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