Turning Up the Heat on Climate Issue

NASA's James E. Hansen will mark the anniversary with new testimony.
NASA's James E. Hansen will mark the anniversary with new testimony. (2004 Photo By Melanie Patterson -- Daily Iowan Via Ap)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

There have been hotter days on Capitol Hill, but few where the heat itself became a kind of congressional exhibit. It was 98 degrees on June 23, 1988, and the warmth leaked in through the three big windows in Dirksen 366, overpowered the air conditioner, and left the crowd sweating and in shirt sleeves.

James E. Hansen, a NASA scientist, was testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He was planning to say something radical: Global warming was real, it was a threat, and it was already underway.

Hansen had hoped for a sweltering day to underscore his message.

"We were just lucky," Hansen said last week.

Today, 20 years later, a series of events around Washington will commemorate Hansen's appearance before the Senate committee. Hansen himself will appear before a House committee on global warming.

This anniversary comes just after a major setback for environmentalists, as a bill that would have begun to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions failed in the Senate.

But still, activists say that Hansen's 1988 testimony will look to history like a turning point -- a moment when the word "if" started to disappear from the national debate about climate change.

"Before Jim Hansen's testimony, global climate change was not on the political agenda. It was something that a few environmentalists and a few politicians . . . were talking about," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group.

"Hansen was clear, explicit and unequivocal," Lash said. "It absolutely put global climate change at the center of the discussion."

Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, will give a speech on climate change at noon at the National Press Club. In the afternoon, he is scheduled to give a briefing before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

He is now semi-famous, at least in Washington, for his warnings about the growing danger of climate change -- and for his repeated showdowns with higher-ups who have sought control over his message. The clashes have been particularly frequent with the administration of George W. Bush.

In 1988, however, Hansen was just a government scientist, and his cause was almost equally obscure.

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