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Hot seat. Climate researcher James Hansen is busy leading a new climate and advocacy shop at Columbia University.

Hot seat. Climate researcher James Hansen is busy leading a new climate and advocacy shop at Columbia University.

James Hansen

Hansen's Climate Science and Advocacy Project Under Way

James Hansen may have retired from NASA but he’s still active in the climate change wars. Five months into its existence, his Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University is moving ahead on its unique goals. Led by the 72-year-old climate scientist, the initiative focuses on bringing policy-relevant science to the public, building on dogged—and often controversial—efforts along those lines by its director. Some climate scientists devote part of their time, or just lip service, to advocacy or outreach; the program makes these tasks integral to its scientific mission.

The intent for the program’s three-person team, all of whom previously worked at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) at Columbia University, is to continue science, outreach, and advocacy work on climate change but without the limitations that come with a federal job, like working on agency priorities, managing a big lab, or avoiding political activities during work. Text from a recent proposal to a foundation, shared with ScienceInsider, makes clear that Hansen’s group wants to have a political impact. It assails the position “that scientists should not go all the way to describing policy implications of their research.” Instead, it asserts, “The objectivity of science is particularly effective in ferreting out the relative merits of alternative policies.” “The centerpiece of our project remains scientific research," says Pushker Kharecha, Hansen’s deputy. The team’s studies, according to the proposal text, seek to "connect the dots from advancing basic climate science to promoting public awareness to advocating policy actions.”

The first paper produced by the team, published in December, is an example of this approach. Using paleoclimate data, recent observations of the modern climate, and computer modeling, it concludes that a widely adopted goal of limiting global warming to a 2°C increase would lead to “disastrous” consequences. “Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice,” the paper says.

The program’s team is composed of Hansen, Kharecha, and Makiko Sato, also a climate scientist. But they expect that other climate researchers from Goddard who are soon to retire from government will soon join them to bolster the team at low cost. (They would all have federal pensions.) The team has raised sufficient funds to support its efforts for at least 2 years, Kharecha says. Its donors include nonprofits and foundations such as the Flora Family Foundation and ClimateWorks and individuals, including philanthropists Jeremy Grantham and H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest. “We hope to get external grants from federal funding agencies as well,” Kharecha says.

Kharecha says the new position has given him more time to work on a project to develop high school curriculum around climate change. By the same token, having resigned his job as GISS director last spring, Hansen has more time for various outreach efforts, he tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail from Beijing, where he was meeting with advisers to the Chinese government. These efforts include meetings with European policymakers last year, his current Chinese trip, an upcoming confab with lawmakers in Oregon, and a planned trip to Italy to help opposition to new coal plants there. “I’ve been able to meet with him more, as he’s not quite as slammed with the organizational duties,” says attorney Julia Olson, director of Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group suing the U.S. government to act on climate change. Hansen, supported by his two Columbia colleagues and other scientists, has written an amicus brief for that effort, which relies on the doctrine of environmental “public trust.” He plans to testify in the case, which is ongoing in courts in several states. That’s something he could not have done as a government employee, he says, given rules pertaining to federal scientists’ political and legal activities. “In the government I could not have done most of the things that I am doing now, because they had to be done on vacation time and I was running out of that,” Hansen adds.