The Courage to Fight Climate Change
The annual Ridenhour Prizes, which memorialize the spirit of whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour, recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. (For more on the prizes, which are awarded annually by the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, go to ridenhour.org.) This year’s Courage Prize went to James Hansen, who as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies bravely told the truth about climate change even when the Bush administration tried to silence and penalize him. Introducing Hansen at the awards ceremony in Washington, DC, was Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and founding editor of ClimateProgress.org. Their speeches are printed below.
Introduction by Joseph Romm
Dr. James Hansen is being honored today in part because he told Congress: “The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.”
The courageous part isn’t what he said, it’s when he said it—twenty-five years ago, during the sweltering summer of 1988. It was the first high-profile public statement by a US government scientist alerting the country to this grave threat.
Jim embodies the Ridenhour Courage Prize. When he was still NASA’s top climate scientist, he blew the whistle on government efforts to silence him—and others—on climate change. Jim is a modern-day Paul Revere…if Paul Revere’s midnight ride had taken place in 1750 and the message was, “The British are coming, the British are coming—in twenty-five years.”
Yes, climate change is a challenging story to tell. And Jim has actually been telling it publicly since 1981, when he published his first warning that led to a major New York Times story, headlined “Study Finds Warming Trend That Could Raise Sea Levels.”
And yet carbon pollution has kept rising. We live in a spineless world, where being scientifically right for over thirty years gives you no more credit with the national media than being a professional disinformer funded by the fossil fuel industry.
How spineless is this world? If a doctor used the best science to diagnose a smoker as having early-stage emphysema and the doctor did not urge the patient to quit cigarettes, he’d be charged with malpractice. But if a climatologist uses the best science to diagnose an entire planet as having early-stage climate change, and he urges the world to start quitting fossil fuels, well, then he is labeled an alarmist by industry-backed groups.
The truth is that we should all be alarmed by this great moral crisis of our time. By destroying a livable climate, we are stealing the future from our children and grandchildren and countless future generations.
To save this spineless world from itself, supplying the truth isn’t enough. You need to supply the spine, too. You need to be courageous. And so Jim has been forced by the times—and by his moral convictions—to become an activist.
There is a saying that applies to Jim: “One man with courage makes a majority.” How many scientists have spawned an entire movement?
Five years ago, Jim explained that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” we need to return carbon dioxide levels back to 350 parts per million. That led to Bill McKibben founding the group 350.org.
Then Jim said that burning the tar sands would be “game over for the climate”—and that led to the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and the biggest protests and civil disobedience the climate movement had ever seen.
And because Jim has the courage of his convictions, he has had the courage to be convicted himself—he’s been arrested five times at peaceful protests.
Fifty years ago, another great moral crusader was arrested for protesting—and he wrote a letter from his jail cell in Birmingham explaining why. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. on April 16, 1963. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Now more than ever, we are tied in a single garment of destiny, cloaked as a species in a protective climate that we are in the process of unraveling. And so the need for activism, the need for courage, the need to speak out, is as great as ever. As King put it, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
It is my singular honor to give you a man who will not have to repent, a man for all seasons, literally—the winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Courage Prize, Dr. James Hansen.
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