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Embattled Climate Scientist James Hansen Endorses Plug-In Hybrids
Feb 7, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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James Hansen is generally seen as one of the world's leading experts on global warming -- and one of the earliest to study the issue. He's a physicist and the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies, based at Columbia University. Since 1988, he's been a voice in the wilderness about the dangers of increased CO2. During that time, he has clashed with all three Administrations: Bush 41, Clinton-Gore 42, and Bush 43.

Hansen is now all over the news for having been "muzzled" by government higher-ups. The NY Times broke the story Jan. 29 in­2006/­01/­29/­science/­earth/­29climate.html, documenting the management of scientific reports at NASA, including other incidents at the agency. . Then on Feb. 4, NASA head Michael Griffin forthrightly emphasized in a message to the agency's 19,000 employees that NASA was committed to "scientific openness"­2006/­02/­04/­science/­04climate.html. A Feb. 6 editorial in the Houston Chronicle called Hansen a "gagged prophet:"­disp/­story.mpl/­editorial/­3635720.html.

It turns out that the precipitating event for the confrontation was an interview Hansen gave on WBUR, a Boston Public Radio station. The program was "On Point," with host Tom Ashbrook. Last week, Hansen courageously returned to On Point, talking convincingly and movingly both about global warming and his decision to continue speaking out at the risk of retaliation.

Listeners alerted us to the fact that Hansen zeroed in on plug-in hybrids as an available-now strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. We're thrilled to have Hansen as an ally. (For some of my personal starting points for learning about global warming, go to­globalwarming.html.)

We turned again to willing volunteer Greg Willey (who helped transcribe the Plug-In Partners press conference­partners-launch.html. Below you can read what Hansen said on Feb. 3 about PHEVs.

Once you've read this we strongly encourage you to hear more.

  • You can hear our about 10-minute MP3 of excerpts (longer than what's transcribed below) at­wbur-onpoint-hansen-3feb06-phevs.mp3.
  • Or get the entire interview, available as streaming media­shows/­2006/­02/­20060203_a_main.asp or podcast­rss/­podcast.php?id=510053. (They differ in their introductions--the one below is from the streaming version.)

  • TOM ASHBROOK/On Point: Dr. James E Hansen is NASA's top climate expert. In December he gave a speech that made news. His message was not that global warming is real, that's a given for him and most scientists in his line of work. His message was that time is running out. That we are now on the verge of the biggest planetary climate change in half a million years. That without action in this decade we may reach a tipping point that will make the earth, what he called, "a different planet".

    At On Point we heard that startling warning and we invited Jim Hansen onto the show. Guess what? NASA bigwigs would not let us talk to him. But Dr. Hansen isn't the kind of scientist that muzzles easily. The story of what he calls "his censoring" is now big news, and today he's finally with us.

    This hour On Point, NASA's top climate expert on a dangerously warming planet and a political climate that he says is "leaving the American public in the dark."

    DR. JAMES HANSEN: I gave a talk at Exxon/Mobil headquarters to a group of all of the major automobile manufacturer executives and engineers and I described these two scenarios and I suggested "why don't you [sic] you can see this will be affecting your industry, why don't you try to get ahead of the curve and start emphasizing high efficiency automobiles and get ahead of other manufacturers in the rest of the world?"

    The answer was, "Dr. Hansen, we have to give the consumers what they want. And the consumers want bigger vehicles, more power, higher performance vehicles. They don't want efficient automobiles." And they may soon have an ocean in their laps.

    BUSH: So tonight I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative. A 22% increase in clean energy research at the Department of Energy to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas.

  • To change how we power our homes and offices we will invest more in zero emissions coal fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies and clean, safe nuclear energy.
  • We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting edge methods of producing ethanol not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass.
  • ASHBROOK: And there's the agenda, it sounds like a big one. James Hansen you've said we've got about 10 years to turn this around or we face a tipping point that could be really disastrous. Do you hear a program sufficiently ambitious to turn around the climate problems you're describing in the President's litany there?

    Hansen: I think that I can answer that question. You know, I'm not supposed to say this policy is good or bad. Bad what I can do is tell you the effect of those policies on the scenarios that I'm talking about. The alternative scenario, these I've said needs to level out, flatten out our emissions in the next decade or two and then get them to decline significantly before mid century.

    ASHBROOK: And presumably that means going after vehicle emissions and power plant emissions, how do you see it?

    HANSEN: And these things that he (President Bush) mentioned will be very useful for the latter part of that job. Mainly getting the decline: sequestration of CO2, he mentioned zero emission coal fired power plants. I think that's very important because coal is at the moment our largest potential source of energy. And if we're going to use that we had better use it in that way. And likewise on vehicles, while hydrogen may or may not pan out to be the best way, plug-in hybrids look right now to be a potentially very effective way to reduce vehicle emissions.

    ASHBROOK: What's a plug-in hybrid?

    Hansen: That's a hybrid vehicle in which you plug it in to an electrical outlet when you're at home and you can get the first 30 miles, or whatever, depending on how good your battery is off the grid, using strictly electric and then you switch it over to a hybrid. And as batteries get better that 30 miles will become longer. So, that could be a huge improvement in efficiency.

    ASHBROOK: So when you tote these up does it add up to what we need to do?

    HANSEN: The problem is that we need changes in the next decade, and where those could come in both vehicles and in the requirements for power plants is from improved efficiencies. There's tremendous potential in efficiency. In vehicles the national research council has said we could get 30% improvement with technology that exists now. But we need to require that.

    You know in the late 1970s we required a change, an improvement in efficiencies from 13 to 24 miles per gallon. That made a huge difference. If we had a 30% improvement in efficiency of vehicles, that would, by the time the new vehicles had penetrated the market, would save 100 billion dollars per year in oil, if it's $50 a barrel. And integrated over a 35 year period, it would save seven times the amount of oil that is estimated to exist, by the US Geological Survey, in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. So, it's a huge amount and we should be doing a better job of improving the energy efficiency. Not only in vehicles but in electricity use.

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