Can Humans Contain Climate Change? Tang Prize Laureate Hansen Speaks on the Chances

  • James E. Hansen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
  • James E. Hansen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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Record high temperatures, abnormal weather events, uncontrollable forest fires, tornadoes, torrential rains, and devastating floods. That is the world today. The history of how we got to this point is recorded in an August 6 two-part article for the New York Times Magazine written by Nathaniel Rich “after 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews.” “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” covers a ten-year period from 1979 to 1989, when humanity first began to see the data and understand the causes of climate change. One crucial part of that history is James E. Hansen, 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development, who testified to the US Senate on June 23, 1988, that climate change was real, had already begun, and that he had data to prove it. But even after that day, no effective measures have been taken against climate change. While the Paris Agreement, signed by 156 nations on April 22, 2016, Earth Day, is a step forward, even it lacks the legal power to force any nation to uphold its tenets.

What the nations of the world ought to avoid, states Hansen, is to keep the long-term rise well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, though he admits that it is an optimistic goal. If that rise were to, say, go as high as 3 or 4 °C, it would cause the polar ice caps to melt, coastal cities to flood, Europe to dry out, China to desertify, and livable land to shrink. And 5 °C? It may mean the end of human civilization.

At this juncture, as Taiwan, an island nation, tries to cut emissions, all the while trying to work between the conflict of pollution and economic development, policies are of utmost importance and must be addressed immediately. Rich’s article also points out that Hansen’s work over that 30-year period has shown us the direction and the method, which has been proven in the debate and the study of climate change across the government, legislative bodies, scientists, oil companies, and the public.

Undaunted by the gravity of high government and the powerful doubts of business, this once NASA climate scientist claimed at the 1988 hearing that he was 99% certain that global warming was the result of human activity, and that simulations showed that the 2010s would see marked rises in global temperatures. His brave, farsighted testimony before congress has since been known as the Hansen Hearing.

Now, media outlets like the New York Times are looking back on what we have learned over the past thirty years. Government and the public are perhaps more modest, yet the challenge they face is significantly greater. The report estimates that humanity burned 20 billion tons of CO2 in 1990, and that in 2017 that number had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons. Yet, even with such an enormous carbon debt, the world’s governments are yet impotent. As Hansen told the reporter, “From a technology and economics standpoint, it is still readily possible to stay under two degrees Celsius.” But, he added, “we can trust the technology and the economics. It’s harder to trust human nature.” At this crucial point, it may still be possible to turn the warming around by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere in what is called “negative emissions.” Hansen has gone from science to advocacy to teaching, now adjunct professor of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Now, he has been recognized by the Tang Prize for his efforts, specifically “for sounding the alarm on climate change, elucidating the physics of climate forcings and feedbacks, quantifying the dangers of global warming, and tirelessly advocating meaningful action and solutions.”

The 2018 Tang Prize will be celebrated this September 19 – 28 in a week of events, including the award ceremony on September 21. That will be followed by a series of lectures at the Howard Civil Service House in Taipei on September 22, including one given by Hansen himself on “Global Energy, Climate & Health: Young People's Burdens & Opportunities.” Registration for the event is now open. Please visit to reserve your seat for the lecture.

Then, on September 25, Hansen will deliver a separate lecture at National Central University on “Global Energy, Climate & Health: Making Your World,” which will be followed by a forum with other distinguished speakers; and on September 26 another lecture is scheduled for Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University on “Young People's World: Making Your Future.” In the midst of all of his advocacy work, Hansen is also nearing completion of a book for the youth, entitled Sophie's Planet: A Search for Truth About Our Remarkable Home Planet and Its Future. For event information, please visit the Tang Prize website or the Tang Prize Facebook page.

It is hoped that humanity can take the opportunity to save our living space. Scholars, politicians, and industry can work together while there is still time to guide the highest levels of government and national leaders, media and the general public, in like activities. Only then can the land that we call home can be preserved for the next generation.

Hansen is joined in the Sustainable Development field by another awardee, Veerabhadran Ramanathan. And in addition to Hansen and Ramanathan, six other laureates were awarded in the other three fields: Tony Hunter, Brian J. Druker, and John Mendelsohn in Biopharmaceutical Science; Stephen Owen and Yoshinobu Shiba in Sinology; and Joseph Raz in Rule of Law.