Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary, James Hansen Talks about How Covid-19 Helps Us Save the World

  • James E. Hansen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, the top 5 risks threatening mankind in the next ten years have been dominated by environmental issues. As the first quarter of the year nearly passes, the whole world is still consumed by anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic, with the unfortunate effect of little attention being paid to imminent climate crisis.      


April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It is also the time when our earth still faces many challenges, and there is only so much it can take. If we don’t try to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the results could be the depletion of energy resources, the collapse of ecosystem, the aggravation of environmental problems and the further spread of diseases, all of which indicate the planet has started to fight back. 


“The coronavirus and human-caused climate change are analogous,” Dr. James E. Hansen, world-renowned climate scientist and 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development, observed in an email sent to the Tang Prize Foundation. Both are existential crises caused by delayed responses. Being late in responding to the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in the whole situation spiraling out of control. When it comes to climate change, “the delay is of order generations,” bringing about damaging effects that are not hard to predict. In both cases, deferring taking necessary actions only “makes the problem and its solution difficult.” As a consequence, when things continue to deteriorate, we will need to ramp up responses more drastically.  


Dr. Hansen believes that the shock we have been feeling during this pandemic implies to us “the importance of early intervention,” of taking mitigating measures to reduce “the amplitude of the peak impact.” This messages is especially relevant at a time when the world also faces threats posed by climate change, such as how emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming could cause “large sea level rise and species extinctions, which can potentially lead to social disorder and a more desolate world.” To stymie the coronavirus, we are now practicing social distancing. To halt climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the key.  


There are solutions for dealing with climate change we can adopt. However, Dr. Hansen cautioned against “saying that we must stop emissions in 7 years (or some other number) or the climate system will run disastrously out of control.” That, he asserted, is “wrong science.” Rather than put young people under mounting pressure, the international community should work together to tackle climate issues.  


To combat the virus, we need to keep observing social distancing for a while. To combat climate change, Dr. Hansen thinks we need different strategies: “we must stand firm, thoughtful, and untied, not just as individual nations, but as the world. International cooperation is essential for climate.”


In 1988, when Dr. Hansen was still the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he testified before the US Congress to warn the world that global warming had begun. It became a turning point in the history of climate science and dramatically increased people’s awareness of climate change. Now he is immersed in the writing of his second book, Sophie’s Planet, which is expected come out later this year. Naming the book after his granddaughter, he hopes to communicate what he learned from studying science and the climate, and to “describe the policies that are needed to assure a bright future for young people and nature,” Dr. Hansen told us in the email.