Dr James Hansen – a former NASA scientist, a climatologist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and someone who is considered to be the “grandfather” of climate change awareness – has just released a new study entitled “Young People’s Burden”.
In it, he and his international team of co-authors underline the most cutting-edge hard science behind the phenomenon, while also pointing out that the Paris agreement is nowhere near enough to solve the problem.
However, the study’s true purpose is something rather more ambitious: It aims to convince federal judges that the Trump administration’s inaction on the issue is unconstitutional, and therefore illegal.
Specifically, the study is designed to bolster the efforts of a remarkable court case, due to take place in 2018, wherein a group of teenagers and children will try to sue the US government for not curbing dangerous climate change, and not safeguarding their future. In that regard alone, this Earth System Dynamics study is a landmark paper.
“Federal government does not want to put the science on trial,” Philip Gregory, lead co-counsel in the Our Children's Trust lawsuit, told IFLScience. “Science is based on facts, and this government survives on alternative facts. In the courtroom, alternative facts equals perjury.”
A key finding is that the Paris agreement’s vow to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 is insufficient. This isn’t surprising, as Hansen once referred to the climate accords as nothing more than ineffective “bullshit – no action, just promises.”
Looking at the best available data, the international team of researchers has concluded that in order to prevent a future catastrophe, something more drastic is required.
“To achieve what we argue, you need to actually start sucking CO2 from the air,” Hansen told IFLScience. In this instance, he’s referring to carbon capture and storage (CCS) mechanisms. Rather than focus on schemes that store carbon dioxide in underground geological reservoirs, which are highly expensive and bring with them plenty of environmental risks, Hansen et al. are advocating for "improved agricultural and forestry practices, including reforestation" which will help sequest a vast amount of carbon dioxide.
“The bottom line,” Hansen said, “is that mitigation is urgently needed, or we will leave young people with an intractable situation in which climate change is occurring out of their control, and the costs become too hard to bear.”
“Most Republicans offline say that climate change is real and we are a major factor in that,” Hansen explained. In public, however, such lawmakers tend to err on the side of climate denial.
“They feel threatened by the potential opposition of the most extreme elements in their party which can challenge them in the primaries – and people have lost their seat by saying climate change is a real issue.”
Hansen suggests that this study, and the associated court case, is a more visceral attempt designed to convince judges instead. Politicians can easily lie and prevaricate in public, but when it comes to the Judicial Branch, due process, facts, and evidence matter more.
“We have to take advantage of the fact that the judiciary is less susceptible to that pressure. They can declare something to be unconstitutional.”
The science within the paper, written in a noticeably more accessible way than most academic tomes, is certainly frightening on a visceral level. Sophie Kivlehan, one of the co-plaintiffs in the court case and Hansen’s granddaughter, seemed to suggest to IFLScience that this isn’t a bad thing.
“Making a skeptic think of the problem as personal – and maybe scaring them a little bit” is the best way to convince them that action needs to be taken, she posits, rather than framing it as an “abstract problem”.
If the study does indeed prove to be enough to win over the courts, then climate-denying politicians will have no choice but to agree to a plan to save the planet from a climate change nightmare. Imagine that: A world in which facts triumph over falsehoods, and where the Constitutional right to life and liberty are informed by scientific information.