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Young People and Nature - Edinburgh Medal Address

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 11 April 2012

James Hansen - Edinburgh medal recipient 2012
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James Hansen

‘Someone else can arrange this.’ Supposedly the last words of mid-twentieth century domestic goddess Constance Spry, they also sum up the attitude of most governments to the growing issue of climate change.

This year's Edinburgh Medal winner James Hansen suggested this was the case in the address he gave on receiving his award for his contribution to our understanding of how climatic change occurs and recent human contribution to the warming of the planet.

Entitled ‘Young People and Nature’ Hansen took his audience briefly, but pertinently through his career, from working for NASA on climatology on other solar system planets, his subsequent work on Earth and its changing climate in the historic and prehistoric past, to his presentation to the government of the USA of the available evidence for man-made acceleration of carbon emissions, all of which have led him to become a vocal activist and campaigner for effective government intervention on climate change, and has resulted in his arrest on three occasions.

Now the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, Hansen has the experience and profile to speak with authority of what he has discovered and now believes.

A parent and grandparent, Hansen is now driven not only by his concern for the future of our home planet, but also by a dread of what sort of planet future generations will inherit as an outcome of poor decision making in the present.  

His argument for taxation on carbon consumption, paid ultimately by the producers with the revenue redistributed to the consuming public, has immediate attraction, but one was left to ponder its chances of becoming a viable model, given the lobbying power of oil and gas producers and the current general aversion to redistributive taxation at the present time.

Nonetheless, as we strip-mine and ‘frac’ our way toward the last remnants of fossil fuel deposits, individuals such as James Hansen deserve our recognition for continuing to remind us all how little time we have to resolve our dependence on carbon consumption and how much we owe it to future generations to do so.

James Hansen is also appearing at:

Here's the Sci fest news report on the speech.

"American Climate scientist Dr James Hansen used the Edinburgh Medal address last night to call for help in making people understand the gravity of the situation surrounding the issues of climate change. He admitted that he didn’t consider himself an activist, although that was a term frequently used to describe him, but he believed scientists had a responsibility to communicate the implications of the situation for the planet and for future generations.

Hansen described how the questions of his grandchildren had changed him from a scientist who shied away from the media and public activism to one who believed passionately that he must use his voice to change government policy and public opinion.

He stated, ”It is immoral for us to leave to the next generation a planet whose climate is spiralling out of control. I believe it is an issue of intergenerational justice – we can only pretend we don’t understand what is happening around us.”

He admitted that his cause seemed to have gone backwards in the last few years, with the public in general being less aware of the situation and continued “It is very difficult to communicate when people who are profiting from the current system don’t want changes, and governments are going ahead in allowing and even encouraging development of fossil fuels as if they don’t understand the implications.”

Bill, What was the response of the audience like? In my interview with science festival director Simon Gage he said that Gaia theorist James Lovelock's Edinburgh Medal address in 2007 on climate change was "one of the most emotionally charged events" they'd ever run.

The audience gave him a standing ovation at the start, and considerable applause thereafter, but I don't feel it's part of a review to comment on that - maybe I've seen too much theatre to trust or commend audiences.

I think I would have given him 5 stars for his achievement - esp still going after 3 decades after all he's been put through. Presumably you dropped a star because you didn't see his solution as viable? Or was it just too much bad news to take on board at once!

The four stars had more to do with Hansen's own style - I understand why he used photos of his grandchildren to make his main point, but I still wasn't comfortable with that.