Goodbye Jim Hansen, Civil Servant. Hello Jim Hansen, Citizen Scientist

Don’t look for retiring NASA/Goddard climate scientist to disappear into a well deserved retirement. In the most important ways … Jim Hansen isn’t going anywhere.

It’s hard, impossible maybe, to overstate the importance of Jim Hansen in the nation’s, and the world’s, efforts to recognize and confront the challenges posed by anthropogenic climate change.

Hansen has his admirers and his detractors of course. Anyone in the critical role he has played in recent decades would have plenty of the latter. And he does, and perhaps even more than his share of the latter.

Commentary

Not an inherently natural communicator, and no climate poet, Hansen has nonetheless easily gone to the front of the class of climate science communicators and stayed there for decades. It’s the persistence of his communications — and the courage he consistently has shown in making them — that sets him apart.

Jim Hansen in characteristic hat. (Photo credit TED.com) 

Jim Hansen, 72, isn’t going anywhere. Other than leaving his post as director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that is, he isn’t going anywhere. That may actually please some of his more dyed-in-the-wool NASA managers and “suits,” given the untouchable niche Hansen has successfully carved out for himself, perhaps unique among federal civil servants.

No one, and least of all Hansen, looks for him to settle-in to restful post-public service retirement and rocking-chair days at his Pennsylvania farm. Au contraire, Jim Hansen is likely to be an even more visible briar in the boots of climate science “contrarians” from his new and wholly unencumbered position as a citizen scientist. Still a respected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Still the 2012 winner of the $10,000 Commonwealth Club of San Francisco’s Climate One Stephen H. Schneider Award for Climate Science Communication*. Still a highly sought-after expert and analyst for serious news organizations and still a prominent keynoter at conferences of his professional science colleagues.

350.0rg climate writer/activist Bill McKibben draws an historic analogy in a Twitter post.

Still Jim Hansen, and still the doting grandfather. And still ever-courageous, sometimes offensive and “over the top” even to his fondest admirers. And always the committed climate scientist and, now, full-fledged climate science activist. New York Times reporter Justin Gillis summarizes the importance of Hansen’s long career (so far) in an April 2 news story on his retirement from NASA.

For those convinced of the merits of his arguments and the passion of his convictions, Hansen’s move likely will take him to further public prominence. For those forever bound to resist his warnings, they’re unlikely to back away from the incessant Hansen-bashing to which he has proven to be entirely resistant.

Jim Hansen and his message, at this point, aren’t going anywhere. Not anywhere, that is, that will diminish the power of his evidence, the volume of his voice, or the deep-seated passion of his convictions, so many of them firmly entrenched in the peer-reviewed evidence of which he was a frequent author.

Jim Hansen will be missed. Some day.  But not yet.

Editor’s Note: The Editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media is one of three jurors for the Schneider Award and participated in the unanimous jury decision to make the 2012 award to Hansen.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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