(Rolling Stone) – In the late 1980s, James Hansen became the first scientist to offer unassailable evidence that burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet. In the decades since, as the world has warmed, the ice has melted and the wildfires have spread, he has published papers on everything from the risks of rapid sea-level rise to the role of soot in global temperature changes – all of it highlighting, methodically and verifiably, that our fossil-fuel-powered civilization is a suicide machine. And unlike some scientists, Hansen was never content to hide in his office at NASA, where he was head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York for nearly 35 years. He has testified before Congress, marched in rallies and participated in protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline and Big Coal (he went so far as to call coal trains "death trains"). When I ran into him at an anti-coal rally in Washington, D.C., in 2009, he was wearing a trench coat and a floppy boater hat. I asked him, "Are you ready to get arrested?" He looked a bit uneasy, but then smiled and said, "If that's what it takes."
The enormity of Hansen's insights, and the need to take immediate action, have never been clearer. In November, temperatures in the Arctic, where ice coverage is already at historic lows, hit 36 degrees above average – a spike that freaked out even the most jaded climate scientists. At the same time, alarming new evidence suggests the giant ice sheets of West Antarctica are growing increasingly unstable, elevating the risk of rapid sea-level rise that could have catastrophic consequences for cities around the world. Not to mention that in September, average measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record 400 parts per million. And of course, at precisely this crucial moment – a moment when the leaders of the world's biggest economies had just signed a new treaty to cut carbon pollution in the coming decades – the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet elected a president who thinks climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese. [more]