One of the most haunting figures in Greek mythology is Cassandra, a woman who was gifted with the power of prophecy, but also cursed that no one would believe her warnings. In time, Cassandra’s story became a metaphor for the moral conscience in humans that warns against evil or immoral action. The irony that is baked into the story is that this warning is almost always ignored.
These days, Cassandra’s sad role has fallen on the shoulder of climate scientists. Scientists are, of course, not prophets, but the scientific method is the most accurate way yet to forecast the future. Scientists have been accurately depicting the existence and growth of global heating since at least the 1980s. In 2023, as large parts of the world are either reeling from extreme heat, or drowning in extreme rainfall, and as global temperature records tumble, one of the first scientists to warn us about climate change has now castigated the world’s approach of cautiously waiting and watching, instead of acting to end planet-heating fossil fuel emissions.
In the 1980s, when James Edward Hansen was the director of the US space agency Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen helped develop some of the first global climate models to forecast the heating effect of CO2 and other fossil fuel emissions on the planet’s climate. In 1988, Hansen effectively broke the reality of climate change in a landmark public testimony to the US Congress.
Since then, climate science has advanced at a rapid rate, and in 2023, both sophisticated climate models, as well as our lived reality show just how dire the condition is. However, the global action to halt climate change is in an abysmal state, as countries show very little inclination to move away from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy.
While some hope that climate extremes around the world will jolt nations into acting, Hansen, now 82, believes that global heating is entering a “new frontier”. In a joint statement on 13 July with two other climate scientists, he noted that this new frontier of climate change would see average global temperatures that are higher than any experienced over the past one million years.
Among other things, this means that we may well see more climate records topple in the near future, with more instances of unprecedented floods, high temperatures, storms, and droughts. Speaking to The Guardian, Hansen deplored the human propensity to act only when things get really bad. “It means we are damned fools. We have to taste it to believe it.”