UI alumnus returns to alma mater to talk climate change, energy alternatives

Approximately 150 attendees listened to Dr. James Hansen discuss climate change and alternative energy as part of the “Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge” symposium at the Iowa Memorial Union Main Ballroom on Thursday October 16, 2014. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | October 17, 2014

Former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and University of Iowa alumnus James Hansen returned to his alma mater Thursday night to discuss climate change and energy alternatives.

Hansen started his lecture by talking about his upbringing in rural western Iowa and being in high school during the time of Sputnik, a satellite launched into outer space by the Soviet Union in 1957. He went on to study at the University of Iowa where he earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics in 1963, an M.S. in astronomy in 1965, and finally a PhD in physics in 1967. This was at a time when world-renowned physicist James Van Allen was part of the UI faculty though Hansen said he was too nervous to study under Van Allen as an undergraduate.

“I was too shy and unconfident [that] I actually avoided specifically taking any courses under professor Van Allen,” Hansen said. “That’s a very bad strategy for students. You’re much better off sitting in the front row than in the back row.”

He eventually overcame his fears and worked closely with Van Allen during his graduate studies. Perhaps one of the biggest moments in Hansen’s career was when he gave an address to congress about the implications associated with climate change in 1988. This along with his broader field of work earned him the nickname “the Grandfather of Climate Change.” During his lecture Thursday night he emphasized that climate change is something that will most directly impact younger generations and as a grandfather himself he said this is a major concern.

“We’re putting young people in a situation where they have to look out for themselves because we’re [the older generations] not doing it,” he said.

Hansen also discussed the degradation and “irreversible effects” that climate change has caused on organic lifeforms such as monarch butterflies and coral reefs. Part of this can be attributed to carbon emissions which are disproportionately high in the United States compared to other countries.

“There’s also a moral issue here because the United States is responsible for more than a quarter of the excess of the human-made CO2 in the atmosphere even though our population is like 5 percent,” he said.

Hansen proposed implementing a fee to fossil fuel companies as a means to decrease carbon emissions.

“There are climate effects [and] those are paid by the victims, and the taxpayers, the government. Not by the fossil fuel companies,” he said. “So the solution is to add a price to fossil fuels. To collect a fee from the fossil fuel companies.”

Hansen also touched on the potential of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“We have technology now that a nuclear reactor can shut down if there’s an anomaly like an earthquake so you can avoid the kind of problem that Fukushima had,” he said. “You can have a design that does not require power to keep the reactor cool in case of a shut down.”

The presentation was followed up by a question and answer session and the entire event was about two hours in length. Roughly 150 students, adults, and UI faculty attended the lecture which was the final part of the UI Public Policy Center’s “Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge” series of events.


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