Speech by the chair of the board of the Sophie Prize, Nina Drange

Sophie Prize Ceremony June 22th 2010.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends

We are gathered here today to celebrate Dr. James E. Hansen, winner of the Sophie Prize 2010.

Dr. James E. Hansen is an exceptional scientist who has decided that his work and his insight must be communicated outside the academic corridors in order to build the sense of urgency required to solve the greatest challenge of our time – climate change.

Dr Hansen has played a key role in the development of our understanding of human impact on the climate for more than 30 years. He is an outstanding scientist with numerous scientific articles published in high-ranking journals. His main focus has been on climatology, and primarily how greenhouse gases affect the global climate. The list of Hansen’s accomplishments is long and impressive. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is an adjunct professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and at Columbia’s Earth Institute. And lastly, he has been director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981.

While Hansen’s scientific accomplishments are indeed impressive, what is in particularly remarkable with this years’ Sophie Prize winner is his courage. It is not popular in academia to put forward statements that may be interpreted as part of a political agenda. And Hansen has felt himself being forced to do just that. His understanding of the threats posed by the man-made increase of carbon in the atmosphere has several times made him leave his role as a scientist - to enter the role as a concerned grandfather and political activist. This has not been easy, and the personal cost Hansen has paid is substantial. During the administration of George W. Bush, his reports were subject to censorship, and Hansen was himself kept under surveillance.

Hansen is not a man who jumps to conclusions. Reading his recent book “Storms of my grandchildren” is a journey through massive knowledge. Although he has wanted the book to be accessible to the public, he never succumbs to tabloid. James Hansen - the researcher - is strongly present throughout the 300 pages. When he explains complicated processes related to climate change, he does it with a thoroughness that reassures you that this scientist knows what he knows, but also what he doesn’t know. Though at times challenging, this reluctance to give the reader answers in black and white adds to his credibility and integrity. He takes people seriously. He respects them. And he believes that his knowledge will make a difference. Must make a difference. I think he is right.   

The dramatic and irreversible effects of climate change will not be felt the strongest by those of us sitting in this room, by those of us who are responsible for triggering climate change. It will be felt by our children and grandchildren. And it is already being felt by those who are vulnerable and poor in developing countries. One of the many disturbing truths in Storms of my Grandchildren is that we are no longer talking about distant “future generations”. We are talking about Hansen’s grandchildren and my children – girls and boys that are already born. It is Hansen’s hope – and my hope – that this short time horizon will bring us more urgency and closer to a solution.

Hansen is very clear on what needs to be done to solve the challenges related to climate change. He takes a constructive approach and calls for action. Yes, we have still time, although very limited. The objective must be to keep the level of carbon in the atmosphere below 350 ppm. And the means to achieve this objective is simply to leave the remaining coal and unconventional fossil fuels in the ground. We simply cannot afford to go after that last drop of oil. Here Norway as a nation that has built its wealth on oil has a particular responsibility for being in the forefront of responsible action.

Climate change has global implications and demands global action. Not somebody else’s action, but our action. Tar sand is an unconventional fossil fuel and one of the dirtiest sources of energy. I happen to be a shareholder in Statoil – as are all of you here today with a Norwegian citizenship. Statoil is planning to extract oil from tar sand in Canada. As Hansen pointed out in his letter to prime minster Stoltenberg a few weeks ago tar sand is one of the best and most effective ways to accelerate climate change. Do we really want to build our wealth at the expense of our children’s future?  No.  Fortunately there are signs that the world is waking up to this fact. Last week President Obama said the following words in the aftermath of the BP oil spill disaster:  “I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy – because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater. “ Politicians who want change need our help as individuals, as citizens and as owners of Statoil. And we all need the insight and arguments of this year’s Sophie Prize winner to succeed.

We cannot let shortsighted economic interests lead the way any longer. The urgency of the situation calls for policy action beyond the usual channels and by more than the usual suspects. James Hansen has through his work and not to speak of engagement showed us a way forward. Due to him we can no longer tell our children and grandchildren that we did not know.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said the following: All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Let us hope that the time has passed for denial and ridicule and that the time has come for the self-evidence of Dr Hansens knowledge, insight and courage.