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Rhetorical Analysis of James Hansen’s Speech About Climate Change

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The former opening line of NASA’s mission statement, “To understand and protect the home planet,” served as a sensible basis for Dr. James Hansen to dedicate his life to the study of climate change and to present his findings to most of the modern world. Yet despite being a credible source and producing factual information, Hansen’s efforts have not been taken seriously. So in 2012, Hansen, now head of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University, decided to expand his audience and presented a TED talk on the reality of climate change, along with the consequences that may inevitably ensue. Throughout his speech, Dr. Hansen argues that climate change is indeed actively happening, and if humanity doesn’t take action against it, it will only become worse with time.

Although the overall presentation could have used more passion, Hansen’s speech contained an effective use of ethos, logos, and pathos; so much, that he was able to present his topic in a sensible and logical manner, while also making valid personal connections with his audience in an attempt to exert his claim. From the beginning, Hansen establishes himself with a strong sense of ethos. He starts by portraying himself as the son of a lowly farmer who was able to go on to study under prominent scholar James Van Allen, a professor formerly involved in the construction of the first U. S. satellites. In doing so, he pays homage to his humble beginnings, not coming off as an individual who forgot where they came from. I’d even argue that his physical appearance played a part in establishing his ethos. Presenting himself as an everyday citizen, wearing a hat, blue jeans and a plain button down shirt, Hansen has the ability to appeal to the general public who may view his speech on TED’s website. Soon after, Hansen goes on to explain how he spent the early part of his career working as a principal investigator for NASA and gives mention of one of his reports that was published in Science magazine, a feat that ultimately led to him testifying before Congress, as well as members of a presidential climate task force. By giving a brief, but concise, outline of his career, Hansen certifies his credibility. Furthermore, his audience is able to determine that he is an educated, published and reputable source of information. In addition to providing background knowledge on his professional career, Hansen also uses testament from his research to further establish his credibility. Examples include a mention of how Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass at an accelerated rate, methane is being released into the atmosphere, the current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being measured around 391 ppm, and that “the total energy imbalance. . ” on Earth is now “. . . about six-tenths of a watt per square meter. ” Even more impressive than Hansen’s presentation of ethos, is his compelling use of logos. Throughout, Hansen presents scientific information in a comprehensive and understandable manner. This enables him to offer data and figures that would draw appreciation from scholars, while still including an audience who may not understand such material. One example is his comparison of how adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is essentially similar to “. . . throwing another blanket on the bed. ” Most individuals would be able to deduct that blankets trap heat given off by your body, thus an excess amount of carbon dioxide would likely do the same to Earth. Other good examples include Hansen’s comparison of Earth’s current energy imbalance being equivalent to the explosion of around 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day, and his imagery of how the crowd could potentially be sitting under water if sea levels continued to rise.

The use of visuals, depicting the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb and portraying the southern part of Florida completely under water, helps aid Hansen’s logical approach. Hansen is also able to appeal to his audience’s sense of logos by simply stating that if we wait to enact the reversal of climate change, it will only become more difficult in the long run, going on to stress that the amount of emission reductions necessary to restore climate balance will continue to increase year by year. The use of pathos is also adequately used during Hansen’s presentation. One powerful use of pathos is an early picture of Hansen being arrested for protesting in front of the White House. After making references to his grandchildren and future generations, we are able to empathize with him, understanding how passionate he is about stopping climate change and just how far he is willing to go. Hansen is also able to stress the dire consequences of climate change, suggesting that there will be “. . . New Orleans-like devastations around the world. . . ” (giving reference to Hurricane Katrina), extinction of species, extraordinary weather across the globe within only a few decades, and even equates Earth to being in the direct path of an asteroid. By doing so, Hansen hopes to create a sense of urgency within his audience and hopes to move them to enact change sooner than later. But despite making a reasonable claim, Hansen’s presentation could produce one glaring counterargument; is it convincing enough to sway the opinions of climate change deniers and move them to enact any change? While the information may be true, the manner in which it was presented seemed rather nonchalant.

Instead of having a passionate appearance, Hansen simply stood in front of the podium and gave his speech in a monotonous voice, seeming to rely solely on his own ethos for affirmation. Hansen failed to “take the stage,” in a sense, and did not create any call for action, nor did he offer any information in a compelling way. Undeniably, climate change is a controversial issue; there are believers and there are non-believers. But with personal bias put aside, James Hansen’s “Why I must speak out about climate change” proves to be an effective piece. It provides facts and logic on a debatable topic, and simultaneously appeals to viewers emotions, regardless of whether or not they deem it as “passionate” enough. Besides, we must ask ourselves, is it ultimately Hansen’s responsibility to move us to enact change, or to simply present the information and hope for the best?

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Rhetorical Analysis of James Hansen’s Speech about Climate Change. (2020, February 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from
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