A Galileo for our time

Review article. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (London, Bloomsbury, 2009).

James Hansen, the US state’s own leading climate scientist, tried over many years to convince government about the dangers of global warming … and failed. Only then did he turn to public protest and write this call to action. Its interest lies as much in the story of Hansen’s own moral and political evolution as in his explanation of the science.

Hansen was born in 1941 in Iowa in the midwestern US, into a generation whose imagination was fired by space flight. “I was in high school when Sputnik was launched” (p. xiii). He graduated, and then wrote a PhD on Venus’s atmosphere, in the physics and astronomy department of the University of Iowa.

But he was no radical. In 1972, when many of that generation were out protesting against the Vietnam war, Hansen entered government service. He combined astronomy with earth sciences, rising to become director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, the US state space and aeronautics agency. He has since the 1980s testified on climate issues to US Congress.

Hansen’s testimony to a Senate hearing in June 1988 – in which he said he was 99% confident that the earth’s atmosphere had entered a long-term period of warming, mainly due to the effect of human-made greenhouse gases – was, at that time, the most widely-publicised warning of the danger so far.

Another 19 years would pass before Hansen decided to focus his efforts not on convincing politicians but on taking his message to the public. In that time, developments in climate science, particularly paleoclimatology, would clarify much about global warming; fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions would leap further upward; and Hansen would become the target of a political hatchet-job by the George Bush administration.

“My role is that of a witness, not a preacher”, Hansen writes (p. x). “I am aware of claims that I have become a preacher in recent years. That is not correct. Something did change, though. I realised that I am a witness not only to what is happening in out climate system, but also to greenwash. Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up. But science and policy can not be divorced.” Another thing that changed, he adds, is that he and his wife Anniek began to have grandchildren. He did not want them to grow up, witness the effects of global warming, and realise that he had understood what was happening and had not made it clear.

 “[T]he biggest obstacle to solving global warming”, Hansen writes, “is the role of money in politics, the undue sway of special interests [i.e. the influence on US government of coal and oil companies]. ‘But the influence of special interests is impossible to stop’, you say. It had better not be. But the public will need to get involved in a major way.”

Hansen is “a registered Independent, who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years”, and has worked closely on global warming issues with Democratic Senator Al Gore. But he is under no illusion that the election of Barack Obama improved things. “President Obama does not get it. He and his key advisers are subject to heavy pressures, and so far the approach has been, ‘let’s compromise’.”

Hansen makes the case for a moratorium on building coal-fired power stations – one of the main sources of CO2 emissions in the US – until and unless they can be fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. He relates (p. 241) how he queried with Gore and his staff a pledge to oppose coal-fired power plants “without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2”. He points out that this wording (“the capacity”?) could include plants commissioned with an option to retrofit carbon capture and storage at a later date. This is “an illusion, a fake”, designed to get approval for plants at which retrofitting of CCS does not have “a snowball’s chance in Hades”. 

Hansen, having called for voters in the 2008 election to demand pledges from candidates on coal-fired power and a carbon tax, then began to support, and participate in, demonstrations aimed at stopping power station construction. “[W]hat if new electees [to US Congress] turn out like the old? We can not give up. That’s why I am now studying Gandhi’s concepts of civil resistance” (p. 246).

“Man starts going on protest marches”. Not earth-shattering news, perhaps. But this man, from the heart of the US establishment, started out genuinely believing that he could convince that establishment to see sense. Storms Of My Grandchildren opens with Hansen briefing a task force convened in 2001 by Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, on the Kyoto protocol. “[E]arly in the Bush-Cheney adminstration I was hopeful of a turn towards more effective actions regarding climate change”, Hansen recalls (p. 29).

Cheney, for years the US oil companies’ most powerful advocate in government, welcomed Hansen’s presentation – in part because it summarised the effect not only of greenhouse gases but of all human and non-human climate forcings.[1] “The vice president, no doubt, was attracted by our emphasis on less well-known climate forcings, because most of those forcings had sources other than fossil fuels.” (p.11). Hansen felt “uncomfortable, because [Cheney’s] choice of speaker seemed to be based on who would deliver an answer that he wanted to hear.”

In the three years that followed (2001-04), discomfort turned into dissent. Hansen’s research covered the feedbacks from climate change, i.e. reactions to climate change by the earth’s surface and atmosphere that can either amplify or diminish the climate change – and began to show that global warming could be reinforced by “amplifying feedbacks”. (These are often compared to the feedback from a microphone held too close to a speaker, which amplifies and reamplifies the sound). They included “significant reduction in ice sheets, release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost and Arctic continental shelves and movement of climatic zones with resulting changes in vegetation distributions”.

Hansen and a growing number of his colleagues came to believe that these amplifying feedbacks would cause the atmosphere to warm up, and the sea level to rise, more rapidly than had previously been believed. Most climate simulations, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), did not incoroprate the feedbacks and were therefore understated (p. 74).

Hansen developed a critique of the IPCC’s 2001 report, which implied that dangerous consequences would result only if the earth warmed by more than 3 degrees (above the 1990 temperature). Hansen argued that 1 degree (above the 2000 level) was a more rational target, in part because of the unpredictable consequences if the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets should fall into the sea. “Disappearing ice shelves, ice stream dynamics and iceberg melting were not included in the global climated models used for IPCC studies. [...] Given the enormous infrastructure and historical treasures in our coastal cities, it borders on insanity to suggest that humans should work to ‘adapt’ to climate change, as oppose to taking actions needed to stabilise climate” (pp. 84-85).

Hansen recounts his battle to get these arguments published. But this was nothing to the battles that erupted in 2003, when Sean O’Keefe, a Cheney ally, took over as NASA administrator, and NASA’s Office of Public Affairs was taken over by the Bush administration’s political appointees. The phrase “dangerous anthropogenic [i.e. human] interference [in the climate]” was banned. NASA press releases on global warming were sent to the White House to be approved, watered down or scrapped by non-scientists in the public affairs department. When Hansen – after hesitating and declining openly to be associated with the Democratic campaign – decided to speak out in the run-up to the 2004 election, he was emailed by NASA’s ethics counsellor and warned that he was “placing himself at significant personal risk” (p. 96).

Alistair Campbell, eat your heart out! This was sexing-up on an industrial scale. The NASA inspector general (who is responsible for checking whether employees are following the agency’s rules), asked by US senators to investigate, reported in 2008 that between autumn 2004 and early 2006, “the NASA headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalised or mischaracterised climate change science”. [2] Or as Hansen puts it (p. 110): “[T]he intent seemed to be to keep everybody on a predetermined message, a dangerous approach for a science agency. Indeed, it seemed reminiscent of the Catholic Church and Galileo.”  

Hansen, by his own account, was poorly equipped to deal with Bush and Cheney’s hatchet men. Quite apart from his political naivete, he suffered from acute nervousness about speaking in public. For 15 years, until their divergence of views made it untenable, he referred all press calls on global warming to two colleagues. Nevertheless, he insists that scientists’ reticence in publicising research that politicians do not like is “dangerous”, and communicates regularly about his research via Columbia university here.

One important chapter of Storms of My Grandchildren (pp. 140-171) sets out Hansen’s reasons for advocating that an international target be set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to reduce the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm). Hansen and his colleagues had in the late 1990s looked at the issue of what a “dangerous” level of CO2 emissions would be, and concluded that 450 ppm would keep global warming to the 1 degree limit mentioned above. But during the 2000s, they changed their minds.

Two groups of advances in research were especially important. One was improvements in paleoclimatology that provided a better understanding of past climate change: Hansen highlights, for example, the argument that ice sheets melted more rapidly than had previously been believed as a result of global warming at the end of the last ice age. The second group of issues were contemporary, of which he lists five in particular (pp. 164-166): the faster-than-predicted decline in the area of Arctic sea ice; the disappearance of mountain glaciers; the loss of mass by the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets; the faster-than-expected expansion polewards of sub-tropical regions; and studies of coral reefs showing the role played in species destruction by CO2 emissions in ocean acidification and warming surface water. (The environmentalist web site 350.org gives a popular explanation of the rationale for the 350ppm target here. A scientific research paper by Hansen and his colleagues is archived here .)

What, you might ask, are the political conclusions from all this? Hansen, a mainstream liberal and anything but a socialist, has concluded that people must compel politicians – who are in thrall to big money and lobbying interests – to take decisions that would force capitalism along the road of decarbonising the economy. He derides as a farce the “cap and trade” system under which industries buys permits for using fossil fuels: it would benefit only “energy companies with strong lobbyists” and the US Congress, which could dole out the permits to “special interests” (p. 213). He advocates a “fee-and-dividend” system, under which carbon-based fuels are taxed at the point of production – and the proceeds handed out equally to the entire population.

“Under fee-and-dividend, 100 per cent of the money collected from the fossil fuel companies at the mine or well is distributed uniformly to the public. Thus those who do better than average in reducing their carbon footprint will receive more in the dividend than they will pay in the added costs of the products they buy. [...] The total amount collected each month is divided equally among all legal adult residents of the country, whith half shares for children, up to two children per family” (p. 209). The tax would be increased over time, enabling people and businesses to adapt to new types of fuel, until investment in renewable energy makes better economic sense than oil, gas and coal.

As a socialist, it’s nigh on impossible for me to imagine the US Congress, or the rulers of any major capitalist country, opting for this type of egalitarianism. I do expect moves by the ruling class towards a “green new deal” of the type envisaged by many US Democrats. But a progressive tax such as this, that threatens the existence of so many powerful energy corporations? I can’t see it. Those corporations will resist bitterly, and try to drag the world along a path of continued fossil fuel dependence and ruinous schemes for “adaptation” to global warming. But the fact that the call for such a tax is coming from within the heart of the state-sponsored scientific establishment in the US is significant. The science is at odds with Washington’s world view. The centre can not hold. …  GL.


[1] A forcing is defined as “an imposed perturbation (disturbance) of the planet’s energy balance”, measured in watts per square meter, and refers mainly to phenomena that either trap more heat in the atmosphere (e.g. emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, solar activity or volcanic eruptions) or scatter sunlight back into space, reducing solar heating of the earth’s surface (e.g., the effect of aerosols, i.e. tiny droplets of sulfuric acid formed by oxygen, water and sulfur dioxide, mostly from volcanos). Climate scientists spend a great deal of energy trying to measure the level of these forcings, and the way in which the global temperature responds to them.

[2] A book-length account of the NASA campaign to silence Hansen is: Mark Bowen, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (Dutton/Penguin, 2007). The inspector general’s findings were reported here.

2 Responses to A Galileo for our time

  1. [...] Mann’s account made me rethink an analogy I used in a review of a book by another leading climate scientist, James Hansen. I compared Hansen’s stand against the Republican denialists with Galileo Galilei’s refusal to [...]

  2. [...] Mann’s account made me rethink an analogy I used in a review of a book by another leading climate scientist, James Hansen. I compared Hansen’s stand against the Republican denialists with Galileo Galilei’s refusal to [...]

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