14 September 2010

Storms of My Grandchildren--James Hansen

Serious Science for Critical Times

Storms of My Grandchildren cover image
[Crossposted from Doc's Green Blog.]

Dr. James Hansen has written a personal, idiosyncratic, urgent, heartfelt book about climate change, past and future. The reader can feel his frustration at the stubborn inaction of governments in the face of what he sees as a looming disaster. But one also feels the warmth, the grandfatherliness, advertised by the book's title. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is more than half science, but it is part emotion. Scientists are people too.

The book's message in brief: It's worse than we thought, and here's why. Politicians are subservient to fossil fuel polluters. We have to do something about it unless we want to leave our descendants a severely damaged, and perhaps uninhabitable, world.

Hansen, in spite of the public role he has felt called upon to play, is 100% scientist. The book's structure uses his own journey as a researcher, and as an expert called upon to brief government leaders, to explain a lot of serious science. Climate forcings, paleoclimatology, aerosols, and more are presented to the reader in more depth than is usual for a book targeted at the general public.

Science of Climate Change

graph from Fig. 18
Color version of book's Figure 18
"Deep ocean temperature during the Cenozoic era"
[Do we really want to go back to the
Permian-Eocene Thermal Maximum
when sea levels were 75 meters higher?]
Some readers will be tempted to skip over some of the technical background. They will miss a fascinating part of the message. The scientific explanations are clear enough, although Dr. Hansen does take some shortcuts and requires the reader to pay attention. He has been immersed in this field for nearly 50 years and is used to its jargon, units and arguments. On the other hand this is not meant to be a textbook. Some compression and ellipsis is unavoidable. Readers who glide over the technical parts will be missing something important.

The science, Hansen is saying, is fundamental, undeniable, and convincing. He naturally feels that the reader should understand it in order to follow the argument that climate change is a serious threat to society. We may be setting in motion changes in the Earth's climate that could wipe out life on the planet and will certainly make life tougher for coming generations in this century. He urgently wants to get that message across.

Frustration with Inaction

This is a polemic. Hansen feels that politicians are in the palm of economic interests that benefit from continuing "business as usual" even in the face of urgent warnings of enormous risks. He is urging the people to take action.

His deep understanding of climate forcings and their effects in the past leads him to a much greater degree of alarm than many other scientists or environmentalists feel comfortable expressing. He has been criticized by other climate activists for lacking "a realistic idea of what is politically possible".

Hansen doesn't pull his punches. He thinks "cap and trade" is useless. He thinks expanded use of nuclear power is part of the solution. In these areas he treads beyond the strict boundaries of his expertise.

But when he says that targets like 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere are much too high and will lead to disaster, he speaks of science he has studied in depth. He implores us to get back to 350ppm.
A striking conclusion from this analysis is the value of carbon dioxide--only 450 ppm, with estimated uncertainty of 100 ppm--at which the transition occurs from no large ice sheets to a glaciated Antarctica. This has a clear, strong implication for what constitutes a dangerous level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If humanity burns most of the fossil fuels, doubling or tripling the preindustrial carbon dioxide level, Earth will surely head toward the ice-free condition, with sea level 75 meters (250 feet) higher than today. It is difficult to say how long it will take for the melting to be complete, but once ice sheet disintegration gets well under way, it will be impossible to stop.

With carbon dioxide the dominant climate forcing, as it is today, it obviously would be exceedingly foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450 ppm. [p. 160]
Neither politicians nor political climate activists and thought leaders like to be told that they are being "exceedingly foolish". Yet Hansen goes further. "But maybe Congress doesn't really care about your grandchildren. [p. 215]"  "The present situation is analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery and Churchill with Nazism--the time for compromises and appeasement is over. [p. 211]"

A Book Worth Reading

Sophie and Connor,
Dr. Hansen's grandchildren
Dr. Hansen has decided that he knows something important, and that he must speak out about it. Not everyone will agree with the urgent, even intolerant, tone of his call to action. But it is based on true feelings founded on decades of serious science.

How the book's call to action affects you will depend on your biases and personality. Some will be moved to do something, some will be more informed but still passive, some will be annoyed, some will be indifferent. But all will have learned something.

The science that is at the heart of the book is worth seriously considering. If Hansen is right, our children, grandchildren and more distant heirs are going to curse us. We heard the message, and we are doing little or nothing. We blunder past tipping points with little concern for those who will have to live in the world we are leaving them.

Want to buy it? Click here: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

Dr. Hansen's web site is here.

He and Dr. Makiko Sato have also created the Updating the Climate Science page to supplement and update the content of Storms of my Grandchildren.

The book's official web page is here.

Good reviews of the book at Daily Kos and the Los Angeles Times.

The color version of the book's Figure 18 is from this site.

The picture of Sophie and Connor is from here. A black-and-white version is in the book at page 272.

The contents of the book are copyright © 2009 by James Hansen. The illustrations are copyright © 2009 by Mikiko Sato.

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