Storms of My Grandchildren

February 5, 2010

in Books and literature, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment, Writing

Writer Robert Pool has defined a ‘witness’ as “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.” In the preface to his book, Storms of My Grandchildren, climatologist James Hansen identifies himself using the term. It is truly worrisome to be living in an age when such a prominent climate scientist sees his role in this way – and sees himself as having uncovered information of such importance that he cannot remain an adviser on the political sidelines. Storms of My Grandchildren is the most frightening thing I have ever read, and may end up being one of the most important.

James Hansen explains why we know as much as we do about the climate: not from computerized climate models, but from the evidence of climatic history laid down in ice cores and sediments. The story they tell is one of a dynamic system capable of amplifying small initial changes, and one in which rapid swings have taken place. Hansen identifies the greatest risks from climate change as the destabilization of ice sheets and the loss of biodiversity accompanying the many effects of climate change. On sea level rise, he explains:

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. (p. 160 hardcover)

Hansen also highlights how positive feedback effects could lead to a runaway climate change scenario, and how the methane locked up in permafrost and methane clathrates has the potential to stack a second gigantic warming on top of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming, in the event they ever substantially melt:

[T]he world, humanity, has reached a fork in the road; we are faced with a choice of potential paths for the future. One path has global fossil fuel emissions declining at a pace, dictated by what the science is telling us, that defuses the amplifying feedbacks and stabilizes climate. The other path is more or less business as usual, in which case amplifying feedbacks are expected to come into play and climate change will begin to spin out of our control. (p. 120 hardcover)

In the most extreme case, in which all coal and unconventional oil and gas are burned, the stacked-up positive feedbacks could be sufficient to boil away the oceans, eventually leaving Earth in a state similar to that now inhabited by Venus, a planet formerly adorned with liquid water before a brightening sun induced runaway climate change there.

In addition to the scientific story, Hansen tells some of his own: about the censorship he witnessed at NASA, about his recent civil disobedience actions against mountaintop removal coal mining, about is perceptions of American politics, and about the grandchildren whose prospects have left him so concerned. Sometimes, these asides can seem secondary to the main thrust of the book, though they do underscore the extent to which this is an impassioned personal plea, not a technical scientific assessment. The insight into the scientific process and the operation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are also interesting.

The most dubious part of the book may be Hansen’s optimism for fourth-generation fast breeder reactors. He highlights their possible advantages, namely in terms of stretching our uranium fuel supplies, but doesn’t give serious consideration to the practical and economic issues with a massive nuclear deployment. He is also overly pessimistic about renewable forms of energy. I would recommend that he take a look at David Mackay’s excellent book on different routes to a zero-carbon energy future. People who read Hansen’s book may also be well-advised to do so.

Hansen makes some key points about climate policy: notably, that emissions targets and cap-and-trade schemes are meaningless, if governments continue to allow coal use and the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas to continue. Those are the fuels that contain enough carbon to threaten all life on Earth; meaningful climate policy must, among other things, ensure that they remain underground. As an alternative to cap-and-trade schemes that are potentially open to manipulation and which offer no incentive to cut faster than prescribed by the cap, Hansen endorses a fee and dividend system where a tax is applied to all fossil fuels at the point of production or import. His overall view is not so different from the fantasy climate change policy I wrote earlier, though I hadn’t been fully aware of all the risks Hansen enumerates when I wrote it.

In the end, Hansen has provided as clear and compelling a warning as anybody could ask for. We are putting the planet in peril and endangering the lives and prospects of future generations in a deeply immoral way. Governments are misleading people with the sense that they are handling the problem when, in reality, even states taking climate change seriously are doing nowhere near enough to ensure that catastrophic or runaway climate change goes not occur. We need to change the energy basis of our society, and keep the carbon in coal and unconventional fossil fuels in the ground. In so doing, we may be able to stop the warming we are inducing, before it generates the devastating feedbacks that are the key message of Hansen’s book.

Those interested in reading this book should consider taking me up on my offer for a free copy. For those unwilling to commit the time to go through a 275-page book, Hansen has a more concise presentation online in PDF form.

Partly prompted by this book, I am in the middle of starting up a new personal project, intended to help with the planet-wide coal phaseout that is necessary. I will make more information on it public, once it is developed further.

[16 February 2010] Now that I have a fuller understanding of the importance of not burning coal and unconventional fossil fuels, because of their cumulative climatic impact, I have launched a group blog on the topic: BuryCoal.com. Please consider having a look or contributing.

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{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

richard pauli February 5, 2010 at 1:54 pm

This is to note the terrific photographs in your postings… thanks so much. They really add a flavor to the message.

Milan February 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Thank you.

That is the wave- and storm-eroded shoreline of Vancouver Island, near Nanaimo.

. February 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm
Milan February 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm

One possibility than Hansen ignores is worth mentioning. He cites the continued construction of coal power plants as evidence that governments aren’t doing what is necessary to prevent catastrophic or runaway climate change.

What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that governments could order them shut down early, once they finally become convinced about the reality and seriousness of climate change. That might happen in 10 or 20 years, meaning they would not emit across the entire 50 year lifespan for which they were designed. Of course, building them only to shut them down is a huge waste of money. We would be much better off spending that on renewables, conservation, energy storage, and a better electrical grid.

R.K. February 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm

This new project of yours sounds interesting.

richard pauli February 5, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Carbon combustion should only be permitted for producing clean energy systems… all other uses of carbon energy should be heavily taxed or forbidden. And this is a generous concession.

The question remains: is it too late? Until that is well answered then we must institute ruthless solutions.

Tris February 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I went to pick up a copy today and it was sold out! How do you like that?

Milan February 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm

I like it quite a bit! While it is inconvenient for you, it suggests that a good number of people are reading the book. If some of these ideas get out there, they could change the debate.

mek February 6, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Horrifyingly, Wente has a new column “closing the book” on the issue of climate change. Don’t worry guys, she has this one all figured out.

richard pauli February 6, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Wente is an astounding waste.

I also read an earlier piece in which she wrote:
“Why on earth did I say that? Columnists should beware predictions and sweeping statements”
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/why-on-earth-did-i-say-that/article1408024/

She may be the master of having it both ways.

Milan February 6, 2010 at 8:07 pm

If there is a decent chance that Hansen is right, the appropriate response is not to make fun of dim-witted columnists.

Rather, we should be working on strategies to keep humanity from burning all the coal and unconventional oil and gas.

richard pauli February 6, 2010 at 8:55 pm

This is perhaps a very big issue worthy of vast discussion: what to do with assholistic obstructionists? … ignore or deal with them somehow?

The Anglia emails, the Asian glacier, Michael Mann inquiry and other climategate messes are so minor and petty but they are amplified and enhanced by the support of mass media empires that work to promote these messages…. i.e. Glenn Beck is a nobody, but he is carried and promoted by a network that loves his message. So just who is the obstructionist here?

By squabbling over personalities, we enhance the publicity of these jerks and we miss the forest for the trees. In this case – it is the Globe and Mail that is the real ogre here. Much like the Washington Post will host George Will’s swill.

Why is it such a stretch for any responsible human to look to the future and plan accordingly? Either in mitigating risk by acting wisely, or reacting to the science based warnings – but the emotional, religious pandering to the moment will feel good now but kill our future. .

(Sigh) Eventually I get around to holding humans in contempt for the inability to do the smart thing here. Either we will do the right thing, or we will see ourselves as a fatally flawed species. Too bad.

Milan February 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Right now, the deniers are winning. They are gaining converts, and successfully conveying the impression that the science is dubious and action should be delayed.

Countering that is very important. The question is how to do it…

R.K. February 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

“Leave it in the ground” is not a message anyone has ever heard.

The first step has to be making people aware that at least some serious people are now making this argument. Most will reflexively oppose it, but just making it known and understood is the beginning.

robin February 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

On the subject of leaving hydrocarbons in the ground, there is a posting in today’s FT about a couple of US retailers avoiding suppliers that source fuel from Canada’s oil sands: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a9713b16-15e3-11df-b65b-00144feab49a.html.

Though well meaning, the retailers involved are not talking about reducing their energy consumption, rather simply to purchase fuel from alternative sources that on paper look to have a smaller carbon footprint. In this regard I am not sure that a campaign to leave coal in the ground will have the desired impact unless it is possible to accompany it with a campaign capable of convincing people of the need to take a cut in their comfortable (energy intensive) lifestyles. Sadly, a book will not suffice.

Milan February 11, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Given how pipelines and refineries work, it seems impossible for end-users to determine the origin of the molecules they are buying. That said, pressure can be applied to the oil sands in other ways, such as by supporting low-carbon fuel standards, pressuring lenders to deny them capital, etc.

Sarah February 14, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Okay, I’ve just read the first 36 pages of Storms of My Grandchildren and I have to say that I am unimpressed thusfar. The sections I’ve read are a mixture of autobiography and commentary about the individuals & committees involved in the Bush administrations environmental policy up until 2003. To be frank, I find neither his personal history nor the committee structure of the Bush administration interesting, and certainly not the way he’s told them (with very mediocre prose and a failure to provide a clear map for his wandering narrative). Given that you are distributing this book to people I shall take it on trust that it improves.

However, I would like to hear you explain a) what in your view makes this book such an important contribution to the debate, and b) what are, in your view, the most valuable sections of the book. If the value of this book lies in a few chapters then it might be better to recommend that people read only those chapters, because based on both the quality of writing and the material presented thusfar I would not ordinarily be inclined either to finish reading it (I will do so because that was the conditions of having been sent it) or to recommend it to friends. Mostly I am filled with the urge to write to Hansen pleading with him to a) put an index of the figures at the start of the book (especially important given that the figures are informative but his writing is distinctly subpar by the standards of popular science books), and b) find himself a good editor who will say things like ‘Provide a one sentence summary of the message in this chapter. Excellent – now say that at the beginning and the end!’

Milan February 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm

The meat is in and around chapter 9.

9 and 10, really. But many people probably require the earlier chapters to find those at all plausible or credible.

Sarah February 14, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Wow, if one has to read 172 pages to reach the good stuff then his editors are either non-existent, crazy, or their view about what makes the book sellable and/or worth reading is diametrically opposed to yours. Based on what they chose as the first chapter his editors (if they exist) seem to believe the most important thing is to name-drop a bunch of Republicans. Aside from being boring, I’d guess that is going to harm not hinder the credibility of Hansen’s message for most people outside the US, especially given that the message of his exploits with the Republicans is that Hansen has a history of being a poor communicator.

Given what you’ve just said, I’d personally be tempted to conduct a mini-experiment here & ask half of your willing readers to read the whole book start to finish, and ask the other half to read chapters 9 and 10 and then read any other chapters if they so choose. I’d be interested to hear which group had a clearer impression of the message of the book, & which gave more favourable reviews.

Milan February 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm

It depends on how much you can take as read. If you are totally unfamiliar with climate science, policy, etc, then perhaps the earlier pages are necessary.

I could utterly discard copyright laws and make a photocopied handout that takes the best bits from all accounts.

The fact is, among the dozens of climate change books I have read, Hansen’s ultimately had the strongest effect.

Sarah February 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Virtually none of the content in the first 36 pages makes any attempt to explain climate science, though – the figures do, but the text seems to trying to persuade a Republican-leaning and definitely American reader that this Hansen dude is worth listening to by means of name-checking their guys. If that’s their desired audience then I guess it makes sense as a strategy (if, and it’s a big if, those readers would pick up the book), but to me it comes across as tedious, irrelevant waffle that provides insufficient detail about either climate science or policy.

Milan February 15, 2010 at 9:31 am

All of chapter eight is also important, especially Hansen’s defence of 350ppm as the appropriate stabilization target, and the probable sea level consequences of not doing so.

There were things in the first eight chapters I found worthwhile. For instance:

  • Discussion of the meaning of climate sensitivity (around p.42)
  • Explanation of some of the natural cyclical factors in climate (around p.49)
  • Human civilization, and the relatively stable climate of the past 7,000 years (p.50)
  • Timescale of change (70)
  • Two future emission pathways (120)
  • What would it take to melt the Antarctic? (160)

Here are some general sections in the first eight chapters I found interesting and informative, by topic:

  • 350ppm target (xi), (75)
  • Adaptation versus mitigation (85), (151)
  • Black carbon (10), (84)
  • Carbon sinks (118)
  • Cenezoic era history (153)
  • Deniers (10), (11), (15), (55), 166)
  • Effect of aerosols (99)
  • Effect on animals and plants (146)
  • Energy imbalance (81)
  • Forcings (5)
  • Impact of temperature rise (13), (39)
  • Keeling curve (116)
  • Lindzen’s circular logic (55)
  • Methane (51), (149), (161)
  • Models (44), (141)
  • Natural carbon cycle (159), (161)
  • Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (161)
  • Paleoclimatology (36)
  • Radiation spectra (62)
  • Relations with IPCC (76)
  • Sea level rise (38), (50), (81), (84), (141)
  • Solar hypothesis (7), (107), (156)
  • Sources of uncertainty (4), (9), (98)
  • Vehicle efficiency (24)
. February 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

NASA’s Prophet Will Give You Nightmares
Ignore James Hansen’s climate predictions at your peril.
By Johann Hari
Posted Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010, at 6:33 AM ET

“Professor Hansen has been driven into a strange situation, and produced a strange book. For one-third of a century now, this cantankerous scientist has been more accurate in his predictions about global warming than anyone else alive. He saw these disastrous changes coming long before others did, and the U.S. government has tried to censor or sack him for his prescience. Now he has written a whistle-blower’s account while still at the top: a story of how our political system is so wilfully, deliberately blind to environmental realities that we have no choice now but for American citizens to take direct physical action against the polluters. It’s hardly what you expect to hear from the upper echelons of NASA: not a call to the stars, but a call to the streets. Toss a thousand scientific papers into a blender along with All the President’s Men and Mahatma Gandhi, and you’ve got this riveting, disorienting book.

So it is sobering to hear Hansen say—based on large numbers of scientific studies—that “a disintegration of the ice sheets has begun.” Now we need to concentrate on forestalling a tipping point at which they would begin to internally collapse. Once that has happened, we will be powerless to stop a disaster. It will be too late to cut our emissions: They would still fall. Every rock of coal and every ton of carbon we use makes it more likely we will cross the tipping point. Every ton we get instead from low-carbon sources makes it less likely.

This is only one of a dozen effects of global warming that are just as terrifying. If we burn all the world’s remaining fossil fuels, there is only one precedent in the climate record for the warming that will occur. It happened at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago, when the world warmed by 6 degrees. The result? Almost everything on Earth died. A solitary pig-sized creature, the Lystrosaurus, had the land to itself for another 30 million years. Hansen’s is the only nonfiction book to ever give me nightmares.”

alena February 28, 2010 at 1:07 pm

“Storms of My Grandchildren”, by James Hansen — A Review

“Phase out coal emissions as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty,” are the words of the director of the NASA Goddard Institute, James Hansen. For 30 years this intelligent man has made accurate predictions about the effects of human activity on the health of our planet and has tried to warn, instruct and direct the American government to take action. With increasing frustration , he has turned to the general population in order to clear his conscience and to warn us that several administrations have turned a blind eye to his science based warnings.

His book is a tough and tender read. Written by a hand directed by a logical scientific mind, the book is at the same time an emotional appeal to avert the destruction of our world.In it, the author does not hesitate to point fingers at various administrations, individuals, special interest groups and climate change contrarians. Hansen’s somewhat condescending scientific voice is contrasted with a plaintive cry of a grandfather wishing to save the planet for his beloved grandchildren. His own sense of frustration and despair is palpable and easily transfers to the reader. If it were easier to follow, it would really terrify you. I was moved more by the fact that a person with his knowledge and prestige was unsuccessful in convincing people in positions of power to listen to him and to take some direst action. The author makes it abundantly clear that we should not have trust in our policy makers. With all of his knowledge and evidence he is left feeling just as powerless as ordinary folks like us. He asks us to take up the battle for our loved ones. The fact that an ethical, knowledgeable, and influential scientist has failed to bring about policy change in 30 years of trying is not encouraging for the reader. In some ways, the book is an apology to the future generations and his own testimony that he tried and failed.

In my opinion, the book fails to ignite a fire in the reader’s mind because of the detailed and complicated explanations of scientific phenomena associated with climate change. I believe that the author intended his work for the public and as a member of this group, I found it daunting. I am neither a scientist, not an expert on the environment, but I have devoted quite a lot of time to familiarize myself with a wide range of topics related to global warming. My son’s work and his blog have been my most effective educators. I have also tried to integrate some of this material into my classes for newcomers to Canada. Although deeply respectful of me, they shake their heads in disbelief when I try to explain the depth of the problems our earth faces. In their eyes, Canada is the perfect and pristine refuge of their dreams. My younger students are more ready to support that human activity has contributed to the degradation of our world, but do not see any sense of urgency, particularly in Canada. As Hansen states, our media has done a poor job of keeping the population informed about the state of our home, our fragile planet.

It would be difficult to use this book as a teaching tool. Unlike the “Inconvenient Truth,” “Storms of my Grandchildren” lacks visual effects to reinforce the message. I feel that only a small portion of the population could easily follow his explanations and feel inspired to take action. I am not sure how a writer can turn despair and predictions of gloom into passion, but we have to find a way. Hansen’s book explains ideas in too much detail, presents concepts in a confusing way, combines politics and science, is dry and at times deeply personal and sentimental. Although I easily picked up the dark consequences of inaction, I did not feel inspired or directed in how to take action. The author clearly emphasizes that individual effort is not sufficient and that his own courageous attempts to influence politicians have failed. His predictions and warning fell on deaf ears, have cost him reduced funding for research and have shut the doors to the White House.

That said, “Storms of My Grandchildren” is a book worth reading. The information about the science of global warming and climate change can be found in several other books, but the information on the powerful influence of money from special interest groups on preventing government action is illuminating. It clearly shows where the problem really lies and underlines that scientists and politicians are speaking different languages. We need an adept translator and Hansen tries to be one in his book. Our leaders have to be convinced of the indisputable facts such as the rapidly declining Arctic sea ice, the loss of mass in the ice sheets, the expansion of subtropical regions towards the poles and the sad state of the coral reefs. They have to be gripped by fear or something, in order to take brave, earth-saving steps.

Hansen admits freely that there is a “growing gap between what is understood about global warming by the scientific community and what is known by the public and policy makers, and that there is no easy way to bridge the gap.” I feel that the general public does not want to hear a litany of dark environmental predictions as it is beyond their ability to cope. We want to find a magic and pain free solution. The leaders of our world are even more culpable as they have known the facts for a long time, and have willingly allowed themselves to be blindfolded by special interests groups that have blatantly influenced the course of environmental policy.

The author understands the skepticism of humans. Our minds simply cannot accept extreme scenarios that “we may be hurled over a precipice to our demise,” even if they are realistic and possible. Our apathy reflects our governments’ apathy and the comfort we take in their assurances that they are taking action in the right direction. After 30 years of working in the government, Hansen claims that ” he has never seen anything approaching the degree to which information has been screened and controlled as it is now.” Furthermore, he feels that the treatment of scientific knowledge by our government is “reminiscent of the Catholic Church and Galialeo.” According to Hansen, the political treatment of environmental issues constitutes a “violation of democratic principles of America.”

Hansen ends his book on an optimistic note hoping that “reason might prevail soon enough to avoid planetary calamity.” Given his own history of struggle to no avail, this high note does not give the reader a lot of confidence. We can only hope that this book will serve as yet another tool to stimulate action at all levels of society and especially among our policy makers.

Milan February 28, 2010 at 1:17 pm

In my opinion, the book fails to ignite a fire in the reader’s mind because of the detailed and complicated explanations of scientific phenomena associated with climate change.

I found that this was precisely why Hansen’s book was so inspirational. Rather than just asserting something – like that runaway climate change could be possible – he goes through his reasons for believing so in detail.

I can see why it would be challenging for someone unfamiliar with scientific language and terminology to follow, but it is essential for making this a credible work, rather than a mere piece of punditry.

All this makes me think that it is increasingly vital that people be taught more science in school. Nowadays, so many of the political and personal decisions we make – on everything from health care to environmental policy to security – depend on being able to understand and assess scientific data and arguments. People who complete their education without a basic grounding in physics, chemistry, biology, and the general scientific approach are arguably ill-equipped to participate fully in our society.

Tristan March 1, 2010 at 1:21 am

I have not quite finished the book yet – but I already agree with Milan. The book inspires because it does not shy away from the science.

However, I disagree with the “we need even more science in school” assertion. What we need is less money in politics and media.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 10:01 am

Tinkering with how politics is financed might reduce the amount of nonsense that people hear, but it is also necessary to be able to identify nonsense yourself.

Increasingly, that requires understanding science.

We would certainly see fewer stupid news stories about perpetual motion machines if people understood basic physics.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 10:58 am
Tristan March 1, 2010 at 11:35 am

Are there a lot of stories about perpetual motion machines? Is this one millionth as important as stories about climate denial?

The climate denial machine is a money machine – it’s about the ability of rich interests to, by the use of power and money, create the perception of a lack of scientific consensus when there is one, or today more radically, an interest to create the appearance of a scientific conspiracy.

The idea that everyone must understand science is tantamount to saying everyone must understand everything. The division of intellectual labour is how modern specialized society works. This requires, of course, trust. That trust is a very complex issue, but I would say that is where to concentrate, rather than trying to teach people even more science.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 11:44 am

Are there a lot of stories about perpetual motion machines? Is this one millionth as important as stories about climate denial?

There aren’t exceptionally many, but they are illustrative. It only takes a very basic understanding of science to know they are impossible, and yet the media is still happy to repeat them.

There is also a climate connection, because the people who claim to invent perpetual motion machines almost always hold them up as the solution to climate change and dependence on fossil fuel imports.

I agree that people don’t have time to become knowledgeable about all scientific subjects. But trust in science depends in part on understanding it. If you are trying to decide between evolution and creationism, you are in a much better position if you understand how scientific claims are evaluated. Surely, lack of scientific literacy is one reason why scientists are being increasingly reduced to just one more voice in a noisy crowd.

Tristan March 1, 2010 at 11:57 am

Why do news programs run stories on people who claim to have invented perpetual motion machines? Would you run such a story if you were an editor?

Such stories are run by editors who are already in the pocket of advertisers who have an interest in convincing people that a carbon tax is not necessary. I’m sure if you did a study, you’d find that newspapers that run perpetual motion machine studies also run reports on how the “climate gate” crisis shows that scientists need to start again without becoming alarmists for the environmental movement.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Here is one example of reporting on a perpetual motion machine.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

The BBC does have a nice article debunking the thing:

A person who is an adherent of that religion may not necessarily believe each and every one of the dogmas. Beliefs cannot of course be chosen a la carte – but there is a degree of flexibility which can accommodate quite significant differences.

The law of conservation of energy is not like this.

It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant, although it may change forms, into heat or kinetic energy for example.

In short, law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Denying its validity would undermine not just little bits of science – the whole edifice would be no more. All of the technology on which we built the modern world would lie in ruins.

I certainly find it odd that so many people are content to trust their lives to technology, while simultaneously rejecting scientific claims that are fundamentally bound up in the same theories that their technology depends on.

There are a lot of Young Earth Creationists out there using microprocessors, pharmaceuticals, energy from nuclear reactors, GPS devices, etc.

Tristan March 1, 2010 at 12:56 pm

“Denying its validity would undermine not just little bits of science – the whole edifice would be no more. All of the technology on which we built the modern world would lie in ruins.”

This is a pretty silly thing to say. For one, the law would not become “invalid” simply because it were shown to be false. Newtonian physics is not “invalid” – it is useful. In fact, it is useful in exactly the same way as relativity is useful. Namely, it gives good answers in most situations, although there are some situations where it makes the wrong prediction.

Also, we’ve talked about this before, the law of conservation of energy is invalid – because energy is created whenever an exothermic reaction takes placed, and it is destroyed in every endothermic reaction. The created or destroyed energy turns into or out of tiny amounts of matter. Of course, this is false too – because we know relativity is false. But whatever is true, if there is “a true”, is likely “close” in the same way that relativity is ‘close’ to Newtonian mechanics.

In reality, if certain situations were demonstrated to be violations, not only of the law of conservation of energy but of the conservation of matter-energy, these would be anomolies. Anomolies destabalize the current scientific paradigm, but they do not “lay them in ruins”. In fact, most of Kuhn’s evidence supports the notion that anomolies in the data rarely destabalize paradigms enough to allow revolution – just look at the history of the orbit of Mercury.

Tristan March 1, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Is this the return of philosophy of science debates to sindark.com?

If you don’t want it to be, I’ll stop.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Let’s keep this thread focused on Hansen’s book.

As a very brief addendum to the aside about perpetual motion machines, there is some interesting information about them on Wikipedia. The article suggests that conservation of energy is in a special category, even among scientific laws:

“The conservation laws are particularly robust. Noether’s theorem states that any conservation law can be derived from a corresponding continuous symmetry. In other words, so long as the laws of physics (not simply the current understanding of them, but the actual laws, which may still be undiscovered) and the various physical constants remain invariant over time — so long as the laws of the universe are fixed — then the conservation laws must be true, in the sense that they follow from the presupposition using mathematical logic. To put it the other way around: if perpetual motion or “overunity” machines were possible, then most of what we believe to be true about physics, mathematics, or both would have to be false.”

If you want to discuss that further, we could do so on a more appropriate thread.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Returning to the main point, I think scientific literacy is more important now than ever before. The fate of the world quite literally depends on whether policy-makers and voters make risk-management choices on the basis of scientific evidence or not.

R.K. March 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Understanding science, and respecting it because of the rigour of its methods and the success of its products, is definitely a better situation than worshipping it as a kind of powerful but mysterious Wizard of Oz.

alena March 1, 2010 at 8:54 pm

I never said that science is not useful , but if people stop reading the book after 30 pages because it is so dry, it is not going to energize the masses. Obviously, it did not work to convince the politicians either. I am not sure how it can be done, but you bright minds should come up with a more effective approach.

Milan March 1, 2010 at 9:03 pm

It is a tricky thing. If you abandon scientific rigour and start speculating, scientists will rightly point out that your claims are not authoritative. At the same time, passionate speculative discourse is more noticed by people in general.

If this was an academic problem, it would be interesting but not so important. As things stand, we are talking about decisions that may determine whether any humans are alive in 2100 or 2200.

Tristan March 1, 2010 at 10:30 pm

“If you abandon scientific rigour and start speculating, scientists will rightly point out that your claims are not authoritative. ”

No one outside the community of experts can make authoritative claims about science. The point is to have the right relationship between people who are on that specialized community, and those that aren’t. It would be good to have a better general understanding of what a scientific community is, but simply teaching more science is not necessarily the only way of doing that.

alena March 2, 2010 at 12:19 am

The problem is that scientists alone will not change environmental policies. I think that scientists are also not the best at communicating with the public. Hansen states several times that talking to people makes him nervous and ineffective. I do not want to engage in stereotypes, but the eccentric scientist is not unusual. They need to do a better PR job or have someone else do it for them.

Tristan March 2, 2010 at 9:45 am

The problem is the political system is set up such that if a 2% reduction in overall wealth conflicts with what the scientific consensus says is required – this shows up as a conspiracy to destroy capitalism.

The problem with this is not a lack of scientific education – it is the total dominance of the public discourse by the elites.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 4:15 pm

This Monbiot article is relevant to the discussion above.

. March 12, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Only a carbon tax and nuclear power can save us

* James Hansen
* From: The Australian
* March 11, 2010 12:00AM

AUSTRALIA will suffer if fossil fuel use continues unabated. Climate extremes will increase. Poleward expansion of the subtropics will make Australia often hotter and drier, with stronger droughts and hotter fires, as the jet stream retreats southward.

But when ocean temperature patterns bring rain, the warmer air will dump much more water, causing damaging floods. Storms will become more devastating as the ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland begin to disintegrate and cool the neighbouring ocean, as I describe in [my book] Storms of My Grandchildren. Ice discharge from Antarctica has already doubled in the past five years.

Science has shown that preservation of stable climate and the remarkable life that our planet harbours require a rapid slowdown of fossil fuel emissions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, now almost 390 parts per million, must be brought back to 350ppm or less. That is possible, with actions that make sense for other reasons.

But the actions require a change to business-as-usual. Change is opposed by those profiting from our fossil-fuel addiction. Change will happen only with courageous political leadership.

Leaders must draw attention to the moral imperative. We cannot pretend that we do not understand the consequences for our children and grandchildren. We cannot leave them with a situation spiralling out of their control. We must set a new course.

Yet what course is proposed? Hokey cap-and-trade with offsets, aka an emissions trading scheme. Scheme is the right word, a scheme to continue business-as-usual behind a fig leaf.

The Kyoto Protocol was a cap-and-trade approach. Global emissions shot up faster than ever after its adoption. It is impossible to cap all emissions as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy.

. March 23, 2010 at 11:01 am

“So why did I eagerly pick up a copy of James Hansen’s new book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity? Isn’t that like hitting an ingrown toenail with a hammer?

Here’s why: In my office, I have a picture of a man testifying to Congress. He is haggard, with the look of someone under great strain. Behind him, engraved on the wall, is a quote from the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The man in the picture is NASA climatologist James Hansen, best known for bringing the danger of global climate change to the attention of the modern world in the 1980s, and widely considered the planet’s leading climatologist.

As you’d expect, Hansen’s book contains enough charts and graphs to choke a rhino. And there’s plenty of science, lots of it illuminating, even to jaded climate geeks like me. For example: How do we predict what a world with higher CO2 concentrations would look like? Do we use computers to create climate models? That’s one method, certainly. But we can find even more accurate information about what a warmed world will look like if we go back in time and rummage through the geologic record. The information we find there is extremely accurate. It shows that when it was only 1 degree Celsius warmer on average than now, the seas were several feet higher. Just 1 degree makes that much difference.

The science is fascinating, especially when presented in the context of a 30-year effort to make our government understand the dire need for aggressive action. But in the end, Hansen’s book is about something else. It’s about how one should live a life; the book is as much about Hansen’s answer to this philosophical question as it is about climate change.

Hansen is, on one hand, a remarkable man with an exceptional intellect, perhaps a once-in-a-millennium, perfectly timed comet of a person, like a Muhammad Ali or a Jonas Salk. On the other hand, he’s an everyman plagued with the same traits of regret and disappointment with himself that the rest of us also share. In the 1970s, the world’s greatest climate scientist once froze up while giving an overhead slide presentation and had to simply sit down, humiliated. Then, after giving a talk to the Bush-Cheney White House, he agonized about whether he should have ignored the cooling effects of aerosols because it gave Cheney an “out,” enabling him and others to make the specious argument that aerosols somehow balance out the trillions of tons of CO2 emitted every year.

Whatever his demons, Hansen repeatedly forces himself to do what he believes to be the right thing. Over and over, he swears that after one last effort to connect sound science to the policy it should inform, he’ll go back to the lab. Fortunately for us, he never does; his conviction overrules his reticence. This month, Hansen publicly defended Tim DeChristopher, the student who faces jail time for bidding on oil leases, without any money, to prevent drilling.

In his own office, it turns out, Hansen has a picture on the wall too. This shot is of Jackie Robinson and the legendary 1950s Dodgers. I expect that picture must inspire him as much as his picture inspires me. Jackie Robinson, a fulcrum in another battle to save a piece of civilization, is known for doing the impossible: not just integrating baseball, but for stealing home base: the consummate statement of daring, and hope, and confidence, and of simply being alive.”

. April 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm

NASA’s Jim Hansen Wins Sophie Prize
by Chris Hatch

Dr. James E. Hansen is the person that has made it impossible for us to tell our grandchildren that we did not know what we were doing. He is awarded the Sophie Prize 2010 for his vital research, for his abilities to communicate his findings, and for his genuine and inspiring involvement for future generations.

Milan June 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm

It’s a shame so few of the people to whom I sent copies of this book ended up writing anything about it.

So far, my mother’s comment above has been the only detailed response. Zoom did mention reading the first hundred pages.

. August 27, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Am I an activist for caring about my grandchildren’s future? I guess I am

Concerted action to tackle climate change will happen only if the public demands it for the sake of future generations

James Hansen
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 August 2010 16.59 BST

What had become clear was that our planet is close to climate tipping points. Ice is melting in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica, and on mountain glaciers worldwide. Many species are stressed by environmental destruction and climate change. Continuing fossil fuel emissions, if unabated, will cause sea levels to rise and species to become extinct beyond our control. Increasing atmospheric water vapour is already magnifying climate extremes, increasing overall precipitation, causing greater floods and stronger storms.

Stabilising climate requires restoring our planet’s energy balance. The physics is straightforward. The effect of increasing carbon dioxide on Earth’s energy imbalance is confirmed by precise measurements of ocean heat gain. The principal implication is defined by the geophysics, by the size of fossil fuel reservoirs. Simply put, there is a limit on how much carbon dioxide we can pour into the atmosphere. We cannot burn all fossil fuels. Specifically, we must (1) phase out coal use rapidly, (2) leave tar sands in the ground, and (3) not go after the last drops of oil.

Actions needed for the world to move on to clean energies of the future are feasible. The actions could restore clean air and water globally. But the actions are not happening.

. November 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

Here’s Hansen’s todo list. Stick it on the fridge.

1. Phase out all coal fired power stations by 2030. Of course, you can still use coal if you sequester all the emissions, … good luck with that.

2. Undo 200 years of deforestation. We need to start this now, but it will take over 100 years and contribute a reduction of about 50ppm by 2150.

3. Reduce non-carbon dioxide forcings. Hansen is a little vague here, but the argument implies that pre-industrial levels are required.

Now, if the next sentence doesn’t hit like a shattering ice-shelf, then reread until it does. All three items are mandatory. This isn’t a smorgasbord where you pick what you want and ignore the rest. With countries around the world still building new coal power plants, the first todo is looking shaky. Fortunately the second and third are technically easier. We don’t need any new science or technologies but the politics are diabolical.

Milan February 8, 2011 at 7:25 pm

How do people feel about the sub-title ‘The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity’?

I can see why Hansen chose it. He has been working on climate change for years, while nothing has happened politically and the problem has started to look a lot worse scientifically. Given the lags in the system, we need to cut amazingly fast and deep. He must have hoped that the sub-title, from a sober scientist, would alarm people as much as they should be. (Or his publishing house chose it, to try and sell more copies…)

Unfortunately, I think the sub-title has the opposite effect on ordinary people. They see it immediately marking him out as someone who has stepped outside the box of ‘science’ (while still doing good scientific work) and become an advocate. Advocacy is entirely justified in this case, but people are naturally suspicious of it when they see it. I think people see the title when they are first handed the book and automatically weight their thinking against the author’s perceived bias when they start reading.

Milan February 8, 2011 at 7:33 pm

You also have to wonder a bit why NASA keeps James Hansen as the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, despite all his criticism of the administration.

I wonder whether – to some small degree – NASA is doing so as a way of getting back at a string of administrations that keep cutting back their ambitions. The Space Shuttle Program is ending; the future of the International Space Station is in doubt; Mars missions were an obvious non-starter when President Bush last proposed one.

Manned spaceflight might not be all that scientifically useful, but I bet it’s what the people at NASA enjoy doing best. Robots are annoying machines. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be have have a multi-million dollar rover stuck on a patch of sand on Mars.

NASA may not get any new toys, but at least they have a way of hitting back at administrations full of people who think the world is 6,000 years old and who don’t want to spend money on anything exciting like a probe to Europa or a (potentially very useful) nuclear fusion reactor. They can help a prominent climate change activist (with science on his side) to remain prominent and get his message out.

[Update: 17 February 2011] I am also sure NASA keeps Hansen on board partly because they are professional scientists with integrity, and they resist having science distorted for political purposes. Even the higher level people in NASA have too much respect for science to just lie about it.

Milan February 17, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Speaking of storms:

University of Victoria climate sleuths have detected, for the first time, a human hand in the increasing fury of intense storms battering the Northern Hemisphere.

According to researchers, greenhouse gases generated by human activity have intensified heavy-precipitation events since 1950 across much of North America, Europe and Asia, increasing flooding and devastation.

“Human influence is more pervasive than just a response in surface temperature,” said the study’s senior author, Francis Zwiers, referring to the rise in global temperature due to greenhouse gases.

Human influence is now evident in the planet’s “hydrological cycle, and the behaviour of the hydrological cycle,” Zwiers said.

It has long been suspected that greenhouse gases are playing a role in the increasing intensity of storms and floods, but scientists have had trouble pinning it down. Both Zwiers’ team and another group in Europe say they have now come up with incriminating evidence.

Robert Lamb November 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

Milan, I am a concerned citizen of the US who is wondering what, if anything, can be done to reverse the course of caving politicians and power/money hungry corporations, fossil fuel industries and others who could care less about the coming climate catastrophe, which in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, seems to be here already… BTW, James Hansen was interviewed today by Cenk Uygur:
http://current.com/shows/the-young-turks/videos/nasas-james-hansen-neither-party-wants-to-offend-the-fossil-fuel-industry-by-talking-about-climate-change

Milan April 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm

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