on December 8, 2009
James Hansen, the world's most famous climate scientist, is thought by climate contrarians to be part of a liberal conspiracy. But as you'll see below (Chp. 9), he's as independent as he claims -- critical of Republicans for suppressing climate change science, but critical of Democrats for blocking the most important part of the solution. Surprises await readers of any persuasion. The book contains a mix of equal parts politics and science, so a guide to the chapters may be helpful. (For why this book is best on climate science, see my wonkish "comment" below.)
Chp. 1: Dick Cheney's climate task force. The frustrations of politics with a little science tossed in.
Chp. 2: The A-team. Hansen retreats and thinks through climate policy with his students.
Chp. 3: Visit to the White House. He's hopeful, then disappointed. This chapter launches into serious Paleoclimate science and explains the mystery of why the world starts to warm from an ice age before carbon dioxide increases. Fascinating if you like science. Otherwise, skim for interesting tidbits -- ice that would crush "New York City to smithereens," the development of civilization, coastal fishing, and more.
The first big surprise: "It may seem that I am harsh on climate models." He doesn't think they're good at estimating "climate sensitivity." In fact, he says, "Thirty years later [after the National Academy's 1979 estimate], models alone still cannot do much better."
Chp. 4: Back to 1989. Hansen asks for satellite instruments to collect crucial global warming data. No luck.
Chp. 5: A Slippery Slope. In 2003 Hansen writes an article with "extensive criticisms of IPCC" (UN climate science). He is not pleased that the best IPCC model "concluded that the ice sheets would grow as the world became warmer."
Chp. 6: Humanity's Trap. Aerosols are now counteracting carbon but we don't know much about them. A nice graph of solar output and the beginning of the White-House censorship story.
Chp. 7: The Keeling Curve. "Reality contrasts markedly with the impression created by the media." Carbon dioxide is not growing faster than expected by the IPCC scenarios. More on White-House censorship.
Chp. 8: Where Should We Aim? Hansen gets new data and draws "one of the most beautiful curves on the planet," showing how it was far hotter (with no ice) 50 million years ago. From that and more science, he concludes that we must return the atmosphere to 350 ppm.
Chp. 9: An Honest Path. Possibly the book's biggest surprise: "It is extremely irresponsible, in my opinion, to make the assumption that efficiency and renewables are all that will be needed." We will need fast breeder reactors, and fortunately we have "$50 trillion" worth of left-over uranium for fuel.
He blames the Democrats. "Argonne scientists ... were ready to build a demonstration fast-reactor power plant." But in 1994, Bill Clinton announced, "We will terminate unnecessary programs in advanced reactor development." Hansen concludes, "It seems possible that antinuke people, who heavily support the Democratic Party, were being repaid."
He explains his economic proposals for "a rising price on carbon applied at the source" in the form of "fee-and-dividend." "A cap-and-trade agreement will be just as hard to achieve as was the Kyoto Protocol."
Chp. 10: Venus. "If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty."
Chp. 11: Storms of My Grandchildren. Recent anti-coal protest activity, and some science of storms.
In this age of political correctness, right and left, it's a delight to be invited into Hansen's home-spun, un-censored, scientific world. If you appreciate the fresh air, two very different books may be of interest. Carbonomics: How to Fix the Climate and Charge It to OPEC explains why Hansen's refunded carbon tax is a good idea that works, and predicted Copenhagen's failure over a year in advance: "developing countries will not accept internationally set caps." It then explains what to do about it. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air is a fabulous, authoritative book on alternative energy, and provides the back story on the need for carbon capture or nuclear power. Together, the three books cover most of climate-policy related science with almost no overlap.
In summary, this is no journalistic quick read. It's fascinating, not because it's slickly written -- it's certainly not -- but because both James Hansen and his science are fascinating and you get a front row seat as the story unfolds.
on February 26, 2010
I hope not, but it's hard to find a basis for optimism after reading James Hansen's book and looking at the current American political situation. Hansen's prescriptions for averting a climate catastrophe are tough to meet, and at the moment there is a political backlash against bold government endeavors such as these. Right now, taking action on climate change is largely perceived as one competing political issue among many at best, and as a power-grab based on tainted science at worst. Hansen argues that maintaining the human civilization that developed after the last ice age depends on us stabilizing the climate.
It was James Hansen's testimony before congress in 1988 that brought global warming into the public square as an issue, and he has been at the center of the shouting match ever since. He begins the book by recounting his efforts to convince the political leadership of the importance of tackling climate change in the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, the political appointees in NASA did all they could to keep him from expressing the views in a public setting, using a law about government employees engaging in political campaigns. Hansen expressly says that he prefers to stick to the science, but that the problem is so daunting that he had to speak out.
Hansen actually talks about the science behind climate change, and makes it relatively easy for readers to understand. With a large amount of Co2 emissions, heat is trapped in the atmosphere, and there's an energy imbalance between how much heat is coming into the earth from the sun and how much is radiated back into space- thus resulting in the temperature warming up. So Co2 is a climate "forcing" as he puts it. There are many kinds of climate forcings, many of them natural, but as Hansen points out, human Co2 emissions outpace them by several orders of magnitude. What has Hansen so concerned about the present situation is his work with paleo-climate data, which, he says, are more important than climate models, useful though they may be. He persuasively argues that the last mass-extinction coincided with release of powerful methane hydrates in the ocean, and that this led to amplifying feedback loops, and that we are in danger of pushing the climate to a similar tipping point.
The solutions he presents are a tall order to meet, and frankly I think they will be nearly impossible in the current political situation. First and foremost, we need to cut carbon emissions to 350 ppm to avoid pushing the climate past a tipping point, and cap-and-trade won't get us there. The "offsets" are based on phantom emissions reductions in the future, which are rubber-stamped by an international body and then sold to other companies so that they can emit more carbon- most of the targeted "offsets" are rarely met, and the energy efficiency they would have achieved in any case without the cap-and-trade. What he proposes is a tax-and-dividend, (or fee-and-dividend)- a gradually rising price on carbon collected by the government, and proceeds distributed to citizens. The idea is to create an incentive for a drastically reduced carbon economy because, as he put it in an NPR interview, as long as fossil fuels are cheaper, people will continue to use them. Second, we need to phase out coal- put a moratorium on all new coal plants unless they are built with the capacity to completely capture their carbon emissions. Energy efficiency is an important aspect too, but people buying more efficient light bulbs and cars is not going to fix this. Perhaps most controversially among environmentalists, he backs the increased use of nuclear power to meet our electricity needs; he is all for wind and solar as part of the solution, but as of now they have not shown enough consistency in meeting energy needs.
What makes it particularly difficult for me to maintain optimism that a political solution to this is going to be found is what Hansen says about special interests and the necessity of public pressure. He is very critical of the way special interests have influenced the way environmental legislation is crafted, and of the way even organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund have a "Washington mentality" which prevents what needs to be done from being done; i.e., settling for cap-and-trade and for capturing carbon emissions to be added to new coal plants "eventually." Unfortunately, the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United does not bode well for Hansen's hopes. Furthermore, he says that there needs to be public pressure for the best legislation, and perhaps even civil disobedience directed at coal companies. Unfortunately, at the moment the populist winds are not blowing in this direction. The people who see climate change as the important issue that Hansen does are in a small minority. And the problem is that by the time climate change causes disastrous effects, it will be too late to do much about it. There may perhaps be some technological breakthrough in energy or in carbon capture that can do away with coal's carbon emissions. Moreover, the political scene is as chaotic and nonlinear as our planet's climate, so things may change yet. In any case, well-informed citizens owe it to themselves to read this important book.
A January 2009 peer-reviewed study of active American climate scientists found that over 97% of them agreed that, "human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures". Climate scientists' confidence factor regarding its predictions about future sea level rise and significant extinction events if we don't reform our energy sources is also high at 95%. Science, and Hansen in his book both explain and report those predictions; that if we fail to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions science predicts catastrophe to humanity - both in lives, security, and our economic base.
Therefore I would argue that this generation of the U.S. public is facing our single greatest historical test relative to what the rest of the world requires of us in order to defend humanity against catastrophe. Is this mere hyperbole on my part? Especially given the enormous tests previously thrown our way - such as the U.S.'s engagement in the Atlantic Theater of WWII and our contributions in the Cold War. It's not hyperbole if you've studied the ecological and economic damage coming our way if we don't quickly reverse the rate we emit anthropogenic ("human-generated") greenhouse gases coupled to the U.S. government's inability or unwillingness to set policies mitigating global warming; the latter being the primary factor why it falls on the American people's shoulders to get our government moving out domestically. Especially since we need to garner leverage to better engage the rest of the world, China and India in particular. Therefore my `greatest challenge in America's history' assertion becomes at least arguable if not self-evident.
Even being cognizant of this reality, I was concerned that Dr. Hansen's naming the latter portion of this book's subtitle went too far with, " . . . Our Last Chance to Save Humanity". `Saving humanity', like we to risk extinction? The only reason I still purchased the book in spite of the perceived hyperbole was the immense respect Dr. Hansen has earned within the scientific community for both his discoveries, his ability to have his predictions stay ahead of the curve where the peer-accepted community is in constant catch-up mode, and his willingness to speak truth to power. Was this portion of the subtitle the work of an editor seeking a more provocative spin to improve book sales? No, Hansen unequivocally states in the first page of the Preface, "The startling conclusion is that the continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of other species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself - and the timetable is shorter than we thought." Dr. Hansen sets an incredibly high bar for argument; does he and the scientific evidence meet the challenge?
I would say the effort to hit that high bar is arguable. However the benefits of understanding the best features of Dr. Hansen's thesis far outweigh some fundamental weaknesses contained within the book. Therefore I think this is perhaps the most important book I've read in my lifetime and while flawed, the most strident recommendation I've ever made for a book I rated a mere three stars.
I found the biggest strength of the book is the science. Dr. Hansen does a masterful job of explaining a very complex theory with a lot of moving parts in a manner where I believe anyone capable of passing a high school physics class can easily understand all his lessons and those of us who can't will still grasp the most important parts while not losing a desire to move through those passages we don't completely understand. His tutorials include lots of graphs and his lessons were pragmatically framed in a manner that easily and convincingly refutes the denialists who both falsely misrepresent our understanding of climate change and enjoy vastly more media coverage than they deserve (especially since the media is unable or in Fox News' and others' case, also unwilling to refute denialists' false claims as they are presented in both print and radio/TV).
Dr. Hansen was also masterful in presenting his lessons in a way where denialist claims didn't dominate the material at the expense of cluttering his attempt to teach us the actual science. Instead Hansen reveals the relevant laws of physics coupled to the scientific community's observed findings which allows the reader to easily conclude how absurd, dishonest, and unscientific nearly all denialist claims that get traction in the media truly are. For example 2009's cold summer in part of the American Midwest which was relentlessly promoted by denialists like Matt Drudge as evidence AGW is not a valid theory; Hansen rebuts by providing Figure 21, which shows how trivially small that cold area is relative to vast expanse of geography while the totality of the Northern Hemisphere experienced the second hottest summer in 130 years in 2009 with the most vulnerable and sensitive area being the hottest, the Arctic in the Western Hemisphere.
Given the criticality of the subject matter, the existence of media outlets like The Drudge Report, The Wall Street Journal, Newsmax, The Washington Post, and Fox News along with national syndicated columnists like George Will and Cal Thomas who all repeatedly lie about the state of the science, and how woeful both the mainstream media and our current government has been in both explaining our understanding of climate change and the ramifications of current and proposed policies, I think each of us has an obligation to each other and our country to consider what science understands in a manner equal to our predecessors' direct support of America's effort in WWII. We can't currently depend on our government or our media; we instead must take personal responsibility if we truly care about the future world we leave our children and to change this dynamic and get both on-board. I believe this book is a great avenue to beginning one's more informed engagement.
A second strong feature of the book is Dr. Hansen interweaving the science lessons with story after story buttressing and reinforcing his assertion that our government just doesn't get it and is not in anyway even remotely committed to successfully mitigating the risks of anthropogenic global warming (aka "AGW") in a timely fashion - where time is everything. He even has a name for what is known on the web as `concern trolling', which Hansen names "greenwashing". Hansen's evidence of greenwashing or outright opposition of science (in the case of the Bush Administration and the GOP) includes the Democratic Party that now controls both the House of Representatives and the White House - where I would argue we can safely predict the Senate will be far more defective on this matter than the House or the Administration.
While it's easy to point-out how anti-science President Bush's Administration was in practice which Hansen does a handful of times in this book; the biggest whopper of a failure is one Dr. Hansen directly attributes to President Clinton (which I won't reveal here given I think it's a spoiler). Dr. Hansen is convincing in arguing that `we the People' are the world's last chance; Kyoto, Copenhagen, and President Obama, though a science-advocate, are not sufficient. Effective change will only incur when the U.S. government gets the message from `we the People' that we support the tough choices we need to take now that won't provide a pay-off until years down the road; though Hansen is much more optimistic a pay-off could be sooner with some empirical evidence to support his position.
The third winning aspect of the book is Dr. Hansen's taking on the uncomfortable mantle of policy prescriber/advocate. Science is mostly descriptive, not prescriptive; it seeks objective truth and does its best to describe that reality to us. Optimally politicians will then in turn develop policies consistent with the science. Dr. Hansen's valuable experiences within our federal government as they opposed real change and his observations we lack a leader on this topic convinced him to get on this particular soapbox to also pitch policy prescriptions. Perhaps the most entertaining and certainly refreshing aspect of his policy arguments was that in total they're sure to offend every political ideology and major special interest group out there, populists - both left and right, environmentalists, plutocrats, Republicans, Democrats, and even economists (see liberal economist Paul Krugman's recent strawman misrepresentation of Hansen's `fee and dividend' argument as opposed to Krugman's `cap and trade' policy preference.).
Regarding the negatives: I was and remain frustrated with the inadequate volume of citations. I prefer footnotes, endnotes worst case for all provocative assertions. I expect this when reading books written by intellectuals, especially scientists and academics. Dr. Hansen does neither though he does list a source section in the back sorted by chapter. He does source many of his claims regarding the efficacy of climate observations and predictions and all his figures. He also has a webpage for the book so perhaps he'll buttress more of his claims in the book with citations at his webpage. However I've already been stymied by doing further research twice because sources weren't specifically cited and the book is also unwieldy when attempting to discover which source goes to which assertion in the text.
Dr. Hansen certainly presented overwhelming validated and peer-accepted empirical evidence that our not reversing our CO2 emission trends would lead to catastrophic results in terms of national security, economic stability, and mass extinction events. Certainly what peer-accepted science already understands risks our way of life and billions of lives, but the destruction of humanity per the sub-title and Preface?
My primary problem with this lofty claim and the chapter that covered it, titled The Venus Syndrome, is that Dr. Hansen framed his premise with the assumption we'd continue to consume all fossil fuels in a `business as usual' manner for more decades. I'm more optimistic that we'll adapt, instead I'm concerned we won't adapt quickly and sufficiently enough. 67% percent of all Americans according to 2007/2008 Gallup poll see AGW as a serious risk while only 15% think it's not very, or at all serious. Couple that to a looming El Nino weather cycle (which shouldn't matter if we were a scientifically literate people) and an Obama administration through 2012 and I think we will come around to a transition plan, it's the quality that is concerning, especially since that 33% control both the Republican party and a sufficient number of conservative Democratic Senators giving them filibuster powers in the Senate.
So the more practical question is how much time do we have before a Venus syndrome that risks all or nearly all life on earth becomes a viable risk? Unfortunately Dr. Hansen reports that science can't yet answer that question since our models on ice melt aren't as developed as we'd like in order to confidently predict scenarios with any confident precision. So Dr. Hansen's primary argument rests on thoroughly rational conclusions based on past empirical evidence coupled to our present reality. That current reality is a brighter sun and what appears to be a far greater inventory of methane hydrates on the ocean floor, a carbon sink Dr. Hansen concludes is almost fully saturated and therefore not able to provide the past negative forcing that's helped moderate past positive forcings while also being an explosive source of positive forcing material if a warming ocean more rapidly absorbed it or it was released directly as gas as we sometimes encounter. While it's a great argument, I do think the lack of supportive peer-reviewed articles that would allow us to see how much peer-acceptance Dr. Hansen enjoys on his Venus argument has me concluding his sub-title and sincere warning regarding a "threat to humanity" is inappropriate in the sub-title and in the Preface. The chapter itself was fine and applicable except perhaps his concluding with `dead certainty' the Venus syndrome will be realized if we consume the oil shale and tar sand resources given his lack of peer-reviewed articles supporting his assertion.
While I finished the book not being convinced that Dr. Hansen's policy prescriptions were all optimal, I was grateful I encountered them and have subsequently modified some of my own positions. Hansen's prescriptions in their entirety certainly revealed to me how inadequate the media and our government have been in communicating optimal avenues to mitigate global warming along with the total lack of focus by our political leaders on this incredible challenge to humanity, a total failure by both parties though the GOP has been and remains the primary political force driving and enabling this failure. Having considered his policy arguments I now have a far broader perspective and additional ideas to judge the worthiness of future advocacy that I didn't possess prior to reading this book. Dr. Hansen had three extremely compelling policy propositions that I don't even see debated in the public square, anecdotal evidence supporting his assertion that our government is neither serious or prepared to mitigate AGW and that our media is ill-prepared to moderate a policy debate on this matter. That leaves `we the People' to get educated and rise up. I respectfully request you join me and believe this book is an invaluable guide to advancing on this journey.
on March 18, 2010
In my opinion "Storms of My Grandchildren" by James Hansen (one of the world's leading atmospheric scientists) is the most important book yet written for the general public on climate change. Hansen has presented the data and calculations in a compelling way that most people with a high school science background can understand. It is also a good introduction to the science of climate change if you come from another branch of the sciences as I do. Even if you skip the numbers, you can still get a good qualitative sense of the problem and an insight into the policies and politics. However, I would give the book only 4 and one-half stars, because some important points are a bit scattered throughout the book and there are redundancies, as mentioned by other reviewers. To help readers get a more organized view of the science and policies that Hansen is presenting, I have outlined the important points of the book below with the page numbers of where they appear.
CLIMATE CHANGE HYPOTHESIS
The last 10,000 years (the Holocene) has had a fairly stable climate allowing civilizations to flourish. But in the last few hundred years (especially in the last 50 years) we have burned an increasing amount of fossil fuels leading to the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide and methane, that is leading to a worldwide change in climate.
EVIDENCE FOR CLIMATE CHANGE
Hansen bases his contention that we are in a period of dangerous climate change on data taken from two periods in the past (the Quaternary and Cenozoic) and on data obtained in the last 100 years or so (the present). This evidence is presented in three sections below.
The Quaternary Period (2.6 million years ago to present):
This was a time of alternating glacial and interglacial cycles with a corresponding fall and rise of temperature and GHGs during each cycle (measured in ice cores from Greenland or Antarctica). The change in temperature was caused by a combination of changes in the earth's orbit and tilt of its axis (pp 47-9), and always preceded the change in GHGs by several hundred years (p 38).
As the temperature increased GHGs were released which caused further warming. In addition, the rising temperature also caused the ice sheets to melt exposing darker land and sea surfaces which absorbed more sunlight also causing the temperature to rise. During the height of this warming about 14,000 years ago, the sea level rose by as much as 5 cm (2 inches) per year for centuries (p 84 and 144).
The additional amount of power that must have been absorbed by the earth to create this warmer environment is determined to be about 6.5 watts for every square meter of the earth's surface (pp 45-6). This is less than 2% of the average solar power incident upon the earth, but was enough to raise the average temperature 5 degrees Celsius and melt all the great ice sheets in North America and Europe (leaving only Greenland and Antarctica).
The Cenozoic Era (the last 65 million years):
In a warmer period in earth's climate history, there was a sudden warming of 5 to 9 degrees Celsius about 55 million years ago over a time span of only a few thousand years (Fig 18, p 153). The most probable cause for this warming was a release of about 3000 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon in the form of methane hydrates consolidated on the ocean floor. Evidently warm ocean currents melted the hydrates releasing them in two major bursts (pp 161-3, 235, and 259). Since there may now be as much as 5000 gigatons of methane hydrates on the ocean floor and in the permafrost of the tundra (more than all the fossil fuel reserves on earth!), their release by warm ocean currents could lead to a runaway greenhouse effect and truly catastrophic climate change (Venus syndrome, Chapter 10).
Another feature of the Cenozoic Era is that a long period of cooling persisted from about 50 to 34 million years ago. At the end of this period the temperature had decreased sufficiently for the ice sheets to start forming in Antarctica. The carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere then was about 450 parts per million (ppm) (p 160). The significance of this will be discussed in the next section.
At present we are adding about 9 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere every year and this amount is growing by 3.3% per year in this decade according to Raupach et al (Proc of Natl Acad of Sci, 12 Jun 2007 p10288, [...]
(see also Fig 25, p182). About 56% of this carbon goes into the atmosphere leading to an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of about 390 ppm today (pp 116-120). This is the highest concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in at least the last 20 million years (Zachos et al in Chapter 8 references, p 285 and Pearson & Palmer, Nature, 17 Aug 2000, p698). In addition, this concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing by about 2 ppm per year (Fig. 17, p 121) and this increase is increasing since we are adding carbon to the atmosphere at an increasing rate. At this rate we will reach an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 450 ppm in less than 25 years. As mentioned in the Cenozoic section above, this is the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide when the ice sheets were just beginning to form 34 million years ago - a time when sea level was 75 meters (250 feet) higher than today (p160 and Fig. 18). Therefore, Hansen reasons, we are dangerously close to sea level rise that would be catastrophic for coastal cities, since more than a billion people live within 25 meters of sea level today (p 85). In fact, this evidence leads him to suggest that we reduce the carbon dioxide concentration to 350 ppm by the end of the century (or even sooner).
Further evidence for global warming emerges from the increase in absorbed solar power of nearly 2 watts per square meter, calculated from the current concentration of GHGs. This is about 30% of the increased absorbed solar power that led to the melting of the great ice sheets. (For further details see Hansen et al, Science, Vol 308, p1431-5, 3 Jun 2005). This increase of 2 watts per square meter will eventually lead to an average global temperature rise of about 1.3 degrees Celsius (about 0.7 of which has already occurred). Even this small temperature rise could be significant since during the last interglacial period (the Eemian) the temperature was only one degree Celsius warmer than today, but sea level was 4 to 6 meters higher (p 51).
SUMMARY OF REASONS TO REDUCE GREENHOUSE GASES
See pp 164-5, 253-4, and 259.
1. To return the summer ice to the north polar regions;
2. To reduce the loss of mountain glaciers that are the source of fresh water for billions of people worldwide;
3. To prevent the loss of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the consequent rise in sea level affecting all coastal cities and large areas of some countries;
4. To reduce the likelihood of increasing chronic drought areas and forest fire frequency;
5. To reduce the stresses on coral reefs (due to ocean acidification and ocean surface warming) where a quarter of all marine biological species are located;
6. To reduce the likelihood of more violent storms;
7. To reduce the likelihood of a significant methane hydrate release that could lead to a catastrophic runaway greenhouse effect.
SUMMARY OF ACTIONS THAT CAN BE TAKEN TO REDUCE GREENHOUSE GASES CAUSED BY FOSSIL FUEL USE
Hansen's suggestions for reaching the goal of 350 ppm for atmospheric carbon dioxide include (Chapter 9):
1. Improve energy efficiency (least cost per unit of energy and has a known track record);
2. Develop renewable energies like wind and solar (but these may not be sufficient because of their intermittent nature and the requirement for an expanded electric grid);
3. Phase out coal-fired power plants (sequestration of carbon dioxide could reduce the problem but it is expensive, potentially dangerous, and not likely to be adopted);
4. Replace them with next generation nuclear power plants. These power plants provide continuous baseload power, use nuclear waste as fuel (there is enough for a thousand years), and are safer than conventional nuclear power plants;
5. Encourage the reduction in use of fossil fuels by placing a fee on all fossil fuel use and distribute these fees as dividends to the public. This has been adopted successfully in British Columbia.
Useful web sites:
Hansen and Sato's website at Columbia University
350org, a group working to reduce carbon emissions
The Worldwatch Institute
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The NOAA 2009 Annual State of the Climate Report
Flannery, T., "The Weather Makers," Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2005. This is another concise and very readable presentation of the science of climate change.
MacKay, D., "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air," UIT Cambridge, 2009. Also available free online.
Ruddiman, W.F., "Earth's Climate, Past and Future," 2nd ed., W.H. Freeman & Co., NY, 2008. This is a beautifully illustrated text for use in introductory courses in climate science.
Stoft, S., "Carbonomics: How to Fix the Climate and Charge It to OPEC," Diamond Press, 2008. Also available free online.
Worldwatch Institute, "2009 State of the World, Into a Warming World," WW Norton & Co., 2009. This is a good current review of climate change science and policy and steps that can be taken to bring the earth back into balance.
James Hansen got his PhD in Atmospheric Physics and he studied for the famous Space Scientist James Van Allen (Van Allen radiation belts). He is one of the world’s foremost experts on radiative transfer, planetary atmospheres, and climate models. In this book Dr. Hansen gives an overview of the history and science of global warming as well as the politics around it and he discusses the climate skeptic/contrarian propaganda. He explains what we know about global warming and how we know it, and he warns us about the potential dangers of global warming (or climate change) and discusses solutions. There is a lot that we do not know about climate change but there is also a lot that we do know and the public needs to get educated on the issue. The book is intended for laymen but parts of the book might still be too complex for readers unused to scientific reasoning.
That carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas is an undisputed fact that has been known for centuries and using mathematics and basic physics formulas you can get a good idea of how much a certain increase of carbon dioxide will affect average global temperatures if you ignore secondary effects. The basic physics behind human caused global warming is compelling by itself. However, the temperature record that has been collected, weather balloon and satellite data, the Keeling curve, other data, and Paleoclimate research, etc, provides us with overwhelming evidence that global warming is happening and that it certainly is us. The data also gives us some idea of where we are heading. He makes it clear that the so called climate models are not good evidence for anthropomorphic global warming. They are used for projections. They are getting better but they still have a long way to go. In any case, compelling evidence is still something we have plenty of.
One of the topics discussed in the book are past climate and climate cycles, for example, the ice ages. In the case of ice ages perturbations in the earth’s orbit caused climate forcings, which in turn affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This in turn strengthened the effect of the original forcing (positive feedback). Studying various past climate events like this James Hansen was able to conclude that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a warming of the Earth of about 3.0 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), which is bad news. Whatever has happened in the past, human-made climate forcings are now in total dominance over natural forcings, and the climate is now changing extremely fast. It is changing more than ten times as fast as the sudden Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) event 55 million years ago, and PETM led to the extinction of perhaps half of all species on earth.
I tend to be the most interested in the science aspect of things. However, explaining the science was just one part of the book. This book also discusses the political history of climate change, meetings with political leaders, the propaganda, Richard Lindzen and his climate change skepticism and “tobacco is safe” advocacy, environmentalist organizations, and solutions. In that regard James Hansen shows himself as the political independent he really is. He criticizes Republicans for inaction or resistance to action and Democrats for advocating the wrong solutions. He expresses support for Nuclear Power as an alternative to fossil fuels and he criticizes some environmental organizations for making good solutions to anthropomorphic global warming harder to achieve. The solution he expresses support for is a revenue neutral carbon tax.
In summary I really liked this book. It concisely and effectively presented a lot of useful information on many topics and advocated a sensible solution. James Hansen is extremely knowledgeable and a clear headed thinker, he is modest and careful with his statements, and he is very much grounded in reality. After reading this book I want him for President. I highly recommend this book.
on March 3, 2011
First, Hansen isn't afraid to call out Democrats as well as Republicans for selling us short on honestly and seriously addressing global warming and climate change. Related to that, he's not afraid to call out international accords such as Kyoto as having an international political angle to them.
Second, because of the "angle" of the book, what might seem scaremongering from many an author isn't from him. Maybe the "extinction of homo sapiens" is a bit that way, but, given that H. sapiens sapiens, post rise of civiilization 10,000-12,000 years ago, has become so anchored to a finely tuned climate, he may not even be wrong about that.
As far as numbers, I have little doubt the world will crack 450ppm on CO2, at least, before reining it in. 500 ppm wouldn't totally surprise me, and if we hit that, Hansen's "runaway" theory may well become reality.
Third, he's not afraid to call out environmental groups for either playing "political footsie" or for displaying a knee-jerk negative reaction to the one electric power source that offers the most hope at getting us out of this mess, especially regarding coal -- and that's fast breeder nuclear reactors.
Hansen notes that breeder reactors would solve a fair amount of the nuclear waste problem associated with current reactors. As for the "terror" worry/hype, Hansen notes that other countries are going to be building these types of reactors anyway, and that we just need to spend some more money on security.
Finally, Hansen provides enough in the way of easy-to-follow charts and diagrams, with footnotes to more sources of information, to back this up and make it all readily understandable.
The one thing I disagree with him? The readiness of "we the people," whether in the U.S. or abroad, to demand the wrenching changes needed in numbers large enough to force politicians to act. Would that it were so, but I think Hansen's showing some Upper Midwest Scandinavian gentle-hearted naivete there.
on September 15, 2013
After a career spanning many decades, author James Hansen retired from his position as NASA's lead climatologist so that he could devote full time to raising awareness of the imminent danger of catastrophic climate change. Hansen is no excitable opportunist trying to make a financial killing from sales of his book. Rather, he confesses his regret at the cautious reticence he has in the past displayed as a scientist quietly dedicated to evidence-based and peer-reviewed research publications and conferences.
But he has learned that cautious reticence does not work against the moneyed bombast of the coal and oil energy lobbies and their corrupt shills in Congress and the far-right media. As he became a grandfather, he increasingly realized that his grandkids' future will be destroyed if we do not act immediately to halt and reverse our atmospheric concentration of CO2. A few months ago that concentration passed 400 ppm, the highest it has been since the Pliocene 3 million years ago, an era characterized by warmth that caused sea levels to be 80 feet higher than today. Hansen also laments the extreme environmental degradation caused by the extraction processes such as scouring of the Alberta oil sands, deep water drilling for oil, Wyoming canyon gouging and West Virginia mountaintop scalping for oil --and fracking.
Dr. Hansen urges a huge investment in more sophisticated (but expensive) Generation IV nuclear power generation. Most current nuclear power comes from Generation II reactors. They produce only 1% of the energy available in the fuel, leaving behind highly radioactive waste that is both a health and national security risk. Generation IV reactors can use that waste as fuel, extracting nearly all its energy, and leaving waste that is easy to store and cannot be turned into weapon-grade material. Hansen estimates there is already enough spent waste to power the world for several hundred years using Generation IV reactors.
Storms of My Grandchildren is not only the most worrisome, but also the most hopeful book I have read on climate change. Dr. Hansen strikes me as a down-to-earth human, a man you might like so sit down for coffee with, while he patiently explains the science of climatology and nuclear generation to you.
on January 6, 2010
This is not a "wow, I never knew that" kind of book, as one reviewer seems to have hoped: climate change is now too mature a topic for that. Thus, although aided perhaps by some sad 'wows' provided by the dismal procession of data that continue to underline and confirm what is now abundantly clear, it is simply a comprehensive statement by one of the planet's foremost authorities on the subject of his understanding of where we are, how we got here and where we might be going. Anyone seriously interested in climate change should read this book as soon as possible.
It is a great pity, therefore, that Dr Hansen could not have had his work either edited more tightly or more critically reviewed by colleagues to create and maintain a consistent train of scientific logic. Given his own concerns and the urgency of delivering its message, this is perhaps understandable, but it makes it an unnecessarily difficult read. Nevertheless, to read the raw Hansen is undeniably wrenching and it is hard not to be moved by his fears for the future, especially as the whole issue has now become so politicised in the United States.
A new edition, with tighter editing or refereeing, crisper illustrations and including data available at that future date would be well worth producing. Every few years.
In case 'getting the politicians to agree' is thought to be the only difficulty ahead of us, it might be noted that a recent report issued by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in Britain makes it clear that, if such agreement is ever achieved, even the logistics of attacking climate change will not then be straightforward either. Hansen's message of urgency has never been more timely.
on February 14, 2010
This book is as compelling as it is terrifying. James spends much of the book meticulously explaining the science of global warming. It can be technical at times, but is well worth the effort required. I found myself re-reading the occasional chapter to ensure I was on top of the science. James is a heroic scientist who is desperately trying to warn us of the impending climate catastrophe. The arguments in this book are difficult to fault and provide a frighteningly airtight impetus for action. As I write this the severity of storms across the globe, from record snow in Washington to flash-flooding across most of Queensland, Australia, are bearing out James' predictions. Reading this book is a moral imperative.
Enjoy it, ponder the gravity of our current crisis, and then be moved to action. Our grandchildren deserve and require nothing less.
on October 18, 2013
This book is a history of one scientist's saga to study science and later attempt to save civilization as we knew it based on what he had learned. Written by and about James Hansen, a man whose career with NASA was the study of planets, mostly Earth, this book presents all relevant science and politics, without dumbing-down either. Tom Clancey would relish the twists and turns of both political and scientific intrigue, yet this all appears to be a factual record of what has actually been learned and done with respect to Climate Change. While some parts were difficult for me to understand on first listening (even with a Master's in Engineering), the presentation was clear and thorough. At first I was a bit put off by the mixture of science and politics, but as I progressed through the book, I found an artistry in the writing that helped keep the narrative moving forward without getting bogged down in either venue. Getting tired of chemistry and physics? A political back-stabbing or coverup is just around the corner! As he presented yet another scientific discovery, I found myself anticipating his description of the political and social environment prevalent at the time and surrounding the interview or talk or paper, and the resulting repercussions. I found myself rooting for this persistent and incredibly intelligent scientist who possesses the highest integrity of anyone I have ever read. Watching his early naivete grow gradually into a better understanding of how people serve their own short term interests first; watching his dedication to pure science gradually give way to caring about the future and the devastating consequences of our collective actions/inactions; watching him grow into a crusader of sorts with enemies and friends and others who start as one and become the other - all this struck me personally many times through the book and makes me ask myself - Now that I know more about this subject, what do I do with that new-found knowledge besides just read more? This is must reading for anyone who claims to care about what the future will look like.