Storms of James Hansen

In Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen declares, “I believe the biggest obstacle to solving global warming is the role of money in politics.” Subtitled The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Hansen’s book is part science, part biography, and part diatribe against a money-dominated political system. Hansen rails against politicians who “greenwash” while promoting business as usual, and against businesses that obfuscate, distort, or deny the scientific consensus on climate change. His employer, NASA, draws special ire for its Bush-era attempts to censor Hansen. Even liberals and environmentalists, including President Obama, Bill Clinton, and Amory Lovins, come under fire. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a bastion of rational environmentalism, earns Hansen’s moniker “Union of Concerned Lobbyists” because of its efforts on behalf of the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, many of today’s widely discussed climate solutions—Kyoto, cap-and-trade, emissions reductions, and especially carbon offsets (“like the indulgences…in the Middle Ages”)—are dismissed as non-solutions or worse.

James Hansen has a reputation as an authoritative and outspoken climate scientist—albeit one whose views lie on the pessimistic side of the bell curve. Not every scientist would put the word “catastrophe” in a book’s title or say that anthropogenic climate change has “the potential to exterminate all life on Earth.” Yet Hansen leads his readers through arguments that justify the use of the word “catastrophe,” and that make plausible what many have argued couldn’t happen on Earth—a runaway greenhouse effect that would leave our planet as baked and lifeless as Venus. Much of Hansen’s argument is based on paleoclimate studies showing the past influences of natural climate forcings and feedbacks. We learn how, 35 million years ago, Antarctica first became glaciated. At that point, atmospheric carbon dioxide stood at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Therein lies part of Hansen’s argument for a “safe upper limit” of 350 ppm of CO2—at 450 ppm, Earth would experience catastrophic ice-sheet disintegration and a sea-level rise of 75 meters (250 feet). Such warnings comprise an important subtext of Hansen’s book: an explication of the arguments in his 2008 paper “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, which made “350” a rallying cry for climate activists.

To read Storms of My Grandchildren is to know a multifaceted James Hansen—scientist, public figure, grandfather, court defendant (he was arrested last year while protesting a coal development), worrier, optimist, and self-doubter. The grandchildren of the title appear throughout the book in anecdotes and photos; at one point, two of them hold light bulbs to illustrate climate forcing. We see Hansen struggling to get his message across in congressional testimony, public lectures, and debates. When he doesn’t succeed, he ruminates about why he’s failed, then discusses plans for his next public-education event. The book has a rambling quality that’s sometimes evident in Hansen’s speeches, but here it seems less distraction and more enrichment—about the political process, about history, about Hansen’s personal biography, about how science works and interacts with policymaking. And the book does get to a focused and well-supported conclusion: that business as usual will bring climate catastrophe, and our time to act is running short.

Hansen’s book isn’t primarily about solutions, but one chapter, “An Honest, Effective Path,” presents his vision of how we can achieve 350 ppm CO2 and avoid catastrophe. The key is to eliminate CO2 emissions from coal by 2030. But we’re already above 350 ppm, so we must also remove atmospheric CO2. Hansen argues that changes in forestry and agricultural practices could drop CO2 by 60 ppm; in this scenario, carbon dioxide peaks at just over 400 ppm and falls to 350 ppm by 2100. Hansen would use a carbon “fee” to move us in that direction. He’s particularly enthusiastic about “fee-and-dividend,” whereby a fee is imposed at the carbon source (wellhead, mine, port of entry) and then rebated to all citizens. The fossil-fuel industry passes the fee to its customers in the form of higher prices—but those who use less energy are rewarded when their dividends exceed the added cost.

The science in Storms of My Grandchildren is solid, although there remains much quantitative uncertainty—particularly about past greenhouse forcings and timescales for ice-sheet dynamics. So there’s room for rational scientists to disagree with the most dire of Hansen’s predictions. But he makes a good case that there’s at least a chance he’s right—and that’s surely a chance we don’t want to take. Hansen calls the task he’s laid out “Herculean, yet feasible.” Read his book and you’ll probably agree it’s high time we got started.