James Hansen Calls for the Light That Only Science Can Provide

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‘We are running out of time’ to prevent dangerous global warming, an icon of climate science tells his scientific brethren, while warning the fossil fuel industry that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA., DEC. 11, 2013 — James Hansen spoke to a packed house on Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, a day after his scheduled talk was cancelled. He had inadvertently overscheduled, he said, and reassured the audience he was “healthy as a horse.”

“For the fossil fuel people in the audience,” he said, “I intend to be around for a long time.”

Perhaps no one in the world speaks with more authority about climate change than Hansen, recently retired as the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. There he discovered much of the science underpinning our modern understanding of man-made climate change, and it was there he fought back against the many forces that sought to blunt and deflect his message.

In a talk here titled “Minimizing the human-made influences of climate change,” Hansen repeated his message that the best the world can do now is to avoid creating dangerous levels of climate change.

That means, in Hansen’s view, keeping the planet’s polar ice sheets from melting, with their attendant changes in sea level that will mean a changing coastline for the next several centuries; avoiding mass extinctions such as those that have accompanied past episodes of climate change like the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM); and avoiding a world of weather extremes that would see enhanced frequencies of heat waves, drought, fires, heavy rain, floods, and stronger storms.

Hansen to fossil fuel interests in the audience: ‘I intend to be around for a long time.’

Carbon dioxide is the big issue in climate change, Hansen said, because it lasts for so long — the carbon cycle takes on order of 100,000 years to sequester our emissions into an earth-locked carbonate form. Past climates do not give any reassurance; the Pliocene of about 3 millions years ago was 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than today, with sea levels 15 to 25 meters higher.

The pressure on nonhuman species is unprecedented, Hansen said. Plant and animal species are being constrained by losses of habitat at the same time climate change is forcing these habitats to shift, a combination that has no analog in Earth’s past.

Hansen emphasized the message of his recent paper in PLOS One: Society has already burned most of its allotted carbon, if temperatures are to remain near those where humanity has flourished during the last 10,000 years of the Holocene. In Hansen’s view, this means a necessarily quick phase-out of coal use over the next few decades, and that all unconventional fossil fuels, like shale oil and gas, should stay in the ground.

Hansen’s favored tool for meeting these objectives is a carbon tax-and-dividend, where an escalating price on carbon pollution lets the market decide how to reduce emissions in the cheapest way possible. If all the tax so collected were returned to U.S. citizens on an equal per capita basis, 60 percent of Americans would actually make money, said Hansen, collecting more than they pay. Economic studies estimate that U.S. carbon emissions could be reduced by 30 percent in just 10 years.

Moreover, a carbon tax is “the one viable international approach that only requires the major players” like China and the U.S., Hansen said, since carbon taxes imposed on imported goods at those borders would immediately incent smaller countries to impose an equivalent tax at their own borders.

Hansen stressed that the world cannot make meaningful carbon reductions without increasing its use of nuclear power. In some of the most intriguing minutes of his talk, Hansen played a four-minute video clip from the 1979 “No Nukes Concert” in New York City, where celebrity singers like Jackson Browne and Carly Simon, and later Ralph Nader, sang, drummed, and spoke against the use of nuclear power.

Yet, Hansen said, more people die of coal-related cardiac and respiratory illnesses in one day than have died in the entire history of the world’s use of nuclear power. “You could almost call the anti-nuclear movement a quasi-religion,” Hansen said.

Turning directly to his audience’s strength, Hansen said that “we need to shine the light of science” onto the options that society has chosen to follow, or is looking to follow from here. Renewable energies like solar power and wind power need to be part of the solution, he said, “but are not sufficient.”

Hansen concluded, “We’re running out of time.”

That is not a message that many people at this AGU meeting would doubt. But neither is it a message that many here would think is getting through. Governments, Hansen complained, are still serving the fossil fuel industries, talking out of both sides of their mouth, while the problem gets worse each and every year.

And until that changes, climate will not stop changing either.

David Appell

David Appell is a science writer living in Oregon and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: david@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @davidappell)
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12 Responses to James Hansen Calls for the Light That Only Science Can Provide

  1. Dan Rogers says:

    It is truly disappointing that James Hansen is still insisting that human beings can stop “dangerous global warming.” He must be one of the most dedicated and stubborn people ever born. It is a pity that such dedication has been put to work for so many years now to the accomplishment of such an unattainable goal as human control of our planet’s climate. How much more valuable he would be if he were to be working on and promoting preparations for climate change instead of attempts to prevent it from happening.

    Of course, if Hansen’s actual objective is to put fossil fuel power generation out of business in order to promote nuclear power, then his stubborn dedication to his efforts are completely understandable.

    Even a CO2 global warming skeptic like I am will admit that coal mining and coal-fired power plants are outdated and messy from an environmental standpoint, and that over reliance on petroleum supplies carries with it a host of problems. But it is becoming more and more obvious that the CO2 story that Jim Hansen and Al Gore have been peddling for so long now is just plain bogus. CO2 and other greenhouse gases no more control the climate than trees moving make the wind blow. The cause of nuclear power generation — a cause which I support — can only suffer when such very well-known proponents of that cause continue to attempt to hoodwink the public about the dangers of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

    • Peter Mizla says:

      Hansen relies on paleo climate records- not the ideas of the Heartland Institute or Koch Industries.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        Paleo climate records tell us that we have been having repeated glaciations like the present one for over two million years now, and that they come and go without any human interventions. What’s different this time is that we humans are now in attendance and can see what’s in store for us. We should devote our time, efforts and resources to preparation.

        Just as one example, as the climate warms there will be increased fresh water runoff to the north into the Arctic Ocean that may well disrupt the Gulf Stream conveyor system. Much of that excess runoff should be intercepted and directed southward to agricultural areas which will be hurting as the temperatures increase and large aquifers are depleted by irrigation demands. There is abundant labor available to carry out such infrastructure projects. We simply need more vision and money to carry them out.

        • Denis DuBay says:

          Dan’s comments tell only the part of the story he wishes to share, that climate has indeed fluctuated in Earth’s past. What he cannot deny and would not share is the meteoric rise in CO2 concentrations over the past century, and the indisputable mountain of evidence that indicates this CO2 will cause dramatic changes to Earth’s environment on which we depend utterly for life support. We CAN do something about that rise in CO2, and with a concerted effort, prevent catastrophic climate changes. But the largest and most profitable companies in the history of the world are bound and determined that we shall not do anything to threaten their near-term profits. This is a real David versus Goliath!

          • Dan Rogers says:

            The increase in CO2 has not been meteoric in any sense of the word. CO2 as measured in Hawaii has risen from one minuscule concentration fifty years ago to another minuscule concentration today. As the climate has warmed, so has the planet’s biological activity. That is probably the reason why CO2 has increased in the atmosphere, although no one is sure of that. There could be any number of other reasons for the increase, including, inter alia, the increased use of carbon fuels of all kinds over the years.

            Speaking of things upon which we utterly depend for life support, CO2 is one of the most important. Without it in the air and in the oceans there would be no photosynthesis and no oxygen in the atmosphere or dissolved in the planet’s water bodies. That minuscule amount of CO2 in the air is certainly not directly responsible for changing Earth’s climate, but it most certainly is responsible for nearly every life form on and in the planet. We disrespect CO2 at our peril.

          • David Appell says:

            Dan: Isotopic analysis of the carbon atoms in CO2 shows that the extra carbon in today’s atmosphere comes from fossil fuels and not from plants:

            “How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?” RealClimate 12/22/04

    • Raúl Alva says:

      “promoting preparations for climate change” is more than naive. Anybody thinkint that mankind or individuals may be prepared for the consequences of climate change is based on ignorance. Climate change is not only happening on mean global temperature. Impact of industrial carbon combustion is happening on atmosphere temperature, ocean temperature, global energy flux, ocean current dynamics, ocean pH, ocean life, trophic chain, etc. What we face is a massive extinction of life on Earth and no civilization is or will be prepared for it. The only thing mankind can do is to start changing civilization patterns in order to try to revert climate change to take effect in the future. If we don’t start right now, life on Earth will be very different to anything mankind has seen since it evolved in Eastern Africa.

  2. John says:

    Dan, here’s an experiment for you. Take a volume of a gas mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, 20% and 80% in a tube, shine some infrared light (>750 nm) through it, and measure its temperature. Then add a ‘miniscule’ amount of CO2 to the tube, and measure the temperature again. You can also add a minuscule amount of water vapor, if you want, say 1%, which is the percentage in the earth’s atmosphere, and again measure the temperature. You might be surprised at the result.

    • David Appell says:

      Here’s a similar simple demonstration that CO2 absorbs heat:

    • Dan Rogers says:

      That sounds like a very good experiment, and I assume it has been carried out. What were the results?

      I know of no educated CO2 skeptic who has ever denied that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that produces heat when infrared radiation passes through it. What we contend is that there is not enough CO2 in the atmosphere to cause the significant warming effect that the global warmalists claim it is producing. The greenhouse gas effect is just a part of the total planetary warming process, and we don’t know as yet just how great a part that is. And within that process CO2 is most surely a minor player. Water vapor and methane outweigh the effects of CO2, although again we don’t know by how much. (The people who work in the greenhouse gas arena seem to be so preoccupied with their war on CO2 that they tend to ignore methane and simply deny that water vapor is a greenhouse gas at all.)

      • John says:

        The experiment was done by John Tyndall in 1859, following on an analysis of Joseph Fourier who couldn’t figure out why the earth was as warm as it was: a radiation budget (plus albedo) said that the earth would be frozen. When Tyndall added trace amounts of CO2 and water vapor, his experimental atmosphere increased in temperature. (He called it the ‘greenhouse effect’.) So if that trace amount is increased, the temperature will as well. So, if you accept the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, then increases in CO2 will have an effect on atmospheric temperatures. Water vapor is important, too, and still only about 2% of atmospheric gases.

        • Dan Rogers says:

          Thanks for that information, John. In your last sentence did you mean to say that about two percent of the atmosphere consists of greenhouse gases?

          I have read somewhere that at any given moment the atmosphere of the planet contains about two percent water vapor, one percent argon, one percent “trace gases,” and the rest oxygen and nitrogen. One has to wonder how that estimation was made, but it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

          I would think it would not be too difficult to take simultaneous readings of water vapor content at numerous locations around the world, including locations above the oceans’ surfaces at, say, three thousand feet, and then averaging all those readings. Accounting for the greenhouse effect of water vapor has been a confounding matter in the whole debate we have been having about global warming. In particular, the fact that no single molecule of water vapor remains in the air for very long has led many self-styled experts to say that the greenhouse gas effect of water vapor should just be ignored!