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June 26, 2006

Jim Hansen on The Threat to the Planet

In the NYT Book Review this week, there is an article that details the state of global warming, drawing on two critical books and Al Gore’s book and movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”.  Jim Hansen is the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute.  He is the guy whom presidential appointee, aka the old Chinese Communist Party minder-type, George Deutsch tried to silence when he began talking about the “Big Bang”.  Deutsch wanted him to say it was “just a theory”.  Deutsch himself was forced to resign when it was discovered that he had lied about graduating from Texas A&M.

Hansen is also the scientist who first publicized our global warming challenge, saying outloud at a 1988 government hearing that scientists were “99% in agreement” about the “greenhouse effect”.  He knew back then that scientists had to speak out in a language that the public could understand.  He was roundly criticized back then and it did not deter him.  He is still at it.  For more on Hansen himself and his determined outspokenness, read the article in the Boston Globe by Bill McKibben. 

In the NYT book review, entitled “The Threat to the Planet”, Hansen leads us through the thicket of scientific evidence on global warming in this great review.  He discusses The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert in addition to the book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. 

Tim Flannery talks about the speeded up migration patterns of animals and what it might mean for their survival and what it might mean for those species who are not able to migrate as quickly.  Here’s how Hansen describes what Flannery writes about:

During the past thirty years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails ("isotherms") have been moving poleward at a rate of about thirty-five miles per decade. That is the size of a county in Iowa. Each decade the range of a given species is moving one row of counties northward.


If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate—"business as usual"—then the rate of isotherm movement will double in this century to at least seventy miles per decade. If we continue on this path, a large fraction of the species on Earth, as many as 50 percent or more, may become extinct.


In the Earth's history, during periods when average global temperatures increased by as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit, there have been several "mass extinctions," when between 50 and 90 percent of the species on Earth disappeared forever.

In introducing Kolbert’s and Gore’s book (and movie), Hansen puts in his own thoughts, which are backed up by these two books:

The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.


In order to arrive at an effective policy we can project two different scenarios concerning climate change. In the business-as-usual scenario, annual emissions of CO2 continue to increase at the current rate for at least fifty years, as do non-CO2 warming agents including methane, ozone, and black soot. In the alternative scenario, CO2 emissions level off this decade, slowly decline for a few decades, and by mid-century decrease rapidly, aided by new technologies.

The business-as-usual scenario yields an increase of about five degrees Fahrenheit of global warming during this century, while the alternative scenario yields an increase of less than two degrees Fahrenheit during the same period.


How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Hansen describes what the world might look like and the number of people impacted.  It’s not pretty.   Here’s the summary of the choices that face us:

The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate. The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.

Hansen then goes on to describe the changes needed to implement the alternative scenario and the resistance from the automakers, in particular, and the current Executive branch.  He discusses what happens if we delay:

Delays in that approach—especially US refusal both to participate in Kyoto and to improve vehicle and power plant efficiencies—and the rapid growth in the use of dirty technologies have resulted in an increase of 2 percent per year in global CO2 emissions during the past ten years. If such growth continues for another decade, emissions in 2015 will be 35 percent greater than they were in 2000, making it impractical to achieve results close to the alternative scenario.

Hansen contrasts the successful collective reversal of the ozone layer depletion caused by CFCs with the need to both slowdown CO2 emissions and absolutely reduce the principal non-CO2agents of global warming, particularly emissions of methane gas.  He cites the active refusal to engage of the Bush administration, the flawed media policy of “balance” that allows nit-picking talking heads to counter real scientists, the inability of scientists to speak in a language and with an urgency that people can understand, and the corporate apologists who argue that our economy is at stake. 

Then he talks about the consequences of refusing to participate in the Kyoto Protocol and charts a possible course for us to now follow:

The responsibility of the US goes beyond its disproportionate share of the world's emissions. By refusing to participate in the Kyoto Protocol, we delayed its implementation and weakened its effectiveness, thus undermining the attempt of the international community to slow down the emissions of developed countries in a way consistent with the alternative scenario. If the US had accepted the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been possible to reduce the growing emissions of China and India through the Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, by which the developed countries could offset their own continuing emissions by investing in projects to reduce emissions in the developing countries. This would have eased the way to later full participation by China and India, as occurred with the Montreal Protocol. The US was right to object to quotas in the Kyoto Protocol that were unfair to the US; but an appropriate response would have been to negotiate revised quotas, since US political and technology leadership are essential for dealing with climate change.

It is not too late. The US hesitated to enter other conflicts in which the future was at stake. But enter we did, earning gratitude in the end, not condemnation. Such an outcome is still feasible in the case of global warming, but just barely.

As explained above, we have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions. Our previous decade of inaction has made the task more difficult, since emissions in the developing world are accelerating.

There is much more.  Long as my post is, it is a summary of a much longer, and wonderfully written article.  He saves his discussion of Al Gore for the end:

Indeed, Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes. By telling the story of climate change with striking clarity in both his book and movie, Al Gore may have done for global warming what Silent Spring did for pesticides. He will be attacked, but the public will have the information needed to distinguish our long-term well-being from short-term special interests.

Posted by Lynn Allen on June 26, 2006 at 09:22 AM in Media, Policy, The Politics of Business | Permalink


25 inconvenient truths for Al Gore




Posted by: FreeRangeAuthor | Jun 27, 2006 6:04:57 PM

This is a troll-free site. But I am leaving the above comment up in case anyone wants to see the nonsense that passes as righty "truths".

Posted by: Lynn | Jun 29, 2006 8:33:29 AM

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