Jul 31 2010

Storms of my Grandchildren

Published by under Book Reviews,General

Storms of my Grandchildren
The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our last chance to save Humanity

by James Hansen. Published by Bloomsbury, 2009

The main thesis of this book is as crystal clear as it is frightening: that human activity over the last century has rapidly increased the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to the point where we are on the verge of transforming the planet into a hothouse world, with massive species depletion, sea level rise and and a host of related changes. All threatening the whole biosystem with unstoppable global warming. The difference between Jim Hansen and other “end of the world” prophets, is that he is a leading planetary scientist who has spent a lifetime studying these trends. His predictions are based, not on a misreading of some ancient religious text, but on hard science. And it all points in the same direction.

Dr Hansen has worked for many years as Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. He has been raising his voice on the issue of global warming since the 1980s. He comes across as one who prefers the lab to the public arena, but because of the seriousness of the situation, has been moved to voice his concern publically, even join protest movements, and finally, to set forth the situation in this book. The book contains a double horror: not only the horror of what we are doing to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels inefficiently, but also the alarming situation where power company and “business as usual” lobbyists, with millions of dollars at their disposal, exercise such inordinate power over the lawmakers who, as a result, prevaricate and fail to address the problem. Sometimes even taking steps to muzzle the scientists who are reporting warming trends. The mainstream media is of little help, with its love of contention, whereby it casts around for some “denialists”and gives them equal weight. The public is left with the false impression that it is a fifty/fifty issue whether global warming is a reality or not – whereas in fact, the overwhelming weight of evidence shows it is an escalating and dangerous reality.

The book gives a clear and fascinating insight into how climate scientists go about their work: some studying climate changes of past eras (“Paleo-climate”), and others modelling the climate using super-computers, observing how small changes can play out in unexpected ways and often with sudden unexpected speed. Yes, there have been hot periods in the past – a well understood one was the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” of fifty million years ago. But they have never been as sudden as the one now occurring. And the climate “forcings”, which caused changes, have always been hundreds of times weaker than the forcings we are applying today. Hansen is honest about those areas which are not so well understood – where scientific disagreement allows an opening for the “denialists” to minimise the problem. Nevertheless, the main thrust of climate change is overwhelmingly obvious: the world is heating up, and doing so with increasing speed.

The basic climate mechanism is simple. The Earth receives energy from the sun, and radiates energy back to space. Calculations show that the greenouse gasses in the atmosphere are causing a build-up of heat. The estimated difference amounts to half a watt per square metre of the Earth’s surface. As the ice caps melt, even less is reflected. Other greenouse gasses are released from the tundra and ocean floor. So “feedback loops” speed the process and threaten to trigger runaway heating.

Dr Hansen’s calculations lead him to recommend an equally simple solution. That is to stop burning coal inefficiently. Weaning our culture off oil will take longer, he believes. But the big one is coal. It must be left in the ground unless the waste gasses can be sequestered. He points out that nuclear power, especially the proposed “fast-breeder” reactors, offer far fewer problems. But he notes the public fear of the technology, following Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. Coal, he points out, is responsible for many more deaths and health problems – is far more dangerous than nuclear risk.

Dr Hansen is critical of cap and trade schemes and Kyoto-type greenhouse gas reduction targets. Governments fail to meet such targets, often making little effort to do so (“green-washing” their rhetoric). And the cap and trade schemes are so open to watering down as to be useless. Only one thing will work to get the CO2 concentration stabilised at or below the 350 parts per million he considers necessary (it is now 450, and rising): that is, a steadily increasing tax on coal, the revenue from which is distributed to the citizenry. He calls it a “fee and dividend” system:

“Under fee and dividend, 100 per cent of the money collected from the fossil fuel companies at the mine or well is distributed uniformly to the public. Thus those who do better than average in reducing their carbon footprint will receive more in the dividend than they will pay in the added costs of the products they buy.” (p. 109)

Given the abysmal record of legislators in dealing with this issue, we are given a graphic scenario of how things will go if we continue with “business as usual.” Our current culture will lead, inevitably to the “Venus Syndrome:” an uninhabitable hothouse world like Venus. The route will take us through a time of massive storms, sea level rise of up to 75 metres, desertification, ocean acidification, and changes we can hardly imagine.

Where then is the hope? Not with those in current leadership, influenced by vested interests and money. It lies with the citizenry becoming informed, then picking up the issue, and so harassing our leaders that they are forced into action. Jim Hansen, a mild and peace-loving scientist and family man, has given us a lead. The question is, what are we going to do?

– Ian Crumpton

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One Response to “Storms of my Grandchildren”

  1.   opticians Kensingtonon 16 Dec 2015 at 5:20 am

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