“My role is that of a witness, not a preacher”, says Dr James Hansen, one the world’s leading scientist on climate issues. A witness, as defined by the writer Robert Pool, is “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.”
In his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, James Hansen, often called the father of global warming, talks about the science and the mechanisms that drive global warming in a way that makes it relatively easy for readers to understand.
“Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up”, he writes. But science and policy cannot be divorced. ” Policy decisions on climate change are “being deliberated every day by those without full of the science, and often with intentional misinformation spawned by special interests.” “This book” says Hansen, “was written to help rectify this situation. Citizens with a special interest – in their loved ones – need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions Otherwise, it seems, short-term special interests will hold sway in capitals around the world – and we are running out of time.”
Hansen is one of the few outspoken scientists, who convinced by new evidence, in the mid-1980s, that rapid climate change might be eminent, took a more activist stance than scientists had normally taken, made the public aware of the problem. Despite the increased evidence though, administration officials and politicians tried to downplay the significance of Hansen’s and other scientists’ testimonies, in 1985 and 1986, that evidence of the warming “is overwhelming” and that it may be too late to avert major climatic changes. The Senator David Durenberger (R-MI) observed presciently, in his opening statement to the December 1985 hearings on global warming, that “grappling with the problem [of global warming] is going to be just about as easy as nailing Jelly-O to the wall.”
In June 1988, when James Hansen, in the midst of a drought in the U.S., proclaimed that he was “99 percent confident” that current temperatures represent a “real warming trend” as opposed to natural variability. “We are loading the climate dice” he said.
Hansen’s warning, was followed by anomalous weather events, such as the Hurricane Gilbert which heavily damaged Cancun and the north-eastern coast of Mexico, extensive forest fires in Yellowstone and severe drought in the Midwest which added a momentum to his testimony and had the attention of the public, the media and policy makers.
But his testimony and conclusions had also caused an intense reaction among many scientists in the climate community who believed that although Hansen was not demonstrably wrong, he was failing to hedge his conclusions with the appropriate qualifiers that reflect the imprecise science of climate modelling. Two of them, Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist and the Alfred P. Sloan, Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known for his research in dynamic meteorology, especially planetary waves – both distinguished scientists but outside the greenhouse field – wrote a letter to President Bush, on 23 September 1989, extolling the merits of a report titled “Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem”.
This 35-page not scientific peer-review document which caused consternation and dismay to climatologists and other greenhouse experts was issued by George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank, was summing up the uncertainties that surround greenhouse models and predictions and supported that it was too soon to take any actions to reduce greenhouse gases. The authors argued that there was no evidence that the modest temperature rise of 0.5oC that has occurred during the 20th century was correlated with emissions of greenhouse gases, and they predicted that the decreased solar activity in the next century will lead to a cooling trend likely to offset any greenhouse warming.
Only a few months later in the summer of 1990, James Hansen, then Director of NASA’S Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) had offered to bet all comers that one of the first three years of the new decade would be the warmest ever recorded. The only researcher to accept Hansen’s wager, was the climatologist Hugh Ellsaesser of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who admitted his defeat, in early January 1991, after a three different measures of global temperatures all proclaimed 1990 the warmest year in the history of record keeping. It had easily suppresses 1988, the previous record holder, and Hugh Ellsaesser made out a cheque for one hundred dollars payable to James Hansen.
“Our goal”, Hansen says, “is a global phaseout of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions” …. “Any optimism, however, is dependent on the assumption that fossil fuel emissions will decline. If instead, emissions continue to increase, the terrestrial system may become a less effective sink or even become a source of greenhouse gases.”
Hansen is very critical of the way special interests have influenced the way environmental legislation is crafted and he argues that “they [governments] are pursuing policies to get every last drop of fossil fuel, including coal, by whatever means necessary, regardless of environmental damage.”
Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, J. Glascoe, and M. Sato, 1999: GISS analysis of surface temperature change. J. Geophys. Res., 104, 30997-31022, doi:10.1029/1999JD900835.
A. Kerr, ‘Hansen vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat’, Vol. 244, No. 4908. (Jun. 2, 1989), pp. 1041-1043.
Michael Weisskopf, “Scientist Says Greenhouse Effect Is Setting In”The Washington Post, June 24, 1988, Friday, Final Edition
Roger A. Pielke Jr, “Policy history of the US Global Change Research Program: Part I. Administrative development”, Global Environmental Change, Volume 10, Issue 1, April 2000, Pages 9-25
Featured image: (Enhanced image from NOAA’s twitter feed shows stadium effect and a deadly symmetry similar to that of Typhoon Haiyan. As of the 2 PM EST National Hurricane Center update, Patricia featured a 879 mb minimum central pressure — or lower than that of Haiyan at 895 mb. Image source: NOAA Satellite Pictures)