So it is sobering to hear Hansen say—based on large numbers of scientific studies—that "a disintegration of the ice sheets has begun." Now we need to concentrate on forestalling a tipping point at which they would begin to internally collapse. Once that has happened, we will be powerless to stop a disaster. It will be too late to cut our emissions: They would still fall. Every rock of coal and every ton of carbon we use makes it more likely we will cross the tipping point. Every ton we get instead from low-carbon sources makes it less likely.
This is only one of a dozen effects of global warming that are just as terrifying. If we burn all the world's remaining fossil fuels, there is only one precedent in the climate record for the warming that will occur. It happened at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago, when the world warmed by 6 degrees. The result? Almost everything on Earth died. A solitary pig-sized creature, the Lystrosaurus, had the land to itself for another 30 million years. Hansen's is the only nonfiction book to ever give me nightmares.
What must it be like to be a scientist who is exploring this every day and to walk out into an indifferent world? Hansen has worked hard at making himself a better communicator. He describes how he fought to overcome his shyness and the temptation to fall back on a technical scientific vocabulary in front of general audiences. He has channeled his anger in the best possible way—to make himself better able to warn us.
He did his job. So won't the government do its job? These warnings aren't coming from a crank, or a few random scientists. Virtually all scientists who study the climate regard Hansen as a hero. Why would government officials refuse to listen to such urgent threats to the U.S. homeland? Hansen's explanation is simple: "Special interests have been able to subvert our democratic system," he says. If you want to run for office in the United States, you need to raise money—and the fossil-fuel industry is waiting with an open check book. Republicans and Democrats alike inhale the polluters' cash, and as a result, we get only legislation that "coal companies and utilities are willing to allow." If we made the leap to a world powered by the wind, the waves, and the sun, they would hemorrhage profits, so it is not allowed. We are all being held hostage to the profit margins of a few polluters and their "lobbyists in alligator shoes."
The American political system as it currently works can provide only shams like the Waxman-Markey Bill, which Hansen exposes as an Enron-style con. It is so full of loopholes and lobbyist-authored treats for the polluters that it will achieve almost nothing. So what's the way out?
Here's where the story takes a turn you don't expect from one of America's most senior government scientists. He says the citizenry have to rise up, and if necessary, break the law. He has started to study the writings of Gandhi and reckons if any situation justifies civil disobedience, it's this one, this time. The forces of environmentalism need to prove themselves more determined than the forces of environmental destruction. In Britain, there has been a mass movement of activists who are physically blocking coal trains and new airport runways to stop them from being built. It has succeeded: Politicians felt the heat, and the biggest new runway and all new coal power stations have been canceled. Hansen testified in the defense of these activists and got them acquitted by a jury, which ruled that they were justified because their actions would ultimately save lives.
Hansen has brought this message home. He was arrested at a direct action protest at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, ostensibly for "stopping the traffic," and in theory could face a year in prison. The fact that the scientist who knows most about global warming is prepared to take these steps to jolt us awake should tell us something.
I sat and read Storms of My Grandchildren in the corner of the Bella Centre in Copenhagen while all around me governments refused to sign up to cut their emissions, and lobbyists gloated. I wanted to make them read just one paragraph from the world's most distinguished climate scientist. Hansen advised that if the leaders weren't going to act, "they should spend a small amount of time composing a letter to be left for future generations. The letter should explain that the leaders realized their failure would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes, and vanishing species, but it would have been too much trouble to oppose business interests who insisted on burning every last bit of fossil fuels. By composing this letter, the leaders will at least achieve an accurate view of their place in history."
That evening, the Copenhagen climate summit collapsed. I'm still waiting for them to publish the letter.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.