James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 24 2010 6:33 AM

NASA's Prophet Will Give You Nightmares

Ignore James Hansen's climate predictions at your peril.

Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen.

I started reading James Hansen's new book, Storms of My Grandchildren, at the edge of a vanishing Arctic. I sat on a bare brown Greenland hillside listening to the ferocious crack and crash of the dying glaciers in the distance. As I watched the corpse of the ice sheet float by, broken into a thousand icebergs, it seemed the right place to begin the leading NASA scientist's explanation for what I was seeing. Since the year I was born, 1979, 40 percent of the Arctic sea ice has vanished. If we don't change our behavior fast, Hansen says I will live to see the day when it is all gone, and the North Pole is a point in the open ocean, reachable by boat. He stresses these are only the starting symptoms of a planetary fever that will remake the map of the world—and the capacity of human beings to survive on it. I finished reading the book at the Copenhagen climate summit, where the world's leaders gathered to offer a giant shrug.

Professor Hansen has been driven into a strange situation, and produced a strange book. For one-third of a century now, this cantankerous scientist has been more accurate in his predictions about global warming than anyone else alive. He saw these disastrous changes coming long before others did, and the U.S. government has tried to censor or sack him for his prescience. Now he has written a whistle-blower's account while still at the top: a story of how our political system is so wilfully, deliberately blind to environmental realities that we have no choice now but for American citizens to take direct physical action against the polluters. It's hardly what you expect to hear from the upper echelons of NASA: not a call to the stars, but a call to the streets. Toss a thousand scientific papers into a blender along with All the President's Men and Mahatma Gandhi, and you've got this riveting, disorienting book.

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How did such an implausible American story come to pass? Hansen was born into a dirt-poor family in Iowa, to a farmer who left school in the eighth grade. But he was whip-smart and rose through university science departments, where he spent a decade studying the atmosphere of Venus. But then he noticed a more interesting story was happening right in front of him: "The composition of the atmosphere of our home planet was changing before our eyes, and it was changing more and more rapidly." Yes, we had known for more than a century that human beings were releasing warming gases into the atmosphere. Every time we burn a lump of coal or a barrel of oil, we unleash in one sudden burst greenhouse gases that took millennia to accumulate. But Hansen believed the effects were now becoming plain—and could be dangerous.

After studying the evidence, in 1981 he made a number of predictions for what a warmer world would look like by the early 21st century. He said that the Arctic ice would be retreating dramatically and the fabled "North-West Passage" would open up, making it possible to sail through the Arctic. It has happened. I have seen it. Yet he was derided at the time as "alarmist" by the political class, and the Reagan Energy Department responded by slashing his research budget.

This set the pattern for his career: Hansen makes scientific warnings that are correct and need to be known by the public, and he is punished for it. In 1988, he famously testified before a Senate committee, offering the first major statements to capture the public imagination on the climate crisis. His written testimony was immediately altered by the White House to make his conclusions appear uncertain, and the first President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, tried to get him fired. There was no improvement under Bill Clinton. Hansen received "the most political interference" then, when the administration tried to block an entire scientific paper.

Then, notoriously, the second Bush administration started to appoint former employees of Big Coal to run NASA's communications. They blocked press releases warning about global warming and tried to stop Hansen from giving interviews. One of the appointees explained his job was to "make the President look good." When Hansen argued back, they cut his research budget by 20 percent. Hansen said he had a duty to speak out because the first line of NASA's mission statement is a pledge "to understand and protect our home planet"—so the Bush appointees deleted the commitment. Yes: They erased the commitment to protect planet Earth. (An independent investigation by the Inspector General later confirmed all this.)

Most scientists would have backed down or given up. Hansen didn't—and from his prickly prose, you can tell why. He is irritable and aggressive, in part because he knows the stakes are so high. Unlike many scientists, he is not afraid to talk the language of morality. He knows it would be immoral—deeply immoral—to discover that we are trashing our climate, and stay in the lab, mumbling to yourself. This genius from an Iowa farm ain't going to be bossed around by any oil-stained prep-boys who want to bury his hard facts.

The global-warming deniers have claimed for years that the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue exists only because climate scientists are rewarded for making "alarmist" or "hysterical" claims. Hansen's story shows this is the opposite of the truth. The pressure is, in reality, to make scientists play down their claims. Think of it as the real Climategate.

What are the politicians trying to hide when they try to silence Hansen? He explains—drawing on deep pools of scientific evidence—that the burning of oil and coal is emitting so many warming gases into the atmosphere that we are now very close to triggering a series of catastrophes we won't be able to stop. The most striking to me, as I looked out over one of the world's greatest ice sheets, is the danger of their disintegration—triggering a massive sea level rise. It used to be agreed that it would take millennia for ice sheets to go, but the evidence now shows this is wrong.

Paleoclimatologists study how the Earth's climate reacted in the past to natural warming forces, like a small change in the Earth's tilt, or an increase in the sun's heat. Hansen believes these studies provide stronger evidence than climate models, because they are looking at what happened the last times this experiment—of a rapidly warming world—was run. And the findings are seriously scary. Ice sheets can go fast, and when they do, sea levels rise remorselessly and do not settle for centuries. He reasons: "If ice sheets begin to disintegrate, there will not be a new stable sea level on any foreseeable time scale. We will have created a situation with continual change, with intermittent calamities at thousands of cities around the world. It will continue for as many generations as we care to think about. … Global chaos will be difficult to avoid."

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