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Our Last Chance to Save Humanity?

John W. Farley (johnwfarley [at] yahoo.com) is a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he has won several awards for distinguished teaching. His scientific research interests include materials science and corrosion. His political writings have appeared on the CounterPunch Web site. An MR reader for four decades, he wrote “The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming” (Monthly Review July-August 2008), updated on MRzine January 4, 2010.

James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 320 pages, $25.00, hardcover.

James Hansen, one of the world’s most distinguished climate scientists, has written an important book about the threat posed by climate change. The title, Storms of My Grandchildren, refers to the prediction of more powerful and more damaging storms in a warmer, future earth. Subtitled The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, the book is written for a lay public and is certain to be controversial.

Hansen is a pioneer in modern climate science. After receiving his doctoral degree in 1967, he moved to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where he spent his entire career, and rose to the rank of director. He has received many honors and awards, most recently the 2010 Blue Planet Prize, the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize. After studying the then-unknown atmosphere of Venus for a decade, he turned to the study of the earth’s atmosphere. His expertise in radiative transfer (of energy in the atmosphere) enabled him to develop some of the first computer models of the earth’s climate. Hansen did not start out as an environmental spokesman. He is a registered political independent, who contributed to the Gore/Lieberman campaign in 2000, and to Obama in 2008. He has indicated that he might back New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, in the future.

The Censorship of Science

Hansen first came to public attention in 1988, when he testified before Congress that he was “99% confident” that the earth was warming because of human-made greenhouse gases. He called for Congress to stop waffling on the issue. Less than a year later, he testified again, this time before then-Senator Al Gore’s committee. When the White House, under George H.W. Bush, altered Hansen’s written testimony in order to muffle his conclusions about the dangers of global warming, Hansen complained in public of the censorship, which resulted in an uproar. White House Chief of Staff John Sununu attempted to have Hansen fired, but Republican Senator John Heinz intervened to save Hansen’s job. These two incidents raised the public profile of the otherwise reticent Hansen, making him a hero to many scientists.

Hansen ran into even more trouble with the administration of George W. Bush. In late 2005, the White House, irritated by Hansen’s public statements, set up a system of censorship in which political appointees in the NASA Office of Public Affairs would approve any contact between the media and NASA scientists, from granting interviews to posting papers on the NASA Web site. George Deutsch, a twenty-four-year-old presidential appointee, with no science background but experience in the Bush-Cheney campaign “war room,” was censoring senior NASA scientists. Deutsch remarked more than once in public that his job at NASA was “to make the president look good” (127).

The censorship system was supported at the highest level by NASA chief Sean O’Keefe, the only NASA administrator not trained in science and engineering. O’Keefe, an accountant, was a friend and protégé of Vice President Cheney. “NASA belonged to Sean, and Sean belonged to Cheney,” as one insider at NASA put it at the time (77). Although, in principle, the new censorship regime applied to all NASA scientists, Hansen was the real target. David Mould, head of public affairs for NASA, said those in charge of this area were “tired of Jim Hansen trying to run an independent press operation.” In 2005-06, the system of censorship was exposed in the mainstream print and electronic media, causing a “shitstorm” for NASA headquarters. Ultimately, the censorship was blamed entirely on low-level employee George Deutsch, and abandoned. Hansen emerged as a hero.

Although Hansen’s evaluation of the George W. Bush/Cheney administration is extremely critical (not surprisingly, since it attempted to gag him), he gives that administration credit for enlightened policy in two cases: methane emissions and black carbon (soot) emission, both of which contribute to global warming.

A methane molecule (natural gas, CH4) is thirty-three times more effective as a greenhouse gas than a carbon dioxide molecule. Therefore, the warming effect of methane is reduced by 97 percent if methane is captured and burned rather than released into the atmosphere. The Bush/Cheney administration implemented a methane capture program at coal mines, landfills, and agricultural and waste management facilities, and used the captured methane as fuel. In addition, the administration tightened soot emission limits from trucks, buses, tractors, trains, and ships, even in the face of opposition from diesel producers, truckers, and other industries (52). These administrative measures are likely the result of a presentation that Hansen gave to Cheney and other high administration officials in 2001, and a second presentation in 2003 to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. These policies are the kind of limited reform that the Bush/Cheney administration could embrace enthusiastically.

Back in 1988, Hansen was early and aggressive in speaking out about global warming. His opponents dubbed him an “alarmist.” Even some colleagues who agreed with him in principle shrank from taking an aggressive public posture, when the evidence for modern anthropogenic global warming was not as clear-cut as it is today. Nevertheless, Hansen’s bold predictions have proven true.

The scientific consensus is expressed in the periodic statements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC does not conduct its own research, but instead summarizes published scientific literature. Global warming skeptics typically charge the IPCC with alarmism. Actually, the IPCC, because it operates on the basis of consensus, is in fact too conservative, warning of the impacts of climate change only when those impacts are virtually certain to happen. IPCC reports also lag behind the latest scientific developments. For example, the latest (2007) IPCC report, discussing sea level rise, neglects contributions from the melting of Antarctica and the Greenland ice sheet (81, 88).

New Findings

The last few years have brought new developments. The area of Arctic ice is definitely decreasing: the end-of-summer sea ice area was 40 percent less in 2007 than it was when modern measurements began in the late 1970s (164). The melting Arctic ice has recently opened up the fabled Northwest Passage, sought for centuries by European explorers seeking a direct route from Europe to East Asia via northern Canada. Back in 1981, Hansen and coworkers had listed this as a “potential” effect of global warming, which might occur by the year 2100. It happened in 2007, earlier than envisioned.1 The Greenland ice sheet is melting as well, losing more than one hundred cubic kilometers of ice every year (165). In Antarctica, the indications are mixed: the area covered by the ice of Antarctica does not show any clear trend, while the volume of the West Antarctic ice sheet is losing more than one hundred cubic kilometers every year (165). Finally, glaciers are retreating almost everywhere. It is difficult to predict the rate at which the polar ice sheets will melt in the future, because the melting process is difficult to model (84). The resulting sea level rise might take a long time, but will be very serious when it happens.

The melting of a block of ice that floats in the sea will not raise the sea level, but the melting of a block of ice that rests on land will. Similarly, the melting of floating sea ice in the Arctic will not raise the sea level, but the melting of glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet, or Antarctica, will. The sea level is rising because of thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of ice in glaciers and ice sheets. It is currently rising about 3.4 mm/year, which is an increase from 2.0 mm/year in 1920-1970, and 0.9 mm/year in 1880-1920.

If sea level rise continues at the present rate, it will rise 34 cm (14 inches) in one century, although it could rise faster than the present rate as it has in the past: some 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, sea level rose at the rate of 3 to 5 meters (10 to 17 feet) per century for several centuries (143). A sea level rise of 5 meters would submerge most of Florida, Bangladesh, and the European lowlands. If all the ice on the earth melted, the sea level would rise about 75 meters (almost 250 feet), flooding many coastal cities around the world (250). The consequences of flooding are elaborated in chilling detail in The Flooded Earth by Peter Ward, a professor of biology and earth and space science at the University of Washington.2

Nature’s Global Warming Bomb?

Hansen discusses a poorly understood topic: when methane (natural gas, CH4) is underwater under conditions of high pressure and low temperature, it can form methane “clathrates,” a form of water ice that contains large amounts of methane inside its structure. Methane clathrates are stable at low temperature and high pressure. At warmer temperatures or lower pressures, they become unstable, releasing methane in gaseous form.

This allows the possibility of a chain reaction, in which some event (e.g., warming) triggers the release of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. If enough methane is released, it will warm the earth enough to destabilize more methane clathrates, releasing even more methane.

Hansen discusses the hypothesis that methane clathrates accumulate in the arctic tundra (frozen ground) and beneath sediment on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. How much methane clathrate is down there? Estimates vary widely, but the larger estimates are enormous. (Methane clathrates are present in the Gulf of Mexico, in a concentration high enough to defeat an attempt in May 2010 to fix the infamous Deep Horizon oil leak.) The worldwide clathrates constitute a “gun” that can be triggered, resulting in a huge rise in methane levels and global temperatures.

Hansen believes that methane clathrates may have played a crucial role in the largest mass extinction, the “end-Permian” event 251 million years ago, in which more than 90 percent of terrestrial and marine species were exterminated (147). This event was accompanied by a temperature rise of at least 6°C. Life took fifty million years to recover the diversity that it had before the mass extinction.

Hansen raises the possibility that methane clathrates may also have played a role in a smaller mass extinction, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred fifty-five million years ago. Almost half of the deep ocean foraminifera (microscopic shelled animals) disappeared, but there was little extinction of land plants and animals. Hansen believes this is explained by acidification of the oceans caused by dissolution of carbon dioxide in the ocean, causing the formation of the weak acid, carbonic acid. Hansen warns that humanity is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today at a rate that is ten thousand times higher than the rate during PETM. Ocean acidification has been detected, and is increasing.3

What Level Is Safe?

Hansen once thought that the temperature rise ought to be confined to 2°C above the present levels, leading him to recommend 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2 as a target. However, he changed his mind after the recent discovery that the Greenland ice sheet is melting, and thus the so-called slow feedbacks, such as substantial reductions in ice sheets, once thought to take hundreds or thousands of years, are in fact happening right now. Hansen concludes that a rise of 1°C is the maximum that will ensure a stable sea level, and recommends 350 ppm CO2, below the present level of 390 ppm.

How to Get There?

Hansen recommends a fourfold approach: (1) a “fee and dividend” plan (or carbon tax, which rises every year), (2) a resulting rapid phase-out of coal, (3) reforestation, and (4) rapid development of alternative energy sources, including fourth generation nuclear power.

Hansen wants to stop the burning of coal by 2030. In addition to producing carbon dioxide that aggravates global warming, coal burning spews huge amounts of toxic material (e.g., mercury) into the atmosphere, entailing serious health consequences.

China is now building about one coal-fired power plant per week. During the George W. Bush administration, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham unsuccessfully lobbied for an even more ambitious program, building ninety coal-fired power plants per year for twenty years, creating a total of 1,800 power plants.

Hansen calculates that, if coal is phased out over a couple of decades, the world can avoid a catastrophic global warming. To achieve this phase-out, Hansen recommends a carbon tax, with the proceeds rebated to the population. He urges rejection of the Kyoto treaty and rejection of “cap and trade,” which he thinks is a shell game. For example, in her recent book Green Gone Wrong,Heather Rogers found carbon offsets to be more myth than reality.4 In my opinion, given the distribution of political power, the licenses to emit carbon dioxide will very likely be given away (not sold) to big corporations, or traded by Goldman Sachs or similar financial firms.

Nuclear Power

What will take the place of coal? Hansen believes that renewable energy and improved energy efficiency will not be enough, and has spoken with many utility executives who agree. Hansen recommends fourth generation nuclear power, if it can be developed (it is still at the experimental stage), to take the place of coal. He recommends a “fast reactor,” which can burn up nuclear waste while generating power. Quite different from existing nuclear power plants, the fast reactor, whose neutrons have a much higher energy than those in a conventional, water-cooled reactor, relies on liquid sodium instead of water as a coolant.

Hansen’s conclusion (that renewable energy and improved energy efficiency will not be enough, given current and projected energy use) is supported by Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air, a 2009 book by David McKay, professor of physics at Cambridge University (UK).5 McKay distinguishes “feel-good” symbolic gestures from changes that actually make a real difference in energy generation or energy efficiency. McKay offers as an example of a symbolic gesture, the unplugging of one’s cell phone charger when not in use—which, in one year of unplugging, would result in an energy saving equivalent to driving an average car for one additional second. Hence the “hot air” in the book’s title. McKay writes, “We often hear that Britain’s renewables are ‘huge.’ But it’s not sufficient to know that a source of energy is ‘huge.’ We need to know how it compares with another ‘huge,’ namely our huge consumption. To make such comparisons, we need numbers, not adjectives.

After running the numbers, McKay concludes that, unless sustainable energy sources cover a large area (i.e., are “country-sized”), their contribution to the national energy supply will be very small and symbolic. McKay constructs five possible energy plans for Great Britain, which currently uses fossil fuels for 90 percent of its energy needs. Each of the plans includes sustainable (renewable) sources of energy: wind, tide, hydro, solar, wave. He assumes that substantial improvements in energy efficiency can be achieved. But every one of the energy plans uses one of the following: “clean coal,” nuclear power, or imported energy from other countries (e.g., solar power from the Sahara).

Ignoring both the cost of renewable energy and its political feasibility, McKay’s analysis puts renewables in the most favorable possible light. McKay is solely concerned with whether or not it is physically possible to convert from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. His answer is yes, but it will take an all-out effort and include nuclear power.

Response of Governments

The coming climate catastrophe is far enough in the future that it can be difficult to get the attention of the government. Consider the experience of Henry Abarbanel, a member of the Jasons, an elite group of physicists who advise the U.S. government, mostly on military matters. In the late 1970s, the Jasons studied global warming. Abarbanel recalled being asked by colleagues, “When you go to Washington and tell them that the CO2 will double in fifty years and will have major impacts on the planet, what do they say?” His reply? “They…ask me to come back in forty-nine years.” Of course, in forty-nine years it will be too late.6

Hansen has had no success convincing governments to adopt his program. Hansen gave a presentation to the German minister of the environment Sigmar Gabriel. Although Germany appeared to be a favorable case—Prime Minister Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has an undergraduate degree in physics and a doctorate in physical chemistry; her environmental advisor Stefan Rahmstorf is a respected climate scientist—Gabriel explained to Hansen that Germany is going the other way, building coal-powered plants to phase out nuclear power.

Hansen had no luck with Japan either, even though Japan may well be the world’s most energy-efficient country, at least in industrial processes. Japan also has good reason to minimize its fossil fuel use, because it has almost no fossil fuels of its own.

It is a pity that Hansen did not visit Cuba, which cut its energy usage dramatically when the Soviet Union collapsed and no longer exported oil to Cuba. The Cuban government substituted bicycles for automobiles, oxen for tractors, and compact fluorescent light bulbs for incandescent bulbs. Urban agriculture meant that food was produced locally, and transportation of food was reduced, thus saving petroleum. But Cuba had no choice: it was a matter of “national security.” Although none of the measures taken by Cuba were novel, actually implementing them instead of merely talking about them was.7

The Ultimate Nightmare Scenario

If the sea level rises 70 meters (250 feet), it would not extinguish all human life. After all, hominids have existed on earth for several million years, and homo sapiens more than a hundred thousand, surviving numerous ice ages, during which ice sheets a mile thick covered areas that came to be Boston and New York City. But the world population during the last ice age, ten thousand years ago, has been estimated at five million. It is now six billion. It is human civilization that is unlikely to survive a flooding catastrophe.

According to the penultimate chapter, The Venus Syndrome, it might be even worse. Hansen posits a possible future earth, in which a “runaway greenhouse effect” takes over: anthropogenic global warming from greenhouse gases causes increased water vapor in the atmosphere, which in turn causes further warming. The methane clathrate deposits are destabilized, releasing vast amounts of methane in the atmosphere. The oceans become acidified by dissolution of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This could eliminate all life on Earth.

This is speculation, of course. But Venus, the planet most similar to earth, has a very strong greenhouse effect, much stronger than earth’s. In the absence of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the surface temperature of the earth would be -18°C (0°F). The actual observed temperature of the Earth is 15°C (59°F). Thus, the greenhouse effect on the Earth raises the temperature by 33°C (59°F). On Venus, the surface temperature, in the absence of the greenhouse effect, would be -41°C (-42°F), well below the melting point of ice. A very strong greenhouse effect raises the surface temperature to the observed temperature of 464°C (867°F). The greenhouse effect on Venus is a staggering 505°C (909°F), creating a planetary surface hot enough to melt lead (!!), which requires “only” 327°C (621°F).

Conclusions

Hansen’s book deserves to be widely read and discussed. His conclusions will be unwelcome to many people, even those who do not own coal companies. To many environmentalists, of course, nuclear power of any sort is anathema. Environmentalists who disagree with Hansen about nuclear power have an obligation to provide proof of where the additional energy (or energy savings) will come from when fossil fuels run out. (McKay’s book is an excellent source for the global energy budget.)

Hansen insists that the big changes needed cannot be expected to come only from government, even less from corporations. Instead, he ends his book with the statement: “Civil resistance may be our best hope.” Hansen has written briefs in defense of anti-coal protestors, and Hansen himself was arrested in July 2009 at a protest in West Virginia. Indeed, he declares, “it is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved” in what “will be the most urgent fight of our lives. It is our last chance” (277).8

Notes

  1. J. Hansen, D. Johnson, A. Lacis, S. Lebedeff, P. Lee, D. Rind, and G. Russell, Climate Impact of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, Science 213, (1981), 957-66, http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abstracts/1981/Hansen_etal.html.
  2. Peter Ward, The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps (New York: Basic Books, 2010). See also http://floodedearth.com.
  3. Scott C. Downey, William M. Balch, Victoria J. Fabry, and Richard A. Feeley, “Ocean Acidification,” Oceanography vol. 22, no. 4 (2009): 16-25.
  4. Heather Rogers, Green Gone Wrong (New York: Scribner, 2010), 149-77.
  5. David J.C. McKay, Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air (Cambridge: UIT Cambridge, 2009). The entire book is available online at http://withouthotair.com.
  6. Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), 173-74.
  7. On Cuba in this context, see Rebecca Clausen, “Worms, Cows, and Sugarcane: Cuba Heals Its Soil,” Monthly Review 59, no. 1 (May 2007): 40-52; Sinan Koont, “The Urban Agriculture of Havana,” Monthly Review 60, no. 8 (January 2009): 44-63, and “La Revolucion Energetica: Cuba’s Energy Revolution”, Renewable Energy World.com, April 9, 2009.
  8. For further readings, see Arthur P. Smith, “Proof of the Atmospheric Greenhouse Effect” (2008); Makiko Sato and James Hansen, “Updating the Climate Science,” http://columbia.edu/~mhs119/; John W. Farley, “The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008): 68-90.
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