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From the Man who DOES know what he's talking about - with the experience and judgement to bring to bear, we had better listen to what he has to say. He knows of what he speaks. His bosses didn't. His warnings are real. The early stages are already unfolding as he outlines in this book. If you want to really worry, read what he has to saw about Greenland. James Hansen is the Real Deal. We ignore him at our peril.
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on October 3, 2013
James Hansen tells us, “My role is that of a witness, not a preacher.” In the late 1980’s he was one of the first major climate scientists to publicly state that anthropogenic global warming was a serious problem. While the idea was not new, he was willing to draw firm conclusions from evidence that most other scientists did not consider to be sufficiently certain. His predictions turned out to be reasonably accurate. Now he is trying to repeat this accomplishment, making even bolder predictions from less certain evidence. In this book we witness a distinguished scientist taking on the role of not just preacher, but prophet, going well beyond the majority of his colleagues in his view of the consequences of climate change.

The main storyline is Hansen's interactions with government, embedded with lengthy attempts to explain the underlying climate science. His exploration of policy and interaction with government institutions is much better than his scientific explanations. To his credit, Hansen does not fit the usual environmentalist stereotype. He does not endorse voluntary poverty, nor does he think that conservation and renewable energy can provide the needed energy. Instead, he thinks that nuclear energy is the only realistic option. He states, "The antinuke advocates are so certain of their righteousness that they would eliminate the availability of an alternative to fossil fuels, should efficiency and renewables prove inadequate to provide all electricity. What if the utility executives are right, and we must choose between coal or nuclear for base load power? Even if renewables are sufficient to produce the electricity needed by the United States, what about India and China. It's one world, and we have to live with pollution from India and China."

He rightly scorns "government greenwash" policies that pretend to reduce carbon dioxide production. Instead, he advocates "fee and dividend", better known as a carbon tax. All fuels that produce carbon dioxide are taxed, and the money is redistributed to the population. This avoids government-knows-best micromanagement of the energy sector, and gives incentives for industry and consumers to reduce carbon dioxide use.

He slams the cap-and-trade schemes favored by governments, which pretend to the public that someone else will pay the costs. Governments, influenced by lobbyists, arbitrarily decide caps on emissions. The trade part will be controlled by the same people who brought us the banking crisis. They will make their fortune no matter what actually happens to carbon dioxide production.

Hansen does a surprisingly poor job explaining his profession. One would expect an introduction to teach the reader how the climate works. The usefulness of global average temperature, the meaning of climate sensitivity, the role of uncertainty should all be explained. There is none of this, or even any sense of the wonder and beauty of science. Instead he launches directly into rather technical dialog, interspersed with exhortations to the poor reader to pay attention, this is important. I doubt the average reader will understand any of it, and will simply skip to Hansen’s conclusion of what it all really means. It is unclear exactly who is the intended audience. The general public will appreciate the policy writing but will not be able to follow the science. Technical readers will not be impressed by the lack of references provided, which are mainly to his own papers, not always published in peer reviewed journals.

As for the science itself, Hansen says that the best evidence for understanding climate is based on paleoclimate - the study of the climates of the past. He explicitly states that climate models cannot be used to determine climate sensitivity, which is the response of the climate to changes in carbon dioxide levels. In the chapter “A Visit to the White House” he estimates this climate sensitivity by comparing the difference in climate between the previous ice age and today. This approach uses the Earth itself as a “computer model” which includes all the physics that affect climate, whether we presently understand them or not. This is good, but then he does a quick calculation based on only two of the many feedbacks, to get a climate sensitivity of 3 degrees for every doubling of carbon dioxide. While this kind of technical detail may impress (or intimidate) the casual reader, one familiar with the subject knows that the value is reasonable but the precision is misleading. Note that today’s world is very different from that of the last ice age. Climate sensitivity is now lower because there is much less ice at low latitudes, which reduces a major feedback. It would be better to explain at a more basic level what an ice age is about, and what causes the transition to an interglacial climate like the one we are in now. Demonstrate that small changes caused by variations in the Earth’s orbit led to large changes in climate, so changes we make to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may also have significant effects. Then provide an appendix or decent references for someone who wants more detail. In this case the chapter summary did not even reference the relevant paper.

In “Target Carbon Dioxide” he discusses the geological event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) that occurred 55 million years ago. We know that a large amount of organic carbon entered the atmosphere, causing around five degrees of global warming that lasted thousands of years. The most likely, but not certain, source of the carbon is methane hydrates under the ocean floor. Hansen then tells a great story about how the methane was released by warming oceans, and how the same methane hydrate reservoir is now fully recharged and ready to blow. He does not mention that scientists who study the issue see no reasonable mechanism for how they could be released in large quantities by any conceivable human caused global warming. Remember today’s ocean is much colder than 55 million years ago, when alligators swam in the Arctic Ocean. Again, no real references are given to support his statements. The PETM event gives us a useful example of relatively rapid global warming, but it is not well understood yet, so simplistic conclusions should not be drawn.

In “Dangerous Reticence” he talks about trying to publish his paper “Can We Defuse the Global Warming Time Bomb” in Scientific American, saying they wanted to change it to conform to the standard IPCC view. Then he says, “with the paper’s extensive criticisms of the IPCC, there was no realistic change of publishing it in a regular scientific journal – most of the likely referees for the paper were contributing authors of IPCC.” This is exactly the same claim that global warming skeptics like to make. I do not know how much of a real problem there is with conformism in mainstream climate science. I think it is more likely that these works from both sides really fail to meet scientific standards, and whining about bias is a great excuse. The chapter title refers to his perception that scientists are dangerously reticent to tell the public what they really know. I suggest instead there is a benign reticence to publicly criticize a well-known scientist who has lost his objectivity, knowing there is a legion of unscrupulous “skeptics” who will take advantage of anything to push their belief that climate change is not real.

The final two chapters not only describe a disaster, they are a disaster. In “The Venus Syndrome” he claims that burning all the available fossil fuels will cause a runaway greenhouse effect like on Venus. This seems to be based on a simulation with a climate model. These models, as Hansen himself points out, are challenged to achieve what they are intended to, and cannot be relied upon to determine climate sensitivity. But he then tortures the model by running it under conditions for which it was not designed to handle. Hansen’s claims have not been published in any peer reviewed journal, so they have little credibility. Those scientists who are experts in the field categorically state that a human induced runaway greenhouse effect is not possible. The final chapter goes completely off the rails, including a hokey science fiction story about aliens coming to Earth to escape their ravaged planet, only to find the Earth wrecked by the human induced runaway greenhouse effect. Then he asks people to indulge in the environmentalist version of greenwashing – pointless demonstrations against coal plants and pipelines. This is great for making people feel they are “taking action” while ignoring the real work of building a sustainable energy system.

Several times in the book Dr. Hansen reports his encounters with his nemesis, atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen of MIT. While they both agree on the basics of climate science, Lindzen soothes us with assurances about negative feedbacks such as reflective clouds or masses of warm moist air rising from the tropics, while Hansen scares us with methane time bombs and a runaway greenhouse effect. In science it is useful to constantly challenge the current theories. But they both present their conclusions as revealed truth to their legions of uncritical believers, the deniers and the doomsters respectively. Hansen’s unfortunate transition from respected scientist to prophet of doom is only going to further polarize the climate change debate. Because Hansen does not clearly distinguish between his own and the mainstream view, and does not discuss uncertainty, the critical reader will have a hard time knowing what to believe. This book is a lost opportunity to appraise the public on the current state of climate science.
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on February 16, 2012
Hansen's book is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand Global Warming. He explains the role of CO2 and other Greenhouse gasses in GW and how close we are at this juncture to the Tipping Point from which there is no return.
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on January 15, 2012
The worst part of the recent book by NASA climatologist James Hansen is, undoubtedly, the subtitle. "The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity" ' really? That doesn't sound like the intrinsic, subdued style of Dr. Hansen. In my opinion, it simply alienates the very audience he's trying to reach: moderate, concerned non-scientists.

The inside of the book is much better. While he couldn't resist slipping in a good deal of hard science (and, in my opinion, these were the best parts), the real focus was on climate policy, and the relationship between science and policy. Hansen struggled with the prospect of becoming involved in policy discussions, but soon realized that he didn't want his grandchildren, years from now, to look back at his work and say, 'Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.'

Hansen is very good at distinguishing between his scientific work and his opinions on policy, and makes no secret of which he would rather spend time on. 'I prefer to just do science,' he writes in the introduction. 'It's more pleasant, especially when you are having some success in your investigations. If I must serve as a witness, I intend to testify and then get back to the laboratory, where I am comfortable. That is what I intend to do when this book is finished.'

Hansen's policy opinions centre on a cap-and-dividend system: a variant of a carbon tax, where revenue is divided evenly among citizens and returned to them. His argument for a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade, is compelling, and certainly convinced me. He also advocates the expansion of nuclear power (particularly 'fourth-generation' fast nuclear reactors), a moratorium on new coal-generated power plants, and drastically improved efficiency measures.

These recommendations are robust, backed up with lots of empirical data to argue why they would be our best bet to minimize climate change and secure a stable future for generations to come. Hansen is always careful to say when he is speaking as a scientist and when he is speaking as a citizen, and provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between these two roles. As Bill Blakemore from ABC television wrote in correspondence with Hansen, 'All communication is biased. What makes the difference between a propagandist on one side and a professional journalist or scientist on the other is not that the journalist or scientist 'set their biases aside' but that they are open about them and constantly putting them to the test, ready to change them.'

Despite all this, I love when Hansen puts on his scientist hat. The discussions of climate science in this book, particularly paleoclimate, were gripping. He explains our current knowledge of the climatic circumstances surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (usually referred to as the PETM). He explains why neither of these events is a suitable analogue for current climate change, as the current rate of introduction of the radiative forcing is faster than anything we can see in the paleoclimatic record.

Be prepared for some pretty terrifying facts about our planet's 'methane hydrate gun', and how it wasn't even fully loaded when it went off in the PETM. Also discussed is the dependence of climate sensitivity on forcing: the graph of these two variables is more or less a parabola, as climate sensitivity increases both in Snowball Earth conditions and in Runaway Greenhouse conditions. An extensive discussion of runaway greenhouse is provided, where the forcing occurs so quickly that negative feedbacks don't have a chance to act before the positive water vapour feedback gets out of control, the oceans boil, and the planet becomes too hot for liquid water to exist. For those who are interested in this scenario, Hansen argues that, if we're irresponsible about fossil fuels, it is quite possible for current climate change to reach this stage. For those who have less practice separating the scientific part of their brain from the emotional part, I suggest you skip this chapter.

I would recommend this book to everyone interested in climate change. James Hansen is such an important player in climate science, and has arguably contributed more to our knowledge of climate change than just about anyone. Whether it's for the science, for the policy discussions, or for his try at science fiction in the last chapter, it's well worth the cover price.

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on April 23, 2010
Writer Robert Pool has defined a 'witness' as 'someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.' In the preface to his book, Storms of My Grandchildren, climatologist James Hansen identifies himself using the term. It is truly worrisome to be living in an age when such a prominent climate scientist sees his role in this way ' and sees himself as having uncovered information of such importance that he cannot remain an adviser on the political sidelines. Storms of My Grandchildren is the most frightening thing I have ever read, and may end up being one of the most important.

James Hansen explains why we know as much as we do about the climate: not from computerized climate models, but from the evidence of climatic history laid down in ice cores and sediments. The story they tell is one of a dynamic system capable of amplifying small initial changes, and one in which rapid swings have taken place. Hansen identifies the greatest risks from climate change as the destabilization of ice sheets and the loss of biodiversity accompanying the many effects of climate change. On sea level rise, he explains:

If humanity burns most of the fossil fuels, doubling or tripling the preindustrial carbon dioxide level, Earth will surely head toward the ice-free condition, with sea level 75 meters (250 feet) higher than today. It is difficult to say how long it will take for the melting to be complete, but once ice sheet disintegration gets well under way, it will be impossible to stop. (p. 160 hardcover)

Hansen also highlights how positive feedback effects could lead to a runaway climate change scenario, and how the methane locked up in permafrost and methane clathrates has the potential to stack a second gigantic warming on top of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming, in the event they ever substantially melt:

[T]he world, humanity, has reached a fork in the road; we are faced with a choice of potential paths for the future. One path has global fossil fuel emissions declining at a pace, dictated by what the science is telling us, that defuses the amplifying feedbacks and stabilizes climate. The other path is more or less business as usual, in which case amplifying feedbacks are expected to come into play and climate change will begin to spin out of our control. (p. 120 hardcover)

In the most extreme case, in which all coal and unconventional oil and gas are burned, the stacked-up positive feedbacks could be sufficient to boil away the oceans, eventually leaving Earth in a state similar to that now inhabited by Venus, a planet formerly adorned with liquid water before a brightening sun induced runaway climate change there.

In addition to the scientific story, Hansen tells some of his own: about the censorship he witnessed at NASA, about his recent civil disobedience actions against mountaintop removal coal mining, about is perceptions of American politics, and about the grandchildren whose prospects have left him so concerned. Sometimes, these asides can seem secondary to the main thrust of the book, though they do underscore the extent to which this is an impassioned personal plea, not a technical scientific assessment. The insight into the scientific process and the operation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are also interesting.

The most dubious part of the book may be Hansen's optimism for fourth-generation fast breeder reactors. He highlights their possible advantages, namely in terms of stretching our uranium fuel supplies, but doesn't give serious consideration to the practical and economic issues with a massive nuclear deployment. He is also overly pessimistic about renewable forms of energy. I would recommend that he take a look at David Mackay's excellent book on different routes to a zero-carbon energy future. People who read Hansen's book may also be well-advised to do so.

Hansen makes some key points about climate policy: notably, that emissions targets and cap-and-trade schemes are meaningless, if governments continue to allow coal use and the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas to continue. Those are the fuels that contain enough carbon to threaten all life on Earth; meaningful climate policy must, among other things, ensure that they remain underground. As an alternative to cap-and-trade schemes that are potentially open to manipulation and which offer no incentive to cut faster than prescribed by the cap, Hansen endorses a fee and dividend system where a tax is applied to all fossil fuels at the point of production or import. His overall view is not so different from the fantasy climate change policy I wrote earlier, though I hadn't been fully aware of all the risks Hansen enumerates when I wrote it.

In the end, Hansen has provided as clear and compelling a warning as anybody could ask for. We are putting the planet in peril and endangering the lives and prospects of future generations in a deeply immoral way. Governments are misleading people with the sense that they are handling the problem when, in reality, even states taking climate change seriously are doing nowhere near enough to ensure that catastrophic or runaway climate change goes not occur. We need to change the energy basis of our society, and keep the carbon in coal and unconventional fossil fuels in the ground. In so doing, we may be able to stop the warming we are inducing, before it generates the devastating feedbacks that are the key message of Hansen's book.

Originally at: [...]
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on January 17, 2010
Jim Hansen is one of the world's leading climate scientists, and as such he might be expected to write in a dry, technical manner.

Not so, however. With the exception of a few pages where he works hard to help the reader understand the climate complexities, this is a very readable, personal, and often passionate accounting of the crisis that we face today, and the complex politics that go on behind the scenes.

If you want to gain a confident grasp of why the world is warming (and why it is not being caused by solar radiation), why sea levels will rise, why the built-in inertia of the climate system creates such worries for the future, then take the time to read Jim's book.

When a man of James Hansen's calibre opens his heart and shares his thoughts on such a critical topic, on which he is so well informed, it is a privilege for all of us.
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The author, James Hansen, is one of the world's best known authorities on global climate change. I feel that because of this, "Storms......." is written as his form of mia culpa to society for his perceived failure to have the world systems successfully deal with this impending crisis. The failure is not on his part, however. While it lies primarily with the 'what is in it for me' political systems at large, the rest of the blame lies with us, the uninformed, lazy and uneducated public. It is much easier for us to tune into the latest Fox News anti-warming sound byte or to repeat the bumper-sticker mentality of the fringe 'scientists' who have sold their souls to Big-Oil and their coniving partners than it is to research the truth. Shame on us. And now our children and grandchildren must pay the price.

In this must read book, the author is a bit too repetitious and is overly concerned with some personal minutia, but the concepts, the long-term research that has been done and the frightening prognosis is well thought out and explicitly clear. The time, as Hansen states, to deal easily and inexpensively with this issue has long ago passed us by. While the tipping point is yet to be reached, it is lying very close to the horizon. As is suggested, it is time for us to do our postponed research, bombard our representatives with calls and emails and make the truth known. If we don't and this crisis is not averted, the storms of all of our grandchildren will be of great magnitude.
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