Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

How does James Hansen sleep at night?

with 10 comments

James Hansen is widely regarded as one of the most important people in the now at least 30-year-old campaign to get concern over anthropogenic global warming (AGW) taken seriously. I must admit that I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to have spent most of your working life championing a cause and to have so little to show for it. However, I do not think that it is self-pity that may keep him awake at night.

In the Preface to his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen vividly describes some key events from his early years and early career. For example:
1. In December 1963, he witnessed an unusual lunar eclipse (i.e. when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow). This particular eclipse was unusual because the moon became invisible (instead of appearing red due to some light from the Sun being bent as it passes tangentially through the Earth’s atmosphere). This prompted Hansen to work out how much volcanic dust (from a very large eruption 9 months earlier) must have still been in the atmosphere in order to prevent the moon appearing red. So began, presumably, a fascination with atmospheric physics (as opposed to any other branch of the subject).
2. In 1978, after more than 10 years of studying Venus (including getting NASA to send the Pioneer probe to the planet to investigate it), Hansen decided the really important stuff was going on much closer to home: Therefore, even before the Pioneer probe had reached its target, Hansen resigned from the Mission and, instead, began to focus on what we are doing to our own atmosphere. However, what started out as a new research project has, of course, since consumed the rest of his illustrious career.

By 1988, Hansen was certain enough of his understanding to testify before a Senate Committee and before a Congressional Inquiry (in 1989). Unfortunately, rather than convincing politicians that action was required, Hansen’s testimony proved to be the catalyst for a campaign to discredit him, his work, and anyone (like Ben Santer) who agreed with him. Central to this campaign, of course, were the Cold War physicists Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer (now with no Communist enemy to fight), using as their primary vehicle of choice the George C Marshall Institute. More than 20 years later, only one of these what-you-might-call “four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse” is left alive (i.e. Singer) but, my God, have they caused one hell of a lot of trouble and, arguably, their legacy may yet get much worse.

In the first Chapter of his book, Hansen recounts one other event that is worthy of note: This was his first ever head-to-head encounter with Richard Lindzen, at the second meeting of Vice-President Cheney’s Climate Change Task Force in 2001. On page 12, Hansen describes Lindzen’s approach as that of a lawyer putting forward only information and “arguments that favor their client” (a strategy Hansen regrettably only later recalled that Lindzen had previously used to great effect in defending the Tobacco industry); whereas Hansen accepts that his style of presentation was more scientific (including assessment of all data and discussion of probability). Sure enough, Hansen was told afterwards that, as he had suspected, members of the Committee were left confused and unable to make firm decisions because two experts appeared to have equally valid but completely contradictory views on the same subject. As Hansen says, a draw in any such “debate” is a loss precisely because “policy inaction is the aim of those that dispute global warming”.

Hansen also laments the way that Lindzen and his fellow “sceptics” have, over the years, repeatedly “moved the goalposts”. Whenever, one of their arguments is falsified they never admit they are wrong; they just start another argument. Indeed, we can see that happening again at the moment: Having denied for at least 16 years that the world is warming, so called “sceptics” are once more seeking to re-write history and claim they never disputed this; seeking instead to move the “debate” onto attribution (i.e. how much of the change is anthropogenic).

However, in reality, we already have answers to all of their spurious arguments. Therefore, in the ongoing campaign to protect the status quo, they continue to obfuscate and confuse; and they continue to deny very clear facts regarding recent geological history (i.e. the last 35 million years) and its implication (i.e. that what we humans are now doing to the planet is significant and dangerous). For example: The average global temperature rise between the so-called Little Ice Age (sufficient for major rivers like the Hudson and Thames to freeze in the 1700s) and the mid-20th Century was less than half of one degree Celsius. Whereas, as the BEST team have very kindly now accepted, the average rise since 1960 is more than twice as much (i.e. 1 degree Celsius).

Furthermore, Hansen’s climate models, calibrated and validated as they have been (by being able to reproduce historic data and correctly predict the temporary effects of major volcanic eruptions such as that of Mt Pinatubo), indicate an overall Climate Sensitivity (i.e. the eventual temperature increase caused by a doubling of atmospheric CO2) as being between 2 and 4 Celsius (within 50 years). This means that unless humans stop burning fossil fuels very soon we are likely to cause a rise in global average temperatures resulting in conditions the Earth has not seen for 35 million years when, with CO2 at 450ppm and falling, Antarctica fist became glaciated); and from which state the Geological Society of London estimate it will take the Earth 100,000 years to recover. Therefore, if sea levels during Ice Ages were 50 to 100 metres lower than today (due to Ice being locked-up in vastly-increased ice caps), what is so crazy about assuming that sea level will rise if existing Ice Caps disappear as predicted (if not faster)?

This, then, is why I suspect James Hansen may have trouble sleeping at night. He has known all of this for at least 20 years and yet, it seems, many politicians, journalists and people are living in denial… If the truth hurts, it is not my fault; and I am not going to stop saying it.

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10 Responses

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  1. Good blog, Martin…. Nothing to do with the actual warming but, the theory of the ocean levels rising does not hold water :-)

    I assure you, the ocean has the potential to absorb all of the Earth’s heat and still be cooler than the atmosphere… No matter how much heat is out there, the sea will continue to cool the atmosphere for a long time to come yet.

    As sea levels begins to rise, the surface area of the sea “expands” by a proportional factor… thus absorbing more heat from the atmosphere… thus? re-cooling the planet! and therefore the poles.

    According to the “Water Cycle Theory” therefore, the poles will then thaw and refreeze on a regular basis and ocean levels will meander through a wide range of measurements.

    Donald

    27 October 2011 at 10:12

    • That’s an interesting idea, Donald. However, I think Archimedes would disagree.

      I accept that the heat capacity of the oceans – and their volume – is so great that they will take a very long time to warm-up. But that does not stop them being acidified by soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

      However, to say that sea levels will not rise is tantamount to denying that they have changed in the past: You really should read Hansen et al (2008), it goes back 65 million years and shows the clearly synchronous variations in sea level, air temperature, and atmospheric CO2. It does not matter that Ice Ages were triggered by wobbles in the Earth’s axis of rotation (i.e. CO2 lagged behind temperature) because positive feedback mechanisms such as melting ice and thawing permasfrost guarantee that, this time around, CO2 rising (first) will cause temperatures to rise (second).

      Therefore, finally (to get back to Archimedes), sure, if ice is already floating in the sea, its melting will have no effect on sea level. However, if large proportions of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice caps slide into the sea – as they are now doing at ever increasing rates – they must increase sea level (just as their formation caused it to drop). See the first episode of the excellent new BBC Series, Frozen Planet, here (the cinematography is stunning)!

      Sorry for the lecture but, clearly, your Engineering background has let you down on this one! :-)

      Martin_Lack

      27 October 2011 at 10:39

  2. As I wrote … as the sea levels RISE, its surface area EXPANDS … Atmospheric Temperature DROPS as there is now more surface area to absorb heat.

    In other words.

    Ice will melt, seas will rise
    Extra water cools atmosphere, lowers Global Temperature
    poles re-freeze
    snow begins to add to volume of new ice

    Not my Theory.

    The Water Cycle Theory, otherwise known as theory of water cycle, other wise known as the Milankovitch cycles was written by someone else.

    http://theory.uwinnipeg.ca/mod_tech/node199.html

    CO2 has to get up there before it warms up and transfers its heat but we, the Energy users, begin our Heat production at ground level and pump it up all day long, Humanity’s total heat output, dwarfs CO2, it only comes from the burning of fuels, but we have many other ways of produces Heat.

    i would think that Hansen is correct in his description of synchronous variations in sea level, air temperature, and atmospheric CO2; Milankovitch proved the first two well before he even thought of it.

    Part of Global Warming is a temporary cooling period as the cold areas are pushed, through atmospheric pressure, towards the poles, in other words, things return to normal

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1242011/DAVID-ROSE-The-mini-ice-age-starts-here.html

    Donald

    27 October 2011 at 14:55

    • You would think that Hansen is correct! How gracious of you to concede that possibility to him. (See my new response to Keith Battye on my About page and my next post to be published in about 7 hours time). In the meantime… Citation of this Water Cycle Theory as our potential saviour is what Sir Nicholas Stern would call a category mistake: The theory is very reminiscent of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – i.e the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system that, like a giroscope maintaining a fixed orientation of its axis of rotation, corrects any perturbations of different facets of the environment; with the result that conditions for life are maintained over geological timescales. However, what humanity is now doing to this planet (burning fossil fuel 1000 times faster than it can be recycled) is pushing this self-regulating system beyond breaking point. Therefore, just as I said to Tim Worstall on the subject of Limits to Growth, “I would like to say I admire your optimism, but I don’t. Neither, of course, do I share it!

      Martin_Lack

      27 October 2011 at 16:59

  3. [...] the people that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway identify as “Merchants of Doubt”; some of whom I have called “the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse” (i.e. Jastrow, Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer). Although 3 out of 4 of these horsemen may now be [...]

  4. [...] Is it time to say goodbye to the Goldilocks Planet? I hope not, because the next-nearest one yet discovered is 600 light years away! However, if we are indeed now passing a tipping point (i.e. as the widespread rapid thawing of Siberian permafrost suggests) both mitigation and adaptation will be almost impossible. Therefore, if we cannot reverse the damage already done (i.e. how can we make permafrost re-freeze or reverse the retreat of mountain glaciers?), we may have to accept that temperatures will eventually rise to a level at which the Antarctic first became glaciated 35 million years ago; and that sea levels will now rise continuously for several centuries – making any permanent settlement anywhere near the coast impossible (see James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren). [...]

  5. [...] I hope not, because the next-nearest one yet discovered is 600 light years away! However, if we are indeed now passing a tipping point (i.e. as the widespread rapid thawing of Siberian permafrost suggests) both mitigation and adaptation will be almost impossible. Therefore, if we cannot reverse the damage already done (i.e. how can we make permafrost re-freeze or reverse the retreat of mountain glaciers?), we may have to accept that temperatures will eventually rise to a level at which the Antarctic first became glaciated 35 million years ago; and that sea levels will now rise continuously for several centuries – making any permanent settlement anywhere near the coast impossible (seeJames Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren). [...]

  6. [...] of posts regarding my reading of James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren, which started a few days earlier (on 27 Oct 2011). However, I now hope to go one step further; and reduce the former ‘Nutshell’ series of [...]

  7. [...] Hansen once described you and other “contrarians” as behaving like lawyers (who only present “arguments that favor their client”), I believe this is what you were doing in your presentation at Westminster – and have been doing [...]

  8. [...] you see, James Hansen did not walk way from the Pioneer Mission to Venus on a mere whim, he took note of what his fellow scientists were telling him and decided that this was something [...]


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