How does James Hansen sleep at night?
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.