Saturday, August 27, 2011

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity / James Hansen -- NY: Bloomsbury, 2009

1988 was a significant year for the study and understanding of climate change. It was the year that the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was also the year the James Hansen testified before Congress, warning of the coming climate disaster. Since then, Hansen has been one of the leading scientists investigating the progress of our changing climate. He has, however, shied away from high-profile advocacy for changes to public policy -- that is until recently. In this respect, Storms of My Grandchildren is a landmark in his scientific and public profile. In it, Hansen attempts to make a clear case for specific policy actions that he believes are needed to avert the pending climate disaster.

His writing style is not always the greatest. He alternates between the breezy style of informal correspondences that describes his personal experiences and the objective style of scientific (though popular) explanations. Later in the book, he adopts a third style of policy advocacy. None of these sections of the book seem especially good examples of their genera, but setting this aside, the substance of the book is interesting and very important.

The early chapters of the book deal with his conflicting feelings about simply doing science and leaving policy questions to others as against stepping outside of the scientific enterprise to make a conscious political impact. His initial approach to this was simply to present his conclusions to policy makers and trust in the force of reason to motivate their actions; however, after successive disappointments, he has come to believe that scientists must not only make the science clear to politicians and the public, but they must explain the consequences of the facts for policy decisions.

Among the events that most drove him to this conclusion was the efforts on the part of the George W. Bush administration to prevent him from speaking freely about his scientific conclusions. As a public employee working for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he was subject to orders from both NASA's Public Affairs office and the White House. Fortunately for all of us, his high profile prevented the efforts to censor him from being too successful. His own account of the machinations of the Bush White House is limited, but he makes reference to the investigative work of Mark Bowen, published in Censoring Science to fill out the story.

Hansen's views on climate change are more pessimistic than the conclusions of the IPCC. The IPCC has been criticized by climate skeptics as over-stating the danger of climate change. They often criticize climate models that go into predicting the future of the climate. Interestingly, Hansen agrees that the climate models are not especially reliable, but he points to paleological climate research to demonstrate that the probability of disastrous consequences of the "business-as-usual" emission of greenhouse gases is far greater than the climate models predict. In his penultimate chapter, he suggests that it is not impossible that business-as-usual will transform the Earth's atmosphere into something like that of Venus. Currently, there are nearly 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Hansen suggests that the "Venus syndrome" might be triggered if that rises to levels even less than 1000 ppm, i.e., a level that is not out of the range of possibility.

The policy decisions that Hansen advocates include the construction of more nuclear power plants, including "fourth generation" power plants known as "breeder reactors." According to Hansen, breeder reactors would serve two important purposes, (1) they could produce significant amounts of energy without carbon emissions while producing nearly no fissionable waste, and (2) they could use the nuclear waste we currently have generated as a fuel source. Given the dangers of carbon emissions and the unlikelihood that other non-carbon energy sources will satisfy industry's appetite for power, Hanson's suggestion seems worth considering; however, Hansen's assertions about the consequences of the construction of numerous breeder reactors need more argument than he presents in his book.

Hansen also argues that the most dangerous threat to the environment is the prospect that coal will be used to sate industry's appetite for power. Carbon capture and sequestration has, for Hansen, genuine potential for coal exploitation. At the same time, he recognizes the costs and dangers involved. His preference simply is to "leave the coal in the ground." This could be largely accomplished by establishing a "fee and dividend" system of carbon energy production. Hansen is critical of the cap and trade proposals that are popular among many environmentalist politicians. He believes they will be ineffective and are ripe for corruption, comparing emissions permits to indulgences sold by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. Sinners were allowed to continue sinning while the church made money. In this instance, polluters are allowed to continue polluting while the government makes money.

In contrast to this, Hansen's fee and dividend system would place a fee on carbon-based energy production at its source (the well or mine). The fee would then be divided equally as an annual dividend to all legal residents of the US. The fee would be increased annually so that the consumption of carbon-dependent goods and services would rise gradually, reducing their viability in the market, until finally carbon-based energy would be replaced by other forms of energy. Meanwhile, the annual dividend would make the program popular. Those who consume carbon-dependent goods and services would pay the price and those who do not would reap the benefits.

One hitch in Hansen's system is regulating imported goods and services. Here, he suggests a carbon tariff on goods coming from countries that are not reducing their carbon emissions. Initially, the tariff seems workable, but it might fall victim to World Trade Organization requirements prohibiting such tariffs; furthermore, it might not actually succeed in reducing emissions, but instead destroy the very international cooperation and agreements necessary to tackle the emissions problem. These are points made by Sallie James of the Cato Institute in her essay "Climate Change and Trade" in Climate Coup, edited by Patrick Michaels.

Among the most significant chapters linking science and public policy is Chapter 8,"Target Carbon Dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?" which deals with estimating the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that the planet can tolerate without triggering truly disastrous consequences. Hansen initially thought that 450 ppm was the tipping point, but after more careful study, he now believes 350 ppm is the maximum that can be tolerated. This means we have already surpassed dangerous levels which explains Hansen's urgency and his desire to "leave the coal in the ground." Based on Hansen's estimates, Bill McKibben has set up the Web site to publicize efforts to bring our emission down to this level.

Periodically, Hansen points out one important driving factor in our race to climate catastrophe: our system of campaign financing. Hansen argues that because our elections are privately funded with now unlimited corporate dollars, carbon energy-based industries largely are able to determine public policy related to environmental protection. An indication of this is that a carbon tax (or fee) is hardly discussed by politicians. Our options are limited to no regulation or an ineffective cap and trade system that will allow business-as-usual emissions and corporate profits.

Hansen is certainly right about the influence of corporate money on elections and in turn public policy. As it is unlikely that the current campaign finance regime will change, anyone who is concerned about the climate has few options for change within the electoral system. On occasion, Hansen acknowledges this and even flirts with calling for civil resistance against carbon emission. In general, his Storms of My Grandchildren makes a strong case for just such action.

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