Storms of My Grandchildren / Storms of My Grandchildren

Storms of My Grandchildren

by James Hansen

Summary by Inday Ransom

1- The Vice President’s Climate Task Force

In 2001, Hansen along with two other scientists were invited to the White House to explain the current understanding of climate change, and what role humans play in it. The Climate Task Force consisted of six cabinet members, a national security advisor, the EPA administrator, and Vice President Cheney as chairman. One of the key cabinet members was Colin Powell. 

The background for this meeting was that the Kyoto Protocol would not be signed by the United States. The Kyoto Protocol required all developed nations to reduce human-made emissions, that were responsible for heat-absorbing greenhouse gasesgasses, to several percent below 1990 emission rates. The main gas being carbon dioxide, which is inevitably increasing from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas. Deforestation, although contributes to carbon dioxide emissions, is a smaller amount around 20 percent. 

Hansen admits that the Bush-Cheney administration seemed to take the climate change issue seriously by creating and meeting with this task force. However, “…Energy Secretary Abraham had stated in a public speech…that the United States must add ninety new power plants each year, mostly coal-fired, for the next twenty years to meet the need for a 45 percent increase in electricity demand by 2020. Vice President Cheney strongly supported efforts to increase fossil fuel supplies, including opening the public lands, continental shelves, and the Arctic for increased coal mining and oil and gas drilling.” (Hansen, 3). Hansen’s aim in the Task Force was to clarify that it is necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollutants, in order to stabilize Earth’s climate. 

2- The A-Team and the Secretary’s Quandary

In this chapter, Hansen created two teams to study climate change, and what it could mean to the future of the earth. In the first team, they would use the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the largest volcanic eruption in the twentieth century, as a natural climate experiment. 

The second team would study climate simulations covering two decades, an attempt to uncover climate change driven by forcings (ex. greenhouse gasses), and unforced chaotic climate variability (unpredictable changes). 

The Department of Energy has a different perspective from climate scientists. Their job is to assure that the United States has more than enough affordable energy, sufficient to drive a strong economy. All of the parties, the president and his cabinet, believe a strong economy needs to produce the technology and resources needed to eventually stabilize Earth’s atmosphere. 

Hansen, along with many climate scientists say in response to these actions, “The big issue concerns actions that could be taken now to slow the growth of CO2. Recent research has shown that if the growth rate of CO2 emissions could be stabilizedstabilize and then begin to decline, climate change would be moderatesome global warming would be expected, but the danger of disastrous climate change would be much reduced.” (Hansen, 19). The Bush-Cheney administration would have to increase CO2 emissions 15 percent in the next decade to provide economic growth, this would be catastrophic. Hansen and his team explains that immediateimmediately leveling CO2 emission rates would allow us time to improve technologies and an economically sound strategy to reduce carbon emissions and stabilize the climate. But this strategy needs to be thoroughly planned out, and applied as soon as possible. 

3- A Visit to the White House

Hansen’s presentation to the Climate Task Force proved to make no impact. However, in 2003 he received a letter to give a presentation to the most effective levels in the White House. 

Bush had written a letter explaining his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol and the regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Bush stated that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, he claimed under new information, specifically a Department of Energy report saying that caps on carbon dioxide emission would reduce the use of coal and raise the price of electricity. 

Hansen believes he made two mistakes in his paper, which may be why they had misinterpreted his work. Hansen wanted to mention, “My alternative scenario required, in addition to absolute reduction of non-CO2 forcings, aggressive efforts to slow the growth of carbon dioxide emissions. Specifically, the annual growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which was averaging 1.7 ppm [parts per millions] per year at the end of the twentieth century, would need to slow to 1.3 ppm per year by 2050 in order to achieve the alternative scenario.” (Hansen, 31). If this happened, climate forcing would be limited to 1 watt and additional warming, after 2000, would be less than 1 degree celsius. Later on, Abraham discussed the necessity to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas, as well as many more coal-fired power plants. Which Hansen believes is his second mistake, him failing to empathetically state to the Task Force that the administration’s efforts would be in catastrophic conflict with his alternative scenario. 

4- Time Warp

One of the second largest air pollutants are: aerosols, which are tiny particles that cover the Earth’s atmosphere, they. They can be bright particles that reflect sunlight and cool the Earth, or be darker aerosols that absorb the heat. Which leads into this chapter: “What aerosol measurements were needed to define the climate forcing by aerosols and why were the measurements not being abstained?” (Hansen, 59). 

Hansen’s interest is the information of Earth’s atmosphere, they; they can extract data from the planet’s thermal spectrum and reflected sunlight. The thermal spectrum tells us which gasesgasses are in the atmosphere, since each gas has its own spectral absorption or wavelength. “We showed that the polarization reveals the aerosol amount, the size and shape of aerosols, and even their index of refraction. This latter quantity—a measure of the angle at which a light ray is bent  when it enters the particle—helps identify aerosol composition.” (Hansen, 65). Hansen states that these measurements need to continue for decades to understand the long-term climate change, as well as the effect of aerosols on clouds. His conclusion mentions that there needs to be a satellite with precise instruments for this, a polarimeter, measuring reflected sunlight, and interferometer, measuring thermal emission. The third instrument would monitor the sun’s irradiance. And the fourth for aerosols and gases in higher layers of Earth’s atmosphere. 

5- Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope

Hansen admits the world seems to be oblivious to the danger, unaware of how close we are to a catastrophic slip becoming unavoidable, the demise of human civilization. Climate change from human-made forcing will be significantly more rapid than natural changes, “Warmings proceed more rapidly than coolings, presumably because the growth of ice sheet is limited by the rate of snowfall in a cold place, while multiple amplifying feedbacks can speed up the wet process of ice sheet disintegration, once it begins in earnest.” (Hansen, 72). Numerous amplifying feedbacks due to human-made emissions shows our planet is in peril, even if we stabilize Earth’s atmospheric composition today, the planet will still continue to heat up, the ocean will continue to warm. It takes the ocean a few decades to reach half of its equilibrium, even centuries. Hansen explains we do not need to reduce emission to preindustrial levels, it’s more obtainable to reduce the planet’s energy imbalance to near zero with a peak of 350 ppm. 

6- The Faustian Bargain: Humanity’s Own Trap 

In 2004, Hansen received a letter from Frank Loy, the chief climate negotiator during the Clinton-Gore administration. He had been selected by the board of directors of Environment 2004, to receive an award for his climate change research and advocacy. 

Hansen felt reluctant to accept the award, as to not have the public make assumptions that he was politicizing climate research. His plan was to give a talk about climate change to Talk of Iowa at the University of Iowa. However, the invitations were later revoked because Talk of Iowa “didn’t have enough time to arrange the interview.” Hansen suspects the true reason was that the university didnt want to be embedded with politics. 

In any case, Hansen wrote his talk to be given at the university, and was not going to change it. The paper was titled, Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: A Discussion of Humanity’s Faustian Climate Bargain and the Payments Coming Due. The Faustian aerosol bargain humanity made that resulted in the production of greenhouse gas warming, and aerosol cooling, both from fossil fuel consumption. 

7- Is There Still Time? A Tribute to Charles David Keeling

This chapter explains how governments are censoring climate research to the public, and refusing to admit fault or plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. For a true democracy to run well, the public needneeds to be honestly informed, as Hansen says. Without a well-informed public, humanity and all species on the planet are at threat. 

David Keeling was a famous scientist responsible for precise observation of atmospheric carbon dioxide that he started in 1957. He brought the world’s attention to the reality of the carbon dioxide effect on our planet. 

Hansen goes on to explain that we will soon see a peak of 450 to 475ppm in the near future, if our current and international leadership does nothing to reduce their emissions. One measurement that is important, is the unit of measure is a billion metric tons of carbon, a gigaton of carbon, or GtC, 1 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide is about 2.12 GtC. The atmosphere today (2009) holds 800 GtC, plants contain about 600 GtC, soils 1,500 GtC, and the ocean about 40,000 GtC. These uptakes and losses nearly balance over the year naturally, small imbalances may occur. Unfortunately, humans have altered this balance in two ways, burning fossil fuels and deforestation. 

Emissions went from less than 2 GtC in 1950, to 8 GtC per year in the past few years. Today, China beats the United States in emissions, but long term emissions from the United States are responsible for three times more than China. 

Even more unfortunate, “legally binding” contracts to reduce emissions made no change to decrease global emissions. Sadly, in 2004, Hansen learned that NASA press releases related to global warming were sent to the White House, where they were edited to appear less serious or thrown out entirely. Nearly all administrations in the past few decades have been censoring climate research, and allowing the same mistakes to occur. 

8- Target Carbon Dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?

In 2007, environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben consistently told Hansen to either confirm 450 ppm as the appropriate target, or define a more accurate one. Hansen had written in a paper that carbon dioxide levels need to stay at or under 450 ppm. But where did Hansen get this number? “Not from climate models…Actually the 450 ppm limit came from looking at Earth’s history—remarkably detailed data showing how Earth responded in the past to changes of climate forcingsforces, including changes in atmospheric composition.” (Hansen, 141). 

Hansen explains that the planet is warming up 0.7 degrees celsius from 1800 to 2000, today’s target limit being 1 degree celsius. However, hansen suggested the limit be 1.7, and some countries have suggested 2 degrees celsius. Unfortunately, 2 degrees or even 1.7 degrees celsius can still have disastrous effects on the planet. 

The melting of ice sheets causing sea level to rise will damage coastline infrastructure, marine life is dissipating and moving into deeper waters, making birds, insects and other animals to migrate closer to the poles. Even vegetation has been disappearing from forest fires, and drought. All of these species have been migrating at an average of four miles per decade. Hansen regrettably admits that the current extinction rate is one hundred times greater than the average natural rate. 

9- An Honest, Effective Path

Hansen sets up this chapter with this, “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty. The rationale for that statement was straightforward. But would it be clear to the people who need to know, the public and policy makers?” (Hansen, 172). The act of slowing down emissions, by itself (reducing personal emissions), does almost no good. Hansen says the reason is that the lifetime of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere and ocean system is millennia. 

Hansen urges policy makers to prohibit coal use, unless or until the emissions can be captured and safely disposed of. By phasing out coal it is possible to keep maximum carbon dioxide levels close to 400 ppm, and in a few decades back to 350 ppm. But why only coal, why not oil and gas instead? “That is not plausible, and here’s why: the large pools of oil and gas are owned by Russia and Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia. How could we convince them to leave their oil in the ground? It is not going to happen…We’re simply not ready to suddenly stop using gas and oil. So, if we want to solve the climate problem, we must phase out coal emissions. Period.” (Hansen, 176). 

10- The Venus Syndrome

When Hansen gave a talk titled, Climate Threat to the Planet, he got the impression that people didn’t understand the full implication that the planet is in peril. Politicians even got away with fake environmentalism because of the public’s lack of knowledge. It seemed to Hansen that writing papers was not working. 

Hansen begins to use Mars and Venus as climate examples. Earth is in The Goldilocks Zone, “just right” for life to exist. Mars is much too cold, the planet has little gas in its atmosphere to create a perfect greenhouse effect, around -50 degrees celsius (60 degrees below 0 fahrenheit). Venus is much too hot, there is too much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere that greenhouse warming is around 450 degrees celsius (850 degrees Fahrenheit). While Earth’s surface on the other hand, has an average of about 33 degrees celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) because of its warm greenhouse gases. 

But Venus has something that could help the public understand Earth’s climate change, “Venus atmosphere contains lots of water vapor. The sun was 30 percent dimmer at that time, so Venus was probably cool enough to have oceans on its surface. But they did not last long. As the sun brightened, the surface of Venus became hotter, water evaporated, and the strong greenhouse effect of water vapor amplified the warming.” (Hansen, 225). Venus had a runaway greenhouse effect, there is a possibility Earth could have one too, by the way we’re treating the planet. It would take a few thousand ppm for Earth to have a runaway greenhouse effect. 

11- Storms of My Grandchildren

Hansen describes “storms” being the best way to describe the future of his grandchildren, as policy makers continue to keep empty promises, with no foreseeable changes in the right direction. This book might give feelings of existential dread, but there is always hope. If we do stabilize the climate by moving to energy sources beyond fossil fuels, and if the population learns to live more sustainably, we have a brighter future ahead. 

Hansen explains that it will be a battle to change global warming, but as long as we follow these actions, we will be able to see a better future, “The most essential actions are, first, a significant and continually rising price on carbon emission, as the underpinning for a transformation to eventual carbon-free global energy systems, with collected revenues returned to the public so they have the resources to change their lifestyles accordingly…Second, the public must demand a strategic approach that leaves most fossil carbon in the ground. Specifically, coal emissions must be phased out rapidly, and the horrendous polluting ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels, such as tar sands and oil shale, must be left in the ground.” (Hansen, 269).