|STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN
The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity
Makiko Sato (Illus.)
New York: Bloomsbury USA, December 2009
As most scientists do, James Hansen toiled for decades in research, his work unknown to the public. He gradually came to understand that the changes he and others were discerning in the way Earth's climate system worked presaged a future time when human civilization would face major problems — perhaps even a climate that we today would find almost unlivable. Year by year, evidence mounted that these changes were caused by human activities and were accelerating. Concern grew, and Hansen testified before Congress in 1988. The record of his testimony was altered to downplay its urgency. Then came the administration of George W. Bush, and the whole subject of climate change (aka global warming) was forbidden territory in the U.S. Dr. Hansen's research, already difficult, became that much harder.
"How the real world works is an almost infinitely complex puzzle. A scientist's task is to try and figure out a valid description of some part of the puzzle. If he keeps two sets of books, one he believes and another to please authorities, it makes the problem much harder. So a scientist should be clear and blunt about what he thinks, even if the authorities don't like it—otherwise he will not do very well in science."
– Page 60
Documentation of the way the Bush administration treated Dr. Hansen and climate science — indeed, almost all science — is abundant, and I have discussed the problem at length. I won't rehash that discussion here, except to note that when a man presents valid evidence of oncoming danger, and finds that evidence ignored by those in authority, he has two choices: he can speak out, or he can remain silent and wind up his career in comfort. Dr. Hansen, being an honorable man, chose to speak out. This book is merely one result of that decision.
Much can be done to avoid the danger Dr. Hansen warns us about. The essential thing is to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) in Earth's atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm). This can be done by changing over to renewable sources of energy (among which I and Dr. Hansen include nuclear power plants of advanced design.) This would naturally happen as those sources become better and cheaper, and as oil runs low and costs more and more.
The problem is that Earth stores immense amounts of greenhouse gases. If we produce enough carbon dioxide to raise the average temperature 2°C, those natural stores will start to come unstuck. After that, we lose control of climate. It gets as hot and as turbulent as it will. Nothing we can do will stop it. No one can be sure just when we will pass those tipping points. The prudent thing to do is to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal, the worst and most plentiful. But of course fossil-fuel industries resist that, and have been able to delay any progress for decades. That is the reason for urgency — the reason Dr. Hansen speaks out. As we all must, to save our future.
In the book, Dr. Hansen explains the reasons for his sense of urgency. Climate science is complex, but those reasons can be explained quite simply, and Dr. Hansen succeeds in doing that. He also succeeds in describing the pressures on some individuals, named and unnamed, who oppose his efforts. And, most important, he succeeds in conveying the message that failing to take action soon against the changes we continue to force into the climate system — a system that has remained nearly stable as our civilization developed — will almost certainly doom that civilization at some time late in this century. In a word, Dr. Hansen's reason is "grandchildren." (I know, you already figured that out from the title.) But remember, the late-century disruption of climate will hit everyone's grandchildren, not just his. The expected heat waves, droughts, floods, stronger storms, and food shortages will affect the entire world, not just some regions of it. Never in history have we faced a problem so widespread.
All of which makes the determined resistance to change on the part of the fossil-fuel companies and the politicians in their pockets a thing that must be fought. For all the warnings scientists have given (starting in about 1959); all the "energy crises" like the one in 1973, when OPEC flexed its muscles; the continuing rise in the price of gasoline; all the ash and sulfur and mercury spewed by coal-fired power plants, and the accidents in mines and slurry ponds; and the continuing decline in the cost of alternative energy sources have made no difference. They, best able to understand the problem and act to alleviate it with little disruption to their operations, chose to stall themselves and to block progress for the rest of us. That must end ASAP.
"I stayed for the rest of the morning [at ExxonMobil] as engineers described their plans. Criticisms of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which was attemping to force the manufacturers to deliver major improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency, grew more and more strident. Finally I raised my hand and asked, 'Wouldn't it make sense, instead of fighting CARB, to try and get ahead of the curve by focusing on vehicle efficiency?' The response was, 'Dr. Hansen, we have to give the customers what they will buy, and they want higher performance and larger vehicles.' That evening I noticed several television advertisements showing huge vehicles parked atop mountain peaks (where probably nobody would ever actually drive). This led me to question how much of the desire for size and performance really originated with the customers."
– Page 23
The book has shortcomings. I felt Dr. Hansen goes a bit over the top in describing the danger (although "last chance to save humanity" may be due to his publisher.) And it's fine that he's a dedicated family man, and his grandchildren look like great kids, but I think he dotes on them a bit too much in these pages. The subtitle is a bit too dramatic, and similar hyperbole appears at a few places in the text. It's wonderful that he endorses Gen-IV nuclear power, but curious that he never mentions France, the nation that's done the most with nuclear. And the book could have been organized a bit better, in my opinion. (I expect a second edition that will fix many of these defects; there is a Web site that lists errata and has improved versions of the figures from the text.) The bottom line is that this is essential information, well and accurately presented. You should read the book and keep a copy — for the next generation.