Thursday, January 28, 2010

NASA's Prophet [May] Give You Nightmares

Book Review (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity) from Slate:

...Professor Hansen has been driven into a strange situation, and produced a strange book. For one-third of a century now, this cantankerous scientist has been more accurate in his predictions about global warming than anyone else alive. He saw these disastrous changes coming long before others did, and the U.S. government has tried to censor or sack him for his prescience. Now he has written a whistle-blower's account while still at the top: a story of how our political system is so wilfully, deliberately blind to environmental realities that we have no choice now but for American citizens to take direct physical action against the polluters. It's hardly what you expect to hear from the upper echelons of NASA: not a call to the stars, but a call to the streets. Toss a thousand scientific papers into a blender along with All the President's Men and Mahatma Gandhi, and you've got this riveting, disorienting book.

How did such an implausible American story come to pass? Hansen was born into a dirt-poor family in Iowa, to a farmer who left school in the eighth grade. But he was whip-smart and rose through university science departments, where he spent a decade studying the atmosphere of Venus. But then he noticed a more interesting story was happening right in front of him: "The composition of the atmosphere of our home planet was changing before our eyes, and it was changing more and more rapidly." Yes, we had known for more than a century that human beings were releasing warming gases into the atmosphere. Every time we burn a lump of coal or a barrel of oil, we unleash in one sudden burst greenhouse gases that took millennia to accumulate. But Hansen believed the effects were now becoming plain—and could be dangerous.

After studying the evidence, in 1981 he made a number of predictions for what a warmer world would look like by the early 21st century. He said that the Arctic ice would be retreating dramatically and the fabled "North-West Passage" would open up, making it possible to sail through the Arctic. It has happened. I have seen it. Yet he was derided at the time as "alarmist" by the political class, and the Reagan Energy Department responded by slashing his research budget.

This set the pattern for his career: Hansen makes scientific warnings that are correct and need to be known by the public, and he is punished for it. In 1988, he famously testified before a Senate committee, offering the first major statements to capture the public imagination on the climate crisis. His written testimony was immediately altered by the White House to make his conclusions appear uncertain, and the first President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, tried to get him fired. There was no improvement under Bill Clinton. Hansen received "the most political interference" then, when the administration tried to block an entire scientific paper.

Then, notoriously, the second Bush administration started to appoint former employees of Big Coal to run NASA's communications. They blocked press releases warning about global warming and tried to stop Hansen from giving interviews. One of the appointees explained his job was to "make the President look good." When Hansen argued back, they cut his research budget by 20 percent. Hansen said he had a duty to speak out because the first line of NASA's mission statement is a pledge "to understand and protect our home planet"—so the Bush appointees deleted the commitment. Yes: They erased the commitment to protect planet Earth. (An independent investigation by the Inspector General later confirmed all this.)

Most scientists would have backed down or given up. Hansen didn't—and from his prickly prose, you can tell why. He is irritable and aggressive, in part because he knows the stakes are so high. Unlike many scientists, he is not afraid to talk the language of morality. He knows it would be immoral—deeply immoral—to discover that we are trashing our climate, and stay in the lab, mumbling to yourself. This genius from an Iowa farm ain't going to be bossed around by any oil-stained prep-boys who want to bury his hard facts....

So it is sobering to hear Hansen say—based on large numbers of scientific studies—that "a disintegration of the ice sheets has begun." Now we need to concentrate on forestalling a tipping point at which they would begin to internally collapse. Once that has happened, we will be powerless to stop a disaster. It will be too late to cut our emissions: They would still fall. Every rock of coal and every ton of carbon we use makes it more likely we will cross the tipping point. Every ton we get instead from low-carbon sources makes it less likely.

This is only one of a dozen effects of global warming that are just as terrifying. If we burn all the world's remaining fossil fuels, there is only one precedent in the climate record for the warming that will occur. It happened at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago, when the world warmed by 6 degrees. The result? Almost everything on Earth died. A solitary pig-sized creature, the Lystrosaurus, had the land to itself for another 30 million years. Hansen's is the only nonfiction book to ever give me nightmares...

1 comment:

David said...

Lystrosaurus. When I first learned about this creature in 2nd year Zoology, I felt sorry for it. As I learnt more about what we're doing now, it struck me that we were returning to the post-Permian world.
I wonder what the new Lystrosaurus will be: rats? goats? crocs?
I very much doubt it will be humans.