Review: Storms of my grandchildren
By James Hansen, Bloomsbury, $35
Last year James Hansen, one of the world’s best-known climate scientists, was arrested during a protest against the coal industry in West Virginia. He lives by the principle that if you know something is wrong you have to act. His recently published book, Storms of My Grandchildren, explores his commitment to ending global warming.
In the book we learn about the sinister influence of the energy lobby in Washington as well as the importance of ancient climate history to understanding how sensitive our climate is today. Hansen makes some very sharp criticisms of carbon trading schemes. But sadly he also details his support for nuclear power.
Hansen was not always politically engaged. In 2001 he addressed a high-level climate task force, led by Dick Cheney, to explain how human activity was causing global warming. But when they ignored his research he began to see the way the fossil fuel industry had captured the debate.
In 2005 he wrote, “special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to the long-term impact on the planet”. At the time Hansen was a respected member of NASA but his outspoken stance drew a censorship net around him.
Hansen writes about the way energy executives campaigned to get NASA to remove his climate analysis from websites. Hansen’s defence of his work frequently referred to NASA’s mission statement: “to understand and protect our home planet”. Shortly after Hansen started using the statement it vanished from the NASA website. The next thing to go was 20 per cent of the NASA earth science budget. NASA’s attempt to gag Hansen and disrupt climate research ended up on the front page of The New York Times.
At a time when the views of climate sceptics are receiving widespread media coverage Hansen’s careful elaboration of the climate science is much needed.
He bases his assessment upon the detailed record of the “paleoclimate”—ancient climate patterns stretching back hundreds of thousands of years. He writes, “the more I looked at paleoclimate data, the more I realised how sensitive ice sheets were to even small global warming.”
In the past natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions or the slow grinding of tectonic plates caused dramatic climate change. The slow build up of natural emissions created “amplifying feedbacks” like the release of methane gases trapped in the soil. Dramatic climate change then occurred over centuries or even decades.
Hansen is alarmed about the possible speed of runaway climate change caused by greenhouse gases released by human activity.
The last 10,000 years have been a relatively stable warm period. In previous warm periods when the temperature was slightly higher—2 to 3oC warmer than today—sea levels were about 25 metres higher. A sea level rise of just five metres would submerge Florida, Bangladesh and much of Europe.
Hansen is scathing of carbon trading and the fraudulent practice of “offsetting” emissions by supposedly locking up carbon elsewhere. He condemns the way US coal companies remove mountain tops to get at the toxic mineral beneath. These parts of the book are very useful.
However his alternative is a carbon tax. He calls it a “fee and dividend approach”—a fee is collected at the mine or port the first time a fossil fuel source is sold in the country. He proposes giving 100 per cent of the proceeds back to the public based upon the size of their carbon footprint. Those who reduce their personal carbon emissions to a modest footprint will receive a reasonable dividend. Those who can only afford to live in suburbs with shoddy public transport and are forced to rely on car travel will be worse off. Hansen’s plan is fundamentally unfair.
The really tragic part of the book is his call for a massive expansion of nuclear power. His support for nuclear power will confuse activists and weaken calls to invest in viable forms of renewable energy.
He argues that governments should invest in new “fast breeder” nuclear reactors. But there is simply no such thing as safe nuclear energy. These reactors use plutonium, one of the most carcinogenic materials in existence. If there is a crack in a cooling pipe, plutonium particles will drift across vast areas. Plutonium remains dangerous for millions of years.
Hansen has written an important book that will be read by thousands of people concerned about climate change. His explanation of the science and the way the climate debate is sabotaged by energy corporations make the book invaluable. However his stature as a leading scientist shouldn’t soften our condemnation of his call for nuclear power.
By Adrian Skerritt