It’s odd. At 68, James Hansen, arguably the planet’s most renowned climatologist and one of the earliest prophets of human-induced global climate change, has finally published his first book.
“Odd” is a fitting description for the book as well.
Storms of My Grandchildren is an expansive treatise on the perils of increased carbon dioxide emissions, juxtaposed with anecdotes of Hansen’s meetings with the likes of Dick Cheney and his Climate Task Force, ExxonMobil executives and the House of Congress.
Here we find Hansen at his introspective best. The book provides insight into a government scientist caught in the spotlight, unable to convince his own superiors of the gravity of the impending dangers if immediate changes are not implemented.
Up against politicians with a four-year vision, a bureaucracy riddled with political appointees, mercenary contrarians and deniers, a horde of special interest groups and industry lobbyists (Hansen calls them “people in alligator shoes”), and a mainstream public who seems uninterested, Hansen has been engaged in an uphill struggle for 30 years.
Along the path, he has evolved from dedicated scientist, to a professor, advisor, vocal advocate, and ultimately, to a grandfather sincerely worried about the welfare of his progeny on this planet.
But Hansen is not a naturally gifted communicator. A quarter of this book is likely beyond the non-scientist reader. That rare talent to translate highly technical information into language that anyone sitting at a Tim Horton’s could grasp is not his forte.
His analysis starts with paleoclimatic (climate history) records from ocean floor sediments and kilometres-deep Antarctic ice cores dating from 425,000 years ago. The book’s graphs – more suitable for an academic audience than a general one – illustrate peaks and valleys of global temperatures, carbon dioxide and sea levels. The illustrations virtually mirror one another. However, those trends would be clearer to the reader if the graphs extended beyond 1750, the onset of the Industrial Revolution, to today.
Hansen explores a plethora of climate change drivers: volcanoes, the Earth’s orbit, solar radiation, as well as human- caused impacts such as black carbon (soot), cooling aerosols, nitrous oxide, ozone, methane and, of course, carbon dioxide.
Perhaps because his career has been focused on carbon emissions, Hansen underplays the role of methane as it rears its head in a warming northern climate. While acknowledging that methane is 33 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (and that previously- frozen methane crystals on the Arctic seafloor are melting), he does not connect the dots to the fact that releasing the Arctic’s huge methane sinks could portend a potential runaway catastrophe of the two major greenhouse gases operating in synergy.
Hansen’s solutions to the climate issue include three prescriptions: Leave as much oil and gas in the ground as possible; shut down tar sands and oil-shale operations; and phase out coal until it is feasible to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions. Finally, and likely a surprise to many, resurrect fourth generation or “fast” nuclear reactors that were mothballed in the mid-1990s, which could be fuelled by the megatonnes of existing radioactive waste that is 99 per cent unspent. “We already have enough fuel stockpiled in nuclear waste and by- products of nuclear weapons production to supply all our fuel needs for about a thousand years,” writes Hansen.
He abhors the cap-and-trade schemes many developed countries are promoting today, which is why he boycotted the Copenhagen conference: “Offsets are like the indulgences sold by the church in the Middle Ages.” In other words, polluting sinners can continue sinning, as long as they buy offsetting indulgences from non-sinners.
Hansen advocates instead for a carbon tax at the source (mine, well or port of entry – and presumably pipeline), based on dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide in the fuel. It’s called fee-and-dividend, and the revenues would be distributed equally to every adult citizen to compensate them for having to pay more for oil, gas or coal.
In an improbable role reversal in the last chapter, Hansen dons the cap of climate-change contrarian Michael Crichton and writes his own sci-fi piece about aliens who approach Earth in 2525 and find it uninhabitable – “with boiling oceans and scorched deserts.” It’s not bad. He’s no Crichton, but then Crichton is no scientist.
Storms of My Grandchildren is a plea to younger generations to take up the call to climate action, which he believes may require civil resistance. Nothing else has worked.
Hansen’s final words . . . “This is our last chance.”
Glen Blouin is a freelance environmental journalist living in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa.