By Zeeshan Hasan
James Hansen’s book, Storms of my grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity definitely wins the prize for having the scariest sub-title ever. Yet Dr Hansen is no scaremongering quack, but one of the world’s most respected climate scientists and former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. His book predicts the end of Bangladesh and all coastal cities through global warming and sea level rise, and possibly the end of all life on Earth if our burning of fossil fuels is not rapidly halted. Fortunately, solutions to the problem are still within our reach if we act immediately.
The average educated citizen could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that global warming is a relatively minor problem; how can individuals take it seriously when the media and the world’s governments ignore it? As Dr. Hansen elaborates, that is because the oil, gas and coal industries have more than enough money and lobbyists to bend practically any government to their will with their short-term promises of cheap energy, economic growth and jobs; not to mention the legal bribery of campaign contributions.
“There were 2,340 registered energy lobbyists when I checked in early 2009… As an example, one lobbyist, former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, received $120,000 from coal company Peabody Energy in 2008 – per quarter. That’s almost half a million dollars per year” (page 186).
Given the political clout of the fossil fuel lobby, it’s not surprising that George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol on reducing greenhouse gases, sabotaged international climate change talks and endangered all of our futures. Dr. Hansen gives a personal account of how the same Bush administration tried to silence him as well as the rest of NASA on the issue of global warming, going so far as to remove any responsibility to study and protect the Earth from NASA’s vision statement. The truth is that every day we continue to burn fossil fuels, the likelihood of catastrophic climate change increases.
Many people may have heard of and shrugged off the findings of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) which forecasts a likely sea level rise of a metre or two in the next century. However, Dr. Hansen points out that the IPCC estimate is drastically underestimated, as geological records indicate sea level rise will be much higher. As he mentions on page 13, “Global warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more would make Earth as warm as it had been in the Pliocene, three million years ago. Pliocene warmth caused sea levels to be about 25 metres higher than they are today”. He goes on to mention on page 141 that “About a billion people now live at elevations of less than 25 meters”. So this would be the end of all coastal cities and low-lying areas such as river deltas, of which Bangladesh is the largest. A 25 metre warming is enough to submerge almost all of Bangladesh and its 160 million people. In that case, what are the options for Bangladesh and other low-lying countries? The wealthy and highly educated will always find some new country to migrate to. The remainder of the population will face a grim fate. It is astonishing that serious scientists like Hansen can elaborate such scenarios in books, and yet our policy-makers still shrug off climate change by assuring the public that we will be able to adapt. The idea of adaptation to most of Bangladesh going underwater is simply absurd. If the rest of the world had any real concern for Bangladesh’s survival, it would admit that adaptation to such drastic change is impossible, and try to limit global warming to a level that would ensure our existence. This would need to be somewhere around 1.5 degree Celsius, requiring rapidly reducing the burning of fossil fuels within the next decade. Oil, coal and gas need to be replaced by renewable energy such as as solar and wind.
For most of the last 20 years, the focus of all international climate change negotiations has been to limit global warming to 2 degrees. This is because 2 degrees warming was considered the threshold that would cause severe consequences for much of the world, essentially ignoring low-lying areas such as Bangladesh. In fact, current levels of carbon emissions are on track to cause 3 or 4 degrees of global warming and result in even more catastrophic effects. More than 2 degrees of global warming could trigger ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system such as release of huge amounts of methane accumulated though millions of years of decomposing organic matter under melting arctic permafrost and the ocean floor. Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and this sort of positive feedback could spin global warming out of control, endangering all life on the planet. In our own solar system, Venus is a nearby example of a planet where too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has resulted in furnace-like surface temperatures of hundreds of degrees Celsius. This is a fate which may yet await Earth unless we reverse our present fossil-fuel burning course: “After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently?… I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty” (page 236). It’s worth noting that all the above mentioned reserves of fossil fuels are listed as assets in the public accounts of fossil fuel companies, which means that they fully intend to burn all of them. We are on a suicidal path.
Dr. Hansen is interested above all in solving the problem of fossil fuels, but laments the fact that carbon cap-and-trade schemes such as that adopted by the EU have proved ineffective. The solution he proposes is “carbon fee and dividend”; namely a hefty carbon tax made progressive by returning the tax proceeds equally to each taxpayer. Thus the wealthy will pay dearly for their consumption of fossil fuel intensive goods and services, while the less affluent will be rewarded with much-needed cash for their low carbon footprint (pages 210-211). It should be noted that this should prevent carbon taxes as being perceived as regressive tax and thus being rejected by the public, which recently occurred in France.
Dr. Hansen’s book is uniquely personal, narrating how the birth of his grandchildren forced him to accept responsibility for trying to safeguard their future by becoming a anti-global-warming activist. As a result, he has been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting coal mining (page 248, or for more information watch his TED talk). The closing words of the book are worth repeating:
“The picture has become clear. Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward; they hesitate; they hang back. Therefore, it is up to you. You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren in this matter. I am sorry to say that your job will be difficult – special interests have been able to subvert our democratic system. But we should not give up on the democratic system – quite the contrary. We must fight for the principle of equal justice… But as in other struggles for justice against powerful forces, it may be necessary to take to the streets to draw attention to injustice… Civil resistance may be our best hope… It is crucial for all of us, particularly young people to get involved… this will be the most urgent fight of our lives. It is our last chance.”
We need to listen to climate scientists like Hansen and quickly end our suicidal dependence on fossil fuels within the next dozen years or so, while a window remains open to minimise the impact of global warming.