NASA’s Prophet Will Give You Nightmares

Ignore James Hansen’s climate predictions at your peril.

I started reading James Hansen’s new book, Storms of My Grandchildren, at the edge of a vanishing Arctic. I sat on a bare brown Greenland hillside listening to the ferocious crack and crash of the dying glaciers in the distance. As I watched the corpse of the ice sheet float by, broken into a thousand icebergs, it seemed the right place to begin the leading NASA scientist’s explanation for what I was seeing. Since the year I was born, 1979, 40 percent of the Arctic sea ice has vanished. If we don’t change our behavior fast, Hansen says I will live to see the day when it is all gone, and the North Pole is a point in the open ocean, reachable by boat. He stresses these are only the starting symptoms of a planetary fever that will remake the map of the world—and the capacity of human beings to survive on it. I finished reading the book at the Copenhagen climate summit, where the world’s leaders gathered to offer a giant shrug.

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.

The global-warming deniers have claimed for years that the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue exists only because climate scientists are rewarded for making “alarmist” or “hysterical” claims. Hansen’s story shows this is the opposite of the truth. The pressure is, in reality, to make scientists play down their claims. Think of it as the real Climategate.

What are the politicians trying to hide when they try to silence Hansen? He explains—drawing on deep pools of scientific evidence—that the burning of oil and coal is emitting so many warming gases into the atmosphere that we are now very close to triggering a series of catastrophes we won’t be able to stop. The most striking to me, as I looked out over one of the world’s greatest ice sheets, is the danger of their disintegration—triggering a massive sea level rise. It used to be agreed that it would take millennia for ice sheets to go, but the evidence now shows this is wrong.

Paleoclimatologists study how the Earth’s climate reacted in the past to natural warming forces, like a small change in the Earth’s tilt, or an increase in the sun’s heat. Hansen believes these studies provide stronger evidence than climate models, because they are looking at what happened the last times this experiment—of a rapidly warming world—was run. And the findings are seriously scary. Ice sheets can go fast, and when they do, sea levels rise remorselessly and do not settle for centuries. He reasons: “If ice sheets begin to disintegrate, there will not be a new stable sea level on any foreseeable time scale. We will have created a situation with continual change, with intermittent calamities at thousands of cities around the world. It will continue for as many generations as we care to think about. … Global chaos will be difficult to avoid.”

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.

What must it be like to be a scientist who is exploring this every day and to walk out into an indifferent world? Hansen has worked hard at making himself a better communicator. He describes how he fought to overcome his shyness and the temptation to fall back on a technical scientific vocabulary in front of general audiences. He has channeled his anger in the best possible way—to make himself better able to warn us.

He did his job. So won’t the government do its job? These warnings aren’t coming from a crank, or a few random scientists. Virtually all scientists who study the climate regard Hansen as a hero. Why would government officials refuse to listen to such urgent threats to the U.S. homeland? Hansen’s explanation is simple: “Special interests have been able to subvert our democratic system,” he says. If you want to run for office in the United States, you need to raise money—and the fossil-fuel industry is waiting with an open check book. Republicans and Democrats alike inhale the polluters’ cash, and as a result, we get only legislation that “coal companies and utilities are willing to allow.” If we made the leap to a world powered by the wind, the waves, and the sun, they would hemorrhage profits, so it is not allowed. We are all being held hostage to the profit margins of a few polluters and their “lobbyists in alligator shoes.”

The American political system as it currently works can provide only shams like the Waxman-Markey Bill, which Hansen exposes as an Enron-style con. It is so full of loopholes and lobbyist-authored treats for the polluters that it will achieve almost nothing. So what’s the way out?

Here’s where the story takes a turn you don’t expect from one of America’s most senior government scientists. He says the citizenry have to rise up, and if necessary, break the law. He has started to study the writings of Gandhi and reckons if any situation justifies civil disobedience, it’s this one, this time. The forces of environmentalism need to prove themselves more determined than the forces of environmental destruction. In Britain, there has been a mass movement of activists who are physically blocking coal trains and new airport runways to stop them from being built. It has succeeded: Politicians felt the heat, and the biggest new runway and all new coal power stations have been canceled. Hansen testified in the defense of these activists and got them acquitted by a jury, which ruled that they were justified because their actions would ultimately save lives.

Hansen has brought this message home. He was arrested at a direct action protest at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, ostensibly for “stopping the traffic,” and in theory could face a year in prison. The fact that the scientist who knows most about global warming is prepared to take these steps to jolt us awake should tell us something.

I sat and read Storms of My Grandchildren in the corner of the Bella Centre in Copenhagen while all around me governments refused to sign up to cut their emissions, and lobbyists gloated. I wanted to make them read just one paragraph from the world’s most distinguished climate scientist. Hansen advised that if the leaders weren’t going to act, “they should spend a small amount of time composing a letter to be left for future generations. The letter should explain that the leaders realized their failure would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes, and vanishing species, but it would have been too much trouble to oppose business interests who insisted on burning every last bit of fossil fuels. By composing this letter, the leaders will at least achieve an accurate view of their place in history.”

That evening, the Copenhagen climate summit collapsed. I’m still waiting for them to publish the letter.