Today brought the the news that the past year has seen the second biggest rise in atmospheric CO2 since record keeping began
. This seems a good time to post this commentary.
I decided to update my climate change reading a few weeks ago. After
some consideration, I chose to read scientist James Hansen's Storms of My
Grandchildren and and activist Bill McKibben's Eaarth.
James Hansen is the man who has been right about (almost)
everything on climate change, and before everyone else. Google
Scholar shows some 690 citations of his 1981 paper Climate Impact of
Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Hansen is the person who
worked out the 350 ppm CO2 concentration goal, and in this
book he explains the how and why of that figure.
Hansen brings excellent knowledge and exposition of the science.
Since I last studied this, there has been a revolution in paleoclimate
research, and we now have data on the history of the earth's climate
that provides data on how various “forcings”—that is,
things that warm and cool the planet—affect the planet's climate.
The evidence is, as we keep hearing, overwhelming. It turns out that
it is has been known since 1976 what causes ice ages: in 1976 Hays,
Imbrie, and Shackleton published a paper validating
Milanković’s early 20th century celestial mechanics
hypothesis. This is fascinating, and it also shows that earth's
climate is, in fact, responsive to small changes in solar irradiation (insolation.)
Hansen explains how we are moving towards tipping points, after
which climate change will become self-sustaining. He talks about
likely tipping points—ice sheet collapse and methane clathrate
upwellings. He also offers stories of the governmental decision
making processes—Dick Cheney does not come out looking good. And it
turns out that Lindzen, now the only major figure in climatology who
argues against global climate change, also argues against a link
between tobacco use and lung cancer. He claims to doubt the
statistical evidence though it is overwhelming, just as the
industry-funded flacks claimed, decades ago. It seems he has
swallowed the deceptions of the tobacco industry and now the fossil
fuel industries, and so destroyed his scientific credibility.
Then we come to Hansen's proposed political and technological
solutions. First, he advocates quickly abandoning the use of coal as
the only feasible way of meeting the 350 ppm goal, pointing out that
it is not likely that the world will leave the oil in the ground for
some years yet. He points out that solar power has not taken off as
hoped, and so, he argues for nuclear power and, in fact, for fast
neutron breeder reactors on the grounds of long-term availability of
fuel and the relatively short half-lives of waste products—centuries
rather than millenia. He argues for a carbon tax, rather than an
emissions trading system.
Now I turn to activist Bill McKibben's Eaarth. The first
part of the work reiterates some of the evidence for climate change
and cites Hansen's 350 ppm goal. He also makes the point that we no
longer live in the world we took for granted, but instead a harsher
world, hence the title of the book: Eaarth. In his solutions
he turns in a different direction than Hansen, arguing for a rebirth
of village life, and in his final section has expresses doubts of such
a system, pointing out that it has historically been parochial and
sexist, and hopes to preserve the internet to leaven it.
What do I think?
- The scientific evidence for anthropgenic global climate change
is overwhelming. I was not aware that planetology had come so far,
and this is not simply a matter of debatable models but concrete
- I like McKibben's way of thinking about the changes: that we no
longer live on the Earth of history and legend, but instead on the new
world, Eaarth. (“We are now leaving the Holocene. Please put
your seatbacks up and return your tray-tables to the upright and
- I consider that the people running Hansen's fast-neutron reactors
will be the same people who now run the oil companies. There is also
a genuine risk in the production of so much weapons-grade
fissionables. That's worrisome. My thought on the need for
concentrated energy is that we might do well to start funding research
on multiple alternatives: large-scale solar like the StratoSolar proposal as well
as nuclear, but most importantly we need to get started.
- I am unconvinced by McKibben's village life model. Humans are
naturally nomadic apes, and village life is an outgrowth (so far as is
known) of limited resources and authoritarian impulses. I would
prefer we avoid recreating subsistence lifestyles and instead seek new
- My overall intution is that we can—if we control our
population—actually have a pretty comfortable lifestyle if we want
it. We can have airships, wind-powered ocean-going ships that only
occasionally run their engines, solar-electric rail, and so on. What
we can't keep doing is basing personal transportation on personal
automobiles and fast air travel as a matter of routine; we will have
to find some other way to scratch the itches those things satisfy.
So now, what do you think?