Most scientists rarely experience the luxury of certainty. But we expect them to speak with authority. We expect them to make impossible predictions and judge them on their accuracy. Even more, we expect them to stay above or at least outside public debates. In Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, James Hansen gives us the opportunity to watch a scientist who is sick of silence and compromise, a scientist at the breaking point — the point at which he is willing to sacrifice his credibility to make a stand to avert disaster, to offer up the fruits of four-plus decades of inquiry and ingenuity just in case he might change the course of history.
Hansen is often called the father of global warming. He was the creator, more than 30 years ago, of one of the first climate models, Model Zero, which he used to make a series of accurate predictions about climate change in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. He was invited to the White House; he has testified before Congress; he is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
And yet he hates public speaking. "I have always been shy," he writes, "a poor communicator, and lacking in tact. I decided that the best chance for me to communicate better was to learn to write better. So for years, after Anniek and I would go to bed, I would read out loud to her, usually English novels, marking words to study later. It improved my vocabulary, but not my tact."
Storms of My Grandchildren is an urgent book, propelled by three powerful engines. First is Hansen's realization that someday his grandchildren might ask him why he didn't do more to stop global warming. Second, there's his disgust with "greenwashing," the government's assurance that it takes the problem seriously and cares more about a sustainable future than business as usual. "I believe the biggest obstacle to solving global warming is the role of money in politics," Hansen repeats throughout the book. And: "President Obama does not get it. He and his key advisers are subject to heavy pressures, and so far the approach has been, 'Let's compromise.' " Last are recent changes in the author's own understanding of climate change.
In 2001, Hansen presented his thoughts on the subject to Vice President Dick Cheney and the Climate Task Force. At that time, he cited 450 parts per million as the maximum allowable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Along with other scientists and activists, he has revised that standard to 350 ppm. He has also begun to focus increasingly on human-induced "forcings" (which interrupt normal patterns of climate change) — particularly coal and fossil fuels.
If we shut down all coal plants in the next two decades, Hansen writes, we have a chance to bring current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, now at 387 ppm, down to 350 ppm. But half the electricity in the United States comes from coal. In China, it's 80 percent.
Like many scientists who have worked for decades on these issues, Hansen recognizes the importance of climate-related feedback loops, in which the loss of arctic sea ice, melting glaciers and ice sheets, and the release of frozen methane as tundra melts speed up rates of warming more than scientists predicted 20 years ago.
As to how to reckon with that, Hansen believes it begins with understanding the mechanisms that drive global warming. He apologizes for luring us in with promises of simple science: "If you are irascible by nature," he writes at one point, "easily angered by broken promises, you may wish to skip directly to the next chapter." Later, though, Hansen is less accommodating: "This is not difficult!" he insists as he walks us through the relationship between temperature and CO2 levels, the importance of sea level stability for civilization, the tilt and orbit of Earth and, of course, the human and natural forcings.
Perhaps the most frightening part of Storms of My Grandchildren involves Hansen's take on the personalities and power trips that all too often get in the way of real movement. He is alarmed by the contrarians, such as Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and annoyed by the bureaucrats, such as former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, who firmly requested that Hansen remove the word "danger" from discussions of global warming. He finds himself increasingly marginalized as positions on global warming and appropriate actions polarize. "Of course," he notes, "by 2005 I was well aware that the NASA Office of Public Affairs had become an office of propaganda."
Like a hurricane approaching landfall, Hansen picks up momentum toward the end of the book. "A scientist should be clear and blunt about what he thinks," he writes, "even if the authorities don't like it." He wants the reader to understand what he sees as the key issue: "When (politicians) tell you that they are going to solve the problem via a 'goal,' 'binding target,' or a 'cap,' you know that they are lying. Yes, lying is a harsh word, so you may instead say 'kidding themselves,' but I expect that one day your more perceptive grandchildren will say that you let the politicians lie to you."