When Dr. James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration arrived in Houston to speak in December 2009, he was greeted by an angry mob, a police escort, and death threats. This was odd. Houston, the home of Mission Control, normally treats visitors from NASA, many of whom are astronauts, as celebrities.
You can trace this animosity back to June 1988, when Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, became the first scientist to testify before the United States Congress about greenhouse gas pollution which is causing a destructive phenomenon known as global warming. He has warned that if the planet is allowed to warm by another 2 °F (3.6 °C) or more, it would take us to a temperature last seen on earth 66 million years ago, during the Cenozoic era, when the planet was ice free and sea levels were 200 feet higher.
For Hansen, warnings such as these turned Houston against him. If Texas were a country, it would be the world’s 8th leading greenhouse gas emitter. Because its economy depends on emissions of the two primary greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, which comes primarily from the twin pillars of the Texas economy: the combustion of oil and coal; and methane, emitted by the back end of cattle – many Texans have never bought Hansen’s global warming theories. In their incongruent minds, Hansen, 69, an avuncular grandfather, plans to take away all of their prosperity.
Days before Hansen’s speech, right-wing blogger and media gadfly Andrew Breitbart, with a single tweet on Twitter, incited an angry mob to turn out to greet Hansen, as if they were going to a lynching: “Capital punishment for James Hansen. Climategate is high treason,” Breitbart wrote, unwittingly setting the stage for the climate change dramas that would unfold during the next year.
But in the 12 months after Hansen spoke, global warming events, science and politics each took monstrous turns for the worse. The year will go down as the hottest in history, and will be known for severe climate disruptions around the globe, with Russia, China, Pakistan and the Arctic regions taking the worst of it. At the same time, 2010 will be known as the year that climate change skepticism reached an unprecedented fury, as global warming scientists faced withering series of vicious attacks collectively known as “climategate.” Nevertheless, in 2010, many of the same scientists produced stunning advances in their understanding of the ways that Earth has been heating up, and the deadly consequences of inaction that lie ahead for the planet’s climate, geology, and ecosystems and the human condition. We might still avoid a deadly fate, if we can find a way to ignore the well-organized, well-funded climate skeptic, much like society managed to ignore the people who think the earth is flat. But that appears unlikely. In 2010, politicians in the United States, the worldwide leader in exporting skepticism of climate change, and around the world, decided to allow the planet to keep getting hotter.
The extreme heat, drought, forest fires and intense flooding devastated every region on Earth, killing thousands and causing human suffering in ways that were eerily consistent with global warming’s predicted behavior. As a number of scientific studies have revealed, these kinds of events are typical of a warming planet. If global warming were a movie, the genre would be nonfiction/horror, and 2010 would be the trailer.
“Climategate,” of course, was the news media’s name for an October 2009 computer crime, when someone hacked 10 years worth of private e-mails from a climate scientist’s web server at University of East Anglia in Great Britain, and posted all 1,073 of them online. As far as crimes go, the hack never rose above the level of a two-bit burglary. But climate skeptics claimed the pilfered e-mails discredited the entire body of science underlying global warming theory by “proving” it had been corrupted by scientists who were publishing willfully doctored data. Those claims were proven false by several British and American academic and government investigations which revealed the scientists were guilty of nothing more than occasionally sloppy work, and sometimes crossed the line between science and advocacy. The investigations showed that the scientists were not corrupt, and generated no doctored data or documents.
Nevertheless, in 2010, many of the same scientists were able to produce stunning advances in their understanding of the ways that Earth has been heating up, and the deadly consequences of inaction that lie ahead for the planet’s climate, geology, and ecosystems and the human condition. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released 10 different data sets confirming that, for several decades at least, the planet has been gradually getting warmer “from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean,” as NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco put it. If those trends are allowed to continue, global warming’s murderous conduct will manifest itself sooner than expected as seas rise, water supplies run short, famine and disease spread, and violent unrest destabilizes entire heavily armed regions of the world.
Om 2010, the world’s politicians, listened to the climate trolls, not the scientists, wallowing in their paralyzing fog of doubt. Fed by a deepening distrust of climate science from right-wing ideologues, the United States Senate and the world leaders, meeting in Copenhagen failed to take any action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Every year, climate change is blamed for the deaths of over 300,000 people, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum, based in Geneva. Four billion people are most vulnerable to its effects, and 500 million to 600 million people – around 7 percent of the planet’s total population – are at extreme risk
That number is sure to rise.
Political leaders are ignoring the fundamental issue: How many people must die at the hands of global warming before they are ready to face the ugly truth?
During the summer of 2010, in the weeks after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April that built public anger over the oil industry’s environmental practices, the Senate slithered away from a potential confrontation with the industry by refusing to enact a climate bill, without so much as taking a vote.
Under Obama, the U.S. took several positive steps toward a cooler planet: it increased automobile fuel efficiency standards for the first time since 1990; it made bigger investments in clean energy projects than all Obama’s predecessors combined; and in 2010 for the first time the Environmental Protection Agency exercised its authority to reduce greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. But he took one awkward step backward, by loosening the rules on offshore oil drilling in the weeks ahead of the BP oil spill.
Many blamed Obama for failing to push hard enough for a climate bill. “Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout,” Rolling Stone said in its July 21, 2010 issue. “Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress. In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act. But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away.”
Of course, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush took no positive steps to slow global warming, but then again, neither did Bill Clinton. The Bush administration routinely censored climate scientists until the near the end of his two terms in office. Nearly half of the 279 climate scientists who responded to a Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2007 said they had been pressured by their supervisors to delete references to “global warming” or “climate change” from their papers. Many said they were told not to talk with the media.
However, it is not likely that passage of any climate bill in Congress was possible in 2010, no matter what the president did or which man occupied the Oval Office. Krugman of the New York Times said greedy oil and coal industrialists and their lobbyists stood side-by-side with “cowards” in the Senate,” many of whom supported action on climate in the past, but deserted the cause at the crucial moment.”
But it wasn’t just political Washington that killed the climate bill; it was also the Washington Post. In 2009, blogger Joseph Romm gave the Post his “Citizen Kane award for non-excellence in climate journalism
“There is no question that most of the traditional, status quo media simply doesn’t get the dire nature of the climate situation that our latest understanding of science makes clear. And that media reaches vastly more people than President Obama. If the media won’t stand up to the well-funded, poll-tested disinformation campaign, then the public’s view of climate is unlikely to change dramatically until we have a series of unambiguous signals,” which he calls “climate Pearl Harbors.”
Meanwhile, new EPA regulations enacted barely clung to life. A bill to repeal the regulations, led Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and by Sen. James Inhofe, failed by a 53-to-47 vote. More attempts appear likely from big oil, big coal and their congressional allies.
The year 2010 pushed us perilously close to global warming’s self-perpetuating, irreversible feedback loop. Once we cross that line, known as the “tipping point,” there will be no turning back. Political paralysis continued through the next round of world climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, which open in November 2010. Some minimal progress was reported, but binding agreements on carbon emissions remain elusive.
It doesn’t seem to matter to climate trolls that the likely cost of inaction would include the deaths hundreds of millions under even conservative scenarios. As Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California-San Diego, pointed out in her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, the “doubt-mongers,” as she calls them, have borrowed strategies and several of the lobbyists from the tobacco industry as they sought to influence policy with their deadly lies. Global warming deniers have manufactured doubt as their chief product, exacerbating uncertainty and magnifying confusion about the science and economics of climate change in the name of free enterprise, capitalism and profits for oil companies.
The typical climate troll reduces global warming to a liberal conspiracy aimed at destroying freedom, de-industrializing the West, imposing a one-world government, confiscating all SUVs, and raising taxes through the roof. By encouraging people to ignore the problem, the trolls apparently think that the planet will repair itself, like a car that can fix its own broken carburetor.
One of their tools is the telling of half-truths to conservative cranks with modems: people who are already prone to listen to anything that confirms their deep distrust of anything the government says or does, and often rant against global warming on the internet.
Consider, for example, Godfrey Bloom, an economist and a member of the British Parliament, who said in a 2009 speech to the European Parliament that “global warming alarmism” is just an excuse for politicians to “reach deeper into your trousers and steal your money.” He goes on to say with a straight face, “We’re talking about something here that doesn’t exist.”
Bloom had fabricated a blueprint for inaction that was designed to appeal to climate trolls who work in the mainstream media and for think tanks like the Cato Institute. In many cases irrationality has turned to anger, and may one day turn to violence, which explains Hansen’s police escort en route to his speech in Houston.
Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator, a leading climate troll, pounded on climategate as evidence against climate scientists. “It is increasingly clear that the leak of the internal emails and documents of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November has done for the climate change debate what the Pentagon Papers did for the Vietnam war debate 40 years ago – changed the narrative decisively,” he wrote on his blog. “Additional revelations of unethical behavior, errors, and serial exaggeration in climate science are rolling out on an almost daily basis, and there is good reason to expect more.”
Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has the ability to hold any energy legislation in Congress hostage to his ill-informed views. He has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate climategate – specifically whether there was any evidence of research misconduct or criminal actions by the 17 scientists supposedly involved. He has also called on NASA to fire Dr. Hansen.
Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, one of the 17 scientists targeted by Inhofe, said in response to his allegations: “It looks like a McCarthyite tactic: pull in anyone who had anything to do with anyone because they happened to converse with some by email, and threaten them with criminal activity.”
Climate scientists are fighting back with a public relations campaign of their own, saying they are tired of “being treated like political pawns.” Their strategy included forming a nonprofit group to organize researchers and using the donations to challenge critics by running a back-page ad in the New York Times.
But their best weapon in 2010 was science, not spin. In early 2010, a group of British scientists, after reviewing 110 peer-reviewed studies on climate change published since 2007, found “a consistent picture of global change that clearly bears the fingerprint of man-made greenhouse gas emissions,” according to lead scientist Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring for Great Britain. After examining all the evidence, like crime scene detectives solving a murder, the scientists cleared natural forces – such as volcanic eruptions and cyclical changes in the brightness of the sun – of all allegations that they are to blame for what is happening to the world’s climate. All but one of the suspects have left the room.
One can also argue that every consumer is at fault. Fossil fuels like gasoline and coal are remarkably cheap, encouraging their use. During the week before his speech, Hansen told the Houston Chronicle that unless the planet phases out all fossil fuel energy production, “we can’t solve the problem. The fundamental matter is that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy we’re going to continue to use them, and even increase their use.”
If everyone consumed energy at the same rate as Americans, we’d need another four planets’ worth of oil and coal reserves to meet demand. And by mid-century, when the world’s population is expected to reach 9.2 billion, up from the current 6.8 billion, we would need an additional two planets’ worth of oil and coal, or a total of six more planets. But that’s not going to happen. Sooner or later, the rapid rate of consumption must come to end. At that point, society may have to rethink the economic model that has been feeding off cheap oil. “Capitalism’s only goal is ever-expanding growth. But ever-expanding growth on just the one not-expanding planet is impossible,” as the 2009 British documentary, “The Age of Stupid,” succinctly pointed out
Public opinion polls show that the skeptics’ media blitz might be working, and that Americans, at least, area willing to dodge responsibility for global warming. The number of Americans who believe that climate change is a hoax or scientific conspiracy is small, but has more than doubled since 2008, to 16 percent of the population from 7 percent, according to a 2010 survey by Yale and George Mason universities.
A poll by the Pew Research Center found that among their top 21 social and economic priorities, Americans rank global warming dead last. Regardless of their political party, Americans give global warming a low ranking. Without public support, it’s hard to see Americans rewiring their lifestyles, not to mention the entire economy, to solve a problem that they perceive as merely the nation’s 21st greatest challenge. Who would be concerned about global warming if he or she didn’t think it exists?
While the fingerprints of human-caused climate change on extreme weather events, or corpses, may be hard to find, that doesn’t mean those fingerprints don’t exist or we shouldn’t look for them. NASA’s sister agency, NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has formed a Climate crime scene investigations team that is looking for those fingerprints. It assembled a 25-member team of investigators to determine whether global warming’s fingerprints on extreme weather events can be detected. The climate investigators intend to do more than satisfy the curiosity of billions of people who worry about what’s happening to their weather. They will focus our attention on the implications of everyday weather on such things as food supplies and commodity prices. Evidence of global warming’s fingerprints on climate-related tragedies can present enormous implications for litigation, and are likely to trigger controversial pleas for victim compensation.
After two years of work, their findings thus far are inconclusive. For example, a NOAA report on the Russian heat wave, issued in August 2010 just days after it occurred, found that the heat wave could more easily be explained by a series of rare and extreme natural processes than by greenhouse gas emissions. However, the report noted that the heat wave “may very well forebode the impact that a projected warming of surface temperatures could have by the end of the 21st Century due to greenhouse gas increases.”
“If you ask me as a person, do I think the Russian heat wave has to do with climate change, the answer is yes. If you ask me as a scientist whether I have proved it, the answer is no — at least not yet,” Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist with NASA, told the New York Times.
But Ghassem Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Program, told Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, that the massive flooding in Pakistan, the killer heatwave in Russia, the deadly flooding and landslides in China and the collapse of a giant iceberg in Greenland, each occurring within days of each other in August 2010, were exceptional even by the standards of naturally-occurring climate extremes. “We know for sure that the two events in Pakistan and Russia are linked,” Asrar said.
“There’s no doubt that clearly the climate change is contributing, a major contributing factor,” Asrar said in an interview with the New York Times. “We cannot definitely use one case to kind of establish precedents, but there are a few facts that point towards climate change as having to do with this.”
Global warming’s fingerprints, in fact, have been found in the case of the flooding that killed thousands in August 2010 in Pakistan. You just have to be creative in where you look. A Pakistani glaciologist, Prof. M. Iqbal Khan, told the Associated Press of Pakistan that the flooding was caused by a combination to unprecedented monsoon rains as well as the melting of glaciers in upper Pakistan. The rains might have been linked to global warming, but the melting of glaciers definitely was.
“I have warned everyone about the floods in Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera due to the global warming in my previous interviews but nobody took notice and the result is before us,” he said, adding that “it is the glaciers which are adding fuel to the fire and due to the melting of glaciers the flood situation is aggravated.”
Nevertheless, climate scientists will also continue to focus their attention on long-term trends. Climate, after all, is about the trends, not the day-to-day weather. “When we look at air temperature and other indications of climate, we see highs and lows in the data from year to year because of natural variability,” says Peter Stott, the head of climate monitoring in Great Britain. “Understanding climate change requires looking at the long-term record.”
After examining 10 different sets of data going back up to 100 years, a group of more than 300 climate scientists from 48 countries found that all 10 sets agreed with the conclusion that the planet has been warming for several decades at least, according to a NOAA report entitled the State of the Climate 2009, which was issued in July 2010.
The report said seven global trends have been steadily rising for several decades: air temperatures over land; sea surface temperatures; air temperature over oceans; sea level; ocean heat; humidity; and temperatures in the troposphere, or the “active-weather” layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface.
In addition, three other trends are declining, again in ways that are consistent with global warming. The extent of Arctic sea ice, the size of glaciers, and the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere have all been going down for several decades.
Pushing his way past the angry mob that greeted him upon his arrival in Houston, Hansen was finally able to deliver his message. Speaking before The Progressive Forum, a civic speakers’ organization dedicated to Democratic values, Hansen warned that we have an “emergency situation.” He also warned that we’re approaching a tipping point in which environmental damage is becoming irreversible.
“The situation today is that there continues to be a big gap between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community, and what is known by the people who need to know and that’s the public,” he told his audience. “It’s hard for the public to recognize that we have an emergency situation, but we really are at a crisis stage … We’re closer to the tipping point than we realize.”
The day after Hansen’s spoke in Houston, his first book was published in London: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Hansen, one of the scientists censored by the Bush administration, writes about his personal frustrations from that experience. As he condemned governmental “greenwashing” and the undue influence of more than 2,300 energy lobbyists, he attempted to close the gap “between public perception and scientific reality” by lucidly explaining the dynamics of global warming, its acceleration, and how a slight rise in temperature can lead to disastrous consequences. As a review in Publishers Weekly noted, Hansen’s book “belongs in every library.”
If leaders refuse to act, Hansen wrote, the least they could do is compose a letter for future generations—assuming, of course, that there will be future generations. In the letter, leaders should explain that they realize their failure would cause our descendants to inherit a much harsher planet. They should also make clear that it was too much trouble to oppose business interests who insisted on burning every last bit of fossil fuels.
“By composing this letter,” Hansen wrote, “the leaders will at least achieve an accurate view of their place in history.”