The Island of Doubt

Storms of My Grandchildren
The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe
And Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

by James Hansen
Bloomsbury USA, 304 pp.

Another year, another plea for scientists to start communicating better. Here’s Chris Mooney, reminding us yet again that

Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.

Well, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the world’s best known climatologist, is stepping up to the plate with Storms of our Grandchildren, a book I think it fair to call — and I doubt Hansen would object — a desperate plea for some game-changing strategy on global warming.

This is not a carefully considered, measured and balanced effort to share half a century of scientific inquiry with the public. Indeed, it sometimes reads as if Hansen is taking advice from Mooney, a not-altogether-implausible scenario. For example, Mooney in the abovementioned Washington Post op-ed notes that when it comes to engaging the public, “Reticence is never a good thing, especially on a politically fraught topic such as global warming — it just cedes the debate to the other side.” Chapter 5 of Storms is titled “Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope.”

No, Hansen has had it with “on the one hand but on the other” approaches to global warming. While he doesn’t try to paper over the large degrees of uncertainty remaining in our understanding of anthropogenic climate change, or the paleoclimatic data on which much that understanding is based, he’s simply decided that the stakes are too high to let a few unknowns get in the way of stepping into the policy advocacy arena. And if that means using the language of (gasp!) alarmism, so be it.

The book’s subtitle “The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe And Our Last Chance to Save Humanity” makes it clear Hansen is not worried about being called an alarmist. Hansen, who gave up a promising career path as a key member of an early Venus exploration team to study more pressing questions back on Earth, never wavers in his conviction that we have very very little time left to avert what’s coming. He ventures down paths many of his peers fear to tread, eventually winding up with an exploration of the likelihood Earth could be headed for a runaway greenhouse effect in a chapter titled “The Venus Syndrome.”

To get a runaway greenhouse effect, in which positive feedbacks push the planet into a new equilibrium that is incompatible with life, Hansen invokes the specter of billions of tonnes of frozen methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean finding their way into the atmosphere. He concedes there aren’t a lot of data to support the hypothesis that we’re on the verge of triggering such an eventuality. But to Hansen, the threat is real enough that we should be scared. Very very scared.

I suspect many climatologists — not to mention the climate change deniers and pseudoskeptics — will dismiss all that as over the top and yet more proof that Hansen has lost touch with reality. Helping feed such criticism is the fact that when it comes to non-scientific matters Hansen sometimes comes across as hopelessly naive. Was he really surprised to learn that Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush Administration never really intended to take his advice seriously?

Of course, those who are predisposed to deny the science for which there is overwhelming support aren’t the target audience for this book. Not that they couldn’t learn an awful lot about how scientists like Hansen have come to fear the carbon emissions path we’re on. Storms is full of detailed and (mostly but not always) accessible explanations of the science of climate change. Particularly useful are the sections on changes of the distant path, and what they mean for what’s happening today. Hansen straddles the empirical and computer-modeling camps that divide much of the climatology community, and his breadth of knowledge is remarkable.

But as Mooney, Randy Olson (Don’t be Such a Scientist) and others have repeatedly reminded us, it’s not enough to just know your science and have a decent grasp of the language. You also have to know your audience and be good at communicating. And as Hansen admits multiple times, communicating with the public hasn’t been his forte. In fact, he spent much of his career turning down opportunities to engage the public. He’s 68 and only now writing his first book on the subject.that has dominated his life.

The question is, is Hansen finally up to it? My verdict is mixed. Again, there are some excellent reviews of the science in Storms. But if Hansen is taking Mooney’s advice to go easy on the reticence and following Olson’s admonitions to stop talking like a scientist, he may have gone too far. His choice of language can verge on the inappropriate (“Moolah?” And when was the last time anyone you know used the word “anon”?) The decision to forgo footnotes or endnotes is strange, especially when he ventures into territories he acknowledges he has only recently begun to study. His embrace of fourth-generation nuclear power, for example, is not necessarily naive or misguided, but his claims require attribution. Simply stating that such technology will prove inexpensive isn’t enough.

Another example: On the question of whether we can afford to put all our eggs in the renewable energy basket, Hansen’s arguments appear on the surface to be sound:

I have spoken with numerous utility executives and their technical staff. Every one of them asserts that efficiency and renewables will not be enough in the foreseeable future. In practice, they say, they will need either fossil fuels or nuclear power for baseload capacity. Maybe they are wrong — maybe they are underestimating the potential of efficiency and renewables — but it would be foolish to assume they are wrong.

Yes, it would. But we need a deeper analysis than that, deeper analyses that are available. Yet we don’t get them.

Similarly, Hansen’s hostility to cap-and-trade emissions reductions strategies might have merit, but he’s no economist, and he needs backup. The references are surprisingly thin. Sure, excessive footnoting can scare away a layperson, but judicious use can only strengthen one’s case.

The inclusion of a short science-fiction story at the end of the book is particularly odd. Amateur sci-fi is difficult to swallow in the best of circumstances. A hackneyed tale about aliens disappointed with our failure to save ourselves is sure to leave a bad taste in many a reader’s mouth.

In the end, though, when it comes to the questions that really matter, such as just how close we are to climate tipping points, it’s not important whether Hansen is closer to or further from the “truth” than others. Everyone who has studied the subject knows there is a serious chance we are indeed headed for a catastrophe. How high the chance must be before we do something about it is a judgment call. Hansen makes a compelling and sincere case for immediate action.

Will Storms chance many minds? Hard to say. But at least Hansen tried, which is more than many.


  1. #1 JG
    January 4, 2010

    I’m glad you posted this topic. I just finished Storms and I share your criticism of references; though I can find on my own references to most the scientific milestones he cites in his argument. What was new to me was his Venus effect scenario. I had believed that Earth could tolerate higher CO2 levels as shown in the mesozoic without a runaway greenhouse effect. His combination of a modern hotter sun (2% output similar to a doubling of CO2), methane hydrates ready for discharge greater than that of the PETM, and carbon sinks being bottlenecked made for a scary possibility, but I need help assessing the likelihood of this.

    Also, because of this book, I’ve been picturing what a hundred years of a moving coastline would be like. Will shoreline cities be demolished responsibly, or will buildings be allowed to soak and crumble.


  2. #2 Brian Brademeyer
    January 4, 2010

    I also just finished the book, a Christmas gift. The science was interesting and convincing, the solutions, not so much.

    Hansen’s argument against renewables, leaving nuclear as the only option left standing, was that corporations were “not willing to allow” development greater than what has occurred thus far, which is far below the Amory Lovins projections. This is hardly convincing evidence that it must be this way.

    To my mind, his “endorsement” of fourth-generation nuclear is mostly an attempt to appear “grown up” to the powers that be, so that his description of the problem will be listened to. For a solution, Hansen should be calling for nationalization of the energy sector.

    Nit: Last paragraph: “Will Storms chance many minds?” should be “change”?

  3. #3 Dave
    January 5, 2010

    Up front I’m a Denier and remain convinced of the Ice Age Theory. There is a lot hard proof on that side of science and plus I’ve seen it with my own lying eyes.

    In reply to JG’s concern maximum water levels using CRU data is 8 to 12 inches over 100 years?(speculative results) Cities will not be disappearing under the oceans! Most Cities water fronts are rebuilt on a 30 to 50 year basis.(fact) And last but not least nature works on multiple checks and balances, for every action there is a reaction based on known history based on natures history.(not speculative results)

    As far as the Nuclear Option goes I’ve always been keen to live in a nuclear world. I think our Science and Engineering skills are at the level now to make the next generation of nuclear applications. Humans are going to move on to portable power supplies and nuclear science is going to supply it.(And that’s a fact Jack) A solar panel ain’t gonna cut it in a electronic world!

  4. #4 jg
    January 5, 2010

    Thank you, for indulging my curiousity. I agree that nature reveals many checks and balances, e.g., increased CO2 leading to some increased plant growth. Of these checks and balances, some may be short-lived or illusory. E.g., from Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen suggests that melting of polar ice (Greenland, Antarctica) could mask rising temperatures.

    I was lazy in expressing my curiousity about coastlines. Let me elaborate. Hansen suggests that a stable (multi-generational) coastline was essential to the rise of civilization and posed the question of how problematic a moving coastline could be. So I wondered whether that would be true now or during a century when there could be a rapid loss of greenland and west antarctic ice. I think of how messy scrapping old ships on shorelines can be and wonder at the plight of cities. Thanks for your comment about 30-50 year planning. I see evidence of shoreline engineering compensating for erosion. I just wonder about erosion plus sea level rise, whether this excedes the rate at which cities manage to rebuild their coastline infrastructure.

    The rust belt had the luxury of leaving buildings empty. I wonder how various cities will let go of their coastlines, if they do.

  5. #5 daedalus2u
    January 6, 2010

    But we all know that when Greenland melts, it will do so catastrophically, just as every other ice sheet that has ever melted has done. Sea level won’t go up slowly, as Greenland melts like an ice cube while staying in place. No, sea level will go up in pulses, as large chunks of Greenland flow into the sea. An ice sheet is inherently unstable toward melting. Water is denser than ice, so melt water on the top of Greenland will flow down to bedrock because the pressure at the bottom of a column of water is higher than at the bottom of a column of ice.

    The only think keeping the ice at the bottom of the 3,000 meter thick ice sheet from being melted by geothermal heat is the temperature gradient of the colder ice above. That temperature gradient is maintained by the cold temperatures during the Greenland winter. When water flows down into that cold ice, the water will freeze, releasing its heat of fusion and raising the temperature of the ice up to the melting point. When the whole ice sheet is at the melting point, there is no temperature gradient to keep the ice at bedrock frozen. It will melt and start adding to the water coming down from the top.

    Then you don’t have a 3,000 meter thick ice sheet, you have a river a thousand miles wide a few meters deep with 2,997 thick ice layer on top. With water at the base lubricating the flow, there will be nothing to stop it from flowing to the sea.

  6. #6 Patrick
    January 11, 2010

    I for one am disapointed that Mr. Hansen or his editors didn’t see fit to provide footnotes, or endnotes to provide background for his assertions. Having read Mark Lynas’ “Six Degrees,” which has extensive endnotes, I must say that the lack of anotations in “Storms of My Grandchildren” is a great dissapointment. Lynas’ endnotes provided leads on numerous articles which allowed me both to expand my knowledge and to do fact checking. I read through an inch thick stack of articles in the wake of reading “Six Degrees,” and I profited from doing so.

    In passing I do not care for the current fashion of putting all notes at the end of a book or article. Particularly when citations are annotated it can be a pleasure and it is also conveniant to be able to easily know what the sources of a particular fact are. Lynas’(Bjorn Lomborg’s “Cool It” is another example) book lacks any symbols in the text explicitly pointing to assertions that are backed by a citation. Why this sort of thing is so popular in the publishing world is a mystery to me.