Two Timely Books

Recently I was sent two somewhat similar books to review, "Storms of My Grandchildren" by James Hansen and "Thoughts of a Scientist, Citizen, and Grandpa on Climate Change" by Eric P. Grimsrud. Both authors are plainspoken Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent and both are climate experts. Both are also grandparents and take pains to emphasize the fact in their respective texts. Hansen, by far the better known figure, directs NASA's Goddard Institute and has devoted much of his career to exploring climate change and warning of its dangers. Grimsrud is a retired professor of chemistry at Montana State University who has published extensively on climate issues in academic journals.

I'll begin by apologizing to Dr. Grimsrud for my tardiness in reviewing his book. His publicist sent it to me months ago and I just never got around to reviewing it although I read it within days of receiving it. Now with the receipt of Hansen's somewhat similar tome I'm inclined to consider both together.

Grimsrud's book is a trade paperback of a less than hundred pages while Hansen's work is nearly thrice that length. While the basic subject matter is the same for both authors, the manner of the exposition is decidedly different in either book as is the likely impact on the reader.

But before I discuss the specifics of each author's call for urgent action on climate change, a few words are in order on the authors themselves.

Hansen is a celebrity of sorts which surely counts for something and should stimulate the sales of this his only book. He came to national prominence during the Administration of George W. Bush when he openly challenged that Administration on both climate policy and the Administration officials' interpretation of the scientific data churned out by Federal agencies, and he did so at the risk of his career. His work subsequently provided much ammunition for climate change alarmists, and I do not use the work alarmist pejoratively here because there is cause for alarm.

Hansen is perhaps the most pessimistic among the more prominent climate scientists and the most extreme in his public policy positions. He believes that if the entire remaining store of fossil fuel resources is consumed as fuel—a distinct possibility at this time—the resulting CO2 emissions are likely to spark a runaway greenhouse condition on earth that could result in mean temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit everywhere on the planet, which could in turn result in the extinction of humans and of countless other species of animals and plants. He states that the world is poised on the brink of an extinction event such as that which obliterated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and that only decisive changes in international energy and industrial policies can avert such an event.

Hansen does not believe such an extinction event is immanent, however. Rather he suggests that it is at least a century off even in the worst case. But he does assert that it is inevitable if stringent measures to curb carbon emissions are not prescribed immediately.

In the light of the ongoing Copenhagen conference on climate change, Hansen's statements and findings could not be more timely. The question is will they be heeded.

My guess is that they won't. Radio news broadcasts and newspaper editorial pages are currently replete with musings on the Copenhagen summit, but the attitudes of most of commentators I've heard are remarkably jejune. Most are cynically indifferent, and openly state that the conference is a typical internationalist political wrangle which will come to nothing. And in making such assertions they are insufferably smug, utterly discounting the possibly disastrous consequences of such inanition.

They're probably right about the ultimate inconsequence of the meeting. Almost everyone stands to suffer short term losses by enacting measures that can make a real difference, but developing countries particularly stand to lose, which means they'll never agree to meaningful measures even if they face the flooding of their shorelines in as little as two decades. Their political leaders want to boost their standards of living by increasing car ownership, electrification, and factory production, and they're willing to sacrifice the safety and security of future generations to score political points today.

And such attitudes are entirely understandable. Changing energy regimes is disruptive in best of circumstances, and it is doubly so in the midst of an ongoing global economic crisis. And besides, who really cares about crises looming in the far future especially if expediting such crises brings rewards in the present? Hansen quotes Larry King, who, in the course of private meeting between the two, told him no one is concerned about disasters that might occur fifty years from now. King is in fact wildly understating the magnitude of the political indifference on this and related matters. No one is concerned with disasters five years off. There is in truth a strong possibility that oil production will decline within five years, and how many politicians are concerned about that or the almost imaginably grim consequences of steadily rising oil prices in the wake of such a decline?

Hansen also states—correctly in my view—that the modus operandi of political figures in representative governments is inevitably based upon compromise, palliatives, and half measures. Hansen does not believe—and neither do I—that half measures will succeed in averting a climate catastrophe, however. He believes, along with most legitimate climatologists, that once a certain concentration of carbon dioxide occurs in the atmosphere, massive positive feedback mechanisms will be invoked, and that, specifically, enormous changes in cloud cover, polar ice packs, ocean currents, and methane emissions from undersea clathrates will accelerate warming, which in turn will invoke yet other feedback loops.

Obviously, the youthful news commentators voicing their ennui concerning the conference do not imagine that such events can possibly impact their own lives if they even admit the possibility of their occurring. They've known nothing but comfort, privilege, and affluence, and it seems inconceivable to them that such a state of affairs will not continue for them for as long as they live.

And let's face it, we are not a culture that is friendly to doomsayers. The same financial analysts who were predicting a perpetual boom as recently as two years ago are still getting plenty of respect, while the few who foresaw financial collapse are ignored or derided. It doesn't matter if you're right. If your message is uncongenial, you can expect to be dismissed or attacked.

Certainly Hansen was dismissed in the past and much of his book is devoted to recounting his various conflicts with the Bush Administration which make for grim reading. Clearly Bush and his confederates and handlers believed that they could suppress scientific findings on global warming and their confidence in this regard is rather alarming. Today when the official government position is that climate change is a critical problem, the denialists appear to be winning the public argument. What will happen when the radical Right returns to power? The underlying science is likely to be completely buried.

The rest of the book consists of discussions of that science—sometimes fairly opaque discussions. Since this is the real message of the work it merits some discussion.

There are great scientists and there are great science writers and Hansen, unlike the late Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson, is not both. The book is important but it is not a compulsive read. And it could be better organized.

For those intensely interested in the science, I'd point out that much of "Storms" concerns itself to a greate degree with what might be termed paleao-climatology, the study of climate change in the remote geological past. The scientific evidence suggests that the planet's climate has varied greatly over the course of the last half billion years, and that extreme rises in temperature such as occurred at the end of the Permian and in the Palaeocene, Eocene, and Pliocene eras were associated with mass extinctions. Hansen also discerns mechanisms to explain the temperature spikes, and indicates that in every case heavy concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide played a pivotal role.

And what of the prescriptions, since this book is heavy on public policy announcements.

Hansen asserts that the burning of fossil fuel must be rapidly phased out—within the space of a few decades—in other words, by mid-century. But, interestingly, unlike many on the left who support the radical revision of current energy policies, Hansen does not believe that renewable energy sources alone can substitute for fossil fuels, and he advocates an aggressive expansion of nuclear energy with an emphasis on so-called breeder reactors which produce new fissionable products out of Uranium 238, a relatively abundant radioactive resource.

Hansen does not seem to be aware of the many failed experiments with breeders going back to the nineteen fifties. Some twenty-three pilot scale breeders have been constructed, and all but two have been shut down due to accidents and safety issues. And that's apart from some very real weapons proliferation concerns. I regard the section on public policy and energy options as a major weakness in the book though I agree that reliance on renewables alone is going to be difficult.

Hansen, I might add, is very dismissive of clean coal technologies, including coal combustion with carbon capture, and there I think he's right as well. As he clearly points out, all demonstrated carbon capture technologies significantly raise the cost of generation and are therefore likely to be rejected by coal plant operators absent enormous subsidies, either from the rate payers directly or from government. But without carbon capture zero emissions generation from coal is simply impossible. The complete combustion of coal results in carbon dioxide—there's just no way around it—and scrubbers and other bandaids don't make any difference at all with regard to carbon emissions from coal plants.

Grimsrud's books is something else entirely. Essentially, it is a primer on climate change science, and if you never read another word on the subject, you'll be fairly well grounded in both the evidence and the research methodologies if you purchase this book. It's lucid, well written, interesting, and well organized. What makes it especially valuable is its lengthy consideration of the major climate change denialist arguments, the arsenal of debating points routinely invoked by business interests and right wing politicians in an attempt to discredit serious researchers in the field.

Interestingly, Grimsrud only considers the more credible denialist arguments, ignoring the fact that many on the right routinely resort to outrageous statements to the effect that no reputable scientists whatsoever support the theory of global warming, while some even state that scientific measurements actually prove that C02 levels are declining, the polar ice caps are growing, and that global temperatures are cooling. But in political environment where millions of citizens takes seriously statements to the effect that Obama is a secret jihadist, or is planning on setting up concentration camps, or has plans to euthanize millions of elderly Americans, what can you expect? Precisely the same people are responsible for these misrepresentations on climate science and what works in one area appears to work in the other.

In any case, both books are worth purchasing if you need to keep abreast on climate issues. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for the definitive work on the subject, a concise are readable compendium on all relevant research which is also a comprehensive manual on reasonable public policy initiatives.