Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Storms of My Grandchildren" - Grandpa Hansen Tells Us What We Don't Wanna Hear

A good doctor tells you things you need to hear, but don't want to hear.

In "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity" Dr. James C. Hansen tells us things we don't want to hear, but need to know:
  • What is the science and the danger of Global Warming?
  • Why are our politicians failing to solve the problem?
  • What technical solutions will work?
Don't worry - there is something in here for everyone to dislike! That's why it's so valuable; like the best kind of doctor, Hansen is not pandering to our wishes.

This book tries to bridge the gap between science and politics in an honest and forthright way. Some readers may be put off by Hansen's style; he hasn't wasted effort grinding off his human touches, but frankly, I like seeing that his primary motivations for getting out of the science lab (that he obviously loves) into the conference rooms of politician (that he obviously dislikes) is simple, human love for his grandchildren. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact it's healthy. People who doesn't care about the fate of their children's children are too crazy to trust with major decisions.

While much of this book includes interesting technical discussion of the science of global warming, that topic is reported in too many other places to note here. It was good to learn more about our problems with aerosols and methane, but I enjoyed Hansen's tech talk mostly as a way to establish is bona fides on other matters.

Hansen offers unique insights on a key question: why are we and our politicians not caring enough for our grandchildren to preserve them from runaway global warming?

Hansen offers a answer from his own experiences. In one telling example, Hansen debated Global Warming Denier Richard Lindzen (famous for expressing scepticism that cigarettes cause cancer) in front of members of the Bush Administration Cabinet. Like a good, fact-based scientist, Hansen cited a source for his first factual assertion in the debate. Lindzen promptly rebuts the facts by mocking the source as being "basically a newspaper." Lindzen and the politicians have a good laugh and the factual basis of the claim is ignored; everyone knows how unreliable newspapers are! The laughing boys don't care that this "newspaper" is "MIT Tech Talk"; the facts of the claim are irrelevant; what matters is that their courtier told a joke and the matter is decided in favor of their political and financial interests.

In the battle between jocks and science nerds, the science nerds get the wedgie every time. This may be o.k. in high school, but it's a hell of a way to plan for the future!

Let us not comfort ourselves with the fiction that this is a phenomenon of the Bush Administration only. When we turn to the question of what technical solutions will solve the problem, we find that the current Administration just does not get it either.

I started this book with strong feelings in favor of limiting carbon through a cap-and-trade system, in addition to reforestation and green power such as solar, wind, tidal and conservation. Hansen argues convincingly that these, while mostly helpful, won't be enough; let's say green energy sources replace 50% of our coal and oil use - what are we going to do about the OTHER 50%? We are ALREADY over the safe limit; we need to stop adding carbon to our atmosphere, and this is not going to happen without a big replacement source of energy. Billions of people around the world who don't have a decent standard of living are going to keep building coal plants unless we offer an alternative. Clean-coal technology is inherently expensive; something 25% of a plant's economic output would go into sequestering the carbon, which offers huge economic incentives to cheat.

Cap-and-trade, in Hansen's view, is especially perverse not only because it continues to raise CO2 levels but also because it installs economic disencentives for the entire economy to cut carbon. (If you invent a great new carbon-free technology, it can have zero impact on carbon emissions because whereever you install it will simply sell its carbon credits somewhere else.) Hansen properly ignores wishful solutions, such as practical nuclear fusion, orbiting solar power stations, etc and so forth, which might work if we had the technology but we don't.

Hansen offers two elements of a comprehensive solution. The first is a "fee-and-dividend" plan, in which we tax carbon pollution and (!this is key!) send the proceeds directly to American citizens. This differs from "carbon tax" because the government doesn't get to keep the money. These rebate checks would cover any price increases for items that pollute a lot of carbon, such as airline tickets or electricity from coal. In my opinion, this is a very logical plan, since people who burn a lot of carbon would end up paying for their pollution; at present, carbon pollution is an externality, similar to littering or pouring toxic waste into rivers. People who want to be responsible are disadvantaged economically because irresponsible people can operate cheap and dirty; "fee-and-dividend" frees consumers from the burden of ending our inadvertant carbon pollution. Furthermore: the temptation of the government to use the carbon fees for other purpose is eliminated.

The second element bothers many long-time environmentalists such as myself: to build many 4th-generation nuclear "breeder" reactors. While I can't explain the technical details, the key point is that these take our existing nuclear waste, that has been so hard to find a permanent repository for, and converts it to electricity with no added carbon, not incidentally leaving us with a much smaller amount of nuclear waste.

I don't want to hear about nukes. I have been a nuclear fission sceptic since the 1970s because of the dangers of operational safety and waste disposal. But we have to be grown-ups about this: Hansen persuasively argues that operational safety can be handled (Chernobyl happened in the absence of a containment vessel); breeder reactors actually reduce our existing nuclear waste problem; and above all, we now know that global warming is a greater threat than nuclear power. planet with one Chernobyl every 40 years will support human life better than a radiation-free hothouse Earth. 

Let me be clear: the nuclear power earned grave suspicion from those who think about the world we leave the next generation, but the game has changed. I would prefer that we have neither global warming nor nuclear fission, but because Hansen's conclusions are so contrary to my preferences, I find them all the more reliable.

It is unfortunate that too many of our politicians prefer the comforting message of courtier-scientists ("All is well!") instead of the solidly scientific, but uncomfortable, diagnosis of Dr. Hansen and the rest. If we are unwilling to take Dr. Hansen's unpleasant medicine for our own sake, will we do it for our children's children?

1 comment:

Milan said...

I have written a more detailed post on Hansen's concerns about runaway climate change: Is runaway climate change possible? Hansen’s take.