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The Storm On The Horizon

Book details the science—and the politics—of global climate change

by Faith Hayden
March 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 12

Credit: Gettyimages
Hurricanes may become more intense because of climate change.
Credit: Gettyimages
Hurricanes may become more intense because of climate change.

In "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity," author James Hansen makes one specific point crystal clear: Planet Earth is in imminent peril. If humanity does not take the measures necessary to reduce Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide to at most 350 parts per million, then there will be dire climatic consequences. "It requires a phaseout of coal emissions, plus improved forestry and agricultural practices," Hansen writes with almost apocalyptic urgency. "We need to acknowledge now that a change of direction is urgent. This is our last chance."

Hansen is no stranger to the global-warming debate. Known as the grandfather of climate change, Hansen first brought the now-contentious issue into public light when he testified before Congress in the 1980s. With a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Iowa, Hansen currently heads the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York City, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University.

In the book, Hansen explains that he's never been a huge fan of the spotlight, shying away from climate-change talks over the years despite his vast knowledge and strong opinions on the topic. He'd much rather focus on the science. "My role is that of a witness, not a preacher," he writes. But in "Storms," which is his first book, Hansen throws down the global-warming gauntlet for the sake of future generations. "I did not want my grandchildren, someday in the future," he writes, "to look back and say, 'Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.' "

Does he ever.

STORMY WEATHERSTORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity,
by James Hansen, Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 320 pages, $25 hardcover (ISBN-10: 1608192008, ISBN-13: 978-160819200)
by James Hansen, Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 320 pages, $25 hardcover (ISBN-10: 1608192008, ISBN-13: 978-160819200)

Chapter by chapter, Hansen systemically breaks down the science behind man-made climate change and calls out the powers that be in NASA and both Bush Administrations who tried to censor his message. "Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up," he writes. Thankfully for the rest of us, Hansen won't be silenced. Instead, he blows the whistle on a massive governmental cover-up spanning 20 years that is so egregious your head will spin.

Back in the 1980s, the George H. W. Bush Administration altered Hansen's global-warming testimony to Congress to make his results appear uncertain. The Clinton Administration tried to squash one of Hansen's scientific papers. During the George W. Bush Administration, the NASA Office of Public Affairs was taken over by the President's political appointees, and all climate-related press releases were "sent to the White House, where they were edited to appear less serious or discarded entirely," Hansen writes.

NASA even went as far as to try to stop Hansen from giving interviews to the press, stating that "no one was to take a direct call from the media without notifying the Public Affairs Office." Perhaps the best gem of all, one of the presidential appointees within the organization actually stated on more than one occasion that his job was to "make the President look good."

Ironically, as Hansen points out, while all of this was going on, the first line of NASA's mission statement was "to understand and protect our home planet." The last word in NASA's core values at the time: integrity.

Make no mistake, despite the apparent Administration-bashing, "Storms" is no gripe fest. Hansen isn't kidding when he repeatedly writes that he'd much rather stick to the science than become entangled in policy. The majority of the book focuses on the science behind global warming in support of Hansen's hypothesis that climate change is indeed happening and is heavily influenced by humanity, complete with many helpful charts, graphs, and illustrations. "Each chapter discusses a facet of climate change that I hope a nonscientist will understand," he writes. Hansen, for the most part, achieves this goal.

He begins the science with chapter 1, "The Vice President's Climate Task Force," by explaining, in as clear terms as a Ph.D. physicist can, what climate-forcing agents are. Chapter 3, "A Visit to the White House," delves into paleoclimate and climate sensitivity.

At one point early on, Hansen jokes that if you don't want to expend the "modicum of effort" it will take to understand the key science behind global warming, you can go ahead and skip a few pages. Don't. Each chapter builds upon the previous one like a textbook.

Chapter 4, "Time Warp," takes a brief detour back in time to the days of Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman to discuss aerosols and aerosol measurements. Chapter 5, "Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope," explains ocean surface temperatures, ice sheet melting, and inertia and feedbacks. Hansen spends an entire chapter explaining the ins and outs of carbon dioxide in chapter 8, "Target Carbon Dioxide."

By chapter 9, "An Honest, Effective Path," readers have essentially completed a crash-course on climate change and are ready to hear some real-life solutions. In this chapter, Hansen spells out what humanity needs to do to prevent the storm on the horizon. We still have time, but just barely enough. "If coal emissions are phased out rapidly—a tall order, but a feasible one—the climate-change problem is solvable," he writes. "It is the coal emissions that must be eliminated, not necessarily coal use."

However, it's the final chapter, "Storms of My Grandchildren," that will really grab your attention. It is here that Hansen puts all the pieces of the previous chapters together into one nightmarish narrative. He paints a frightening portrait of the 21st century should we continue on a business-as-usual path. It is a time of supercell storms with wind speeds of 80 miles per hour. It's a time when 100-year floods occur more often than implied. It is a time of cyclonic blizzards on the East Coast, F5 tornados through the Midwest, and sea-level rise measured in meters, possibly displacing people living in coastal areas. "The strongest hurricanes and other tropical storms will become stronger," he warns. Think Katrina. Think Hugo.

"Storms of My Grandchildren" could possibly be the most important scientific manifesto of our time. It is a book that climate-change believers and climate-change deniers alike should pick up and read. As Hansen himself puts it, "Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened."


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