The 2010 Climate B.S. of the Year Award

This a guest post by the Climate BS Awards committee.

Welcome to the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award. 2010 saw widespread and growing evidence of rapidly warming global climate and strengthening scientific understanding of how humans are contributing to climate change. Yet on the policy front, little happened to stem the growing emissions of greenhouse gases or to help societies prepare for increasingly severe negative climate impacts, including now unavoidable changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, sea-level rise, snowpack, glacial extent, Arctic sea ice, and more. These physical impacts will lead to sharply increased disease, military and economic instabilities, food and water shortages, and extreme weather events, among other things. Without appropriate risk management action, the United States will be hit hard. There is no safe haven. Yet confusion and uncertainty about climate change remain high in the minds of too many members of the public and Congress.

Why? In large part because of a concerted, coordinated, aggressive campaign by a small group of well-funded climate change deniers and contrarians focused on intentionally misleading the public and policymakers with bad science about climate change. Much of this effort is based on intentional falsehoods, misrepresentations, inflated uncertainties, and pure and utter B.S. about climate science. These efforts have been successful in sowing confusion and delaying action – just as the same tactics were successful in delaying efforts to tackle tobacco’s health risks.

To counter this campaign of disinformation, we are issuing the first in what may become a series of awards for the most egregious Climate B.S.* of the Year. In preparing the list of nominees, suggestions were received from around the world and a panel of reviewers – all scientists or climate communicators – waded through them. We present here the top five nominees and the winner of the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award.

 

Fifth Place. Climate B.S. and misrepresentations presented by Fox “News.”

There are many examples of bad science, misrepresentations, omissions of facts, and distortions of climate reality coming from Fox “News” (far too many to list here, but we note that Joe Romm just gave Fox his 2010 Citizen Kane Award for “non-excellence in journalism” for their misrepresentations of climate science). It seems that Fox has now made it their policy to deny the reality of climate change and has told its reporters to misreport or cast doubt on the science. This policy of disinformation was implemented by Fox News executive Bill Sammon, who ordered staff to cast doubt on climate data in a memo revealed this month. Fox’s political commentators have long used this tactic in their one-sided and biased discussions on climate change but Sammon’s memo seems to direct News staff to slant reporting in direct contradiction to what the scientific facts and scientists actually say.

Fourth Place. Misleading or false testimony to Congress and policymakers about climate change.

While Congress held more hearings in 2010 on climate change than in other recent years, these hearings elicited some astounding testimonies submitted by climate deniers and skeptics filled with false and misleading statements about climate science and total B.S. Examples?

Long-time climate change skeptic Patrick Michaels testified before the House Science and Technology Committee and misrepresented the scientific understanding of the human role in climate change and the well-understood effects of fundamental climatic factors, such as the effects of visible air pollution. Including these effects (as climate scientists have done for many years) would have completely changed his results. Michaels has misrepresented mainstream climate science for decades, as has been noted here, here, and elsewhere, yet he remains a darling of the skeptics in Congress who like his message.

A newer darling of Congressional climate change deniers is Christopher Monckton, who claims to be a member of the British House of Lords (a claim rejected by the House of Lords). Monckton testified before a Senate committee in May and presented such outlandish B.S. about climate that experts (such as John Mashey, Tim Lambert, John Abraham, and Barry Bickmore, to name a few) spent uncounted hours and pages and pages refuting just a subset of his errors.

Third Place. The false claim that a single weather event, such as a huge snowstorm in Washington, D.C., proves there is no global warming.

In February 2010 a big winter storm dumped record piles of snow on the mid-Atlantic U.S., including Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, prompting climate change deniers to use bad weather to try to discredit the reality of global warming. Limbaugh said, “It’s one more nail in the coffin for the global warming thing.” Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe got attention with an igloo on the national mall and labeled it “Al Gore’s new home” (combining bad science with a personal attack). Senator Jim DeMint said, “It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle.’”

Record snowfall is not an indicator of a lack of global warming, as has been pointed out in the scientific literature and many, many rounds of Congressional testimony. It merely means that there was a storm and temperatures were close to or below freezing. Indeed global warming can contribute to greater snowfalls by providing extra moisture. Many scientists testifying before the Senate and House of Representatives have explained the difference between a steadily warming planet and occasional extreme cold events in particular spots. But we can expect to see more examples of this kind of B.S. when it gets cold and snowy somewhere, sometime, this winter.

Second Place. The claim that the “Climategate” emails meant that global warming was a hoax, or was criminal, as Senator Inhofe tried to argue. In fact, it was none of these things (though the British police are still investigating the illegal hacking of a British university’s computer system and the theft of the emails).

Global warming deniers used out-of-context texts from the stolen emails to claim that global warming was a hoax or that scientists had manipulated data or were hiding evidence that climate change wasn’t happening. These claims are all B.S. A series of independent scientific and academic investigations in the U.S. and the U.K. unanimously concluded that nothing in the stolen emails made any difference to the remarkable strength of climate science (see, for example, the Penn State vindication, the independent Muir Russell and Lord Oxburgh reviews, a British Parliamentary Panel review, and other assessments). Unfortunately, the media gave far more attention to the accusations than to the resounding vindications, and climate deniers continue to spread B.S. about this case.

The bottom line of “Climategate?” As a letter in Science magazine signed by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences said in May 2010: “there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.”

WINNER OF THE 2010 CLIMATE B.S.* OF THE YEAR AWARD

First Place goes to the following set of B.S.: “There has been no warming since 1998” [or 2000, or…], “the earth is cooling,” “global warming is natural,” and “humans are too insignificant to affect the climate.” Such statements are all nonsense and important for the general public to understand properly.

The reality is that the Earth’s climate is changing significantly, changing fast, and changing due to human factors. The reality of climatic change can no longer be disputed on scientific grounds – the US National Academy of Sciences calls the human-induced warming of the Earth a “settled fact.” The evidence for a “warming” planet includes not just rising temperatures, but also rising sea levels, melting Arctic sea ice, disappearing glaciers, increasing intense rainfalls, and many other changes that matter to society and the environment. The recent and ongoing warming of the Earth is unprecedented in magnitude, speed, and cause.

This winning set of B.S. appears almost daily in the conservative blogosphere, like here and here and here, consistently in the statements of climate change deniers, and far too often in real media outlets. Actual science and observations from around globe have long shown the opposite (for example, here and here are nice rebuttals with real science). The planet continues to warm rapidly largely due to human activities, and average global temperatures continue to rise. The most recent decade has been the warmest decade on record and 2010 will likely go down as either the warmest or second warmest year in recorded history.

Associated B.S. argues that the famous “hockey stick” graph has been disproved. This graph shows the extraordinarily rapid warming of the twentieth century compared to the previous 1000 years. The graph and analysis have been upheld by subsequent researchers and numerous scientific assessments, including one from the US National Academy of Sciences.

To the winners: congratulations, it is long past time your B.S. is recognised for what it is – bad science.

And to the public and the media: be forewarned: all of these and similar bad arguments will certainly be repeated in 2011. It is long past time that this bad science is identified, challenged, and shown to be the B.S. that it is.

The 2010 Climate Bad Science (B.S.) Detection and Correction Team

Peter Gleick, Kevin Trenberth, Tenney Naumer, Michael Ashley, Lou Grinzo, Gareth Renowden, Paul Douglas, Jan W. Dash, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Brian Angliss, Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Michael Tobis, Gavin Schmidt, John Cook, plus several anonymous nominators, reviewers, and voters.

[* “B.S.” means “Bad Science” — doesn’t it?]

A carol for Monckton

Stave One: The ghost of global warming

Global warming was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by Lindzen the clergyman, Spencer the clerk, Morano the undertaker, and lauded from the rooftops by Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who sat in his library before the roaring log fire enjoying a fortifying glass of 40-year-old 60% proof Glenfarclas.

Global warming was as dead as a doornail.

About Tannochbrae Manor the snow lay deep and crisp and even. The weeks preceding Christmas had brought blizzard after blizzard to the glens of Scotland, and the Laird had only just managed to regain the old house after his Mexican trip. The roads were now impassable, with drifts ten feet deep blocking the drive and snow half way up the front door. Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, was attempting to keep a path open to the woodshed, but now that the ghillie McShane had taken to his bed complaining of frostbite, he was fighting a losing battle. Monckton sipped his whisky (no ice, no water — they were for heathens), and pondered plans for a network of tunnels to be dug around the Manor if there was no respite from this vicious winter.

 

A gust of chill air blew in as the library door flew open, followed closely by a snow-encrusted Scrotum, his shaggy eyebrows frosted with a delicate white lacework of deliquescing crystals and a small icicle dangling off the end of his nose. He unloaded his cargo of pine logs alongside the fire and made to leave. Open fires were nice, but the library was still distinctly chilly. The kitchen was a different matter, snug and warm with the Aga almost glowing as it filled the old stone room with heat. The Laird insisted that it be fired only with the finest Welsh steam coal, hand hewn by private enterprise miners. It was another of Monckton’s affectations, to be sure, born of the time he’d spent in Cardiff in the ‘70s, but Scrotum was forced to admit the glossy black coals made a damn fine fire.

Scrotum looked at Monckton, and wondered if the time was right. “Would you care for another wee dram, sir, before I attend to the kitchen fire?”. Monckton nodded and proffered his glass. Scrotum took it to the drinks cabinet, poured a generous shot of the marmalade-coloured fluid and then, glancing quickly over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t watched, drew a small green bottle out of his coat pocket and added a couple of drops to the glass.

Monckton stared into the fire. Resin dripped and flared from the gnarly old pine logs. He let his mind wander over the events of the last few years, his transformation from journalist and puzzle designer to world-famous scientist and expert on global warming. It hadn’t all been plain sailing — there seemed to be a distressing number of birds of prey taking an interest in his doings, and he was never going to return to Australia after what that vicious koala had done to him, but he took pleasure in having overcome those minor difficulties, and like St George, risen again to plunge the blade of his rapier wit deep in the vitals of the global warming dragon. His eyelids felt heavy. Florrie’s steamed plum pudding, which he had enjoyed perhaps a trifle too enthusiastically, was sitting heavily on his stomach. His head drooped.

“Christopher.” The voice was soft but insistent. “Christopher. Open your eyes. I have much to show you.” Monckton opened one eye slowly. It took a great effort. Then he started awake, shocked by what he saw. In the flames of the fire was a face. It was familiar, but he couldn’t put a name to it. It seemed to glow with an inner light, eyes a baleful yellow. The receding hair was a wreath of smoke twisting in the updraught.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Monckton wanted to sound angry, but the best he could manage was a whine.

“I am the ghost of global warming.”

“But warming is dead. Buried. Lindzen tells me so. The snow outside confirms it.”

“Not dead, Christopher, not dead. Gathering my forces. This night I shall show you the error of your ways, and you shall have a chance to redeem yourself and the Monckton name. Before the night is over, you will be visited by three spirits — warming past, present and future — and what you learn from them will decide your future. There’s still time, Christopher, still time to claim your proper place in history.” A spark shot out of the fire onto the hearth, and the apparition disappeared.

Monckton staggered to his feet and looked round the room. There was nobody there. It must have been a dream. Bloody pudding. Or was it the Stilton? Whatever, obviously time for bed. He walked slowly to the window, drew back the curtain and saw that it was still snowing hard. No sign of warming yet.

Stave two: the ghost of warming past

Monckton lay curled up in the great four poster bed, under the drooping canopy that had watched over the conception of all the great Moncktons of old. His breathing made little puffs of mist in the cold air, his nightcap was pulled down over his ears. In the hall the grandfather clock chimed once.

“Christopher.”

Monckton’s eyebrows fluttered, and his eyelids followed suit.

“Christopher. Awake. We have a journey to make.”

The Laird sat bolt upright. In the air at the end of the bed a puff of fog formed a figure clad in flowing white robes. Its face was wan, but strangely familiar.

“Who the devil are you?” he whispered.

“No devil, Christopher. I am the ghost of warming past. You can think of me as a guardian angel. Come, take my hand, I have things you must see.” The figure stretched out its arm, and Monckton could not resist. He reached for the hand… and then he was standing knee-deep in a warm river. On the opposite bank hippos were playing in the mud, and he could see crocodiles entering the water, heading in his direction. He tried to move back, but the ghost gripped his arm and held it tight.

“Where is this place? What are we doing here?”

“This is London,” the ghost said. “You are standing in the Thames, where one day the House of Lords will stand, and where you will one day take your rightful place.”

Monckton looked around again. “But this is more like Africa. I mean, you don’t find hippos on Hampstead Heath, or crocs in Clerkenwell.”

The ghost smiled. “This is a long time ago, Christopher. 125,000 years before your birth. The warmest part of the last interglacial, called the Eemian in England.”

“So what?”

“A simple lesson. The air you are breathing has only 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide, and yet that is enough to make sea levels reach 6 metres above your present. England’s climate is like the Mediterranean.”

A gleam came into Monckton’s eyes. “Then all that shows is that carbon dioxide cannot be the driver of climate warming. We are well past 300ppm, and yet the sea is not rising and snow continues to fall. No hippos in Highgate that I’ve seen.”

The ghost gave him a look that mingled pity with anger. “Do not jump to conclusions, Christopher. The laws of physics are not susceptible to rhetoric. The London lapping round your knees is where warming leads — given enough time. This is a warning from the past about your future. You have time to prevent it, and earn eternal fame for the Monckton name.”

“How do I do that?”

“You will see, Christopher, when the clock strikes two and three.”

With a lurch, Monckton realised he was back in his bed. A little puddle of water was soaking into the counterpane. If that was a dream, it was a damn realistic one.

Stave three: the ghost of warming present

Monckton couldn’t get back to sleep, try as he might. Outside snow still fell, but he fancied it was a little less heavy than before. He lay on the bed and considered his dreams. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, not even when the lefties in the JCR at Churchill had spiked his daily harvey wallbanger with tincture of opium. This was all too real. But surely these “ghosts” could not be right? Global warming is a socialist plot. He knew this to be true, because everyone he trusted also knew it to be true. He closed his eyes and shivered.

“Christopher.”

Monckton groaned. The clock was striking two. Another figure floated at his feet.

“Don’t tell me. I know the plot. I read my Dickens a long time ago. You’re the ghost of christmas present.”

“The ghost of warming present, if you don’t mind. Take my hand, dear Christopher, we have a long way to travel.”

“No. I’m staying here.” Monckton folded his arms defiantly. The ghost shrugged and grabbed his ankle.

Monckton’s scream echoed round the mouth of the great chasm and then lost itself in the crashing roar of the torrent tearing down the throat of the icy funnel. The ghost smiled, and lowered the inverted Laird a few feet closer to the hole. More screaming. And then they were standing on the grey ice next to the moulin, watching a river of meltwater head for the fall.

“Greenland?”

The ghost smiled again.

“Why?”

“Because Christopher, when you told the world there’s been no warming since 2002, or 1998, or 1995, you forgot to tell the great ice sheet to stop melting. It goes its own sweet way, like all the world’s ice, responding to the heat accumulating in the system.”

The ghost gave Monckton a push towards the moulin. He staggered forward, flailing, and fell… face first into a bog. He thrashed the water, trying to find a footing, but succeeded only in stirring up great brown bubbles from the bottom. The ghost offered him a hand. He took it, and emerged from the mud bedraggled and cold.

“This was permafrost, Christopher. Now it is a muddy bog, and those bubbles are methane — much more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide.” The ghost waved an arm, and as each bubble broke the surface it burst into flame. Within seconds, the whole surface was alight. Monckton tried to back away, but the ghost held him firm.

“You still have time, Christopher. You can make a difference, you can turn back the warming. Use your gifts, your oratory, your wit and your wisdom to change the course of the world. Stop the burning of fossil fuels, build a windfarm at Tannochbrae, lead the UK Independence Party to a new green future.”

A great shudder wracked Monckton’s body. He threw his head back and began to bellow. “No. No. No! I cannot do this, it will destroy me.”

“If you do not, Christopher, you will destroy yourself and the world, and the name of Monckton will be reviled for all eternity.”

Stave four: the ghost of future warming

Monckton was back on his bed, still sobbing quietly. He began to question his sanity. Not only was he seeing visions, but they were challenging the very core of his beliefs. Everything he held dear was a mirage, the people he so despised — the bedwetters and standard bearers of the great climate bugaboo — were right. These “ghosts” were his worst nightmare. A thumb crept into his mouth, and he sucked on it, transported back to those difficult days in boarding school. The clock struck three.

“Christopher.”

“God, no. Please. Leave me alone.” Monckton was white and shaking, his bed wet and muddy. “I can’t do it. I can’t change.”

“You can, and you will. Take my hand, or do I have to take your foot?” Monckton took the offered hand. It was probably safer.

He blinked. He was in a room he knew well. It was the war room at Fred Singer’s secret Kennebunkport lair. He knew the people well enough. There was Lindzen in the corner, talking to Roy Spencer. He tried to wave hello, but they couldn’t see him. Morano was deep in conversation with someone he only vaguely knew — Heartland, was it? No, Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. Singer was in a wheelchair, plugged into a life-support machine, his gloved right hand twitching on the control joystick.

The doors swung open and the room fell silent. Two tall elderly men in expensive suits strode in. One carried a large white Persian cat. They moved to the head of the long boardroom table and sat down, motioning the others to do the same. The cat sat on a cushion between the brothers. Monckton had heard about the Koch cat, but had never seen it before.

“OK, everybody. Listen up.” The Koch on the left spoke first. “We need a strategic repositioning. Climate change is becoming a bit too obvious. With half of Greenland floating out into the Atlantic, we’ll be slaughtered by the media if we try to pretend it isn’t happening. Time to admit that we need to do something, but concentrate on carbon capture and storage as the answer. Can’t stop burning coal and oil, but we can capture the gas and bury it in our old oil wells.”

There was no dissent. Lindzen and Spencer looked a bit pale, but Singer was nodding vigorously. Morano started clapping, and then stopped when nobody else joined in.

It was the other brother’s turn. “We need to re-evaluate our PR assets. First, we need to ditch the lunatics. Monckton’s got to go. Useful last year, but he’s a major liability now. We can’t trust him to put the new line. We tried to pension him off to Lawson’s Brit mob, but they wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole. I think it would be simpler if he just disappeared. Take my meaning, Fred?”

Singer grinned. Monckton felt a shiver run down his spine. Singer was a friend, he thought. They’d shared many bottles of fine wine over lunches and dinners at sceptic conferences around the world. Singer had been avuncular, a mentor, someone he could look up to and confide in. Now he was about to stab him in the back — surely not literally? He shivered again, and the scene changed.

It was the churchyard at Tannochbrae. Where a fine old yew had once stood there was now an orange tree, and the loch had encroached a mile or more inland to lap at the church walls. He was standing in front of a gravestone. It was plain black marble, as was the Monckton family style. It was his own grave. Below his name someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to carve the words “climate criminal”.

“Is this my future?” The ghost was sucking idly at an orange.

“Only if you don’t change, Christopher. You have the power to remake your future, and that of the world. The people you think are your friends are leading the world into mortal danger, but you are in a position of great power, even if you don’t realise it at the moment.”

“What do you mean, great power?”

“You have the power to change the world.”

“How on earth do I do that? I’ve spent most of the last ten years arguing against taking action of any kind.”

“You will see, Christopher, you will see. For the time being, return to your bed and sleep. In the morning, much will become clear.”

He was back in his bedroom. The bed was no longer wet and muddy. The hot water bottle had been refilled, and the snow had stopped. In the secret passage behind the bedroom’s timber panelling, Scrotum switched off the electronics and tiptoed off to report to Mycroft.

Stave five: joy to the world

Monckton slept late. Scrotum felt he deserved it after the events of the night. Snow had turned to heavy rain and yesterday’s deep powder was turning to heavy slush. There would be floods in Tannochbrae town, Scrotum reckoned. He woke the Laird at ten, with a cup of hot sweet tea and one of Florrie’s oatcakes. Monckton looked drained, but there was a gleam in his eye.

“Bad night, sir?”

“I slept badly, Scrotum, but I have done a lot of thinking. We may see one or two changes in the coming year.”

“Oh really, sir? And what might they be?”

“Now, now, be patient. I have work to do. Please ask Florrie to prepare kippers. I shall take them in the library.”

“Of course, sir.” Scrotum, servile to a fault, left the bedroom and headed for the kitchen. He smiled to himself. Mycroft’s audacious plan to turn his brother into a double agent was off to a good start.

****

This is the fifth Monckton tale.

Previous episodes:

Monckton & The Case Of The Missing Curry,

Mycroft Monckton Makes Mischief,

Something Potty In The State Of Denmark,

Monckton in Australia: Picnic at Hanging Sock.

Hansen: shelter from the storm

James Hansen has long been a leading climate scientist and he is also an excellent communicator of the science to the public. What he had to say about the scientific picture in his recent interview with Bill McKibben, a different aspect of which I highlighted in yesterday’s post, is of interest for its clarity and for the bluntness of its affirmation of how CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be returned to safer levels. The book Hansen refers to in the course of the interview is his Storms of my Grandchildren. The interview is an addition to the latest paperback edition.

McKibben opens by asking about the large number of new national high-temperature records this year. Hansen replies:

“What we see happening with new record temperatures, both warm and cold, is in good agreement with what we predicted in the 1980s when I testified to Congress about the expected effect of global warming. I used coloured dice then to emphasize that global warming would cause the climate dice to be ‘loaded’. Record local daily high temperatures now occur more than twice as often as record daily cold temperatures. The predominance of new record highs over record lows will continue to increase over the next few decades, so the perceptive person should recognize that climate is changing.”

 

It doesn’t need big hikes in average global temperature to cause major changes.

“The last time Earth was 2 degrees warmer so much ice melted that sea level was about twenty-five meters (eighty feet) higher than it is today.”

He recognises the strength of weather variability and warns that it will be increased by global warming:

“But remember that weather variability, which can be 10 to 20 degrees from day to day, will always be greater than average warming. And weather variability will become even greater in the future, as I explain in the book, if we don’t slow down greenhouse gas emissions. If we let warming continue to the point of rapid ice sheet collapse, all hell will break loose. That’s the reason for ‘Storms’ in the book title.”

McKibben then asks about “climategate”, to a robust response from Hansen. An excerpt:

“The NASA temperature analysis agrees well with the East Anglia results. And the NASA data are all publicly available, as is the computer program that carries out the analysis.

“Look at it this way: If anybody could show that the global warming curve was wrong they would become famous, maybe win a Nobel Prize. All the measurement data are available. So why don’t the deniers produce a different result? They know that they cannot, so they resort to theft of e-mails, snipping private comments out of context, and character assassination.

“IPCC’s ‘Himalayan error’ was another hoax perpetrated on the public. The perpetrators, global warming deniers, did a brilliant job of playing the scientifically obtuse media like a fiddle…

“IPCC scientists had done a good job of producing a comprehensive report. It is a rather thankless task, on top of their normal jobs, often requiring them to work sixty, eighty, or more hours per week, with no pay for overtime or for working on the IPCC report. Yet they were portrayed as incompetent or, worse, dishonest. Scientists do indeed have deficiencies—especially in communicating with the public and defending themselves against vicious attacks by professional swift-boaters.

“The public, at some point, will realize they were hoodwinked by the deniers. The danger is that deniers may succeed in delaying actions to deal with energy and climate. Delay will enrich fossil fuel executives, but it is a great threat to young people and the planet.”

Asked about whether we can stop the process of increasing warming and the tipping point dangers it brings with it, whether we can stabilize the situation, Hansen responds:

“We can estimate what is needed pretty well. Stabilizing climate requires, to first order, that we restore Earth’s energy balance. If the planet once again radiates as much energy to space as it absorbs from the sun, there no longer will be a drive causing the planet to get warmer. Restoring planetary energy balance would not immediately stop sea level rise, but it should keep sea level rise small. Restoring energy balance also would prevent climate change from becoming a huge force for species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

“We can accurately calculate how Earth’s energy balance will change if we reduce long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. We would need to reduce carbon dioxide by 35 to 40 ppm (parts per million) to increase Earth’s heat radiation to space by one half watt, if other long-lived gases stay the same as today. That reduction would make atmospheric carbon dioxide amount to about 350 ppm.”

There are additional reasons for the 350 ppm target, one of them being ocean acidification; Hansen refers to ocean biologists concluding that for the sake of life in the ocean we need to aim for an atmospheric carbon dioxide amount no higher than 350 ppm.  However Earth’s energy balance is the criterion that provides the most fundamental constraint for what must be done to stabilize climate.

McKibben remarks that his organisation, 350.org, meets opposition from some activists who demand an even lower target of 300 ppm or the pre-industrial 280ppm. But Hansen replies that all we can be sure of at present it that it should be ‘less than 350 ppm’, and that is sufficient for policy purposes:

“That target tells us that we must rapidly phase out coal emissions, leave unconventional fossil fuels in the ground, and not go after the last drops of oil and gas. In other words, we must move as quickly as possible to the post–fossil fuel era of clean energies.

“Getting back to 350 ppm will be difficult and will take time. By the time we get back to 350 ppm, we will know a lot more and we will be able to be more specific about what ‘less than 350 ppm’ means. By then we should be measuring Earth’s energy balance very accurately. We will know whether the planet is back in energy balance and we will be able to see whether climate is stabilizing.”

He goes on to explain that it is difficult to specify at this stage an eventual value for CO2 because there are other human-made climate forcings. Methane and tropospheric ozone in the air are among them, and realistic reductions of those gases would alleviate somewhat the amount by which we must reduce CO2.The cooling effect of atmospheric aerosols is likely to be lessened as we improve air quality. It would be foolish to demand a CO2 reduction to 280 ppm at this stage of our understanding.

One of the things Hansen says we must do in our scaling back to 350 ppm is not to go after the last drops of oil and gas. It was rather deflating, therefore, as I was preparing this post to see that today’s NZ Herald carries an upbeat report on the prospects for petroleum exploration in New Zealand waters as the price of oil rises. All the more depressing to see the comments on how exploration-friendly the NZ government is regarded as being.

A Merrill Lynch spokesperson, describing New Zealand as a “sweet spot” for exploration, said the royalty regime in this country was attractive.

“People believe that if you find stuff the Government won’t try and screw them over with an unfriendly tax arrangement.”

Indeed the Government is pro-actively formulating a petroleum action plan to encourage more drilling. It appears to be pursued with a good deal more purpose than any plan to encourage renewable energy development.

What does the government reply to Hansen when he says the world must not go after the last drops of oil and gas?  That these are not the last drops? That we don’t believe you? For that matter in possibly allowing the development of the Southland lignite fields what is it saying to the even more pressing need, in Hansen’s view, to rapidly phase out coal emissions?

We should keep pressing such questions on the NZ government. We must not allow them to thumb their noses at the science.

Whatever happened to global warming, eh?

British comedy duo Armstrong & Miller take on global warming. Do not drink hot liquids while watching. You have been warned.

[via Andy Revkin, who feels the need to explain the “humor” for his audience]

Children of the future

You are suggesting that we file suit against the government? That’s the question Bill McKibben puts to James Hansen in the course of a recent interview. “Precisely,” replies Hansen.

“Begging Congress to be responsible does not work. Exhorting the president to be Churchillian does not work.

“On the contrary, Congress has passed laws and the executive branch has defined and carried out policies that trample on the future of young people. Consider the subsidies of fossil fuels and the permission that is given to the fossil fuel industry to use the atmosphere as an open sewer without charge. We cannot let the government pretend that it does not realize the consequences of its actions.”

He then goes on to speak of a basis for suing the government as described by Law Professor Mary Wood of the University of Oregon and others.

 

“She shows that the Constitution implies a fiduciary responsibility of governments to protect the rights of the young and the unborn. She describes what she calls atmospheric trust litigation. Suits could and should be brought against not only the federal government but also state governments, and perhaps lower levels—and in other nations as well as the United States.”

Earlier in the interview he was talking to McKibben about civil disobedience, and explaining that he prefers the term peaceful civil resistance. Hansen himself has taken part in acts of civil resistance, and is still awaiting trial on one of the charges. It was in that context that he recalls that it was action by the US courts which finally signalled an end to segregation.  There were massive acts of non-violent civil resistance at the time, which helped to get the courts involved. It was the courts which opened the door to real progress because they had the ability to order desegregation under the equal protection provision of the Constitution. Eventually lawmakers became involved. He connects that time with the current situation:

“Courts ordered desegregation to achieve civil rights of minorities. Similarly, if a court finds that a government is failing in its obligations to young people, the court can require that government to submit plans for how it will reduce its emissions. Courts have authority to require governments to report back at intervals on the success of their actions and to define corrective actions if they fail to achieve specified reduction.”

Hansen considers that the legislative and executive branches of US government are not going to solve the problem on their own. He used to think that the problem was that governments did not understand what the science was telling us and its urgency.

“But I learned in my interactions with governments in several nations that the governments are not ignorant of the climate problem, they are not unaware of the need to move on promptly to clean energies. Yet at most they set goals and take baby steps because they are under the strong influence of fossil fuel interests. There are too many people profiting from our addiction to fossil fuels—and they have a huge influence on our governments.”

The courts, the judiciary branch of government, Hansen considers to be less influenced by fossil fuel money than the legislative and executive branches, and should be able to respond to the climate issue as they did in the past to such issues as segregation.

“Human-made climate change now raises a moral issue as momentous as any that the courts have considered in the past. Today’s adults are reaping the benefits of burning fossil fuels while leaving the consequences to be borne by young people and future generations. Are my grandchildren, and other young people, included in the category of ‘any person’ and thus deserving equal protection of the laws? A positive answer, I believe, is obvious.”

(‘Any person’ refers to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution which Hansen had previously quoted: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”)

If suits are brought, and the courts are willing to respond, Hansen recognises the need for definition of the emissions trajectory required to avoid dangerous human-made climate change. He reports that he is currently working with his colleagues to define the necessary emissions scenario. Their paper will be titled “Sophie, Connor, Jake and Lauren versus Obama and the United States Congress.” (The names are those of his grandchildren.) Although the task is not yet completed he says it is clear that the requirement will be an annual emissions reduction of several percent per year.

Wow,” says McKibben. “Let’s say the court instructs the government to reduce emissions so as to yield a safe level of greenhouse gases, which would mean getting carbon dioxide back below 350 ppm. Is it practical to achieve such a scenario?”

Absolutely, in Hansen’s view, but only if the government is honest and produces policies which result in actual reductions in fossil fuel emissions, not phony offsets. In the interview he goes on to elaborate his view of the carbon taxes by which this would be achieved. But we won’t follow him further in this post, which was intended to highlight the judicial recourse which he, along with others, is obviously now considering. The interview also includes at an earlier stage reflections on the science which are worth attention, and I intend taking them up in a succeeding post.

What hope it is realistic to attach to recourse to the courts in the US, those of us who live outside the US can probably only wonder. But we can certainly wish it might prove to be a fruitful approach if it is employed. The lack of cohesion in US policy is utterly dismaying for those who realise the escalating danger in which the world stands from human-caused global warming.

The interview with McKibben is reproduced as an added section to the new paperback edition of Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren (2009 edition reviewed on Hot Topic).  The royalties from all sales of the book go to the organization 350.org which McKibben helped found and which Hansen considers has demonstrated the most effective and responsible leadership in the public struggle for climate justice.

[Steve Miller Band]