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 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]

World leaders pretend

Apparently the American Geophysical Union’s readiness to speak out on climate change which I reported in a recent post was not as the LA Times portrayed it.  Joseph Romm has written of his disappointment that the AGU is constrained by a determination to veer away from anything that could be construed as advocacy. They state that the email exchange forum they have set up for journalists is designed to answer questions about the current state of scientific knowledge, with a special emphasis on the physical sciences that relate to climate change. Non-science questions such as those relating to policy, ethics, or economics will be returned to sender for refinement.

One example they provide is the question, “Is current U.S. infrastructure adequate for sea level rise?”  Such a question will be returned to sender on the grounds that judgments of adequacy involve tradeoffs in risk and in policy. The scientists will only answer the question if it is changed to “What amount of sea level rise might occur this century?”

It’s a stark contrast with climatologist  James Hansen, who recently delivered an open lecture in Japan on the occasion of his being awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize. The text and powerpoint charts can be accessed on his website. He doesn’t hold back. Here are the opening words:


“Human-made climate change is a moral issue. It pits the rich and the powerful against the young and the unborn, against the defenseless and against nature.

“Climate change is a political issue. But politics fails when there is a revolving door between government and the fossil fuel-industrial complex.

“Climate change is a legal issue. The judiciary provides the possibility of holding our governments accountable for their duty to protect the public interest.”

The accompanying slide has a footnote that statements relating to policy are personal opinion.

Of course Hansen then proceeds with the science of climate change, explaining the current position with his usual clarity.

“It is difficult for the public to recognize that we have a crisis, because human-made global warming, so far, is small compared to day-to-day weather fluctuations. Yet the fact is: we have an emergency. Because of the great inertia of the ocean, which is four kilometers deep, and the ice sheets, which are two to three kilometers thick, the climate system responds slowly to climate forcings such as increasing greenhouse gases. But this inertia is not our friend, because it increases the danger that we may pass tipping points, beyond which the dynamics of the climate system takes over and rapid changes occur out of humanity’s control.”

He offers three examples of tipping points. The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, especially the West Antarctic ice sheet, are one. If an ice sheet is weakened to the point that it begins to collapse then the dynamics of the process take over. Another non-linear problem is the extermination of species which can accelerate because of the interdependencies among species. A third is methane hydrates, essentially frozen methane. If they begin to disintegrate the process could become self-sustaining. He notes these tipping points have all occurred during Earth’s history in conjunction with warming climates.

At this point in his lecture he again crosses into the kind of territory that the AGU eschews for its scientists.

“Climate inertia and tipping points give rise to potential intergenerational injustice. Today’s adults enjoy the benefits of fossil fuel use, but the impacts will be borne by young people and future generations. Our parents did not know that their actions would affect future generations. We do not have that excuse. We can only feign ignorance. It is called denial.”

There was a lengthy period following Hansen’s testifying to Congress in the 1980s during which he decided to concentrate on research and leave public communication to others. He tells how  it was the arrival of his grandchildren combined with the growing gap between what was understood of the science and what was known by the public that brought him back to public communication. In 2004 he gave a carefully prepared public talk titled “Dangerous anthropogenic interference: a discussion of humanity’s Faustian climate bargain and the payments coming due”.

His public lecture in Japan is the latest example of his readiness to couple the communication of the science with clear assessment of the risk and with concrete recommendations as to how that risk may yet be avoided.  As his lecture proceeds he explains the basis of our current scientific understanding. It depends most of all on Earth’s paleoclimate history, then on ongoing global observations showing how climate is responding to rapid changes of atmospheric composition, and finally on climate models and theory which are helpful in interpreting what is happening and needed to predict future changes. There’s a pile of interesting material which follows which I won’t try to summarise here, save to say that he points out that the human-caused rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is occurring at a rate 10,000 times faster than the natural geologic change of the Cenozoic era of the past 65 million years. He also explains his assessment that a level of no more than 350ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide is required if we wish to preserve the planet on which civilisation developed.

He’s not backward in spelling out policy implications. We must halt all coal emissions in 20 years, not develop tar sands, oil shale or methane hydrates, and not pursue the last drops of oil in polar regions, deep sea drilling or pristine land. “In other words, we must move on to the clean energy future now, rather than using all the remaining fossil fuels.”

There’s as yet no sign of our doing so:

“But what is really happening? The United States has signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to Texas. New coal plants are being built all around the world, some being financed by the World Bank. Environmentally destructive mountaintop removal continues. Oil is pursued in pristine places. The environmentally destructive practice of shale fracturing is being developed and implemented to find the last bits of gas.

“There is a huge gap between government rhetoric and policy reality. Leaders say that we have a ‘planet in peril’, yet their proposed policies barely differ from business-as-usual. Greenwash is plentiful, but the leaders follow a path of appeasement of fossil fuel special interests. There is no Winston Churchill willing to stand up and tell the truth about what is needed.”

Hansen then moves to his policy prescriptions which include a rising price on carbon, government regulation, and technology development driven by the certainty of the carbon price. He is not diffident in offering them, but his audience would have no difficulty recognising when he has moved from presentation of the science to advocacy of a particular response.

The notion that a scientist’s responsibility ends where a politician’s begins is simplistic. Politicians often enough show little sign of fully appreciating the reality of the science, and even if they do they appear to have an endless capacity to shy away from appropriate action. Are scientists like Hansen supposed to stay in their sanctums and be satisfied with issuing bulletins on the state of the science? And when they see the mayhem created by industry denial and media confusion and political timidity are they supposed to just shrug their shoulders and get on with their research? Even though they know what that research indicates for the human future if we carry on as usual?

Hansen’s record makes it quite clear that advocacy doesn’t mean compromising research. His scientific work continues and wins respect in its own right. Joe Romm has  reason to be disappointed that the AGU has put such stringent limits on its scientists’ communication with journalists.


Days of future passed

The idea that a rise in global temperature of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels is a safe target for the world to aim for is widely accepted in political forums where the measures needed to stay within that range are considered. Not universally accepted though. The small island states and many others of the least developed countries already impacted by climate change are adamant that 1.5 degrees is the highest rise that should be considered safe.

Indeed one wonders what the reasoning of the more powerful nations has been in settling on the two degree target. When Mark Lynas trawled through predictions in scientific journals for his book Six Degrees (review here) he found plenty to disturb at two degrees, including  possible desertification and abandonment of agriculture over millions of square kilometres in the US, an extremely hot and drought-ridden Mediterranean Europe, an ice-free Arctic ocean with implications difficult to measure, the bleaching and likely death of many coral reefs, major loss of food production in India, serious population displacement in Bangladesh.

Now Chris Turney (pictured) and his University of Exeter colleague Richard Jones have reported their attempt to reconstruct the temperature during the Last Interglacial between 130,000 and 116,000 years ago. Their paper is published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.  Turney explains its significance in his blog, where he writes:

“Temperatures appear to have been more than 5˚C warmer in polar regions while the tropics only warmed marginally; strikingly similar to recent trends. Not only this, but taken together, the world appears to have been some 1.5˚C warmer when compared to the 1961 to 1990 average. If we take into account the rise in temperature that has happened since industrialization, we find the Last Interglacial was around 1.9˚C warmer. Furthermore, this period also shows the warming in the Indian and Southern oceans took place before that of the northern hemisphere, suggesting these regions may cause further global warming beyond that directly forced by increasing greenhouse gas levels.”

It’s important to recognise what impacts that level of temperature rise brought. Turney points out that we know there was a dramatic decrease in polar sea ice coverage while large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melted. Critically, he says, the warmer temperatures appear to have helped global sea levels become some 6.6 to 9.4 metres higher than today, with a rate of rise of between 60 to 90 millimetres per decade, more than double that recently observed.

Let’s return to today’s “safe target” notion of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.  Here’s one of the key messages from the EU reference document explaining the scientific background for that target:

“Global mean temperature increases of up to 2°C (relative to pre-industrial levels) are likely to allow adaptation to climate change for many human systems at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs. However, the ability of many natural ecosystems to adapt to rapid climate change is limited and may be exceeded before a 2°C temperature increase is reached.”

If Turney and Jones’ estimation of the temperature in the Last Interglacial is correct it suggests that  sea levels will rise significantly higher than anticipated. How a sea level rise six to nine metres higher than today could be adapted to “at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs” rather beggars the imagination.

So far as Turney is concerned, “The inevitable conclusion is emission targets will have to be lowered further still. Not a popular message.”

It has been apparent for some time that ice sheets are showing signs of less stability than was expected. It is not news that sea level rise this century looks likely to be higher than the IPCC estimates (a possibility recognised in the IPCC report itself). But what Turney and Jones add is evidence that the past may be offering us a specific guide as to what sea level rise we would need to  prepare for if we allowed a two degree temperature rise.

Turney is a geologist whose interest is in researching the past, particularly in relation to climate. His excellent book Ice, Mud and Blood was reviewed on Hot Topic last year. He has continued to figure from time to time on the site because of his connection with the New Zealand firm Carbonscape. We noted his recognition last year by the Sunday Times as one of the modern-day heroes of science and technology.

He finishes his blog with these words:

“Crucially, the scientific and policy implications of the Last Interglacial demonstrate it pays to look back to yesteryear. As the great poet and playwright Thomas Eliot once wrote, ‘Time present and time past, are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’ Fingers crossed these words are heeded.”

Fingers crossed indeed. Against the seemingly unstoppable drive to exploit fossil fuels we need some signs of hope that society’s leaders are going to wake up to the dangers we are heading for. There are glimmers, as I pointed to in my post yesterday, perhaps even gleams if William Hague is representative, but a far wider section of our political and economic leadership needs to become fully acquainted with the lessons from the past.

Gareth adds (because he was going to blog this, but Bryan got his post in first)]: The period that Turney and Jones are considering — the last interglacial (LIG), better known (at least to me, though Turney’s blog provides other names) as the Eemian, is interesting because it provides an example of where we may be heading. During the LIG CO2 peaked at under 300 ppm, and sea levels were 6m to 9m higher than present, with rates of sea level rise of at least 6cm to 9cm per decade. The last time CO2 was at 300 ppm was before Dave Keeling started taking accurate measurements in the late 50s (it was about 312 ppm in 1958, and we’re nudging 390 ppm at present). In other words, the equilibrium response (that is, the long-term — century to millennial scale — response, when the oceans and ice sheets have had a chance to catch up) to the greenhouse gas levels more than 50 years ago is sea level at least 6 metres higher than now — and as Turney and Jones find, a global average temperature 1.9ºC above pre-industrial. The 2ºC “target” being bandied around as “achievable” (50% odds only) at 450 ppm is likely to be a mirage — it might hold true in the short term, but 450 ppm commits us to something well beyond the LIG/Eemian, when, as you will not need reminding, there were crocs and hippos in the Thames. When James Hansen was looking at long term targets, he selected 350 ppm as compatible with a planet with ice sheets at both poles. Turney and Jones synthesis of data on the Eemian suggests that if that’s our goal we need to be looking at 300 ppm — and a much bigger task. Over to Bill

Turney, C. S. and Jones, R. T. (2010), Does the Agulhas Current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials?. Journal of Quaternary Science, 25: 839–843. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1423

[Moody Blues]

Anyone for 10/10/tennis?

his is a guest post by the team at Aotearoa, describing some of the events planned in New Zealand for the 350 Aotearoa Global Climate Working Bee on 10/10/10 — part of the international 10/10/10 campaign.

350 Aotearoa is part of an international campaign and aims to mobilise New Zealanders to initiate actions to address climate change. The flagship day on 10th October 2010, the Global Climate Working Bee, will see thousands of volunteers planting trees, organising bike rides and insulating homes in a bid to get to work on climate change and do something positive for the environment.

350 Aotearoa supports the goal of reducing carbon dioxide from its current level of 390 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm, the safe upper limit according to the latest science. Over 5,100 events are already registered in over 170 countries for 10/10/10, including 90 in New Zealand.

Some of the inspirational actions include:


  • In Auckland, staff from the White Roofs Project will paint many high-visibility rooftops white to reflect sunlight and help cool the planet.
  • Cyclists are getting to work by running free bike skills workshops and fix ups in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. They are aiming to get as many bikes as possible out of storage and road-ready for summer.
  • Volunteers will be planting native species in Earthwise Valley, on the Coromandel Peninsula, throughout October to convert degraded farmland back to native rainforest.
  • 350 locally sourced natives will be planted in Carterton, Wairarapa, to regenerate wetlands and clean up the polluted Kokotau swimming spot.
  • The 10/10/10 Wellington Wander will showcase the best walking shortcuts in Wellington to encourage swapping the car for your feet.
  • An environmental awareness and education festival aims to bring all Marlborough has to offer in terms of sustainable practices together.
  • At Scarborough beach, south of Timaru, volunteers will clean rubbish from along the shoreline and plant native trees in the nearby wetland.
  • Frocks on Bikes will take a tour around Christchurch city.
  • In Christchurch, volunteers will have an afternoon of planting native plants to the soothing sounds of trance music with live DJ performances.
  • ‘Swap it’ encourages Dunedin locals to spring clean their closets in a sustainable fashion.
  • In Dunedin, locals are invited to a low-carbon picnic event with live music and face painting. The picnic will showcase seasonal and locally sourced food.

Action in the community not only has the potential to minimise the effects of climate change directly, but also has the power to influence and inspire change in other sectors such as business and government.

After the events, all eyes turn to Cancun, where world leaders are meeting in December to build an international treaty to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. The failure of world leaders to reach a binding agreement in Copenhagen last year makes the negotiations especially critical.

Interested groups are encouraged to register by visiting


It’s as simple as that

As a former English teacher I naturally take pleasure from the presence of literary people in the battle for action on climate change. Andy Revkin’s DotEarth blog drew my attention to one this week.  He’s the Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder, the famed author of the novel Sophie’s World which since publication in 1995 has run to an extraordinary sales figure of 30 million copies worldwide, in 53 different languages. Taking a teenage girl through a discovery of the history of philosophy hardly seems the stuff of best-selling fiction, but it was in his case. And if you’re wondering what an author does with all that money, one of the uses it has been put to is the setting up of an annual US$100,000 international environment and development prize, the Sophie Prize. This year it has been awarded to climatologist James Hansen. “He receives the award for his clear communication of the threat posed by climate change and for his genuine commitment to future generations.”

Gaarder was invited as one of the speakers at a panel on global warming at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, at which Revkin also spoke. The participants were asked to respond to the question “What can we do about climate change?”  Revkin commented that Gaarder stole the show in his “impassioned, humorous and biting talk’.

Continue reading “It’s as simple as that”