Must-Read: NASA’s James Hansen Slams Obama’s Lack Of Climate Leadership And Our ‘Immoral’ Inaction

The nation’s most famous climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, has written a scathing NY Times op-ed, “Game Over for the Climate.” He also lays out an “apocalyptic” but science-based description of what happens if we keep doing nothing.

Hansen begins:

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.

That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

Hansen lays out why the scientific case for why exploiting the tar sands and unconventional fuels in general would be “game over” for modern civilization:

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life. But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise too high. This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue. The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

This is an op-ed, so Hansen can’t provide his underlying scientific analysis and charts. Here is the key chart:

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. [Estimated reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011).]

Hansen himself has been increasingly vocal on just what it would mean to stay anywhere near our current emissions path. This piece lays out the picture bluntly:

That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.

Again, this is all from the recent scientific literature.

Hansen is tough on Obama — and all of us:

This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground….

We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies….  [T]he reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business. Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.

The time to act is now.

NOTE: Hansen also has a new piece on his website, “Our Government and the Case for Young People.” It’s about the U.S. District Court hearing this Friday here in DC on “a request by the U.S. government and the National Association of Manufacturers to dismiss a climate change lawsuit that has been brought against the U.S. government.”

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71 Responses to Must-Read: NASA’s James Hansen Slams Obama’s Lack Of Climate Leadership And Our ‘Immoral’ Inaction

  1. john atcheson says:

    The chart accompanying this article should be required viewing for every reporter and newscaster.

    But perhaps it wouldn’t help. I get the sense that for the most part, people accept the science, they are just loath to change.

    Barbara Tuchman wrote book called the March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, which detailed instances in history when humanity knowingly walked into disaster. This is the mother of them all.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    The Greenhouse Effect – Heat trapping

    Watch how carbon dioxide traps heat…

  3. Ric Merritt says:

    You can bet that within the White House executive and political organization there was plenty of back and forth before the recent statements on gay marriage. They obviously came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t lose all that many voters on the right, since most of them wouldn’t vote for BO in a million years anyway. But they gained a lot of enthusiasm on the left.

    Time to make the same calculation on matters that will determine the future of industrial civilization. Just make the leap.

  4. Toby says:

    We can see that Obama “evolved” on gay marriage, no doubt with one eye on the opinion polls.

    Time to show some evolution on climate change, Mr President. We understand the difficulties of working with Congress, but your silence has been inexcusable.

    You need wedge issues that steer the debate away from the slow pace of the recovery. After gay marriage, climate change is a winning issue that splits Republican moderates from their extreme right wing.

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    Hansen, as always, is inconveniently right.

    The biggest short-term challenge to getting our climate act together will be cheap natural gas. It will lure us into making bad decisions, like using it to fuel vehicles, or even replacing coal-fired capacity with it instead of with renewables. A powerful, short-term economic incentive is a terribly difficult thing to overcome, no matter how great the long-term benefit of doing so.

    The biggest longer-term challenge is the interaction between our horribly busted political system and the public at large. If the overwhelming majority of voters and consumers sits back and follows the dictates of advertising when it comes to our voting and purchasing patterns, then it matters not in the least what Hansen, Mann, Santer, Trenberth, Schmidt, Rahmstorf, Hayhoe, Dessler, or any of the other dedicated scientists (or communicators) say or do. We’ll blissfully keep accelerating as we approach the wall straight ahead, and only figure it out far too late.

  6. M Tucker says:

    Saying you support gay marriage is way different from supporting a law that would allow gay marriage; especially in states that have passed laws or amended state constitutions to ban such marriages. President Obama ain’t gonna do that! The fundraiser in California today will be a big congratulatory party and the president will probably pick up some extra monetary support and I think that was his intention. He will not support a federal law or amendment to the constitution that would allow gay marriage in the 50 states.

    That is the same with his stance on taking action to halt climate disruption. The President of the United States is really not the most powerful person in the world and the US is not the most influential country.

  7. Brian R Smith says:

    “Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — ”

    That discussion will be long in coming if we wait for the President to lead it – and if he does, it will almost certainly be tailored to compromise according to real & perceived political constraints. Who believes the hoped-for bully pulpit message will suggest the kinds of revolutionary legislative and economic measures that have to be set in motion?

    Jim Hansen is on the mark demanding executive leadership which is essential to the equation. It may even work, but Obama has made it clear in the past that he wants “us” to ‘Make me do it”. So we’re back to how to focus the public and the media on the necessity of dealing with complex issues that are frightening, not well understood in terms of policy or economic strategy, and mired in confusion, disinformation and science ignorance.

    If we, the climate community, don’t succeed in building the political will for change very soon, it most likely not get built until it’s too late. We have to have a strategy for taking very public control of the conversation, for bringing voters up to speed, for electing a progressive congress against terrible odds.

    Bill McKibben said the other day; ” If we want this story to be told, we’re going to have to tell it ourselves.” Ten million voters with a unified message demanding climate action, together with a fiercely vocal coalition of scientists, business & industry leaders, policy leaders, cities, enviro orgs, faith and community leaders all *acting in unity* is not only possible – it may be the only way to create the political will we’re looking for.

    There needs to be a strategy summit of climate leaders and funders with an ambitious PR/media campaign as its main focus, together with planning for a permanently higher level of collaboration than we have now. Resources for this are not lacking and the resulting efforts would change the game on every level. Top-down climate leadership in service of organizing the rest of the community would be gratefully welcomed. And it would work.

  8. John Tucker says:

    I donno I think Obama’s vocal support of same sex marriage was somewhat courageous.

    It paid well too – $1 million in donations in the first 90 minutes after the announcement. 10 million at the dinner in Hollywood. Not to mention generating at least some excitement in the GBLT community in a otherwise lackluster reelection campaign.

    Whats more important is he stated he felt better afterwards for “doing what was right”.

    Indeed his advocacy caries a lot of weight. In how this was precipitated I feel we may see some rather bold statements on climate change before the election. It certainly is a issue that “doing the right thing,” and at least speaking up forcefully for will address grave injustice now and in the future injustice guarantied to occur; as has occurred to GBLT and was occurring to same sex couples.

  9. Pythagoras says:

    “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
    — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  10. Brian R Smith says:

    P.S. If readers know of projects underway on this kind of collaboration, or studies/positions that relate, or if you have a strong interest, please let me know. I’m at

  11. martin hoerling says:

    JHansen Asserts:
    ” Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

    He doesnt define “several decades”, but a reasonable assumption is that he refers to a period from today thru Mid-Century. I am unaware of any projection for “semi-permanent” drought in this time frame over the expansive region of the Central Great Plains. He implies the drought is to be a phenomena due to lack of rain (except for the brief, and ineffective downpours). I am unaware of indications, from model projections, for a material decline in mean rainfall. Indeed, that region has seen a general increase in rainfall over the long term, during most seasons (certainly no material decline). Also, for the warm season when evaporative loss is especially effective, the climate of the central Great Plains has not become materially warmer (perhaps even cooled) since 1900. In other words, climate conditions in the growing season of the Central Great Plains are today not materially different from those existing 100 years ago. This observational fact belies the expectations, from climate simulations, and in truth, our science lacks a good explanation for this discrepancy.

    The Hansen piece is policy more than it is science, to be sure, and one can read it for the former. But facts should, and do, matter to some. The vision of a Midwest Dustbowl is a scary one, and the author appears intent to instill fear rather than reason.

    The article makes these additional assertions:

    “The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather…”

    This is patently false. Take temperature over the U.S. as an example. The variability of daily temperature over the U.S. is much larger than the anthropogenic warming signal at the local, weather time scales. Depending on season and location, the disparity is at least a factor of 5 to 10.

    I think that a more scientifically justifiable statement, at least for the U.S. and extratropical land areas is that —- Daily weather noise continues to drum out the siren call of climate change on local, weather scales.

    Hansen goes on to assert that:

    “Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.”

    Published scientific studies on the Russian heat wave indicate this claim to be false. Our own study on the Texas heat wave and drought likewise shows that that event was not caused by human-induced climate change. These are not de novo events, but upon scientific scrutiny,one finds both the Russian and Texas extreme events to be part of the physics of what has driven variability in those regions over the past century. Not to say that climate change didnt contribute to those cases, but their intensity owes to natural, not human, causes.

    The closing comment by Hansen is then all the more ironic, though not surprising knowing he writes from passion and not reason:

    “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. ”

    Let me borrow from a recent excellent piece in New Scientist by tornado expert Dr. Harold Brooks regarding the global warming and tornado debate,

    and state:

    “Those who continue to talk in certain terms of how local weather extremes are the result of human climate change are failing to heed all the available evidence.”

  12. Richard Miller says:

    Brian you are exactly right about organizing a summit of climate leaders.

    Let me add to this.

    What is our situation politically? Republicans are merchants of destruction and Democrats are weak and at best incrementalists. This means that the next fall back position is for environmental groups to come together and leverage their collective power to force political change.

    Their power could be considerable in light of
    Dr. Robert Brulle’s essay entitled “The US Environmental Movement”, which you can find at , where he writes:

    “The U.S. environmental movement is perhaps the single largest social movement in the United States. With over 6,500 national and 20,000 local environmental organizations, along with an estimated 20-30 million members, this movement dwarfs other modern social movements such as the civil rights or peace movements. It is also the longest running social movement.”

    The question is how can the environmental movement and environmental groups fully leverage their power. In my judgment they have not fully leveraged their power, not even close.

    There has been a great deal of research on how social movements bring about political change following the work of the academic Gene Sharp. Students of Sharp founded the International Center for Non-violent conflict. See here

    It would be good to have this blog bring together the environmental groups with the researchers at the International Center for Non-violent conflict for a fruitful dialogue. All of this also relates to the Occupy Movement and the work of, etc.

  13. M Tucker says:

    “This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals…”

    Unify conservatives and liberals, what a quaint old fashioned notion. Conservatives negotiating with liberals is the ‘third rail’ of modern Republican politics. Instant death! If President Obama said he was in favor of mom and apple pie Republicans would oppose it. Rant against it. Make up some phony ‘war’ meme.

    All the power is really with the fossil fuel industry and not just in the US. Fossil fuels make modern civilization possible and any politician that conservatives might elect is owned by that industry. They will not negotiate for an eventual end to fossil fuels. Negotiation is not possible until that link is broken.

  14. Artful Dodger says:

    “The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait”

    Indeed, there will be Big $$ in the Medicine to treat the symptoms, and very little $$ in the Cure. Sound familiar?
    This is the underlying reason why Big Biz/Gov waits to act. They think of it as the next big Opportunity for Profit.
    How will we fight that?

  15. Steve says:

    While I applaud the president on the announcement of his view on gay marriage, it is only because Biden forced him to do so with his comments a few days ago. – Leading from behind so to speak.

    Obama caved on the federal health coverage policy for those who couldn’t afford insurance. – Not leading at all.

    And the fact no one on Wall Street has been charged with any wrong doing for the financial crisis shows croneyism.

    Observing a pattern here, why should he do anything about climate change?

  16. Solar Jim says:

    Thank you from all future generations as well as those alive today Dr. Hansen.

    Yet even a great scientist who has put himself on the protest line for moral leadership is still not able to say the truth. That truth is that the earth is not beginning to react only to almost 400 ppm carbonic acid gas in the atmosphere. It is beginning to react, with multiple cascading self-reinforcing feedback processes, from total forcing equivalent of approximately 500 ppm carbon dioxide, except as presently “cloked” from phenomena such as the eleven-year sun cycle, multi-decadal thermal lag, deteriorating biospheric uptake and man-made aerosols.

  17. Brian R Smith says:

    Richard, thanks; glad to have an ally on this. I am familiar with Brulle’s work and will be asking him for advice & comment. Also will check out International Center for Non-violent conflict. I agree completely that the leverage is there waiting to be tapped. If it comes together one of the main messaging challenges, next to clarifying the science and the gravity of coming impacts, will be proposing specific solutions on the economic side. Carbon pricing, crash investments in the renewable sector, jobs creation potential, health & other costs of not acting, economic losses from continued trashing of natural systems and resources… there is a big menu of economic issues and potential solutions that will have to be laid out and framed as concrete legislative proposals. Dealing with the economy is key to arguments for climate action.

  18. David Lewis says:

    On the “unconventional gas” front take a look at this: Researchers Successfully Extract Natural Gas from Methane Crystals Deep in the Arctic

  19. Peter says:

    Martin, what was the climate like in the Great Plains the last time temperatures where 1 degree C above what they where in 1800? It was mostly a desert like dust-bowl.

    The climate inertia in the system takes time- I suggest you visit the lower great plains and see what their drought conditions are like these days.

    C02 last time this high (397ppm) 15 million years ago brought these conditions.

  20. prokaryotes says:

    For a bit more background on this discussion and what we can expect in the next month “take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way”.

    Quote from a recent interview:
    Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner asked Obama about NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s statement that building the Keystone XL pipeline is “game over” for the planet, and while the president didn’t say he disagreed with that assessment, he suggested the lack of climate action is behind the anger over Keystone.

    “The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem,” Obama said.

    “Frankly, I’m deeply concerned that internationally, we have not made as much progress as we need to make,” he added.

    “Part of the challenge over these past three years has been that people’s number-one priority is finding a job and paying the mortgage and dealing with high gas prices,” Obama said. “In that environment, it’s been easy for the other side to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to debunk climate-change science.

    “I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he added

    Read more:

    So maybe we can define what the “serious way” really is.

  21. Raul M. says:

    It’s nice to hear that they have started to take action about the methane leaking from the Arctic.
    If they had the fuel cell power plant right there it would be easier to send electricity via cables than pipe gas.
    Must say that would be one humongous fuel cell to deal with those gas quantities.
    Gas company thinks of better ways to deal with reality.

  22. prokaryotes says:

    Allen and his team ran a series of climate models that simulated the weather in different parts of the world, using observed data from the 1960s and the 2000s. This allowed them to observe the frequency of extreme weather events in Russia during each decade, with and without the effects of the warming due to human-induced climate change.

    “What we conclude about the Russian heatwave is that the risk has gone by a factor of three, perhaps not as high as Rahmstorf’s estimate, but within error bars consistent with theirs,” said Allen. “But we also point out that Dole et al’s conclusion is also correct in the sense that the size of the human contribution to the event was only perhaps a degree or so, whereas the actual event itself was 10C.”

    In terms of size, the 2010 heatwave was mostly natural. In terms of probability of the event occurring at all, the risk had been increased caused by human activity.

  23. David Goldstein says:

    this now in: CO2 is 396 ppm as of April, 2012, a full 3 ppm above April of last year. 400 is coming and it is coming soon…and it ain’t stopping there. Buckle up, boys and girls.

  24. prokaryotes says:

    Martin Hoerling claims:”Published scientific studies on the Russian heat wave indicate this claim to be false.”

    Above quote and source about the study, shows that Hansen is correct when he asserts that the event(s) were caused by human-induced climate change.

    Come again?

  25. Dan Miller says:

    As presented previously in CP, Dr. Hansen has released a study that shows that “Extremely Hot Summers” that occurred about 0.25% of the time 50 years ago, now occur about 10% of the time — a 4000% increase. This is based only on measured temperatures — no models or predictions!

  26. Michael Pope says:

    Although Dr Hansen is correct in his prognosis of the effects of climate change arising from business as usual and exploitation of tar sands and shales, he appears to overlook one important consideration … the prospect of earning super-profits. That prospect, for the business sector, outweighs any consideration of the global damage which will be done to the environment – including destruction of human habitat.

    The warnings given by Dr Hansen are very likely to be ignored by vested interests unless those interests can be shown that it is more profitable to invest in alternate clean energy development. That seems unlikely in the land of the free and least constrained capitalism. Ultimately, the rest of the world may be compelled, driven by a sense of self-preservation, to “gang-up” against North American myopia when it comes to continued burning of fossil fuels and consequential greenhouse gas emissions.

    A more desirable course of action would be for the Harper administration in Canada and the Obama administration in the USA to regulate CO2 emissions by pricing carbon. Harper will of course do no such thing which leaves Obama with little choice but to take action in this regard and work more assiduously for more rapid development of the clean energy alternative. That not only serves U.S interests, it serves the international imperative of limiting future greenhouse effect to a global temperature increase of no more than 2°C by 2100.

  27. Sasparilla says:

    Wow David, that puts breaking 400ppm in 2013/2014 – a year or so in the future.

  28. Sasparilla says:

    Joe, excellent article. Dr. Hansen is right on target as always – we’re choosing the road to hell and we’re ignoring the off ramps.

    That graphic is stunning, especially the CO2 ppm levels for the different fossil fuels in the ground. The unconventional gas number (fracking gas number) is an additional 500ppm by itself if we use it all. These numbers would point to astounding CO2 ppm totals (without feedback numbers) if we were to develop them (just do the rest of conventional oil, 1/2 unconventional oil, all the natural gas and the current estimated reserves of coal and that’s an additional 1500ppm (add that too our current 396ppm level for close to 2000ppm) all by itself (no clathrates or thawed permafrost necessary). There is the end of civilization (and humanity at those levels) that fossil fuel interests want to take us to. I had no idea the levels if we sucked alot of it out of the ground, was that big by itself.

  29. Dick Smith says:

    RE: caption to chart. If we’re burning 9.1 GtC, and if 2.12 GtC ~ 1ppm CO2, then why didn’t CO2 rise over 4 ppm last year?

  30. prokaryotes says:

    In general, we just now experience the emissions from about 30 years ago. The most carbon dioxide goes not directly into the atmosphere, but ocean or is consumed by plants (also a short term feedback is accelerated plant growth).

    For instance we have roughly 3 ppm difference Co2 increase to last year’s, and this is just from the Co2 emissions – from what we’ve the released in the 80’s.

    There is a delay of several decades between when we put heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and when the climate fully responds. This is because Earth’s oceans take so long to heat up when extra heat is added to the atmosphere (think about how long it takes it takes for a lake to heat up during summer.) Due to this lag, we are just now experiencing the full effect of CO2 emitted [by] the late 1980s; since CO2 has been increasing by 1 – 3% per year since then, there is a lot more climate change “in the pipeline” we cannot avoid.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    Oceans Found to Absorb Half of All Man-Made Carbon Dioxide

    Around half of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the industrial revolution has dissolved into the world’s oceans—with adverse effects for marine life—according to two new studies.

    Scientists who undertook the first comprehensive look at ocean storage of carbon dioxide found that the world’s oceans serve as a massive sink that traps the greenhouse gas.

    The researchers say the oceans’ removal of the carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere has slowed global warming.

    But in a second, related study, scientists say the sink effect is now changing ocean chemistry. The resulting change has slowed growth of plankton, corals, and other invertebrates that serve as the most basic level of the ocean food chain. The impacts on marine life could be severe, scientists say.

    “The oceans are performing a great service to humankind by removing this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Christopher Sabine, a geophysicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington. “The problem is that this service has potential consequences for the biology and ecosystem structure of the oceans.”

  32. caroza says:

    Never mind Hansen, what about McGuire?

    There’s no reason to think he’s wrong (although the article linked to is a bit screechy). The mechanism – melting ice and expanding oceans changing the pressure on the earth’s surface – is dead simple. Probably means we have far less time to act than we think.

  33. Spike says:

    The paper Drought under Global Warming by Dai does tend to support Dr Hansen’s viewpoint on future drought probabilities. Skeptical science states

    “Using an ensemble of 22 computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, the paper finds most of the Western Hemisphere (along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia) may be at threat of extreme drought this century.”

  34. Raul M. says:

    The recent phoenix dust storm may have added a little sequestration of the atmospheric carbon content. Probably lots of minerals were thrown into the air that would react with carbon.

  35. jEREMY says:

    We’ve seen nothing yet….remember what we build now will determine the climate of tomorrow…just look what China is building, airports, coal plants, car plants….and they will buy the TAR MUCK OIL!

  36. Raul M. says:

    Making those minerals available to the winds could be an effective way to sequester the excess carbon. Of the air?

  37. Anne van der Bom says:

    “The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather…”

    This is patently false. Take temperature over the U.S. as an example. The variability of daily temperature over the U.S. is much larger than the anthropogenic warming signal at the local, weather time scales. Depending on season and location, the disparity is at least a factor of 5 to 10.

    Sorry Martin, but you are patently wrong. You project your own misunderstanding on James Hansen. Of course he didn’t try to say what you are trying to explain to us. How would a climate scientist with a 40+ year career make such an obvious mistake?

    The point here is statistical significance. What he means is that the extremes can not be explained as merely random flukes of the climate system, aka ‘extreme weather’. They are the product of a loaded dice. And it can be proven with statistical significance.

    That is what he meant, and he’s right about that. Don’t try to put words in his mouth by using hobby explanations that merely show your own ignorance.

  38. Dick Smith says:

    Thanks Prokaryotes and Raul. I’ll follow up with further reading, but a better sense of what to look for.

  39. Andy Hultgren says:

    @Dick Smith,

    I’m not a climate scientist, but I don’t think this is an issue of the time lag between when GHGs are emitted and when their full effect is felt. There is a seperate measure of the percentage of CO2 emitted in any given year that stays in the atmosphere, vs. that which is absorbed by natural sinks. That percentage varies year on year (I don’t know why, but given all the natural variability in ocean temps, mixing, vegetation cover, and other weathering factors, it makes sense).

    Check out Figure 16 – The CO2 Airborn Fraction data – on Dr. Hansen’s website here:

    I’m sure the 2.12GtC/ppmCO2 estimate is based on an average for CO2 Airborn Fraction, but there is certainly annual variation around that mean.

  40. prokaryotes says:

    Do you have any link to a study to back up this claim?

    I fear that the opposite is happening, when wind takes up the top soil layer, the potential of the top layer to act as a carbon sink is diminished greatly. Also dessert sand/dust composition could vary greatly. One thing is certain, that dust storms act as a vector for transmitting viruses.

    Here is a study which came up, with a quick lookup..

    Dust in the Earth system: the biogeochemical linking of land, air and sea

  41. prokaryotes says:

    Here is a compilation about geomorphological response, including a recent podcast and short video

  42. ANGRY BADGER says:


    My letter to that effect, coupled with a side of scorn for ALEC and its kind screwing around with the renewables industry, goes out today.

  43. David Goldstein says:

    yes, it really ‘feels’ like there is NO CHANCE we avoid 450 ppm at this point. I am trying to picture the international negotiations and brinksmanship in about 2024 or so- especially as some of the ‘slow feedback’ events ramp up (permafrost methane, Amazon dieback, etc.)…somebody should right a book…or better yet make a movie! Actually, that could be a pretty exciting movie.

  44. Speedy says:

    Tar sands or not, we’re screwed.

    Between climate deniers, anti-nukes and political pandering to special interests, I see little chance for any real action.

    Industrialized nations will pat themselves on their backs while pointing to a few expensive wind turbines and solar panels, and a 1% emission reduction, largely accomplished by exporting production to China, India, Vietnam etc.

  45. Raul M. says:

    Sorry Pro., I’m not that knowing only extrapolating from a commentator of (last year?) who mentioned mineral reactions from rock and soil.

  46. prokaryotes says:

    No problem i just trying to understand/learn this too.

  47. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m annoyed that the scientists say that the acidification of the oceans ‘could’ have severe consequences. By what conceivable set of circumstances, short of Divine Intervention, could these severe consequences be avoided? The ritual abuse of the denialist genocidaires, vilifying truth-tellers as ‘alarmists’, often seems to have had a plainly detrimental effect on scientists’ plain-speaking. What in the name of all that is precious could be more alarming than the global oceans becoming acidified?

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Thank God! We are saved! The ‘alarmists’ are routed! We just need to get out all those shovels left over from the ‘Duck and Cover’ days of Civil Defence against nuclear war, and start throwing dust into the air, and all will be well!

  49. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No, no. Obama evolves (or gyrates) with both eyes firmly set on opinion polls and studies. In the end he stands for nothing on principle, but Obama.

  50. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Market capitalism has no horizon beyond the next reporting season, and no priority higher than profit maximisation. Look how easily the Chinese are eating your lunch simply by doing some overall social and long-term planning, then letting the laws of supply and demand rip. And, crucially and as under the Imperial Chinese system, keeping the plutocrats away from the levers of power, which they hold firmly in all market capitalist states.

  51. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama always talks a good talk, but I’ll believe it when I see concrete action, when I see Obama unflinchingly taking the blows of the bigots and haters and fighting for real change. Same for the ecological crisis, which is passing into the land of no return under his Presidency.

  52. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely correct. The Right’s very raison d’etre is the acquisition of money and power (and denying it to the feared and despised ‘others’) and the greatest concentration of both in history is the fossil fuel industry. There will plainly never be surrender nor compromise on this essential reality, only growing hysteria, agitation, abuse, then, inevitably, violence, from the Right. Already it is sickeningly plain that the Right is resorting to ever greater vehemence in their campaign to foment real, deadly dangerous, hatred against environmentalists. They know in Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, Cambodia etc, how this ends.

  53. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Translating from the gibberish-‘I need environmentalists’ votes, so I’ll talk the talk for six months, while I see off the ‘Stormin’ Mormon”. Then it will be back to Rip van Obama.

  54. A.J. says:

    As I understand it, mineralization processes that can bind up CO2 are generally very slow when looking at global averages. The biosphere is probably the single largest avenue of carbon sequestration, and that’s another reason forest and ocean health are so important. Their long-term C storage capacities are also subject to reduction with climate change. As in potentially reduced vertical mixing of the oceans & carbon fixation by phytoplankton, and increased forest insect invasion and wildfire.

  55. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    But-don’t you see, fifty times greater volcanic eruptions means we will be saved by natural geo-engineering, as all those lovely sulphates in the stratosphere dim the planet. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any ‘dimmer’! Praise the Lord and Damn the Alarmists!

  56. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Uh, you might want to read Hansen’s book and papers in which he goes into every topic you name in great detail. See “faustian bargain” for good explanation of aerosols.

    The one thing you mention that Hansen says the data disagrees with is your statement about “deteriorating biospheric uptake”. If you look at Hansen’s data on “The CO2 Airborn Fraction data” (referenced by commentator Andy Hultgren above) you will see that the biosphere is absorbing the same percentage of CO2 now as in the past. Hansen goes into detail on this in his book.


  57. Barry Saxifrage says:

    This statement “what we build now will determine the climate of tomorrow” is the standard line these days. But it isn’t accurate and I suggest climate hawks start using a different phrasing.

    The reality is that humanity always has a choice between destroying the climate and destroying capital.

    The IEA pointed out that we are just a few years from building all the fossil fuel infrastructure needed to go past 450ppm. The standard line is that this “locks us in” to more than 450ppm. But that is only true if fossil fuel capital is sacrosanct. The other alternative is that we are inflating a gigantic carbon bubble. Irrational Carbon Exuberance. Humans could decide to devalue this just as we devalued real estate and dot com companies in the past.

    Mark Jaccard is an IPCC Nobel Prize winner who was arrested blocking a coal train the other day. He said: “We are heading for a real crisis in which we’ll have to start ripping infrastructure apart”

    Humans destroyed a third of the capital in Germany to stop Nazism.

    I propose climate hawks switch to a phrasing that highlights the choice we are leaving ourselves: destroy capital or destroy climate.

  58. Barry Saxifrage says:

    I disagree that most companies are wedded to fossil fuels as an energy source regardless of the damage they do. Energy is a small proportion of cost of doing business and making money. Companies outside the hyper-carbon intensive ones can easily afford to price carbon. In fact the largest software company in the world, Microsoft, just announced they are voluntarily building carbon pricing into every aspect of their operations.

    Harper won’t price carbon because MIT studies and others show that tar sands go bankrupt first under any global carbon pricing scheme. But Harper isn’t Canada. And tar sands are only 2% of Canadian GDP. Canada as a nation can definitely afford to move to other energy sources…but Alberta and its the tar sands industry can’t.

    It is shaping up into a battle of high-carbon vs lower-carbon industries. As the Heartland defections show, there are lots and lots of industries ready to jump ship on carbon denial.

  59. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Sasparilla, Hansen covers this pretty well in his “Venus Syndrome” chapter in his book. It isn’t just “civilization” that gets cooked off the planet.

    The one thing about big ppm numbers that mitigate slightly is that warming isn’t linear with ppm. Warming is based on doubling of ppm. So going from 250ppm to 500ppm will have the same warming effect as going from 500 to 1000 and 1000 to 2000.

    Getting to Venus requires burning all our fossil and big feedbacks kicking in like the methane hydrate gun.

    Of course humanity checks out long before that.

  60. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Maybe. But the key point Hansen is making is that, as he predicted long ago, we are now entering a period in which average people can notice climate change above the weather noise.

    There is good reason to believe that humans will react very differently to a threat they directly perceive compared to one they only understand intellectually.

    Even in tar sands Alberta the voters just rejected their front runner candidate for premier based in large part on that candidate’s last minute climate denial. She even got booed at the debate it happened at.

    If Alberta voters can reject climate denial at this point the landscape is changing.

  61. riverat says:

    Dick, a way to look at it more holistically is to consider the carbon cycle. In it the carbon cycles through the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere constantly seeking a balance. So if you add carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide it rebalances by sinking into the other spheres.

  62. Peter says:

    Hansen with , with co-authors Reto Ruedy, also of NASA, and Makiko Sato, of Columbia University,

    Read more:

    have a new peer reviewed study to be released soon. Global Warming: An Exclusive Look at James Hansen’s Scary New Math
    A new analysis by the NASA climatologist for the first time ties specific weather events to human-induced climate change

    Read more:

  63. Dave Bradley says:

    The morality issue will be a big-time losing proposition -even if we are lucky enough to garner the support of (maybe) 25% of the population who base at least some of their lifestyle and business decisions based on morality. For example – consider the human carnivore vs. human vegetarian contrast – not only a moral issue but also a climate one. Almost all people in this country are carnivores, and hence immoral on that issue As well as on the climate aspect of their dietary choice.

    What are we to do with the immoral majority – shoot them? Or at minimum do severe negative reinforcement on immoral behavior (burning fossil fuels, consuming based on prodigious fossil fuel AND nuke power consumption)? That too would be immoral, at least by the opinion of the majority in this country. And while the majority of Americans may agree that Global Warming via CO2 pollution is bad (and probably immoral), ask them to pay more for gasoline (“carbon prices” are a euphamism for CO2 pollutionsin taxes), and almost all politicians who advocate such a course of action will be unemployed, and rapidly, too.

    Energy use is a part and parcel of modern American life, and significantly raising the cost of energy use – and especially transportation energy (= oil) – will be viewed as a threat to most Americans. Especially because the standard of living for MOST Americans has been shrinking for the last 20 years, or at best, stagnant. Calling them immoral will invoke cognitive dissonance and in the choice between barely maintianing or at least slowly declining standards of living but oil pices without that added CO2 pollution tax and being called immoral, well, being immoral will lose any stigma whatsoever.

    The morality argument generally is only valid for those who can afford it. It will never swing the majority of Americans to a sane climate solution, though it may at least vent some righteous anger from advocates of a sane climate. Economics and jobs that provide enough money to pay immediate bills will triumph over long term problems like – CO2 pollution of our atmosphere in this case – even if the long term result is ugly and them some. And right now, getting to and from where they need to be in order to stay employed, get money, food, be enertained and get laid rules.

    The solution is to make renewable profitable, and not by subsidies and taxes, either. Allowing renewable energy to be sold at the cost to make it plus some reasonable profit in conjunction with priority access to the grid/energy markets would be a start. Then you could get a lot of people actually employed in the biz, and lots of businesspeople involved in making money and financing further endeavors, too. Money talks, as do mass quantities of employed people, as do mass quantities of actual profitable investments. So far, these are relatively insignificant in the American economy, and the share of renewables in the economy has to get bigger, faster before the marginal “climate morality” percentage can have a deciding effect.

    The insistance that all Americans pay up on climate sin taxes is a short term disaster when 25 million people need jobs, and job-insecurity is a rampant, dominant fear among the majority of people. And calling them immoral – which may well be true with respect to climate issues – will not sway many minds, aside from rendering the moral judgment advocates irrelevant, and ignored. Then add to this the corporate media’s love of short term money and complete lack of morality on most matters, and especially climate morality, and it should be preety obvious that moral climate scolds will have no effect on things to any significant extent.

    Mr. Hansen is a very smart person, and so is Mr. McKibben, but they are behaving very stupidly. They should be advocating relentlessly on Feed-In Tariffs, and on job creation and economic stimulus via renewable energy production. Maybe try import tariffs on oil to discourage oil imports, and export tariffs on coal (easy money for the Federal Govt, too). Because if people don’t get employed in renewables to at least the extent of the automobile industry in this country, and if a lot of financial clout in the renewables biz can somewhat balance out pollution based energy interests (as appears to be happening in many parts of the world, such as Europe), all the bitching about climate induced disasters won’t mean squat.


  64. caerbannog says:

    “The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather…”

    This is patently false. Take temperature over the U.S. as an example. The variability of daily temperature over the U.S. is much larger than the anthropogenic warming signal at the local, weather time scales. Depending on season and location, the disparity is at least a factor of 5 to 10.

    Rubbish — what part of “global” don’t you understand?

    Furthermore, a signal does *not* have to be larger than short-term noise excursions to be detectable. There’s this procedure called “averaging” (or integration) that can be used to detect such signals — we are talking Time-Series Analysis 101 material here.

    Process the GHCN raw temperature data in any reasonable way, and the global-warming signal just jumps right out — even when you use a simple anomaly-averaging procedure that could be taught to college freshmen.

  65. caerbannog says:

    Following up to clarify:

    When Hansen says “louder than the noise of local weather”, he is saying “unambiguously detectable” in language that those who haven’t taken time-series analysis / signal-detection courses can understand.

    He obviously does not intend to claim that global average temperatures have risen more than day to day temperature swings.

  66. mulp says:

    Let’s see, Republicans are passing cuts to food stamps and medical care to pay for increased spending to prop up defense contractors for useless weapons, so Obama should wage a losing battle over climate change?

    How exactly does Obama flailing away on an issue that is impossible to deal with until voters defeat 50% of the Republicans and replace them with Greens going to accomplish anything if Republican take control of the White House and Congress in 2013?

    If Hanson were to fight to change Congress so it will pass a real climate bill, then that would be progress. Unfortunately he seems to think we have the Constitution of Saddam’s Iraq, rather than the US Constitution that puts the power in the hands of the voters who get to elect free lunch Republicans who promise an American Dream by pillage and plundering America to wasteland.

  67. Steve Funk says:

    Prof. Dave Rudledge of Cal-Tech estimates that total emissions from fossil fuels will be 857 gigatons, by the time we have depleted 90% of these fuels. This includes the tar sands, but does not include the keragen shale depositsl. This would max out CO2 at somewhere between 450 and 510 ppm.

  68. Tim Palmer says:

    I agree with your assessment, Andy. Prokaryotes seems to be addressing Steve Funk’s question as if it is about when the changes in the climate will manifest from this year’s additional CO2, rather than the difference in emissions vs. the resulting ppm of atmospheric CO2. For the years that it has been measured, only 56% of the amount of the CO2 emitted has been reflected as an increase in atmospheric CO2. As you correctly pointed out, this is due to the rest of it being taken up in various sinks, such as plant life and, mostly, absorbed by the ocean.
    This is a critical number to track! When that percentage begins to rise, it is likely to reflect the inability of sinks to take in and hold carbon in quantities large enough to keep a 56% pace with CO2 output. This will be a major signal that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is beginning to accelerate even more quickly. Game Over?

  69. A.J. says:

    Agreed to a degree. It’ll be interesting to see, though, if populations transition more to a mindset of greater conservation and efficiency as this thing unfolds/the implications become clearer to the average person. Similar to what happened in many regions with toxics and recycling – people felt the need to do what they could. But many proponents of carbon pricing (whether via a tax or cap & trade) want it to be revenue-neutral. Consumers could get incentives and/or rebates (potentially cut for consumption above a regional average). Applying tariffs to imports could be something of a squeeze itself, given that America imports a good part of the ~19 million barrels a day it consumes, and may not have the economically and responsibly-extractable resources to support that consumption. Unless you exclude Canadian bitumen, then we’re going backwards on carbon reduction. And then there are fossil fuel subsidies …

  70. A.J. says:

    That is, assuming insufficiently assessed carbon cycle feedbacks (including reductions in the ocean sink) don’t really start kicking in, carrying CO2 well above 500 ppm. And assuming extra methane leakage from shale gas doesn’t become a big contributor. The industry also has a history of increasing reserves through exploration and technology. It’s getting harder, but estimates of what could ultimately be recovered are just that.

  71. In response to Dick Smith (May 10, 2012 at 11:19 pm)
    “RE: caption to chart. If we’re burning 9.1 GtC, and if 2.12 GtC ~ 1ppm CO2, then why didn’t CO2 rise over 4 ppm last year?”

    The right hand axis is a bit misleading because it is the quantity of carbon of 1 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, not accounting for the airborne fraction, and as prokaryotes points out, right now about half of the emissions into the atmosphere are taken up by the oceans and (to a lesser extent) the biota on land. Thus the right hand axis is not an apples to apples comparison with the carbon content of various fuels. It’s probably closer to 4 GtC of EMISSIONS per ppm of CO2 CONCENTRATIONS in the atmosphere at this point.