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Newark Star Ledger Editorial Board — “Face facts: Climate change is unfolding as predicted”

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"Newark Star Ledger Editorial Board — “Face facts: Climate change is unfolding as predicted”"

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“If the scientists are right, a lot of people are going to die as a result of climate change.”

As the world dawdles, this problem will grow worse, and the solution will have to be more drastic, more expensive and disruptive. For that, we will have the climate-change skeptics to thank.

The Newark Star Ledger‘s Editorial Board had a terrific piece Friday:  “Face facts: Climate change is unfolding as predicted.”

It’s so rare for any major newspaper to tell it like it is that I’m reprinting the whole thing:

The wildfires in Russia, the floods in Pakistan and the record heat this summer in New Jersey have one thing in common: They are exactly the kind of symptoms scientists predicted we’d experience as global warming occurs.No, we cannot say for sure that man-made pollutants are the cause. The science is not that precise. But we can measure the effects.

Glaciers that have been stable for centuries are now melting at an alarming rate. Hurricanes are becoming more severe as ocean temperatures rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last month that 2010 is breaking all temperature records. And that is no fluke “” the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990.

A rational person would look at this evidence and listen to the scientists who are warning of catastrophic impacts over the next few decades, such as coastal flooding and the collapse of rain-fed agriculture in many regions, especially Africa. If the scientists are right, a lot of people are going to die as a result of climate change. Pentagon planners are preparing for wars and instability that could result.

Republicans in Washington have killed any chance for climate change legislation, for now. Polls show that while most Americans believe climate change is occurring, most Republicans do not. And given the probability that Republicans will gain power in November, the prospects for a comprehensive answer to this appear grim.

For now, we can only chip away at the problem. The Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson is preparing to impose regulations on carbon emissions, as the Clean Air Act requires. Washington is also subsidizing clean energy sources such as wind and solar, as are states like New Jersey. On the east and west coasts, regional agreements to begin limiting emissions from power plants are getting off the ground.

None of this is nearly enough. And until the United States takes much bolder action, developing countries like China, now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, won’t make the needed changes either.

As the world dawdles, this problem will grow worse, and the solution will have to be more drastic, more expensive and disruptive. For that, we will have the climate-change skeptics to thank.

Hear!  Hear!

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38 Responses to Newark Star Ledger Editorial Board — “Face facts: Climate change is unfolding as predicted”

  1. mike roddy says:

    This is a breakthrough piece, because major media outlets either ignore the deniers or trot them out to provide “balance”. Let’s hope others follow their lead, such as the papers across the water- those with the big reputations and cowardly performances.

  2. Ron Manley says:

    This article from the “If it’s bad it must be climate change” school of journalism and this site’s response to it demonstrate why so many people are becoming sceptic.

    I have friends in both Belarus and Russia. The weather and forests in parts of Belarus and Russia are same. Russia had forests fires; Belarus did not. The reason was not the difference in climate but the fact that in Belarus they continue taking action to minimise the risk of forest fires whereas in Russia they abandoned it in the post-Soviet period.

    In parts of Africa rain-fed agriculture is indeed declining, not because of climate change but because of soil erosion from overuse and poor land management – and this is something I have seen for myself.

  3. Ed Hummel says:

    Impressive editorial!! Now if some red state papers were to write similar editorials we might be getting somewhere!!!!!!

  4. Ed Hummel says:

    I just read the response from Ron Manley. Ron, are you ignoring the fact that temperatures in Russia, especially east and southeast of Moscow were the hottest in Russian history for many weeks and not by just a bit, but by a lot, and that Belorus was relatively “cooler” during the same period? Forest practices may have had a hand in the resulting fires (I’ll have to take your word for it), but I can’t believe that you’d belittle the contribution from the extraordinary and unprecedented climatic conditions that much of central Russia experienced for 2 months. And yes, as predicted since at least the 1980s, if it’s bad (that is, worse than usual) then it must be climate change, BY DEFINITION!!!!!!!!!

  5. Jim Groom says:

    If you believe for a second that the correct message is starting to make a difference, all you have to do is read the comments attached from the readers of the newspapers article. OMG, far too many of our fellow citizens are just Stupid and nothing more. Denial, denial and confusion over climate and weather.

  6. ozajh says:

    Ron Manley #1,

    So you’re saying that if the article had been written as “The extreme heat wave in Russia”, instead of “The wildfires in Russia”, then you would have accepted it?

    Especially since they were careful enough to write “No, we cannot say for sure that man-made pollutants are the cause.” a couple of sentences later and “If the scientists are right” further on.

    The efficacy of wildfire prevention in Belarus vis-a-vis Russia is a complete non-sequitur here. The issue being discussed is that PREDICTED events are occurring now, admittedly by type rather than specific incident, and that the models making those predictions have a gloomy overall prognosis.

  7. William P says:

    Yes, its rare indeed for mainstream press to tell the basic, terrifying truth about where climate change is leading.

    I find it very curious and even interesting. Editors and reporters of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other leading news media know James Lovelock and James Hansen and what they say. These leading earth scientists tell us either all humans will die, or six billion will die (Lovelock) and soon!

    Yet the reputable news media breaths not a word of it! How in the world can they justify their silence? It certainly is the biggest news story of all time. Readers would pay attention (thus read the precious ads in the paper).

    This curious silence is in itself fascinating. When will they decide to break this misleading silence?

  8. ozajh says:

    Jim Groom #4,

    I have quite literally within the last hour had a work colleague announce to the office that he wished he had the opportunity to “discuss” matters with the “so-called global warming scientists” (his words), regarding their predictions of an overall warming and drying of South-Eastern Australia.

    This guy considers a SINGLE heavy rain front passing through our geographical area during the last week to be a conclusive counter-example to the entirety of Climate Change modelling and theory.

  9. William P says:

    I have not read all earth scientists thoroughly – just James Lovelock and James Hansen. There is an important difference in the conclusion of global warming each predicts. Is there any kind of consensus out there about which is right.

    Lovelock believes polar regions may be a safe refuge for man. Temperatures there will support man and his agriculture. Lovelock points out man once had to migrate far to survive – in the ice ages. He believes a small portion of us can pull it off again and survive.

    James Hansen, on the other hand, seems to see earth becoming another Venus with temperatures in the hundreds of degrees – a fireball planet, in other words. Not even oceans will survive. They will vaporize into the atmosphere. Much water vapor will be thrown off into space. Hansen sees the end of planet Earth as it was.

    Is there an consensus of climate scientists joining one or the other side of these conclusions? Inquiring minds need to know. Thanks.

    Bill

  10. Wow! Looks like this newspaper and web site have gotten a surge in readers. Hmmm… wonder if other media will get the message?

  11. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    William P,
    The time frames are different. The possibility of runaway climate change leading to Venus like conditions would not happen for thousands of years. The tropics becoming virtually uninhabitable could happen in a hundred or so years. Severe disruption to our lifestyle could happen within decades.

    Much depends upon how quickly we act. We are in deep trouble,even though there is argument on how deep. Most of the agument is over when not if. Expect surprises, most of them nasty.

    Breath deep when the sky turns green. With a little effort and a few underestimated feed backs we could achieve a canfield state in a little over 100 years.

  12. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Sorry, see the start of a canfield state in a little over 100 years.

  13. ToddInNorway says:

    100 years from now? In the next 5-10 years many low-lying coastal megacities will get closer and closer to a storm-surge catastrophe. This will be due to more intense storms with more precipitation in short periods than anything we have seen except perhaps in Pakistan and Tennessee this summer. Look for New Orleans-Katrina scale events in the next 5 years, increasing in frequency to 2020, with damages that will threaten to overwhelm the current insurance system. Long before 2050 we will see unprecedented rise in sea levels that will force the retreat from low-lying developments along the worlds coasts. The catastrophe is essentially now, so no need to use the 100-year doom scenario to sound the call for change.

  14. paulm says:

    William P #6, you have to look at the data yourself and gauge what you think might happen. The logic is quite straightforward. We are very likely going to fry. ie Lovelocks prediction of billions dying will, in my opinion, be likely now whatever we do.

    Hansen knows that we are going to fry also, only he is more civil about stating this outcome than Lovelock and is hopeful that we can mitigate it.
    Hansen goes further in highlighting the fact that the the Venus syndrom is a possibility and the probability grows more and more with each ppm of CO2 that is injected in to the atmosphere. (He should best know being the one of the most prominent Venus/Earth qualified climate scientist)

    Its all about probabilities my dear William.
    You should read Hansen’s latest book….

  15. Inverse says:

    “Wow! Looks like this newspaper and web site have gotten a surge in readers. Hmmm… wonder if other media will get the message?”

    Its important to understand both sides of the argument so I would suggest this site and WUWT will both increase in popularity as opposites create interest.

    [JR: And yet WUWT has had a drop in traffic over the past year, while my traffic has risen.]

    What I have noticed in the last year is that WUWT is seen as the common view and this site is in full defense. I would suggest you stop defending and start highlighting the real problems. Too many people, to few plants, to few resources and lots of surface pollution. While you keep harping on about Climate Change you just take peoples minds away from these real issues and just give governments an excuse to tax more…

    [JR: You "noticed" something that isn't true. That is the very definition of a concern troll.]

  16. Peter says:

    The Newspapers for he most part nationally tend to print very little about CC- but there are some notable exceptions- The Kansas City Star consistently has good articles, as does the Houston chronicle. Kansas City in a few decades could be in the middle of an arid plain-while Houston could become partially flooded, and develop a hot dry Savannah type climate. Perhaps their editorial boards see an urgent need to educate the local population.

    The travesty of the Washington Post is another issue- by mid century the great Monuments could flood in the city with storm surges- while by centuries end they could permanently be flooded.

    The NYT is another paper of ‘renowned’ reputatiopn that is guilty of treason to humankind- but then its money problems do not permit them to print reality anymore- but ‘weekend fluff’ for the uninformed.

    My regional newspaper ‘The Hartford Courant’ once a solid publication is now a right wing rag owned by News corp. Prints the same ‘no nothing’ News as would be expected.

    Regional weather this summer for southern New England;

    Warm spring followed by Hot summer- 33 90 degree days and counting at Hartford. Warmest summer on record.

    Drought conditions all summer-large rainfall deficit- shrubs wilting- gardens not watered dying.

    Very wet spring with record rainfall and floods. Three tornado touchdowns In CT-causing significant damage. Does all this fit a pattern?

  17. James says:

    It’s a great editorial which I hope will be the first of many. I was wondering whether it would be improved by mentioning its sources, possibly through hyperlinks, for the facts in the piece. These would never convince deniers but might sway the genuine doubters. What do people with experience of journalism think of this approach?

  18. Daniel "The Yooper" Bailey says:

    Re: Inverse (16)

    A little forbearance here, Joe. Stuff like this cannot stand:

    “Its important to understand both sides of the argument so I would suggest this site and WUWT will both increase in popularity as opposites create interest.”

    By your comments, it is clear that it is you who do not. To even consider the likes of WUWT in the same breath as CP is patent illustration of that fact. QED, as they say.

    One side has science and facts at its disposal. The other, hearsay, innuendo, slander and lies. The skeptical element has had decades to offer up a science-based viable alternative to the physics of greenhouses gases and what they portent for our future – and has fallen execrably short. I.e., there’s no THERE there. Nada, zilch, bupkis.

    That is full consideration of both sides. It’s not a question of popularity, but one of the survival of our species.

    To continue to view this as a debate is a travesty of illiteracy. And a paucity of sentient thought.

    The Yooper

  19. Ed Hummel says:

    Dear Philip Finck,
    You may be a Quaternary Geologist, but you’re definitely not a Climate Researcher and your comments give away the fact that you don’t know much about how weather and climate work. As a meteorologist, I can tell you that the usual way an extended heat wave occurs is by a blocking high getting stuck over one region for an extended period of time. This usually happens in conjunction with a cutoff low both upstream and downstream from teh block. Where the cutoff lows occur there is usually flooding from stuck rain producing systems. That is all basic meteorology, so obviously (to a meteorologist, anyway) the Russian heat wave was caused by a huge block while there was an upstream flooding situation over central Europe and a catastrophic downstream flooding situation over Pakistan, and to some extent in China, enhanced by the seasonal monsoon circulation. That is all basic and common meterology. What is not common is the record breaking extent of both the heat and the flooding. Both of those facts are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting for years. whether you know or believe it or not, waving these facts at the world as evidence of a worsening climate situation is what you will see more and more of as climate scientists become more and more frustrated that not enough people are paying attention, and more and more scared at what is still to come. I know it may be a lot to ask of a busy geologist, but could you find some time to actually study the literature put out there for all to see by REAL climate scientists? I promise I’ll read all I can find about Holocene geology if you do!

  20. Wit'sEnd says:

    This issue of weather being a result of climate change can be simply illustrated:

    The CDC cannot predict whether a particular smoker will get lung cancer – but they can accurately predict that a certain percentage of smokers will get lung cancer.

    Climate scientists won’t (so far, for the most part) attribute a particular weather event to climate change, but they can accurately predict that the incidence of violent extreme droughts, hurricanes, heat waves and floods will increase because of AGW.

  21. Gord says:

    Prometheus in the Anthropocene.

    The tragedy of the commons is upon us on a world-wide scale. In the past it was individual families who overgrazed Commons lands in order to get ahead of their neighbours. The end result was, predictably, the Commons became almost useless for grazing animals.

    Today it is individual countries who are using the world like the Commons of old. Patriotism plays a key role in this thinking. ‘Do what is best for my country’, is a patriotic view shared my billions of people around the world. This view leads to competition among countries.

    The War on CO2 is a war where Humankind is on one side and CO2 is on the other. All of Humanity is on the same side … we are all in this together. If you truly understand the depth of this idea and its attendant implications, you understand that humankind must act co-operatively to a degree and scale greater than anything we have done before as a species.

    In this new world of the Anthropocene, patriotism becomes obsolete. And further, patriotism becomes a mortal danger to billions of people.

    In the past, our mass media, in times of War, supported the war effort. Today, I’m not too sure we can rely on media to help us win the hearts and minds of the world community in support for this international war.

    To illustrate the change let’s assume it is 1944 and a new pro-NAZI newspaper starts up in London. One can only imagine the outrage expressed by common folks.

    Today, we have whole networks of mass media dedicated to supporting CO2. But CO2 is the enemy! How can this be? Where is the outrage?

    People don’t even know we are At War.

    People don’t know that if we lose this war our very species is at risk of being exterminated by the enemy.

    And until people make that connection, nothing will change.

  22. JM says:

    why so many people are becoming sceptic

    Tobacco-company tactics have a strong influence on weak minds.

  23. While mining info for my blog I came across this. It may be familiar to all of you, if so forgive.

    http://growthisnotsustainable.blogspot.com/2010/09/beware-of-wolves-in-sheeps-clothing.html

    The outrage I feel is palpable.

  24. Anonymous says:

    #16:

    WUWT prints “both sides?”

    Ah yes, the old balance meme. The problem with this is that balance means nothing. Consider a classic balance beam scale: Put 5 pounds of bull feces on one side, and 5 pounds of gold on the other. You would achieve a perfect balance. Your problem, and the problem with all you other balance boys and girls, is you keep choosing the bull feces.

    Kudos to the Star ledger.

  25. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    Humans are doomed if things keep going as they are, no doubt. But nobody mentions all the animals and other earth inhabitants—the ethnocentric mindset forgets about all the rest of earth’s creatures who had nothing to do with this and will suffer greatly.

    I’m personally beginning to believe that humans were a huge evolutionary mistake, the greatest FUBAR imaginable. And we think we’re so very clever…we’ll march like lemmings off the cliff, our senses dulled by our IPods, rich fatty foods, and overdeveloped brains.

  26. sarah says:

    One problem with news reports is that ‘weather’ occur as events while ‘climate’ shows up as long term trends. The daily news is about events (a fire, flood, heat wave, snowstorm, etc), to which any serious scientist has to say “a single event can’t be blamed on climate, but the trends are consistent with climate change”. Trends don’t make news.

    This is, of course, NO EXCUSE. Events have causes and reporters are supposed to find and report on them. Imagine health reporting without any references to bacteria, viruses, or other agents. The world would be filled with bewildering events, random tuberculosis outbreaks, salmonella spontaneously arising across the country, lung cancer striking random people everywhere, AIDS attributed to God’s wrath. That’s what climate reporting looks like, a whole world of mysterious disconnected weather events with no apparent common denominator.

    sarah

  27. klem says:

    People already have been croaking by the millions every years due to [snip]

  28. ProfBob says:

    I find in reading those sites that say that climate problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series “In Search of Utopia” (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to several myths. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half. There is also up to date information at:http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462-climate-change-a-guide-for-the-perplexed.html

  29. Bob Doublin says:

    @#28 Hey Klem! Is your last name Kadiddlehopper? Your bull is about as intelligent.

  30. Barry says:

    Re: Ozajh (#6)…an essential talking point when talking to deniers is one that James Hansen makes over and over:

    The reality of climate change today, as well as the basic prediction for future impacts, DOES NOT RELY ON ANY COMPUTER MODELS.

    Here is Hansen (p 44 to 46 of his book):

    “Earth’s history allows precise evaluation of climate sensitivity without using climate models … (Earth’s history is vastly superior to models because) all physical mechanisms that exist in the real world are included correctly, the physics is exact.”

    Hansen ranks climate models well below Earth climate history (well understood at this point) and recent climate measurements.

    So when some “guy considers a SINGLE heavy rain front passing through our geographical area during the last week to be a conclusive counter-example to the entirety of Climate Change modelling and theory” … you can reply that climate science isn’t based on models it is based on detailed data of earth’s history.

    The “I don’t trust models” meme is one of the most powerful denier arguments out there and catches many non-climate-science-aware folks in its net.

    No model is required to tell us that climate change is underway nor the rough scale of the impacts our CO2 emissions will bring about.

    Read Hansen’s “Storms of my Grandchildren” for an excellent introduction to the science and why we know what we do without needing models.

    Ozajh (#8)

  31. Mike I says:

    Whoa! Whoa! Is our excitement misplaced?

    I was reading some of the comments on the editorial page of the Newark paper. I see one glaring flaw in the piece, which let a number of climate deniers and dis-informers into the conversation. The story said:

    “No, we cannot say for sure that man-made pollutants are the cause. The science is not that precise. ”

    Hello? Did I miss something? Last I checked, we COULD say for sure that man-made pollutants were the cause, and the science WAS that precise and conclusive.

    Joe?

    [JR: Read the piece. They were saying that you cannot say for sure that man-made pollutants were the cause of those individual extreme weather events.]

  32. Mike I says:

    Ah. I see your point. I won’t trot out my Strunk & White on that first paragraph, but my reading (and that of some others) took it to mean we could not say global warming was man-made. The way it was phrased left an opening big enough for the denier truck to drive through (in the comments at the paper’s site).

    Nevertheless, it is great to see some serious acceptance of reality in the mainstream media…

  33. William P says:

    # 14 Paulm

    I am just on the last pages of Hansen’s “Storms of my Grand children” I took from his book that “run away” heating could bring on the end much sooner than you state.

    Climate models are not worth much. I believe this after following hurricane predictions out of U. of Colorado – Dr. Gray. Coin tossing is about the same or better. Both Hansen and Lovelock have little faith in models. The earth has lots of “documentation” of earlier warmings and their causes and results. Hansen goes into great detail about the “end-Permian” heating of earth (55 million years ago?) that killed off nearly all life.

    Its amazing we get intelligent and informed discussion on this blog of global warming and its likely outcome – yet nearly perfect silence of the true grim possibilities in the main stream media. I guess their main concern is keeping viewers, readers and advertisers and this subject may not contribute to that.

  34. William P says:

    paulm,
    One more thing. You said, “you have to look at the data yourself and gauge what you think might happen.”

    Scientists like Hansen and Lovelock have deep backgrounds and training in many disciplines like chemistry, physics, math behind their decades of studying earth. Can we look at the data ourselves and figure it all out? I think not. The best we can do is read their common English descriptions of what they have found, then compare various writers interpretations – then decide for ourselves.

    Maybe you have more science background and can go to the original data and understand it. Good for you if you do.

  35. Dan B says:

    I’m still waiting for “Team Obama” to trot out one little girl and state the obvious.

    Do we care about her future?

    Do we care if her Dad is a renewable energy installer? or, Do we care if her Dad couldn’t put a loaf of bread on the table because the climate was f***ed?

    We can choose, now.

  36. Leland Palmer says:

    Uh, face facts- it’s unfolding faster than predicted. CO2 is increasing faster than the worst case scenario considered by the latest IPCC report.

    I don’t know of any climate computer models that include methane release from hydrates, as in the clathrate gun hypothesis, for example. This is not because it’s unlikely- it appears to be because this is hard to model.

    We have examples in the fossil record of probable methane release from the hydrates, including the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, and the End Permian.

    So, it’s great to see an editorial that prediction using basic laws of physics works.

    But, really, it’s faster than predicted, and the worst predictions are being exceeded, by a pretty wide margin.

    And, so far, if methane hydrate dissociation is occurring, the oceans are absorbing and oxidizing most of it, adding to ocean acidification but not much to atmospheric global warming.

    The fossil record of isotope ratios, though, tells us that massive jets of methane straight into the atmosphere appear to have occurred during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. Carbon isotope records of individual shells from this time period confirm that the C12 enriched carbon from the methane hydrates affected the top layers of the ocean first.

    The predictions so far have been too conservative, it appears.

  37. David Ferrell says:

    William P (comment #9), noting that James Hansen and James Lovelock differ in their views about where the earth’s climate is headed, asks whether there is a true consensus among climate scientists about the current global warming and where it might lead. If we are talking about climate scientists actively engaged in research, the answer is emphatically YES. In comment #11, Rabid Doomsayer briefly sums the matter up, but I’m going to add some further points.

    There is general agreement among active climate scientists that what happens in the future is highly dependent upon what actions we take now and in the near future to slow and/or reverse the warming. Typically, there now exist only minor differences in predicted outcomes for a given emissions scenario. Practically all experts agree that the “worst case” scenario in which humans exploit most or all fossil-fuel reserves over the next century would lead to catastrophe—potentially including destruction of the biosphere and transformation of Earth into a different kind of planet, likely inhospitable to humans and alien to most higher forms of life as we know them.

    It’s worth pointing out that James Lovelock, though influential in scientific circles and credited by many with important insights, is no longer engaged in active research. He is also not a climate scientist in the proper sense of the term, whereas James Hansen is not only quite active but is, if anything, the quintessential climate scientist.

    The views of Hansen and Lovelock about what the future holds diverge sharply, but not in the way William P’s comment suggests. Hansen is quite optimistic about the human future if strong action is taken starting now to rein in CO2 emissions and boost the capacity of carbon sinks to reduce atmospheric concentrations of the gas, the maximum safe level being around 350 ppm; otherwise the future is not so bright, and might be very dark indeed.

    Lovelock’s position, by contrast, is rather one-sidedly fatalistic—that humans have already added so much CO2 to the atmosphere that most of the planet will become uninhabitable in the future. Billions will consequently die; any survivors will have to retreat to the Polar Regions to find sanctuary, he believes. Presumably he means to include the South Pole after most of the Antarctic ice sheet has melted. This doesn’t make much sense, as the ~390 ppm of CO2 now in the atmosphere, even with the full suite of ice-albedo and carbon-cycle feedbacks kicking in, couldn’t work that type of transformation in less than several thousand years, though it could certainly turn the earth into Hell between now and 2100.

    Moreover, don’t count on good weather in the Polar Regions during the deglacial process, especially if the latter is rapid. Supplying the latent heat necessary for quickly melting Greenland and Antarctica might require storm-driven atmospheric transport of an amount of warm water approaching the mass of the water now locked up in the ice sheets themselves.

    William P, while obviously commenting in good faith and certainly to be encouraged to comment here, somewhat misrepresents Hansen’s scientific conclusions (shared by Hansen’s many collaborators) when he says that Hansen sees (or “seems to see”) the earth becoming another Venus. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading all of Hansen’s writing, but his scientific views are well-represented by “Target CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” available as a PDF file at

    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

    There Hansen et al. write:

    “Climate sensitivity varies as Earth becomes warmer or cooler. Toward colder extremes, as the area of sea ice grows, the planet approaches runaway snowball-Earth conditions, and at high temperatures it can approach a runaway greenhouse effect (11). At its present temperature Earth is on a flat portion of its fast-feedback climate sensitivity curve…. Thus our empirical sensitivity, although strictly the mean fast-feedback sensitivity for climate states ranging from the ice age to the current interglacial period, is also today’s fast-feedback climate sensitivity.”

    Translated for our present purpose, this means that near-future climate changes pertain to states lying on the flatter portion of that curve, not yet close to the extreme tipping point where Earth would be in danger of becoming another Venus. At that extreme point the climate sensitivity would “go exponential” (i.e., off the scale), so that only a slight increase in the forcing would be sufficient to boil the world ocean and trigger the “greenhouse catastrophe.” A prerequisite is the closing of the 8-10 micrometer clear-sky IR spectral “window” through which terrestrial radiation now escapes largely unimpeded to space, requiring addition of substantial methane and perhaps ozone and nitrous oxide to the troposphere.

    However, extremely energetic deep convection over tropical oceans—humidifying the upper troposphere beyond the point of saturation and spawning a global “cirrus veil” that allowed sunlight in but that closed the IR “window” to space (a perpetual pan-oceanic El superNiño, as it were)—might be enough to trigger the runaway greenhouse on its own, at least in theory. Hansen gives an excellent non-technical discussion of the more obvious possibilities in a video interview (or the 5-minute portion entitled “The Science of Global Catastrophe”) at http://bigthink.com/jameshansen , pointing out that a lot of things would have to happen before the greenhouse catastrophe ensued, and that at least centuries would be required.

    Thus, while a runaway greenhouse is not in the cards just yet, an eventual return of the earth to an extremely hot, ice-free state such as that seen during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 54 million years ago is a real possibility if humans continue on a “business as usual” track for another century. Then atmospheric CO2 might reach 1000+ ppm and massive out gassing of methane from melting permafrost on land and the seafloor around continental margins could get into the act. Since methane is also a tropospheric O3 precursor, conditions might eventually favor the runaway greenhouse scenario. The important point is that adding a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere is necessary to get the ball rolling.

    As Hansen chillingly pointed out in another recent video, “There’s enough carbon dioxide in these fossil fuels to take us back to the time before there was any ice.” Such a drop into the remote past—to the time long before civilization, before humans, before there was any time as we know it—is inconceivable. No humans would survive the drop. But the planet would, whether or not a runaway greenhouse developed.