Climatologist James Hansen on “Cowards in Our Democracies”

JR: “Leading climate scientists have given their support to a Freedom of Information request seeking to disclose who is funding the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic thinktank chaired by the former Conservative chancellor Lord Lawson.”  As the UK Guardian reported earlier this week, “James Hansen, the director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies who first warned the world about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s, has joined other scientists in submitting statements to be considered by a judge at the Information Rights Tribunal on Friday.”  Hansen has posted “Cowards in Our Democracies: Part 1” — his submitted statement and an explanatory intro — which I repost below.

by James Hansen

Global warming due to human-made gases, mainly CO2, is already 0.8°C and deleterious climate impacts are growing worldwide. More warming is “in the pipeline” because Earth is out of energy balance, with absorbed solar energy exceeding planetary heat radiation. Maintaining a climate that resembles the Holocene, the world of stable shorelines in which civilization developed, requires rapidly reducing fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Such a scenario is economically sensible and has multiple benefits for humanity and other species. Yet fossil fuel extraction is expanding, including highly carbon-intensive sources that can push the climate system beyond tipping points such that amplifying feedbacks drive further climate change that is practically out of humanity’s control. This situation raises profound moral issues as young people, future generations, and nature, with no possibility of protecting their future well-being, will bear the principal consequences of actions and inactions of today’s adults….

The public has the right to know who is supporting the foot soldiers for business-as-usual and to learn about the web of support for the propaganda machine that serves to keep the public addicted to fossil fuels and destroys the future of their children.

Figure 1. 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). Alternative estimates of reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011). [JR:  Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks severe, irreversible warming impacts.  We are headed toward 800 to 1,000+ ppm, which represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it — as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear.]

Cowards in Our Democracies: Part 1

The threat of human-made climate change and the urgency of reducing fossil fuel emissions have become increasingly clear to the scientific community during the past few years. Yet, at the same time, the public seems to have become less certain about the situation. Indeed, many people have begun to wonder whether the climate threat has been concocted or exaggerated.

Public doubt about the science is not an accident. People profiting from business-as-usual fossil fuel use are waging a campaign to discredit the science. Their campaign is effective because the profiteers have learned how to manipulate democracies for their advantage.

The scientific method requires objective analysis of all data, stating evidence pro and con, before reaching conclusions. This works well, indeed is necessary, for achieving success in science. But science is now pitted in public debate against the talk-show method, which consists of selective citation of anecdotal bits that support a predetermined position.

Why is the public presented results of the scientific method and the talk-show method as if they deserved equal respect? A few decades ago that did not happen. In 1981, when I wrote a then-controversial paper ( about the impact of CO2 on climate, the science writer Walter Sullivan contacted several of the top relevant scientific experts in the world for comments. He did not mislead the public by dredging up and highlighting contrarian opinion for the sake of a forced and unnatural “balance”.

Today most media, even publicly-supported media, are pressured to balance every climate story with opinions of contrarians, climate change deniers, as if they had equal scientific credibility. Media are dependent on advertising revenue of the fossil fuel industry, and in some cases are owned by people with an interest in continuing business as usual. Fossil fuel profiteers can readily find a few percent of the scientific community to serve as mouthpieces — all scientists practice skepticism, and it is not hard to find some who are out of their area of expertise, who may enjoy being in the public eye, and who are limited in scientific insight and analytic ability.

Distinguished scientific bodies such as national science academies, using the scientific method, can readily separate charlatans and false interpretations from well-reasoned science. Yet it seems that our governments and the public are not making much use of their authoritative scientific bodies. Why is that?

I believe that the answer, and the difficulty in communicating science to the public, is related to the corrosive influence of money in politics and to increased corporate influence on the media.

It is a tragic and frustrating situation, because when all the dots in the climate-energy story are connected it becomes clear that a common-sense pathway exists that would solve energy needs, stimulate the economy, and protect the future of young people.   As I discussed in “Storms of My Grandchildren,” a gradually rising carbon fee should be collected from fossil fuel companies, with the money distributed uniformly to legal residents. This would stimulate the economy, making it more efficient by putting an honest price on fuels, incorporating their costs to society.

“Captains of industry” told me they would prefer such a course with knowledge of a steadily rising carbon price, which would stimulate innovations in efficiency and clean energies.

Despite the obstacles presented by the role of money in politics and by the huge advertising campaigns of the fossil fuel industry, the urgency of addressing the climate-energy issue demands that we do the best that we can to inform the public. One of the things we can do is try to expose how the public and our democracies are being manipulated for the benefit of those profiting from the public’s fossil fuel addiction.

For that purpose I provided the witness statement below in support of an effort to reveal the name of the seed funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) in the UK. GWPF is “successful” in casting doubt on the reality and significance of human-made climate change.

The newsletters of Benny Peiser, Director of GWPF, can be quite entertaining and sometimes include useful references. He pings the impracticality and costliness of an energy approach that relies excessively on renewable energies. But ultimately his purpose seems to be to persuade the public that climate science is flawed. I don’t know if GWPF is supported by the fossil fuel industry, but it seems to me that the public has the right to know. Ultimately, I hope and believe, the public will be able to appreciate how our democracies are being twisted by people with money for their own purposes. But that requires freedom of information.
Jim Hansen

Some clarification of what this is about, the secret efforts of Lords, the wealthy, the privileged, to dupe the public in our democracies into supporting their continued and growing privileges, is provided by this news article and press release: climate-change-20120126-1qjfp.html tank-judge-told/


I, James Hansen of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, USA, say as follows

1.    I am Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. I write here in my personal capacity, not representing these institutions. I was trained in physics and astronomy in the space science program of Dr. James Van Allen at the University of Iowa, receiving my Ph.D. in 1967. Since the mid-1970s my research has focused on Earth’s climate and understanding the human impact on global climate. I am a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, have testified about climate change to our Congress many times, and have met with officials of numerous nations concerning actions needed to stabilize climate and assure a bright future for young people.

2.    I make this witness statement in support of Brendan Montague’s appeal. The facts and matters set out in this statement are within my own knowledge unless otherwise stated, and I believe them to be true. Where I refer to information supplied by others, the source of the information is identified; facts and matters derived from other sources are true to the best of my knowledge and belief. References in this statement are to documents in the bundles of documents prepared for the Tribunal hearing.

The current situation regarding global climate change is described in a paper, The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy Prosperous Future, which I am preparing with the help of 17 international colleagues for submission to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. The paper includes more than 100 scientific references supporting the discussion in my statement below. The abstract summarizing our paper is [posted at the top].

Science, as described in numerous authoritative reports, has revealed that humanity is now the dominant force driving changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus future climate. The principal climate forcing is carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel emissions, much of which will remain in the atmosphere for millennia. The climate system’s inertia, which is mainly due to the ocean and the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, causes climate to respond slowly, at least initially, but in a very long-lasting way to this human-made forcing.

Governments have recognized the need to limit emissions to avoid dangerous human-made climate change, as formalized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite this, the Kyoto Protocol, established in 1997 to reduce developed country emissions and slow emissions growth in developing countries, has been so ineffective that the rate of global emissions has since accelerated to almost 3%/year, compared to 1.5%/year in the preceding two decades.

There is a huge gap between rhetoric about reducing emissions and reality. Governments and businesses offer assurances that they are working to reduce emissions, but only a few nations have made substantial progress. Reality exposes massive efforts to expand fossil fuel extraction, including oil drilling to increasing ocean depths, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands and tar shale; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.

Governments not only allow this activity, but use public funds to subsidize fossil fuels at a rate of about 500 billion US$ per year. Nor are fossil fuels required to pay their costs to society. Air and water pollution due to extraction and burning of fossil fuels kills more than 1,000,000 people per year and affects the health of billions of people. But the greatest costs to society are likely to be the impacts of climate change, which are already apparent and are expected to grow considerably.

Climate change is a moral issue of unprecedented scope, a matter of intergenerational injustice, as today’s adults obtain benefits of fossil fuel use, while consequences are felt mainly by young people and future generations. In addition, developed countries are most responsible for emissions, but people in less developed countries and indigenous people across the world are likely to be burdened the most while being least able to adapt to a changing climate.

The tragedy of human-made climate change, should the rush to exploit all fossil fuels continue, is that transition to clean energies and energy efficiency is not only feasible but economically sensible. Assertions that phase-out of fossil fuels would be unacceptably costly can be traced to biased assumptions that do not account for the costs of fossil fuels to society or include the benefits of technology innovations that would emerge in response to an appropriate price on carbon emissions.

Fossil fuel emissions so far are a small fraction of known reserves and potentially recoverable resources, as shown in Figure 1. There are uncertainties in estimated reserves and resources, some of which may not be economically recoverable with current technologies and energy prices. But there is already more than enough fossil fuel reserve to transform the planet, and fossil fuel subsidies and technological advances will make more and more of the resources available.

Burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows. The paleoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes.

Phase out of fossil fuel emissions is urgent. CO2 from fossil fuel use stays in the surface climate system for millennia. Failure to phase out emissions rapidly will leave young people and future generations with an enormous clean-up job. The task of extracting CO2 from the air is so great that success is uncertain at best, raising the likelihood of a spiral into climate catastrophes and efforts to “geo-engineer” restoration of planetary energy balance.

Most proposed schemes to artificially restore Earth’s energy balance aim to reduce solar heating, e.g., by maintaining a haze of stratospheric particles that reflect sunlight to space. Such attempts to mask one pollutant with another pollutant almost inevitably would have unintended consequences. Moreover, schemes that do not remove CO2 would not avert ocean acidification. The pragmatic path is for the world to move expeditiously to carbon-free energies and increased energy efficiency, leaving most remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Transition to a post-fossil fuel world of clean energies will not occur as long as fossil fuels remain the cheapest energy in a system that does not incorporate the full cost of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are cheap only because they are subsidized directly and indirectly, and because they do not pay their costs to society. Costs of air and water pollution caused by fossil fuel extraction and use, via impacts on human health, food production, and natural ecosystems, are borne by the public. Similarly, costs of climate change and ocean acidification will be borne by the public, especially by young people and future generations.

Thus the essential underlying policy, albeit not sufficient, is a price on carbon emissions that allows these costs to be internalized within the economics of energy use. The price should rise over decades such that people and businesses can efficiently adjust their lifestyles and investments to minimize costs. The right price for carbon and the best mechanism for carbon pricing are more matters of practicality than of economic theory.
Economic analyses indicate that a carbon price fully incorporating environmental and climate damage, although uncertain, would be high. However, it is not necessary or desirable to suddenly increase fossil fuel prices. Instead the price should be ramped up gradually, with the money that is collected from the fossil fuel companies (at the first sale, at the domestic mine or port of entry) distributed on a uniform per capita basis to legal residents. More than 60 percent of the public would receive more in their monthly dividend, distributed electronically to their bank account or debit card, than they would pay in increased costs due to higher fossil fuel energy prices.

An economic analysis indicates that a tax beginning at a level of $15/tCO2 and rising $10/tCO2 each succeeding year would reduce emissions in the United States by 30% within 10 years. Such a reduction of carbon emissions is more than 10 times greater than the carbon content of tar sands oil that would be carried by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (830,000 barrels/day).

Relative merits of a carbon tax versus cap-and-trade continue to be discussed. Cap-and-trade has had some, albeit limited, success in Europe, but failed in the arena of U.S. policy, as opponents won the rhetorical battle by describing it as a devious new tax. The merits of an alternative, a gradually rising fee on carbon emissions collected from fossil fuel companies with proceeds distributed to the public, have been summarized by DiPeso, Policy Director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, as: “Transparent. Market-based. Does not enlarge government. Leaves energy decisions to individual choices…. Sounds like a conservative climate plan.”

A rising carbon price is the sine qua non for fossil fuel phase out, but it is not sufficient. Other needs include investment in energy R&D, testing of new technologies such as low-loss smart electric grids, electrical vehicles interacting effectively with the power grid, energy storage for intermittent renewable energy, new nuclear power plant designs, and carbon capture and storage. Governments must support energy planning for housing and transportation, energy and carbon efficiency requirements for buildings, vehicles and other manufactured products, global monitoring systems, and climate mitigation and adaptation in undeveloped countries.

Rhetoric of political leaders, including phrases such as “a planet in peril”, leaves the impression that they fully grasp the planetary crisis caused by rising atmospheric CO2. However, closer examination reveals that much of the rhetoric is aptly termed “greenwash” (J. Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, Bloomsbury, 2009, 304 pp.) as even nations considered to be among the “greenest” support expanded fossil fuel extraction including the most carbon-intensive fuels such as tar sands. The reality is that most governments, rather than taking actions to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, are allowing and using public funds to partially subsidize continued fossil fuel extraction, including expansion of oil drilling to increasing ocean depths, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands and tar shale; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.

How is it possible that a specter of large human-driven climate change has unfolded virtually unimpeded, despite scientific understanding of likely consequences?    Would not governments – presumably instituted for the protection of all citizens – have stepped in to safeguard the future of young people? A strong case can be made that the absence of effective leadership in most nations is related to the undue sway of special financial interests on government policies and effective public relations efforts by people who profit from the public’s fossil fuel addiction and wish to perpetuate that dependence.

Such a situation, with the science clear enough to demand action but with public understanding of the situation, and thus political response, hampered by the enormous financial power of special interests, suggests the possibility of an important role for the judiciary system. Indeed, in some nations the judicial branch of government may be able to require the executive branch to present realistic plans to protect the rights of the young. Such a legal case for young people should demand plans for emission reductions that are consistent with what the science shows is required to stabilize climate.

Judicial recognition of the exigency and the rights of young people will help draw attention to the need for a rapid change of direction. However, fundamental change is unlikely without public support. Obtaining public support requires widespread recognition that a prompt orderly transition to the post fossil fuel world, via a gradually rising price on carbon emissions, makes overall sense and is economically beneficial.

The most basic matter, however, is not one of economics. It is a matter of morality – a matter of intergenerational justice. As with the earlier great moral issue of slavery, an injustice of one race of humans to another, so the injustice of one generation to another must stir the public’s conscience to the point of action. Until there is a sustained and growing public involvement, it is unlikely that the needed fundamental change of direction can be achieved.

A broad public outcry may seem implausible given the enormous resources of the fossil fuel industry, which allows indoctrination of the public with the industry’s perspective. The merits of coal, of oil from tar sands and the deep ocean, of gas from hydrofracking are repeatedly extolled, all of these supposedly to be acquired with utmost care of the environment. Potential climate concerns are addressed by discrediting climate science and scientists, including use of character assassination and every negative campaign trick that they have learned.

The fossil fuel kingpins who profit from the public’s fossil fuel addiction, some of them multi-billionaires, are loosely knit, but with a well-understood common objective of maintaining the public’s addiction. These kingpins have the resources to be well aware of the scientific knowledge concerning the consequences of continued exploitation of fossil fuels. However, they choose not only to ignore those facts, but to support activities intended to keep the public ill- informed. These kingpins are guilty of high crimes against humanity and nature. It is little consolation that the world will eventually convict them in the court of public opinion or even, unlikely as it is, that they may be forced to stand trial in the future before an international court of justice.

The fossil fuel kingpins are separated from the foot soldiers who serve as their public mouthpieces, separated by multiple layers of people, and even by corporations, which some courts have granted rights and protections of people.

The public has the right to know who is supporting the foot soldiers for business-as-usual and to learn about the web of support for the propaganda machine that serves to keep the public addicted to fossil fuels and destroys the future of their children.

This court cannot single-handedly cure the cancer that is afflicting democracies worldwide, the inappropriate power granted to money, to special financial interests. But by standing for the rights of the people, by exposing one link in the web of the oppressing fossil fuel propaganda machine, it just may start a process that allows the public to begin to realize what is at stake and where the public interest lies. Perhaps, if this process begins soon, there is still time to preserve a good future for young people and future generations.

I believe that the facts stated in this witness statement are true.

— James Hansen

55 Responses to Climatologist James Hansen on “Cowards in Our Democracies”

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Science: Catastrophe looms if we do not stop fossil combustion.

    Politic: Delay, delay, delay…

    Outcome: Catastrophe

    Define Catastrophe: Possible extinction of the human species. The greatest threat in the history of mankind.

  2. Lin Patterson says:

    Thank you, James Hansen.

  3. fj says:

    This affects our streets, roads, and transportation worldwide at the most basic level and, much more.

    Ignore this with peril to all of us and humanity’s future: As the fossil fuel industry marches on squashing net-zero mobility.

    House Transportation Bill “a March of the Horribles”

  4. wagthedog says:

    A most clear and impressive statement. I am eagerly awaiting his announced publication.

  5. Car Free says:

    I repectfully suggest that we use the phrase “Global Warming” instead of “Climate Change” for the later is a euphemism created by a GOP propagandist to fog the issue. This tactic of deception has been successful and we are only inreasing ignorance by using their terms.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The children of 2100 will get to envy the cave man. We could have had the universe, but new widgets for our car were more important.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    I assume you’re referring to the infamous Luntz memo. The issue is far more complex than that:

  8. lsn2me says:

    I have stumbled upon this precise and much appreciated testament of observations and concerns, actually in trying to personally investigate catastrophic environmental damage potential from hydrofracturing for natural gas extraction. I have been dumb-struck by this industry’s ability to wreak havoc in ever increasing numbers of lives of the average American , who seems to either be oblivious to what is going on under their very noses(feet), or is apathetically resigned to this present reality that we (and our government) are going to allow diabolical corporations to literally erradicate our children’s capacity to enjoy a quality future with basic needs met. Yet, we focus so on named “enemies” over there, somewhere else. Is humanity on the verge of self-destruct? How do we prevent the preventable? In part, I think, by spreading the truth and concerns through passionate conversation and writing, through urgent recruiting of many to write to their congress and to demand appropriate action, through more regulation of corporations. It seems, to me, that we must use the tactics of the deceptive misinformers who do so over and over and over. We must keep telling and yelling the truth over and over and over.

  9. with the doves says:

    Thank you Dr. Hansen. All week President Obama’s talk about natural gas is echoing around my head and depressing me.

    What does it take to get some leadership around here?

  10. Let’s hope the U.K. judges will see the matter clearly.

    And, soon, it will be time to prosecute the criminals who have cost the planet so much.

  11. Bill Goedecke says:

    Much as I admire James Hansen, he does not deconstruct the situation correctly. People fall into particular classes due to their durable and transposable dispositions. Such dispositions are based on their past experiences which are somewhat alike given their class. Identity arises out of class. Identity is essentially backward looking. The future is projected based on class identity, which falls out of past experience. Such a way of existence privileges early life experiences and seeks to regularize the future in anticipation of what has already happened. To assume that people would make decisions based on scientific objectivism about something that has not yet occurred (in view of ordinary life) is to assume an idealistic position, as it does not address the practice of living. In order to make lasting change, we need to deconstruct the way we live. For example, we cannot assume that if we just move to some other way of generating power that we will solve our tremendous problems. For that is just another way of projecting the past into the future. We have to do this, but we have to recognize that there are capacities available through use of fossil fuels that will not be available from use of currently known alternative energy technologies. We need to change the way we live completely so there is no need for easily transferrable liquid fuels.

  12. Lewis Cleverdon says:


    More than two thirds of Americans want action on climate destabilization,
    and by international standards Americans are poorly informed of the predicament.

  13. Lionel A says:

    That ‘’ link, above STATEMENT, appears broken.

  14. Arne Perschel says:

    Bravissimo! Thank you, James Hansen, for doing everything you can.
    This document should be sent to every politician and journalist in the world.

  15. Turboblocke says:

    I like it when people complain that CC replaced Global Warming for “warmist propoganda” purposes. It shows how unaware of the facts they are. You know, like the fact that the IPCC was set up in 1988. Guess what the CC stands for…

  16. fj says:

    James Hansen spells out the crisis quite well.

    We are staring into the abyss and we must act.

    We are in a crisis of daunting proportions and we must alert all around us that we must act decisively now.

    The critical paths of action are clear.

    We must stop emissions as quickly as possible while restoring our planet home before catastrophic failure.

  17. Lionel A says:

    I wonder about the close links between those affiliated with the GWPF and the Scientific Alliance.

    It was Bob Durward, a gravel extraction magnate who helped found the Scientific Alliance and who provided funding for Stewart Dimmock’s court challenge to Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

    Information about Scientific Alliance can be found at SourceWatch and at Lobbywatch George Monbiot’s site.

  18. JamesHansenForPresident says:

    James Hansen For President of the world!

  19. Richard Chamberlain says:

    I respectfully suggest that we use the terms “Global Heating” and “Climate Instability” to more accurataley describe what is happening to our planet.

  20. Mark says:

    The “TALK-SHOW METHOD” — that’s 100% brilliant!! Laughing (and anger) aside, as a precondition to college graduation every single candidate should be required to both write and then verbally defend an essay comparing the scientific method to the talk show method.

  21. Bill Goedecke says:

    If the situation is as dire as what I see predicted then the idea that we need to wait for ‘political action’ given the track record of our society is laughable. Yes, it is very important for people like J. Hansen to put his voice out there – but, hey, we are already experiencing very pronounced anomalies in our weather pattern – something that will most likely result in a drop in the food supply. We cannot ‘convince’ a system to stop doing what it is doing, when it is wired to do so.

  22. Richard Chamberlain says:

    It is not true to suggest that the world could not produce all its power needs through renewable methods.

    Less than 1% of the worlds’s deserts, if covered with concentrating solar power plants, could produce as much electricity as the world now uses. Make that 1.5%, and it could power all the ground-based transportation energy as well (high speed trains, plug-in hybrid cars, trucks etc). See the Desertec website: and

    For the United States, the equates to only 15% of the Federal Land area of Nevada (and which could be dispresed) and approximately $2trln. of investment to supply and distribute 100% clean electricity to the entire United States. This is less money than the bank-bailouts and stimulus combined, and would have been a much better use of those resources. ALL the fossil-fuel power plants in the US could be shut down for good, and their CO2 emissions stopped (and all the nuclear plants shut down too). Power storage for nighttime demand would use heated salt storage, already a known technology fro the 1950’s. Other methods could compressed air storage and rock heating, but the heated salt storage would handle it all today.

    The same applies around the world. 90% of thr world’s population lives within 2,700 km of a desert, and could similarly be supplied with solar electricty from there. HVDC power transmission has significantly lower losses/km than HVAC to make this viable, and the technology is available today. See the Desertec website:

    I would urge everybody to promote such a transition to this 100% clean energy which is already proven as technically feasible and commercially economical see:

    The principal drivers which continue to create Global Heating and Climate Instability through CO2 emissions are both the inertia and fear of vested interests and the “money interests” in the existing status quo. It’s “much easier” in the short term for those controlling oil, automobile and power utility interests to inexpensively fund bogus climate denying propaganda generators rather than step up to the plate and protect our world from overheating and climate mayhem.

  23. Mike Roddy says:

    You might be right, but we have to try.

  24. Roger Shamel says:

    Thank you, Jim. Very well put. Got me thinking…

    Very interesting that this appears exactly 26 years to the day after NASA’s January 28, 1986 Challenger explosion, caused by management’s decision to ignore expert warnings of possible O-ring failure due to the unusually cold temperatures at launch.

    As is often done following an unacceptable disaster, a commission was formed to look into what caused the problem. Red flags were found to be rampant regarding the potential for the O-ring to fail at low temperature, as I’m sure Jim well knows.

    Here’s my point: As smart as we humans are in some areas (e.g.,developing space travel), we seem to be strangely limited in our ability to learn except by experience. Similarly, management (read government) tends to dismiss the warnings of experts with regard to predictions of future problems. (Notice how we generally pass laws to prevent bad things from happening only after they’ve happened numerous times.)

    As further evidence of this human frailty, note that the Space Shuttle Columbia met a similar fate in 2003 when, again, according to the commission set up to investigate that accident, management downplayed the concerns of the experts regarding the dangers of foam insulation breaking off the shuttle during launch. Steps were taken afterwards to avoid this problem in the future. But seven more lives were lost in the accident.

    My question is, with perhaps seven billion lives at stake, how can we get ‘management’ to pay attention to expert warnings from NASA where a livable climate is at stake.

    Finally, as a footnote to all this, it’s also interesting to note that short-term pressures (similar to jobs now) and commercial considerations (similar to fossil fuel-funded disinformation campaigns now) were also found to be contributing factors in both of the above shuttle disasters.

  25. Raul M. says:

    One gigaton of biochar would be an enormous clean up task. Do I hear through the wind better get started?

  26. NJP1 says:

    The odd notion persists that we can have full employment, enough to eat and emotional satisfaction and stability within some kind of future utopia.
    While I agree with James Hansen in the broad outline of this excellent piece, he fails to address the most significant aspect of our (including his own) denial, which is the refusal to accept that our ‘employment’ is almost entirely dependent on fuelburning, in particular hydrocarbon fuels.
    The development of the viable steam engine in the late 1700s allowed deep mining of coal, and that coal fed even bigger faster steam engines that allowed us to dig out more coal, and then oil. That simple mechanical function started and sustains our current prosperous lifestyle (it also coincided exactly with the founding and progress of the United States of America).
    The energy released from coal and oil has provided the means to literally create every artifact that we now use to support ourselves, and despite all the bleating on about renewables and alternatives, there are none. The house you live in is an artifact of converted hydrocarbon energy, as is the car you drive and the road it moves on. Your office, factory and every other place of employment are also constructs of hydrocarbons.
    They wear out and can only be replaced with hydrocarbons, so we will continue to demand more, while resisting any demand to pay more.
    Your supermarket and the food in it is delivered to you by energy released from fossil fuel. You burn gasoline to go get it because you have no option, foodstores have been built beyond walking distance.
    Build your windfarms, it wont bring your supermarkets any closer or put an ounce of fertilizer in the soil that grows your food. Without nitrate fertilizer your food supply stops. Already basic foodstuffs are being priced beyond the reach of millions, which is why violent revolutions are breaking out.
    250 years ago the world had a population of under a billion, now its 7 billion, put there courtesy of hydrocarbon energy. Without that energy, 6 billion of us don’t have much of a future.
    To quote Professor James Lovelock: man is a tribal carnivore, not a gentle gardener.

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It’s called ‘bureaucratic inertia’ Roger, an intrinsic feature of systems built on the first genotypical design principle. It has been analyzed to death. When you have people organized into these dominant hierarchies, you have created a system which is inherently competitive.

    This causes all sorts of negative dynamics but the overall result is that nobody, apart from the bunny at the top, is responsible for the whole. No individual is going to stick their neck out or cause a problem because messengers do get shot. It will be ever thus until you change the system, ME

  28. Raul M. says:

    See,s there would be ready involvement in the clean up if it were somehow a paid system of employment.
    Yes that does seem to be a paradigm change.

  29. Bill Goedecke says:

    Sounds great – hope you are right. I think that is a great plan – however, how do you get the grid to transmit all this energy? There is an inherent loss when you transmit energy across the grid. I think the trend in California is to put in small solar for local consumption, but I am no expert. Also, I understand that you need plenty of water to keep the panels clear of dust. We will see how well California progresses with its solar projects – I am a big fan of such developments. However, I do think we need to rethink how we live, since we not only have problems with climate, we have problems all around, including financial which may impact potential projects, water issues, top soil loss, loss of fisheries, and a myriad other issues that comes with over-consumption and over-population.

  30. Calamity Jean says:

    Build your windfarms, it won’t … put an ounce of fertilizer in the soil that grows your food.

    On this point I am positive that you are mistaken. Anhydrous ammonia can be synthesized using hydrogen from water and nitrogen from air using electrical power from wind to drive the reaction. Anhydrous ammonia is used now as fertilizer, and there’s no reason to think it can’t continue to be used in the future.

  31. Leif says:

    It should be noted that $2 trillion is less that 4 years of our Military budget. Also less than numbers that I have heard for the recent bank bailout. It is just paper not food, unpolluted water, air, earth, and oceans. Just PAPER!

  32. NJP1 says:

    point taken, (just) but I don’t think it affects the overall picture very much

  33. And then there’s organic farming techniques, which don’t use petrochemicals at all.

  34. 1) We know Hansen’s work well, as it figures large in our forthcoming book, which will be published by Gower, under the title “Rediscovering Sustainability: Economics of the Finite Earth,” this summer. See for further information. We hope it will help to make people more aware of the terrible danger to the earth and its inhabitants.
    2)Global warming’ is the term preferred by Lord Lawson; I heard say him say so myself, at a meeting where he managed to persuade (most of) the audience that it was just a minor inconvenience, and perhaps beneficial for the UK. He made use of ridicule and innuendo to silence anyone describing CO2 (and other gases) as ‘pollution’ (not me or my husband, I have to add). The audience lapped it up! In fact ‘climate change’ is the better term, as the effects of rising CO2 are far wider than a warmer climate: acidification of the oceans, coral bleaching, the impact on crops, on biodiversity and many more things.

  35. Chris Winter says:

    Indeed, if Joseph Stiglitz is to be believed, it’s less than the final cost of the war in Iraq. (See The $3 Trillion War.)

  36. Chris Winter says:

    NJP1 wrote: “James Hansen […] fails to address the most significant aspect of our (including his own) denial, which is the refusal to accept that our ‘employment’ is almost entirely dependent on fuel-burning, in particular hydrocarbon fuels.”

    Yes, we now burn a lot of fossil fuels. Before petroleum was discovered and refined, we used a lot of whale oil. Petroleum gave us a better way, and we stopped slaughtering whales for oil.

    What James Hansen and many others are telling us is that we now understand the downside of burning fossil fuels AND we have ways of generating energy that avoid that downside. They’re correct on both counts.

    Can we change overnight? Of course not, and nobody is calling for that. But a gradual transition is possible. It will only get harder and more costly if we keep delaying the first steps.

  37. Scrooge says:

    I read this blog, among others, daily and i think I have learned a lot. One thing that I notice is whenever people like Hansen or Trenberth speak its like a whole different league.

  38. prokaryotes says:

    Just up: NASA James Hansen must be thinking of the Minnesota Senate action today: Cowards in Our Democracies, Part 2

  39. Tony says:

    Simple: stand up and demand it!

    …I didn’t say it was *easy.*

  40. Tony says:

    I completely agree that we need to get off energy-dense liquid fuels. It is highly unlikely that any renewable fuel on Earth will every be able to replace liquid fossil fuels for transport purposes. Nothing has near the energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) of petro-based fuels.

    We also need to acknowledge that, in addition to the liquid fuels issue, our whole way of life must change as we de-carbonize/de-energize. To believe that we can simply change out the fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure with a renewable energy infrastructure is to believe in a fantasy (although I am in favor of doing as much renewable as possible).

  41. R Shamel says:

    And this, ME, is why we need Obama to be a bold leader, to speak out about climate change and our opportunity to act now–in the process saving a livable climate, and stimulating the US economy. What’s not to like? Hurting America’s richest brothers?

  42. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Joe, I’ve a post in moderation for days – can you publish it ?



  43. stv_57 says:

    NJP1 –
    The gist of your post is correct in describing the extent of our addiction to fossil fuels.

    The maybe overwhelming challenge is to somehow maintain a vibrant global economy, and well-fed populace of course, using something like a tenth of our total current carbon footprint.

    You go back to the invention of the steam engine as the seminal event in our population explosion and our first fateful, irreversible step to carbon addiction (and future collapse?) Take it back further, to the printing press 500 years ago, which led directly to the development of the steam engine and a million other things; or further back to the development of agriculture and the domestication of livestock 10,000 years ago.

    Are we really just clever enough to develop these things, but not clever enough to manage their unintended consequences?

    It would be ironic if it turns out to be all James Watts fault, or Johann Guttenburg’s, or Thomas Edison’s, or the Wright Brothers or Henry Ford’s for that matter… Blame it on the smart guys…

    I’d blame Madison Avenue. This isn’t an issue of not having enough. Ever see Key Largo? With Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson?

    M’CLOUD He knows what he wants.
    TEMPLE What’s that?
    M’CLOUD Tell him, Rocco. (Rocco grunts)
    He wants more.
    ROCCO More. That’s right. I want more.
    TEMPLE Will you ever get enough?
    M’CLOUD Will you, Rocco?
    ROCCO I never have.

    Bigger, faster, more, forever… Beyond anything most any of us would ever need for surviving… or thriving even…

    Anyway… We’ll never know how easy or hard it is to change our lifestyles until someone actually has the chutzpa to put a real price on carbon… Then things may change very, very quickly…

  44. Chris – We could all change mentally overnight and get up tomorrow with the notion that each of us personally will not be burning (or causeing to be burned) any fossil fuels 3 years from today, not in our houses, our work, our pleasure, our food production… and then get about the business of making the change. It is absolutely do-able; January 31, 2015. If you have money you can do it in much less time.

    We as a country could stop the burning today and it would temporarily screw things up pretty bad, but it would be way less than the disruptions that seem to be in our future if we con’t change.

  45. Raul M. says:

    Biochar seems a way to put excess energy back into the ground to correct for the coal burning.
    As liquid fuels have so much more energy density, what is the liquid fuel equivalent to make and put back into the ground that takes energy out of the atmosphere?

  46. Raul M. says:

    That would still leave the third key to restoring energy balance making natural gas and returning the energy of such below ground.
    I do know that such is beyond me to just think it out, anybody with a clue?

  47. Joe Romm says:

    Come up with a better analogy.

  48. Lionel A says:

    Here is a working link for that Request Initiative page.

  49. caroza says:

    Amen to that!

  50. Dennis Griffin says:

    The term Global Warming is a gross misnomer and may be responsible for allowing the greatest catastrophe to face the human race to be effectively ignored. Global warming has a friendly connotation that sounds invitingly like more days at the beach. We typically like summer better than winter, so it is a subliminal thought that warming is good. Anytime there is a snowstorm, the political cartoonists have a field day by questioning “Global Warming”. They, like the talking heads on TV don’t seem to know the difference between weather and climate.

    The term Climate Change is also a misnomer considering the mindset of our society.
    Change is good. “Change we can believe in” Instead of change that can destroy us.

    What the scientists should have told us is that we are facing a period of climate catastrophe or at the least climate instability. Why didn’t they use this moniker?

  51. Either or….Global Warming or Climate Change… the time we argue this out the skeptics will be laughing “their heads off”

    It could be suggested, Global Warming because of Climate Change….this has double the effect….

    Want to see something different in this arena of interest….you may wish to read an introduction into my SEEBif Initiative…makes interesting reading for everyone with an open mind…but beware there are some naughty words in this….such as responsibility!

  52. Hal H says:

    panels do need to be cleaned… we clean ours about twice a year, spring and fall. water used to clean approx 400 sf of panels is minimal, less than I use to wash a car. Panels are located in the high desert area of california, an area noted for a wealth of dust and wind. Dust should not be much of a problem…

  53. Willem Post says:

    Global warming reduces heating bills in New England. As a result people can save, pay off debt, shop, etc.
    Plants grow better. In 2011, my tomato crop from a 4×8, well-fertilized braised bed was over 250 lbs.
    Some areas of the world will inundate as a result of snow/ice melting, but we are high enough not to affected by that. Other people should move away from shore lines.
    The world population was 1 billion people in 1900, 7 billion now, 10 billion in 2050. It should be reduced to about 1 billion; less people and cattle breathing CO2, emitting CH4; less CO2 emitting traffic; less skiing, more swimming. Life for the remaining people would change, but for the better.

  54. Bill Goedecke says:

    Well that’s good.