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Hot Air: Three New Books on Global Warming

Bill McKibben: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, 2010, Times Books. $24.00
James Hansen: Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury USA, 2009.  $25.00
James Hoggan, with Richard Littlemore: Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Greystone Books, 2009.  $15.00

“Denial” is a term used in addiction and recovery: “No, I am not an addict—I can quit anytime I want.” “No, I am not wrecking my home and my family.” “No, I’m not destroying my liver.” There is no hope for recovery while the addict, or the addict and his family, are in denial. First the addict has to “bottom out.” Three new books on global warming are doing what they can to wake us up, hoping to shake us out of our denial before we bottom out. In the case of global warming, if we “bottom out,” in spite of the seeming ability of technology to find ever more clever fixes, it will likely be too late for recovery.

The message of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, and hence the book’s title, is that we have already passed the tipping point of global warming and now live on a different planet than the one on which civilization developed and flourished during the last 12,000 years. The issue is not about “our grandchildren,” McKibben insists, the changes are already here: “one hundred or two hundred years from now” has become yesterday. The tropics have expanded by two degrees of latitude both north and south, exceptionally hot years are occurring every one or two years instead of once every twenty-five years, Arctic ice is disappearing, droughts are increasing in both frequency and severity, whole mountain ranges are covered by dead trees, fire seasons continually set new records for both frequency and acreage, and the ocean is acidifying. Is this the Wrath of God—punishment for worshipping the idols of Mammon and money—or is it just physics? While no single incident proves that the weather is abnormal, a pattern is emerging.

McKibben states that we’ve gotten ourselves into a problem we can’t just buy our way out of. The best we can do, he says, is to “downsize gracefully.” I think McKibben is right, but I see no signs of change anywhere—carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase. We are told that if the economy doesn’t grow, it will collapse (and that that would be bad). We are told that cutting back on fossil fuels will cost money, and we are even told, mostly by those corporations with high profits at stake, that global warming is a hoax. Soon we will probably be told that God will once again part the Red Sea and that corporations will drop manna from heaven.

The first step to solve the problem, according those who deny global warming, seems to be to kill the messengers. Sen. James Inhofe, the largest recipient of oil money in the Senate, is calling for the criminal prosecution of climate scientists. Send them to jail, and don’t let them talk to the press. And the second step? There is no second step. The corporations will go down fighting for one more quarter of record profits. While growth may indeed be essential for the survival of corporations whose stock prices are ten times their earnings, growth has never been necessary for the human economy. The corporation could care less about the climate, about the environment, or about human life—yours or your children’s. But then, a corporation is not a person.

James Hansen, author of Storms of my Grandchildren, is one of the best known climate scientists in the world. He also made news by refusing to be muzzled by Bush administration policy dictates that all press releases and requests for interviews had to be cleared first by political appointees at HQ.

The present book is an occasionally breezy, but more often sobering assessment of the current projections of global warming, Hansen’s own role in bringing it to governmental attention (he describes his meetings with Dick Cheney’s Task Force), and an overview of the technical components of climatology–the various climate “forcings” that are expressed in watts per square meter. (Climatology is a quantitative science.) Hansen apologizes to his readers for having to go into the technicalities of climatology, but there is nothing in the chapter that couldn’t be understood by an intelligent high schooler—except perhaps Hansen’s need for repeated apologies.

Hansen’s estimations are based on paleoclimate studies, not computer models. The principle source of uncertainty in calibrating the paleoclimatic record with the CO2 levels of today is the lack of data on aerosols. Astonishingly, the reflective component of aerosols has never been measured, though Hansen called for such measurement to begin twenty years ago with special satellites. Even with this handicap, Hansen shows that some prognosis is possible, and he has lowered his estimation of a “safe,” or at least a non-catastrophic level of CO2 from 450 to 350 parts per million. The current CO2 level is 387 ppm. The last really “hot” earth, when the continents were ice-free and sea levels were 250 feet higher than today, was 50 million years ago. The Paleocene-Eocene warming killed 90 percent of marine life. However, as CO2 levels are rising today about 10,000 times as quickly as they did at the end of the Paleocene, outstripping the ability of the oceans to absorb the heat, the effects could be even more catastrophic.

The dirtiest fuel is coal. There is, so far, no such thing as “clean coal,” other than for warm, feel-good advertisements on television and the speeches of politicians. Hansen’s conclusions are clear: the coal must be left in the ground. Otherwise, things could get bad for life on earth, perhaps very, very bad.

Alarmist? You bet, though Hansen optimistically thinks we can supply a lot of our energy needs with “fourth-generation” nuclear reactors: LMFBRs, or liquid metal fast breeder reactors. Fast neutron reactors could burn up some of the piles of depleted uranium now lying around from nuclear weapons production. Those of us who opposed the development of the LMFBR in the 1970s must consider Hansen’s assessment that plutonium is less dangerous than coal.

Hansen has a “simple’ solution to reducing hydrocarbon emissions: the fee-and-dividend plan. The fee-and dividend plan would add a gradually increasing fee on carbon fuels at the source, the fees to be collected in a special fund and distributed once a year equally to every American citizen—say, $3,000.00 per year for starters. If you conserve more than the average American, you have a net gain; if you burn more, you pay more. Simple: no special interests, no loop-holes.  “Cap-and trade,” another proposal, is by Hansen’s analysis a sham that will do little but funnel money to financial traders.

There are two clear messages from Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, a well-researched and carefully documented book. First, there is no debate about the reality of human-caused global warming among climate scientists. Second, the seeming debate is a public relations scam heavily funded by coal and oil companies. If you want to know who the players are, where they come from, and what be their modes of operation, all is carefully presented in this book.

Several of the leading “deniers” have also worked for tobacco companies, denying the link between smoking and cancer. Remember the ozone hole “debate” twenty-five years ago? Industry-funded representatives also demanded equal time in that debate. Well, they’re back. Equal time is fine on an opinion page, but science requires evidence, not speculation. And evidence requires careful scientific work. Among those engaged in such work, the only debate is about details and timetables. And with ever more refinements to the data, the timetable seems to be shortening.

Hoggan also runs, where they maintain a database of global warming deniers and recent press posting by same. One of the most recent is by Donald Trump, who states that record-breaking cold storms prove that Al Gore was wrong and that he should be stripped of his Nobel Prize. Most of the other posts of global warming deniers are hardly any more scientific, and some are outright lies.

Climate Cover-Up won the Green Book Festival prize for “Best Book 2010.” My own book, The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse, won “Best Science Fiction 2010.”

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