The Weekly Carboholic: Dr. Hansen twenty years later


Twenty years ago, on June 23, a scientist relatively unknown outside his field went before the Senate to give testimony about the greenhouse effect. Dr. James Hansen, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (GISS) and Columbia University, went before Congress this week to tell the government and the country again what they didn’t want to hear – that human civilization was responsible for heating up the Earth’s climate and that we had only so much time before our activities shoved the climate, and possibly our own civilization, irreversibly over a metaphorical cliff.

In his prepared statement, Hansen laid out in brief what the climate problems are – rising sea levels, approaching “tipping points”, likely mass extinctions, and desertification are all happening already – and how they will all get dramatically worse if we don’t immediately decarbonize our civilization’s energy sources. Hansen also pointed out that, if the federal government can’t lead because it’s too beholden to oil, coal, and other special interest groups, then it must at least get out of the way and allow Americans to address global heating in whatever way or ways they see fit. Hansen called for a carbon tax with dividend (a way to make the tax revenue neutral by returning all of the taxes earned by the carbon tax to the people), a national electric grid to replace our aging electricity transmission infrastructure, and even the prosecution of the heads of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal for crimes against humanity.

Whether you agree with all of his specific suggestions (such as locking up coal and oil company CEOs for crimes against humanity), the vast preponderance of climatological evidence points incontrovertibly to one claim that Hansen made – time is short, and the 2008 election will be critical for the United States’, and with it the world’s, response to global heating.


A new study published in Science makes an extraordinary claim – abrupt climate change can happen in as little as a single year (TerraDaily). According to the TerraDaily article, Greenland ice cores have been analyzed accurately enough to reveal that the last ice age that ended 11,700 years ago literally ended in a single year. The transition that was recorded in the ice cores revealed that weather patterns changed from one prevailing pattern to an entirely different pattern in a blink of an eye, geologically speaking.

According to the TerraDaily article linked above and a Scientific American article, the combination of the amount of dust, the amount of oxygen-18 isotope, and the amount of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) all reveal that weather patterns over the Atlantic changed dramatically, with a reduction in dust from Asia indicating climate changes were happening in Asia as well as around Greenland. With a little luck, an ice core being drilled out of Greenland this year will reveal details about the climate of Greenland 130,000 years ago, when the Earth’s climate also went from cold to hot. We should know soon enough. But if the transitions truly are that abrupt (and without reading the paper, I have no way to know whether this extraordinary claim is backed up with verifiable extraordinary evidence or not), then the climate of entire continents could transition from dry to wet, hot to cold, and vice versa in just a few years, leaving no time for local populations to adapt.

Imagine, if you will, what would happen if the prevailing winds changed so dramatically as to move the monsoons from India west into the horn of Africa. Or if the jet streams moved dramatically poleward, allowing tropical cyclones to crash regularly into the densely populated regions of Korea, Japan, and along the entire U.S. Atlantic coast.


Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, will be unveiling a new report from the first carbon credit rating service, IDEAcarbon. According to the Guardian newspaper online, this report says that most small carbon credit and offset systems fail to meet their targets by 30%, but that the largest 20 carbon markets (which account for 75% of the carbon trading done globally) are all close to meeting their targets. According to the article, bureaucratic problems, inexperience, and unstable regulations and legislation are all contributing to the underperformance of smaller carbon credit markets.

Many politicians, including both U.S. Presidential candidates, and environmentalists are pushing for a carbon cap-and-trade market system. This report from the independent IDEAcarbon rating agency should give them all pause.

5 replies »

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  2. Climate change even more abrupt than the present? Saw this today:

    Ice at the North Pole may disappear completely within the next few months for the first time in 20,000 years.

    Arctic sea ice is now retreating so quickly that scientists say there is now a 50-50 chance that it will have gone completely by September.

    The Polar regions have been the first to show the critical changes brought by global warming and it will be a hugely symbolic moment if the North Pole is left surrounded by water.

  3. I saw that too, Russ, and it’s amazing. I read something earlier in the week that whether the Arctic melted completely or not this year depended entirely on what the prevailing weather patterns turned out to be – apparently there are two or three main options, one of which could result in an ice free Arctic.

    If that really happens, it’ll be amazing. I’d call it a canary-in-the-coal-mine moment, but the canaries have been dying in droves in our particular coal mine for decades now while we continue digging blissfully away.