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Our Last Chance to Save Humanity?
(review of James Hansen’s book)
John W. Farley, Monthly Review
James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 320 pages, $25.00, hardcover.

James Hansen, one of the world’s most distinguished climate scientists, has written an important book about the threat posed by climate change. The title, Storms of My Grandchildren, refers to the prediction of more powerful and more damaging storms in a warmer, future earth. Subtitled The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, the book is written for a lay public and is certain to be controversial.

Hansen is a pioneer in modern climate science. After receiving his doctoral degree in 1967, he moved to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where he spent his entire career, and rose to the rank of director.

… Back in 1988, Hansen was early and aggressive in speaking out about global warming. His opponents dubbed him an “alarmist.” Even some colleagues who agreed with him in principle shrank from taking an aggressive public posture, when the evidence for modern anthropogenic global warming was not as clear-cut as it is today. Nevertheless, Hansen’s bold predictions have proven true.

… Hansen discusses a poorly understood topic: when methane (natural gas, CH4) is underwater under conditions of high pressure and low temperature, it can form methane “clathrates,” a form of water ice that contains large amounts of methane inside its structure. Methane clathrates are stable at low temperature and high pressure. At warmer temperatures or lower pressures, they become unstable, releasing methane in gaseous form.

This allows the possibility of a chain reaction, in which some event (e.g., warming) triggers the release of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. If enough methane is released, it will warm the earth enough to destabilize more methane clathrates, releasing even more methane.

… Hansen recommends a fourfold approach: (1) a “fee and dividend” plan (or carbon tax, which rises every year), (2) a resulting rapid phase-out of coal, (3) reforestation, and (4) rapid development of alternative energy sources, including fourth generation nuclear power.

… What will take the place of coal? Hansen believes that renewable energy and improved energy efficiency will not be enough, and has spoken with many utility executives who agree. Hansen recommends fourth generation nuclear power, if it can be developed (it is still at the experimental stage), to take the place of coal. He recommends a “fast reactor,” which can burn up nuclear waste while generating power. Quite different from existing nuclear power plants,

… Environmentalists who disagree with Hansen about nuclear power have an obligation to provide proof of where the additional energy (or energy savings) will come from when fossil fuels run out.
(September 2010)
For a response to the author’s like point, see Uttering the “C” Word [C = Conservation] by Asher Miller. -BA

Climate Watch: The Arctic’s Effect on California
(audio, photos and text)
Gretchen Weber, KQED

While the far North may seem a world away from California, scientists say changes there could very likely be affecting us here in the not too distant future. Climate Watch producer Gretchen Weber journeys to the Arctic Circle to investigate.

This year, the extent of Arctic sea ice reached its third-lowest point since scientists began keeping satellite records more than 30 years ago. In fact, the last four years have been the four lowest years on record, and, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, CO, Arctic sea ice is continuing a long-term decline with ice that is younger and thinner than in previous decades.

There’s no question that the Arctic has been warming in recent years, and data shows that it’s warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Scientists say that thawing polar regions, and the loss of sea ice and permafrost that follows, will likely have global consequences in the not too distant future.

I traveled to the Arctic Circle in June, and joined University of Fairbanks researcher Andrew Balser on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range, about 140 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Balser’s research takes him into grizzly bear country, and he was willing to take me along because, in theory, it was safer that way. Once the helicopter dropped us off in the middle of the wide-open tundra, a horde of mosquitoes descended, but Balser seemed impervious to them. He was dressed in canvas overalls that looked like they’d never seen a washing machine. As it turns out, that’s part of his strategy.

… According to Bowden, half of the permafrost in the Arctic could thaw in the next 50 years, releasing enough carbon to set into motion some irreversible changes.

It’s too soon to tell how much thawing permafrost has already contributed to increases in greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Methane levels have tripled over the last two centuries. They leveled off during the 1990s but started climbing again in 2007. And while there’s far less methane than CO2 in the atmosphere, methane is at least 20 times more efficient at trapping heat, depending on how it’s measured. Meanwhile carbon dioxide levels have been rising, and are already well above what many scientists say is a healthy level for sustaining life as we know it. A sudden release of even a portion of the carbon that’s stored in the frozen soils of the Arctic could push the region, and the globe, past a tipping point.

“Why should someone who’s living in Alabama or Nigeria or the Philippines care about what’s going on the Arctic? Well, they should worry a lot,” said Bowden. “What happens here is going to affect everything in the globe.”

And scientists here in the Arctic warn that once some of those effects get underway, they may be beyond our control.
(8-10 October 2010)

‘Key Time’ to Solve Nature Crisis ?

Richard Black, BBC News
A major UN meeting aimed at finding solutions to the world’s nature crisis opens on Monday in Japan.

Species are going extinct at 100-1,000 times the natural rate, key habitat is disappearing, and ever more water and land is being used to support people.

Some economists say this is already damaging human prosperity.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting will discuss why governments failed to curb these trends by 2010, as they pledged in 2002.

Delegates will also try to finalise a long-delayed agreement on exploiting natural resources in a fair and equitable way.

Before the start of the two-week meeting, Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep), said it was a crucial point in attempts to stem the loss of biodiversity.

“There are moments when issues mature in terms of public perception and political attention, and become key times for action,” he told the BBC.

“And this is a moment when the recognition that biodiversity and ecosystems need preservation urgently is high, when people are concerned by it, and are demanding more action from the global community.”

A UN-sponsored team of economists has calculated that loss of biodiversity and ecosystems is costing the human race $2 trillion to $5 trillion a year.
(17 October 2010)