James Hansen: Climate change, the gathering storm

  • Published on December 27th, 2018

“Young people today confront an imminent gathering storm. They have at their command considerable determination, a dog-eared copy of our beleaguered Constitution, and rigorously developed science. The Court must decide if that is enough.” That is the final paragraph of my (thick) Expert Report written more than a year ago for the climate change lawsuit Juliana v. United States.  We are fortunate to have such a brilliant and dedicated group of attorneys who have assembled a score of experts and are working to ensure that young people receive their day in court.

climate change the gathering storm

By James Hansen

In the meantime, there are reasons why it may be useful to summarize the climate science story.

Albert Einstein once said that a theory or explanation should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. And it depends on who the audience is. My target is the level of a Chief Justice or a fossil fuel industry CEO.

This is a draft, because I want to be sure that there are no inconsistencies in my testimonies against the government, against the fossil fuel industry, and in support of brave people who have taken risks in fighting for young people.

This 18 December version is only a slight revision to the 06 December ‘Nutshell’, because it is needed this week for a specific court case. I will revise it further, so suggestions are still welcome. However, bear in mind that this is aimed at the highly-educated open-minded Chief Justice and fossil fuel industry CEOs. I begin with an ‘Outline of Opinions’, but the aim here is not an ‘elevator speech’ or a summary for relatives and neighbors.

The overwhelming (well-deserved) criticism of the 06 December ‘Nutshell’ was of the 2-page cover memo in which I seemed to let prior governments, and specifically George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, off the hook. In fact, they deserve censure for failure to protect the rights and future of young people.

Regarding the end-game strategy, for how we can move off our fossil fuel addiction, we need legal pressure on both governments and the fossil fuel industry. ‘Nutshell’ is written for use in lawsuits against governments and the fossil fuel industry. However, my long-term aim is not to punish the fossil fuel industry, but rather to bring it to understand the situation and become part of the solution.

CEOs do not get to their positions without being smart people. The example I used, E.E. David, Jr., is illustrative. David brilliantly summarized the nature of the climate system, its delayed response and amplifying feedbacks, and the fact that this implied the need for “anticipation.”

The story is given in Sophie’s Planet (preface available here). Already in 1982, E.E. David, President of Exxon Research & Engineering, in his keynote at the Ewing Symposium (available here), presciently characterized the climate story: “faith in technologies, markets, and correcting feedback mechanisms is less than satisfying for a situation such as the one you are studying at this year’s Ewing Symposium. The critical problem is that the environmental impacts of the CO2 buildup may be so long delayed. A look at the theory of feedback systems shows that where there is such a long delay the system breaks down unless there is anticipation built into the loop. The question then becomes how to anticipate the future far enough in advance to prepare for it.”

David recognized the delayed response of the climate system, which is the critical factor that gives rise to intergenerational inequities. He concluded that this delayed response demands anticipation to avoid system breakdown, where, in the climate case, system breakdown would be catastrophic climate change for today’s young people and future generations. David’s conclusion began “To sum up, the world’s best hope for inventing an acceptable energy transition is one that favors multiple technical approaches subject to correction – – feedback from markets, societies, and politics, and scientific feedback about external costs to health and the environment.”

The anticipation that the fossil fuel industry chose was not to develop carbon-free energy, but rather to develop unconventional fossil fuels! They anticipated finite reserves of conventional fossil fuels. Via enormous investments the fossil fuel industry successfully developed ‘fracking’. This choice forced E.E. David to become a climate ‘denier’, which he remained throughout the rest of his life.

Why do I think some CEOs today may be different? David’s talk was almost four decades ago! His own scientists were telling him there were many uncertainties about climate change. The situation is different now. First, human-made climate change has emerged far enough from weather ‘noise’ that even the public notices it. Second, the science has become clearer and exposes an urgency for action that is not convenient for political operatives, but is understandable to the well-informed. This conclusion must be made clear to policymakers and judges, and, as useful as a good elevator summary is, two minute summaries are not sufficient for that purpose.

The United States government has possessed extensive knowledge about the threat posed by fossil-fuel driven climate change for several decades, as delineated in my Expert Report for the Juliana v. United States case. Yet, as described in the ‘Nutshell’ summary, the United States government allows, permits and subsidizes fossil fuel reserves, so that the fossil fuels are processed, transported and burned with little or no control on emissions. The government allows the atmosphere to be treated as a free dumping ground for waste CO2. The government does this even while knowing the consequences thereof.

In ‘Nutshell’ I note that the deference to the fossil fuel industry, violating rights of young people, is not a problem that can be solved at the ballot box. Both political parties in the U.S. receive large sums of money from the fossil fuel industry and have a sycophantic relationship with the industry, albeit differing in degree.

The Obama Administration, e.g., in 2011 opened up hundreds of millions of tons of coal on public lands to new lease sales. Moreover, the sales were at prices far below market value, continuing a practice of federal subsidy of coal titans amounting, through those sales alone, to tens of billions of dollars.

The Trump Administration’s astounding recent efforts to accelerate fossil fuel use are pressing the world rapidly toward the climate precipice. The Administration blatantly misrepresents the facts about climate change and specifically the U.S. contribution to climate change. We must expose the facts rigorously so that the courts can protect the rights and future of young people.

The 06 December ‘Nutshell’ draft was also criticized for failing to mention the potential of advanced nuclear technology to contribute to phasedown of carbon emissions power. The reasons for this omission were: (1) discussion of the full range of promising carbon-free energy sources is not essential here, because a court cannot tell a government how to reduce fossil fuel emissions – it can only demand that there be a plan that stops violation of young people’s rights, (2) discussion of the varieties of nuclear power, including advanced nuclear technology, would make this document even much longer.

That is the background, about why I believe that we must make the climate story as clear as possible to an industry CEO as well as a Chief Justice. Surely, there will be lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry as well as against governments. I am not so much interested in ‘reparations’, the idea of extracting money from the industry for its past sins, as in getting the industry’s cooperation on moving as rapidly as practical toward clean carbon-free energy of the future. However, at this juncture, the threat of lawsuits is probably necessary to get them there.

Despite the recent turn toward increased global authoritarianism and denial of scientific facts, we have also recently witnessed the heart-warming sight of marching Australian children, defying their Prime Minister’s instruction to stay in school. It may not be long until there is another chance at a day of reckoning. This time it must be clearer what young people and other life on our planet need to assure their future. We must be sure that thoughtful people at high government and industry levels have a good understanding of the climate change situation.

Climate Change in a Nutshell: The Gathering Storm 
Outline of Opinions

1.  Climate has always changed, but humans are now the main drive for change.
a.  Rising atmospheric CO2 levels, primarily a result of fossil fuel emissions, have become the predominate cause of continuing climate change.
b.  Climate change is driven by cumulative CO2 emissions.  The United States has contributed a disproportionately large share of cumulative global emissions.

2. Current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs), mainly CO2cause Earth to be out of energy balance.  This imbalance is driving climate change.
a.  Earth’s energy imbalance is now measured and large.  As long as Earth remains out of energy balance, the planet will continue to get hotter.
b.  If GHG amounts continue to rise unabated, the energy imbalance will drive global warming to levels with climate impacts beyond the pale (see Opinion 3).

3.  If high fossil fuel emissions continue unabated, consequences will be predominately negative for humanity, especially for young people.
a.  Sea level: Continued high fossil fuel emissions will eventually make coastal cities dysfunctional, with incalculable consequences.
b.  Species exterminations: Shifting of climate zones, with other stresses, may commit many species to extinction, leaving a more desolate planet.
c.  Regional climate: subtropics and tropics will become dangerously hot, if global warming continues.  Emigration chaos may threaten global governance.

4. Required actions to avoid dangerous climate change are guided by Earth’s climate history and by the need to restore Earth’s energy balance.
a.  Science can specify initial targets, sufficient to define policy needs.
b.  Substantial emission reductions must begin promptly, or climate will be pushed beyond a point at which changes proceed out of human control.

5. The United States government, via both actions and inactions, is behaving with flagrant disregard of rights and wellbeing of the public, especially young people
a.  Action: authorizing, permitting, subsidizing massive fossil fuel extraction.
b.  Inaction: absence of any coherent, effective program to reduce emissions.

Dr. James E. Hansen
Director | Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions
Earth Institute | Columbia University

(Photo CC by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid on Flickr.)

About the Author

Dr. James Hansen directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The Guardian calls him "The Father of Climate Science" - his 1988 Congressional testimony on climate change helped raise broad awareness of global warming. He is often in the news advocating for a price on carbon and other forms of climate action, divesting from fossil fuels, and helping his grandchildren sue the government over their future. He is the author of "Storms of my Grandchildren".