4 January 2010

is James Hansen's new book the most important ever written?

It's not a literary masterpiece nor is it easy to read, but might it be the most important book ever written? Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has done so much over the last 30 years to try to warn a sceptical United States about global warming, attempts to explain why most climate predictions are understatements.

Here are four key thoughts from "Storms of my grandchildren"...

1) Ice melts much faster than it forms and everyone (especially the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is underestimating the speed of melt of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Business as usual (continuing to burn fossil fuels at the current rate or faster) will lead to sea level rises this century that will devastate coastal cities.

2) Aerosols (particulates created when fossil fuels are burnt) scatter and absorb sunlight, reducing the amount that gets to the ground, and are masking the true effect of manmade climate change. When we finally get around to improving air quality there will be a hefty global warming payback.

3) Plants, insects and animals can't keep up with the speed of change. Climatic zones (isotherms) are moving towards the poles 35 miles per decade. But plants, insects and animals are only going at 4 miles per decade. We are heading towards a mass extinction of species.

4) Ocean heat content is the key variable in climate change science partly because it affects the rate of melt of sea ice, but mainly because of frozen methane hydrates at the bottom of the seas which could bubble up as a powerful greenhouse gas with relatively little heating. It is now thought that the last mass extinction, the end-Permian event which eradicated more than 90% of all species 251 million years ago, was caused in large part by melting methane hydrates.

"Storms of my grandchildren" is a dispiriting read, especially the sections detailing the lengths to which the Bush Adminstration went to prevent Dr Hansen from speaking out and to obfuscate the work of climate scientists. Worst of all perhaps, Dr Hansen says Barack Obama "doesn't get it". The omens are not good.