The witness who collided with government on climate

  • This is part two of this profile. Read part one here.
Jim Hansen giving testimony at a US Congressional hearing in 1988, where he'd declare 99% certainty that humans are changing the climate. Image credit: NASA

Jim Hansen giving testimony at a US Congressional hearing in 1988, where he’d declare 99% certainty that humans are changing the climate. Image credit: NASA

“It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” It’s a comment that wouldn’t sound out of place today, but Jim Hansen made it 26 years ago, on June 23, 1988, amid record 38°C temperatures in Washington DC. Jim said it to reporters after telling a Congressional hearing he was 99% certain the world is getting warmer thanks to human-made greenhouse gases.

Jim’s 1980s media bombshells led journalist Robert Pool to liken him to a religious ‘witness’, ‘someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent’. However, he still felt shy and awkward, preferring to immerse himself in pure science, and so would turn down almost all invitations to speak out for another decade. Jim’s efforts during that period would then help build even stronger evidence on global warming. But with extra motivation provided by clashes with the US government and the arrival of his grandchildren he would return to bear witness more forcefully than ever.

Before his self-imposed media ban Jim would make headlines one more time in 1989, after giving written evidence to a hearing convened by then US senator Al Gore. The testimony reaching the hearing had been altered by the White House to make his conclusions about the dangers of global warming seem less certain. When Jim sent the future vice-president a note telling him this, he alerted the media, turning their scheming into the lead story across all TV networks that evening. John Sununu, aide to then president George H. W. Bush, would then try to get Jim fired for his troubles. But Republican senator John Heinz intervened on Jim’s behalf, and he kept his job.

The reputation Jim had built up as a warming witness went ahead of him in December 1989, as he walked into a ‘roundtable’ meeting held by senators Al Gore and Barbara Mikulski. On the coldest day of the year, in a building whose heating system had failed, Al noticed Jim enter and said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who…” Despite such jibes, Jim was becoming firmer in his convictions. In April 1990 he offered a group of climatologists an even money bet that one of the next three years would be the warmest in a century. He’d be proven right by the end of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

How lessons from space put the greenhouse effect on the front page

Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963 Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963

Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963 Jim Hansen saw it disappear completely. Explaining why would send him on a scientific journey to Venus, before coming back down to Earth. Image credit: NASA

Jim Hansen’s life changed on the evening the moon disappeared completely. In a building in a cornfield Jim and fellow University of Iowa students Andy Lacis and John Zink, and their professor Satoshi Matsushima, peered in surprise through a small telescope into the wintry sky. It was December 1963, and they had seen the moon replaced by a black, starless circle during a lunar eclipse. The moon always passes into Earth’s shadow during such eclipses, but usually you can still see it.

At first they were confused, but then they remembered that in March there had been a big volcanic eruption. Mount Agung in Indonesia had thrown tonnes of dust and chemicals into the air: perhaps that was blocking out the little light they’d normally have seen? With a spectrometer attached to their telescope they measured the moon’s brightness, data Jim would then base his first scientific research on. Using this record to work out the amount of ‘sulphate aerosol’ particles needed to make the moon disappear, Jim began a lifelong interest in planets’ atmospheres. That would lead him to become director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), where he has led the way in exposing the threat from human CO2 emissions.

Jim was born in Iowa in 1941, the fifth of seven children of a farmer, who had left school at 14, and his wife. As he grew up they moved into the town of Denison, his father becoming a bartender and his mother a waitress, and Jim spending his time playing pool and basketball. Jim claims he wasn’t academic, but found maths and science the easiest subjects, always getting the best grades in them in his school. Though his parents divorced when he was young, public college wasn’t expensive at the time, meaning Jim could save enough money to go to the University of Iowa.

The university had an especially strong astronomy department, headed by James Van Allen, after whom brackets of space surrounding the Earth are named. These ‘Van Allen Belts’ are layers of particles that he discovered, held in place by the planet’s magnetic field. Satoshi Matsushima, a member of Van Allen’s department, could see Jim and Andy’s potential and convinced them to take exams to qualify for PhD degrees a year early. Both passed, with Jim getting one of the highest scores, and were offered NASA funding that covered all their costs.

A few months later, it was Satoshi who suggested measuring the eclipse’s brightness, feeding Jim’s interest in atmospheres on other planets. “Observing the lunar eclipse in 1963 forced me to think about aerosols in our atmosphere,” Jim told me. “That led to thinking about Venus aerosols.” In an undergraduate seminar course Jim had given a talk about the atmospheres of outer planets, which James Van Allen had attended. The elder scientist told him that recently measured data was suggesting Venus’ surface was very hot. Aerosols stopped light reaching the Earth during the eclipse – could they be warming up Venus by stopping heat escaping, Jim wondered? That would become the subject of his PhD, and Satoshi and James Van Allen would be his advisors. Read the rest of this entry »

Dump fossil fuels for the health of our hearts

Air quality in London on April 3, 2014 fell to a level where it became hard to see normally-visible skyscrapers. Conditions hit a 9/10 risk ranking  thanks to a combination of pollution and dust blown in from the Sahara desert. Tackling such pollution could immediately improve people's health, stresses New York University's George Thurston. Image copyright David Holt, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Air quality in London on April 3, 2014 fell to a level where it became hard to see normally-visible skyscrapers. Conditions hit a 9/10 risk ranking thanks to a combination of pollution and dust blown in from the Sahara desert. Tackling such pollution could immediately improve people’s health, stresses New York University’s George Thurston. Image copyright David Holt, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sometimes when I blow my nose and – inevitably – look into my handkerchief, I see that my snot is black. It doesn’t happen when I’m at home, in the small English city of Exeter, only when I’m in London. It’s a clear sign of the extra pollution I’m inhaling when I’m in the capital – one backed up by data published last week by Public Health England. Its striking report says that in 2010 73 deaths per thousand in the London borough of Waltham Forest, where my girlfriend’s sister lives, could be put down to grimy air. For Exeter, the figure was just 42 per 1000. Across the whole of England, pollution killed 25,002 people in 2010, or 56 of every 1000 deaths nationwide.

But wherever you live, air pollution will become even more important as the climate changes, while fighting this scourge could also help the world bring global warming under control. “There’s more than enough rationale for controlling emissions based on the health effects and the benefits that we get as a society from getting off of fossil fuels,” New York University’s George Thurston told me. “Those are the benefits that are going to accrue to the people who do the clean-up – locally and immediately, not fifty years from now.”

Public Health England is trying to draw attention to ‘particulate matter’, or dust, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, too small to see with our naked eye. You won’t find this ‘PM2.5’ pollution listed as people’s cause of death – it’s likely to be down as a heart attack or lung cancer. George has run huge studies in the US to help work out exactly how much such dust worsens people’s health. One study for the American Cancer Society followed 1.2 million men and women originally enrolled in 1982. Another, started in 1995, tracked over 500,000 US retirees over the following decade. And he was also a part of a worldwide project that last year showed ‘global particulate matter pollution is a major avoidable risk to the health of humankind’. Read the rest of this entry »

The ice-age U-turn that set the stage for the climate debate

Steve Schneider (left), Jim Hansen (centre), and S. Ichtiaque Rasool (right) at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, circa 1971. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

Steve Schneider (left), Jim Hansen (centre), and S. Ichtiaque Rasool (right) at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, circa 1971. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

On 13 July 1971, world-leading researchers gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, concluded their presentations about human influence on climate, and opened the meeting to questions from the press. But rather than asking about the most important climate meeting yet, the assembled reporters first looked to the meeting’s 26-year old secretary. “Where is Dr. Schneider? When is the ice age coming?” they asked.

The journalists sought out Stephen Schneider about a paper by him and his NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) boss, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, published just four days before. Using early computer models, they warned of a scenario where enough dusty aerosol pollution could be ‘sufficient to trigger an ice age’. For Steve, this would be the first encounter of many with the media’s interest in climate, leading him ultimately to help define how scientists influence the wider world.

As a PhD student at Columbia University in New York in the late 1960s, Steve came into contact with some of the world’s leading experts on climate. Wally Broecker, who at that time was helping establish the timing of the ice ages, lectured him on oceanography. A talk by Joe Smagorinsky from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who was establishing some of the first computer climate models with Suki Manabe, played on Steve’s childhood fascination with hurricanes. And when he took a seminar by Ichtiaque talking about planets’ atmospheres – why Mars was too cold, Venus too hot, and Earth just right – he was hooked.

While writing up his PhD thesis he got a part-time job with Ichtiaque, tackling a key question at the time. Burning fossil fuels creates two types of pollution that influence climate – warming CO2 and cooling aerosols. But which one would win out? On the advice of fellow GISS scientist Jim Hansen, Steve used a method partly developed by astronomer Carl Sagan to calculate the aerosol effect. He put this into a model of warming from CO2 Ichtiaque gave him. They found that doubling CO2 levels in the air would raise temperatures by about 0.7°C – much lower than Suki’s earlier estimate of 2°C for this ‘climate sensitivity’ figure. But models where aerosols were spread everywhere experienced 3-5°C cooling, prompting Ichtiaque to write the ice age comment, referring to other controversial research of the time.

Ichtiaque had asked Steve to handle criticism of the study, but in the meantime Steve had managed to get an invite to the Stockholm gathering of leading climate scientists. Being a ‘rapporteur’ he was supposed to only be taking notes at the three week Study of Man’s Impact on Climate (SMIC) meeting, organised by Bert Bolin. But Steve couldn’t resist showing Suki some of his modelling work on clouds’ role in climate – and then the aerosol study was published. Ichtiaque had mischievously told a reporter that Steve was presenting the work at SMIC, forcing his young colleague to give a brief seminar, and face the press. Read the rest of this entry »

The man who got the world to agree on climate

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
When not tackling climate science or negotiations Bert Bolin liked nothing more than a little choir singing. Credit: KVA

When not tackling climate science or negotiations Bert Bolin liked nothing more than a little choir singing. Credit: KVA

In 1975, advised by Bert Bolin, the Swedish government drafted a bill on future energy policy containing a conclusion that elsewhere might be controversial even today. “It is likely that climatic concerns will limit the burning of fossil fuels rather than the size of the natural resources,” it foresaw. Produced thanks to Bert’s early role tackling environmental issues, it was one of the first times humans’ effect on climate and the risk it poses us was noted officially. For more than two decades afterward the Stockholm University researcher would further strengthen that case, both through his research and by putting climate science firmly on the political agenda. And those tireless efforts would help the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) to consistently achieve what otherwise might have been impossible agreements.

The Swedish bill was a bold statement, given that average air temperatures were only just about to reverse a slight cooling that had gone on since 1940. Bert and scientists like Dave Keeling had shown that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were rising. Basic science established by Svante Arrhenius 80 years before had showed this should warm Earth’s surface. So why was it cooling? The way scientists found the answer was typical of the progress in climate science Bert was overseeing. They would use the latest tools, including computers and satellites, bringing theory and measurement together to improve our understanding.

Climate models in the early 1970s were still simple by today’s standards, but had advanced from the early computerised weather predictions Bert had previously pioneered. And when Columbia University’s Stephen Schneider and S. Ichtiaque Rasool added aerosols of floating dust to CO2 in a model for the first time, they found a possible explanation for the temperature drop. The aerosols, particularly human pollution, created a cooling effect that swamped the warming – so much so they warned it could trigger an ice age. Though Stephen and Ichtiaque soon realised that their model overestimated the cooling, aerosols obviously deserved a closer look.

To clear up such murky problems, the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) that Bert jointly set up would bring together scientists from around the world, despite the cold war. As GARP’s first experiments, looking at heat and moisture flow between the atmosphere and ocean, started in 1974, Bert organised a meeting in Stockholm on climate physics and modelling. GARP had two goals – improving 6-10 day weather forecasts first, and climate change predictions second. As it gradually became clear how hard the first was, climate forecasting became more important.

Diplomacy was needed among the gathered scientists as arguments flared over how ambitious they should be. Should they strive for satellites that could collect the high resolution data scientists and models needed, even though that was beyond their capabilities at the time? And significantly for later climate work – should they seek to produce results so society could respond to change, even when results were uncertain? Bert was clear on that one: scientists had to answer socially important questions, though he was in a very small minority prepared to say so openly. Read the rest of this entry »

Enhanced fingerprinting strengthens evidence for human warming role

Microwave sounding units, like the AMSU units on the Aqua satellite, shown here, can be used to take temperature measurements from different layers in the atmosphere. Ben Santer and his colleagues use this information to find a 'fingerprint' of human impact on recent climate changes. Credit: NASA

Microwave sounding units, like the AMSU units on the Aqua satellite, shown here, can be used to take temperature measurements from different layers in the atmosphere. Ben Santer and his colleagues use this information to find a ‘fingerprint’ of human impact on recent climate changes. Credit: NASA

We have left a clear climate change ‘fingerprint’ in the atmosphere, through CO2 emissions that have made air near the Earth’s surface warmer and caused cooling higher up. That’s according to Ben Santer from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, who started studying this fingerprint in the mid-1990s, and his expert team. They have strengthened the case by comparing satellite-recorded temperature data against the latest climate models including natural variations within Earth’s climate system, and from the sun and volcanic eruptions. Ben hopes that in the process their results will finally answer ill-tempered criticism his earlier work attracted, and lingering doubts over what causes global warming.

“There are folks out there even today that posit that the entire observed surface warming since 1950 is due to a slight uptick in the Sun’s energy output,” Ben told me. “That’s a testable hypothesis.  In this paper we look at whether changes in the sun plausibly explain the observed changes that we’ve monitored from space since 1979. The very clear answer is that they cannot. Natural influences alone, the sun, volcanoes, internal variability, either individually or in combination, cannot explain this very distinctive pattern of warming.”

That pattern emerged when scientists in the 1960s did some of the first computer modelling experiments looking at what would happen on an Earth with higher CO2 levels in the air. “They got back this very curious warming in the lower atmosphere and cooling of the upper levels of the atmosphere,” Ben explained. The effect happens because most of the gas molecules in the atmosphere, including CO2, sit relatively near to Earth’s surface. CO2’s greenhouse effect lets heat energy from the Sun reach the Earth, but interrupts some of it getting back to the upper atmosphere and outer space. Adding more CO2 by burning fossil fuels therefore warms the lower atmosphere, or troposphere, and cools the stratosphere, 6-30 miles above the Earth’s surface.  Read the rest of this entry »

Temperature patterns produce perplexing Pliocene puzzle

Lafayette College's Kira Lawrence and her teammates have used ocean bed sediment cores, like this one, to produce a 5 million year climate record. © Intergrated Ocean Drilling Program

Lafayette College’s Kira Lawrence and her teammates have used ocean bed sediment cores, like this one, to produce a 5 million year climate record. © Intergrated Ocean Drilling Program

US, UK and Hong Kong Researchers have produce a unique ‘movie’ of climate reaching back 5 million years, by bringing together data drilled from ocean beds. It reveals three important temperature patterns during the warm early part of the Pliocene period that they couldn’t recreate together in climate models using existing explanations. That’s important because scientists hope the Pliocene could help us know what the future of a warmer Earth might be like. And having uncovered another layer to the Pliocene puzzle, team member Kira Lawrence from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, underlined the value of finding its solution.

“Our community of scientists think of the Pliocene as though it was about 3°C warmer than modern temperatures with CO2 concentration about where we are right now,” Kira told me. “But we haven’t recognised before that the pattern of temperature was a lot different. If that’s where we’re headed in the not too distant future, if the temperature and precipitation patterns change in that way, we should have some significant things to think about.”

The Pliocene period started 5.3 million years ago, during which primates made important evolutionary steps towards humanity. Since 2000, there has been a climate data explosion reaching back through this era. Around the world, international drilling expeditions have pierced ocean beds kilometres below sea level, reaching hundreds of metres into sediment to bring back ‘core’ samples. Tiny fossils within that rock and mud can tell scientists temperatures through history, which can give climate scientists real data to test their models against.

Read the rest of this entry »

CO2 casts off shackles to power up Atlantic hurricanes

NOAA's GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 am EDT. Sandy's center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter, and are set to intensify in the 21st century.  Credit: NASA GOES Project

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 am EDT. Sandy’s center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter, and are set to intensify in the 21st century. Credit: NASA GOES Project

Changes in greenhouse gases and other air pollution will likely make Atlantic storms that could hit the Caribbean and Eastern US more intense through this century. That’s according to research from Gabriel Vecchi at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Princeton, New Jersey, and Gabriele Villarini at the University of Iowa. They’ve found that more greenhouse gases strengthen these storms but other pollutants known as aerosols or particulates, which include soot, do the opposite. Increases in both types of pollution through the 20th century therefore cancelled each other out. But with more recent efforts to limit aerosol pollution succeeding, Atlantic storms now look set to become more destructive. “Both reductions in particulate pollution and increases in greenhouse gases are going to co-operate, we think, to give us more intense hurricanes in the Atlantic,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel has long studied Atlantic storms, and together with Gabriele recently found that how often they happen will likely only increase during the first half of the 21st century. “The number of storms in a season is only part of the story,” Gabriel told me. “A big question for society is the intensity.” So it was natural, he added, to follow on by looking at how strong and long-lasting they are. Scientists have already looked at their intensity for narrow “time-slices”, for example from 1985-2005 and then predicting from 2080 to 2100. “People haven’t explored how we go from the late 20th century to the late 21st century,” Gabriel said.” That’s because to do this research they need complex and very detailed ‘high resolution dynamical’ climate models, which use up scarce time on the world’s most powerful computers. For the same reason, previous studies only look at a few possible scenarios for how much of the greenhouse gas CO2 humans will produce by burning fossil fuels. Read the rest of this entry »

Could pollution be stopping warming’s impact on rain?

A brown cloud of pollution over Phoenix, Arizona. Brown clouds of aerosol pollutant particles could be overwhelming the expected changes in rainfall arising from increasing greenhouse gas levels in the air. Credit: Flick/Flickr

A brown cloud of pollution over Phoenix, Arizona. Brown clouds of aerosol pollutant particles could be overwhelming the expected changes in rainfall arising from increasing greenhouse gas levels in the air. Credit: Flick/Flickr

Contrary to previous predictions and measurements, rain patterns have got more uniform as the world has warmed over the past 70 years. So say Michael Roderick and his teammates from Australian National University, Canberra, who’ve developed an ‘accounting system’ that looks closely at where and when rain fell. And the reason could be aerosols – clouds of pollutant particles – produced by humans. “The existing dogma is that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have raised rainfall variability,” Michael told me. “In that context, our results emphasise the importance of taking a whole system approach in trying to understand how something complex, like rainfall, is changing in different places.”

When scientists want to understand how climate has been changing over large areas, they usually look at maps of long-term average data that ignore patterns of change in time, Michael explained. When they want to look at how it’s changed over time, they usually either look at a single place or a worldwide average, which ignores patterns in where the changes are. But Michael, along with fellow scientists Fubao Sun and Graham Farquhar, wanted to find a way to link place and time.

To do this Fubao started from a common statistical test called Analysis of Variance or ANOVA. Normally it’s used to compare the effect of different “treatments” – such as a variety of temperatures – on the yield of a crop, for example. In such cases each treatment must be repeated more than once, giving different “replicates”, for the test to be valid. ANOVA can be used to give a value for variance – a measure that shows how spread out an experiment’s measurements are. Read the rest of this entry »

Developed countries duck warming responsibility

Beijing Normal University's John Moore, Xuefeng Cui and their collegues assessed the relative impact on future warming if developed and developing countries follow the pledges to cut CO2 emissions they made at the UN climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, shown here. Credit: UNclimatechange/Flickr

Beijing Normal University’s John Moore, Xuefeng Cui and their collegues assessed the relative impact on future warming if developed and developing countries follow the pledges to cut CO2 emissions they made at the UN climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, shown here. Credit: UNclimatechange/Flickr

Disputes between leaders of rich and poor countries currently mean little comes from meetings where they’re meant to draw up plans to slow and stop climate change. But developed countries’ existing promises would achieve just 1/3 of any warming slowdown, even though we’re responsible for more than 2/3 of CO2 emissions before 2005. That’s according to a team of mainly Chinese researchers who have tried to settle these fights using “earth system” models, considering both natural and human factors. “Developed countries need to take more responsibility in climate mitigation by cutting more carbon emissions and helping developing countries to control carbon emission while maintaining economic development,” said Xuefeng Cui from Beijing Normal University (BNU).

At the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, leaders agreed to try and limit the global temperature rise to 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. They also agreed that doing this needs deep, but fair, cuts in the amount of warming-causing greenhouse gases humans emit. But they still argue about how to share those cuts. That prompted Cui and his team to make an unusual effort to use science to show what is fair.  “The arguments in the IPCC process demand some fact-based reasoning rather than just the ‘blame game’,” team member John Moore told Simple Climate. “Our study is the first interdisciplinary study by climate, social, economic, and ecological scientists and policy makers to look at the historical responsibilities and effect of future mitigation by applying state-of-art earth system models,” Xuefeng added.

Getting such a broad view meant that the team had to develop entirely new methods for their research, published online in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA on Monday. “Most scientists are interested in the real impacts rather than assigning responsibilities,” Moore said. “These are more abstract philosophical and moral points than they tend to consider.” It took a 37-strong team of scientists to develop the approach, and one of the two earth systems models, they used. Whole earth system models are needed to understand the effects plants, animals, land and oceans have on climate. Read the rest of this entry »

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