The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger

  • This is part three of this profile. Read part one here and part two here.
In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

By December 6, 2005, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies’ (GISS) temperature record was already sending a clear message: worldwide, 2005 would likely be the warmest year so far. For GISS director Jim Hansen, speaking to the annual American Geophysical Union conference, arguably the world’s largest environmental research meeting, it seemed fair to reveal. For several listening journalists it was newsworthy enough for them to cover Jim’s talk. But it would anger some of Jim’s colleagues at NASA headquarters enough to try to stop him talking to the media. In the process they’d drag him outside the world of pure research he was most comfortable in. “The undue influence of special interests and government greenwash pose formidable barriers to a well-informed public,” Jim would later write about the situation. “Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

The comments came during a lecture in honour of Dave Keeling, the CO2 tracking pioneer, who’d died of a heart attack in June that year. Soothing Jim’s hesitation, Dave’s son Ralph stressed he was continuing the work of his father, who had even been discussing one of Jim’s papers minutes before his death. And so Jim had brought together evidence showing that Earth’s climate was nearing a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be impossible to avoid dangerous changes. However, warming from 2000 onwards might still be kept below the 1°C level that Jim at that time considered hazardous if CO2 levels in the air were held at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Emissions of other greenhouse gases would also need to be significantly reduced. The message was clear: how we get our energy would must change, mainly by shifting away from coal and the vast volumes of CO2 burning it produces.

NASA headquarters was already reviewing all publicity on climate change research, but the latest coverage would force it into even more severe action. The following week it laid out new restrictions on Jim’s ability to comment publicly, and the global GISS temperature record was temporarily taken off the internet. Prominent amongst those setting the new conditions was NASA’s new head of public affairs, appointed by George Bush’s administration, David Mould. His previous jobs included a senior media relations role at the Southern Company of Atlanta, the second largest holding company of coal-burning power stations in the US. Only one company had donated more to the Republican Party than the Southern Company during George Bush’s 2000 election campaign: Enron. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

The well-qualified amateur who threw the spotlight back on CO2

Guy Callendar in 1934, about the time he turned his attention to the CO2-climate question

Guy Callendar in 1934, about the time he turned his attention to the CO2-climate question

In April 1938, a brave outsider stood up and showed a room full of sceptical experts evidence that would drive a revolution in climate science. Guy Callendar had pulled together temperature data from many parts of the world that clearly revealed global warming for the first time. Though few in the audience believed that humans could influence a planet-spanning system like climate, that’s just what Guy told them we were doing, by producing CO2.

But when better-known audience members at the Royal Meteorological Society meeting in London challenged his results, Guy fought back with a lifetime of scientific experience. He had followed in the footsteps of his father, physicist Hugh Callendar, making science the ‘family business’. But in 1938 the major part of that business so far for Guy – fully exploring the properties of steam – was nearing an end. And though climate science remained largely a hobby for him, Guy’s contributions are fundamental to our understanding of the global warming that is still ongoing today.

Guy was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1898 when his father, a pioneer in X-ray and steam physics, was a professor at McGill University. Hugh, his wife, and their three children returned to their native UK before Guy was one, when Hugh took up a position at University College, London. He then moved on to Imperial College London, where he chaired the physics department from 1908-1929. Beyond X-rays and steam, Hugh invented equipment to accurately measure and record air temperatures, wind speeds, and the Sun’s radiation. Perhaps it was these tools that inspired Guy to collect weather data, which he called his ‘figs.’, through much of his life. He took measurements so accurate that at one point they were used to form the official temperature records for central England.

In 1905, Hugh’s professorial salary and inventions bought a four story, 22-room house in Ealing. Life wasn’t entirely idyllic however, as by then Guy had been accidentally blinded in one eye with a pin by his brother Leslie. Further danger followed partly from Hugh’s encouragement of his children’s interest in science. He converted a greenhouse in Ealing into a laboratory, only for Leslie to destroy it while trying to make TNT. With his partial blindness preventing him from fighting in the First World War, Guy left school in 1915 to join his father’s laboratory. He performed X-ray tests, such as looking for cracks and other faults in aircraft engines, introducing him to the science of energy carried in waves. Read the rest of this entry »

Probabilities reveal shape of climate change

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change - and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image credit: www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change – and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image courtesy http://www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, used under Flickr Creative Commons license.

If you want to plan for the future, or even for the present, knowing that our climate is changing, what’s the best way to do it? That’s a question that David Stainforth from the London School of Economics, Sandra Chapman from the University of Warwick and Nicholas Watkins from the British Antarctic Survey have puzzled over. And while David is co-founder of the climateprediction.net project that borrows spare time on peoples’ computers to run climate models, he doesn’t feel that models are always the best source of information.

“It’s clear to me that the detailed local information on how climate is changing, and what it will be like in 2050, can’t be had from climate models today,” David told me. “They’re just not that good. And yet I work a lot with the adaptation and impacts community, who are interested in what’s happening ‘here’, on a very local basis.” So together David, Sandra and Nicholas have turned to measured data, devising a simple way to pick the most important local climate changes from it.

Weather stations around the world monitor daily conditions, and combine to create a record containing occasional extremes, lots of ordinary days, and everything in between. Knowing how common these conditions are is important for people who want to prepare for future climate change. “For flood risks, you’re worried about going over certain rainfall amounts in a given time,” David explained. “Managers of overheating buildings are worried about what proportion of the time temperatures pass certain levels.”

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Projected warming set to exceed civilisation’s experience

Oregon State University's Shaun Marcott has built a climate record reaching back 11,300 years, showing that today's temperatures are warmer than at least 70% of that period. Credit: Shaun Marcott

Oregon State University’s Shaun Marcott has built a climate record reaching back 11,300 years, showing that today’s temperatures are warmer than at least 70% of that period. Credit: Shaun Marcott

The world is headed for average surface temperatures warmer than it has seen in at least 11,300 years. That’s one conclusion US researchers have reached after bringing together 73 studies of ancient climate from across the world into a single global record. Their work supports previous records for the past 2,000 years built mainly from tree ring data, explained Shaun Marcott from Oregon State University, and gives a much broader view.

“We can put today’s global temperature into context against the entire Holocene period,” Shaun told me. “That’s when human civilisation was born, developed and progressed to today.” Modern temperatures are higher than in around three-quarters of that period, which reaches back to the end of the last ice age. And their comparison against forecasts for 2100 made in models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is even starker. “If those scenarios come to fruition, we’ll be well outside anything human civilisation has seen,” Shaun warned. “We won’t have even have been close.”

Knowing climate’s history helps understand its present, and so researchers have puzzled out temperatures on the Earth’s surface from proxy, or indirect, records for the last 2,000 years. In particular, bringing together measurements from tree rings, ice and coral has showed a sharp recent temperature rise often referred to as the ‘hockey stick’. Meanwhile, studies scattered across the world had reached back across the 11,300 years since the beginning of the Holocene. But they can be influenced by regional effects, and no one had pieced them into a global view that would overcome that. Read the rest of this entry »

Evidence rethink puts CO2 and ancient warming back in sync

A thin layer of ice from an area of the Antarctic where ancient ice records are collected, in polarized light that reveals ice crystals. Rethinking how ice crystal formation affects ancient data collection is helping to solve an outstanding climate puzzle. © Frédéric Parrenin

A thin layer of ice from an area of the Antarctic where ancient ice records are collected, in polarized light that reveals ice crystals. Rethinking how ice crystal formation affects ancient data collection is helping to solve an outstanding climate puzzle. © Frédéric Parrenin

A different way to dig up links between past levels of CO2 in the air and temperatures could solve a troubling question over the historical climate. Previously, data collected from long cylinders drilled from Antarctica’s ice sheet seemed to show temperatures rising hundreds of years before CO2 levels did. If ancient warming came before a CO2 rise, then the greenhouse gas seemingly couldn’t have caused the warming. Climate skeptics have used this to argue  that the CO2 we produce today isn’t causing global warming.

Now, Frédéric Parrenin at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Grenoble and his teammates have used a different method on these cylindrical ice cores. They say that their approach shows CO2 and temperature rises happened together during the last ‘deglaciation’, when ice sheets retreated during an abrupt warming period 20,000-10,000 years ago. “This makes it possible that CO2 was actually a cause of warming corresponding to the last deglaciation,” Frédéric told me.

Scientists have been using Antarctic ice cores, and bubbles of air from the time the ice formed trapped inside, to study climate history for over 30 years. The time capsule-like bubbles show what chemicals were in the air. Meanwhile, the amounts of different forms, known as isotopes, of elements like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen in the ice reveals the temperature it formed at. And finally, scientists figure out how old the ice and bubbles are from how deep they are in the core – and that’s where Frédéric found problems. Read the rest of this entry »

2012’s record events put climate in mind

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. In the image, the areas classified as “probable melt” (light pink) correspond to those sites where at least one satellite detected surface melting. The areas classified as “melt” (dark pink) correspond to sites where two or three satellites detected surface melting. The satellites are measuring different physical properties at different scales and are passing over Greenland at different times. As a whole, they provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. In the image, the areas classified as “probable melt” (light pink) correspond to those sites where at least one satellite detected surface melting. The areas classified as “melt” (dark pink) correspond to sites where two or three satellites detected surface melting. The satellites are measuring different physical properties at different scales and are passing over Greenland at different times. As a whole, they provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

This has been another year of striking climate events and records – but they seem to be happening so much more often today that their effect on me has weakened. That’s pretty cold-hearted, I admit. ‘Extreme weather’ is having terrible effects on peoples’ lives all around the world. But the truth is that we can only handle so many problems before becoming too numbed and overwhelmed to act. And last year, Stefan Rahmstorf and coworkers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research showed temperature records are much more likely today than in a stable climate. “I don’t think many people appreciate how much the odds for such extremes have increased due to global warming,” he told me at the time. “I certainly didn’t until we had performed this study.” So it’s hardly surprising if we begin to get complacent when records are flowing thick and fast. But when I actually faced up to what’s happened in the climate this year, it was intriguing how well you could see global warming’s fingerprint.

Warming’s most dramatic effects have long been obvious in the Arctic, and 2012 was no different. Images from three satellites showed that almost Greenland’s entire ice sheet surface was temporarily melted by July 12. That’s the largest area in over 30 years of satellite observations. Then, on September 16, sea ice in the Arctic reached a record annual minimum area of 1.32 million square miles, approximately half the size of the average annual minimum for 1979 to 2000. Just two weeks later, Antarctic sea ice covered its highest area on record at the peak of winter, at 7.49 million square miles. In case you think that’s a natural balance that shows the planet isn’t warming, it’s worth noticing the scale of the changes. The Antarctic record is 193,000 square miles higher than its average maximum area for the last 30 years. That’s much less than the 1.32 million square miles the Arctic lost compared to its long-term average. Read the rest of this entry »