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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Effluent entering streams also soils the atmosphere

The Corralles drainage ditch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one of 72 sites used to study nitrous oxide emissions from rivers and streams. Credit: Chelsea Crenshaw

The Corralles drainage ditch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one of 72 sites used to study nitrous oxide emissions from rivers and streams. Credit: Chelsea Crenshaw

Across the world, humans are causing rivers and streams to release the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide at levels three times higher than used in climate change predictions. Known as laughing gas when used as an anaesthetic, nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas over 300 times more powerful than CO2 on a per-molecule basis. How much of this gas comes from streams and rivers wasn’t previously well known, and scenarios predicting future climate change were based on estimates. Now, writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on Monday, a large team of US scientists has filled this knowledge gap.

Humans cause chemicals with high nitrogen contents from sources like fertilizers and sewage to enter water bodies as dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN). Microbes help break the DIN down, first by converting it into nitrates, and then converting these nitrate chemicals into nitrous oxide and nitrogen gas in a process called denitrification. Only a tiny amount of nitrous oxide is produced during denitrification in comparison to nitrogen gas. Previously, climate change models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assumed that just 1 part of nitrous oxide is produced from 400 parts of DIN on average worldwide. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Global warming “undeniable”

Ten indicators with increasing or decreasing values that demonstrate that the planet is warming. Credit: NOAA

Ten indicators with increasing or decreasing values that demonstrate that the planet is warming. Credit: NOAA

Institutions fighting climate change have this week come out guns blazing, with a review of climate indicators in 2009 providing the heaviest fire. Bringing together 300 authors from 48 countries, the US “State of the Climate Report 2009” highlights 10 climate indicators that clearly demonstrate warming.

“Despite the variability caused by short-term changes, the analysis conducted for this report illustrates why we are so confident the world is warming,” said Peter Stott, head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre. He emphasises that it’s natural for there to be unpredictable changes from one year to the next, so it’s necessary to look at longer-term records. “When we follow decade-to-decade trends using multiple data sets and independent analyses from around the world, we see clear and unmistakable signs of a warming world,” Stott said. Read the rest of this entry »

Checking CO2 emissions: Watch your energy level

The UK Carbon Calculator website

Pretty is often associated with shallow, but that is definitely not the case with the UK Carbon Calculator website

Before cutting your CO2 emissions you need to know what they are – but not everyone who tries to is successfully making it easy to find out. While Simple Climate has focussed so far on trying to understand what’s going on with climate change, tonight’s is a first step to doing something about it. And boy, am I feeling tired and snappy now.

There are a number of CO2 emissions calculators out there on the internet – and as my girlfriend Kendra and I live the UK, we thought we’d try the British government’s one first. Some impressive design makes it look smart, which is a good start. However, on my computers that made it slow enough that the long waits annoyed even me, who wanted to know the results to write about. If you’re only casually interested, or have a slower computer, it would probably be enough to end your research.

The designers were kind enough to warn us that you might need your electricity and gas bills, plus car mileage and fuel efficiency. What they didn’t say was that we’d also need to know the energy rating and age of all of our kitchen appliances. And details of every public transport journey we’d taken during the year. They also said that we’d be able to go back and update the information we’d already given but we couldn’t figure out how to do this. After four attempts at filling in the survey from the start, we eventually got it right. It told us that our household emissions are 3 tonnes of CO2 per year for transport, power and heating. The site then suggested lots of good ideas for how to cut this. Yet, as Ken pointed out, if you’ve got enough determination to get all the way to the end, you probably know all this already.

A much easier UK-based survey is provided by the Carbon Neutral company. Ken did it in about five minutes using the same starting data that the official government site said it needed, and again got 3 tonnes of CO2 per year. The downside of this is that once you’re done, it just suggests buying carbon offsets rather than cutting your emissions. But like the survey, at least that keeps it simple.

I thought I’d try a couple of US-based sites as well, to see how they compared. The Environmental Protection Agency calculator is a lot more user-friendly than its UK equivalent. A simple web page, with just a few forms to fill in and boxes to check, plus suggestions afterwards how to cut emissions. It said our CO2 output was 2.25 tonnes each year, but given that we don’t actually live in the US this is bound to be somewhat inaccurate.

Another US site, the Nature Conservancy, offered an especially straightforward calculator, which interestingly was the only one to include the impact of the food we eat in our carbon emissions. This site asks simple questions about your behaviour rather than relying on inputting figures. It said our CO2 output came out at 16 tonnes each year, but it also said that the average two person household in the US emits 53 tonnes, compared to the EPA’s estimate of 19 tonnes.

So now you now know not to use the official UK site unless you want to be REALLY thorough, and have plenty of stamina. If you’re feeling especially daring, you could try the sites out for yourself, and share your experiences using the comment tools at the end of this article…