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 »

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 »

The warrior who gave his life to climate change

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

  • This is part three of this profile. You can also read part one and two.

“Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Those are words – seemingly advising his colleagues to lie to shape public opinion – credited to climate scientist Stephen Schneider in a 1989 Discover magazine article. Because of that quote, Steve was told, a number of US congressional hearings chose not to invite him as an expert witness.

With extreme irony, it came from an interview where Steve was expressing frustration after having been misrepresented in the media. He later argued that he was trying to explain how to succeed faced with the “double ethical bind” of being effective and honest in conveying both uncertainty and urgency. Even in the original article he adds, “I hope that means being both” – something often overlooked in scandalised reactions to his words. But perhaps the trouble this caused Steve in fact reflects the strangeness of the idea he dedicated much of his career to getting across. How can scientific projections with an element of uncertainty lead to the conclusion that we must act on climate change urgently?

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with uncertainty, and so Steve wanted clearer ways to get it across in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s second climate change assessment report. At a meeting in 1994 he pushed for their estimates to come as probability distributions showing the odds for each in a range of different values. This could be done, he argued, for everything from damage likely to be caused by global warming to values for numbers central to natural processes, like climate sensitivity.

With no-one backing Steve, ambiguity crept into the report. Did everyone think that saying they had “high confidence” in a statement meant the same thing? After the second report, returning to his recently-appointed post at Stanford University in California, he was determined to hammer out any doubt. Together with the IPCC’s Richard Moss, Steve found 100 examples of inconsistent use of such terms. Armed with that shocking finding they persuaded the IPCC’s working group I, which discusses the physics of climate change, to define clear scales.

The result would be a double strategy, with verbal scales both for the probability of a forecast and for the reliability of the underlying science. For probabilities, low confidence meant a less than 1-in-3 chance, medium between 1-in-3 and 2-in-3 and high 2-in-3 and above. Very high confidence meant a 19-in-20 chance, and very low confidence 1-in-20. There were four grades for the quality of science, ranging from ‘speculative’ to ‘well established’. Reading through thousands of draft pages ensuring consistency in the run-up to the IPCC’s third report, published in 2001, Richard and Steve became known as the ‘uncertainty police’. Read the rest of this entry »

When the climate change fight got ugly

  • Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public's notice.

    Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public’s notice.

    This is part two of this profile. Read part one here.

“How many of you think the world is cooling?” That’s what Steve Schneider asked the studio audience of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in September 1977. And when the majority put their hands up, he explained that the recent cooling trend had only been short-term. Though the unscripted poll meant Steve wasn’t invited back to the programme, through the summer of that year he had brought climate science to US national TV. The appearances typified Steve’s efforts to bring climate change to the world’s notice – efforts that would later draw attention of a less desirable sort.

Building on his earlier high profile research, Steve had just published ‘The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival’, predicting ‘demonstrable climate change’ by the end of the century. Whether human pollution would cause warming or cooling, he argued governments should copy the biblical story where Joseph told Pharoah to prepare for lean years ahead. In a decade already torn by rocketing food and oil prices, the advice resonated with many who wanted to head off any further crises.

Some scientists criticised Steve and those like him for speaking straight to the public. In particular, climate science uncertainties were so great that they feared confusion – like that over whether temperatures were rising or falling – was inevitable. That dispute grew from a basic question about science’s place in society. Should researchers concentrate on questions they can comfortably answer using their existing methods? Or should they tackle questions the world needs answered, even if the results that follow are less definite?

At a meeting to discuss climate and modelling research within the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) in 1974 near Stockholm, Sweden, Steve pushed for the second approach. Given the food problems the world was struggling with at the time, it seemed obvious that climate change impacts like droughts, floods and extreme temperatures would bring famines. “I stood alone in arguing that we had to consider the implications of what we were researching,” Steve later wrote. While some attacked him angrily, saying they weren’t ready to address these problems, conference organiser Bert Bolin agreed that socially important questions must be answered.

The suggestion was also controversial because it meant blurring the lines between climate science and other subjects, such as agriculture, ecology and even economics. The director at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, where Steve worked, warned that crossing subject boundaries might cost him promotion. But he responded with characteristic wilfulness, founding a journal doing exactly what he was warned not to. 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 »

Google search basis undermines sunspot-winter coldness link

Franck Sirocko's 2012 study incorrectly dated this 1929 postcard identifying a year that the Rhine froze as being from 1963, which is one of many problems Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and his colleagues found with it. Image from van Oldenborgh et al, used under Creative Commons license, see citation below.

Franck Sirocko’s 2012 study incorrectly dated this 1929 postcard identifying a year that the Rhine froze as being from 1963, which is one of many problems Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and his colleagues found with it. Image from van Oldenborgh et al, used under Creative Commons license, see citation below.

European researchers have strongly criticised a recent study linking cold winters in the continent to cycles affecting the sun for relying on a shallow internet search. In August 2012, Franck Sirocko at University of Mainz, Germany, and his teammates linked cold years to sunspot activity lows using historical reports of when the river Rhine froze. But their results disagree with previous research, and previously unpublished findings from Geert Jan van Oldenborgh from KNMI, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, in De Bilt. And when Geert Jan looked into why this was, he found problems common in research on this topic over 50 years ago, updated for the internet age.

“These problems are fundamental – all the results that they claimed are spurious,” Geert Jan told me. “It is simply an incorrect paper. Usually incorrect results are just ignored, they do not get cited much and are quickly forgotten. However, this time we took the unusual step to write a comment on the paper. This decision was based on the low quality and the wide publicity it was given.”

That publicity came largely because the American Geophysical Union, which published the 2012 paper, put out a press release about it that the media reported widely. It tells how Franck’s team used historical documents to find that the Rhine froze in multiple places fourteen different times between 1780 and 1963. 10 of the 14 freeze years occurred close to the point in an 11 year cycle when there are fewest sunspots. “We provide, for the first time, statistically robust evidence that the succession of cold winters during the last 230 years in Central Europe has a common cause,” Franck said in the press release.

Sunspot cycles had been linked to weather throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until Barrie Pittock started going over the evidence in the 1970s. Barrie, who led the Climate Impact Group at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia until his retirement in 1999, found no link beyond day-to-day weather effects. He also found many studies had used bad or incomplete data to say otherwise. Read the rest of this entry »