Blog Archive

Friday, November 30, 2007

Cape Lisburne, Alaska, December 1, 2007


hmm, I find myself travelling back to this entry again, for some reason.  Cancún brought little change. The oil and coal plutocrats have intensified their campaign to manipulate and confuse the American public (and the Australian, Canadian, New Zealandian, and English).

The science is coming in loud and clear.  We have very little time left, if any, to turn this thing around.  Three years ago, it was already possible for me to imagine that the hot warm air from the equatorial regions rushing for the poles would someday push out the cold air and dominate the Arctic, but I never ever imagined that this would occur so quickly.  This past winter we have seen what that process can do.  And will do.

The work of Shakhova and Semiletov at the University of Alaska tells us that the methane time bomb is ticking in the East Siberian Arctic Sea.

The Koch brothers, Shell Oil, Chevron, BP, and other fossil fuel companies continue their relentless campaign to burn the planet into oblivion.

We're at the end of a solar minimum and still in a La Nina, and this year is still the hottest on record.

Warmer waters are working away at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has accelerated its movement toward the sea.  Warmer waters are going to the bottom of the Arctic Sea.  Jet streams are going all wacky.  The list goes on and on.

And our governments are sitting on their hands.

I hope I have better news to report in December 2011.

Tenney Naumer, in Vitória da Conquista, Bahia, Brazil, December 26, 2010


What a difference two years can make.  When I began this blog, I thought there would be no need for it after a year to 18 months.  I naively believed that within that time frame, the science would become so clear to everyone that by now we would all be busy, working together, to do something to save ourselves from further temperature increases.  Boy, was I ever wrong!  The oil and coal companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote confusion in the minds of the voting public, to promote junk science and junk scientists, to smear the reputations of real scientists who have spent the past two decades studying this problem and trying to get the results out and into the minds and hands of those who matter.

If anything is clear, it is that we are not done yet -- certainly not after the fiasco that was COP15.  Now, we must continue, and we must work doubly hard to bring the truth to the public.

When I began this blog back in November 2007, I think it was, I thought a good day was when it had 6 to 9 visitors.  By mid-2009, the blog was receiving an average of 300 visitors per day.  During COP15, the average went up to 1,100.  That is not chicken feed.  There are nearly 2,000 posts on this blog, primarily articles for the advanced layperson.  This blog can now be used as a select database (use the search field up in the upper left-hand corner, or go to the labels down the page in the left-hand column) for those looking for many of the most important articles on climate change.  I never expected -- not in my wildest imaginings -- that I would ever post nearly so many articles.

My best wishes to all readers,

Tenney Naumer  December 21, 2009, in Vitória da Conquista, Bahia, Brazil

I assume the copyright for this image belongs to the weather channel.

Ya know, I dunno. I am not a climatologist, nor a meteorologist, nor even a scientist. But, there is this thing called the Arctic Oscillation. It has been in the process of shifting gears, so to speak.

Cape Lisburne, Alaska, is a forlorn and desolate place, way the hell up north there in the Arctic Circle.

Right now (03:55 UTC), the temperature is 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees centigrade).

That poor Arctic sea ice is just getting a double whammy with the Arctic Oscillation, right when it would be nice to see it freeze up really hard.

Oops! I missed this from NOAA (it went all the way up to 55.9 degrees at 10 p.m. on November 30th). For current conditions at Cape Lisburne, click on this link:

Link to a map of the Artic -- click on the yellow dots for current temperatures:

24 Hour Summary (from NOAA)

F (C)
Dew Point
F (C)
Inches (hPa)
Latest 10 AM (15) Dec 01 51.1 (10.6) 22.1 (-5.5) 30 (1015) SSE 26

9 AM (14) Dec 01 52.0 (11.1) 23.0 (-5.0) 29.98 (1015) ESE 30

8 AM (13) Dec 01 51.1 (10.6) 23.0 (-5.0) 29.96 (1014) SE 31

7 AM (12) Dec 01 52.0 (11.1) 24.1 (-4.4) 29.94 (1013) SE 37

6 AM (11) Dec 01 53.1 (11.7) 25.2 (-3.8) 30.03 (1016) SE 38

5 AM (10) Dec 01 50.0 (10.0) 24.1 (-4.4) 29.92 (1013) SSE 43

4 AM (9) Dec 01 48.0 (8.9) 25.2 (-3.8) 29.92 (1013) SE 45

3 AM (8) Dec 01 53.1 (11.7) 35.1 (1.7) 30.13 (1020) SE 30

2 AM (7) Dec 01 51.1 (10.6) 35.1 (1.7) 29.91 (1012) SSE 25

1 AM (6) Dec 01 50.0 (10.0) 36.1 (2.3) 29.92 (1013) SSE 30

Midnight (5) Dec 01 53.1 (11.7) 24.1 (-4.4) 30.2 (1022) SSE 37

11 PM (4) Nov 30 52.0 (11.1) 17.1 (-8.3) 30.23 (1023) S 41

10 PM (3) Nov 30 55.9 (13.3) 21.0 (-6.1) 30.22 (1023) SSE 36

9 PM (2) Nov 30 53.1 (11.7) 21.0 (-6.1) 29.88 (1011) SSE 38

8 PM (1) Nov 30 51.1 (10.6) 21.0 (-6.1) 30.24 (1024) SSE 44

7 PM (0) No Data

6 PM (23) Nov 30 46.9 (8.3) 24.1 (-4.4) 29.98 (1015) SE 37

5 PM (22) Nov 30 46.0 (7.8) 24.1 (-4.4) 29.99 (1015) SE 33

4 PM (21) Nov 30 46.9 (8.3) 22.1 (-5.5) 29.99 (1015) SSE 40

3 PM (20) Nov 30 46.9 (8.3) 24.1 (-4.4) 29.97 (1014) SSE 35

2 PM (19) Nov 30 46.0 (7.8) 23.0 (-5.0) 30 (1015) SSE 37

1 PM (18) Nov 30 46.0 (7.8) 24.1 (-4.4) 30.02 (1016) SE 36

Noon (17) Nov 30 46.9 (8.3) 24.1 (-4.4) 30.01 (1016) SSE 39
Oldest 11 AM (16) Nov 30 46.0 (7.8) 26.1 (-3.3) 30.02 (1016) SE 39

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Averting Our Eyes: Dr. James Hansen

James Hansen of NASA.James Hansen of NASA testifying this year at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on political interference with government climate science. (Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times). BLOGGER'S NOTE: I have inserted what I consider to be a more appropriate photo of Dr. Hansen.

James E. Hansen of NASA, brushing off coal-industry criticisms but acknowledging the need to be sensitive to people still haunted by the Holocaust, has elaborated on what he meant when he recently described continued coal burning as akin to sending untold species to their destruction in “death trains” and crematoria.

He posted a long note on the matter, titled “Averting Our Eyes,” on his Columbia University home page tonight.

I asked if we could publish excerpts. “I prefer that you post it in toto,” he said in an e-mail message. “Somehow I have trouble with things out of context. Also my aim is to educate on the broader problem, not just the narrow things that seem to get picked up on.”

The full text is below.

Dr. Hansen, like many who commented on Dot Earth after I wrote about his statements, insists that the parallels hold between the denial and passivity that allowed a human cataclysm to sweep Europe in plain sight and the denial and inaction now as the world prepares to build hundreds of conventional coal-burning power plants. In his recent statements and the new one, he warns that the tens of billions of tons of resulting emissions of carbon dioxide, if not captured and stored, will disrupt climate patterns, ecosystems and sea levels that have been remarkably stable through most of modern human history. The result will be an end to “creation” as we have grown to love it, he says.

Dr. Hansen’s note:

Averting Our Eyes

E-mails received regarding the letter from the National Mining Association CEO and my letter to him (LINK, pdf file) suggest a need for an apology on my part and a clarification of the bottom line. Some context is required.

Generational knowledge and responsibility.

The threat of global warming did not become clear until the present generation. Empirical evidence of warming was masked by weather fluctuations, and warming was kept small, temporarily, by the inertia of deep oceans. We cannot blame our ancestors for burning fossil fuels in an uncontrolled way. They worked hard to bring themselves and their children a better life. Their greenhouse emissions are small in comparison to ours. Any effect of their emissions on our climate is truly inadvertent.

Ignorance is no excuse for us. There is overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming, its causes, and many of its implications. Today’s generations will be accountable, and how tall we stand remains to be determined. There is still time, but just barely.

Status of the planet.

Human-made greenhouse gas emissions today are enormous, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), with annual emissions of over 8 Gigatons of carbon and average annual increases of about 2 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the air. For the past 30 years the planet has been warming at a rate of about 0.2°C per decade. And the planet is out of energy balance by between ½ and 1 W/m2 (more energy coming in than going out), so additional warming of about 0.5°C is “in the pipeline.” These facts are no cause for despair. There are enough health-damaging pollutants in the air today such that, if they (tropospheric ozone, its principal precursor methane, black soot, and some other trace gases that contribute to the global warming) were reduced by feasible amounts, the planet’s energy balance could be restored, or nearly so. That is a doable task, and it would have many side benefits.

The primary challenge is the need to limit future emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). A substantial fraction, about one-fifth, of our fossil fuel CO2 emissions stays in the air for more than 1000 years. Thus whether we burn a fuel and release the CO2 today or next year does not matter all that much with respect to the end result. Conservation of precious fossil fuels is important — it is needed to give us time to develop energy sources and life styles to fit the era “beyond fossil fuels” — but we must realize that there is a limit on the total fossil fuel CO2 that we inject into the atmosphere. We cannot burn all of the fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal and unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale and tar sands) and release the CO2 into the air without creating a different planet.

Burning all fossil fuels, if the CO2 is released into the air, would destroy creation, the planet with its animal and plant life as it has existed for the past several thousand years, the time of civilization, the Holocene, the period of relative climate stability, warm enough to keep ice sheets off North America and Eurasia, but cool enough to maintain Antarctic and Greenland ice, and thus a stable sea level. We cannot pretend that we do not know the consequences of burning all fossil fuels.

Basic fossil fuel facts.

Most of the increase of CO2 in the air today, relative to preindustrial times, is due to burning of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel contribution to CO2 in the air today is due about 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. The annual increments for the past few decades have been slightly larger for oil than for coal, but coal use has accelerated in the past few years, and in the long run coal will be the greatest source because of its larger reserves (discovered deposits) and estimated resources (deposits still to be discovered).

There is a raging battle today about the size of fossil fuel reserves and resources, with “peakists” claiming that we are already at or near peak production of both oil and coal because the amounts of economically recoverable fuels in the ground are more limited than the fossil fuel industry has admitted. Evidence that reserves and resources have been overstated is strong. But it is also clear that, absent a price on carbon emissions, as the price of energy rises, the amount of economically extractable fossil fuels increases, including unconventional fossil fuels.

Regardless of reserve and resource uncertainties, we know there are enough fossil fuels to destroy the planet as we know it, if their CO2 is released into the atmosphere. But the potential contributions of oil and gas to future CO2 are limited even if we accept industry estimates (LINK, pdf file). CO2 from oil can be further limited via a gradually increasing price on carbon emissions that discourages industry from going to the most extreme environments in the world (such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Antarctica) to extract every last drop of oil.

Actions needed to stabilize climate.

Two fossil fuel facts define the basic actions that are required to preserve our planet’s climate: (1) it is impractical to capture CO2 as it is emitted by vehicles (the mass of emitted CO2 is about three times larger than the mass of fuel in the tank), and (2) there is much more CO2 contained in coal and unconventional fossil fuels than in oil and gas. As a consequence, the strategy for saving creation must have two basic elements.

First, and this is 80% of the solution, coal use must be phased out except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered. Thus there should be a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants until the technology for CO2 capture and sequestration is ready. Second, there must be a moderate price on carbon emissions, and both businesses and consumers must recognize that this carbon price will continue to increase in the future. This price, and realization of further increases, will drive innovations for energy efficiency, renewable energies, and other forms of energy that do not produce CO2. There are a variety of ways to impose this price, including industry cap-and-trade, individual carbon allowances and fuel taxes that can be designed to be fair. The need to restructure taxes to encourage development of clean energies does not need to imply a large increase of the net tax load, nor does it imply destruction of the economy. On the contrary, common sense suggests that many good jobs will be created in industries focused on energy efficiency, renewable energies and other clean energy sources. A carbon price alone is not enough, because it must start at a moderate level to avoid economic disruption.

Thus governments must take other actions such as changing rules so that utilities make money by encouraging conservation, increasing efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances, electronic goods, etc., and investing much more in energy research and development. The carbon price will assure that we do not pursue absurd energy pathways, such as cooking the Rocky Mountains to drip oil out of tar shale. We must instead focus on the actions needed to achieve the clean environment of the future, with a stable climate that can continue to support all life, in the era beyond fossil fuels. As industry and the public realize where energy policies are headed, positive feedbacks and innovations are likely, so change will begin to happen rapidly. Indeed, much of the coal may be left in the ground. This is not a bad thing, halting mercury pollution of our oceans, mountaintop removal, and pollution of our streams.

One more point needs to be made. We are already near, and probably somewhat beyond, the maximum level of atmospheric CO2 that we need to allow, if we wish to preserve a planet like the one we inherited. But this realization, too, is no cause for despair. Each year the earth has been taking up, on average, 43% of our fossil fuel CO2 emissions. There is a limit on the earth’s capacity to take up CO2 on time scales less than millennia, but there are other actions that we can take in addition to the two major ones described above. Additional actions include improved agricultural practices that enhance carbon sequestration in the soil, and improved forestry practices that reduce emissions from deforestation. The actions described are doable, and they make climate stabilization manageable. It should be noted that the resulting planet, with clean air and water, is also more attractive for humans and other species.

Coal trains and reactions.

Recently a coal industry official tried to divert attention from the actions that are needed to solve the climate problem by criticizing a specific paragraph in my testimony opposing construction of a new coal-fired power plant that does not capture its CO2 emissions (LINK, pdf file). The paragraph in my testimony mischaracterized was:

Coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact. Increased fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, compared to the preindustrial atmosphere, is due 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. As oil resources peak, coal will determine future CO2 levels. Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains — no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

This paragraph described thoughts that went through my head as I observed a remarkable string, mile after mile, of coal trains. My words did not resemble their reconstruction by the coal executive, and I certainly did not mean to trivialize suffering by the families who lost relatives in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is clear from reactions that several people were hurt by the words. Three scientific colleagues, including one who lost several relatives in the Holocaust, have expressed strong disappointment about the words. A much larger number of people expressed support for the statement, but I think that more weight must be given to those who objected, as their concerns were heartfelt and understandable.

My apology and discussion.

I regret that my words caused pain to some readers. I hope that they will accept my apology for having caused discomfort, an apology that is heartfelt. Here, not in defense of my words, rather to make two further points, I provide the comments of two other people:

Jim, I thought that your equating the coal trains in Iowa with holocaust death trains an apt and reasonable analogy. It does not at all trivialize the suffering and deaths of European Jews but rather is a tribute to them. They will not all have died in vain if the horror and inhumanity of the holocaust can be used to wake up the world to the catastrophic consequences of continued pollution of the earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide. XXXXX

Jim: As a Jew, who is sensitive about misuse of references to the holocaust, I found no problem with your metaphor… nor to your response to the CEO…except for the reference to “creation”! YYYYY

My supposition was that most people would take the reference in the way indicated by the first of the last two comments. One merit of references and memorials to the Holocaust is as a reminder that we cannot allow such an event again, we cannot avert our eyes. As for reference to “creation,” my feeling about that topic developed during a meeting with evangelical leaders on a Georgia plantation. We found no reason for conflict between science and religion, but many reasons for working together. We all felt strongly about the need for stewardship, for passing on to our children and grandchildren the planet that we received, with its remarkable forms of life.

Summary and a possible alternative metaphor.

My concern is with trying to close the gap between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community, and what is known by those who need to know, the public and policy makers. I think that we still have a long way to go in making the danger clear, in part because of the inertia of the climate system and the danger of passing tipping points — points at which little or no additional forcing is needed to cause large, relatively rapid, undesirable effects. Our fellow species feel the danger in climate change. Animals are not on the run for the sake of exercise (LINK, pdf file). But they do not control what is happening. We do. We cannot avert our eyes and pretend that we do not understand the consequences of continued “business as usual.”

A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea — an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?
Alas, that metaphor probably would be greeted with the same reaction from the people who objected to the first. That reaction may have been spurred by the clever mischaracterization of the CEO, aiming to achieve just such a reaction. So far that seems to have been the story: the special interests have been cleverer than us, preventing the public from seeing the crisis that should be in view. It is hard for me to think of a different equally poignant example of the foreseeable consequence faced by fellow creatures on the planet. Suggestions are welcome.

January 10, 2007, Frontline interview with Dr. James E. Hansen

... I want to talk about 1988; it's where you got the name "the father of global warming," whether you like it or not. ... Do you remember that summer in 1988?

Yeah, I remember it pretty well. It was a very hot summer. We had a huge drought in the Midwest.

Did it raise questions about the weather, that summer?

Well, it made it a lot easier to talk about global warming. One problem that we had was that Congress usually likes to have its hearings in other seasons and take the summer off, because Washington is a hot and humid place. Anyway, we had suggested that they really should talk about global warming during the summer, because people would be more likely to pay attention. And it certainly worked out well in that sense. ...

Why were you chosen to come and speak?

Oh, there were a number of scientists who came and spoke, and there had been many other hearings. The reason I think that it was noticed was because I made a fairly strong statement. And I had thought the evening before about how I would respond ... in terms of just trying to say things in language that would be understood. And I decided I was going to say it was time to stop waffling so much, and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate. ...

So in fact, in front of the senators, you were waffling a bit yourself. You didn't say "global warming."

Scientifically, it's just very clear that if we don't make changes within the next few years that we're going to be past a point where we can prevent large, dangerous changes.

No, I said that I was 99 percent confident that the world really was getting warmer and that there was a high degree of probability that it was due to humanmade greenhouse gases. I think it was the "99 percent probability" statement which got a lot of attention, because that was a fairly strong statement.

What was the scientific consensus at the time? Was it at 99 percent?

No, and I got a lot of reaction to that statement after the fact. There were a couple of scientific meetings [where there] were ... criticisms of my statement as being too strong.

... That's unusual to go past the scientific consensus. Why did you do it?

Well, I'm not sure it was really past the consensus. It's past what scientists were willing to say, and that continues to be an issue and one which really needs to be discussed. ... Scientists are cautious, and that's OK. But ... that creates a problem, because we don't have a lot of time to begin to change the technologies and the energy infrastructure so that we can avoid what [are] really dangerous climate changes.

But scientists usually aren't the people to decide that. You took a very interesting role, which is different. You kind of said, "Look out! It's coming!," instead of "I'm in my lab, and I see this problem."

Yeah, and I guess that's even more true now, because I decided I prefer to do scientific research, and I sort of got out of the communication business after that 1988 and 1989 testimonies and did not get back until the last couple of years, because now we've reached a point where we're really on the edge. We are at the tipping point. Scientifically, it's just very clear that if we don't make changes within the next few years that we're going to be past a point where we can prevent large, dangerous changes. ...

Now, you weren't the first scientist to notice global warming. Who was that? ...

The first person to have really great insight into this problem, I think, was John Tyndall. He's a physicist, a British physicist in the 1850s and 1860s, and he believed that the changes from glacial periods to interglacial warm periods were probably due to changes in greenhouse gases. He made laboratory measurements to show that carbon dioxide [CO2] did absorb in the infrared [spectrum], and it could cause a change in temperature. So he understood the basic phenomenon, and that was way back 150 years ago.

Then the Swedish scientist chemist [Svante] Arrhenius in the 1890s took that one step further and did calculations in which he tried to estimate [how much] the earth would warm up with a doubling of carbon dioxide, and he got the right answer within a factor of two. So he's given a lot of credit for that.

Are there science points along the way ... that you can think of, either in your own work or in others', that show that progression, that "We think we're right; we're almost sure we're right; we're really, really sure we're right; now we know we're right." I mean, are there progressions like that?

If we look in the 1970s, we and other scientists did calculations that showed that it's not only carbon dioxide, but there are other greenhouse gases changing. ... By the time of our 1981 paper, we could see that the earth was getting warmer, and it was consistent, or at least not inconsistent, with carbon dioxide being the main cause of that.

In 1981, when you published that paper, could you make projections? Could you say, "We pretty much know what will happen by 2006, 2016"?

Well, we did make calculations which showed by that year 2000, the signal should be beginning to be noticeable, and that basically was right. We now do see that the signal is rising out of the noise.

Meaning that anyone can see that something is changing?

Well, you can see it if you look at the global average. At a given location, the noise -- "noise" is the natural variability, the fluctuations that occur just because of chaos in the system -- those are locally still larger than the warming. So if you want to see the effect locally, you've got to average over a significant amount of time.

So when it's warmer than usual last week, I can't say, "Oh, that was global warming."

No, you can't, but if you look at a number of years and you see that happening consistently -- not every year, but at a rate that's consistent with our prediction as to how the probability should be changing -- then you can see an effect, and it is legitimate to blame that on global warming.

So 1981, you can make projections out to 2000 where you know that this is where you'll see it. Is there another moment after '81 where you do another paper, or there's another piece of science that says --

Well, I think what happened after 1981, we got the data from the ice cores, which showed us how the greenhouse gases had been changing in the past and how the earth's temperature had changed. ... That was in the 1980s. The research took a few years, but that was a good part of the basis for my testimony in 1988, was a combination of this paleoclimate data together with a global three-dimensional model. So instead of a simple, one-dimensional calculation, we could use a more realistic model of the real world. And some additional warming had occurred in the 1980s, and that was at a rate that was consistent with the increases in greenhouse gases. ...

But it's not until really now, in the first decade of the 21st century, that the changes have become large enough and consistent enough. Now, for 30 years, the earth has been getting warmer at a rate of two-tenths of a degree Celsius per decade, so it's now really out of the noise. Most of the warming that's occurred in the last 150 years has been in the last 30 years, at the same time that most of the increases in greenhouse gases have been occurring. So now the story is much stronger than it was.

[When you testified in 1988,] did you sketch out for those senators what the world would be like in 2000 and 2016 and 2030? Could you have done that?

I tried to do that to some degree, by looking at the number of days with temperature over 90 degrees in the summer and showed that there would be dramatic changes in cities like Washington, D.C., or Omaha, Neb.; we had graphs for those particular cities. What we couldn't do as well was say what the impact would be on the hydrologic cycle --

Which is?

Which is droughts and forest fires on the one extreme and heavy rainfall and floods on the other extreme. All we could say was that the likelihood of both extremes would increase as global warming got stronger, because increased heating of the surface causes more evaporation. Therefore, at times and places where it's dry, you'll get more intense dry conditions and drought, but overall you're going to have more evaporation, especially from the oceans, and therefore you're going to have more rainfall. So at the places where you do have rainfall, you will tend to get heavier rainfall and more extreme floods.

But now we can actually say more than that, because we see that the increased evaporation in the tropics causes heavier rain in the tropics. At the same time, in the subtropics, you get more intense dry conditions. If you look at the maps of the world, the places that get drier -- especially the Western United States and the Mediterranean region and parts of Africa, the Sahel region [on the southern edge of the Sahara] -- I think that's what is beginning to happen in the Western United States: We see a tendency for drier conditions, more forest fires. And that's the danger, that if we go further down this route, that we will really get mega-drought in the West and have some regional climate problems in addition to global ones.

I want to ask you one more 1988 question. I read that you had to submit your testimony to OMB [Office of Management and Budget], and they wanted even back then to shade what you were talking about a little bit.

Yeah, that was in 1989 that my testimony was altered by OMB. And I got upset about that and sent a note to Sen. [Al] Gore [D-Tenn.], who was the chairman of those hearings, and asked him to ask me during the hearings about some particular sentences in my testimony, because I wanted to make clear that those were not my words; they had been put there by OMB. And that got some attention.

So it wasn't unusual for you to be censored when it came to global warming.

No. In fact, it had gone back a few years before that. I believe it was in '85 or '86, when I had submitted testimony, and NASA sent it to OMB. I've never quite understood the rationale by which OMB should be checking scientific testimony, but in any case, they wanted to make changes, and I was not willing to agree with the changes that they wanted to make, and so I testified as a private citizen. ...

But in the case of 1989, when I asked Sen. Gore to make clear what was my opinion versus OMB's, he called me at home the day before and asked me if it was all right to tell The New York Times about this, and I said that was all right with me, and therefore it got a lot of attention. ...

Why do you think that your testimony in particular was sensitive in the [Reagan] administration, so much so that OMB would want to shade what you were saying?

Well, I think the reason it was sensitive was the fact that it got attention. In 1981 the paper that we wrote in Science -- that predicted that the world would be getting warmer over the 1980s and that by the year 2000 you begin to see loss of sea ice and eventually you have opening of the fabled Northwest Passage -- that article was reported on the front page of The New York Times by Walter Sullivan. As a result, we lost our funding from the Department of Energy, because, in that administration, they simply did not want that sort of attention to this problem, because it has big implications for fossil fuel industry.

... Did this get any better during the Gore-Clinton administration? Did you feel that it was easier to get out scientific information?

Sure. Things were different. I've had problems with various administrations, both Democratic and Republican, because I like to describe the science exactly as I see it rather than to fit the policies of a given administration. But certainly during the Clinton-Gore years it was easier to say that global warming was real; I mean, they did not doubt that. They did not succeed in doing much to reduce emissions, but they didn't question the science.

... Did you think the Clinton-Gore administration would move further than Bush I?

Yeah, I thought that they would do much more than they did. Now, [for] most of their administration, the Congress was not under their control, and that provides some reason perhaps, but still. The United States' portion of global emissions actually increased during the Clinton-Gore administration. ...

Often it will be the opposite party who has more influence on the people they need to influence, which is the fossil fuel industry. So if the Bush administration had decided to take some actions, I think they could have been more successful than Clinton and Gore. But unfortunately, as it turned out, they really weren't interested in doing that. ...

In 2000, candidate George Bush proposed putting a cap on carbon, something that he had done as the governor of Texas. If he'd kept that pledge, ... if there had been a move toward capping carbon dioxide by a Republican president in 2000, would it have made a difference?

Yeah, I think it could have made a big difference. I think that that sort of thing was what we needed in order to get off the business-as-usual course, and that's what we need to do in order to keep additional global warming less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

But in fact, what we've done is stay on the business-as-usual course, and emissions have continued to go up about 2 percent per year. We're now seven years into the new decade, the new century, and we're [at] about 15 percent higher emissions than in year 2000. That makes it very difficult now to get back onto this alternative scenario, and if we don't make some changes in the next few years, it's going to be impractical to do that.

What were your disagreements with the Clinton-Gore administration?

Those things are a little more subtle. My difficulties were more in the portrayal of the scientific story, although when it's come down to the bottom line, the differences are not really that great. But, for example, I was asked to provide maps of the impact of global warming on precipitation and droughts, and I said, "Well, I don't trust our climate model to do that, so I'm not willing to provide that." And it angered Al Gore, but --

But the model wasn't good enough.

But the model wasn't good enough, and since then we've met and made up about that, because our bottom line is fairly similar. ... We both agree that the experiment that we're doing with the climate is very dangerous, and we need to slow down the experiment. But it was just a question of how much we could say about specific aspects of the climate system, which I didn't agree on.

And he wanted to push you to say more than you were willing to say.

Right, right.

Go further even than you were willing.


The 1990s is the real appearance of the science skeptics. How much did they come after you?

I actually don't like the word "skeptics" for them; I think it's better to call them "contrarians," because skepticism is part of science; all scientists are skeptics. If you're not skeptical as a scientist, you're not going to be very successful. You have to continually ask yourself how well your theories agree with the real world, and you can't fudge that.

But what the contrarians are doing is acting not as scientists but as lawyers, so they present only the evidence that seems to favor their case rather than being unbiased. And the people who are picked to be supported by the industries that support the contrarians are usually very articulate, sometimes affable people, and to the public, it's hard for them to say whether a contrarian or another scientist is right, because it sounds like a technical argument among theorists.

... It's very analogous to what happened in the case of tobacco industries, where they would always put up a denier who would question the medical evidence that cigarettes caused lung cancer. That worked for quite a while, and unfortunately it's continuing to work in the case of fossil fuels. The public doesn't yet understand how clear the scientific story is.

You say they take money from oil companies; they behave like the tobacco companies. But critics say you very publicly said that you were voting for [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass]. ...

Sure. I said that, as a private citizen and partly because of my understanding of the climate change issue, I decided to vote for John Kerry, because I thought he would address that issue more seriously than the incumbent was doing. I'm not even a Democrat -- I'm a registered independent -- and I even said that my preference would have been [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.]; if he had been on the ballot, I would have preferred to vote for him, because I think we have a fundamental difficulty in campaign finance, and he's attempted to address that problem as well as global warming.

... I think there's even a more basic issue for the United States, and that is the fact that we need to have representatives, government, which is not dependent on contributions from special interests. We've attempted to have campaign finance reform, but that's never succeeded. Our representatives, our senators, our executives are very dependent on contributions from special interests, and I think that has become very obvious in this problem of global warming; that has a big impact and made it very difficult to get the kind of changes that we need to in order to address the problem. ...

But given the two candidates that were on the ballot, I thought John Kerry would be a much preferable candidate, and I don't see any reason why I can't [express] that opinion and give my reasons for it. ...

Did you feel like you were under attack?

... Well, I think it's more a case of the science being distorted. The problem is to get the scientific story to be translated into a language that the public and policymakers can understand but still do it in a valid way, and that's where I think we have not done a very good job.

I think it's still a problem. In fact, I actually think it's become worse in the sense [that] the gap between what is understood about the problem, from a scientific perspective, and what is known about the problem by the public and by policymakers, that gap has actually increased. And that's partly the fault of we scientists, I think. We're just not very good at communicating.

And what is it that you think that the public doesn't understand?

Well, I think [they] don't understand that we will need to make fundamental changes, because we're not going to be able to burn all the fossil fuels without creating a different planet. And that means we're going to have to find alternative forms of energy; we're going to put more emphasis on energy efficiency.

But also, the things that we need to do actually have many other benefits. One of our failures in communication, I think, is that we present it too often as a gloom-and-doom story, but actually there are many benefits of getting onto a path in which we have less dependence on fossil fuels.

But this is also a choice, correct? We have a choice to make.

That's right.

And you outlined one of those choices, which is to change the way that we burn carbon, and to not make that choice presents us with what?

Well, that's the difficulty. That's why we need to communicate that we have to make some choices pretty soon, because if we don't, then we are going to create a different planet. It's going to be a situation that's out of our control.

You made a speech primarily saying that. ... You talked about a 10-year tipping point. What happened after you made that speech?

You're referring to the speech in 2005 at [the] American Geophysical Union. ... I received a pretty prompt reaction. I made this talk available to the media over the Internet, and it was excerpted in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books. So it got a lot of attention, the discussion about the tipping point, the fact that we're very close to a tipping point.

It also had an impact on the public affairs office at NASA headquarters, who began to put restrictions on my ability to communicate with the media.

And how did they do that?

Well, they did it through public affairs officers telling me that I would have to submit any talks prior to giving them and that before I could speak to any media, I would need to get approval on each and every case.

And you hadn't submitted the "tipping point" speech to anybody.

No, I hadn't. And also our analysis that we put on the Web, we were told that we could no longer do that without obtaining approval from NASA headquarters for each additional thing that we put on the Web.

Did they put it in writing? How did they tell you?

Well, most of this came orally. There were [teleconferences] between public affairs at NASA headquarters at outer space flight center [Goddard Space Flight Center] in Maryland and in New York City, in which they discussed what restrictions should be applied to me in my discussions with media.

And if you didn't comply?

Well, there was some things relayed to me that there would be dire consequences. Headquarters told the New York City public affairs person that there would be dire consequences.

And were dire consequences filled out?

No. I did miss some opportunities to communicate. So, for example, there was a National Public Radio interview that I was to give, and instead public affairs [said] that NASA headquarters would have to give that interview.

And would NASA headquarters' science position be different than yours?

I assume it would be, but that interview actually never occurred, because NPR decided they didn't want to talk to NASA headquarters.

After we were forced to take down our temperature data from the Web site, then I realized I really was going to have a very hard time communicating on this topic. So then I decided to make an issue of it, and I wrote down everything that had happened over the preceding few weeks and sent that to someone at Time Warner. But when they didn't respond to that, then I sent it to [science reporter] Andy Revkin at The New York Times, and he did write an article in The New York Times, which got some attention.

Did that change their attitude toward your ability to speak to the media?

Yeah. Fortunately the NASA administrator [Michael Griffin] became involved, and he made a very clear statement that NASA scientists should be allowed to say what they believe, and if they say something related to policy, they should identify it as their personal opinion rather than as NASA policy. He was very straightforward about that, and since then I have taken that as a license to say what I believe.

Do you know of other government scientists who have been edited or censored?

Oh, sure. I've spoken to other scientists in other agencies, and I had spoken to some scientists in NOAA, and the way they described it --

NOAA is the?

National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration. And the way they described [it], they often had to have a listener on the telephone with them -- (chuckles) -- when they spoke with the media. That sounded as bad if not worse than NASA. I mentioned that in a talk that I gave, and also I know that EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] scientists are not free to say what they believe; if it differs from administration policy, then they're not allowed to say that to the media.

In your mind, was this a pattern?

It's a pattern. Unfortunately it's been something that's been increasing over the last few decades. It's not new to this administration. It seems that the administration feels that all government employees are working for the administration rather than for the American public, and they should support the administration's positions. I just don't agree with that. I think my salary is paid by the taxpayers, and I need to be responsible in what I say, but I shouldn't torque what I say to make it fit a policy. ...

You said that other administrations had done this. Was the Bush administration any worse than the previous two? ...

Yeah. I have said that in my 30-some years in the government, I've never seen constraints on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public as strong as they are now. ...

Do you think that global warming or climate change, whatever you want to call it, has become a political issue?

Well, sure. Global warming has become a political issue because it will require very fundamental changes in our energy systems and in our way of life. It will have an impact on industry, and it so happens that industry decided it would prefer to keep things the way they are.

It's kind of unfortunate, because in the case of the ozone problem, industry decided, "Well, we should develop new chemicals which don't destroy ozone, and we can still make money." Well, I think the same is true for energy companies: They can become energy companies instead of fossil fuel companies, but some of them prefer to resist that and to just continue to sell us the fossil fuels that are the source of the problem. ...

I think it certainly is not a gloom-and-doom story in the sense that, what would be the net impact of changing our energy systems and becoming more efficient? For one thing, we can reduce air pollution. For another, the reduction of dependence on foreign sources of energy will be a huge benefit. I mean, right now we're sending huge amounts of money to different parts of the world, and some of that money can get used for things which may be very harmful to us. So if we can develop energy sources that are internal, and we can develop technology which is very energy-efficient or uses renewable energies, we can sell that globally. So it will produce good jobs, high-paying jobs, and be good for our economy in the long run.

We really need to get out in front on this. If we are the last ones to admit that we need to make changes, then it's going to be other countries that will have the technology, and we're going to be the poorer for it. But if we do get cracking on this, I see it as really very positive in terms of a cleaner atmosphere and in terms of [a] stronger economy.

When you made your "tipping point" speech, was there a scientific paper that prompted you to do it? Was there a piece of science that made you think, "I have to go and warn people"?

Yes. I think that it had become a lot clearer over the preceding few years that we are getting closer to a tipping point. And furthermore, it had become clear that we're already getting close to the warmest levels in the last million years. ... We also could see that now the temperature is going up at two-tenths of a degree Celsius per decade, so it's going to take another 50 years to make us warmer than it has been in a million years if we keep going on this path that we're on. ...

And so you felt it was your scientific and human duty to speak out?

Yeah, because the thing is that what was becoming clear to scientists is just not recognized by the general public, and I think that the scientific story had really become very clear. I don't want to be in a position where a few decades from now, my grandchildren say, "Opa understood what was going to happen, but he never tried to make it clear." So I do think it is the obligation of scientists to try to inform the public what they know.

Although there were policymakers who said, "Jim Hansen is an alarmist."

Well, I would say that I am sounding an alarm, but I think it's a legitimate alarm. I think we have very good reason for saying what we're saying.

Is there a scientific consensus behind the idea that we are close to a tipping point, that we have a finite amount of time to turn this around?

I wouldn't say that there's a scientific consensus, because there aren't that many scientists that look at the broad picture of where our climate is now compared to where it was in the earth's history. But the relatively small number of scientists who are involved in this research I think have become very concerned in the last five years, and I think it's very different than it was just 10 years ago. I think that some of the best scientists are really very concerned now, and we just haven't been able to communicate that concern, I think, to the public as well as we should.

When you see these pictures on television -- ice floes falling into the sea, polar bears stranded on little pieces of ice -- do you see those pictures differently than the general public sees them?

Well, probably we do, because you can't use pictures of ice falling into the sea to prove much of anything, because it's always been true that the glaciers shed ice at their edges and they grow at the center. But what we have now is new data, which is remarkable data; for example, the gravity satellite, which has only been up for three or four years, but it allows us to measure the mass of the Greenland ice sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

What we find is that it's true that the ice sheets are growing in the middle, but they're losing a lot more at the edges than they are at the middle, and it's not in balance. And it's changing. Even over the timescale of just the last few years, there have been notable changes. It's made a number of glaciologists very concerned that we're getting very close to a tipping point with regard to stability of the ice sheets.

And when ice grows in the middle but sheds on the corners, why is that cause for concern?

It's cause for concern because there are multiple feedbacks. Once you start disintegration of an ice sheet and get beyond a certain point, it will be impossible to stop it. ... For example, we're now measuring earthquakes on Greenland. There are seismometers located around the world which allow you to pinpoint where and when an earthquake occurs. Well, the number of earthquakes on Greenland doubled between 1993 and 1999, and now it's doubled again.

And what these earthquakes are on Greenland are icequakes: A section of the ice sheet surges forward, toward the ocean, and then it grinds to a halt on the solid land underneath the ice sheet. But those surges are increasing because of this increased melt. When you get meltwater on the surface of the ice sheet, it will go through a crevasse all the way to the base of the ice sheet, and there it lubricates the base of the ice sheet and increases these earthquakes, these icequakes. So there are a lot of signs that things are beginning to happen. Glaciologists are getting very worried about this, and I think they should be.

You've done something different than many scientists: You have not stuck to the science. You have crossed the line in some ways into talking about policy, talking about what we should do, talking about warnings. This is not a traditional role for a scientist, which is why some people have said you are an alarmist, because you are playing multiple roles.

Yeah. Somebody needs to help the public understand what are the implications. For example, NASA had a press conference on their observations on changes in the sea ice in the Arctic. They had a dry run before the press conference, and they used that to warn the scientists not to talk about policy.

So during the dry run, somebody asked, "Is there anything we could do to prevent the melting of this Arctic sea ice?" And one of my scientists said, "Well, you could reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases." Someone jumped up and said: "That's unacceptable. Scientists are not allowed to say that." Well, that's nonsense, in my opinion. If we're not able to tell the public what is needed in order to prevent what's happening, who's going to tell them? Nobody. ...

But can you think of any other scientific-related problem where we would accept scientists to cross that line and recommend policy?

No, I'm not recommending policy. In some cases I do. I make statements.

Yes you do! You certainly do.

But I identify them as my opinion. ... I don't think my opinion about policies has any more weight than that of anybody else, but, I shouldn't be prevented from saying it, and I shouldn't be prevented from connecting the dots. ...

The question is, should scientists recommend policy?

Well, I don't think scientists should recommend policy, but I think we should make clear the policy implications of our science. And I think it's all right to point out the impact of alternative policies on the particular issue; in this case, the climate.

There are just some very fundamental facts which are not understood by the public and, frankly, not understood by many policymakers. For example, more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere will stay there ... more than 500 years, and that means we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without producing a different planet. If a scientist doesn't say that, I don't think the public's going to know that. ...

It's now 2007, and there is no policy change. Are we eight years away from a tipping point?

Oh, I think we are. No more than eight years away, because at the rate of increase of CO2 emissions -- which has been about 2 percent per year -- by 2015 we will have 35 percent greater emissions than in the year 2000. That will make it very difficult, and probably impractical, to get down to the emission level that we would need in order to keep global warming under 2 degrees Fahrenheit additional warming. Then I think we will have crossed a line where there are going to be substantial climate changes which will be unavoidable.

... Is it now time to prepare for a different planet than the one that we have become used to?

We should do logical things to adapt to changing climate, but I don't think that's a practical solution. I still think we have to begin now, begin very soon to take significant actions that would avoid the large climate change. I think we should have a moratorium on any more coal-fired power plants in the United States until we have the ability to capture the CO2 and sequester it.

We could very easily live with such a moratorium by simply emphasizing energy efficiency, especially in our buildings. We have the technology now to make buildings that produce 50 percent less carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases than presently they do, but we need to have standards. We need to have regulations that say we should do those things. The building engineers, the architects, they're eager actually to do this, but unless there's some political leadership, that's not going to happen.

Texas is dealing with this very problem and in the next couple of months will decide, one way or the other, whether they are going to put coal-fired plants online. If you were in Texas, what would you tell them?

This is the most critical issue at the moment -- even more important than automobile efficiencies -- is power plants, because the lifetime of power plants is many decades; can be 50 years or 75 years. We don't want to build this old technology, coal-fired power plants. Coal may very well be used in the future, but it should be with the new technology where you capture the CO2 and sequester it. So we should not allow those to go forward. That's one thing Congress should address very soon, because I think that's one of the most important steps they could take to begin to get us on to a path that is sustainable.

Editor's Note: On Feb. 26, 2007, the Texas energy company TXU was bought in a $45 billion leveraged buyout -- the largest in American history. The new owners have pledged to put the company on a greener course and to reduce the number of planned coal-fired power plants from 11 to three.

Even if Texas doesn't, China puts a coal plant online once a week, and over the next decade they will spend more than $1 trillion in power plants. There is really little we can do to stop that.

No, there's a tremendous amount that we can do to stop that, and that's beginning to address the problem ourselves, because they will never address it if we are not doing it. And furthermore, for our own economic well-being, it would be great if we had the technology to deal with this problem, and we could sell it to the rest of the world, because China is going to turn around on this within a decade or so, once it becomes clearer what the implications are. They're going to suffer more than we are from climate change; they have hundreds of millions of people who are living close to sea level, for example. They have every reason to be concerned about climate change, and, especially as they become stronger economically, they'll be able to do that. Now, we would be better off if we had the technology to sell to them, to get back some of our money that they're getting now.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Psychology of Denial: Our Failure to Act Against Climate Change by George Marshall

The Psychology of Denial:
our failure to act against climate change

Author: George Marshall
Date Published: 22/09/2001 Source: The ecologist

My first real exposure to the issue of climate change was reading a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1988, by a leading Australian climatologist. Climate change, he said, had the potential to destroy our society and even threatened our continued survival as a species. I was deeply moved (it even spurred me to write my only ever letter of appreciation to a newspaper).

However, what really shocked me in the following days was finding that the article had created not the slightest ripple; not one opinion, editorial, or letter. It may as well have never been written. It seemed to me that something very strange had happened. A highly qualified scientist had calmly and credibly outlined a process which, were he to be believed, made all other news in the paper marginal if not irrelevant. Yet the story had sunk without a trace. I could see only two explanations; either it was a hoax, which seemed unlikely, or it was so conjectural that no-one could seriously accept it. Either way, my immediate instinctive drive to do something was squashed.

In the following years, as the articles and documentaries and news items continued to appear, I realised that there was a third explanation – that people can accept the truth of what is said without accepting the implications.

In his excellent book, States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen argues that this capacity to deny a level of awareness is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society.1 He argues that ‘far from being pushed into accepting reality, people have to be dragged out of reality’. According to Cohen’s definition, denial involves a fundamental paradox – that in order to deny something it is necessary at some level to recognise its existence and its moral implications. It is, he says, a state of simultaneous ‘knowing and not-knowing’.

This description is well suited to the current social response to climate change. The ‘knowledge’ of the problem is remarkably well established at all levels of society; the general public (68 per cent of Americans call it a serious problem in polls); the scientists (repeated letters of concern from scientific institutions); corporations (strongly worded statements by the CEOs of oil companies); the financial sector (reports warning of escalating insurance claims); the many heads of government (regular pious speeches warning of imminent disaster).

Yet, at another level, we clearly refuse to recognise the implications of that knowledge. Bill Clinton called for urgent action whilst his negotiators worked tirelessly to gut and destroy an agreement that scarcely began to reflect his own warnings. Newspapers regularly carry dire climatic warnings in the same issue as articles that breathlessly promote weekend breaks in Rio. Individuals, including my friends and family, can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new car, turn up the air conditioning, or fly across the world for a holiday.

Cohen’s analysis of the social responses to human rights abuses finds that the mechanisms of denial are extremely complex and varied. The circumstances that create any historical event are unique and it is unwise to make direct comparisons. However, following Cohen we can draw out certain consistent psychological processes that are highly pertinent to climate change.

Firstly, we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them. In Beyond Judgement, Primo Levi, seeking to explain the refusal of many European Jews to recognise their impending extermination, quotes an old German adage: ‘Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.’

In the case of climate change, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims. The language of ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘human impacts’, and ‘adaptation’ are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse; they are scientific euphemisms that suggest that climate change originates in immutable natural forces rather than in a direct causal relationship with moral implications for the perpetrator.

Secondly, we diffuse our responsibility. Cohen writes at length of the ‘passive bystander effect’ whereby violent crimes can be committed in a crowded street without anyone intervening. Individuals wait for someone else to act and subsume their personal responsibility in the collective responsibility of the group. One notable feature of the bystander effect is that the larger the number of actors the lower the likelihood that any individual person feels capable of taking unilateral action. In times of war and repression, entire communities can become incapacitated. In the case of climate change we are both bystanders and perpetrators, an internal conflict that can only intensify our denial.

Psychoanalytic theory contains valuable pointers to the ways that people may try to resolve these internal conflicts; angrily denying the problem outright (psychotic denial), seeking scapegoats (acting out), indulging in deliberately wasteful behaviour (reaction formation), projecting their anxiety onto some unrelated but containable problem (displacement), or trying to shut out all information (suppression). As the impacts of climate change intensify we can therefore anticipate that people will willingly collude in creating collective mechanisms of denial along these lines.

It seems likely, however, that suppression will dominate. In South Africa, many white bystanders who intellectually opposed apartheid adopted a passive opposition. They retreated into private life, cut themselves off from the news media, refused to talk politics with friends, and adopted an intense immersion in private diversions such as sport, holidays and families. In Brazil in the 1970s a special term, ‘innerism’, was coined for the disavowal of the political.

We can also draw on historical experience to anticipate which defenses we will adopt when, as will surely happen, we are confronted by our grandchildren demanding to know why we did so little when we knew so much. We can expect to see denial of knowledge (‘I didn’t know’), denial of our agency (‘I didn’t do it’), denial of personal power (‘I couldn’t do anything’, ‘no one else did anything’), and blaming of others (‘it was the people with the big cars, the Americans, the corporations’). For activists everywhere, it would appear crucial that an understanding of denial informs campaign strategy. As Cohen says, ‘the distinctions [between different forms of denial] may be irrelevant to the hapless victim, but they do make a difference to educational or political attempts to overcome bystander passivity’.

One conclusion is that denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end they dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy it is not working. Opinion polls reveal a high level of awareness with virtually no signs of any change in behaviour. Indeed there are plentiful signs of reactive denial in the demands for cheaper fuel and more energy.

A second conclusion is that the lack of visible public response is part of the self-justifying loop that creates the passive bystander effect. ‘Surely’, people reason, ‘if it really is that serious, someone would be doing something.’ The Herald article failed to inspire me to activity because I saw no evidence that anyone in wider society was paying any attention. Thirteen years later, we have vastly greater information with scarcely any more public action. The bystander loop has only tightened.

People will never spontaneously take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient numbers of people demand a response. To avert further climate change will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilisation across all classes and sectors of society.

For all these reasons, the creation of a large and vocal movement against climate change must be an immediate and overarching campaign objective. People will not accept the reality of the problem unless they see that others are engaging in activities that reflect its seriousness. This means they need to be confronted by emotionally charged activities; debate, protest, and meaningful, visible alternatives. Simply asking people to change their lightbulbs, plant a tree, or send in a donation, however desirable in themselves, will not build a social movement. These activities alone, although valuable, will persuade few.

Anyone concerned about this issue faces a unique historical opportunity to break the cycle of denial, and join the handful of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders. The last century was marked by self-deception and mass denial. There is no need for the 21st Century to follow suit.

George Marshall works with Risingtide, a recently formed network encouraging local action against climate change.

For more information on Rising Tide visit, call +44 (0) 1865 241 097 or email:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Defining Challenge of Our Age: Robert J. Elisberg's article in the Huffington Post

(click here for link to the article in The Huffington Post)

Bush Fiddles While the World Burns

by Robert J. Elisberg

Last Saturday, the United Nations released its intensive report on climate change. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described global warming as "the defining challenge of our age."

Not "of the decade" or even "our life." And not any mere challenge of our age -- but the one that defines us.

"Today the world's scientists have spoken," he stated, "clearly and in one voice."

Not some scientists. Not leading scientists. But the "world's scientists." United.

When the Bush administration was asked in response how much global warming it considered acceptable, the president's chairman of environmental quality, James Connaughton, responded, "We don't have a view on that."

Mind you, it's not like global warming has crept up on anyone. It's been in all the papers. You can't have missed it. Headlines, articles, reports, Oscar-winning documentaries, Nobel Prizes. Cartoons.

But the Bush administration says, "We don't have a view on that."

Rajendra Pachauri, who headed the U.N. panel, has a view. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late," the scientist told The New York Times. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future."

"The sense of urgency when you put these pieces together is new and striking," insisted climate expert Martin Parry, co-chair of the panel.

The Bush administration? "We don't have a view on that."

No view. And the alarms, red flags and world experts come blaring, flying, resounding everywhere, like avalanches.

"It's extremely clear and is very explicit that the cost of inaction will be huge compared to the cost of action," urged Jeffrey D. Sachs, head of Columbia's Earth Institute.

Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton climate scientist on the panel, reported, "Many of my colleagues would consider that kind of [Greenland ice sheet] melt a catastrophe."

The Bush Administration says, "We don't have a view on that."

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change that put this report together was awarded the Nobel Prize in October. It's been studying the problem for five years. They've now released four reports on the subject. This latest is the most blunt.

But the Bush administration says, "We don't have a view on that."

Stop any bus and wake up some sleeping wino in the back, and he would have a view on that. How can the George Bush administration possibly not have a view on it?? It's the potential fate of the world.

If you were watching a James Bond movie, and 007 reported that Ernst Blofeld had a giant laser on the moon to blow up the world unless it paid him 10 billion dollars, and then M replied, "I don't have a view on that," there'd be a stampede rushing to the box office to get their money back.

But this is freaking real life.

To be fair, Mr. Connaughton of the president's environmental council did say that "the issue warrants urgent action." It's just that the Bush administration didn't "have a view" on what that urgent action should actually be." Which sort of defeats the point of urgent action.

But perhaps best of all is that the panel's U.S. delegation admits trying to make changes to the report -- and then explains it away as only a Bush official can. The group's leader, Dr. Sharon Hays, told the Times that the effort wasn't political, but merely "to make sure the final report matches the science."

Scout's honor. But then, why would anyone think otherwise?

Oh, sure, in 2002 and 2003, White House official Philip A. Cooney -- a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute (shocking, yes, I know) -- with zero science background did edit government climate reports.

And oh, sure, over 120 scientists from seven federal agencies charged in January, 2007, that Bush officials have pressured them "to remove references to 'climate change' and 'global warming' from an expanse of documents, including communications with Congress.

And okay, yes, the head of NASA's institute studying climate, James Hansen, reported in 2006 that the Bush administration is restricting who he can speak to about the seriousness of global warming.

But other than that, the Bush administration only wanted changes in the U.N. report because they were concerned with science.

Okay, the administration's political base doesn't actually accept science, preferring instead "intelligent design" and personal faith to reality. But while the White House may not care about science, at least they do care about getting the science they don't care about right. So long as it matches what they don't care about.

The ancient Roman emperor Nero came to historical infamy for fiddling when Rome burned. Well, he was a piker when compared to President George Bush. Nero merely ignored one city when it was heating up.

"We don't have a view on that."

It helps if you open your eyes.

Scientist Tim Flannery: Greenhouse Gas Levels Grave by Meraiah Foley of the Associated Press

.By MERAIAH FOLEY Associated Press Writer
SYDNEY, Australia — Strong worldwide economic growth has accelerated the level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere to a dangerous threshold scientists had not expected for another decade, according to a leading Australian climate change expert.

Scientist Tim Flannery told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that an upcoming report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will contain new data showing that the level of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere has already reached critical levels.

Flannery is not a member of the IPCC, but said he based his comments on a thorough review of the technical data included in the panel's three working group reports published earlier this year. The IPCC is due to release its final report synthesizing the data in November.

"What the report establishes is that the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that can potentially cause dangerous climate change," Flannery told the broadcaster late Monday. "We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change, that's what these figures say. It's not next year or next decade, it's now."

Flannery, whose recent book "The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth," made best-seller lists worldwide, said the data showed that the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had reached about 455 parts per million by mid-2005, well ahead of scientists' previous calculations.

"We thought we'd be at that threshold within about a decade, that we had that much time," Flannery said. "I mean, that's beyond the limits of projection, beyond the worst-case scenario as we thought of it in 2001," when the last major IPCC report was issued.

The new data could add urgency to the next round of U.N. climate change talks on the Indonesian island of Bali in December, which will aim to start negotiations on a replacement for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Flannery said that the recent economic boom in China and India has helped to accelerate the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but strong growth in the developed world has also exacerbated the problem.

"It's a worldwide issue. We've had growing economies everywhere, we're still basing that economic activity on fossil fuels," he said. "The metabolism of that economy is now on a collision course clearly with the metabolism of our planet."

A spokesman for Australia's IPCC delegate, Ian Carruthers, said he was not available to comment on the report because it was still in draft form.

Emergency Brakes Needed to Stop Climate Crash by Stephen Leahy

Environment: Emergency Brakes Needed to Stop Climate Crash
By Stephen Leahy*

TORONTO, Nov 19 (Tierramérica) - In the end, governments accepted evidence from the world's top scientists that climate change impacts could be abrupt and irreversible, and that they require urgent action.

"The threat is real," said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"I have seen the impacts of climate change in Antarctica and the Amazon with my own eyes," Ban said in a press conference in Valencia, Spain, at Saturday's public unveiling of the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"It is a very strong document. It sends a stark message that we face abrupt and irreversible impacts," said Hans Verolme, director of the climate change programme for the international environmental group WWF.

"The report shows that the window for action is closing. Policy-makers need to take action," Verolme told Tierramérica in an interview from Valencia Saturday.

The 24-page Synthesis Report and shorter Synthesis Summary for Policymakers summarise the scientific findings from the IPCC's 2,800-page, three-volume assessment of climate change released earlier in the year.

"The Synthesis Report sets out concrete and affordable ways to deal with (climate change)," noted Ban.

The report details various effects, including increased extreme weather and sea level rises of more than one metre by 2100, and what future global temperature increases may come, depending on how much more carbon dioxide (CO2 - the main greenhouse gas) ends up in the atmosphere.

Previously, the IPCC had suggested stabilising the climate by preventing CO2 concentrations from surpassing about 450 parts per million by 2050. Current CO2 levels are around 381 ppm.

Shockingly absent from the new report is the scientific assessment of the need to reduce emissions 25 to 40 percent by 2020 in order to achieve that stabilisation target.

At an informal IPCC meeting Aug. 31 in Vienna, representatives from industrialised countries agreed that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Based on the dire warnings from scientists of the need to sharply curb emissions, even the United States and Canada "swallowed hard and accepted this", says Verolme.

Although Verolme thought this first-ever agreement on a reduction range for industrialised nations was mentioned in one of the report's many tables, Tierramérica could find no reference to it anywhere in the document.

It appears not to have survived the word-by-word examination by government representatives.

"There is no debate about the science. The debates are about the words," says Monirul Mirza, an environmental scientist at the University of Toronto and one of the three dozen authors of the draft of the Synthesis Report.

"We summarised the key findings of the main report," Mirza told Tierramérica from Valencia.

Confidential early drafts had previously been sent to every country and to representatives of civil society such as WWF for comment. After their review and revisions, the governments approved the text in Valencia.

"It is a very transparent process. Countries cannot play around with the scientific findings," he said.

But Verolme disagrees, saying that government representatives tend to water down the scientific findings in the summaries.

The summary of "The Physical Science Basis" report, released in February, failed to mention the increased incidence of potentially destructive hurricanes, the warming of the Pacific Ocean and the loss of glaciers in the European Alps, he said.

The negotiations were closed to the media and Mirza could not comment on what words the countries were arguing about. There will be no new science included because it is a summary. Furthermore, the IPCC cut-off for the incorporation of new scientific findings was a year ago, he said.

That means a number of recent scientific studies documenting the rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic Ocean sea ice, increasing acidity of the oceans or the slowing ability of forests and seas to absorb CO2 are not included.

"Climate change is going faster than our worst-case scenarios of five or six years ago," said Verolme.

Meanwhile, the science in climate change is moving so quickly that it is nearly impossible to keep up. The WWF has asked the IPCC to issue special reports, such as on sea level increases, when there are new findings.

"The IPCC is a consensus process and tends to be cautious, leaving out the more alarmist scientific findings," Verolme said.

While that may make the IPCC less vulnerable to attack by critics, it may do the world a disservice by underestimating the potential risks.

Even the gloomiest of the IPCC predictions underestimate the severity of climate change, eminent British scientist James Lovelock told the Royal Society -- Britain's national academy of science -- in late October.

One of the reasons is that the IPCC does not take the influence and impacts of natural ecosystems into account, he said.

Biological systems are changing and the IPCC does not assess those very well, agrees Stephen Tonser, an ecologist at the University of Pittsburgh, in the north-eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

The effects of climate change on biodiversity will be profound. The IPCC says almost one-third of the world's species will face extinction if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Tonser says that prediction likely falls short of reality.

The rate of extinctions will almost certainly accelerate with changing conditions brought on by climate change. "Most species simply can't move fast enough," he said.

Scientists do not know what the full effects of this rapid decline in species would be, he said.

The IPS news agency reported on Nov. 6 that new research showed that when a forest loses too many unique species, it can reduce the total number of plants in that forest by half.

As a direct consequence, "half of the oxygen they produced is lost. Half of the water, food and other ecological services they provide are lost," stated the article, "How Many Species Are 'Enough'?"

"We are riding in an airplane with the bolts falling out while heading into a storm," Tonser said.

The IPCC has greatly underestimated the climate storm ahead, says Lovelock. He calculates that when all the earth systems are taken into account an atmospheric concentration of 500 ppm of CO2 will result in a six degree rise in global temperatures, not the two degrees Celsius the IPCC says is most likely.

"The IPCC's Synthesis Report must show that while it is already too late to prevent some of global warming's impacts, we do have the ability to stop the rot," says Stephan Singer, head of WWF's European climate and energy programme.

"Governments must wake up. They could be responsible for the next mass extinction of species if they don't act to stop carbon pollution now," said Singer

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.) (END/2007)