Book Review

“Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity”
By James Hansen
Bloomsbury, 2009

Decades from now, climate scientist James Hansen will occupy a prominent place in our history books. He will be described as one of the first and foremost scientists to ring the alarm on climate change and its dire consequences for our planet’s future. What we don’t know now is whether humankind will heed his alarm or go on with business as usual.

Over the past 20 years Hansen has evolved from laboratory scientist and political observer to a public scientist and social activist. It isn’t a role he willingly chose. As he makes clear in the book, he doesn’t relish the spotlight. He would prefer to be poring over data and doing research in a lab and playing with his grandchildren.

But Hansen’s evolving understanding of global warming and its dire impact on future generations, including his grandchildren, brought him into the public arena where opinion is shaped and policy is decided.

If you had asked him in the 1980s if he could imagine himself advocating civil disobedience two decades later to call attention to the dangers of climate change, he would have probably said, “You’re out of your mind.”

Yet this is precisely what he advocates, among other things, in his book. His political journey stems from four simple propositions.

One is that the planet is now warmer than it has been since the end of the last glacial age roughly 12,000 years ago, and if this pattern continues it will result in catastrophe for humanity. The second is that human activity is the primary source of the changing composition of our atmosphere. The third is that humanity has to act immediately. Both governments and peoples, says Hansen, must take emergency measures now or the planet’s future is in doubt. And last, climate change is the preeminent challenge to humankind in the 21st century.

Global warming, he explains, is not new. In 1750, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the main cause of the rise in global temperatures – measured 280 molecules of carbon dioxide for every one million molecules in the air. Today, it is 387 parts per million (ppm), largely because of industrialization, urbanization and consumerism – all of which were cradled and shaped by capitalism.

The quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increased gradually since 1750, but it spiked upward in recent decades as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere at a feverish pace as a result of “human forcing,” which Hansen defines as human activities that “affect the energy balance and temperature of the Earth,” as opposed to natural forcing (volcanoes, change in the sun’s radiation, etc,)

At one time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believed that carbon dioxide could rise to 450 ppm in the atmosphere (roughly increasing average global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius) without doing significant harm. Hansen’s new research, however, suggests that this is far too optimistic. A rise of carbon dioxide to 350 ppm in the atmosphere, he writes, brings us into the danger zone. But, as mentioned, we are already at 387 ppm.

The old calculation failed to take account of amplifying feedback factors. An increase in the earth’s temperature, for example, causes the melting of ice and snow, which in turn results in less reflection of sunlight back into space and, instead, its absorption by the land and ocean and, consequently a further rise in the average global temperature. Thus human and natural “forcings” drive climate change, but amplifying feedback loops determine its magnitude – in other words, a vicious circle.

This new scientific finding, Hansen argues, makes it imperative to “immediately recognize the need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 ppm in order to avoid disasters for coming generations.”

If we continue to produce and consume as we have over decades (business as usual), the Earth will be warmer than it has been since the Pliocene period, 3 million years ago.

So what’s the big deal? Well, the great ice sheets will melt and eventually sea levels could rise as much as 80 feet. The frozen northern tundra will thaw and release tons of methane into the atmosphere. Whole ecological systems will collapse and millions of species, unable to migrate or adapt to new conditions fast enough, will become extinct. Violent storms will become commonplace. Water vapor (the cause of the largest climate change feedback) will increase. And more.

At some point, human intervention will be unable to slow down and stop this process. Obviously civilization as we know it will change drastically.

While responsibility rests on every nation, for each contributes to the planet’s warning, it doesn’t rest equally. The main polluters of the atmosphere as well as the land and water are the core capitalist countries.

Hansen mentions that China issues more carbon into the atmosphere now in absolute numbers. But when measured on a per capita basis the United States is still the main culprit, he notes.

Moreover, he says, when considered as a cumulative process (which most people fail to consider) over nearly three centuries, the leading polluters are the United Kingdom and the United States.

Hansen’s findings argue for an accelerated transition to new energy sources and sustainable development. He insists on the need for an immediate carbon tax that would penalize those with the largest carbon footprint – big corporations – while also making a case for the elimination of coal production and expansion of nuclear power on an interim basis.

He considers capping and trading emissions ineffective.

He also acknowledges that the countries of the global South who would be devastated by rising temperatures require the material assistance of the countries of the North. After all, not only is their carbon footprint much, much smaller than the capitalist core countries, but their wealth was drained and their human and natural resources exploited with no regard for environmental consequences by these same countries.

What Hansen doesn’t do is connect climate change and environmental degradation to the dynamics of capitalist development, although he is clear about the role of corporations and the extreme right who still deny and stymie any attempt, even the most modest, to cut down on carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

This is a small quarrel with a book that is a must-read for everyone. The science is sometimes daunting, but do what I do: try to get the gist of what Hansen is saying and move on. You won’t be disappointed. 



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.