Listen Up! Dr. James Hansen Has A Message For The Citizens Of Earth.

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Somehow, CleanTechnica has wound up on Dr. James Hansen’s e-mail distribution list. That’s a good thing, since Hansen is one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world. A former climate scientist at NASA, he first came to the attention of the American public on June 24, 1988, when he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,  ”Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now.”

His testimony lit the fuse on the whole global heating/climate change debate. Hansen and many of his colleagues have been vilified by highly paid activists in the employ of the fossil fuel industry. They have been subjected to surveillance and harassment for daring to tell the truth about what human activity is doing to the environment.

While researching this story, I came across an article in the New York Times reporting on Hansen’s testimony to the Senate in which he said that warming average global temperatures would likely lead to Southeastern and Midwestern sections of the United States being subjected to frequent episodes of very high temperatures and drought in the next decade and beyond. In addition, he warned global heating would cause a thermal expansion of the oceans and cause glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, leading to sea level rise of one to four feet by 2050. Three decades later, Hansen’s projections are proving to be eerily prescient.

Earth Energy Imbalance
Credit: Dr. James Hansen/Sentinel

The subject of Hansen’s latest e-mail is a report by Karina von Schuckmann and 37 other scientist from around the world associated with 29 world renowned research institutions. Their work focuses on what the scientists call the Earth’s energy imbalance. Simply put, it means more heat is being created than the Earth can offset by increases in average ocean temperatures or by radiating it into space.

He says there are three parameters to the global heating conundrum but only two receive regular attention — the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and average global surface temperatures. The third critical component is the  Earth’s energy imbalance and it may be the most important of the three. “Stabilizing climate requires that humanity reduce the energy imbalance to approximately zero,” Hansen writes.

“CO2 is just one of the forcings that drive climate change, even if the dominant one. Earth’s energy imbalance incorporates the effect of CO2 and all other forcings, including some, such as human-made aerosols, that are poorly measured at best. Earth’s energy imbalance will be our guide during the next several decades as we work to restore
a healthy climate for future generations. It deserves greater attention.” Hansen is vitally concerned with the kind of world we will bequeath to future generations, a concept that many in the climate denial industry seem to have no concerns about whatsoever — as if profits today are 10,000 times more important than survival of the human family in the future.

The Sentinel For The Home Planet

“Karina von Schuckmann has become perhaps the world’s leading expert in monitoring Earth’s energy imbalance, in some sense analogous to Dave Keeling monitoring atmospheric CO2. Measuring Earth’s energy imbalance is a lot harder though, it requires a whole team of experts. We might call Karina, with her team of colleagues, the “Sentinel for the Home Planet,” Hansen writes.

In 2010, he came across a paper written by von Schuckmann, Gaillard and Le Traon entitled Global hydrographic variability patterns during 2003-2008. “Within the paper there was a graph of what seemed to be the most reliable data until then of the increasing heat storage in the ocean.” A decade ago, Hansen and his colleagues were struggling to understand why the cooling effect of increased aerosols in the atmosphere after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 did not prevent average global temperatures from rising. The paper by von Schuckman et als was the first to assess the data from the Argo system of ocean temperatures sensors and it showed what no one had realized previously. The oceans are like the radiator in your car. They have a finite capacity for absorbing heat. Once that capacity is exceeded…..well, the consequences could be dire.

The oceans have been warming during the post-Industrial Revolution period, the data revealed, and their ability to absorb more heat is diminishing. Here’s one way to understand the issue. Think of the Earth as an automobile with an internal combustion engine. The engine creates heat which is transferred to the coolant system. When the coolant circulates through the radiator, it gives up some of that heat to the surrounding atmosphere. As long as the coolant temperature remains stable at around 190º F, everything is fine. But it the temperature exceeds 220º, the cooling system can fail, leading to catastrophic damage to the engine.

This latest paper is saying the oceans are the Earth’s cooling system and are getting dangerously overheated. According to Dr. Hansen’s research, the Earth has an energy imbalance of approximately 0.75 ± 0.25 W/m2. He says that number, while small, is actually equivalent to the heat generated by 400,000 nuclear explosions like the one that leveled Hiroshima — every day! The oceans have absorbed more than 80% of that excess heat but the latest research from van Shuckmann and her colleagues shows they are getting close to their theoretical ability to absorb more heat. In fact, her data says the imbalance has risen to 0.87 ± 0.12 W/m2.

Methane Is A Major Culprit

Hansen says that reducing carbon dioxide to about 350 parts per million (the number Bill McKibben chose for the name of his climate activism organization is vital but not sufficient for getting the Earth’s energy imbalance under control. “The required reduction of greenhouse gases is larger and the time that we have to achieve the reduction, even though uncertain, is certainly shorter.” One thing the global community could do is reduce other pollutants that increase average temperatures, like methane.

“However, we are in the process of doing no such thing,” Hansen says. “Methane, in principle, should present the best possibility to rapidly reduce climate forcing, because the lifetime of a methane molecule is only of the order of 10 years. If we reduce the sources, the atmospheric methane amount will decline rapidly. However, in reality, at least in
part due to fracking, methane has resumed its growth.”

A Plea For Climate Sanity

Hansen concludes his thoughts about van Schuckmann and her findings on the Earth’s energy imbalance with a plea for what we all know is the one mechanism that could address the issue immediately — pricing the cost of the destruction caused by pollutants such as carbon dioxide and methane into our economic systems. It makes no more sense to let corporations continue to pump billions of tons of crud into the atmosphere free of charge than it does to allow your neighbor to pump his sewage onto your lawn at no cost. Hansen says,

The most disconcerting fact is the seeming absence of understanding by governments of what action is required to achieve climate stabilization, and the certain absence of any plan to achieve that action. As long as the price of fossil fuels does not include their costs to humanity, the climate problem will not be solved (emphasis added). This situation is disconcerting because economists agree that the required actions make sense, independent of concerns about climate change. It is still possible that at least one of the great economic powers — the United States, China or the European Union — might adopt an across the board (oil, gas, coal) rising carbon fee. The fee could then be imposed on a near-global basis via border duties on products from countries without an equivalent fee.

Economic studies show that such a carbon fee would cause rapid phasedown of CO2 emissions without damaging economies, if the funds collected are distributed uniformly to the public. This procedure is anti-regressive, because wealthy people have a large carbon footprint. About 70 percent of the public would receive more in their dividend than they pay in increased prices for fossil fuels and products made using fossil fuels.

When governments eventually understand the implications of the climate science, the world will begin to pay more attention to the key metrics: CO2, temperature and Earth’s energy imbalance. The last of these is, by far, the most difficult to measure. I have no doubt that the Sentinel for the Home Planet will continue to provide updates for Earth’s energy imbalance, but she cannot manufacture accurate data without appropriate measurements.

Governments need to support and enhance the Argo float program. It is particularly important to enhance data collection in the Southern Ocean, where it abuts Antarctic ice. It has become clear that, because governments have been slow to understand and deal with climate change, it will be necessary to take remedial actions for the sake of young people and future generations.

Vote As If Your Life And Your Children’s Lives Depend On It

In November, Americans have a choice. They can re-elect a psychotic narcissist who cares for no one and nothing other than himself or for a man who exudes compassion for his fellow human beings and the fate of the Earth. Under ordinary circumstances, the psychopath would get one vote — his own — and the other candidate would get all the rest.

But these are not normal times. A significant segment of the US population actually believes there is a gigantic cabal within the US government composed of high ranking officials who feed on the flesh of children. The current president encourages such virulent lunacy. On Election Day, you have the power to set America back on the path of decency and respect for the Earth. Please use it.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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