“We Are Damned Fools” — James Hansen

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On June 23, 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen told the US Senate the greenhouse effect had been detected, indicating that the climate was in fact changing. Hansen has been a committed opponent of burning coal, saying “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is that they are working for ‘clean coal.’ The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal fired power plants are factories of death.”

He also has warned about the onrushing Sixth Great Extinction, saying “Several times in Earth’s long history rapid global warming of several degrees occurred. In each case, more than half of plant and animal species went extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years but these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world that we inherited from our elders.”

James Hansen & The Sounds Of Silence

Hansen’s words fell on deaf ears. His warnings spawned a movement populated by opportunists, know-nothings, charlatans, and committed climate deniers like that consummate jackass James Inhofe, a senator who once brought a snowball into the well of the Senate to “prove” that climate change was a hoax. His grandchildren must be very proud.

Hansen has been stalked, vilified, denounced as a lunatic, and arrested for attempting to speak the truth about climate change. This week, as the Earth begins to resemble a baked potato, he said the world is shifting towards a superheated climate not seen in the past 1 million years, which is long before the first humans came into existence. The reason, Hansen said, is because “we are damned fools” for not acting upon warnings over the climate crisis.

The world has already warmed by about 1.2°C since mass industrialization, causing a 20% chance of having the sort of extreme summer temperatures currently seen in many parts of the northern hemisphere, up from a 1% chance 50 years ago, Hansen said.

“There’s a lot more in the pipeline, unless we reduce the greenhouse gas amounts,” Hansen, who is 82, told The Guardian. “These superstorms are a taste of the storms of my grandchildren. We are headed wittingly into the new reality. We knew it was coming.” Hansen’s own granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, is one of the named plaintiffs in the climate lawsuit known as Juliana Vs US that seeks to establish the the government owes young people a clean, safe environment.

Juliana Vs US

James Hansen Our Children's Trust T Shirt
Image credit: Our Children’s Trust

When she was 18, Kivlehan said at a UN climate conference, “I am afraid and I am angry at the problems that greedy and foolish adults have created. Adults, you say you love us, but I challenge you to make your actions reflect your words without consideration for profit, instead caring about what is most important — the lives of your children.”

Juliana Vs US was filed in 2015. Since then, the world’s fossil fuel companies have thrown phalanxes of $1000 an hour liars lawyers into the battle to derail the suit and obstruct the plaintiffs’ demands that they release the documentation that will prove they have been deliberately, and with malice aforethought, lying through their teeth to protect their business model — and save their own asses from charges of ecocide. It is now 2023.

The courts are not going to save us in time, especially with a supermajority of handpicked fossil fuel stooges on the Supreme Court, all of whom have sworn a blood oath to follow the teachings of the gospel according to Trump and Charles Koch.

The Worst Is Yet To Come

Hansen told The Guardian the record heatwaves that have punished the US, Europe, China, and other nations all around the globe in recent weeks have heightened “a sense of disappointment that we scientists did not communicate more clearly and that we did not elect leaders capable of a more intelligent response. It means we are damned fools. We have to taste it to believe it.”

2023 is likely to be the hottest year ever recorded in human history. Temperatures in the Middle East hit 152º F (60ºC) this past week. Yet Hansen warns that 2023 may become the new normal as temperatures continue to climb. “Things will get worse before they get better,” he said. “This does not mean that the extreme heat at a particular place this year will recur and grow each year. Weather fluctuations move things around. But the global average temperature will go up and the climate dice will be more and more loaded, including more extreme events.”

Hansen has argued in a new research paper, which has yet to be peer reviewed, that the rate of global heating is accelerating, even when natural variations — such as the current El Niño climatic event — are accounted for. This is due to what he said was an “unprecedented” imbalance in the amount of energy coming into the planet from the sun versus the energy reflected away from Earth.

Welcome To The Pliocene

While global temperatures are climbing due to the burning of fossil fuels, scientists are divided over whether this rate is accelerating. “We see no evidence of what Jim is claiming,” said Michael Mann, a University of Pennsylvania climate scientist who added that the heating of the climate system had been “remarkably steady.”

Others have said the idea was plausible, although more data was required to be certain. “It’s maybe premature to say the warming is accelerating, but it’s not decreasing, for sure. We still have our foot on the gas,” said Matthew Huber, an expert in paleoclimatology at Purdue University.

Scientists have estimated, through reconstructions based on evidence gathered via ice cores, tree rings, and sediment deposits, that the current surge in heating has already brought global temperatures to levels not seen on Earth since about 125,000 years ago, before the last ice age.

“We quite possibly are already living in a climate that no human has lived through before and we are certainly living in a climate that no human has lived in since before the birth of agriculture,” said Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University.

Should global temperatures rise by a further 1ºC or more, which is widely predicted to happen by the end of the century if a drastic reduction in emissions does not occur, Huber said Hansen was “broadly correct” that the world will be plunged into the sort of warmth not seen since 1 to 3 million years ago during the Pliocene Age, when beach trees grew near the South Pole and sea levels were about 20 meters (65 feet) higher than they are today.

“That is a radically different world,” said Huber. “We are pushing temperatures up to Pliocene levels, which is outside the realm of human experience. It’s such a massive change that most things on Earth haven’t had to deal with it. It’s basically an experiment on humans and ecosystems to see how they respond. Nothing is adapted to this.”

The Rate Of Change

Previous shifts in the climate, spurred by greenhouse gases or changes in the Earth’s orbit, have caused changes to unfold over thousands of years. But as heatwaves strafe populations unused to extreme temperatures, forests burn, and marine life struggles to cope with soaring ocean heat, the current upward spike is occurring at a pace not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

“It’s not just the magnitude of change, it’s the rate of change that’s an issue,” said Ellen Thomas, a Yale University scientist who studies climate over geologic timescales. “We have highways and railroads that are set in place, our infrastructure can’t move. Almost all my colleagues have said that, in hindsight, we have underestimated the consequences. Things are moving faster than we thought, which is not good.”

This summer’s searing heat has fully revealed to the world a message that Hansen attempted to deliver 35 years ago and scientists have worked hard to convey since, according to Huber. “We have been staring this in the face as scientists for decades, but now the world is going through that same process, which is like the five stages of grief. It’s painful to watch people go through it. But we can’t simply give up because the situation is dire,” he added. “We need to say ‘Here is where we need to invest and make changes and innovate’ and not give up. We can’t just write off billions of people.”

And yet the fossil fuel companies are perfectly willing to do precisely that if it means they can continue shoveling obscene profits into their corporate coffers. The G20 meets later this week after a call to action by the president of the World Bank. COP 28 takes place in November. Its president has said that replacing fossil fuels is inevitable.

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The Takeaway

After all this rhetoric, will anything change? Based on the observable evidence provided by the results of James Hansen’s lifelong quest to educate the world about the dangers of an overcooked planet, it’s hard to feel optimistic. If we walked past a neighbor’s house and saw it on fire, we would run to assist those inside. But when we see the world in flames, we shrug and say, “Oh well. What can be done?

The answer is that quite a lot can be done, and we better get busy doing it — while there is still time.

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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." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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