Heat and scientists’ anxiety are off the charts

To understand what’s happening around us we can simply look at the sky or check the weather forecast. Or we can listen to people like James Hansen, whose life’s work is understanding climate. 

A slow-talking son of a poor tenant farmer in America’s conservative heartland of Iowa, Hansen had an unpromising start in life. But he chose physics over farming and turned out to be a big-picture genius. NASA employed him to study the weather of Venus, where he quickly saw lessons for Earthlings, above all that a carbon-rich, heat-trapping atmosphere is a sure path to extinction.

In 1981 a paper by Hansen in the journal Science projected 21st century warming “of almost unprecedented magnitude” –something he called “the most fascinating global geophysical experiment” in history. In 1987 he described a strong global warming signal, and in testimony to Congress the following year declared that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning was “changing our climate now”.

Where are we 35 years on? This week we’ll see the European Union’s global temperature analysis for last month. July is regarded as certain to be well clear of any other month on the 83-year global record – a mind-boggling 1C warmer than in the early years of that record. Even more worrying is global sea-surface heat, which since mid-April has gone completely off the charts.

Since retiring from NASA in 2013, Hansen has directed a climate awareness and solutions program at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, New York. His refreshingly readable research papers are for anyone wanting to understand the science. Googling “Hansen Columbia” will get you there.

In his post-NASA career he has dedicated himself to working with young people – those who will bear the consequences of climate change – and cautioning policymakers to heed underlying factors like global energy imbalance and an overheated world ocean. 

Hansen is no ivory-tower scientist. His bare-bones upbringing taught him a lot about low-income lives, and his 2010 book “Storms of my grandchildren” focused on how ordinary folk and their families will be affected by a heating world.

He remains optimistic: “people still have the power to shape the future” he said recently. As his country by turns sizzled, burned, drowned or blew away, he expressed a faint hope that this extreme summer might persuade “the darned fools” who oppose action “that we know what we’re talking about”. 

Like many people, including me, Hansen has approached the problem of climate change on the basis that reason does matter and that when the evidence is clear people will sooner or later accept the need to change how we do things.

But that’s not how it works. Hansen and all of us who are frustrated by humanity’s failure to address the root causes of our desperate situation are having to face the essential truth that the story of climate change is not about carbon, heat and the like. It’s the story of us, of our dominant species and all its inherent complexities.

It is the height of folly for people with no specialist climate knowledge to snipe at the science from the sidelines. Yet people with influence are promoting the imaginary notion that warming is not happening, or is benign. So, in effect, are the rest of us in the wealthy West who continue to live beyond the planet’s means.

It works both ways: governments operate on the basis that electors want to retain the level of energy support they have always enjoyed. Who among us is prepared to step back from that? For instance, who’s willing to end personal use of fossil fuel to commute, or to travel to the other side of the world? Very few, I suspect.

But individuals making do with less count for nothing while government-subsidised fossil fuel companies continue opening up new deposits. Even with the best will in the world business and people alike will favour cheap options, which still allows plenty of room for fossil fuels. Our only chance to slay the climate dragon is by means of government regulation. 

What is exercising UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres is what has always bothered Hansen: that with time of the essence, politicians and those who influence them are literally playing with fire if they cannot break our dependence on fossil fuels – today if not sooner.

It might once have seemed okay to cut “darned fools” some slack, but no longer, which is why Guterres is now using apocalyptic terms – and why he’s being loudly accused of losing the plot. He hasn’t. He speaks with those who do the science, and they are very, very anxious.

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