Hansen: More Science, Not Less

In his first post-retirement essay, a remarkable communication, James Hansen summarizes his position, and announces that he will get more science done in his retirement, not less.

His point of view on the physics is:

Climate system inertia means that it will take several centuries for the eventual extreme
global warming mentioned above to occur, if we are so foolish as to burn all of the fossil fuel
resources. Unfortunately, despite the ocean’s thermal inertia, the transient climate phase this
century, if we continue business-as-usual fossil fuel burning, is likely to cause an extended phase
of extreme climate chaos. As ice sheets begin to shed ice more and more rapidly, our climate
simulations indicate that a point will be reached when the high latitude ocean surface cools while
low latitudes surfaces are warming. An increased temperature gradient, i.e., larger temperature
contrast between low and high latitudes, will drive more powerful storms, as discussed in
“Storms of My Grandchildren”.10

I think it’s pretty much becoming clear that the chaos has begun. The above leaves me with the impression that Hansen is proposing a somewhat different mechanism than the Francis/Vavrus one, and one that seems to me at least more satisfying at first blush.

This sort of brings back the old Broecker “Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse” scenario, that got blown up into scary sudden ice-age scenarios. There will be a tug-of-war between Greenland melting and polar waters cooling. I propose that cold-season sea ice will not decline very much, and perhaps even increase. This fits in with what we are seeing in Antarctica that the confusion squad is so quick to jump on.

But his de facto non-retirement is also worthy of note as much as his de jure retirement:

I also realize that the interview I gave regarding my retirement may have left the
impression that I would now be working mainly on specific actions to stem fossil fuel extraction
and use. I believe all the individual actions occurring at many places are very important and the
sum of them may help turn the tide to clean energies. But I must keep up with and contribute to
climate science or I cannot be effective, so I hope to be doing more science rather than less — and
science requires more than 40 hours a week –so it is not practical for me to respond to all the
requests that I am receiving.

So Hansen joins Muller and pioneer Peter Gleick as a scientific entrepreneur. Are conventional scientific institutions in decline?

I also want to support two or three people working with me, so I
need to spend time in fund raising – and I am finding that it is not easy to get foundation support.

Finally, as a new non-government-employee he allows himself a little poiltical snark:

. I will continue to support the growing 350.org movement. I support
CitizensClimateLobby.org especially, because of their focus on fee-and-dividend, which I
believe is the sine qua non for phase out of fossil fuels. I hope you noticed the op-ed supporting
fee-and-dividend in the Wall Street Journal by George Shultz and Gary Becker, who point out
that fee-and-dividend plus removal of energy subsidies would provide a level playing field and
be good for the economy and jobs. There is also a Democratic (Boxer/Sanders) bill in Congress, 7
but as usual they cannot keep their hands off our wallets, proposing to take 40% of the money to
make government bigger, including congressional specification of how 15% of the money is to
be spent. Washington seemslikely to remain dysfunctional on climate policy, so when we get a
bit closer to 2016 I will argue why I think we need a third party. In the meantime we must try to
do what we can with what we have. Somebody with access to the President should wake him up
to the implications of going down the unconventional fossil fuels route (I have tried, but failed to
get access). He will have a heck of a lousy legacy if he takes the big step down that road with
the Keystone pipeline. This is an area where he could reach across the aisle,suggesting that he is
open to the idea of a revenue neutral carbon fee, which would save much more carbon than the
Keystone pipeline would carry, but he would have to give up the Democratic penchant for telling
us how to spend our money.


  1. I may have misunderstood, but I had always thought that the Francis/Vavrus stuff was more transitional as we lose the Arctic Sea ice, and was down to Arctic amplification. Once the albedo differences are done, we are in a more uniformally warming world and those effects would start to be overwhelmed by the longer term warming. This is then when Hansen's stuff becomes more apparent, as the ice caps are more and more affected. So the two are not incompatible.

    The has been many people in the UK saying things like "what happened to the Mediterranean summers we were promised". That the move to that sort of climate has been preditced out at 2080 seems to have escaped their notice. However at the same time there was a study that suggested that ice loss in certain parts of the Arctic could cause colder winters in Western Europe dues to increasing chances of Easterlies - I'm not sure that they had nailed down the machanism so don't know whether it ties in with current thinking or not. I had a quick look for it, but can remember very few details (authors, actual year of publish, Arctic regions, etc.) so searching is a tad difficult. Anyway, the paper did piont out that this effect was transitory and based on certain levels of ice in those regions. As the ice vanished completely and as the global warming moved beyond certain levels, the effect was removed.

    So I think we're likley to see different variations on the way to whatever final, state we're headed for. As you say we're kicking it. If you kick something hard enough it'll wobble in different directions before it falls over.

    But as I say, I may have misunderstood some of the above research.

  2. Somebody with access to the President should wake him up
    to the implications of going down the unconventional fossil fuels route (I have tried, but failed to
    get access)

    "Science outta line"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    Science is just another interest
    For a hearing, get in line
    If you've got bad news to give to us
    The President has little time

  3. I do not understand the issues with Jennifer Francis's work (and Vavrus, no doubt). Take a look and tell me what's wrong with this. It's a nice short (well, 16 minutes) accessible version with excellent graphics. I also don't understand why her work is regarded as being in competition with other rational people looking at climate consequences. Seems all of a piece to me.


  4. And for backup you can look at the family of water vapor animations. Here are a few:


    North pole centric (with a hole in the middle)
    (aside from being (a) endlessly fascinating and (b) too fast, this seems to me to offer proof that the jet stream is going haywire)

    Other alternatives here (this one is western view)

  5. We are now in the "Francis phase of weather change": The reduced temperature gradient between arctic and tropics affecting e.g. the circumpolar jet stream, producing weird stuff like Frankenstorm Sandy or Welsh lambs frozen to the ground in spring.

    After that the "Hansen phase of weather change" is postulated: The temperature gradient will increase again, leading to megastorms even in Europe.

    ((I'm not convinced (don't understand) how the Arctic ocean will get cooled that much. Can Greenland shed that many icebergs or cold glacier melt water? Winter ice would need to be much reduced, as it isolates warm summer waters. There might be a feedback from storms, cracking and shredding the ice like it happened early this year.))

    But on the way to Hansen's Storms there could well be some critical transition of the Earth system or some subsystem like ocean currents. Some chaotic phase of climate change with emergent phenomena totally unexpected (not expectable via climate models).

  6. Melted ice floats on sea water. That tends to cool things down locally. This can cause an enhanced surface gradient. That's what Hansen is talking about.

    I haven't seen the numbers. If it's happening already I'd be surprised.

    But this was the mechanism of the Younger Dryas cooling. It's possible that there's still a bullet or two left in that revolver.

    In general, a lot of things on the climate system are getting further from equilibrium. The system is going to get weirder. Our capacities to predict what will happen will likely be outpaced by what actually happens.

  7. Thanks guys. As usual, my lack of technical ability trips me up. However, my view continues to be that they are both likely right in their own ways and the phenomena interact and/or exist in parallel, as well as different timeframes for different kinds of action (to state the obvious).

    I'm particularly partial to this statement (mt) which encapsulates what I think Jennifer Francis is trying to articulate and frame in terms of science and evidence:

    In general, a lot of things on the climate system are getting further from equilibrium. The system is going to get weirder. Our capacities to predict what will happen will likely be outpaced by what actually happens.

  8. Pingback: Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, May 12, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  9. Michael, I thought the uncovered arctic water would directly radiate more heat to the atmosphere and space, thus cooling more efficiently than it does under ice? Is the meltwater cooling you mention more significant than that?

  10. Here's the study I mention above: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009JD013568/abstract

    Thanks to commenter "Chris" at SKS for posting it in response to this article: http://www.skepticalscience.com/jetstream-guide.html

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