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Hansen writes: "Hurricane Sandy was not just a storm. It was a stark illustration of the power that climate change can deliver - today - to our doorsteps."

Dr. James Hansen says climate change is here now. (photo: NRDC)
Dr. James Hansen says climate change is here now. (photo: NRDC)

Climate Change Is Happening Now

By James Hansen, Guardian UK

01 December 12


The extreme weather events of 2012 are what we have been warning of for 25 years, but the answer is plain to see

ill our short attention span be the end of us? Just a month after the second "storm of a century" in two years, the media moves on to the latest scandal with barely a retrospective glance at the implications of the extreme climate anomalies we have seen.

Hurricane Sandy was not just a storm. It was a stark illustration of the power that climate change can deliver - today - to our doorsteps.

Ask the homeowners along the New Jersey and New York shores still homeless. Ask the local governments struggling weeks later to turn on power to their cold, darkened towns and cities. Ask the entire north-east coast, reeling from a catastrophe whose cost is estimated at $50bn and rising. (I am not brave enough to ask those who've lost husbands or wives, children or grandparents).

I bring up these facts sadly, as one who has urged us to heed the scientific evidence on climate change for the past 25 years. The science is clear: climate change is here, now.

Superstorm Sandy is not the first storm, and certainly won't be the last. Still, it is hard for us as individual human beings to connect the dots. That's where observation, data and scientific analysis help us see.

No credible scientist disputes that we have warmed our climate by almost 1.5C over land areas in the past century, most of that in the past 30 years.

As my colleagues and I demonstrated in a peer-reviewed study published this summer, climate extremes are already occurring much more frequently in the world we have warmed through our reliance on fossil fuels.

Our analysis showed that extreme summer heat anomalies used to be infrequent: covering only 0.1-0.2% of the globe in any given summer during the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. During the past decade, as the average global temperature rose, such extremes have covered 10% of the land.

Extreme temperatures deliver more than heat.

The water cycle is especially sensitive to rising temperatures. Increased heat speeds up evaporation, causing more extreme droughts, like the $5bn (and counting) drought in Texas and Oklahoma. It is linked to an expanding wildfire season and an increase by several fold in the frequency of large fires in the American west.

The heat also leads to more extreme sea surface temperatures - a key culprit behind Sandy's devastating force. The latent heat in atmospheric water vapour is the fuel that powers tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes. Stepping up evaporation with warmer temperatures is like stepping on the gas: More energy-rich vapour condenses into water drops, releasing more latent heat as it does so, causing more powerful storms, increased rainfall and more extreme flooding. This is not a matter of belief. This is high-school science class.

The chances of getting a late October hurricane in New York without the help of global warming are extremely small. In that sense, you can blame Sandy on global warming. Sandy was the strongest recorded storm, measured by barometric pressure, to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, eclipsing the hurricane of 1938.

But this fixation on determining the blame for a particular storm, or disputing the causal link between climate change and this or that storm, is misguided.

A better path forward means listening to the growing chorus - Sandy, extreme droughts and wildfires, intense rainstorms, record-breaking melting of Arctic sea ice - and taking action. Think of it like taking out an insurance policy for the planet.

We can fix this. The answer is a price on carbon. We must make the price of fossil fuels honest, reflecting their cost to society including the economic devastation wrought by storms like Sandy, the toll on farmland and ecosystems, as well as priceless human lives.

Whether that price takes the shape of a carbon tax, as some in Washington are now willing to discuss, or a carbon fee, as I have advocated, a price on carbon lets the market find the most effective ways to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels. It also moves us to a sustainable energy future where energy choices are made by individuals and communities, not by Washington mandates and lobbyists.

A carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, will increase consumer costs. So the money that is collected should be distributed to the public. As people try to minimise their energy costs to keep money for other things, their actions will stimulate the economy, drive innovations and transition us away from fossil fuels.

If we make our demand for action clear enough, I am optimistic that our leaders in Washington can look beyond the short-term challenges of today to see the looming, long-term threats ahead, and the answer that is right in front of them. We can't simply allow the next news cycle to distract us from the real task ahead.

Back in the 1980s, I introduced the concept of "climate dice" to make clear the difference between natural variability and climate-change driven extremes. As I predicted, the climate dice in the 21st century are now "loaded". It's not just bad luck Sandy pummelled America's coasts, extreme drought devastated its midlands and wildfires scorched its mountains.

We loaded the dice. We changed our climate. your social media marketing partner


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+20 # X Dane 2012-12-02 01:06
I think many of us on this site have read Dr. Hansen's warning, and I am sure, that but for a few skeptics, we believe him and would like to do what we can to help save the planet for our children.

However Dr Hansen needs to be out on the MAJOR TV STATIONS. And it should be in PRIME TIME. There are many regular people, who understands the danger we are in, and they will be interested in hearing what we can do revers the situation.

When the current financial cliff or hill problem is solved. I hope the president will think about what we can do as a country, and get the other bigger countries involved in ... a big conference.

A REAL SERIOUS CONFERENCE, where the countries can work out solutions, and ways to solve the carbon problem.
Scientists Have to be actively involved, not just politicians. Gore should also get back in the forefront again.
+8 # guyachs 2012-12-02 12:49
Iagree but there's a lot of money being spent to keep his message off major tv stations.
+18 # jlg 2012-12-02 02:05
The mute appeal of the polar bear clinging to a small fragment of ice says it all. Not since the horror in the girl's eyes on the cover of that unforgettable issue of National Geographic magazine have I seen such proof that indeed a picture is better than 1000 words. In both cases the message is of blatant disregard of suffering and death - and the rush of mankind towards its own demise.
+7 # seeuingoa 2012-12-02 04:05
Sandy and Colorado wildfires was just the foreplay.

The real fucking starts next year,
and next year, and next...........
+12 # dovelane1 2012-12-02 05:42
Isn't it the ostrich that buries its head in the sand when it is afraid? Because it's an animal, people don't seem to comprehend the mirrored image right before their eyes.

To many people, change is not comfortable, and people want to stay in their comfort zone.

Syndicated columnist Sydney Harris wrote that people are caught between two polar opposite drives - truth and comfort - and that it is difficult to yoke the two together because comfort insulates us from the truth, and truth makes us uncomfortable.

What most people want is for things to stay the same but get better. If things stayed the same, then they wouldn't feel uncomfortable.

This tendency to stay in denial, to try to stay in one's comfort zone, may work in the short run, but in the long run, because of climate change, things are going to get VERY VERY uncomfortable. Unfortunately, that is probably what it is going to take for people to change. Barry Commoner supposedly wrote that by the time the "average" person figures this out, it will be too late. I hope he's wrong.

What is going to bother me the most are the people who say, "Gosh, why didn't you tell us sooner?"

The real question is why didn't you pull your head out of that place where the sun don't shine, and pay attention sooner and better?
+1 # mdhome 2012-12-02 22:42
"Barry Commoner supposedly wrote that by the time the "average" person figures this out, it will be too late. I hope he's wrong.

What is going to bother me the most are the people who say, "Gosh, why didn't you tell us sooner?"

My thinking is he is right! Someone once said "a curse is may you to live in interesting times"
Well, I think it is getting interesting and will get much more interesting soon. I agree it will be frustrating when people say "why didn't you tell us sooner" But you know that will be what they say.
+19 # brianf 2012-12-02 06:46
As bad as the recent disasters made worse by climate change are, they are nothing compared to what we will experience if we don't stop global warming soon. It won't be easy to quickly transform our energy system, but it will be many orders of magnitude easier than living in the hell we will be forcing our descendants to deal with if we don't. No more delays. If we are decent human beings we will make this happen now.
+20 # Vgwitmer 2012-12-02 07:33
For anyone who doesn't remember: it was James Hansen who went to Congress in 1988 to tell members about global warming. They gave him 15 minutes and went on to something else. He is doing his best, including being arrested for taking part in a sit- in to promote awareness of climate change. He is an unrecognized American hero whose knowledge and advice the whole country needs to understand and heed. Thank you, RSN, for publishing this piece for your readers.
+16 # MainStreetMentor 2012-12-02 08:33
The persons who "guffah" at facts and discussions regarding the verifiable facts of climate change and global warming, are those who are heavily invested in the coal and petroleum industries. They seek the revenues from them - and care NOT about anything else. If our legislature continues to have their collective "heads turned" by these gluttonous profiteers and their lobbyists, there will NEVER be any corrections made. Greed is the culprit. Greed is the reason.
+5 # Regina 2012-12-02 18:10
There's another segment of the population, playing right into the hands of the industrialists profiting from carbon fuels. They're the vast numbers of people who did not get adequate education in science, suffered through the little that was required of them, and now think they have a choice, a vote, on whether to "believe" what little reaches them now. They're easily manipulated by the corporate spokesmen, and they deny and oppose and jeer at warnings like this article, even when they suffer superstorms or fires directly.
+13 # fredboy 2012-12-02 09:53
The heightening of prolonged seawater warmth is combining with fertilizer and related nutrient outflow into the Gulf of Mexico along the Southwest Florida coast. The result is a dangerous "soup" of neurotoxic bacteria that is threatening marine and mammal species here. Yet government officials refuse to prevent the runoff. In a decade the crisis will lead to a ban on all swimming and seafood consumption here; in five decades the beachfronts will be abandoned. The health consequences will include and surpass ALS and other neuro disorders, as the mix introduces new strains of bacteria with most horrible effects. All could be prevented, but humankind is unwilling to accept any responsibility for the future.
+8 # guyachs 2012-12-02 12:52
but the other side always counters with the argument that it's going to cost jobs. Obama said he won't do anything that will cause a loss of jobs. The other side is also preventing the creation of jobs in green technology and stem cell research and they have the microphone
+1 # 2012-12-02 13:16
Based on decades of learning, experience, research and exchanges with many people, I am in full agreement with Dr James Watts findings.
I propose that it is useless to expect governments and other existing institutions (e.g multi-national corporations esp. in oil and fossil fuels) to take adequate action to adjust our collective behaviors to climate change at least damage to ourselves as a species and to the biosphere. Other paths are to be opened and the first step for people like us would be to join forces and try to wake up a sufficient number (largest possible) of persons around us in a sufficient number of locales (as many as possible) as rapidly as possible, in order to create pressure on these governments and other institutions so that they open their eyes to the risks to them as well as to us all, and we become capable of mobilizing their forces in a drastic change of direction. All that without causing more damages than there already is. Details to whomever wishes to find more about such possible action. There is no possibility to "fight" against climate change with any chance of success, but it is quite possible to find ways to adapt to change and to reduce its intensity and rapidity by modifying ASAP and as effectively as possible our ways of doing things.

I know that this is a stiff challenge. But what is the alternative?
+5 # Helen 2012-12-02 14:53
Thank you, Mr. Hansen. Our fossil fuel use is bringing about environmental disaster, and we have a huge national deficit on our hands. We could use both a hefty carbon tax AND a carbon fee to start addressing both of these situations. I've suggested this to my legislators, and hope others will do the same.
+3 # 2012-12-02 19:31

Helen et al.:

Do you really believe, hope or think that your legislators in the USA (and by the way, legislators anywhere in the world) have a real possibility (and will) to initiate the necessary changes when all powerful lobbies industries, big businesses and financial groups only see in climate change messages warnings by concerned professionals and topmost scientists a hoax to reduce their profits and power?
+1 # Helen 2012-12-03 12:10
Yves et al:

It's so easy to be cynical. Short of a people's revolution, what would you suggest? Should we just lie back and be too lazy to even try to make a difference?
+1 # brianf 2012-12-04 10:08
I agree with you, Helen. No matter how hopeless the situation looks, as long as there is any chance of making the future better than it would have been, it is worth trying. And when the stakes are this high, it's worth all the effort we can muster.
-1 # 2012-12-04 12:45
Helen, Brianf et al:

Thanks for your reaction.

Full agreement with your statement that we cannot "just lie back and be too lazy to even try to make a difference." However action to make a difference must be targeted at points where it can have an effect.

Calling on governments et al, will achieve nothing and has achieved nothing valid. No point in blaming anyone. They cheat but could not do anything else even if they wanted: they are trapped in an unworkable system and so are we, yet to a lesser point. I am not advocating a "people's revolution", but something else that is based on considerable experience and research and that I see as more likely to produce something constructive.

I am not cynical but try to be practical. I am really trying to get something done that goes far beyond asking governments and other, private and public institutions to do something they don't want and can't do. What I am working at might trace a path toward reason and survival of our species and the biosphere at least further damage.

I have given in my comments my e-mail address as a user name. Further discussion of what I am trying to do is not to be inscribed in the comments about this otherwise very worthwhile paper. Welcome if you want to communicate directly.

Yves Bajard
-1 # brycenuc 2012-12-03 13:10
The notion of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) a gross exaggeration and or absolute hoax. It is a futile effort to counter a non-existent problem with a gross waste of funds.

There are five very good reasons to reject the goals of the proponents of CAGW.

1.The charter of the UN's IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) contains incentive to never question that human beings are causing global warming.

2. The data supporting AGW is been manipulated and the IPCC principals have deliberately prevented publication of opposing view points.

3. Valid analyses show that the dilution of atmospheric CO2 by land and ocean interchange, will prevent it's ever becoming an environmental hazard and will greatly limit our ability to control it.

4. The proposed reduction in our use of carbon based fuels will curtail our ability to supply civilizations energy needs long before we can develop viable alternatives to their use.

5. The claim of overwhelming support of CAGW by qualified scientists is untrue.
+1 # brianf 2012-12-04 10:06
Wrong on all counts.
0 # bobby t. 2012-12-05 10:47
The first thing to do is rational, like a carbon tax, or alturnative energy methods a la Germany, etc. Next comes irrational ideas, like the tea party's brilliant statements.
This is not the first time in history that nature has given us an opportunity to show our real nature, which is that man are wolves (Sigmund Freud) or irrational (the existentialists ). We are both irrational and a wolf pack, and also very rational at times.
In the history of Mankind the Mayans give us a stunning example of how we behave: When first confronted with a very long absense of rain, years and years of it effecting their corn and other crops, they first were intensely rational.
They built all kinds of things to deal with it, including cisterns and refrigeration technigues.
When that didn't work, they started sacrificing slaves, then virgins, and then babies to the sun god. We are at that stage now. The tea party believes in throwing babies heads off of their high temples in an effort to stop what they know will be their doom. This is what we are. Great and at the same time, idiots.

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