Storms of my Grandchildren

I hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Christmas. Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while.

The worst part of the recent book by NASA climatologist James Hansen is, undoubtedly, the subtitle. The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity – really? That doesn’t sound like the intrinsic, subdued style of Dr. Hansen. In my opinion, it simply alienates the very audience we’re trying to reach: moderate, concerned non-scientists.

The inside of the book is much better. While he couldn’t resist slipping in a good deal of hard science (and, in my opinion, these were the best parts), the real focus was on climate policy, and the relationship between science and policy. Hansen struggled with the prospect of becoming involved in policy discussions, but soon realized that he didn’t want his grandchildren, years from now, to look back at his work and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”

Hansen is very good at distinguishing between his scientific work and his opinions on policy, and makes no secret of which he would rather spend time on. “I prefer to just do science,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s more pleasant, especially when you are having some success in your investigations. If I must serve as a witness, I intend to testify and then get back to the laboratory, where I am comfortable. That is what I intend to do when this book is finished.”

Hansen’s policy opinions centre on a cap-and-dividend system: a variant of a carbon tax, where revenue is divided evenly among citizens and returned to them. His argument for a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade, is compelling, and certainly convinced me. He also advocates the expansion of nuclear power (particularly “fourth-generation” fast nuclear reactors), a moratorium on new coal-generated power plants, and drastically improved efficiency measures.

These recommendations are robust, backed up with lots of empirical data to argue why they would be our best bet to minimize climate change and secure a stable future for generations to come. Hansen is always careful to say when he is speaking as a scientist and when he is speaking as a citizen, and provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between these two roles. As Bill Blakemore from ABC television wrote in correspondence with Hansen, “All communication is biased. What makes the difference between a propagandist on one side and a professional journalist or scientist on the other is not that the journalist or scientist ‘set their biases aside’ but that they are open about them and constantly putting them to the test, ready to change them.”

Despite all this, I love when Hansen puts on his scientist hat. The discussions of climate science in this book, particularly paleoclimate, were gripping. He explains our current knowledge of the climatic circumstances surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (usually referred to as the PETM). He explains why neither of these events is a suitable analogue for current climate change, as the current rate of introduction of the radiative forcing is faster than anything we can see in the paleoclimatic record.

Be prepared for some pretty terrifying facts about our planet’s “methane hydrate gun”, and how it wasn’t even fully loaded when it went off in the PETM. Also discussed is the dependence of climate sensitivity on forcing: the graph of these two variables is more or less a parabola, as climate sensitivity increases both in Snowball Earth conditions and in Runaway Greenhouse conditions. An extensive discussion of runaway greenhouse is provided, where the forcing occurs so quickly that negative feedbacks don’t have a chance to act before the positive water vapour feedback gets out of control, the oceans boil, and the planet becomes too hot for liquid water to exist. For those who are interested in this scenario, Hansen argues that, if we’re irresponsible about fossil fuels, it is quite possible for current climate change to reach this stage. For those who have less practice separating the scientific part of their brain from the emotional part, I suggest you skip this chapter.

I would recommend this book to everyone interested in climate change. James Hansen is such an important player in climate science, and has arguably contributed more to our knowledge of climate change than just about anyone. Whether it’s for the science, for the policy discussions, or for his try at science fiction in the last chapter, it’s well worth the cover price.

Thoughts from others who have read this book are welcome in the comments, as always.

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6 thoughts on “Storms of my Grandchildren

  1. I read “Storms of my Grandchildren” a couple months ago. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the climate change topic. I wish every policy maker would read it before they vote on related legislation. Dr. Hansen’s science is clear and convincing; it is the best part of the book. He does present a strong argument for the carbon tax approach over cap and trade one but I’m not completely convinced on this point. I’ve read other places about the advantages of each approach and it’s not as simple a decision as the book indicates. Either approach can get the result we want if it’s done right so the devil is really the details.

  2. I haven’t read Storms of My Grandchildren yet. (So many books, so little time.) Right now, I just want to comment on the subtitle.

    I have it on good authority, from someone who’s written a climate-related book, that the publisher generally chooses the title and subtitle. The author has some input, but if there is a conflict the publisher has final word.

    No doubt this goes for the cover art as well. For example, Climate Crash, by John Cox, boasts a picture that makes it look as if the book predicts a sudden freeze like the one in The Day After Tomorrow, a film Cox debunks a few pages in.

  3. SoundOff, I think Hansen’s point is that cap-and-trade is too subject to gaming in both theory and practice, while a carbon tax is much less so. Also, the fact that under a tax individuals would be paid is key to maintaining political support as the tax is ratcheted up.

    He also argued that cap and trade sets a minimum “floor” for emissions, where, if they drop below this level, the market will crash. -Kate

  4. I thought is was a great book by a wise, sympathetic and humane individual.

    My niggle is the science fiction bit at the end, which I think brought the book down. Trying to dramatize the scenarios in that manner seemed a forced attempt to play on the reader’s emotions. Didn’t work for me – I was merely irritated.

    But the rest of the book is worth more than the price.

  5. As Chris says, titles and subtitles are usually picked through negotiation between publisher and author. Many authors have ended up with titles or subtitles they don’t like. (Same goes for many journos, for that matter).

  6. I’ve just finished Storms of My Grandchildren. Best things about it, other than the explanations of climate science: the discussion of tax-and-dividend vs. cap-and-trade, and Dr. Hansen’s recommendation of gen-4 nuclear power plants.

    I have to agree with Toby that the worst thing was the foray into science-fiction. Dr. Hansen’s heart is in the right place, but he’d never make a career out of writing SF. That’s a good thing, because if he could he wouldn’t be doing science.

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