Angst and hope amidst the prospect of climate catastrophe: a review of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren

NB: this article first saw public light on Countercurrents in December 2009

Published in the U.S. last December with the intention that its release coincide with the beginning of the Copenhagen climate summit, James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity has an impressive-sounding title, however less than impressive its content at times is. Currently a professor at Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen is a world-renowned climatologist widely regarded as having been instrumental in bringing the specter of anthropogenic climate change to public attention with his remarks on the question before the U.S. Congress in the late 1980s, and he has engaged in lesser and greater forms of public advocacy on climate issues since then: he has denounced the liberal-parliamentary process for its failures meaningfully to address climate change to date,1 written an open letter to U.S. President Obama stressing the absolute imperative of taking urgent action on climate change within the new president’s first term,2 been arrested at a protest against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia,3 and most recently seen what he calls the “fundamentally wrong” approach taken at the current Copenhagen negotiations as necessitating the summit’s failure.4 Hansen is, then, a decidedly important voice whose contributions should be thoughtfully considered; as we shall see, though, his Storms of My Grandchildren is flawed in many ways, despite the rationality of many of its claims.

In Storms, Hansen casts himself in the role of a “witness”: someone, he quotes Robert Pool as saying, who “believes he [or she] has information so important that he [or she] cannot keep silent.” As a witness, his general claim is that, due to the historical and contemporary mass burning of fossil fuels, “Planet Earth […] is in imminent peril,” “in imminent danger of crashing.” Hansen finds the urgency of the matter to be absolute: the very survival of humanity and millions of non-human species is in question. He spends much of the book reviewing the evidence for climate change, finding human-induced contributions to increased average global temperatures to be in “total dominance” over naturally occurring ones; as such, he claims those who deny such realities—global-warming contrarians, as Hansen refers to them—to have no basis for their views. In reflecting on the seriousness of the present situation, Hansen reserves much of his ire for what he calls “scientific reticence”—positivistic approaches that undermine the relevance and necessity of applying the precautionary principle as well as a marked reluctance among individuals knowledgeable about the present predicament to take public stands on this most important of issues. His discourse, furthermore, mirrors a growing disappointment among self-styled progressives with the ascendancy of the Obama administration in the U.S.: Obama, in Hansen’s estimation, “does not get it,” and Obama’s approach of greenwashed compromise is seen here as fundamentally flawed, since, as Hansen writes, “nature and the laws of physics cannot compromise.”

The gravity of the present situation notwithstanding, Hansen believes that hope for a “brighter future” has not yet been entirely stifled. Transitioning from the current atmospheric carbon concentration of 387 parts per million to the “appropriate initial target” Hansen finds in 350 ppm is in his view still practically achievable, though “just barely.” (Strangely enough, Hansen does not address the question of an appropriate CO2-equivalent concentration—that is, a measurement of atmospheric concentrations that includes greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, such as methane, etc.; a CO2-e target of 350 ppm would call for a carbon-dioxide concentration of much lower than 350.) Central to the project of realizing a peak in global carbon emissions and a concomitant return to 350 ppm is the phasing-out of coal emissions as rapidly as possible, says Hansen: slowing down the rate of such emissions, in his view, does no good; all such emissions must end by 2020 in the ‘developed’ world. Hansen tells us that most of the world’s remaining supply of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas, as well as tar sands and shale oil—must be kept in the ground if future generations are to have a “livable planet.” He sees oil and gas as having to play a role in the transitional period that must begin immediately, but emissions from coal, tar sands, and oil shale are to eliminated—which is not to say that the use of the latter sources is to be discontinued, for Hansen feels that they can be allowed to continue if adequate capture and sequestration technologies can be developed and implemented on a mass scale. He does stress the importance of energy-efficiency gains and renewable-energy sources, but he finds it “extremely irresponsible” to depend entirely on these two strategies to combat global warming; instead, he writes favorably of the prospect of a “nuclear renaissance” driven by the development of fourth-generation nuclear power plants, which he seems to find to be the only viable means by which drastically to reduce carbon emissions in the near term. Both forest preservation and reforestation, moreover, are to play a role in his favored carbon-reduction trajectory, though he warns that tree-planting cannot be taken as a substitute for—an offset of—existing carbon emissions. Though initially skeptical about the place that geo-engineering schemes should have in the struggle against climate change, Hansen does conclude that such options may become necessary if business-as-usual is continued for the foreseeable future, and as such he suggests that research be made into exploring such schemes. Furthermore, he eschews the hegemonically favored cap-and-trade approach for what is referred to as “fee-and-dividend,” a framework whereby fees are collected at the mine or port of entry of a given fossil fuel and then divided equally among legal adult residents of the public, the idea being that those who outstrip their share of carbon-emissions—in most cases, Hansen assures us, economically wealthier individuals—will be financially penalized and hence face incentives to reduce their carbon footprints. Hansen envisions these fees as rising over time, so as to allow households and individuals to adjust their lifestyles accordingly; to prevent more carbon-intensive production from simply shifting their operations to a location where such regulatory frameworks are non-existent, he also insists that the fee-and-dividend approach be globalized.

His questionable views on nuclear power aside, much of what Hansen proposes in Storms of My Grandchildren seems reasonable, and as such certainly can be considered useful for informing action aimed at working to mitigate some of the more catastrophic life-negating realities that the prospect of climate change promises, however foreign many of his recommendations seem to be to the approaches favored by those currently negotiating in Copenhagen. Much of Hansen’s commentary on matters not directly related to his programmatic vision for the necessarily urgent reduction in carbon emissions, though, is both frustrating and misleading, and as such merits discussion and refutation. To begin with, Hansen discloses that he is, within the spectrum of mainstream U.S. politics, a “registered Independent” who has cast votes in the past for both Democrats and Republicans. He tells us that he supported the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000 (adding unnecessarily that he contributed a thousand dollars to the campaign), felt “enthusiasm” at one point for the candidacy of John McCain in 2008, and experienced “moist eyes” during Obama’s Election-Day speech in November of that year. Despite his disappointment in the remarkable lack of action on climate change that Obama has thus far taken, Hansen still maintains that the current U.S. president is “still our best hope.” Moreover, Hansen claims rather bizarrely that he feels the “captains of industry” have to be a “big part of the global warming solution”; he claims that the realization of his carbon-reduction vision “require[s] their leadership.” He also writes elsewhere that he finds the U.S. Constitution to be “remarkable,” and he claims it to have been designed with an eye to preventing the “subversion of the democratic principle for the sake of the powerful few.”

That a document written in large part by slaveholders who decided to count some 700,000 enslaved former Africans as three-fifths of a human being—or, indeed, that allowed for the continued existence of formal slavery in the first place—can be considered remarkable is astounding, as is the faith Hansen seems to have in the U.S. oligarchy. Expressing enthusiasm for the prospect of a McCain presidency is clearly a horrifying position; little more need be said on that. Hansen’s final take on the newest occupant of the White House, though, is similarly of marginal value: claiming that Obama—who, to briefly review, has overseen the transfer of trillions of dollars to the very financial institutions that precipitated the current economic downturn, entirely jettisoned hope for transition to a single-payer health-insurance program in the U.S., requested a ‘defense’ budget larger than that of Bush, backpedaled on curbing Israel’s ongoing colonization of the West Bank, moved toward normalizing relations with the very leadership that has overseen genocide in Darfur, escalated war in Afghanistan, and endorsed the Congress’s pathetic proposals to reduce carbon emissions by around 4 percent by 2020 relative to 1990 levels—is “still our best hope” is entirely unjustified and obfuscatory in the extreme.

Indeed, Hansen’s fairly uncritical view of the representatives of the present system is reflected in a lack of expressed criticality toward the totality of that very system. There is in Storms of My Grandchildren no critique of the environmentally destructive consequences of consumerism, as stressed in Hervé Kempf’s How the Rich are Destroying the Earth; 5 of economic growth, which James Gustave Speth denounces in his The Bridge at the End of the World;6 or of capitalism and its myriad manifestations, all of which various Marxist and anarchist critics have long sought to abolish. It is probable that Hansen, who fashions himself an “objective scientist” who should refrain from disclosing “personal opinions,” feels that explicitly making such conclusions may prove to alienate his intended audience—the U.S. public—or, perhaps, affect book-sales or even result in his being publicly discredited and his concerns for the climate dismissed. It may also be the case that Hansen himself does not share these critical views on the present state of affairs; he did, after all, see grounds for enthusiasm in the presidential candidacy of John McCain. It should be said, though, that Hansen may well be doing a disservice to his readers in not making linkages between the profundity of the climate predicament and the necessity for a radical politics: the clear responsibility that capitalism and the State bear for the specter of climate catastrophe should be taken as representing the very limits of their continued existence, not as grounds to re-affirm such. Not to find currently prevailing power relations illegitimate in the extreme is simply absurd, and to see in the madness propagated by presently constituted power “our best hope” is in the view of the present author to consign the future of life on Earth to what Hansen calls “the Venus syndrome”: runaway catastrophic climate change that violently transitions the Earth’s climate to one similar to that of Venus, where life simply cannot exist.

Perhaps one of the most problematic aspects of Storms of My Grandchildren is the selective concern expressed in the text by Hansen for the victims of climate change, both actual and potential, present and future. The main subject of Hansen’s concern seems to be the recently born eponymous kin of his, whose pictures we find in several of the work’s chapters. Fear for the possible future that the children of his own children will likely have to face because of dangerous anthropogenic interference with global climatic processes is entirely legitimate, but it seems deeply limiting and even reactionary to find in the prospect of climate catastrophe grounds for concern only or primarily for one’s family members, who in Hansen’s case happen to be white Americans. To his credit, it is true that Hansen recognizes that millions of non-human species are similarly threatened by global warming, but one strives in vain to find in his argument a serious acknowledgment of the profoundly unjust effects climate change stands to have on human society in geographical and socio-economic terms. There is no mention in Hansen’s book, for example, of the Global Humanitarian Forum’s May 2009 report that estimated that some 300,000 humans, living almost entirely in less materially wealthy Southern societies, are being killed annually in the present day as a result of the 0.7-0.8° C increase in average global temperatures that has already occurred because of past emissions,7 nor is any concern other than vague generalities expressed for the plight of the billions of presently impoverished, oppressed peoples whose very continued existence is problematized by climate change. Significantly, Hansen does not endorse or even consider the concept of ecological debt,8 a framework whereby ‘advanced’ industrial-capitalist societies are to engage in massive redistribution schemes to the ‘developing’ world due to their historical and contemporary appropriation of far more than their legitimate share to the world’s commons, especially the atmosphere. These omissions may again speak to his worries regarding public support in the U.S., where racism and imperialism unfortunately seem to hold hegemonic positions, but they should serve as reminders that one’s obligations with regard to climate change should be general rather than particular, that what Emmanuel Levinas refers to as responsibility for the Other should be limited to nothing less than life itself—Eros, in Herbert Marcuse’s formulation.9

This review of Storms of My Grandchildren should not be taken as dismissive of Hansen’s contributions in the book as a whole: while it seems clear that Hansen should not have the last word on the present crisis, there is certainly much of value to be found in Storms. Many of Hansen’s practical recommendations for stepping away from the climatic abyss surely merit attention and implementation, as do some of the perspectives advanced in the fictional future-historical account with which he closes the work’s final chapter: Hansen there has one of his characters, a member of a human-like species that developed on a distant planet called Claron, dismiss humans as “primitive,” given the “irrationality in their politics,” the “dividing lines they draw on maps,” their “abuse of animals,” “the fighting” they engage in, and “the starving people” they ignore. Against the life-negating realities that he correctly criticizes as having long plagued the human condition, Hansen offers the beautiful possibility that Earth be made “an intergenerational commons,” a world which would make available its “fruits and benefits” to “every member of every generation.”


2 Elizabeth Kolbert, “James Hansen Arrested,” The New Yorker, 24 June 2009

3Robin McKie, “President Obama ‘has four years to save Earth,’” The Observer, 18 January 2009

4 Suzanne Goldenberg, “Copenhagen climate summit must fail, says top scientist,” The Guardian, 2 December 2009

5 White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2008

6 New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009

8 Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: Global Warming & the Wealth of Nations (London: Pluto, 2009)

9Emmanuel Levinas, Totality & Infinity (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1969); Herbert Marcuse, Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

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