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Mark Bowen (Dutton, New York, 2008). 324 pp. $25.95. ISBN 978-0-525-95014-1.
This review is reprinted with minor changes from Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, Fall 2008, pp 23-25. Contact email@example.com for subscription information.
It's difficult to imagine anyone who has followed the issue of global warming who is not familiar with James Hansen. After writing a Ph.D. thesis speculating about the atmosphere of Venus in the late 1960s, he sought to follow up on it with a post-doctoral fellowship at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) near Columbia University in New York City. His work there was so impressive that he was offered a full-time job, and after founding Director Robert Jastrow retired from NASA in the early 1980's, Hansen was chosen to succeed him and has remained there ever since.
But while waiting for NASA to launch a satellite to make better measurements of the polarization of light reflected from Venus, Hansen found his interests turning to the atmosphere of Earth. His first "epochal" paper appeared in Science in 1981 and predicted a global temperature increase of 2.5 oC in the 21st century with "slow energy growth." This led to greenhouse effect editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
That the average temperature of the Earth is increasing cannot be doubted – the data speak for themselves. The same is true for the increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere. The difficult part is to establish a connection between the two, that is, that the latter causes the former. In fact, Bowen points out in his last two chapters that historically, global temperature change resulted from a change in the interaction of Earth and Sun, with a corresponding change in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration lagging a few hundred years. Only since the Industrial Age has an increase in greenhouse gases led an increase in atmospheric temperature.
During his time at GISS, Hansen and his colleagues have been working on a global circulation model to simulate the behavior of Earth's atmosphere. The results of this model and other studies done at GISS have persuaded Hansen that, as he phrased it in 1987 testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, there is 99% confidence that global warming is occurring, high confidence in ascribing global warming to the greenhouse effect, and high confidence that a human-made greenhouse effect would lead to more frequent extreme weather events.
This is bad news and some people don't like bad news, particularly those whose livelihood is threatened by it. In this case, those threatened are the producers and users of fossil fuels. In his penultimate chapter, Bowen explains how these producers and users employed many of the same tactics used by the cigarette industry in response to the Surgeon General's Report: "In many ways, fossil fuel burning is to the biosphere as cigarette smoking is to the human body." (p. 240)
Thus, Hansen and his message through the years have been met with opposition, not only from special interests who have been threatened by it but also by political administrations beholden to those special interests. While testifying before a Senate Committee chaired by then Senator Al Gore in 1989, the first year of the George H. W. Bush Administration, Hansen discovered at the conclusion of his testimony that it had been rewritten by the Office of Management and Budget, and he related this to the Committee.
The incidents in which Hansen was obstructed in communicating the results of his work were more numerous in the George W. Bush Administration, particularly during the re-election year 2004 when a program of NASA school visits was cooked up to promote the President's "New Vision for Space Exploration."
The general theme of this book is the chronology leading toward a tipping point in Hansen's relationship with government in his crusade to avoid a dangerous climate tipping point. Were it not for the obstructions Hansen faced in communicating his message, he might not have become so well known for being the activist that he at times became. As Bowen describes him, Hansen's first love is the science that he does, but he also believes in the importance of communicating its results – "Jim Hansen was hoping to speak publicly and keep his job." (p. 165) Yet, although Hansen, as a Senior Executive Employee, does not have civil servant protection, that's exactly what he did. In reading this book, I could find no obstruction that Hansen was unable to circumnavigate; he is still the director of GISS.
As such, Hansen was a more successful "survivor" than many others. Chapter 6 details censorship of the work of scientists at NOAA (National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration), which David Baltimore attributed to the George W. Bush Administration's "unitary" view of government, namely that the executive branch can run independently. Chapter 5 describes the "editing" of the Environmental Protection Agency's first-ever report on the state of the environment that brought about Christie Whitman's resignation as EPA Administrator.
As books go, this one is remarkably up-to-date. Its cutoff date, indicated on p. 303, was September 2007. But there is a price to pay in trying to publish a book quickly, and it shows in lack of documentation and an incomplete index (the name of Hansen's Ph.D. thesis advisor is not even included). But the statement on p. 308 that "we decided early on to forgo footnotes and endnotes in this book" suggests that there was a desire to get this book out quickly and have it as up-to-date as possible. True, the year of publication is also the year of a presidential election, but the incumbents are not running.price to pay in trying to publish a book quickly, and it shows in lack of documentation and an incomplete index (the name of Hansen's Ph.D. thesis advisor is not even included). But the statement on p. 308 that "we decided early on to forgo footnotes and endnotes in this book" suggests that there was a desire to get this book out quickly and have it as up-to-date as possible. True, the year of publication is also the year of a presidential election, but the incumbents are not running. Curiously, the candidate Hansen would have voted for had he been on the ballot in 2004 was on the ballot in 2008.
John L. Roeder
Physics, The Calhoun School
New York City