It’s Up To You: Civil Resistance Needed to Combat Climate Change

Reviewed: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, by James Hansen. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009

James Hansen could have quietly enjoyed his reputation as one of the leading authorities in the world on global warming and its consequences. Instead, he set out to prevent the transition to that hostile planet on which his grandchildren would someday live. His efforts ranged from providing testimony before Congress and speaking before other powerful political groups, through condemnation of the Kyoto Protocol and the cap-and-trade, to facing a year in prison for civil disobedience while protesting mountain-top coal mining.

If we don’t curb our burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, tar sand fuels – greenhouse gas warming will change the Earth and our ability to live on it drastically. Hansen’s already been proven correct on this critical point of a changing Earth. For example, earlier this decade he insisted that official prediction of only a modest rise in sea level this century was wrong, and that ice caps would respond far more quickly to warming. It’s now clear that he was correct: the ice caps are shrinking faster than other scientists thought, with an accompanying accelerating rise in sea level. A runaway greenhouse effect is even possible that will threaten the very existence of life — at least human life — on the planet.

Despite the threat from existing changes and future catastrophes, government is doing nothing, Nor will it do anything. Hansen believes that the political system in the US, and in most other democracies, is incapable of delivering effective action. Politicians serve the interests of richly-funded special interest groups, rather than the long-term welfare of citizens. That leaves civil resistance as the only tool available to stop the slide toward global warming, and it explains why Hansen has used this tool. “It is up to you,” he says repeatedly to those more concerned about the future of their grandchildren than political influence.

There are, of course, consequences to him when someone of Hansen’s reputation challenges, on scientific grounds, what prevailing political forces insist, on ideological grounds, is reality. As Hansen warned about the threat of climate change the Bush administration resorted to the most repressive of measures to silence him. He found himself in a constant struggle with his bosses at NASA, who blocked his freedom to publish and to speak. After an enormous amount of this abuse, Hansen couldn’t take it anymore and he decided to go public with his story. The result was a front-page expose in The New York Times that was picked up by media throughout the country. As science writer Chris Mooney observed, the story showed “how the Bush administration managed, simultaneously, to be deeply sinister and the governmental equivalent of the Keystone Cops.”

The storms our children and grandchildren will face are a prelude to a downward spiral of disastrous events created by climate change. By storms Hansen is referring to a wide variety that includes thunderstorms, tornadoes, and tropical storms such as hurricanes and typhoons. These storms are fueled by release of latent heat — a large amount of energy — from water vapor in the atmosphere. The higher the temperature the more water vapor available and the more heat released to strengthen storms.

At the same time the warming promotes the melting of ice sheets and sea level rises even faster than it is rising now. The combination of rising sea level and stronger storms will produce severe flooding, and consequently social and economic devastation, in vulnerable areas. There are many vulnerable areas throughout the world and Hansen cites a few that have already been hit by minor forms of this devastation.

These are the conditions our grandchildren could face, but that might be only the beginning. For example, the warming and melting of methane ice would strongly amplify the warming, already occurring – a positive feedback of the kind that can lead to a runaway greenhouse effect.

But why go on with these horror stories, and many more associated with global climate change covered in Hansen’s book. We’ve been warned of what could happen and reminded that we won’t get much help from the dominant interests in trying to stop it. “It is up to you.”