Globally warned – review of Hamilton and Hansen

Tony Kevin, author of Crunch Time (refer to this BNC guest post), recently published a review of two climate-change-related books in The Age newspaper (Melbourne’s daily broadsheet). Unfortunately, the review only made the print edition — there is no permanent online record. As such, Tony asked me if I would reproduce them here on BNC, which I’m happy to do so…

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Globally warned, Books, The Age, Saturday 13 March 2010, Section A2, page 22 – Tony Kevin

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity’, by James Hansen, Bloomsbury, $35

Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth about Climate Change’, by Clive Hamilton, Allen and Unwin, $24.99

After 8000 years of quite stable, human-friendly climates, is Earth now re-entering a period of climate disequilibrium, with disruptive effects on human populations and our civilisation itself? Are man-made greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 the main trigger? Can this global warming be checked in time to prevent its worst consequences for our children and grandchildren? How? Is human society up to the challenge?

These large questions engage two new books: one by a leading American climate scientist and the other by a respected Australian ethicist. James Hansen and Clive Hamilton are equally committed to radical climate action, though they have followed very different roads to this conclusion. Both are passionately at odds not only with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel lobbies, but also with self-serving politicians and environmental organisations that have, in Hamilton’s scathing verdict, been ‘sucked into the political game of influence-peddling and media management, with their leaders resigned to incrementalism’.

Such works of advocacy must be judged by their effectiveness in public education and persuasion. Their literary merit or reading enjoyment are means to this end.

Hansen, a Midwestern scientist who disarmingly admits to lacking tact and guile, and who would rather be doing scientific research, felt forced to take an activist political stand. He writes a folksy but compelling account of the evolution of climate science and its policy impact in the US over the past decade. His unswerving adherence to scientific method and truth gives Storms of My Grandchildren great credibility. His story of his colleagues’ efforts to alert American politicians and society to climate change risk has excitement and pace.

In 2001, Hansen joins an Academy of Sciences team that has the task of briefing incoming president George Bush. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney shrug off the inconvenient fact that the main driver of dangerous global warming is carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power stations and motor vehicles. A contrarian leading scientist on the academy team sows doubts, giving the administration convenient rationalisations to defend the energy status quo. Hansen, sidelined, realises he must become a better advocate.

He becomes more radical in ensuing years, informed by his growing mastery of an increasingly sophisticated and predictively strong climate science. In 2009, he endorses writer Bill McKibben’s ambitious ‘350.org’ agenda, calling for a maximum 350-parts-per-million global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.

He now rejects the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-supported 450-parts-per-million maximum as insufficient protection for the planetary climate. He rejects Kyoto-style global carbon emissions trading schemes as invitations to corruption that will fail to meet emission targets in time. He supports a simple carbon tax, civil disobedience against coal energy, and early recourse to nuclear as well as renewable energy: ideas well outside the frame of the current liberal discourse on climate change.

For Hansen, our generation is clearly failing in its duty of responsible stewardship of the planet’s climate stability for our children’s sake.

He dismisses Australian government climate policies as ‘greenwash, demonstrating token environmental support while kowtowing to fossil fuel special interests.’ He is hardly less critical of Barack Obama. Hansen doesn’t go deeply into climate-change denialism; for him, it mostly signifies the power of fossil-fuel interests.

Storms of My Grandchildren is brilliant science-based advocacy for mainstream readers, convincing in its urgent projections of global climate change under business-as-usual emissions, supported by clear explanations of the complex fast and slow feedbacks, inertias and accelerations involved in climate change. Hansen relies mostly on the planet’s paleoclimatic history and contemporary observational data. He stresses the limitations of climate modelling.

Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species has an analytical, cerebral tone: intellectually powerful and relentlessly researched, it is at times dispiriting, though the final magisterial chapter, Reconstructing a Future, lifts the book towards brilliance.

Hamilton argues that disruptive global warming can no longer be halted – disastrous climate feedbacks are already programmed into the global climate system, and as a species we will not muster the collective wisdom and courage to cut emissions in time. Thus our children will suffer huge pain and loss. Humanity must pass through an extended grieving process, from despair to acceptance to resolute ethics-based democratic action; even though the cause is probably already lost. Hamilton predicts that out of this extended traumatic transition to a harsher world will re-emerge a sustainable ethic of man’s integral relationship with nature.

He digs deep into climate-change denialism, seeing it as a maladaptive coping strategy against the evident failure of the Enlightenment myth of eternal human technical progress fuelled by inexhaustible planetary resources. The more our world experiences climate change, the more desperate and dangerous this angry grief reaction will be. Hamilton’s stoic, elegaic analysis helps us to better recognise the enemy; sadly, he is within us.

Both books belong in any serious library of writing on the global climate crisis. Hansen’s book (his first) crashes through customary scientific reticence, vigorously joining the political debate on what must be done. His target is the uncommitted mainstream reader. Full marks for his advocacy skills.

Hamilton’s book is not for beginners: its merits may be best appreciated by readers already committed to the policy struggle against man-made global warming. His coolly reflective analysis refines our understanding of the powerful economic, social and psychological forces those who wish to protect our children’s futures must confront.

Even if one does not fully share Hamilton’s deep pessimism – I do not – his analysis is politically important. It might help embolden more Australians to oppose government and corporate greenwash, and proliferating climate-change denialism, with more courage, unity and strategic direction than is now in evidence.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin’s most recent book, ‘Crunch Time’ (Scribe), argues for Keynesian-inspired counter-global-warming public policies.

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25 Comments

  1. So,Tony Kevin,a former diplomat,just likeRudd,doesn’t share Hamilton’s pessimism.What is it with the foreign policy geeks that they have so much difficulty with reality?

    I have read “Requiem For A Species” and it is spot on in the main but I am not so sure about reconstructing a future.

    Two words describe our problem – cupidity and stupidity. We have crossed the Rubicon in that regard.

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  2. Like Podargus, I too question Tony Kelvin’s lack of pessimism. I was surprised by Barry Brook not sharing the urgency of a questioner at the session on 11 November 2009. What is the secret to optimism in the face of seemingly inevitable catastrophic climate change and gigantic public inertia to change?

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  3. “He digs deep into climate-change denialism, seeing it as a maladaptive coping strategy against the evident failure of the Enlightenment myth of eternal human technical progress fuelled by inexhaustible planetary resources”

    If so then Clive Hamilton confuses a particular scientific issue with the more general Enlightenment principles which have made human progress possible. I also suppose that as a Green candidate in the recent Higgins by-election that he is anti-nuclear. Not to mention his initiation of the current campaign by Senator Conroy to censor the internet.

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  4. Podargus and Robert Lawrence, feel free to wallow in climate pessimism if this rings your bells. i am more interested in what processes of reasoning make James Hansen – probably the world’s greatest living climate scientist, who knows far more about the subject than any of us here – still an optimist. about humanity’s chances, if we move to the right policies quickly enough . I have read his book which I reviewed – have you? Perhaps you should, before you write condescending putdowns about former diplomats who presumably know nothing about climate change. [You might even read my book, if that’s not too big a stretch] .

    Just for the record – before anyone else joins in the game before reading the books that I read and reviewed – and I don’t think anyone else in Australia has yet reviewed either book as thoroughly and favourably as I have – you would know that Hansen strongly supports nuclear energy as part of the decarbonisation solution . You should also know that Hamilton [page 177] offers a balanced, and certainly non-hostile, judgement on it.

    Bill Kerr, I commend to you pages 99-108 and all of Chapter 5 [‘Disconnection from Nature’] in Hamilton’s book. I don’t think he is at all confused about the harmfulness of the scientific world view of man’s separation from and mastery over nature, that became dominant during the Enlightenment, and was not seriously challenged until Thoreau and, later, Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben. If you haven’t time for all this reading, just go see ‘Wall-E’ : it makes the same point visually .

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  5. Hi Tony,

    many thanks for the review – I have read James Hansen’s book, but not your’s and nor that of Hamilton.

    With regards to “nuclear optimism” as a solution to climate change. I am not quite sure, if we can dramatically increase building rate of nuclear power plants (whatever the generation of reactors) in the face of peak oil (i.e. also peak energ) and consequent long-term economic contraction. But maybe, we can, what I know :-)

    For that matter – maximum number of operating nuclear reactors was achieved in 2002 (445) and now we stand at 339 of working nuclear reactors – this is not argument against nuclear power (far from it), this is argument against sunsustainable exponential growth (of nuclear reactors in this case)…

    best,
    Alex

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  6. For that matter – maximum number of operating nuclear reactors was achieved in 2002 (445) and now we stand at 339 of working nuclear reactors – this is not argument against nuclear power (far from it), this is argument against sunsustainable exponential growth (of nuclear reactors in this case)…

    There is absolutely no reason we could not have a global build rate of 100 1GWe nuclear reactors/annum, or more. Itr is well within our capabilities if we spend a few years gearing industry up for it.

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  7. Tony Kelvin

    Thank you for responding to my comment, but wallowing in pessimism does not really describe me. I want people to think about what needs to happen to change from the business-as-usual approach of watching TV and playing with electronic toys and pretending there is no problem. I am sorry, but I have not read these books and I appreciated your review. (Hansen’s support of nuclear energy is clear from previous material on BraveNewClimate and I listened to the podcast of a recent talk he gave at Adelaide.) What is needed is not pessimism or optimism, but action that causes change. How can you (or anybody else) be optimistic without even knowing what action could cause the political change to adopt the solutions that are available?

    I expect that there are enough people in the world for some to have innovative solutions to the political inertia. The web seems to be the most likely vehicle to deliver such solutions, perhaps with a new phenomenon equivalent to Facebook or Twitter. I feel the solution needs to come from outside of current political frameworks and be international. There needs to be an approach that asks what the most important issues are first and then consider the solutions. The global community needs to get involved in a process of determining the future. We need to steer around or between the charismatic leader and social engineering to get a process that is inclusive.

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  8. In my darker hours I tend to fall in to Hamilton’s viewpoint, but most of the time I think we can turn it around. Like Finrod wrote it’s well within our capabilities.

    However I would like to point out that even if we cannot reverse the damage we have done to the climate, we will need even more, inexpensive, and reliable sources of energy if we are going to survive as a species. A full collapse of the climate, of the worse possible case, can only be answered by more, not less technology to supply food, water and shelter.

    One way or the other the choice is clear.

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  9. I see a great tragedy going down here Barry. By the way you mastered the history and reality of nuclear power, I can see that you obviously have the raw congenital material to be a magnificent scientist. But you haven’t been given the right guidance early on I’m afraid. You are clueless when it comes to epistemology.

    When it came to climate science you fell headlong into the trap of the shadow of the curse of the lone paradigm. Now you could make your way out of it, and still be an earth-shattering scientist. But I cannot see you doing it with all these groupies around you.

    A tragic waste of a pretty smart kid.

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  10. hi Tony,

    I went back and read the thread on your book, Crunch Time, and watched the interview at the Crunch Time site. You make some good points about Rudd but I balk at the Green Keynes solution.

    Just wanted to make a general point since you have expressed frustration about your book not being picked up by the mainstream media and you have ideas that you believe are important to be discussed. This also relates to your reply to my comments about Clive Hamilton.

    The answer is simply that you and Clive (and James Hansen for that matter) ought to open source your books. If your ideas are so important that they are required reading for saving the planet then they ought to be open sourced. I would suggest that this is why you are writing here, because Barry open sources his ideas and that is the most rapid way of obtaining a following in today’s world.

    ie. I would probably take up your challenge to read certain sections of Clive and reply to them if it was open sourced. But not really prepared to do so if they are not, given my pre-existing views about Clive. The whole idea behind book reviews and writing books is to generate enough interest in them for them to be read and studied.

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  11. Finrod, Said:

    “Graeme Bird is the idiot who left a bunch of foulmouthed posts anonymously on the following thread on my blog:”

    I remember this jackass now…someone must have left the lid up.

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  12. I have not read Clive Hamilton’s latest book but have read James Hansen’s and, with others was instrumental in bringing him to Australia recently
    I follow the political dynamics of climate change very closely and look at why our society fails to respond. Under our rather exclusive democratic system Australians elect governments to get on with a job and largely leave them to it. Governments who want to remain in power listen closely to the debates occurring in society and adjust policies accordingly. Difficult but innovative policies such as the GST are only introduced if the government has built enough political capital and has other policies that can balance the negative. The GST was balanced by incarcerating asylum seekers or taking the high moral ground in Timor – Howard was very good at it.
    In Australia governments on both sides advocated emissions trading schemes though the Howard government’s concepts were actually broader. He did more than Rudd to get the nuclear debate out into society and his government started the Australian Greenhouse office but at the end of the day he had to keep faith with the political conservatives.
    Rudd’s main policy had a complex emissions trading plan developed by Ross Garnaut which defied explanation to the man in the street. His Government then took this concept and so mangled it that it defied explanation to the Government. They were then unable and unwilling to sell it to the electorate but to their credit Malcolm Turnbull and Ian MacFarlane stayed the course because they honestly believed that we had to start somewhere. I agreed with this course of action. Turnbull was not fired from Liberal Party leadership because of his support for the CPRS. He was fired because of poor leadership skills and Godwin Grech, a mistake so profound that he could no longer command the numbers.
    The media has been the chief activist for the dissemination of climate change information and some sections such as the Fairfax press have done a very good job. The Rudd Government has never explained climate change or mitigation measures to the Australian people. It has chosen to allow the issue to be attacked because of all the internal contradiction of its policies and because neither Kevin Rudd nor Penny Wong could sell fish to starving seals. From stimulus spending to coal mining to banning nuclear power, nothing this Government does is consistent with climate change mitigation.
    I think that Rudd and the Australian people believe in the futility of Australia’s climate change policies on the basis that we are too small a player. Doing nothing on this basis is not an option and is akin to the appeasement politics prior to the Second World War and endorsing pig iron sales to Japan and a national policy of neutrality. The “we’re too small” line is, I submit, an economic rationalist’s twist on the sceptic’s argument. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration in 2008 Australia mined 428 million tonnes of coal which produced 1 billion tonnes or 7.7 percent of the World’s coal derived carbon emissions. Coal earns Australia anywhere from 2.5% to 5.5% of a 1 trillion dollar. We are not too small to have an impact; rather the reverse is the case.
    The appeasement argument also includes the sceptic line and statements such as “Weather is determined by planetary forces. The Australian economy will not change the weather” is climate denialism of the first order. These arguments find fertile ground in a society that can’t differentiate between astronomy and astrology. As Professor James Hansen asserts, we are ring masters in managing the World’s weather. Australia’s 428 million tonnes per annum of coal is our whip and we are flogging the planet with gusto.
    From my discussions with James Hansen the time will come in the not too distant future when our coal exports are not welcome anywhere. Not in China or India or Japan. Long before that however their value will fall and the industry will cease to be viable. With the accelerating evidence of climate change, this time may only be a decade away. Our aluminium and smelted metals dependant on coal power will also cease to be viable. At that stage, with a collapsing dollar and squandered reserves our national security and economy will be threatened.
    The arguments for “doing nothing because it’s not happening” or “we’re too small” are straight out appeasement politics. As Hansen advises Mankind’s impact on global temperatures is now greater than the natural forces that could ever create another ice age.
    To maintain our national security, economic wellbeing and pride as a nation we should embrace the following measures. I have borrowed many of these from other contributors to this site.
    1. Do everything possible as individuals to stimulate public debate. The BNC website is a great demonstration of leadership in this regard.
    2. The matter of CO2 emissions is urgent. As coal is the major source then coal must be targeted, banning the construction of any coal fired power plants.
    3. Stop the development of any future coal exports and programme an orderly contraction of the existing industry.
    4. Create a Federal bureaucracy drawing on industrialists from private industry and scientists from our Universities, ANSTO and CSIRO to manage the roll out of low carbon generating technologies.
    5. Carry out a six to twelve month programme of explanation to the Australian people the source of the problem and the mitigation measures required. This will of necessity include adoption of nuclear power.
    6. Tax all coal and gas produced, whether for export or domestic use. The tax proceeds to be used for the prompt design and construction of Generation 3 nuclear plants such as the Westinghouse AP1000 as currently constructed in China. Some of the tax revenue would compensate private citizens for increased power costs.
    7. With other partners such as the US or UK, put a major research effort into Generation 4 reactors. This would include the possibility of nuclear retrofits of existing coal fired plants
    8. Put more effort into getting geothermal power online. This will probably mean long distance HVDC transmission.
    9. Expand University places for physics, and power engineers and recruit outside Australia for more teaching positions in physics, nuclear power and mathematics.
    Australians are at war with the planet and coal burning is our main weapon. We are certainly large enough to affect the outcome but policies of doing nothing would make Neville Chamberlain proud.

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  13. Sometime , not too long ago, in a galaxy in the ‘hood, there lived a species of relatively hairless primates.
    They were a pretty cluey lot, and sometime during their evolution they figured out how burn a congealed , concentrated solar energy in fossilized form in enormous quantities.They realized that doing so would lead to their own destruction.However, that knowledge did not make them apply the brake to burning those fuels, as a matter of fact, they actually pushed on the accelerator.!!!

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  14. I have bought and read Hansen’s book. Unfortunately, analysis of what can be long sentences in the passive voice, heavy on nouns and light on verbs shows something.

    Namely that it the book is sometimes still far too close to the peer-driven style of his scientific articles, albeit interspersed with irritatingly folksy American-style addresses to the reader here and there. These sit uneasily with the balance of his style, which is unmistakeably that of his profession.

    The Blog Owner gives Hansen full marks for advocacy skills in respect of “uncommitted mainstream readers”; I give few.

    In my view, Hansen would have been well-advised to take a ghost writer versed in “talking down” to the public. In that way, one might have achieved a book similar in style to those of Fred Pearce (With Speed and Violence), Mark Lynas (Six Degrees), George Monbiot (Heat).

    I hope that Hansen’s book does not become the Bought but Unread, like Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.

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  15. I’d hate to leave the last word on ”Storms of my grandchildren” to Peter Lalor. Hansen is a top climate scientist, not a popular interpreter of climate science like Monbiot etc ( or myself) . Hansen’s authoritative knowledge is what gives his book its unique integrity and credibility: and excitement, as he takes us through the development of global climate science over the past two decades. This book will be a classic of the environmental movement. Certainly it works for me – but maybe Peter Lalor just doesn’t like climate scientists.

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  16. @Kevin:

    anybody capable of style analysis can identify how Hansen unfortunately differs in his book from a popular science writer. Yet the Blog Owner states that Hansen’s book is for the “uncommitted mainstream reader.” One assumes that such people require popular science.

    However, looking at your CV, you are neither mainstream nor uncommitted, so what “works for you” subjectively is not germane to the issue at hand.

    I cited specific grammatical features of Hansen’s book which impair comprehensibility, whereas you merely trade on insinuation (“perhaps Peter Lalor just doesn’t…).

    Among climate scientists, Wally Broecker took a ghost writer, as I recall; Richard Alley is a natural communicator.

    So be it, I rest my case. Let’s see how the book sells.

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  17. Pingback: Venus syndrome – the Claron’s despair « BraveNewClimate

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