Hansen’s Glacial Recession

by | Nov 25, 2008

A CNN article at the end of last week said that

A team of international scientists led by Dr James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, say that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are already in the danger zone.

The ‘danger zone’? Is that ‘science’? Either way, the opinions of these alarmist scientists is hardly news…

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere currently stand at 385 parts per million (ppm) and are rising at a rate of two ppm per year. This is enough, say the scientists, to encourage dangerous changes to the Earth’s climate. As a result we risk expanding desertification, food shortages, increased storm intensities, loss of coral reefs and the disappearance of mountain glaciers that supply water to hundreds of millions of people.

Hansen has established his public profile by making incautious statements exaggerating the extent of global warming and its effects. Consequently, he is celebrated by the environmental movement. Yet, as we reported in the past, the curious positioning as a hero puts as much distance between him and the ‘scientific consensus’ represented by the IPCC Assessment Reports as there exists between the IPCC and any climate change ‘denier’. For example, where Hansen has warned of sea-level rises measured in feet, the IPCC’s most recent report talks of just inches.

Hansen-worshipers answer that the IPCC is naturally conservative about its estimations. But on that basis, we might as well dispense with the IPCC – whose reports have successively down-graded their estimates of sea-level rise over the years – and indeed, science itself. The environmentalists switch their investment from the ‘scientific consensus’ to the maverick as it suits them. Not as much a credit crunch as a credibility crunch. A speculative bubble is forming around Hansen.

Here at Climate Resistance, we have long argued that whatever the scientific realities of climate change, it does not justify the special politics that are demanded by environmentalists. This is partly because, however much warming the natural world is subject to, human society is far more dynamic, adaptable, and able to alter itself than the natural world. The human world is not an extension of the natural world. It is not weathered and changed by the elements.

Although at any instant, human society is dependent on natural process to function, the instance of those dependencies are not what human society is predicated on. Human society has experienced all manner of climate problems, localised shortages of resources, and over-abundances of weather. But where it rains a lot, we build drainage systems. Where it doesn’t, we build dams and reservoirs, and divert rivers. We fertilise soil, irrigate dry fields, and build sea defences. Of course, there are the occasional failures of the systems we build, but where there has been the most development, people are far better protected than their predecessors.

So why are scientists so worried about desertification, food shortages, increased storm intensities, and the disappearance of mountain glaciers’?

Until this year, a bigger problem for the developed world than food shortage and desertification was an over-abundance of food production. Over the last few decades, many international organisations and governments have aimed to reduce agricultural production while environmentalists, claiming that that ‘climate change is happening now’ worried about decreasing fertility. This year saw record prices in food and fuel, but not because of peak oil, as was claimed, and not because of climate change. The reason for these price spikes is all too human. As we pointed out recently, in spite of Oxfam’s claim that the poor in Bangladesh are being ‘driven further into poverty because of climate change’, agricultural production and yield had increased, as had GDP. If poverty in Bangladesh is increasing, clearly it has little to do with a changing climate. Similarly, there is little evidence that storm intensity and frequency are increasing.

Hansen thinks these sorts of changes would take several centuries, but he said we would have to deal with a “holy mess…as ice sheet disintegration unfolded out of our control”. As far as current global observations are concerned, Hansen cites both the decline of Arctic sea ice and the worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers as causes for major concern. “Once they are gone,” he said, “the fresh water supplies for hundreds of people dependent on rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains will be severely reduced in summer and fall.”

While ice extent may indeed be ‘out of our control’, (as if it was ever in our control) the issue for humans is not controlling the weather, but controlling our vulnerability to it. We do that, not by aiming to control the weather one way or the other, but, as described above: adapting to become resilient to the weather, and to controlling the local environment.

Hansen’s alarmism loses sight of our ability to adapt. Perhaps glaciers will melt. But for the ‘hundreds of people dependent on rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains’, all is not lost. If glaciers melt, it says little in the general sense about the net input to those glaciers. It will still rain and snow in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains. The water will still flow downhill, as it always has. This creates a new opportunity for dam-building, putting the elements more concretely under our control.

And there is the rub. Environmentalists don’t actually want things to be under our control. The objective of environmentalism – some kind of synchronicity with the natural world – is not based on necessary principles emerging from climate science, but on an ethic, a higher purpose of which we are mere subjects.

Dr Hansen says it’s impossible to say when we will reach the point of no return. “It’s like the economy, it’s a non-linear problem,” he said. “You knew, given the continued input of big deficit spending that things would go to pot, but nobody could predict the time of collapse with any confidence. We had better start reducing emissions soon and get back below 350 ppm within several decades — otherwise I doubt that the ice sheets can stand such a long strong pressure.”

Similarly, being able to make statements about what the future consists deprives the environmental movement of its capital: fear. For if we were able to make definitive statements about what the future might bring, we could develop accordingly, again, extending our ability to control adverse effects.

Hansen’s fear and uncertainty about the future will drive society into a catastrophe of its own making, not one inflicted by an angry Gaia. As we have said before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more we believe that society is determined not by ourselves, but by climatic effects, the more we will organise ourselves around the idea, limiting our ability to respond to climate – changing or not.


  1. Alex Cull

    Until fairly recently I could have described myself as being impressed with the idea of environmental determinism, and would have largely agreed with the conclusions, for instance, of Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (which I glowingly reviewed a couple of years ago, and still find a thought-provoking book.) However, I have found my position changing re environmental and climate matters since then. In a nutshell: it is possible to go looking for failed human societies, such as Easter Island, and draw certain gloomy conclusions from them (limited resources on Easter Island ran out, limited resources on Planet Earth are likewise running out) but we can also look at the success stories and draw completely different conclusions from these (basically, as we advance, we can extract ever more from the resources we have.) What led to this change in thinking? The realisation that despite the doom-saying of people such as Paul Ehrlich and James Hansen, the eco-apocalypse is actually not happening in the way they said it would happen. Not in the 1960s, not in the 1980s and not now.

    “Dr Hansen says it’s impossible to say when we will reach the point of no return.” And he’s right. It’s also impossible to say if we will reach a point of no return. And impossible to say whether there actually is a point of no return at all. There are a number of rather important questions being begged here by the good Dr H.

    I’m sure there would be a point of no return for humanity if every one of us suddenly decided to spend every penny of our surplus wealth on building giant stone heads dedicated to the gods. Nowadays, I suppose that grandiose carbon reduction and sequestration projects would be an equivalent sink for money we would all otherwise spend on useful things such as food and energy production. Common sense will prevent this, because humanity is not a monoculture on a tiny remote island (not everyone will follow the UK like lemmings into draconian CO2 reduction exercises, for example, thank goodness.)

    On a different note, I’m wondering whether Dr Hansen suffers from depression. His point of view does appear to be that of a severe depressive, literally unable to see anything in the future apart from gloom and limitation. Hence the tendency towards self-fulfilling prophecies, in the manner of a depressed person who goes to a job interview convinced he will fail, then guarantees that failure by his very words and actions, finally turns round and says “You see, I told you I was a failure.”

  2. geoff chambers

    Wind farms bear an uncanny resemblance to Easter Island heads, don’t you think? Thanks for an interesting analysis of Hansen’s psychological makeup. As I recently commented on Omniclimate: you have to ask yourself how you’d feel if you were working for NASA, a prestigious organisation exploring the further reaches of the Cosmos, and they gave you the job of measuring the temperature five feet above ground. No wonder he wants to drown us all.
    I suggested a while back on Climate Resistance that a bit of psychological analysis might help understand what’s going on, and they rapped my knuckles and suggested I go blog elsewhere. I briefly thought of starting a site – Ad Hominem Climate Science – exploring the psychology of the Hansens, Monbiots, Strongs and Manns (the libel laws are more relaxed here in France) – but the idea of talking to myself on the net doesn’t appeal. I do enough of that at home. Let”s keep up the slightly off-topic rumination on the few sites which allow denialist divergent thinking.

  3. Luke Warmer


    Oreskes and others have already published various ad hominem attacks on selected “denialists”. They attempt to provide a psychological and even a cultural context. To see what I mean read:

    From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global arming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge, Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway and Matthew Shindell

    Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

    Experiences of modernity in the greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist ‘‘trio’’ supporting the backlash against global warming, Myanna Lahsen

    These are formal, peer-reviewed ad hominems. They essentially rely on that very simple, popular and deranged chestnut, “belief in free markets = bad person”. (See The Shock Doctrine for more)

    Nierenberg’s son has been trying to defend his father’s reputation and even ‘arch warmer’ and (if you believe the hype)Wikispinmeister, William Connolley, has concluded that Oreskes is wrong on many points including those used in the recent BBC “documentary”:


    My advice would be not to go down that route – there are plenty of invective sites accusing Gore of hypocracy, Hansen of madness etc and they don’t really add anything to the debate.

  4. geoff chambers

    Don’t worry, I have no intention of adding to the “Gore is a commie hypocrite” stuff.

    Many thanks for the reading list. I read Oreskes “from Chicken Little…” and Lahsen, and now feel sufficiently depressed to maybe drop the subject and go away and get a life. Lahsen at least is literate and has a theory. Her contribution to science is the assertion that her “trio” of top physicists are sceptics because they think they’re very clever and they vote Republican. And by God she has references from peer -reviewed articles to prove it.

    Oreskes is weird. The middle part (presumably written by one of her minion co-authors) (look up the etymology of “minion” – it’s fun and probably libellous) is a perfectly adequate summary of the history of US government scientific advice on global warming policy. The criticism of the Nierenberg report is that the conclusion of the economists (that no action is necessary) is not logically connected to the warnings of the climate scientists (that global warming is a threat). Allowing for probable selective quotation, that seems a perfectly reasonable criticism.

    The beginning and end of the article, on the other hand (presumably written by Oreskes herself) are incoherent tosh, stuffed with errors of grammar and spelling (despite having been read by eleven friends and reviewers, not counting her co-authors). She thinks too much effort is being expended on deconstructing science and not enough on deconstructing ignorance, ignorance being the opinions of scientists who disagree with her. She’s a five star fruitcake whose writings are not worth spending a second on.

    So what was I proposing? Psycho-socio-historical analysis of the whole phenomenon, from the lowest amoeba writing in the Guardian recently how he was typing his article on a Remington with holey socks on his hands in his unheated house to save the planet, right up to the G8 leaders planting trees for the cameras. Complementary to the socio-political analysis on this site, I think.

    Here’s the kind of thing I mean:
    Scientists who get called in to form government policy must suffer two conflicting emotions; first, a tremendous power buzz at being “present at the creation”, and secondly, frustration at being the servants of the inferior intellects who govern us in a democracy.
    Even if they are successful in pushing their favoured projects (nuclear power, or whatever) political constraints ensure that they will never get the 100% commitment or illimited research budgets they feel are justified. They will naturally turn to a scientific theory or research area which predicts disaster, if their expertise is not heeded. Global Warming is the asteroid in the living room. Maurice Strong has practically admitted as much.

    That’s the skeleton of a socio-cultural theory of scientific policy-making every bit as good as Oreskes’ or Lahsen’s. I could flesh it out with references to peer-reviewed articles and go for a doctorate in socio-something, or sum it up as: “Climate Alarmism is the Revenge of the Nerds, a multi-decadal Charles Atlas course in how to avoid sea level rises and getting sand kicked in your face at the same time”. I’d need supporting evidence and stuff, but frankly I can’t be bothered.

  5. Alex Cull

    Talking of depression, I think if Eeyore were not a fictional toy donkey created by A.A. Milne, he would be a living human environmentalist and writing columns for the Guardian or Independent:

    “Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
    “Why, what’s the matter?”
    “Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
    “Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
    “Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

    Eeyore on the weather:

    “It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
    “So it is.”
    “And freezing.”
    “Is it?”
    “Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

    Eeyore on the worst-case scenario:

    “I thought,” said Piglet earnestly, “that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore’s back, and if I stood on Pooh’s shoulders -”
    “And if Eeyore’s back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha Ha! Amusing in a quiet way,” said Eeyore, “but not really helpful.”
    “Well,” said Piglet meekly, “I thought -”
    “Would it break your back, Eeyore?” asked Pooh, very much surprised.
    “That’s what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards.”

    Eeyore on civilisation and innovation:

    “I don’t hold with all the washing,” grumbled Eeyore. “This modern Behind-the-ears nonsense.”

    Eeyore, optimistic as ever about the climate:

    “A mostly sunny day, to some, can look a lot like partly gray.”

    Eeyore on overpopulation:

    ‘He turned around angrily on the others and said “Everybody crowds round so in this Forest. There’s no Space. I never saw a more Spreading lot of animals in my life, and in all the wrong places.”‘

    Eeyore, ruminating about the awfulness of it all:

    ‘The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.’

  6. geoff chambers

    to Alex Cull
    “Would it break your back, Eeyore?” asked Pooh, very much surprised.
    “That’s what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards.”
    Excellent. However psychologically fragile, Eeyore is far too intellectually honest to embrace the precautionary principle. I confessed in some previous comment to having Eeyorish traits myself, which probably explains my own morbid fascination with Global Warmism. Trouble is, I need something more convincing than four dead polar bears to hang my pessimism on, and I’ve found it in the Great Consensus, the fact that every sentient soul in the universe, from the President Elect down to the lowliest Guardian reader, is staring spellbound at some lump of ice, watching it melt (or not), convinced that the only way we can save ourselves is to demand some ultimate sacrifice (from everybody else). Read the entrails in the latest Monbiopsy in the Guardian and despair.

  7. Alex Cull

    Hi Geoff, ditto – I have my Eeyorish moments myself, and like you usually about human behaviour rather than the state of “the planet”, which has looked after itself quite adequately for several billion years.

    By the way, I’ve just read the Monbiot piece, and it is interesting – he states that the policies proposed by Obama are basically futile and that the only thing that could save the world is “a crash programme of total energy replacement”. I don’t think this will happen, largely because countries such as China, India, Russia and Poland are evidently not going to take part. So are we all doomed? I think George has painted himself into a corner – if this crash programme doesn’t happen and the catastrophe doesn’t happen either, he will be in danger of appearing just a little bit silly; this kind of pronouncement is what they call a hostage to fortune.

    Also by the way, he calls himself a “resolute optimist”. Heaven forbid if he should ever start to become pessimistic, in that case… :o)

  8. geoff chambers

    I agree that Obama’s programme is not going to happen, and I deeply regret that the progressive-minded three quarters of the planet who regard Obama’s victory as a giant step forward for mankind risk disappointment.
    Our Editors said recently they’re fed up with Monbiot. I understand. They’ve been at this longer than I have. But I think he’s important, being the conduit between the science and the politics, via the chattering classes who read the quality press.
    you say:
    “I think George has painted himself into a corner – if this crash programme doesn’t happen and the catastrophe doesn’t happen either, he will be in danger of appearing just a little bit silly.”
    True, but we won’t know until 2050 at the earliest, by which time Monbiomass will have popped his clogs (or cropped his blogs). I can see him (and Vidal and all the others) fighting a rearguard action for at least twenty years, until weather becomes climate, as they say. The important thing is how many opinion leaders (and voters) they can carry with them.
    Our Editors are remarkably silent, don’t you think? Have we offended them? Should we propitiate them by burning some carbon credits or something?

  9. Alex Cull

    Just realised that Mr Monbiot is only a few months younger than me – if by a miracle I’m still alive in 2050 I could shuffle after him with my Zimmer frame and ear trumpet (assuming the UK will be reduced to 19th century levels of technology by then) to tell him he was wrong. :o)


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