Yet Hansen continues to believe we can forestall disaster. In June 2000 his group charted a course for holding future temperatures below the danger level. They named this departure from business as usual the Alternative or A-Scenario.
His characteristic “whole systems” approach revealed some wiggle room on the hardest conundrum, carbon dioxide – which, as a direct by-product of fossil-fuel burning, is intrinsic to the global energy infrastructure. Though he warned that carbon dioxide emissions must be stabilized over the next few decades, he also suggested that significant progress could be made by reducing the emissions of other greenhouse gases, particularly methane and ozone – and that we must pay our Faustian debt involving air pollution.
Eliminating black carbon soot, which comes mainly from household heating systems, vehicles, and fires, would be a good place to start. Besides promoting asthma and other respiratory problems, soot heats rather than cools the air: it absorbs rather than reflects sunlight, owing to its color. Some soot emissions continue to heat the planet even after leaving the air, by settling on polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers, darkening their surfaces, and helping them melt. Carbon monoxide and ozone are powerful greenhouse gases as well as dangerous pollutants, ozone having an estimated impact on human health and crop productivity of $10 billion per year in the United States alone.
Still, the main greenhouse promoter in coming decades will be carbon dioxide. In 2001, Hansen assembled the “A-Team,” made up of GISS researchers and students and teachers from schools in the New York City area, to tackle the problem of providing for the world’s growing energy needs while adhering to the A-Scenario. They found that efficiencies based on existing technologies could buy time for a few decades, after which we must employ new technologies to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 60 to 80 percent.
The A-Team found that growing emissions from coal-burning power plants and transportation posed the greatest threats. “Efficiency of energy end-use in the near term is critical for the sake of avoiding new, long-lived CO 2 -producing infrastructure,” Hansen notes. “Green” building codes, combined with energy-efficient lighting and appliances, would be sufficient to hold electrical needs – and the number of power plants – constant for many years. The team also developed an achievable plan for limiting vehicular emissions, a plan that starts by improving fuel efficiency with existing technologies. It is “technically possible to avoid the grim ‘business-as-usual’ climate change,” said Hansen last December. “If an alternative scenario is practical, has multiple benefits, and makes good common sense, why are we not doing it?”
He knew the answer from personal experience. Few remember that Vice President Dick Cheney chaired a cabinet-level climate-change working group in 2001, shortly after convening his infamous energy task force. Hansen briefed the group twice. He believed in those early days that the White House was open to a discussion of facts and potential solutions. But as he remembers it, Cheney picked only the cherry he liked from the Alternative Scenario: its emphasis on soot and the lesser greenhouse gases. He used this to justify ignoring carbon dioxide.
Indeed, the energy policy Cheney introduced poses a tremendous climatic danger. It relies on increasing supplies through oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; opening other public lands to coal, natural-gas, and oil exploitation; and constructing more than 1,000 new power plants. So Hansen convened the A-Team. He had a second interaction with the White House in 2003, again with little effect. By the time of his talk in honor of Charles David Keeling, he had run out of patience. “It seems to me,” he said, “that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers.”
In his living room overlooking the Hudson, Hansen tells me that climatologists have now “made the science story much stronger than it was in 2000.” Yet, he says, “we have not been able to impact the U.S. position. And when you get to the further step, where not only do you have the information to make the story clear but you have this censorship, you know, that’s when you really get angry. I think the only way to get action now is for the public to get angry, [for] the public [to] see the frustration and … see that we have political leaders who are under the thumb of special interests. …
“No court of justice or court of international opinion will forgive us for what we’re doing now, because now we know the problem and we’re just pretending we don’t understand it. We are going to be responsible, but it will be our children and grandchildren that have to pay.”
Mark Bowen is the author of Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains.