Science | September 29, 2017 5:00 am

Is This ‘Cassandra’ Right About Climate Change?

Climate scientist Jim Hansen predicts an accelerating disaster.

R.P. Eddy is a former director at the White House National Security Council and is the CEO of Ergo. Richard Clarke served three U.S. Presidents as a senior White House advisor. Their book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes,” recently published by Harper Collins, has been a Publishers Weekly and Amazon Best Seller, and is recommended by former president Bill Clinton.

Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria were the most damaging collections of hurricanes in recorded history. Irma held peak intensity longer than any other hurricane yet observed.  But the world’s most famous climate scientist thinks the worst is yet to come. Originally famous for his first—and stunningly precise—warnings on climate change in the 1980s, Dr. Jim Hansen predicts shocking sea-level rise and superstorms over the next century that would render most of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable and lead to massive, global dislocations. Hansen’s models differ from the current consensus as he foresees dramatically more melting of the poles’ ice sheets. We could be in serious trouble: the world’s most prescient climate scientist fervently believes seas will rise higher and faster than anyone is expecting.

In our new book Warnings, we refer to Hansen as a “Cassandra.” Cassandra was a mythical princess of Troy who was gifted the ability to foresee future catastrophes, but cursed with the inability to persuade anyone to believe her. We use the name to refer to someone who accurately predicted a disaster but was ignored. Over the strong objections of two Presidents and the fossil fuel industry, Hansen put the issue of climate change on the world’s agenda.  He risked his sterling career at NASA, was shunned by some in the scientific community, and arrested six times for protesting the carbon economy, but ultimately was proven right. Now, Hansen has made a new prediction. Is there a new-found respect for his discoveries? Could this Cassandra previously shunned, now be “coming in from the cold?”

Hansen’s research projects a rise in ocean levels that exceeds most other models. Recent satellite analysis reveals 15 years of dramatic and accelerating melting of Antarctica and Greenland. According to NASA monitoring, glaciers in West Antarctica are in a state of irreversible retreat, the Antarctic ice sheet is wasting away at 127 billion tons of ice annually, and Greenland is losing 286 billion tons of ice each year. Losing even relatively small portions of Antarctica or Greenland to warming would have catastrophic consequences for human civilization.

Hansen thinks that as we continue our consumption of fossil fuels unabated, there is high potential to see one meter of sea level rise as we enter the second half of the century, and once we hit a meter, the ocean’s rise will only accelerate, and accelerate quickly. Hansen warns, “Humanity faces near certainty of eventual sea-level rise of at least 5-9 meters if fossil fuel emissions continue on a business-as-usual course.” Dr. Charles Fletcher at the University of Hawaii explains that, “Sea level is rising three times faster than in the 20th Century. Sea level rise is a monster in hiding – that is, it lags behind the rate of global warming because melting ice and warming ocean water do not react instantly to air temperature. Because global warming is continuing and is unlikely to stop before reaching 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, global mean sea level is a freight train we can’t stop.”

We asked Hansen, “You are suggesting the end of all these coastal cities within a hundred years. If that happens, is the implication some sort of global systemic economic collapse, bringing about a sort of new dark ages?” He answered simply, “Yeah. The world could become practically ungovernable.”

In the 1980s when he published his first predictions of climate change, Hansen drew sharp criticism from some colleagues. He spent over a decade defending his science in the 80’s and 90’s and he wasn’t redeemed until the climate caught up to Hansen’s predictions and proved him correct. After Hansen’s current, and much more dire warnings, history may be repeating itself. His 2016 paper was met with harsh criticism from some scientists. But nature is showing looming signs predicted by his modeling – currents have slowed in the North Atlantic, Antarctic sea ice melting has grown to record levels, tropical storms are stoked to record intensities by hot seas, doubling times for sea level rise are shrinking, and loss of the ice sheets is accelerating.

Earlier this year, in recognition of the potential for rapid ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released new scenarios for future sea level rise that more than double projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the globally accepted consensus estimates) just 4 years ago. NOAA states that “several peer-reviewed publications provide evidence to support a physically plausible global mean sea level rise in the range of 2.0 meters (m) to 2.7 m, and recent results regarding Antarctic ice-sheet instability indicate that such outcomes may be more likely than previously thought.” Is this evidence that the scientific community is, yet again, moving from scorn to acceptance of Hansen’s predictions?

Waiting for consensus in science, or in anything, can get people killed. In our study of dozens of data-driven experts whose dire, but accurate, warnings were ignored, it is brutally obvious that “scientific reticence” to embrace a new theory, even when that theory is backed by overwhelming data, can blind us to pending catastrophes. The warmer reception to Hansen’s second major warning is a promising example of science more rapidly embracing outlier discoveries. NOAA’s studies have not been the only recent example of multi-meter sea level rise predicted for this century.

Will the decision makers follow suit?

Even if Hansen is only partially correct, there is no real understanding of what it would cost to save cities or to move millions of people to new places, no determination of who would pay for it and how, no understanding of the effect on our economy and society.  Most major countries seem to realize that urgent action is necessary. A draft communique from the G20 Summit in Germany in July suggests that every member of the G20—except the United States—intends to maintain its current commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, and individual U.S. states and major businesses have indicated that they will follow the Paris Accord regardless of the announced U.S. federal pull out. Hansen has called the Paris accord “a fraud” that does not go far enough in cutting carbon emissions, but it may be the start we will need to combat rising seas and storms.

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