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Beyond the Book

‘Storms of my Grandchildren’ Review

This book is a detailed, personal, and inside account by world-famous environmental scientist, Jim Hansen, of the unfolding of our insight into what is euphemistically called “global warming.” Perhaps, instead, we should rename this process “the unfolding planet-killing disaster.” We read about Hansen’s experiences as a NASA climate scientist (ultimately director of its Goddard Institute for Space Studies) from the 1980’s through the present. As a testament to his blunt, truth-telling grit, these experiences include the Bush I White House trying to get him fired for protesting their doctoring of his Congressional testimony.

Hansen comes across as an objective scientist caught between the facts of the science and what he considers the lack of transparency in getting all the facts out to the public, to all of us. This lack of transparency, he tells us, is due to special interest groups hearing what they wish to hear and valuing short term profits over the long term health of the planet and the humans on it. However, he believes in our ability as a democratic public to objectively value the long term over the short term, as long as the information we need is not hidden from us.

Specifically, Hansen takes us inside the belly of the bureaucratic beast and of the CONFLICT OF INTEREST PROBLEM in its most toxic contemporary guise. Narrow interest groups manipulate the government’s power – ostensibly serving us all while actually furthering their own narrow (and profitable) short term objectives.

First the science: The gist of Hansen’s scientific story is horrifying. To borrow the author’s pithy phraseology, “coal-blackened” politicians (bought by narrow interests) have allowed projects to proceed that run the very real risk of tipping the Earth into a “runaway greenhouse effect.” This process is apparently what produced Venus, with a surface temperature of 450°C (842°F). This temperature is hot enough to melt lead – not to mention high levels of toxic gases like sulfuric acid and pressures sufficient to crush us as we burst into flames. The impending submersion of New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, all of southern Florida and many other places by rising sea levels turns out to be the least of our problems!

Today’s politicians persistently “greenwash” their policy positions – sedating us by claiming to be pursuing environmentally sound policies when, usually, they are doing no such thing. Even relatively environmentally “friendly” politicians (Gore, Obama and others) are not coming completely clean with us, Hansen argues.

Second the politics: Hansen’s description of the special interest machinations behind greenwashing the transformation of Earth into Venus is extremely illuminating. There is a fundamentally psychotic quality to inadequately transparent politics. [Readers savvy about the origins of the 2007-2008 near collapse of the financial system, for example, will not be a bit surprised about how this lack of transparency works.] Narrow special interest lobbies generate a blizzard of disingenuous, self-justifying information – creating false policy positions and artificially confusing the simple science. This process becomes especially egregious when the individual politicians themselves (Bush II and Cheney, for example) have a huge personal stake in the private business interests in question.

Politicians focused on the next election cycle hide behind this darkly fuzzy screen, taking special interest support in a truly classic deal with the devil. Our descendents, not these individual politicians, will perish in the runaway greenhouse effect a few generations hence, but contemporary politicians are not really looking past their own current self-interests.

Moreover, our fundamentally corrupt and deluded political class strongly influences hiring and promotion within our public institutions. This creates the well-known “hierarchy of liars and fools” that populates so many of the middle and upper management positions in our large public bureaucracies (with a few extremely valuable exceptions). [The analogous dysfunction of our “privately owned” institutions has a similar, though subtly distinct origin.]

Finally, of course, this behavior by special interests, their house politicians and bureaucratic toadies presents the classic FREE RIDER PROBLEM from the point of view of the rest of us, we the democratized WISE CROWD. It remains for us to insist on transparency and to ostracize the dishonest and short-sighted from our political process and our public institutions. If Hansen is mostly correct about the science (as he almost certainly is) our great-grandchildren may not even survive to look at us with bitter contempt if we fail. On the other hand, we own the place and solving these problems is well within our grasp.

Reviewed by Paul M. Bingham and Joanne Souza
Authors of “Death for a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”

Storms of my Grandchildren:
The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

James Hansen (2009)
Bloomsbury, New York

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