Global Warming: What James Hansen Didn’t Say

I’ve critized James Hansen for things he said. It’s only fair then, to point out something he didn’t actually say.

President Obama ‘has four years to save Earth.’

This is the headline of the article from the Guardian. I love the quotation marks, which make it look like a direct quote. And here’s what we find in the article:

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen…

Wow, not only do we have only four years, but that’s all the time we have to save the world! (Does someone think that global warming will cause the Earth to spontaneously combust and burn to a cinder?)

But peruse the actual interview on which the article is based, and here’s what you actually find Hansen saying:

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world.

Well, that’s considerably different. Whether we can afford to put off change is arguable, but to say we can’t afford to put it off is certainly a far more plausible claim than “we have only four years to save the world.” And as to the claim that Obama has only four years to set an example…well, yeah, that’s the term of his office. Sure, he might be re-elected, but there’s no certainty of that, so Hansen’s claim is correct enough.  If he’s not elected, then in 2013 it will be too late for him to set an example.

Hansen is guilty here of speaking too carelessly and failing to make sure a reporter understood what he said (and he really ought to know better by now), but what he actually said, when read by a person whose IQ exceeds that of French Toast (i.e, not a reporter) is entirely reasonable.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
This entry was posted in Climate Clusterfuck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Global Warming: What James Hansen Didn’t Say

  1. Lance says:

    “…but what he actually said, when read by a person whose IQ exceeds that of French Toast (i.e, not a reporter) is entirely reasonable. ”

    Except that Hansen has been saying this, with slight variations on the theme, for over twenty five years. He has talked about “ten year windows” and “tipping points” on a regular basis for long enough to be classified in the same category as Chicken Little and the boy who cried wolf.

    Here’s one from 1986 on temperature increase in America:

    “Hansen said the average U.S. temperature had risen from one to two degrees since 1958 and is predicted to increase an additional 3 or 4 degrees sometime between 2010 and 2020.”

    The Press-Courier (Milwaukee) June 11 1986

    Well it’s 2011 and we haven’t seen anything like that kind of increase.

    Also in 1986, we have this unequivocal prediction:

    “Within 15 years,” said Goddard Space Flight Honcho James Hansen, “global temperatures will rise to a level which hasn’t existed on earth for 100,000 years”.

    The News and Courier, June 17th 1986

    Well if my math is correct that would have been 2001 and as I recall there was no climate Armageddon that year or since.

    Back in 1982, we find Hansen arguing that if fossil fuel use wasn’t restricted, England might be a tropical paradise by 2050. If we carried on as normal, the world would be back in the sort of heat last seen in the age of the dinosaurs.

    Hansen presented results of studies which indicated likely climate changes under different energy policies.

    “If there were slow growth in the use of hydrocarbon fuels, the world in the middle of the next century would be as warm as it was 125,000 years ago, when lions, elephants and other tropical animals roamed a balmy southern England.”

    Pursuing present plans for coal and oil, Hansen found, the climate in the middle of the 21st century “would approach the warmth of the age of the dinosaurs”

    The Leader-Post, January 9th, 1982.

    By 1989, far from toning it down, Hansen was starting to really turn up the heat, predicting totally unprecedented warming so far as mankind was concerned:

    “By the year 2050 we’re going to have tremendous climate changes, far outside what man has ever experienced” said James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

    Computer models by Hansen and others suggest that by the middle of the next century earth’s average temperature may rise 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly altering storm patterns, making crops fail, and raising sea levels to flood low-lying coastal areas.

    Observer-Reporter, December 7th, 1989

    And in 2006, he was still going strong. Unabashed by the failure of the world to warm significantly, Hansen was still predicting massive temperature increases. Remember that in the interview below, with a British newspaper, he is talking in degrees Celsius for temperature, and in meters (one meter = 3 feet) for sea level rise:

    “The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today – which is what we expect later this century – sea levels were 25m higher. So that is what we can look forward to if we don’t act soon. None of the current climate and ice models predict this. But I prefer the evidence from the Earth’s history and my own eyes. I think sea-level rise is going to be the big issue soon, more even than warming itself.”

    The Independent, 17th February, 2006

    So you are being quite generous to our boy Hansen unless you think all of the above were misquotes.

    Jimmy is a wacko. That the media doesn’t call him on all of his BS “predictions” is a sad commentary on the current state of journalism. They lap up any new doomsday prediction he makes without bothering to even check out his long record of over-the-top failed prophesies.

    Oh, and I borrowed heavily from a website called “Haunting the Library” for the quotes above so if I lifted some text along with quotes full credit should go to that source.

  2. James Hanley says:


    I’m not willing to concede that they weren’t misquotes. The press seems very eager to overblow statements about global warming. I looked at each of those quotes and rejected writing about them because I couldn’t find evidence that he actually said those words.

    I do think he’s probably been over-predicting for some time, which is part of the reason I am still skeptical about him and unwilling to totally trust him. But I don’t want to rely on journalists. I want definitive statements we can be sure he said before I criticize them.

  3. Lance says:

    Fair enough.

    I’ll try to find direct quotes.

  4. Michael Heath says:

    Lance states:

    He has talked about “ten year windows” and “tipping points” on a regular basis for long enough to be classified in the same category as Chicken Little and the boy who cried wolf.

    Tipping point is a scientific term which is actually studied, it’s not mere rhetoric and an evidence-less threat. Dr. Hansen and scientists in general whose research includes tipping points would be dishonest to avoid discussing the fact that tipping points exist, have been observed in paleoclimate findings, and that we risk a tipping point given human activities.

    Peter Ditlevsen:

    “The new results [. . . changes in the CO2 levels in the atmosphere that suddenly reach a critical turning point and with that trigger the dramatic climate changes.] (1) are an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the ice ages and their climate dynamics. In the manmade climate changes, that we are possibly in the middle of now, one worries a lot about the possible so-called ‘tipping points’. The bifurcations that are now identified in the natural climate fluctuations are tipping points, so this is of course an important step in our understanding of climate changes” . . . Link:

    Here’s UC Davis theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings commenting on his recent publication:

    “Many scientists are looking for the warning signs that herald sudden changes in natural systems, in hopes of forestalling those changes, or improving our preparations for them,” […] “Our new study found, unfortunately, that regime shifts with potentially large consequences can happen without warning — systems can ‘tip’ precipitously.
    “This means that some effects of global climate change on ecosystems can be seen only once the effects are dramatic. By that point returning the system to a desirable state will be difficult, if not impossible.” Link: Cite: Hastings et al. Regime shifts in ecological systems can occur with no warning. Ecology Letters, 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01439.x

    Merritt Turetsky, lead author of the following study.

    “Essentially this [increase of wildfires already observed due to global warming] could represent a runaway climate change scenario in which warming is leading to larger and more intense fires, releasing more greenhouse gases and resulting in more warming. This cycle can be broken for a number of reasons, but likely not without dramatic changes to the boreal forest as we currently know it.” Link: Paper published that generated article: Cite: Merritt R. Turetsky, et. al, “Recent acceleration of biomass burning and carbon losses in Alaskan forests and peatlands”
    Nature Geoscience 4, 27–31 (2011) doi:10.1038/ngeo1027
    Received 27 July 2010 Accepted 02 November 2010 Published online 05 December 2010

    1) Ditlevsen, P. D. The bifurcation structure and noise assisted transitions in the Pleistocene glacial cycles. Paleoceanography, (in press) DOI: 10.1029/2008PA001673

  5. Michael Heath says:

    I didn’t include this example to avoid blogger moderation for link maximums.

    Here’s a good news finding on the subject of tipping points:

    However, new research carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg/Germany now indicates that such tipping point is unlikely to exist for the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. The sea-ice cover reacts instead relatively directly to the climatic conditions at any given time. Hence, the ongoing loss of Arctic sea ice could be slowed down and eventually stopped if global warming were to be slowed down and eventually stopped.
    His paper: Tietsche, S., D. Notz, J. H. Jungclaus, and J. Marotzke (2011), Recovery mechanisms of Arctic summer sea ice, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L02707, doi:10.1029/2010GL045698.

  6. Michael Heath says:

    Here’s an article specific to the subject of tipping points relevant to climate. Full access available which is linked to here:

    Lenton et. al, “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system
    Timothy M. Lenton” PNAS February 12, 2008 vol. 105 no. 6 1786-1793, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0705414105

    Moneyquote from abstract:

    The term “tipping point” commonly refers to a critical threshold at which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system. Here we introduce the term “tipping element” to describe large-scale components of the Earth system that may pass a tipping point. We critically evaluate potential policy-relevant tipping elements in the climate system under anthropogenic forcing, drawing on the pertinent literature and a recent international workshop to compile a short list, and we assess where their tipping points lie. An expert elicitation is used to help rank their sensitivity to global warming and the uncertainty about the underlying physical mechanisms. Then we explain how, in principle, early warning systems could be established to detect the proximity of some tipping points.

    Money-quote from conclusion:

    Society may be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change. Our synthesis of present knowledge suggests that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under anthropogenic climate change. The greatest threats are tipping the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and at least five other elements could surprise us by exhibiting a nearby tipping point. This knowledge should influence climate policy, but a full assessment of policy relevance would require that, for each potential tipping element, we answer the following questions: Mitigation: Can we stay clear of ρcrit? Adaptation: Can F̂ be tolerated?

  7. Michael Heath says:

    Lastly . . .

    Armour et. al’s abstract:

    Climate commitment—the warming that would still occur given no further human influence—is a fundamental metric for both science and policy. It informs us of the minimum climate change we face and, moreover, depends only on our knowledge of the natural climate system. Studies of the climate commitment due to CO2 find that global temperature would remain near current levels, or even decrease slightly, in the millennium following the cessation of emissions. However, this result overlooks the important role of the non-CO2 greenhouse gases and aerosols. This paper shows that global energetics require an immediate and significant warming following the cessation of emissions as aerosols are quickly washed from the atmosphere, and the large uncertainty in current aerosol radiative forcing implies a large uncertainty in the climate commitment. Fundamental constraints preclude Earth returning to pre-industrial temperatures for the indefinite future. These same constraints mean that observations are currently unable to eliminate the possibility that we are already beyond the point where the ultimate warming will exceed dangerous levels. Models produce a narrower range of climate commitment, but undersample observed forcing constraints. [emphasis added – MH]

    Citation: Armour, K. C., and G. H. Roe (2011), “Climate commitment in an uncertain world”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L01707, doi:10.1029/2010GL045850.

    Summary: Dr. Hansen is within the scientific mainstream by referencing the existence and threat of climate tipping points. The irresponsible party is not Dr. Hansen for raising the fact tipping points both exist and we risk surpassing one due to human activity.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I was going to point out that Guardian writers don’t write their own headlines, but after reading the comments here I realize that really isn’t the point.

Comments are closed.