Global temperatures are accelerating at rapid speed and will pass a major milestone this decade, research by the former NASA scientist James Hansen reveals, raising the alarm much sooner than other estimates predict. Hansen addressed the US Congress 35 years ago with a climate warning, alerting policymakers to the greenhouse effect.
“We are in the early phase of a climate emergency,” the paper published on November 2 warns. “Such acceleration is dangerous in a climate system that is already far out of equilibrium. Reversing the trend is essential – we must cool the planet — for the sake of preserving shorelines and saving the world’s coastal cities.”
The study published in Oxford Academic predicts a “dangerous” burst of heating will be unleashed, pushing the world to be 1.5°C hotter than it was, on average, in pre-industrial times within the 2020s and 2°C hotter by 2050. Under this scenario, the targets agreed in the Paris Agreement, of not exceeding 1.5°C, seems unreasonable as global heating keeps accelerating. The consequences will be dire, the research paper warns, as the world will become increasingly inhospitable for humankind and greater climate extremes will become the norm.
“Our principal motivation in this paper is concern that IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate] has underestimated climate sensitivity and understated the threat of large sea level rise,” reads the paper. The IPCC was established in 1988 to provide scientific assessments on the state of knowledge about climate change and almost all nations agreed to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the objective to avert “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
Hansen and his fellow researchers are questioning the IPCC’s assessment in relation to the continuous burning of fossil fuels. They consider that a huge amount of global heating is still expected to be unleashed as, despite repeated warnings, fossils like oil and coal remain in use globally. “We would be damned fools and bad scientists if we didn’t expect an acceleration of global warming,” Hansen said.
We are beginning to suffer the effect of our Faustian bargain. That is why the rate of global warming is accelerating.Dr. James Edward Hansen
2. Carbon tax and “solar geoengineering”
Hansen and his colleagues are proposing a global carbon tax to offer economic incentives for people, businesses, and governments to reduce their carbon footprint. Carbon taxes are considered an economically efficient way to address climate change as they provide a clear price signal for carbon emissions. But such levy can be politically challenging to implement, as they often face opposition from industries and individuals who may be financially impacted by the increased costs of fossil fuels.
The second solution proposed by Hansen is to artificially cool the planet by spaying sulphur into the atmosphere, a controversial proposal discussed among environmentalists called “solar geoengineering”. “Risks of such intervention must be defined, as well as risks of no intervention; thus, the US National Academy of Sciences recommends research on solar radiation management,” reads the paper.
3. Finding consensus
This decade may be “our last chance to develop the knowledge, technical capability, and political will” to act pragmatically and safeguard global coastal regions from climate catastrophe, the researchers warn. But not all the scientists are carrying such a daunting view as Hansen’s and his colleagues.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, said that Hansen and his co-authors are “very much out of the mainstream” in projecting an acceleration in global heating, noting that the trend, despite upward, has “continued at a remarkably constant rate for the past few decades”. Mann added that calls for solar geoengineering are misguided and a “very slippery slope”.
Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University, said she had “some reservations” about the certainties expressed in Hansen’s research about the state of the Earth’s climate millions of years ago, which helps predict the consequences of warming today. “I’d be a little more reserved, but they may well be correct — it’s a nicely written paper,” she said. “It raises a lot of questions that will trigger a lot of research that will bring our understanding forward.”
A separate study published on November 6 by British and Austrian scientists similarly found that, at our current rate of burning fossil fuels, the world would be committed to passing 1.5 degrees of warming within six years.
However, some other researchers are more aligned with Hansen’s dire warning, remembering his previous predictive warnings about the climate crisis that have largely played out due to decades of inaction to curb the extraction and use of fossil fuels.
“I think Hansen’s pessimism is warranted. He stood up 35 years ago and sounded the alarm – and the world mostly ignored him, and all of us,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University scientist and chair of the Global Carbon Project.