Dire warnings from Dr. Hansen and team

Those who receive Dr. James Hansen’s occasional newsletter from his Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions team, will have seen some dire reports before. Still, nothing we have seen is quite as unimaginable or alarming as learning that global warming is happening at the equivalent of 750,000 exploding Hiroshima atomic bombs in our atmosphere per day, every day. From burning fossil fuels. That’s a lot of warming . . . !

No one likes to think about nuclear bombs. Their very bad reputation already negatively impacts how people think about nuclear energy (even though bombs are designed to explode and nuclear energy is designed so it can’t explode). But in this case, Hansen’s comparison really helps. Not just as to the scale of the warming problem but as to level of threat.

Earth's Energy Imbalance chart and climate response.
Fig. 1: 12-month running-mean of Earth’s energy imbalance, based on CERES satellite data for EEI change normalized to 0.71 W/m2 mean for July 2005 – June 2015 based on in situ data.

In today’s newsletter, Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Climate Response Time, Hansen and team review findings recently detailed in a newly issued report called Global Warming in the Pipeline. From this report we learn that there is a lot more solar energy being absorbed by our planet than is being lost through heat radiation out into space. As they explain, the heat budget of our planet is badly out of wack. There is far more energy coming into our atmosphere than going out. As though we have put an “extra blanket” on the planet, our emissions trap heat and are causing excess warming. Dr. Hansen frames this massive experiment as “human-made geoengineering of Earth’s climate.” He writes:

Earth’s Energy Imbalance (EEI) varies from year-to-year (Fig. 1), largely because global cloud amount varies with weather and ocean dynamics, but averaged over several years, EEI tells us what is needed to stabilize climate.[4] When [Dr. Hansen] gave a TED talk 10 years ago, EEI was about 0.6 W/m2, averaged over six years (that may not sound like much, but it equals the energy in 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, every day). Now, it appears, EEI has approximately doubled, to more than 1 W/m2. [Emphasis added.] The reasons, discussed in our paper, mainly being increased growth rate of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and a reduction of human-made aerosols (fine particles in the air that reflect sunlight and cool the planet).

It appears that Dr. Hansen’s 2012 TEDTalk, Why I must speak out about climate change, explained all these phenomena to us a full decade ago. So, in fact, his recent report is just providing us with an update on how little we have done to address the problem and thus how much worse things are. It is clear, we have not listened to him.

Dr. James Hansen’s 2012 TEDTalk

In ten years, the amount of forced warming of our planet has nearly doubled and this is not a good thing.

So why has humanity failed to take the requisite actions to stabilize the climate? In characteristic understatement, we’re told it’s because of the climate’s delayed response. In other words, heat applied to oceans and ice sheets will still take a while to fully warm or melt them. Not only do the world’s oceans contain 270 times as much mass as the atmosphere, but water also needs 4 times as much energy as air to raise each unit of mass a degree in temperature. This provides a lag that allows global air temperatures to seem more normal than they really are. Without that lag, we’d likely have acted more aggressively to limit the heating. We’re just not fully experiencing how bad it really is. The good news: the climate’s delayed response gives us a little more time to take meaningful action, before we have so much disruption from our overheated world, that societies break down.

Dan Miller, a co-founder of the venture capital firm, Roda Group and a leading proponent of climate action, took time to review the entire 48 page  Global Warming in the Pipeline paper submitted by Hansen and 14 co-authors. He summarized its findings as follows:

1. The Earth Climate Sensitivity (ECS) — the Earth’s short-term response to a CO2 doubling — is higher than previously assumed. Most scientists said it was ~3ºC, but Hansen et al now say it is 4ºC or more based on paleoclimate data. This means there is more warming “in the pipeline” than previously assumed.
 
2. While humans have increased atmospheric CO2 by 50% since the industrial revolution, the actual climate forcing from all the added greenhouse gases is now ~4W/m^2, which is equivalent to a doubling of CO2 (i.e., CO2e (including all greenhouse gases, not just CO2) is about 560 ppm).
 
3. Part of the current warming has been hidden by human-made particulate air pollution (aerosols), mainly sulfur. When North America and Europe started to reduce emissions after the introduction of clean air acts in the 1970’s, regional and global warming became more pronounced. In the past decades China and global shipping slashed sulfur emissions through cleaner fuels and sulfur filter systems (‘scrubbers’). There are clear signals from ground, ocean and satellite based observations that the rate of global warming has recently doubled, which needs to be taken into account in risk assessments.
 
4. Assuming today’s forcing (4 W/m^2) stabilizes and human-made aerosols are eliminated, when all feedbacks — including “long-term” feedbacks — play out, we are on track for about 10ºC warming and 6~7ºC if aerosols stay at today’s levels. This is a “scenario” and we still control our future, though we are on track to increase climate forcing from today’s 4 W/m^2.
 
5. If greenhouse gas forcings keeps growing at the current rate, it could match the level PETM mass extinction within a century. We are increasing climate forcing 20X faster than in the PETM so “long-term” feedbacks won’t take as long as in the paleo record (though some feedbacks will still be much longer than a human lifetime).
 
6. The paper concludes that we must: (a) implement a carbon fee and border duty (Fee and Dividend); (b) “human-made geoengineering of Earth’s climate must be rapidly phased out,” i.e., we must stop emitting greenhouse gases, remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and research and implement safe solar radiation management to counter the massive geoengineering experiment we are currently running; and (c) we must improve international cooperation to allow the developing world to grow using clean energy.
 
7. A companion paper will be coming out that addresses the near-term shutdown of the AMOC and associated “multi-meter” sea level rise on a century timescale.

Dan Miller runs a Clubhouse group called Climate Chat. Following the release of Hansen’s report, he interviewed Leon Simons, a co-author of the paper, about their findings and the implications. It was a 2.5 hour conversation.  It’s not a happy topic but Dan, at least, is willing to confront the hard truths, in this case, that we must act immediately to address the climate crisis.

Part of the hard truth that is increasingly unavoidable, has to do with solutions. Once again, Dr. Hansen recognized the dilemma we have with respect to our options for solutions quite a long time ago: namely that we cannot realistically let go of fossil fuels without finding good alternatives, and the “best candidate is nuclear energy.” Here he is discussing this in a 2013 interview:

Even though nuclear energy could dramatically help us alleviate emissions from fossil fuels, many people, including many smart investors, find the idea of proactively supporting nuclear power uncomfortable. They fear and loathe nuclear bombs—rightfully so—and can’t emotionally separate those feelings enough to accept that there are compelling benefits from energy achieved by a related technology. Some just love “renewables,” which generate energy from free wind and free sun. The costs of installing these have come way down and they are extremely popular, so what’s not to like?

Nuclear, in contrast, is very hard to like.  It’s so complicated and hard for people to understand, plus it’s fraught with scary meltdown scenarios, exclusion zones and radioactive waste. Beside, we know that it’s expensive and takes a long time to build, so with solid reasons like that to reject it, why risk putting one’s own environmental credibility and “green” loyalty in question by supporting it, since it’s already too unpopular to succeed, right?

This type of thinking has made nuclear power, quite likely the best solution we have for eliminating dependence on fossil fuels, easy to either ignore or outright reject. And this might have been the end of the story except for the inconvenient fact that wind and solar are not doing the job of reducing emissions.

It turns out that people not only want but societies need and demand reliable energy.  Even with cheap renewables, fossil fuel usage continues to expand. Because renewables are weather-dependent and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Which is, in turn, why more people are again revisiting the possibility of using nuclear power, because the alternative is natural gas.  This spurred Dan Miller to invite Carl Page, founder of the Anthropocene Institute, into the Climate Chat Clubhouse to explore these issues and discuss why public support for nuclear power has dramatically increased.

It seems Russia’s attack of Ukraine followed by energy scarcity elevated global appreciation of several critical facets of energy systems beyond mere price. People woke up to the fact that energy supply security, grid reliability, energy price stability, climate resilience and limiting carbon are all important. Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and now a war-induced energy crisis has re-focused the world’s spotlight on nuclear energy—the only energy solution that addresses all of these critical energy needs. Germany, a nation deeply committed to nuclear phase-out, chose to delay the closures of its last nuclear power plants, rather than risk worsening their energy crisis. California choose to extend the life of Diablo Canyon for similar reasons.

Well maybe not shutting down existing plants makes sense, you might be thinking. But isn’t it true that building new nuclear is too expensive and takes too long? The answer is not necessarily. Although Gen III nuclear power plant construction experiences have been mixed, with many in that class greatly delayed and vastly over-budget, a few of these Gen III plants have been built on time and in budget and nearly all are finally being completed. These are newer, safer light water designs and the learning process on those new designs has begun. Which means that costs of new builds can come down, if they get proper support. The question now for the industry and the world, is whether we are going to build on that construction knowledge to improve on past performance or abandon it.

Additionally, there’s been movement in a whole new direction for nuclear technology: that of innovation.  Gen IV nuclear, or what many call advanced nuclear and next-generation nuclear, are innovative new designs on the cusp of commercialization. A new crop of developers are working to reimagine nuclear without water cooling. These designs largely rely on  physics for cooling, rather than muscular engineering. This reduces the need for back-up safety systems and redefines how small and how quickly nuclear can be built.

Next-gen is now widely expected to be smaller, modular, manufactured and constructed in a period of months and will be well-suited for use by corporate and industrial sites, college campuses, data centers, district heating systems and remote villages around the world. These advanced fission designs are engineering evolutions of previously demonstrated technologies such as molten salt, high-temperature gas and liquid metal-cooled reactors that do not require scientific discovery or breakthroughs. Fusion, which is developing the potential of magnetic confinement, inertial confinement and even metallic lattice confinement (formerly called “cold fusion”) to generate massive amounts of carbon-free energy, still requires significant scientific breakthroughs but they also seeing progress and are widely expected to be ready to serve energy needs by mid-century.

The question now is, will this growing global support for nuclear energy and the efforts of innovators to redesign nuclear for the 21st century enable us to meet our urgent climate goals?  Can we build nuclear faster while steadily reducing costs? Or will lingering antinuclear prejudice induce an investor delayed response that prevents construction of new Gen III designs and commercialization of a range of Gen IV designs?

The answer to that question will determine whether or not humanity meets or misses our very limited window to eliminate fossil fuels emissions by 2050. This is why we applaud the growing investor enthusiasm for building existing commercially-viable Gen III nuclear plants, as well as investing in the further development of innovative Gen IV designs, including fusion. We need them all if we are to have any hope of supplanting the 100 million barrels of oil burned every day and the 80% of electricity powered by coal and gas before it is too late.

According to Dr. Hansen, it is already very late and our climate situation is frighteningly dire. People need to act with urgency and purpose on climate: we can no longer afford delay. What we decide to do to move off the wrong path that we have been on up until now will set our course, perhaps permanently. We need good alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power may not be environmentalists’ or investors’ first choice but it has decades of proven efficacy and safety. Best of all, current innovations hold the promise of being able to scale rapidly to serve the world’s urgent energy needs.

Those who invest wisely into this risky “contrarian” area may ultimately reap the reward of seeing their investments succeed. If they do, it means they will have helped displace fossil fuel as the energy of choice and provided a compelling clean energy alternative. And for that, there could well be extraordinary returns.  There are plenty of risks for sure but, as it looks now, the risks of not investing in the solutions that can reduce emissions could well be far worse.

Hansen and team have  recently detailed new warnings and updated data in a newly issued report called Global Warming in the Pipeline, which has been submitted to Oxford Open Climate Change for publication. Read more of the history of Dr. James Hansen’s research into the heating effect of CO2 in the atmosphere.  In August 1981, the New York Times published Study finds warming trend that could raise Sea Level, a report by Walter Sullivan about the study Dr. Hansen and six colleagues wrote which revealed the risk of sea level rise from global warming.