By Stephen C. Webster on September 18, 2013

New research co-authored by leading U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, a longtime employee of NASA who recently resigned to engage in climate activism, paints a grim picture of a future Earth left virtually uninhabitable by current warming trends. The paper, published Monday, concludes that energy-related decisions being made by today's government leaders will ultimately "determine the fate of humanity."

Hansen's paper, authored with several former NASA colleagues, warns that Earth's climate-regulating systems may be more sensitive to higher levels of carbon than scientists previously suspected. They also calculated the atmospheric changes that would be produced by burning off the estimated stock of Earth's fossil fuel reserves, finding that it would result in a planetary apocalypse.

"Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change," they write. Such a scenario, with average temperatures rising 16 degrees Celsius on land and 30 degrees Celsius at the poles, would leave just a fraction of humanity clinging to life atop Earth's highest ridges, Hansen et. al. predict.

Climate denialists have in recent months seized upon a strategy of downplaying the likelihood of climate-driven mass extinctions within the next 50-100 years, urging government officials to instead adopt policies that aim to help humanity adapt to climate change -- which they claim will be less than 2 degrees Celsius, bringing about unforeseen benefits.

By comparison, the World Bank warned last year that a rise of just 4 degrees Celsius is looking almost inevitable on our current track. Such a change would cause widespread famine, droughts, intensifying storm systems and mass population movements across dozens of developing nations as resources dwindle and coastlines are increasingly swallowed up by rising seas.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim also warned in an advisory that a change of just 2 degrees Celsius, which many scientists believe to be unavoidable in the next 20-30 years, "will cause widespread food shortages, unprecedented heat waves, and more intense cyclones."

Hansen's report comes at a crucial time for global climate negotiators too, who are anticipating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest assessment of warming trends, set to be released later this month. Drafts of the report have already leaked to key climate skeptics, who've had a run of the mainstream media narrative on the matter in recent weeks. Hansen, however, pays little mind to the deniers and concludes his latest study with forceful clarity.

"If fossil fuels were made to pay their costs to society, costs of pollution and climate change, carbon-free alternatives might supplant fossil fuels over a period of decades," Hansen et. al write. "However, if governments force the public to bear the external costs and even subsidize fossil fuels, carbon emissions are likely to continue to grow, with deleterious consequences for young people and future generations."

"It seems implausible that humanity will not alter its energy course as consequences of burning all fossil fuels become clearer," the study concludes. "Yet strong evidence about the dangers of human-made climate change have so far had little effect. Whether governments continue to be so foolhardy as to allow or encourage development of all fossil fuels may determine the fate of humanity."

Hansen did not respond to a request for comment.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr, creative commons licensed.

Disclosure: Stephen C. Webster is a member of Al Gore's Climate Reality Project.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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