Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Climate Change in a Nutshell: The Gathering Storm

Note how closely the temperatures follow carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

James Hansen

Young people today confront an imminent gathering storm. They have at their command considerable determination, a dog-eared copy of our beleaguered Constitution, and rigorously developed science. The Court must decide if that is enough.

That is the final paragraph of my (thick) Expert Report written more than a year ago for Juliana v. United States. We are fortunate to have such a brilliant and dedicated group of attorneys who have assembled a score of experts and are working to ensure that young people receive their day in court.

In the meantime, there are reasons why it may be useful to summarize the climate science story.

Albert Einstein once said that a theory or explanation should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. And it depends on who the audience is. My target is the level of a Chief Justice or a fossil fuel industry CEO.

This is a draft, because I want to be sure that there are no inconsistencies in my testimonies against the government, against the fossil fuel industry, and in support of brave people who have taken risks in fighting for young people.

This 18 December version is only a slight revision to the 06 December ‘Nutshell’, as it was needed for a specific court case. I will revise it further, so suggestions are still welcome. However, bear in mind that this is aimed at the highly-educated open-minded Chief Justice and fossil fuel industry CEOs. I begin with an ‘Outline of Opinions,’ but the aim here is not an ‘elevator speech’ or a summary for relatives and neighbors.

The overwhelming (well-deserved) criticism of the 06 December ‘Nutshell’ was of the 2-page cover memo in which I seemed to let prior governments, and specifically George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, off the hook. In fact,they deserve censure for failure to protect the rights and future of young people.

Regarding the end-game strategy,for how we can move off our fossil fuel addiction, we need legal pressure on both governments and the fossil fuel industry. ‘Nutshell’ is written for use in lawsuits against governments and the fossil fuel industry. However, my long-term aim is not to punish the fossil fuel industry, but rather to bring it to understand the situation and become part of the solution.

CEOs do not get to their positions without being smart people. The example I used, E.E. David, Jr., is illustrative. David brilliantly summarized the nature of the climate system, its delayed response and amplifying feedbacks, and the fact that this implied the need for “anticipation.” The anticipation that the fossil fuel industry chose was not to develop carbon-free energy, but rather to develop unconventional fossil fuels! They anticipated finite reserves of conventional fossil fuels. Via enormous investments, the fossil fuel industry successfully developed ‘fracking’. This choice forced E.E. David to become a climate ‘denier’, which he remained throughout the rest of his life.

Why do I think some CEOs today may be different? David’s talk was almost four decades ago! His own scientists were telling him there were many uncertainties about climate change. The situation is different now. First, human-made climate change has emerged far enough from weather ‘noise’ that even the public notices it. Second, the science has become clearer and exposes an urgency for action that is not convenient for political operatives but is understandable to the well-informed. This conclusion must be made clear to policymakers and judges, and, as useful as a good elevator summary is, two minute summaries are not sufficient for that purpose.

The United States government has possessed extensive knowledge about the threat posed by fossil-fuel driven climate change for several decades, as delineated in my Expert Report for the Juliana v. United States case. Yet, as described in the ‘Nutshell’ summary, the United States government allows, permits and subsidizes fossil fuel reserves, so that the fossil fuels are processed, transported and burned with little or no control on emissions. The government allows the atmosphere to be treated as a free dumping ground for waste CO2. The government does this even while knowing the consequences thereof.

In ‘Nutshell,’ I note that the deference to the fossil fuel industry, violating rights of young people, is not a problem that can be solved at the ballot box. Both political parties in the U.S. receive large sums of money from the fossil fuel industry and have a sycophantic relationship with the industry, albeit differing in degree.

The Obama Administration, e.g., in 2011 opened up hundreds of millions of tons of coal on public lands to new lease sales. Moreover, the sales were at prices far below market value, continuing a practice of federal subsidy of coal titans amounting, through those sales alone, to tens of billions of dollars.

The Trump Administration’s astounding recent efforts to accelerate fossil fuel use are pressing the world rapidly toward the climate precipice. The Administration blatantly misrepresents the facts about climate change and specifically the U.S. contribution to climate change. We must expose the facts rigorously, so that the courts can protect the rights and future of young people.

The 06 December ‘Nutshell’ draft was also criticized for failing to mention the potential of advanced nuclear technology to contribute to phase down of carbon emissions power. The reasons for this omission were: (1) discussion of the full range of promising carbon-free energy sources is not essential here, because a court cannot tell a government how to reduce fossil fuel emissions –it can only demand that there be a plan that stops violation of young people’s rights, (2) discussion of the varieties of nuclear power, including advanced nuclear technology, would make this document even much longer.

To see the ‘Nutshell’ online, visit .

James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at the Columbia University Earth Institute.

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