James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters

James Hansen puts himself wrongly in Jonah’s booth.

James Hansen is a great man. His testimony to the US Congress thirty years ago was the key moment when political leaders were made inescapably aware of the fact that humans are on a very dangerous path of heating up the Earth’s climate. Hansen’s predictions were absolutely right. He has continued to publish, in the face of incessant attacks by hired shills, who have SFIK never been able to land a serious blow on his research.

At first, it seemed he was being listened to. H.W. Bush signed the UN Framework climate treaty in Rio in 1991, and the US Senate consented to it by a 98-0 vote. The IPCC had already been set up in 1988, and provided a ready-made purveyor of consensus science as a basis for further action. Then it all slowly fell apart. The Kyoto protocol of 1997 provided the Rio framework with its first, limited emissions targets, and a complicated cap-and-trade emissions trading system designed by the best policy wonks. But it left out developing countries, notably China and India, who proceeded to build hundreds of gigawatts of coal-burning power stations, while the US never ratified. The fossil fuel lobbies organised faster and more effectively than their environmentalist adversaries, and succeeded in manufacturing a level of doubt and fear unsupported by the evidence and the overwhelming consensus of qualified scientists. Successive climate summits failed to advance beyond Kyoto. The free-rider problem was an insoluble obstacle.

Things changed only in 2015. The way the optimists such as me read it, two things broke the logjam.

First was the dramatic fall in the cost of wind and solar energy. By 2015, the IPCC estimate of the net cash cost of a clean energy transition had fallen to as close to zero as made no difference. That wasn’t counting the massive health costs of air pollution, mostly from fossil fuels – a highly visible and political problem in China. With a nil or negative net cost domestically, the international free rider problem melted away.

Second, the diplomats ditched the top-down approach of Kyoto, seeking to allocate emissions cuts and by implication a carbon budget fairly among the world’s states. Technocracy was replaced by flower power: let everybody do their own thing. Unsurprisingly, the world’s governments could readily sign up to this. What was left was a clear common goal – or rather, two: holding warming to 2 degrees C, and if possible to 1.5 degrees. Plus massive paperwork: public national plans filed with the UN and reviewed by peers in the treaty system, and by scientific and public opinion outside it. That was the epochal Paris Agreement of December 2015.

It has held up remarkably well to the shock of the withdrawal by the know-nothing Donald Trump, who could only justify the absurd step by flatly lying about the treaty’s burdens on the USA. Even Putin and Erdoğan, who don’t plan to do anything concrete to comply, have deemed it politic to stay in rather than risk joining Trump in the pariah club. On the contrary, flower power keeps scoring wins: the number of coal plants keeps falling in developed countries, and the tally of those under construction in developing ones has dropped even more sharply; banks and insurance companies are tiptoeing away from risky lending to fossil fuels; emissions plateaued for three years, though they ticked up in 2017; and wind, solar and electric cars keep booming as their price drops.

You would think that James Hansen would be basking in the public acclaim for his large part in the victory. Not so. There is a small club of pessimists who see Paris as an abdication of responsibility, and James Hansen is one of its leading lights. At the time of the Paris negotiations, where a carbon tax was deliberately kept off the agenda to secure the deal, he told The Guardian:

It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.

Why the grouch?

Partly it’s about the rejection of nuclear power by both environmentalists and capitalists. At around the same time, he said :

Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change. The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools [such as nuclear energy] to solve the problem is crazy.

At this stage, the position is harmless crankiness. Nuclear reactors, with their negative learning curve, regular delays, uncertainty, and long-tail risks drove off almost all private investors decades ago. There is no good reason to think new nuclear is essential or even useful to the energy transition. “Next-generation nuclear” doesn’t exist. The economics of the nuclear reactors that can be built, poor as they are, depend on use as “baseload”, a concept that cheap but variable wind and solar as primary generators have rendered obsolete. What these need is flexible despatchable backup, which can be supplied far more cheaply by storage, gas turbines, more trade (eg with Quebec or Norway), or paid-for demand response. On energy blogs like MIT Technology Review or GTM you can find a vociferous band of loyal pro-nuclear commentators, but they do not represent anybody with power or money.

But I feel there is something else at work: the Jonah complex. In this lovely Biblical satire, Jonah is ordered by God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire. In today’s terms, think of the SS or ISIS. The Assyrians practised a brand of imperialism that was brutal by the standards of the time, with massacres, forced population transfers, and the flaying alive of rebels. Jonah’s understandable reaction to this suicidal mandate is to run in the opposite direction, by sea. The escape fails, courtesy of the famous fish/whale episode (footnote) – a key part of the plot, but not the crux. So he goes to Nineveh. Jonah 3-4, KJV, Reformation verse numbering omitted (for a fictional parable, literary merit is more important than textual accuracy):

And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.

Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry?

So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.

Hansen is not a perfect match to Jonah. Unlike the prophet, he has never shirked his duty. He is also right that the thirty-year delay before politicians finally took action will come at a terrible price, in the probable loss of millions of lives to droughts, plagues and air pollution, and the extinction of thousands of species. But he does, I think, work under a wrong theory of politics. This goes, as in the fictional Nineveh:
1. Scientists tell political leaders the facts and the dire probable consequences of business-as-usual.
2. Political leaders listen, repent and take the needed action.

It doesn’t really ever work that way. It is implicit in the Jonah story that the repentance of Nineveh is an absurd counterfactual. In reality, the Israelites had to wait till Cyrus the Mede took Babylon to be saved from captivity and occupation; and Cyrus’ policy was driven by calculated raison d’état, not a religious conversion. Anybody who works on public policy knows that identifying sound policies (to niggle, the Pareto onion surface of quasi-optimal policies from a chosen starting-point) is just the first step. Getting something done is politics: persuasion, mobilisation, fundraising, horsetrading on platforms, fighting opposition, winning elections, crafting budgets and legislation. The Paris Agreement was a triumph of mucky sausage-making politics, not Platonic rational policymaking.

We aren’t in a very good place today, and would be in a much better one if our Nineveh had repented in 1988 when Jonah-Hansen first preached the message. But our prospects are a hell of a lot better than five or ten years ago. And much of this is thanks to Hansen and other prophets. Would the Paris Agreement have been as strong as it is, and as resilient to shocks afterwards, without the energy of thousands of activists camped in the streets of the city while the diplomats negotiated behind closed but semi-transparent doors? Would it have been adopted without the vision and skill of Christina Figueres, Laurent Fabius, Todd Stern, Tony deBrum, and many others?

Another group of prophets deserves to be honoured. (I am using the term in the Biblical sense: one who is morally driven to call their contemporaries to action by example, not a mere predictor of the future like an augur, haruspex or stock tipster.) I cited earlier the fall in the cost of renewables as one key element in making possible the Paris Agreement and the energy transition it requires. This did not happen by accident or the magic of the free market. The slope of the learning curves of technologies like wind and solar power and batteries may be exogenous. But it’s a relationship between cost and volume, and depends on growth in volume and an appropriate level of R&D. Until wind and solar broke through cost parity with coal, oil and gas a few years ago, progress down the leaning curve depended on subsidised deployment and research. Car batteries are not quite there yet.

These crucial policy and technical developments were the fruit of a fairly small number of enterprising, determined and lucky individuals. They included:

  • Researchers on solar: Becquerel, Willoughby Smith, Fritts, Einstein, Czochralski, the Bell Labs team of Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson. On wind: Poul La Cour and Johannes Juul in Denmark. On batteries: John Goodenough, who coming up to his 96th birthday still unprized in Stockholm, has just announced a research breakthrough on a high-density solid-state lithium battery.
  • Politicians and bureaucrats: NASA in the 1960s, MITI in the 1970s; Hans-Josef Fell and Hermann Scheer, leaders of the Energiewende in Germany and instigators of the 2000 Renewable Energy Act (EEG); Jerry Brown of California; Barack Obama (through targeted ARRA funding and the bilateral deal with China that made Paris possible).
  • Businessmen: Tokuji Hayakawa of Sharp in Japan; Elon Musk of Tesla; Wang Chuanfu of BYD.

This is an incomplete list, and no doubt unfair from my lack of knowledge. But it is near-certain that without these 18, and the then leaders of MITI and NASA, renewable energy and electric transport would not be where they are today.

The challenge also induced a lot of effort on enhanced geothermal, wave energy, OTEC, power kites, fuel cell cars, and other ideas that have not so far panned out. Nobody knows in advance which ideas will work out, and the failures also deserve their share of praise.

James Hansen should accept that he is a member of a very select company, and accept the thanks of all of us in Nineveh.

Footnote on Jonah’s whale

The Book of Jonah describes the creature that snacked on the conscript prophet straightforwardly as a fish, Hebrew dag. The Israelites were landlubbers and their marine biology did not go much further than the distinction between OK scaly fish and banned other seafood. The book is cited by Jesus in Matthew 12:40, where the word becomes the Septuagint’s ketos, big fish, sea-monster, whale. Mackerel can’t eat prophets, and they had never heard of piranhas, so the bigness was a sensible gloss. Jerome translated ketos in the Vulgate as cetus, later identified with whales, as in Linnaeus’ cetaceans. My woodcut shows (?) a three-eyed fish not a whale, so I infer it is from a Protestant translation (take that ignorant croppies).

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters”

  1. This is a bit convoluted for those of us who are not up on their Old Testament. But very good in that it gives an insight into James Hansen's deserved recognotion for his work on climate change, as well as a timely criticism of his advocacy for the nuclear industry. (I think I've got this right – hope so)

    1. Identifiably female commenters are rare enough here to deserve a special welcome. keep them coming! Feel free to interrupt! The RBC is mercifully troll-free and civil.
      Jonah is a very quick read, at four short chapters.

  2. Syukuo Manabe deserves a mention – 50 years ago he and Richard Wetherald published the first "climate model" for the earth's atmosphere that covered conduction and radiation. In videos of Hansen before the Senate, Manabe is visible seated near Hansen. In any other area of physics, Manabe might be in line for a Nobel Prize recognizing a major groundbreaking contribution, but too many see climate science as "overly political".


    1. I left out the other scientists, partly from sheer ignorance as to their names. Hansen became the public face of a scientific community that was still small at the time.
      Leonidas had 300 hoplites at Thermopylae, Travis about 250 riflemen at the Alamo. Dowding had 1,103 fighter pilots at the start of the Battle of Britain. These are the sort of numbers we are looking at for the good guys in the early climate battle.

  3. I am afraid Hansen's pessimism may be right. If you overlay population maps with maps of the parts of the world where people will be unable to survive without air conditioning (sustained wet bulb temps of 30C and up), it's a whole lot of people, many of them with serious firepower.

  4. Great post, as is usually the case.

    So, any good book recommendations on the history of renewable power development and implementation?

    1. John Perlin's Let it Shine is the standard history of solar power, especially good on the long backstory. I don't know about wind. I've not read it, but Craig Morris has written a useful-sounding history of the Energiewende in Germany.

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