Why it’s so difficult to talk about the new bombshell climate paper
There has never before been a scientific study quite like the one released this week by James Hansen, a climate scientist and the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The paper, published Tuesday in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, reports that the near-term effects of climate change could be much more catastrophic than previously anticipated.It warns that, by 2100, the planet’s natural systems could change so dramatically that enormous “superstorms,” sometimes powerful enough to hurl ocean boulders hundreds of feet into the air, will form in the Atlantic Ocean. Seas could also rise so quickly that they will inundate coastal cities—including New York, Washington, and San Francisco—rendering them unlivable before the end of the century.Hansen’s paper isn’t the first to spell out a scenario for climate doom. What makes it so harrowing, though, is that it says all these consequences would follow the global average temperature rising a relatively small amount: only two degrees Celsius. That isn’t an arbitrary target. The nations of the world have repeatedly agreed to keep climate change specifically below two degrees Celsius, but, without as yet uninvented technology, it will be scientifically unlikely.
If these terrifying conclusions sound familiar, it’s because they were first in the news last summer, when Hansen and his 18 co-authors—all climatologists, geologists, or academic scientists in their own right—released the paper online before it was peer reviewed. They said that the paper’s findings were too urgent, and the United Nations climate negotiations that December too imminent, to wait for the complete publication process.“Given the inertia of the climate and energy systems, and the grave threat posed by continued high emissions, the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations,” they wrote, in the paper’s conclusion.As such, the paper went through an unusually public review process. The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times all covered the study soon after its release. As other climatologists began to examine its findings, their criticisms made the Times and other newspapers again and again.This was not always a clean process, or a process where reporters could be sure they were publishing scientifically vetted information. Andrew Revkin, the Times writer who followed the public peer-review process from the beginning, has argued since last summer that the study’s unusual method of well-publicized publication could lead to “whiplash, at best, and confusion and disengagement at worst.”As Revkin noted Tuesday, the peer-review process was not for naught: The final paper was altered, sometimes significantly, from its July 2015 draft. For example, while last year’s version of the paper claimed absolute certainty in its title—
Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2° C global warming is highly dangerous
—this year’s final version scales that language back:
Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2° C global warming could be dangerous
Now the paper has at last been peer reviewed and published. The Times and the Post both covered its release on Tuesday, the latter with the headline: “We had all better hope these scientists are wrong about the planet’s future.”