Life Is a Miracle

September 15, 2000

By Michael Jessen

Human history is a time-line of learning. We know so much more today than yesterday and we'll know even more tomorrow and the day after.

In the past five years, astronomers have discovered 50 new planets, adding to our own nine-planet system. What we know is incomplete and will probably always remain so. According to David Suzuki, "There are gaps in our knowledge large enough for the future of the planet to fall through."

So when a respected scientist -- Dr. James Hansen -- publishes a paper theorizing that global warming may be easier and less costly to solve than he and many others first thought, you'd think it would be received with gratitude.

Not so in the offices of the Vancouver Sun and the Nelson Chamber of Commerce where the good news is debated with all the character of monkey chatter in the withering leaves of a dying tree.

Dr. Hansen has "changed his mind" intones the Sun editorial of August 28. Ditto, says Dave Duncan, President of the Nelson Chamber of Commerce, in his Nelson Daily News column of September 9, obviously reading from the same script. Both go on to cite a Gallup poll of two relatively small professional groups (the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society) which indicated many members doubted the existence of global warming. Both trash the Kyoto Accord as a waste of time and money.

Too bad neither the editorial writer nor Mr. Duncan understood "Global Warming in the 21st Century: An Alternative Scenario," written by Dr. Hansen and four other scientists at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Perhaps, neither of them even read it although it is available on the Internet at

Dr. Hansen has co-authored at least 55 peer-reviewed articles about global warming since 1977. It would be quite ridiculous to believe each article said the same thing, rather than building new research upon old.

The effects of the many chemicals and particles that human activities place in our atmosphere are extremely complex. These chemicals and particles interact with one another, having both positive and negative effects on global warming, say Dr. Hansen and his team in their latest article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Hansen and his colleagues finger methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide as the main contributors to global warming in the past century. They do not dismiss the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2), a byproduct of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. They state: "Although this interpretation does not alter the desirability of slowing CO2 emissions, it does suggest that it is more practical to slow global warming than is sometimes assumed." Later they say the maintenance of a flat growth rate of CO2 impacts "surely requires a flattening of the growth rate of fossil fuel emissions, which have grown 1.2%/year since 1975." In the article summary, they say: "Carbon dioxide will become the dominant climate forcing (imposed changes in the Earth's energy balance with space) if its emissions continue to increase and aerosol effects level off."

Next to water vapor, carbon dioxide is by far the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. But the other gases Dr. Hansen and his team cite are more prodigious trappers of heat. Moreover, Dr. Hansen said, in contrast to the difficulties of controlling carbon dioxide, technologies already exist for capturing or eliminating many of the other kinds of emissions. "These are much more tractable," Dr. Hansen told the media, citing as an example existing systems for capturing methane produced by decomposing organic material in landfills.

"The prospects for having a modest climate impact instead of a disastrous one are quite good, I think," Dr. Hansen told the New York Times.

"If you add up the sum of other gases -- methane, tropospheric ozone, chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide -- they cause a slightly larger forcing than you get from carbon dioxide," Dr. Hansen, head researcher at GISS, explained in an interview with the Environmental News Network. "It makes a lot of sense to try to reduce these gases because, in some ways, it's easier and some have undesirable effects. Tropospheric air pollution is harmful to human health and agricultural productivity."

The GISS scientists believe "the next 50 years is the most difficult time to affect CO2 emissions, because of the inertia of global energy systems." "Energy use will continue to increase, so we have to keep the carbon dioxide growth rate from accelerating," Dr. Hansen told ENN. "We need to have a continuous trend toward the de-carbonization of the energy supply, the trend to replace coal with gas a well as renewables and clean energy sources."

The authors call on governments to "remove barriers that discourage buying of energy efficiency," advocate research and development investments now in clean energy technologies like gas turbines, fuel cells, and photovoltaics, and urge a global effort to reduce air pollution.

"High levels of O3 (ozone) have adverse health and ecosystem effects," the authors say. "Annual costs of the impacts on human health and crop productivity are each estimated to be on the order of $10 billion/year in the United States alone." They point out ozone is caused by volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from such sources as transportation vehicles, power plants, and industrial processes.

Far from casting suspicion on the reality of global warming, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are still convinced that it is under way, that people are a significant cause, and that work should be done to reduce the rate of warming. Their report outlines a positive strategy to do so.

In his new book "Life Is a Miracle," author Wendell Berry writes about humans and ignorance. "One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without acting; we have to act. Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount," says Berry.

It is clear our civilization should act with far more care, concern, and precaution. Try as some might, life can not be reduced to something predictable and mechanical. Life is filled with mystery and always will be. The Vancouver Sun editorial writer and Dave Duncan would do well to learn this.

As Wendell Berry writes: "To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it."

ONE SMALL STEP - According to the Sierra Club, switching from an ordinary car to a 13-mile-per-gallon sport utility vehicle for one year will waste more energy than leaving a refrigerator door open for six years, a TV turned on for 28 years, or a bathroom light burning for 30 years. You might want to put off purchasing an SUV until manufacturers improve their fuel efficiency.

RESOURCES - An abbreviated version of "Global Warming in the 21st Century: An Alternative Scenario" is available at A list of papers co-authored by Dr. James E. Hansen is on the web site Dr. Hansen's interview with the New York Times can be found at The Environmental News Network story is at "Life Is a Miracle" was published this year by Counterpoint, Washington, D.C. David Suzuki is the author of "The Sacred Balance" published in 1997 by Greystone Books, a division of Douglas and McIntyre. The David Suzuki Foundation web site is at A San Francisco Examiner story about the Sierra Club's campaign to draw attention to the evils of SUVs is at The Sierra Club's report "Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming" can be downloaded from

Michael Jessen has been an environmentalist for 30 years. He is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting firm that helps business profit from environmental leadership. He can be e-mailed at and his award-winning web site is at

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at to arrange appropriate payment.