Paul Wellman

• Photos by Paul Wellman

One Friday afternoon late last August,
Bruce Caron, a one-time urban anthropologist turned multimedia
consultant, was projecting a very scary map on a wall of the
University Club, Santa Barbara’s citadel of tradition and
accomplishment. The map, prepared by UCSB’s geography department,
was of downtown Santa Barbara. But it showed a very different city
from the one we now know. It predicted what Santa Barbara would
look like if Greenland’s vast prehistoric ice sheets were to melt,
causing the world’s sea levels to rise about 21 feet. Contemplating
this cataclysmic possibility were Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum
and two well-respected scientists from UCSB’s Bren School of
Environmental Science: David Lea and Darren Hardy. At first Lea
(pronounced Lee), a soft-spoken paleo-climatologist in his late
forties, viewed the diminishing topography with the detached
professional curiosity one might expect from a scientist trained to
measure the passage of life not in terms of years or even
centuries, but in millennia. Caron’s map showed the waterfront
gone; the railway tracks, the train depot, the airport — all under
water. But when Lea discovered how the rising ocean had scooped
away much of Milpas Street, his clinical detachment disappeared. On
Santa Barbara’s Eastside, the waves were predicted to come to rest
almost exactly at Alphonse Street, covering — among many other
buildings — his favorite Mexican restaurant. “Oh my God!” Lea
exclaimed, “Super-Rica’s under water! We’ve got to do

james_hansen.jpgTo that end, Lea is spearheading a three-month series of
conferences and lectures that will bring together the world’s
foremost authorities on global warming to the University of
California, Santa Barbara. Cosponsored by the Bren School, Arts
& Lectures, the Community Environmental Council, The Santa
Barbara Independent, and an anonymous donor, the series hopes to
spark informed political activity as well as illuminate both the
complexity and direness of the problem. Though Lea is convinced
that global warming can be slowed down significantly — “It’s
soluble. The planet is not going to be toast. We’re not going to
burn up” — he nevertheless believes “we have to act and we don’t
have much time. … Simple pronouncements about not driving SUVs will
not get us down the path we need to go,” Lea said.

Enter James Hansen

Kicking off the lecture series this Monday night with a grim but
encouraging talk at UCSB was Dr. James Hansen, the subdued yet
alarming head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. His
work, some of the earliest on the subject, dates back to 1978. But
it was in 1988 that he really made waves, boldly declaring before a
Senate subcommittee that he was “99 percent certain” greenhouse
gases were responsible for global warming and that human activity
was responsible for greenhouse gases. Afterward he told reporters
that the nation needed to “stop waffling.” Many in the scientific
community, even those who agreed with him, were taken aback by the
bluntly unequivocal nature of Hansen’s statements. “At the time,
many of us felt that Hansen went too far in his interpretation of
the data,” recalled MIT professor Kerry Emanuel, who has since
written extensively about how global warming has increased the
number and intensity of hurricanes and typhoons. “In hindsight, he
was right.”

Since then, Hansen’s prognostications have grown considerably
more dire. “In the past five years, it’s become clear to me that
the problem is a lot more urgent than we thought,” he said Monday
night. Unless major steps are taken to curb the release of carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gases within the next 10 years, he is
“99 percent certain” that the world as we know it will be forever
changed. “If we go down the business-as-usual path, it will be 5.5
degrees warmer by the end of this century, warmer than it’s been in
3 million years,” he warned. “If you go back to that time, the sea
levels were 80 feet higher.” Should that happen, he predicted,
hundreds of millions of people would be homeless, the world’s
weather patterns would be violently scrambled, and about half the
planet’s species would become extinct.

Trained as an astronomer, not as a climatologist, the
65-year-old Hansen cut his scholarly teeth studying the gaseous
composition of Venus’s atmosphere. Because the Venusian atmosphere
is so rich in carbon dioxide, the heat from the sun stays trapped
on the planet. Temperatures hover around 800 degrees. In 1978, he
began studying the energy balance of the Earth’s atmosphere to
determine what effect ozone depletion might have on future
temperatures. Many environmentalists were warning that, unless
repaired, ozone depletion would trigger the coming of a new ice
age. In response to public alarm and political pressure the
manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons that caused ozone depletion was
systematically phased out. Hansen harkens back to the success of
this global response to a pressing planetary problem as a cause for
optimism in the fight against global warming. But with global
warming, the problem is vaster in scale and much more diffuse.

Avoiding the Consequences

BruceCaron.jpgThe good news, to the extent that Hansen
sees any, is that we can avoid some — though not all — of the most
violent and disruptive consequences of our dependence upon
carbon-based fuels if we act now. Most of the technology already
exists to make this change, he said. “Next, we need to address the
huge inefficiency in how we heat our buildings and run our
vehicles. All we need are new standards for our new buildings and
those being refurbished. And in the process, we have to gradually
bring new alternative energy technologies on line.” While Hansen
has reservations about nuclear power, he insists that nuclear power
plants must be part of America’s future energy portfolio. “I
consider nukes to be better than coal in terms of climate and human
health,” he said. “It has to be part of the mix.”

If the technology exists, he said, the political leadership
decidedly does not. “You can’t tell the public, ‘Go solve the
problem. Go buy new light bulbs.’ Without leadership it just isn’t
going to happen.”

While other scientists have often taken pains to express their
conclusions cautiously, Hansen never did. That helped him get his
views pasted across the front page of the New York Times.
As head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies — which
maintains the most extensive temperature records on the planet and
runs them through the most sophisticated computerized modeling
systems to forecast future temperature trends — Hansen has had a
bully pulpit from which to speak his mind. At times, this has
landed him in hot water. When Republicans controlled the Senate,
Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe chaired the Environment and Public
Works Committee. Famous for dismissing global warming as a great
“hoax,” Senator Inhofe publicly blamed Hansen and his computer
programs for much of “the climate porn” and hysteria he believed
were corrupting media coverage of the issue.

TomHouston.jpgHansen fell out of favor with President
George W. Bush just before the 2004 election by publicly stating
that he’d have to vote for Bush’s rival, given Bush’s refusal to
take seriously the issue of global climate change. The next year
Hansen was told he’d have to clear any public pronouncements on
policy he might wish to make with a 24-year-old political operative
appointed by the White House. Hansen charged censorship; the Bush
administration denied it. But in the media uproar, Hansen’s
youthful handler was terminated after it was revealed he had lied
on his résumé. It wasn’t Hansen’s first run-in with the Bush
family. In 1989, during the senior George Bush’s administration,
Hansen charged that White House officials had inserted changes into
the statement he’d prepared for a Senate subcommittee at which he
was to testify. That subcommittee was headed by then Senator Al
Gore, who had a field day accusing the first Bush White House of
trying to whitewash the scientific findings made by one of the
nation’s top scientists. “Hansen’s very low-key. He’s very
straight. He’s from Iowa and you can practically hear the corn
growing out his ears,” commented Stanford professor Stephen
Schneider, who’s known Hansen since the 1970s and regards him with
competitive affection and professional respect. “But when they try
to censor him, he shoves it down their throats.”

In 1989, the National Academy of Sciences proclaimed that global
warming would be one of the big problems to plague the 21st
century. Around the same time, the United Nations formed the
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500
scientists from 134 nations working to see if any consensus could
be reached on the subject. The IPCC concluded in a 2001 report that
there was a strong link between human activity, increased carbon
dioxide readings in the atmosphere, and global warming. In the
three reports released by the IPCC since then, the panel has grown
increasingly convinced that human activity is responsible for the
warming trends.

The Debate Continues

But as recently as last summer, surveys indicated the American
public was evenly split on whether global warming was real. Hansen
blames this confusion on the oil industry, which has hired
scientific experts to refute global warming, and on the media’s
insistence on reporting both sides of the story as though the
debate were divided evenly. However, there’s been a decided shift
in the tone of news coverage recently, and global warming is now
treated as if it’s more of an accepted fact. “Finally, we’ve
reached a point where the actual changes in the world have become
sufficiently clear,” Hansen said.

Take Up the Global Warming Debate

Sitting at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara
will feel the effects of global warming acutely if the predicted
rise in sea level takes place. Attend the UCSB Global Warming
Science & Society event series and examine the science,
controversy, social impacts, political alliances, and every other
imaginable aspect of this unimaginable event. Go to for full
UCSB’s College of Engineering hosts an
Technologies Summit
this Friday and Saturday (February 9
and 10). Technical and business experts discuss existing market
barriers that discourage the use of cleaner burning fuels and which
alternatives offer the most promise. For more info, call
Steve Koonin, chief scientist for British
Petroleum – the oil company that’s done the most to take global
warming seriously, speaks at UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion, Thursday,
March 8, 8pm. Koonin will discuss new energy technologies for the
coming decades.
UCSB Reads for Earth Day is a campus-wide
reading endeavor from January 24 to April 22 focused on Elizabeth
Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Students
received 3,000 free copies on January 25.Polar bears fly on 125 flags all over downtown during the month
of April in the
Earth Day Flag Project sponsored
by S.B. Downtown Organization.
Elizabeth Kolbert, award-winning New
writer and author of Field Notes from a
, discusses her research into global warming and
her travels to Greenland and Alaska. Thursday, April 19, UCSB’s
Campbell Hall.
Earth Day 2007 is celebrated on April 22 at the
Sunken Garden at the S.B. Courthouse. Event features education on
the planet’s health, and information about global warming and local
actions that can be taken to address it.Scientists and media professionals hash out how the media cover
environmental concerns and how that coverage influences and
distorts the extent of the problem.
Media and the
Environment Conference
, Saturday, April 28, noon to 6pm,
UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion. For more info, see

In the past 150 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere has increased from about 280 parts per million to 379.
In that same time, the world temperature has increased by about 1.5
degrees Fahrenheit. Most of that increase, about 1 degree’s worth,
occurred in the past 30 years. Most of that heat is absorbed by the
oceans; as the water warms, its volume increases. As the planet
warms, glaciers melt. And these two processes — thermal expansion
and glacial melt — cause the sea levels to rise by about 1.5 inches
a decade. These numbers, Hansen agrees, don’t appear immediately
alarming. But the rate of sea level increase has doubled in the
past 10 years. And as for the world’s temperature, he said, there’s
another 1 degree Fahrenheit “in the pipeline.” That’s from the
greenhouse gases humans have produced but whose effects have yet to
be felt.

And once again, Hansen has moved far out ahead of the curve.
Fueling his alarm are two factors. It used to be that
paleo-climatologists thought the hottest the world had ever been
was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer than current temperatures. Hansen
says new research shows that the hottest temperature was actually 1
degree Celsius warmer than now, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. And when
the world was a single Celsius degree hotter, he said, the geologic
records indicate the seas were 85 feet higher than they are today.
The record indicates we’re now within just one degree of the
warmest period on the planet. In other words, whatever wiggle room
we thought we had has just dramatically tightened.

Melting Ice Sheets

hansen_keeling.jpgThe other new development that’s
convinced Hansen that we’re quickly running out of time is the fate
of Greenland and portions of Antarctica, the only remaining
repositories of ice sheets on the planet. Recent scientific reports
indicate that Greenland, for example, is melting three times faster
than it was five years ago. While five years is not much of a
baseline, Hansen has seized upon recent satellite studies that show
what’s happening inside Greenland’s ice sheets as a cause for
intense concern. The new studies indicate that Greenland’s melting
water bores deep into the ice sheets. When this water pools deep
within the ice sheet, it laps away at the edges of the pool,
further accelerating the melting of the ice sheet from within. “We
used to think it would take 1,000 years for Greenland’s ice sheets
to melt. I don’t believe that anymore. Now I think they can melt
within a century or two,” he said. “Once we get that started, we’re
really in trouble.”

Act Locally, Think Globally: The Sequel

Throughout Santa Barbara, many people, organizations,
and institutions are beginning to take matters into their own
hands. What follows is a short list of plans and actions intended
to slow down global warming and to raise public
Bruce Caron, an eco-artist in the style of Christo, has been
working behind the scenes at City Hall to get the permits needed to
draw a
light blue line on downtown Santa Barbara’s
streets and sidewalks showing exactly how far the sea would
if Greenland’s ice sheets were to actually melt.
(City public works officials are so far lukewarm on this idea.)Painter Tom Huston recently showed a series of witty works using
enlarged reproductions of old Santa Barbara tourist postcards and
hand painting the future
post-global warming
.Less whimsically, the City of Santa Barbara just concluded a
meticulous audit of its own carbon footprint and will submit the
results to the California Climate Registry for final certification.
Using those results as a baseline, City Hall has committed to

reducing the city’s carbon emissions – in heating
and buildings and fueling fleets – dramatically.More far-reaching yet, the Santa Barbara City Council just took
its first steps toward
revamping building codes so
that new buildings and remodels would be required to comply with
more stringent energy efficiency standards.In two months, the Community Environmental Council is expected
to unveil a detailed
energy audit for all of Santa
Barbara County and a master plan for making it “fossil free” by
2030.UCSB has jumped in with both feet. Bren School professors and
students have been conspiring scientifically during the past two
years to
make UCSB a fossil-free leader not just
in the UC system but in the nation.In preparation for Earth Day, the university has inaugurated a

campus-wide read-in, in which participants delve
into several just-released books chronicling the front lines of
global warming.All of this culminates on Earth Day, April 22, when among other
things, the City of Santa Barbara will be festooned with giant
flags bearing photographs of
polar bears, the
charismatic and accessible icon whose habitat is quickly being
undone by shorter winters and longer summers.

A longtime Hansen adversary, Dr. Patrick Michaels, a
climatologist and prominent global warming “skeptic,” noted that
Hansen is alone in his conviction that Greenland might melt in a
matter of centuries unless drastic changes are implemented.
Hansen — who described Michaels as more of a “contrarian” than a
skeptic — acknowledged that his theories have not been embraced by
the broader scientific community. Part of the problem, he said,
stems from the fact that so much of global warming science is based
on computer modeling, and no computer model currently exists to
reflect the sort of swift cataclysmic transformation Hansen
envisions for Greenland. “We can calculate thermal expansion quite
accurately. We can monitor glacier loss. But when it comes to these
two ice sheets, it’s a very hard problem. There are very big
disagreements about how vulnerable these ice sheets are.”

Because of this, Hansen was upset with the most recent report
from the International Panel on Climate Change — six years in the
works. While it is far more emphatic than any of the three prior
reports in linking human activity with global warming, it actually
reduces its projections for temperature increase and sea level rise
from those released in 2001. “They left out Greenland and
Antarctica. They couldn’t figure out how to model it, so they left
it out,” he said. “I think they should have at least warned this
could be a very important part of the problem, but we don’t know
what to do about it.”

Ironically, at the same time Hansen is criticizing the results
of the IPCC report for understating the problem, a paper he
co-authored with five other scientists was published in
Science magazine defending the IPCC against charges that
it had exaggerated the scope and impact of global warming.
According to the Science article, the IPCC proved to be spot-on
accurate in projecting the rate of increase in world carbon dioxide
emissions and very close when it came to predicting global
temperature increases, but was barely in the ballpark when it came
to anticipating the rate of sea level increase. The study found
that the IPCC had consistently underestimated the sea level
increase, and only its more extreme scenarios came close to getting
it right. While these finding don’t necessarily prove Hansen’s case
about Greenland and Antarctica, they seem to jibe with it. “I think
I can see what’s happening. I don’t think the public or the policy
makers realize certain fundamental things about how close we are to
really getting in trouble,” he said. “We no longer have the luxury
of waiting until we’ve convinced everyone. We’ve run out of

Does Hansen entertain the possibility that he might be wrong?
When asked, he noted that he’d been reminded of an article he’d
written for Science back in 1981. In it, he made several
predictions about the consequences of global warming, and like his
testimony before the Senate in 1988, it aroused the wrath of his
scientific peers. He predicted, for example, that the legendary
Northwest Passage — the fabled ice-choked shipping lane connecting
the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans — would soon open as the ice
gave way with the advent longer summers and shorter winters. Sure
enough, in 2000, several ships were able to cross the passage
because of thinner ice. And he was impressed at how close he was in
describing the dramatic cooling effects a major volcanic
eruption — Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 — would have. “I’m kind of amazed
at how accurate it turned out to be.”


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.