Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Prophet of Doom Was Right About the Climate

Justin Gillis
Contributing Opinion Writer

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    CreditAgata Nowicka
    The night before the day that would make him famous, James E. Hansen listened to a baseball game on the radio. But his mind kept wandering: What would he say to Congress the next day to convey that humans were endangering the planet?
    He had long been trying to raise the alarm without success, and so had other scientists. But then, on June 23, 1988 — 30 years ago Saturday — a Colorado senator named Tim Wirth convened yet another hearing on the topic. Dr. Hansen was one of several scientists on the witness list.
    Few people had ever heard of him, nor of the obscure NASA unit that he headed. He and a small group of colleagues studied the Earth’s climate, working in a suite of offices above the Manhattan diner that “Seinfeld” would later make famous.
    He had conducted rigorous studies of historical temperatures, concluding that the planet was warming sharply. He had helped to pioneer computer modeling of the climate, and the results predicted further warming if people kept pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
    June 23 turned out be a blistering day in Washington, and much of the nation was suffering through a drought and heat wave. Dr. Hansen took his seat in a Capitol Hill hearing room and laid out the scientific facts as best he understood them.
    He had thought up a good line the night before, during the Yankees game, but in the moment he forgot to deliver it. When the hearing ended, though, reporters surrounded him, and he remembered.
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    “It is time to stop waffling so much,” he said, “and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”
    His near certainty that human emissions were already altering the climate caught the attention of a sweltering nation, catapulting Dr. Hansen to overnight fame. That year, 1988, would go on to be the hottest in a global temperature record stretching back to the 19th century.
    With the perspective of three decades, it is fair to ask: How right was his forecast?
    The question defies a simple answer. In 1988, Dr. Hansen had to offer a prognostication not just about how the Earth would respond to greenhouse gases, but also about how much of those gases humans would choose to inject into the air.
    He did what any cautious forecaster would do: He offered low, medium and high scenarios. The warming over the past 30 years has indeed fallen well within his upper and lower bounds.
    One of Dr. Hansen’s scenarios, Scenario B, has turned out to be a reasonably close match for fossil-fuel emissions as they actually occurred. Yet we now know Scenario B predicted too much global warming, by something like 30 percent.
    Two reasons for that stand out. One is that Dr. Hansen had assumed a continued increase in certain refrigerant gases that warm the climate. Those gases were ultimately brought under control by a global treaty, the Montreal Protocol — proof that scientific warnings, if taken seriously, can be acted upon at a worldwide scale.
    The bigger problem was that the computers he was using in the 1980s could not operate fast enough to give a realistic picture of the upper atmosphere; as a result, his model was most likely overestimating the Earth’s sensitivity to emissions. In the years since, computer modeling of the climate, though hardly perfect, has improved.
    So while his temperature forecast was not flawless, in a larger sense, Dr. Hansen’s 1988 warning has turned out to be entirely on target. As emissions have soared, the planet has warmed relentlessly, just as he said it would; 1988 is not even in the top 20 warmest years now. Every year of this century has been hotter.
    The ocean is rising, as Dr. Hansen predicted, and the pace seems to be accelerating. The great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are dumping ever-rising volumes of water into the sea. Coastal flooding is increasing rapidly in the United States. The Arctic Ocean ice cap has shrunk drastically.
    If his warning in 1988 had been met with a national policy to reduce emissions, other countries might have followed, and the world would be in much better shape.
    But within a few years after he raised the alarm, fossil-fuel interests and libertarian ideologues began financing a campaign of lies about climate research. The issue bogged down in Congress, and to this day that body has taken no action remotely commensurate with the threat.
    Dr. Hansen retired from NASA in 2013, but at age 77, he feels his work is not done. Today, from an office at Columbia University, he spends his time fighting the government he once served. He is an expert witness for a lawsuit that young people have filed in Oregon against the federal government, contending that its failure to tackle climate change is a threat to their constitutional rights of life and liberty.
    His granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, is one of the plaintiffs in the case, which has gotten much farther than many legal experts thought it would. The case may go to trial later this year.
    Prophets of impending calamity are rarely thanked for their efforts, especially when they turn out to be right. But Dr. Hansen did receive a form of thanks recently, sharing half a of a $1.3 million prize for his attempts to warn the public about the risks of climate change.
    The congressional failure to respond to his warning might be seen now as a harbinger of the political crisis that has since engulfed the United States. How can Congress tackle global warming if it lacks the capacity to solve far smaller problems?
    Lately, Dr. Hansen has been thinking about the connection between the political crisis and the climate crisis. He is a strong proponent of a new system of voting, called ranked choice, that has been adopted in many other countries and a few parts of the United States, with the goal of recreating a political center.
    “It’s very hard to see us fixing the climate,” Dr. Hansen said, “until we fix our democracy.”
    Mr. Gillis is a former New York Times environmental reporter and a contributing opinion writer.
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    A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: He Was Right About The Climate. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

    Sunday, May 6, 2018

    At His Ranch, John McCain Shares Memories and Regrets With Friends

    Senator John McCain and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in Philadelphia in October. Mr. McCain encouraged Mr. Biden to “not walk away” from politics during a recent visit.CreditMatt Rourke/Associated Press
    PHOENIX — When former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. traveled to Senator John McCain’s Arizona ranch last Sunday to spend a few hours with his ailing friend, the two reminisced about the “crazy senators” they had served with, the overseas trips they took together for decades and the friendship Mr. McCain forged with Mr. Biden’s two sons.
    But the conversation on the sun-splashed deck off Mr. McCain’s bedroom was not all nostalgia.
    “Here John knows he’s in a very, very, very precarious situation, and yet he’s still concerned about the state of the country,” Mr. Biden said in an interview. “We talked about how our international reputation is being damaged and we talked about the need for people to stand up and speak out.”
    As he battles brain cancer and the debilitating side effects of his aggressive treatment, Mr. McCain himself is reckoning with his history and the future, as he and a stream of friends share memories and say what needs to be said.
    No one is saying goodbye, not explicitly. The son and grandson of admirals, Mr. McCain “doesn’t like overt sentimentality,” as his friend the former chief of staff Grant Woods put it. But his visitors are telling him they love him, how much he has meant to them — and together they are taking care of unfinished business.
    The Republican senator encouraged the former Democratic vice president to “not walk away” from politics, as Mr. Biden put it before refusing to discuss a possible 2020 presidential run. Mr. McCain is using a new book and documentary to reveal his regret about not selecting former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate in 2008. His intimates have informed the White House that their current plan for his funeral is for Vice President Mike Pence to attend the service to be held in Washington’s National Cathedral but not President Trump, with whom Mr. McCain has had a rocky relationship.
    And some of his associates, though not his family, have started to quietly put out word that they want a “McCain person” eventually appointed to fill his Senate seat, a roster that includes his wife, Cindy.
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    Mr. McCain, 81, is still in the fight, struggling with the grim diagnosis he received last summer: He has been leading conference calls with his staff in a strained voice, grinding out three-hour physical therapy sessions and rewarding himself most days with a tall glass of Absolut Elyx on ice.
    But his health has become a matter of immediate political interest. Mr. McCain’s future may determine whether Republicans retain their single-seat Senate majority: Should the senator die or resign before the end of May, there will most likely be a special election for the seat this fall. But under Arizona law, if he remains in office into June, there will probably not be an election for the seat until 2020, which Republicans would prefer given Democratic enthusiasm this year.
    The matter of succession for the McCain seat — a topic of such intense discussion that Republicans officials here joke that Washington lawyers know Arizona election law better than any lawyer in the state — is officially verboten among party officials and the senator’s friends. They are determined to reward him with the same good ending that his friend Senator Edward M. Kennedy enjoyed before he succumbed to brain cancer in 2009.
    Mr. McCain, who is not doing interviews, delights in sitting out on his deck where he once handled slabs of ribs on the grill, friends say. He and his wife listen to the hummingbirds and the burbling stream that runs through their 15-acre ranch, enjoy the verdant scenery in an otherwise arid region and divide their loyalties when the hawks start pestering Peanut, their Chihuahua mix. (Mrs. McCain sides with their dog, Mr. McCain the hawks.)
    “He finds real solace there,” Mr. Biden said.
    Mr. McCain, shown here in 2000, delights in sitting out on his deck where he once handled slabs of ribs on the grill, friends say.CreditDavid Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
    A bout of diverticulitis temporarily landed him back in Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic last month. It caused him to miss seeing more than a hundred of his friends and colleagues, including the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who came to Arizona to attend the annual meeting of his foreign policy think tank, the McCain Institute.
    Mr. Lieberman filled in for Mr. McCain at the forum and visited the senator afterward at the hospital, mixing talk of North Korea and Iran with well-worn jokes, like the one about the difference between a lawyer and a catfish. (One is a bottom-feeding scum-sucker; the other is a fish.)
    “He was O.K., but he wanted to get out of the hospital,” recalled Mr. Lieberman, one of Mr. McCain’s closest friends. “Look, this is a man whose whole life has been active.”
    Having spent over two years in solitary confinement while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, Mr. McCain has no use for being alone, whether it is in the intensive care unit or at his ranch. And his deck is where he receives a constant flow of friends — with visits that often end with Mr. McCain saying, “I love you” — and takes calls on the iPhone he just swapped for his tattered flip phone. (Mr. McCain finally made the switch to download the Major League Baseball app to better follow his Arizona Diamondbacks.)
    Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, were there last weekend; Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, and his wife, Cheryl, visited Friday; other colleagues are set to come this week and his seven children are there as often as they can. The phone calls have been even more frequent: Former President George W. Bush checked in last week, telling Mr. McCain the country is missing him.
    In a visit on the deck earlier this year, Mr. Flake said he and Mr. McCain recalled how in the 1980s the legendary former Arizona congressman Morris Udall, a Democrat, had taken the newly elected Mr. McCain under his wing despite their differences in party.
    “It was the two of us lamenting the loss of the politics of the past,” Mr. Flake said.
    It was also at his Hidden Valley Ranch where the senator participated in a nearly two-hour HBO documentary and co-wrote what he acknowledges will be his last book, “The Restless Wave,” both of which are set to be released this month.
    The film and the book, a copy of which The New York Times obtained independently of Mr. McCain, amount to the senator’s final say on his career and a concluding argument for a brand of pro-free trade and pro-immigration Republicanism that, along with his calls for preserving the American-led international order, have grown out of fashion under President Trump.
    In the book, Mr. McCain scorns Mr. Trump’s seeming admiration for autocrats and disdain for refugees.
    “He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” he writes of the president. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”
    Yet many in Mr. McCain’s own party believe that, by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, he bears at least a small measure of blame for unleashing the forces of grievance politics and nativism within the Republican Party.
    While he continues to defend Ms. Palin’s performance, Mr. McCain uses the documentary and the book to unburden himself about not selecting Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, as his running mate.
    He recalls that his advisers warned him that picking a vice-presidential candidate who caucused with Democrats and supported abortion rights would divide Republicans and doom his chances.
    “It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” he writes. “But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.”
    Even more striking is how Mr. McCain expresses his sorrow in the documentary. He calls the decision not to pick Mr. Lieberman “another mistake that I made” in his political career, a self-indictment that includes his involvement in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal and his reluctance to speak out during his 2000 presidential bid about the Confederate battle flag flying above the South Carolina Capitol.
    Mr. Lieberman said he didn’t know Mr. McCain felt that regret until he watched the film. “It touched me greatly,” he said.
    Mr. McCain, in a new book and documentary, said he regretted not picking former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, center, as his running mate in 2008. The two men, joined by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, visited the 2008 Republican convention hall together.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
    Here in his adopted state, he has been immortalized as an icon. “John McCain is a giant in Arizona,” said Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, expressing sentiments that were echoed by the teachers protesting at the state Capitol last week.
    Erik Gillman, a math instructor, said Mr. McCain had become the new Barry Goldwater, a figure as inextricably identified with the desert as cactus.
    “It’s what people think about when they think about the state: the Grand Canyon and John McCain,” Mr. Gillman said.
    But Mr. McCain’s conservative detractors have not forgiven his maverick tendencies simply because he is ill.
    When Mr. Pence addressed a hard-right audience gathered in Tempe last week to promote the administration’s tax cuts, he said that “people all across America are praying for Senator John McCain” — and one woman yelled out, “to retire.”
    Mr. McCain has long been both a flawed politician and a larger figure of history, by virtue of his refusal to be released early from Vietnamese captivity. Former Senator Robert J. Dole, for example, wore Mr. McCain’s P.O.W. bracelet while his future colleague was in the Hanoi Hilton prison camp.
    Mr. Dole, now 94, said he planned to tell Mr. McCain in a coming phone call, “You’re a tough guy and you can overcome this.”
    Mr. McCain's daughter, Meghan, shared a photo with her father at the ranch on social media in March.CreditMeghan McCain, via Associated Press
    In Washington, Mr. McCain’s admirers believe the Senate and the Republican Party lack a needed counterbalance to Mr. Trump and worry that his absence only presages a larger decline in the country’s politics. With Mr. Kennedy gone and Mr. McCain ailing, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights legend, is one of the few figures left in Washington who evoke a bigness at a moment in history that can seem all too small.
    “The Senate is changing just like the country is changing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who is Mr. McCain’s closest friend in the chamber. “But Washington now reflects what’s going on in the country, rather than leading it.”
    Another McCain protégée, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democrat, said she treasured how Mr. McCain treated her when they went on the congressional delegation trips he loves and foreign leaders would attempt to recognize the male lawmakers before her.
    “They’d always look to Lindsey next,” Ms. Klobuchar said of the heads of state, referring to Mr. Graham, a frequent travel companion of Mr. McCain. “But he’d always say, ‘Senator Klobuchar is the Democratic lead and she’ll be going next.’”
    Mr. McCain’s has been a lifetime of restlessness, beginning with the childhood relocations of his Navy family and evolving into unceasing demands of “what else?” aimed at his Senate staff. But the man whose political career took flight after he fended off charges of carpetbagging — by noting the longest he had lived in one place was as a prisoner of war — has found a measure of contentment on his ranch.
    Mr. Biden said he was struck by how solicitous Mr. McCain was of him, inquiring about how he coped with the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer. Yet the former vice president said he was the one who hoped to impart a message.
    “I wanted to let him know how much I love him and how much he matters to me and how much I admire his integrity and his courage,” Mr. Biden said.
    Then he became more succinct. “I wanted to see my friend,” he said.
    A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: At Home, McCain Shares Memories and RegretsOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe