Climate change

December 9, 2008

Hansen to Obama Pt IV – Where to from here?

Filed under: Climate Change — Barry Brook @ 1:05 pm

So what are the priorities for Obama, and indeed, for world governments, as they gather to discuss the next international treaty at Poznan this month? Can something meaningful be hammered out in Copenhagen in a years time? What are the implications of us collectively making a choice to do nothing, or at least very little? Can ‘politics as usual’ and international diplomacy be bold enough to make the critical decisions?

In this short concluding piece, the key options open to humanity – and the ‘no go zones’ –  are reviewed.


Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth (Part IV of IV)

Dr James E. Hansen

Implications. All of the slack in the schedule for averting climate disasters has been used up. The time has past for ‘goals’, half-measures, greenwashing, and compromises with special interests. We have already overshot the safe level of greenhouse gases. Things are just beginning to crumble – Arctic ice is melting, methane is bubbling from permafrost, mountain glaciers are disappearing. We must move onto a different course within the next year or two to avoid committing the planet to accelerating climate changes out of our control. Geophysical boundary constraints are crystal clear: coal emissions must be phased out and emissions from unconventional fossil fuels (tar shale, tar sands, e.g.) must be prohibited.

Priorities for solving the climate and energy problems, while stimulating the economy are steps to: (1) improve energy efficiency, (2) develop and deploy renewable energies, (3) modernize and expand a ‘smart’ electric grid, (4) develop 4th generation nuclear power, (5) develop carbon capture and sequestration capability.

Prompt development of safe 4th generation nuclear power is needed to allow energy options for countries such as China and India, and for countries in the West in the likely event that energy efficiency and renewable energies cannot satisfy all energy requirements.

Deployment of 4th generation nuclear power can be hastened via cooperation with China, India and other countries. It is essential that hardened ‘environmentalists’ not be allowed to delay the R&D on 4th generation nuclear power. Thus it is desirable to avoid appointing to key energy positions persons with a history of opposition to nuclear power development. Of course, deployment of nuclear power is a local option, and some countries or regions may prefer to rely entirely on other energy sources, but opponents of nuclear power should not be allowed to deny that option to everyone.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel. Coal burning has released and spread around the world more than 100 times more radioactive material than all the nuclear power plants in the world. Mercury released in coal burning contaminates the world ocean as well as our rivers, lakes and soil. Air pollution from coal burning kills more than 100,000 people per year. If such consequences were occurring from nuclear power, nuclear plants would all be closed. Mining of coal, especially mountaintop removal, causes additional environmental damage and human suffering. It is time for all the coal plants to be closed, indeed, averting climate disasters demands that all coal plants be phased out. Coal is best left in the ground.

Nevertheless, R&D for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) deserves strong support. It is needed to provide the full range of options in energy choices, for countries that insist on exploiting their coal resources. Moreover, CCS has another potentially more important role to play: it could be used at power plants that burn biofuels, such as agricultural wastes. This sort of ‘geoengineering’, which draws excess CO2 out of the air and puts it back in the ground where it came from, may be needed to get atmospheric CO2 back to a safe level.

Transition to the post-fossil-fuel era with clean atmosphere and ocean, requires a carbon tax. That tax will cause unconventional fossil fuels to be left in the ground, as well as much coal and some oil and gas that resides in remote regions. The public will accept such a tax if the funds are returned entirely to the public, no funds going to Washington and other capitols for politicians and lobbyists to determine its fate. Tax and 100 percent dividend is not sufficient by itself – many other actions are needed – but it is necessary. No time remains for a transition via ineffectual half measures.

Frank communication with the public is essential. At present, all around the world, governments are guilty of greenwash, an implausible approach of goals and half-measures that will barely slow the growth of CO2. The world, not just the United States, needs an open honest discussion of what is needed. It is a tremendous burden to place on the President Elect, who seems to be the only potential candidate. The only chance seems to be if he understands the truth – the whole truth.

Young people realize that they, their children, and the unborn will bear the consequences of our actions or inactions. They do not blame their parents, who legitimately ‘did not know’ what they were starting. Young people have recently worked hard to influence the democratic process. Now they expect the system to take appropriate actions. If that does not happen, surely they will begin to raise their voices louder.


That’s it from Hansen to Obama. If you want to keep up with his latest thoughts on climate science and policy, I’d encourage you to visit his website and subscribe to his mailing list.

Will Obama, or his new Energy Secretary, listen to this advice? Will they move with the required speed to push through the energy efficiency, technological R&D, massive renewable and nuclear layout required to avoid a climate and post-oil energy catastrophe? Will coal with no emissions capture be stopped? Will the Sustainability Crisis even be recognised for what it is by decision makers in time? I sincerely hope so.

But to be brutally honest, I doubt it. There will be movements in the right direction of course – two steps forward, one step back, partial solutions to individual issues, policies that go some way to fixing the problem. Too little, too late. Beyond the slight hope of a silver bullet solution, in 10 or 15 years, ‘we’ (global society) will realise to our horror the depth of our mistake – but by then, there will be no going back. Just countless bleak years lying ahead, when we’ll really appreciate what ‘adaptation’ means.

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