Friday, May 11, 2012

James Hansen on why we must do something now

May 9, 2012
Game Over for the Climate
GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is 
happening. That is why I was so troubled to read 
a recent interview with President Obama in 
Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would 
exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated 
with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon 
dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire 
history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil 
source, and continue to burn our conventional 
oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of 
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would 
reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, 
more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level 
was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That 
level of heat-trapping gases would assure that 
the disintegration of the ice sheets would 
accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise 
and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures 
would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of 
the planet’s species would be driven to 
extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, 
things will be bad enough. Over the next several 
decades, the Western United States and the 
semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will 
develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when 
it does come, occurring in extreme events with 
heavy flooding. Economic losses would be 
incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would 
be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could 
no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we 
need to reduce emissions dramatically. President 
Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands 
oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, 
which Canada desires in part for export markets, 
but also to encourage economic incentives to 
leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the 
noise of random weather, as I predicted would 
happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. 
Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. 
We can say with high confidence that the recent 
heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in 
Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, 
were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide 
traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount 
keeps the climate conducive to human life. But 
add too much, as we are doing now, and 
temperatures will inevitably rise too high. This 
is not the result of natural variability, as some 
argue. The earth is currently in the part of its 
long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would 
normally be cooling. But they are rising — and 
it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the 
atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million 
to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar 
sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to 
add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar 
sands found mainly in the United States, contains 
at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If 
we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of 
finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil 
fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon 
concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that 
would, as earth’s history shows, leave our 
children a climate system that is out of their control.

We need to start reducing emissions 
significantly, not create new ways to increase 
them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon 
fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then 
distribute 100 percent of the collections to all 
Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The 
government would not get a penny. This 
market-based approach would stimulate innovation, 
jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging 
government or having it pick winners or losers. 
Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, 
would get more back than they paid in increased 
prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use 
resulting from the carbon price would be nearly 
six times as great as the oil supply from the 
proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the 
pipeline superfluous, according to economic 
models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon 
emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true 
costs, leveling the energy playing field, the 
world’s governments are forcing the public to 
subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions 
of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic 
stampede to extract every fossil fuel through 
mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic 
fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, 
and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” 
but he does not provide the leadership needed to 
change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak 
candidly to the public — which yearns for open, 
honest discussion — explaining that our continued 
technological leadership and economic well-being 
demand a reasoned change of our energy course. 
History has shown that the American public can 
rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time 
for the politics to follow. This is a plan that 
can unify conservatives and liberals, 
environmentalists and business. Every major 
national science academy in the world has 
reported that global warming is real, caused 
mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The 
cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait 
— we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and 
be judged immoral by coming generations.

James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute 
for Space Studies and is the author of “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

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