Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Game Over for the Climate

We have long admired the work of James Hansen, the top climate scientist for NASA, and leading advocate for environmental justice for our children.

Hansen is both a brilliant researcher, and a devoted grandfather.  As a scientist, he measures the impacts of growing greenhouse gas concentrations on the global climate. As a grandfather, he confronts policy-makers with the need to take urgent action to protect those who will inherit the earth that we leave them.

I too am a grandfather, and I share Hansen’s passion for protecting our kids.  Last summer, that passion landed us both in the DC jail system.  It seems we wore out our welcome at the White House in an effort to publicize the global threat posed by Canada’s tar sands, and the proposed pipeline that was to have transported it across the U.S. heartland.

Hansen protesting tar sands pipeline
Last week, Hansen wrote a wonderful op-ed piece in the New York Times.  I hope you’ll read it for yourself, and send it on via Facebook, Twitter or email. (Read it here.)

Hansen’s warning is stark:  “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.”  And if Canada proceeds with tar sands development, and we do nothing, “it will be game over for the climate.”

Game over?  Strong words for a scientist, right?

In a nutshell, here’s what he means.  If we exploit the tar sands, and continue our use of conventional fossil fuels as most all American politicians advocate, then:
  • CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will reach the highest levels in 2.5 million years;
  • Sea levels will be 50 feet higher than they are right now;
  • The world’s ice sheets will disintegrate;
  • The world’s coastal cities (like New York, Miami, San Francisco and LA) will virtually all be inundated;
  • Global temperatures will become intolerable to humans over much of the planet; and
  • 20-50% of all living species will become extinct.

That’s right. Up to half of all species for whom we have been appointed earth-keepers will be forever lost, says NASA’s chief scientist. It’s Noah’s Ark in reverse. (Note: One key species under Noah's charge was mankind, lest we forget.)

And while scientists think in the long term, the near term is awfully sobering as well. Over just a few decades, says Hansen, while many of today’s grandfathers still walk the earth: “the Western United States … 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.”

You've noticed: Hansen's list ignores the entire rest of the world.  And at home, he makes no mention of Miami, New Orleans, New York and the Virginia tidewater region, just a few more near-term casualties of unbridled fossil-fuel burning.

CR editor Elwood followed Hansen to DC's jails
Of course, for us grandfathers who care about our kids’ future, the oil-funded drumbeat in our presidential politics gives us nightmares.  But Hansen doesn’t give the sitting president a pass either: “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.”

What does NASA’s Hansen have in mind?  We’ve advocated his solution for some time, as have many thoughtful observers:  “We need to start reducing emissions significantly,” says Hansen, “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.”

Of course, you’re not hearing this solution from virtually anyone in politics (see exception below). Instead of making fossil fuels pay their true costs to the world, Hansen tells of governments forcing the public to subsidize these polluting industries with hundreds of billions of dollar per year, and driving “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.”

And in the face of proclamations by the merchants of doubt set on keeping the public paralyzed for another decade or two, Hansen leaves us with the most prophetic of warnings:  “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow…. 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.”

Amen, grandpa. Don’t hold back. You’re speaking for my granddaughter as well as your own.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Note:  Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) suggested just such a carbon fee to me in his offices last month.  May God bless your efforts, Rep. Waxman!

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

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