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James E. Hansen

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

Dr. James E. Hansen, longtime director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a January 29, 2006, New York Times interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, and postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.

"Since 1988, he has been issuing public warnings about the long-term threat from heat-trapping emissions, dominated by carbon dioxide, that are an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels." [1]

Bio

According to his NASA GISS biography: "Dr. James Hansen heads the NASA Institute for Space Studies in New York City, which is a division of Goddard Space Flight Center's (Greenbelt, MD), Earth Sciences Directorate. He was trained in physics and astronomy in the space science program of Dr. James Van Allen at the University of Iowa. His early research on the properties of clouds of Venus led to their identification as sulfuric acid. Since the late 1970s, he has worked on studies and computer simulations of the Earth's climate, for the purpose of understanding the human impact on global climate. Dr. Hansen is best known for his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in the 1980s that helped raise broad awareness of the global warming issue. Dr. Hansen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 and he received the prestigious Heinz Environment Award for his research on global warming in 2001."

Hansen's advocacy of coal moratorium and rapid phaseout

Hansen has recommended that no further coal plants be built that do not capture their carbon dioxide emissions, and has further recommended that all coal emissions be phased out by 2025 in the developed world and by 2030 in the developing world.[1] According to Hansen, the consequence of emissions continuing beyond that time is increasing risk of passing "tipping points" and "points of no return."[2]

"Changes such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, the acidification of the oceans and the global rises in temperature could be approaching the point of becoming irreversible. In the face of such threats it is madness to propose a new generation of power plants based on burning coal, which is the dirtiest and most polluting of all the fossil fuels. We need a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants and we must phase out the existing ones within two decades," he told the Sunday Times.[3]

Hansen's reasoning for making coal the highest priority for the movement to prevent global warming is as follows:[4]

At 385 parts per million (ppm), the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today is primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas. In "Implication of 'Peak Oil' for Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Climate" PDF, NASA research scientist Pushker Kharecha and I show that proven and estimated reserves of oil and gas, used at any feasible rate, would at most take atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 450 ppm--a threshold level that, if exceeded, will cause dangerous climate change. Coal reserves, however, contain much more stored carbon, and if used in power plants without carbon capture technology, have the potential to at least double the preindustrial atmospheric carbon dioxide amount of 280 ppm.
Most of the carbon dioxide from oil and gas usage is emitted by small sources (i.e., vehicle tailpipes) where it's impractical to capture it. Nor does it seem likely that Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, and other major oil producers will decide to leave their oil in the ground. Therefore, the only practical way to prevent carbon dioxide levels from exceeding 450 ppm is to phase out coal power except at plants where carbon emissions are captured and stored.

Hansen's recommendation consists of two parts:

  • Moratorium on new non-sequestering plants.
  • Phase-out of existing plants.

The first recommendation, a coal moratorium, has been the subject of widespread citizen organizing, state-level legislation, and proposed national legislation.

The second recommendation, a phase-out of existing plants, has received less attention. To date, no scenarios have been published recommending specific steps to implement the recommendation of a coal plant phase-out in the timeframe recommended by Hansen.

Several scenarios outlining a reduction in coal usage, generally targetted at a later date than recommended by Hansen, have been published.

In an interview broadcast on Radio Four’s Today programme Hansen described the proposed Kingsnorth power station in the UK as "a terrible idea. One power plant with a lifetime of several decades will destroy the efforts of millions of citizens to reduce their emissions".[5]

COP15

In an opinion column for The Observer in late November 2009, Hansen wrote that "the fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – "goals" for emission reductions, "offsets" that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual "cap-and-trade" mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics as usual."[6]

He wrote that "science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control. Science also reveals what is needed to stabilise atmospheric composition and climate. Geophysical data on the carbon amounts in oil, gas and coal show that the problem is solvable, if we phase out global coal emissions within 20 years and prohibit emissions from unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and oil shale."[6]

"Improved forestry and agricultural practices could then bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm (parts per million) or less, as required for a stable climate. Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the "cap-and-trade" mechanism. They are lying through their teeth. Unless they order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground (which nobody has proposed), they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels," he wrote.[6]

"Is it feasible to phase out coal and avoid use of unconventional fossil fuels? Yes, but only if governments face up to the truth: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will continue and even increase on a global basis," he wrote.[6] Instead of a 'cap and trade' system, Hansen argued in favour of placing "a uniform rising price on carbon, collected at the fossil fuel source – the mine or port of entry. The fee should be given to the public in toto, as a uniform dividend, payroll tax deduction or both. Such a tax is progressive – the dividend exceeds added energy costs for 60% of the public."[6]

"As the carbon price rises, most coal, tar sands and oil shale will be left in the ground. The marketplace will determine the roles of energy efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear power in our clean energy future," he wrote.

Hansen described the 'cap and trade' system as "astoundingly ineffective" and "an inefficient compromise, paying off numerous special interests. It must be replaced with an honest approach, raising the price of carbon emissions and leaving the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground."[6]

"Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap in the face, to make them face the truth? It will take a lot of us – probably in the streets. Or are we going to let them continue to kid themselves and us and cheat our children and grandchildren? Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures is over. Can we find a leader who understands the core issue and will lead?," he wrote."[6]

In an interview with the Guardian, Hansen said of the possible agreement from the COP15 conference that "I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it's a disaster track. The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation. If it is going to be the Kyoto-type thing then [people] will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means."[7]

"This is analagous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill. On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%."[7]

Hansen also expanded his criticism of the cap and trade system proposed in the U.S. "This is analagous to the indulgences that the Catholic church sold in the middle ages. The bishops collected lots of money and the sinners got redemption. Both parties liked that arrangement despite its absurdity. That is exactly what's happening," he said. "We've got the developed countries who want to continue more or less business as usual and then these developing countries who want money and that is what they can get through offsets [sold through the carbon markets]."[7]

While accepting that the global climate may have already past some tipping points, Hansen dissmisses fatalism as an option. "It may be that we have already committed to a future sea level rise of a metre or even more but that doesn't mean that you give up. Because if you give up you could be talking about tens of metres. So I find it screwy that people say you passed a tipping point so it's too late. In that case what are you thinking: that we are going to abandon the planet? You want to minimise the damage," he said.[7]

Contact Information

Dr. James E. Hansen
Columbia University
750 Armstrong Hall
2880 Broadway
New York, NY 10025 USA
Phone: (212) 678-5500

Awards and affiliations

Articles and Resources

Sources

  1. "Climate Threat to the Planet: Implications for Energy Policy," Jim Hansen, PACON International, Honolulu, Hawaii, 6/3/08
  2. "Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?" J. Hansen et al, 6/18/08 draft
  3. Jonathan Leake, "Climate scientist they could not silence: Jim Hansen has long been a thorn in the side of the White House. Now he has a stark warning for Britain", The Sunday Times, February 10, 2008.
  4. James Hansen, “The Need for an International Moratorium on Coal Power”, The Bulletin Online, January 22, 2008.
  5. World Development Movement, "Development campaigners welcome the Climate Camp’s stand against Kingsnorth", Media Release, March 3, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 James E. Hansen, "Copenhagen summit: Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis?", The Observer (UK), November 29, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Suzanne Goldenberg, "Copenhagen climate change talks must fail, says top scientist", guardian.co.uk, December 2, 2009.
  8. Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, WWF, accessed April 28, 2009.
  9. Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed September 1, 2009.

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