Clock running out on irreversible climate change Part I
- May 15, 2008
By James Hansen
New York: fifty years ago, Yankee Stadium had about 70,000 seats. It
seldom sold out, and almost any kid could afford the cheapest seats.
Capacity was reduced to about 57,000 when the stadium was remodeled in
the 1970s. Most games sell out now, and prices have gone up.
The new stadium, opening next year, will reduce seating to about
51,800. This intentional contraction is aimed at guaranteeing
sellouts, increasing demand, allowing the owners, in short order, to
triple prices or more. The owners have learned that scarcity will
fatten their wallets. The plan may discriminate against the lower
middle class, but as long as the owner is footing the bill without
public subsidies, there may be little grounds for complaint.
Now fossil-fuel moguls are intent on hoodwinking the entire planet
with an analogous scheme.
The basic trick is oil producers overstating fossil-fuel reserves.
Government "energy information" departments parrot industry. Partly
because of disinformation, the major efforts needed to develop
alternative energies have not been made.
The reality of limited supply forces prices higher. Eventually, sales
volume will begin to decline, but fossil-fuel moguls will make more
money than ever. They'll continue to assert that there's plenty more
oil, gas or coal to be found, aiming to keep the suckers on the hook.
Indeed, they may find somewhat more in the deep ocean, under national
parks, in polar regions, offshore, and in other environmentally
sensitive areas. They don't need much to keep the suckers paying
higher and higher prices.
Oil "reserves" suddenly doubled when Organization for the Petroleum
Exporting Countries decided that production quotas would be
proportional to official reserves. These higher reserves are, at least
in part, phantom. Coal "reserves" are based on estimates made many
decades ago. Closer study shows that extractable coal reserves are
vastly overstated, consistent with present production difficulties and
rising prices. The presumed 200-year supply of coal in the United
States is a myth, but it serves industry moguls well.
Conventional fossil-fuel supplies are limited, even if we tear up the
Earth to extract every last drop of oil and shard of coal. Tearing up
the Earth to get at those last drops - Exxon/Mobil proudly advertises
that they're drilling the depths of the ocean and searching the most
extreme pristine environments - is as insane as the smoker who trudged
four miles through a raging storm to buy a pack of Camel cigarettes to
feed his nicotine addiction.
It would be possible to find more fossil fuels, and extend our
addiction and pollution of the environment, should we be so foolish as
to take the path of extracting unconventional fossil fuels such as tar
shale and tar sands on a large scale. That choice cannot be left to
the discretion of industry moguls. The planet does not belong to them.
Basic facts on reserves must be combined with basic climate facts
described in the paper Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity
Aim? (PDF 1.36MB)
Our conclusion is that, if humanity wishes to preserve a planet
similar to the one on which civilisation developed and to which life
on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385ppm
(parts per million) to, at most, 350ppm. We find that peak CO2 can be
kept to about 425ppm, with large estimates for oil and gas reserves,
if coal use is phased out by 2030 (except where CO2 is captured and
sequestered) and unconventional fossil fuels are not tapped
substantially. Peak CO2 can be kept close to 400ppm, if actual
reserves are closer to those estimated by "peakists", who believe that
the globe is already at peak global oil production, having extracted
about half of readily extractable oil resources.
This lower 400ppm peak can be ensured, assuming phase-out of coal
emissions by 2030, if a practical limit on reserves is achieved by
means of actions that prevent fossil-fuel extraction from public
lands, off-shore regions under government control, environmentally
pristine regions and extreme environments. The concerned public can
influence this matter, but time is short, the industry voice is strong
and climate effects have not yet become so obvious to the public as to
overwhelm the disinformation from industry moguls.
A near-term moratorium on coal-fired power plants and constraints on
oil extraction in extreme environments are essential, because once CO2
is emitted to the air much of it will remain there for centuries.
Improved agricultural and forestry practices, mostly reforestation,
could draw down atmospheric CO2 by about 50ppm by the end of the
century. But a greater drawdown by such more-or-less natural methods
seems impractical, making a long-term overshoot of the 350ppm target
level, with potentially disastrous consequences, a near certainty if
the world stays on its business-as-usual course.
If we choose a different path, which permits the possibility of
achieving 350ppm CO2 or lower this century, we can minimise the chance
of passing tipping points that spiral out of control, such as
disintegration of ice sheets, rapid sea level rise and extermination
of countless species. At the same time, we could solve problems that
seem intractable, such as acidification of the ocean with consequent
loss of coral reefs.
In any event, we must move beyond fossil fuels soon, because a large
fraction of CO2 emissions will linger in the atmosphere for many
The world must move to zero fossil-fuel emissions. This is a fact, a
certainty. So why not do it sooner, in time to avert climate crises?
At the same time, we halt other pollution that comes from fossil
fuels, including mercury pollution, conventional air pollution,
problems stemming from mountain-top removal and more.
Breaking an addiction is not easy. But we may be like the smoker who
trudged four miles through rain to get a pack of Camels - when he got
back to his motel he threw the pack away and never smoked again.
Fossil-fuel addiction is more difficult - one person's epiphany cannot
solve the problem. This problem requires global co-operation. We must
be on a new path within the next several years, or reducing CO2 levels
this century becomes implausible. Developed countries, the source of
most excess CO2 in the air today, must lead in developing clean energy
and halting emissions. Yet it is hardly a sacrifice: "Green" jobs will
be an economic stimulus and a boon to worker well-being.
A major fight is brewing - it might be called war. On the one side, we
find the short-term financial interests of the fossil-fuel industry.
On the other side: young people and other beings who will inherit the
planet. The fight seems uneven. The fossil-fuel industry is launching
a disinformation campaign, and they have powerful influence in
capitals around the world.
Young people seem pretty puny in comparison to industry moguls, and
animals don't talk or vote. The battle may start with local and
regional skirmishes, one coal plant at a time. But it could build
rapidly - we're running out of time.
Meanwhile, the moguls' dirtiest trick is spewing "green" messages to
the public - propaganda, intended to leave the impression they're
moving in the right direction. Meanwhile they hire scientific
has-beens to dispute evidence and confuse the public.
When will we know that the long-term public interest has overcome the
greed? When investors, companies and governments begin to invest en
masse in renewable energies, when all aim for zero-carbon emissions.
James Hansen is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space
Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Earth
An opinion provided by OnlineOpinion.com.au - Australia's e-journal of
social and political debate. Comments (2)
written by Damir Ibrisimovic , May 15, 2008
Willy-nilly, too fast moves to zero emission energy sources will
destroy leading economies, making global warming combating efforts
even more difficult. Even if we manage to switch relatively quickly to
zero emission energy sources, global warming will not be halted. We
need solutions that are not self destructive and that will halt global
We need to start capturing atmospheric CO2 fast and everywhere. And
rapid capture requires involvement of all; scientists and farmers in
We cannot wait for politicians to drop few coins into our hats. We
have to start thinking and working on solutions. And we must present
our solutions to general public in a simple way everybody will
understand. Only then doors to funds will open.
I have outlined one possible solution here (
http://www.sciencealert.com.au...17248.html ). Algal farming does
offer rapid capture of atmospheric CO2, much faster than
afforestation. It also offers many other benefits. However, there is
no echo. Do I see a hat waiting?
written by Linda Vergnani , May 15, 2008
Mass starvation, extinction of hundreds of species of animals,
destruction of the coral reefs and an unimaginably hot earth mean
nothing to the moguls. Fueling consumerism and making greater profits
are their short-sighted goals. I cannot imagine the CEOs of major
companies dismantling their own homes and leaving their families
without shelter in order to make a profit from the bricks and mortar.
Yet global warming means tearing apart our planetary home and life as
we know it. This will guaranteeg that our children and grandchildren
will endure terrible hardship.
One way that the general public and politicians could be made more
aware of the problems is if the media gave this looming catastrophe
the prominent treatment it deserves. In Australia climate change and
global warming stories are often tucked away on the inside pages, so
the public thinks this is a minor problem. Some scandal involving a
local politician will take prominence over a serious report on global
warming. If the articles about global warming were given the same
coverage as the 9/11 disaster or a pending nuclear war, then the
public and politicians would have a real sense of urgency about
finding solutions fast.