James Hansen: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”

Our nation’s top climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, has submitted a blunt op-ed, “The Sword of Damocles,” to The Observer. He makes many points worth underscoring, such as:

How can [the public] distinguish top-notch science and pseudoscience — the words sound the same? Leaders have no excuse….

The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretense that they are working on “clean coal” or that they will build power plants that are “capture ready” in case technology is ever developed to capture all pollutants….

The German and Australian governments pretend to be green….

The full piece is below. Remember, it is aimed at the UK. He has issued many similar challenges to this country’s leaders (see links at end):

Over a year ago I wrote to Prime Minister Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barak Obama, Kevin Rudd and other world leaders. The reason is this — coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.

Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible — if we do not rapidly slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades.

Tipping points are fed by amplifying feedbacks. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As tundra melts, methane a strong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are pressured and exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by day-to-day weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time or training to analyze decadal changes. How can they be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from special economic interests? How can they distinguish top-notch science and pseudoscience — the words sound the same?

Leaders have no excuse — they are elected to lead and to protect the public and its best interests. Leaders have at their disposal the best scientific organizations in the world, such as the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and the United States National Academy of Sciences.

Only in the past few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency — our planet really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is out of their control, as amplifying feedbacks drive the dynamics of the global system.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The preindustrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas have increased carbon dioxide to 385 ppm, and it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth, with its four kilometer deep ocean, responds only slowly to changes of carbon dioxide. So more climate change will occur, even if we make maximum effort to slow carbon dioxide growth. Arctic sea ice will disappear in the summer season within the next few decades.

Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people, will disappear — practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years, if carbon dioxide continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harboring a quarter of ocean species, are threatened, if carbon dioxide continues to rise.

The greatest threats, hanging like the sword of Damocles over our children and grandchildren, are those that are irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal ice shelves buttressing the West Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the ice sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea level by several meters in a century. Such rates of sea level change have occurred many times in Earth’s history in response to global warming rates no higher than that of the past thirty years. Almost half of the world’s great cities, and many historical sites, are located on coast lines.

The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several times in Earth’s long history rapid global warming of several degrees occurred, apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case more than half of plant and animal species went extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine.

If we drive our fellow species to extinction we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world that we inherited from our elders. We will leave a world haunted by the memories of what was.

Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with sea level 75 meters higher. Coastal disasters would occur continually. The only uncertainty is the time it would take for complete ice sheet disintegration.

The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must be made to stabilize the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. The changes would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water, and an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat.

Actions required to solve the problem are dictated by physical facts, especially fossil fuel reservoir sizes. About half of readily extracted oil has been burned already. Oil is used in vehicles, where it is impractical to capture the carbon dioxide. Oil and gas will drive carbon dioxide to at least 400 ppm. But if we cut off the largest source of carbon dioxide, coal, it will be practical to bring carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm and still lower through improved agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.

Coal is not only the largest fossil fuel reservoir of carbon dioxide, it is the dirtiest fuel. Coal is polluting the world’s oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals. The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretense that they are working on “clean coal” or that they will build power plants that are “capture ready” in case technology is ever developed to capture all pollutants.

The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. When I testified against the proposed Kingsnorth power plant, I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsible for extermination of about 400 species — its proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm. Of course, we cannot say which specific species should be blamed on Kingsnorth, but who are we to say that any species are worthless?

The German and Australian governments pretend to be green. When I show German officials that fossil fuel reservoir sizes imply that the coal source must be cut off, they say they will tighten the “carbon cap”. But a cap only slows the use of a fuel, it does not leave it in the ground. When I point out that their new coal plants require that they convince Russia to leave its oil in the ground, they are silent. The Australian government was elected on a platform of solving the climate problem, but then, with the help of industry, they set emission targets so high as to guarantee untold disasters for the young and the unborn. These governments are not green. They are black — coal black.

On a per capita basis, the three countries most responsible for fossil fuel carbon dioxide in the air today are the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, in that order. Politicians in Britain have asked me: why am I speaking to them — the United States must lead? But coal interests have great power in the United States — the essential moratorium and phase-out of coal likely requires a growing public demand and a political will yet to be demonstrated.

The Prime Minister should not underestimate his potential to initiate a transformative change of direction. And he must not pretend to be ignorant of the consequences of continuing coal emission, or take refuge in a “carbon cap” or some “target” for future emission reductions. Young people are beginning to understand the situation. They want to know: will you join their side? Remember that history, and your children, will judge you.

Okay, Hansen is characteristically blunt, not uncharacteristically blunt, but I’m still putting it in my new category.

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16 Responses to James Hansen: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”

  1. jorleh says:

    Think of this: this man knows, but almost all with power to do something don´t know, they must believe. Like a prime minister being ill, he must go to some doctor and believe the doctor knows. And the prime minister do as the doctor orders.

    What is the reason that the same prime minister doesn´t do as a climate doctor orders? As all the best climate doctors order?

  2. Russ says:

    Okay, Hansen is characteristically blunt, not uncharacteristically blunt, but I’m still putting it in my new category.

    “Blunt in a way uncharacteristic of scientists” – that’s what I think the category means.

    [JR: Yes, precisely!]

  3. Greg N says:

    Hansen might know climate science.

    But he doesn’t know Britain’s Prime Minister and British politics.

    Best outcome is that Brown will come up with some long-dated promises about coal that he’ll then ignore.

  4. Greg Robie says:

    Another threat to add to the list in this article is that with rising sea levels, salt water marshes and estuary systems will flood. Creating these hatcheries and carbon sinks is a slow process. The loss will be faster than their recreation without massive human intervention. Like the die off of coral reefs will diminish their capacity to be nurseries for fisheries, the flooding of salt water marshes and estuary systems will greatly impact the life cycles of life forms involved in marine environment.

    The “bluntness” of this article is not typical of scientist, for our mindset is one one of ongoing self-reexamination. The direction and rate of change that the science of climate modeling is experiencing make the “bluntness” a relative understatement. The argument that the challenge leaders face to lead in the face of the crisis is due to the overwhelmed-ness of the electorate is, from my perspective, self-serving. That self-serving is not limited to politicians. To consider how scientists are party to this–and I don’t think even James is exempt from this, I will repost here a comment I made this morning to the two day old thread on Republicans “jumpstopping” the future. There are alternative was of observing the data that can lead to better hypotheses, theories. modeling, strategies . . and, to be blunt, different living:

    I watched “Garbage Warrior” (2007) last night. In the opening scene Mike Reynolds uses the metaphor of a herd of buffalo stampeding toward a cliff as an analogy for our society. He acknowledges that he is in that herd and going to go over the cliff with them. Even so, he talks about his work–developing and building earthships–as an effort to get the herd to shift directions (something that can happen with buffalo, because in a stamped situation they are all afraid and following a leader, whom, if you can get it to turn, the herd will as well and stamped after him in a “safe” direction. Even then, the stamped itself does not end until the buffalo exhaust themselves and have to stop.

    Al Gore (as a public leader) has gone from being ambivalent about the shortening of the timeline mitigating climate change demands in his testimony before Congress in March of 2006 to unequivocal in his testimony in January of this year concerning cap and trade legislation needing to be passed this year. His work on the “We” campaign has unfolded in the interim. Self-described as a recovering politician working on step #9, he is hardly out in front of the herd directing it. His style of male leadership (an emasculated second wave feminist version of such leadership) is very centrist to the stampeding herd. The leadership sensibilities of this human herd stampeding into klimakatastrophe are second wave feminist sensibilities. It is a leadership that is defuse and is both intuitive and non-rational. It trusts what history has never proved, that people come to their sense in herds but go mad one at a time. Such is the opposite of Charles Mackay’s 1852 insight concerning human history from _Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds_: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

    I do not share Joe’s “madness” that global capitalism based on fiat currencies coined in debt will recover. Any “green” jobs that are created will simply support (help preserve) the economic activity that is stampeding humanity deeper into klimakatastrophe. I feel that the primary “jumpstopping” of need change _is not_ due to the conservatives and what they have done/are doing to obfuscated the public debate, but, rather, _was_ the behavior of the “progressives” who talked a talk they did not walk and, as a result, corrupted language, wasted social capital, and modeled a leadership that did little but secure professorships, authored books, garnered employment in well meaning NGOs, become religious leaders, established new age retreat centers, and be elected to political office (all economically rewarded social endeavors; all, in practice, non-redirecting of the stamped over the cliff; all a pragmatic and systemically pious adaptation to the truth of the “one by one” aspect of Mackay’s insight.

    In a what-you-are-doing-is-making-so-much-noise-I-can’t-hear-what-you-are-saying dynamic, those of the conservative, five part morality Jonathan Haidt has been expounding on, are justifiably critical–and dismissive–of the behaviors of “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” (as Spiro Agnew characterized us as back in the late ’60s). In lieu of commiserate action relative to our pronouncements and would give substance to our words, from a conservative sense of morality “a spirit of national masochism prevails” due to our affect. As such, liberal sensibilities are an amoral abomination and ridiculed. There is a moral dissonance conservatives experience due to their perception of the dynamics of liberal two part morality within their experience of a five part model for morality. Liberals would do well to understand this dynamic and work with it instead of belittling it . . . if we value changing social behavior to mitigate climate change more so than being right and accomplishing little.

  5. Wes Rolley says:

    Part of the problem we have is that we all read Climate Progress, or DeSmogBlog, or David Roberts and nod our heads, say Hansen tells the truth or George Will is an idiot.

    At the same time, the American Petroleum Institute is buying time on the News Hour (PBS) or MSNBC and telling us that we have enough oil and gas for decades. (No one asks the question of “what then?” ) I see hyped on other news / business television.

    Is it any wonder that we are losing the information battle?

    The politicization of Science that Chris Mooney charted in RWOS continues and has been so successful that all statements that would disturb someone’s world view are now labeled as “political” rather than fact.

    Wes Rolley CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  6. paulm says:

    Hansen is also scared!

  7. Kojiro Vance says:

    OK, let me see if I have this correct. Hansen and Romm REALLY believe that atmospheric CO2 is a coming global catastrophe. It is a world changing, lots of people are going to die, planetary crisis, life as we know it coming to an end, and that we have to do something NOW.

    [JR: Yes, that is what the science says.]

  8. Coal is great enemy. Simple. Widespread agreement. Difficult to defend.

  9. Will Greene says:

    I agree Wes, right now we are losing horribly in the information battle. There have been some bright spots: the We campaign’s ads have been excellent, the ads were good, at least they targeted coal. In my opinion our best strategy is to show how committed we are to this cause through action. We have to be articulate, respectful, state facts, and most importantly become activists, and then people will inevitably see what we see. The March 2nd capitol climate action is the beginning of what I hope will be a heightened debate in this country.

    “What are you doing on March 2nd?”

  10. paulm says:

    Has anyone the guts to shut the coal stations? There would be riots in the streets.

  11. Gail says:

    If you go to the Guardian and read the vicious comments there, it is enough to create total despair. Before you do so, obtain strong tranquilizers and self-medicate is my advise. And send a Valentine to Dr. Hansen.

  12. paulm has a point: given a choice between saving the polar bears and having cheap and reliable electricity (now, and not sometime when wind and solar come online) most people would accept coal. It is not hard to imagine what would happen if their lights went off.

    There is no other source of baseload power (except solar thermal and geothermal, which are limited in range, and nuclear, which is unlikely). Given that coal is indispensable in the near term, what can be done in that near term to avoid climate catastrophe? We need a moon shot effort to discover and deploy means for post-combustion CO2 capture and dissociation. It’s the only realistic hope.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — To remove some of the excess carbon dioxide

    (1) plant tens of billions of trees;
    (2) make and bury biochar;
    (3) start enhanced mineral weathering sites.

  14. David B. Benson says:


    eat less red meat.

  15. Theodore says:

    If there were no such thing as global warming there would still be enough reasons to cut carbon fuel production to a small fraction of the current level, and to replace it with renewable alternatives.