A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty

[I said that the winner of the explain-why-Roger-Pielke-is-wrong contest would get the chance to blog weekly here. Here is the first post by Ken Levenson, who blogs at checklisttowardzerocarbon. Relatedly, the Center for American Progress has proposed an “Emission Performance Standard for New Coal-Fired Power Plants,” which would require that “new coal capacity be built to meet a CO2 emissions standard achievable with the best available CCS technology.”]


y Ken Levenson

While the world is awakening to the horrific ramifications of climate change, our progress in combating it is dangerously slow — retarded by an inertia composed of mighty fossil fuel interests, our wanton personal habits, an indifferent press and short sighted political leadership. We await the promise of a new American administration but precious days are passing. What can be done before November, to stack the deck, so that the new administration can’t just do “the right thing” wink, wink — but is compelled to do everything that needs to be done? It is as they say, a defining moment.


In his new slide show Al Gore speaks passionately to the predicament and possibilities of this extraordinary time. Along with his smart and well funded “we” branding strategy — Al Gore for many Americans is the face of global warming. History will treat Al Gore well, yet at this moment he’s unjustly trapped in the warped prism of Bush/Cheney World — and so his message is lost on too many fence sitting Americans.

But there is another leader right now: the conservative, mid-westerner James Hansen. Level-headed and firm, he has embarked on what seems to be a one man quest from another era; to stop the construction of new coal power plants. Hansen rightly defines the issue in terms of security — our existential security. He’s written letters to the heads of Britain and Australia, testified at public hearings and harangued energy officials in his effort to stop new plants.

Hansen sees the politicians as intractably beholden to fossil fuel interests and is increasingly stating that the only way to break the log jam is through the courts. He may be right.

Yet his clear insistence that coal plant construction be halted and that all existing coal plants be shut down — last year by 2050 and now ominously he says by by 2030. Hansen calls for a moratorium on coal as do others, including leading Democrats. A moratorium is the result we require. Yet the mechanism for getting such a moratorium at the requisite global scale remains nebulous and consequently ineffectual. A strong and clear mechanism to achieve a global moratorium on coal power plants is absolutely required. I believe the clear mechanism missing is a Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unambiguously defined humanity’s primary existential threat, this new treaty would unambiguously define humanity’s current threat. And as the pillars of nuclear non-proliferation do, the coal power treaty should not only halt the construction of new coal power plants but create the framework for disarmament — the dismantling of existing plants by 2030.


Ireland proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 — might they brush it off and put it to adaptive reuse in 2008? Could a “great power” do it? Germany? Britain? Japan?

If* done right, such a treaty would afford many unique opportunities and qualities:

  1. It can link the climate fight to the most popular vestige of the Cold War — a treaty whose clear military, national security and humanitarian interests were paramount, and by association, conveying to the climate crisis struggle those same attributes into today’s popular imagination.
  2. By rhetorically linking to the Cold War era treaty, it can reach outside party politics and traditional international alignments — allowing for the possibility of entirely new and positive dynamics.
  3. It kick-starts a national and international debate focused at the heart of the problem while decoupling it from the highly complex and esoteric negotiations of Kyoto and Bali.
  4. It provides a clear and powerful mechanism to pressure all countries — most importantly the US, China and India to get on board.
  5. It provides a concrete reference point, easy for all to understand and then work from. Because if you agree you can’t build another coal plant — what are you going to do?

What are we going to do? There’s a multitude of actions that must accelerate like an avalanche if we are to save ourselves. It’s my thought that such a “simple” act as this treaty might do a bit toward uncorking the bottle on our way to the next inauguration.

Come’on Ireland, the world again awaits your leadership!

* a big if.

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