Game Over for the Climate

by on May 10, 2012 · 12 comments

in American Empire, Economy, Energy, Environment, Health, Popular

By James Hansen / New York Times / May 9, 2012

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas 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.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life. But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise too high. This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue. The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

We need to start reducing emissions significantly, 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, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages 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.

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.

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business. 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.

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

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Fredy May 11, 2012 at 2:39 am

Love those citations.


Richard May 11, 2012 at 4:01 am

If Dr. Hanson is correct, his solution is impossible to implement – even if he was dictator of the world.

To solve this problem you must move ‘all’ harmful industries and a large percentage of the population into space. To improve the condition of the biosphere, remove humans from the biosphere.


Calvin May 11, 2012 at 5:11 am

Nice photo. Which satellite took that and how soon does the firestorm get to you?


Ken May 11, 2012 at 6:15 am

Gee, good plan, giving those carbon fees directly to the people. They’ll need it to pay for the increase in fossil fuel prices. What is needed is a way to encourage a decrease in consumption. So far, skyrocketing prices don’t seem to be the answer. I’m not saying I have an answer, but, the answer you offer will do absolutely nothing. Production and use will continue unabated, and fossil fuel companies will continue to make huge profits. Sadly, I believe that the predicted apocalypse is the only way to reduce emissions. The planet will heal itself, mankind will survive, but society as we know it…well, not so much.


Charle Polk May 11, 2012 at 6:59 am

I completely agree with Mr. Hansen’s assessment but I think he’s totally naive about the politics of this issue, however as a liberal I do take exception to being lumped in with conservatives and republicans. Liberals have been for using government to deal with all kinds of environmental problems including this one since the environmental movement began in the late 1960’s.
Barring some kind of complete overthrow of democracy or take over by the combined military of the rest of the world that have been most affected by our selfish profligacy, the combined power of big fossil fuel and the ability of one or both parties to demagogue this issue will make sure the collective stupidity of the American public will prevent a vote for political action until the rising water reaches their collective upper lips. So, buy a gas guzzler, put in incandescent light bulbs, turn up the heat and turn down the A/C, the faster the water rises the faster something will get done about it.


Herp Derp May 11, 2012 at 7:29 am



John May 11, 2012 at 8:01 am

So much life will be effected, but not all of it. When we can’t produce enough food to supply the population, whose first to go? Something so devastating to be overlooked by the people with power to stop it, won’t be calling first. If climate change is inevitable, as our current progression dictates, and your above article is fact. Then “those who could stop it, are allowing it to happen.” should be considered a fact as well.

Could you think of any other reason why the prevention of climate change isn’t going into effect? In my opinion, it’s one of two things. They have to know what you know (those with the resources to prevent such devastation) but at least they wont be be starving anytime soon. Or they know more than you, and know the world climate isn’t going anywhere, degree-wise.

I’m hoping for the latter, but your article disagrees.


Dan May 11, 2012 at 9:17 am

Stop blaming the incidental culprits for climate change. The main offenders are deforestation, agriculture and toxic emissions (as in the ones that unbalance ecosystems) . The biggest polluter on the loose is the Federal government.
When this opinionated dude has some kind of “working model” for weather change the world will listen. Accurate weather prediction is still an ART. Large ecosystems predictions is a Gamble at best. Most of the people know we are in trouble, but without a model, change is a stab in the dark that might hurt more than help.
The climate is tipping to what might be a point of new “low” for humans and life in general but the Canadians are not the BIG PROBLEM.


Ed May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm

The fact that governments are already vieing for position to control the opening North West Passage tells me that governments are aware that the globe is warming, even if they continue to deny


Seriously Concerened May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm

An Economist (Harper) does not know more than a Scientist when it comes to the details surrounding Climate Change . That should be obvious John. It is well beyond time the people in positions of power stop pretending that they do know more. They don’t. Perhaps they will go down in history for mass genocide? It baffles me that people aren’t already going to extremes to stop these ignorant money focused power mongers. It is the life of the entire planet at stake here. And when I say the life of the entire planet I do not mean just the plants, trees, air, water etc. That includes our lives, our children’s lives, their children’s lives. This really is the fight for our lives folks!


Monty Kroopkin May 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm

We have no democracy now. We have a global oligarchy instead. Place little hope in established governmental institutions for solutions. If we had democracy, with all the public support there is for reducing fossil fuel use, we would already be solving the problem instead of making it worse. We need to follow the lead of the founders of this country: we need say “no” to the established order and stop cooperating with it.

Build open, public assemblies of the people, in every community, address issues, adopt plans for solutions, and begin to carry them out in defiance of the established order. Build democratic institutions that are alternatives to the obsolete and corrupted institutions of governance that have been bought-off by the “1%”. The Occupy movement (worldwide) and the “Arab Spring” and several other developments around the world are moving in this direction. This is what we must do.

Pressure for needed reforms should continue, of course, but we all must realize that most of the deep changes we truly need will NOT be accomplished as long as the “1%” control govenmental institutions. We need to occupy foreclosed houses and keep them inhabited. We need to occupy closed factories and run them to produce things we need. We need to move our funds out of the banks and into credit unions and cooperatives, where we have more say in how funds are used.

And how about a mass movement to install solar panels ON EVERY BUILDING?


plantmoretrees May 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Too much CO2? Plant more trees, problem solved.


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