James Hansen letter to UK Prime Minister Brown: “We must solve the coal problem now.”

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NASA climate scientist James Hansen sent a letter on December 19 to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling on him to lead a moratorium in the West on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester the CO2. A phase-out of coal use that does not capture CO2 is “80% of the solution” to the global warming problem, Hansen says. “We must solve the coal problem now.”

In the letter Hansen says:

I recognize that for years you have been a strong supporter of aggressive forward-looking actions to mitigate dangerous climate change. Also the United Kingdom has been active in pressing the international community to take appropriate actions. We are now at a point that bold leadership is needed, leadership that could change the course of human history.

Global climate is near critical tipping points that could lead to loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic with detrimental effects on wildlife, initiation of ice sheet disintegration in West Antarctica and Greenland with progressive, unstoppable global sea level rise, shifting of climatic zones with extermination of many animal and plant species, reduction of freshwater supplies for hundreds of millions of people, and a more intense hydrologic cycle with stronger droughts and forest fires, but also heavier rains and floods, and stronger storms driven by latent heat, including tropical storms, tornados and thunderstorms.

Feasible actions now could still point the world onto a course that minimizes climate change. Coal clearly emerges as central to the climate problem….

In an 8-page briefing paper attached to the letter, Hansen advocates:

(1)  Phase-out of coal use that does not capture CO2. This is 80% of the solution, creating a situation in which CO2 emissions are declining sharply. (Coal use will also be affected by the second essential action. Indeed, it is likely that much of the coal will be left in the ground, as economic incentives spark innovations and positive feedbacks, accelerating progress to the cleaner world beyond fossil fuels.)

(2)  A gradually but continually rising price on carbon emissions. This will ensure that, as oil production inevitably declines, humanity does not behave as a desperate addict, seeking every last drop of oil in the most extreme pristine environments and squeezing oil from tar shale, coal, and other high-carbon sources that would ensure destruction of our climate and most species on the planet. Recognition by industry of a continually rising carbon price (and elimination of fossil fuel subsidies) would drive innovations in energy efficiency, renewable energies, and other energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases.

These are the two fundamental actions that must occur if we are to roll back the net climate forcing and avoid the dangerous climate tipping points, with their foreseeable consequences. Both of these actions are essential.

We can make a long list of supplementary actions that will be needed to avoid hardships and minimize dislocations as we phase into a cleaner world beyond fossil fuels. However, the two essential actions must be given priority and governments must explain the situation to the public.

Hansen’s paper concludes:

Tipping points and positive feedbacks exist among people, as well as in the climate system. I believe that the action with the greatest potential to initiate positive feedbacks, and lead to the benefits that will accompany a clean energy future, is a moratorium in the West on new coal-fired power plants unless and until CO2 capture and sequestration technology is available. Such a moratorium would provide the West with sufficient moral authority to sit down with China and other developing countries to find ways, likely including technological assistance, for developing countries to also phase out coal use that does not capture CO2.

Perhaps the most important question is this: can we find the leadership to initiate the tipping point among nations? Can we find a country that will place a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store the CO2? Unless this happens soon, there is little hope of avoiding the climate tipping points, with all that implies for life on this planet.

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