Science and policy cannot be divorced.
The Science: 350 ppm
Some scientists claim that if we keep the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide to 450 ppm (parts per million) we should be safe. Dr. James Hansen was once one of them. But over the past several years through his research he has come to the conclusion that we must reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm in order to avoid disaster for coming generations.
Humans have caused carbon dioxide to increase from 280 ppm in 1750 to 387 ppm in 2009. 387 ppm is already in the dangerous range. Such a reduction is still practical, but just barely.
I am sorry to say that most of what politicians are doing on the climate front is greenwashing—their proposals sound good, but they are deceiving you and themselves simultaneously.
Greenwashing: the practice of expressing concern about global warming and the environment while taking no actions actually to stabilize climate or preserve the environment.
Greenwashing is prevalent in the United States and other countries, even those presumed to be the “greenest.” Politicians who advertise themselves as being “green” often demonstrate token environmental support while kowtowing to fossil fuel special interests and the 2,340 registered energy lobbyists in Washington. Their goals for future emissions reductions are figments of their imagination, entirely inconsistent with the policies they are busy adopting.
There are countries saying that they will build power plants that are ‘carbon capture ready.’ They are misleading you. The politicians know that the public, at least in most countries, will never accept the large increases in electricity prices that would accompany carbon capture, let alone accept the burial of carbon dioxide in their neighbourhood.
Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible, or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty. “Clean coal” technology does not exist, and carbon capture is not economically feasible.
Developed countries will need to complete their coal phase-out by about 2020 if the global phase-out of coal is to be achieved by 2030. If coal emissions are phased out this rapidly— a tall order, but a feasible one— the climate problem is solvable.
The bottom line seems to be that it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix.
Energy efficiency and renewable energy rate first priority in the suite of technologies needed to phase out carbon emissions. But in most countries, phase-out of coal emissions also requires a carbon-free source of baseload electric power that is competitive in price with coal. Until we have another way to meet 21st-century energy needs while eliminating coal and carbon emissions, nuclear power appears to be the only option.
The (“3rd generation”) nuclear technology ready to replace the ageing 2nd generation reactors in the United States and other counties is inherently safer than existing nuclear power, which already has an exemplary safety record – however, it still burns less than one percent of the nuclear fuel and leaves a long-lived nuclear waste pile. Hansen recommends initiating the urgent development of a fourth-generation nuclear power plant. These “fast” nuclear reactors utilize more than 99 percent of the fuel and can “burn” nuclear waste, thus solving the nuclear waste problem that concerns so many.
You will hear politicians and others say something like, “We have a plan. We will reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020, 90 percent by 2050.”… When they tell you that they are going to solve the problem via a “goal,” “binding target,” or a “cap,” you know that they are lying. Yes, lying is a harsh word, so you may instead say “kidding themselves.” But I expect that one day your more perceptive grandchildren will say that you let the politicians lie to you.
Right now, the policy being pursued by the United States Congress is cap-and-trade. Hansen believes that this will be not only useless but also detrimental.
Instead, he supports a fee-and-dividend approach — a rising fee on carbon-based fuels is collected from fossil fuel companies, with all proceeds distributed to the public per capita.
This policy, in contrast with cap-and-trade, allows proper competition between energy efficiency and alternative carbon-free energy sources such as solar energy, wind, and nuclear power. It also “internalizes” the incentive to reduce carbon fuels, especially coal, in billions of decisions ranging from commuting behaviour to the design of vehicles, aircraft, cities, and so forth.
Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil fuel emissions and to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century. Most governments are saying that they recognize these imperatives. And they say that they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto- like approach. Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover, they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve their nominally accepted targets.
The coming STORMS
So does it really matter if we take the business-as-usual approach and stay the course on current policy regarding energy and the environment?
Continued unfettered burning of all fossil fuels and other human-caused climate changes will cause the climate system to pass tipping points, such that we hand our children and grandchildren a dynamic situation that is out of their control.
If we continue down this path, by the end of this century envision a future where:
- Droughts, heat waves, and forest fires of unprecedented ferocity
- 20% of Earth’s species—about two million species—will be extinct or on the way to certain extinction
- A rapidly rising sea level, with more coming out of humanity’s control
- Frontal (cyclonic) storms with hurricane-like winds, which, with rising seas and storm surges, will devastate thousands of coastal cities
But that does not have to be our future.
We, in contrast, still have the opportunity to preserve the remarkable life of our planet if we begin to act now. We must rally, especially young people, to put pressure on our governments… We must be jolted into recognizing the remarkable world we inherited from our elders and our obligation to preserve the planet for future generations.