NASA Expert Speaks On Coal-fired Power Plants, Climate Change

Lawrence LeBlond for

A leading climate change scientist at NASA is urging the United Kingdom to cease building coal-fired power plants, and is calling for a worldwide tax on all carbon emissions, to tackle the climate change fight head-on, reports BBC Scotland.

Dr. James Hansen said, in an interview with BBC Scotland, that averting the worst consequences of human-induced climate change is a “great moral issue” on par with slavery, and added that storing up expensive and destructive consequences for the future of society is an “injustice of one generation to others.”

“In the case of civil rights the courts were able to come to the assistance of people whose civil rights were being violated by requiring governments to say what they were going to do about for example, segregated schools. In the same way, governments could be required to present a plan to reduce carbon emissions to ensure young people have a decent future,” said Hansen.

Hansen, 71, has been awarded the prestigious Edinburgh Medal at the city´s Science Festival for his contribution to science. He plans to use his acceptance speech to call for a carbon emissions tax to save the climate.

Hansen has argued that the worldwide publicity given to the referendum on Scottish independence was the ideal time for First Minister Alex Salmond to be “honest” about his long-term climate change policies.

Hansen told daily newspaper The Scotsman that US President Barack Obama failed to highlight global energy issues by targeting domestic policy, and urged Salmond not to do the same.

“Obama had the chance to say, ℠OK we´re going to fight our fossil fuel addiction´ and take on the big corporations, but instead he concentrated on health,” Hansen, director of NASA´s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the paper.

“Salmond should use this time and be very, very open and honest about the energy plans are for the long run and the need to move towards the post-fossil fuel era,” Hansen urged. “You might think Scotland is going to be like Norway. But that does not prevent moving towards a carbon-free economy.”

Scotland has plans for two coal-fired power facilities to be built at Grangemouth and Hunterston in Ayrshire. But Hansen believes the country would be better off building new nuclear and renewable energy facilities to prevent further climate changes.

“For base load electric power, I think that we need next generation nuclear power, which can be much safer and which can burn nuclear waste and solve that major problem with nuclear power,” he said.

US firm, Summit Power Group, is spearheading the plan to build the coal-fueled power plant at the port of Grangemouth. It said the plant would use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in a bid to reduce emissions by more than 90 percent.

A public inquiry is due to be carried out before the Scottish government makes a final decision on proposals for a similar facility at Hunterston. In November last year North Ayrshire Council rejected plans by Ayrshire Power for a coal-fired station but the company vowed to fight on.

Hansen, who has been arrested four times for protesting against projects he believed to be damaging to the environment, is standing strong with his opposition to coal-fired power plants in Scotland, and is ready to call for a global tax on carbon emissions, to prevent further climate change.

While acknowledging that oil and gas would be around for years to come, he said that did not preclude plans which that see money from carbon tax distributed to the public. “Using easily available oil and gas which can be traded on the international market is something that is going to happen, but we have to phase it out,” he told The Scotsman.

“We could have a gradually rising tax on carbon emissions, with the money collected from companies distributed to the public in a monthly dividend, to pay less for their fuel bills and start thinking of lifestyle changes, such a carbon-efficient car or building a home which includes energy efficient features,” he added.

“Why haven´t we done something like that before? Because fossil fuel industries have too much clout. Money talks in capitals around the world,” he said.

In an interview with The Guardian, Hansen said the latest climate models show the planet is on the brink of an emergency. Humanity is facing the threat of repeated natural disasters from extreme weather events that could affect large areas of the planet.

“The situation we´re creating for young people and future generations is that we´re handing them a climate system which is potentially out of their control,” he said. “Our parents didn´t know that they were causing a problem for future generations but we can only pretend we don´t know because the science is now crystal clear,” he said.

“We understand the carbon cycle: the CO2 we put in the air will stay in surface reservoirs and won´t go back into the solid earth for millennia. What the Earth´s history tells us is that there´s a limit on how much we can put in the air without guaranteeing disastrous consequences for future generations. We cannot pretend that we did not know,” he added.

Hansen said his proposal for a global carbon tax is based on the latest analysis of CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the impact that has on global temperatures and weather patterns.

His scientific paper on the issue, which is co-authored by 17 of his peers, including climate scientists, biologists and economists, calls for an immediate 6 percent annual cut in CO2 emissions, and a substantial growth in global forest cover to avoid catastrophic climate change by the end of this century.

The paper, which is in the final stages of publication by the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), says that a global tax on fossil fuels is the strongest tool for forcing energy firms and consumers to switch quickly to zero carbon and renewable energy sources.

In his plan, the carbon tax would increase year on year, with the tax income paid back to the public as a dividend, shared equally, rather than put into government coffers. Because the tax would greatly increase the cost of fossil fuel energy, consumers that rely on green or low carbon sources of power would benefit the most as this dividend would come on top of cheaper fuel bills. It would promote a dramatic increase in the investment and development of low-carbon energy sources and technologies.

The proposal would also require those who are the most wasteful energy users — people with several homes, private jets, and fuel-hungry vehicles — to dramatically change their energy use habits. Hansen and his colleagues warn that failing to cut CO2 emissions by 6 percent now will mean annual cuts would need to reach a more drastic 15 percent per year by 2022.

Hansen said current attempts to limit carbon emissions have been “completely ineffectual.” Under a global tax proposal, the mechanisms for controlling fossil fuel use would be taken out of the hands of individual states influenced by energy companies, and politicians anxious about winning elections.

“It can´t be fixed by individual specific changes; it has to be an across-the-board rising fee on carbon emissions,” Hansen told The Guardian. “We can´t simply say that there´s a climate problem, and leave it to the politicians. They´re so clearly under the influence of the fossil fuel industry that they´re coming up with cockamamie solutions which aren´t solutions. That is the bottom line.”

Hansen, regarded as one of the most influential figures in climate science, is the creator of one of the first global climate models, and his work in pioneering warnings about global warming is frequently cited by climate campaigners such as former US vice president Al Gore.

He will be appearing at the 2012 Edinburgh International Science Festival tonight in the “Our Climate Future” discussion at 8 p.m. local time, and then again tomorrow in “Fixing The Planet” at 5:30 p.m., both being held at the National Museum of Scotland.

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Hansen´s climate change stance is, in part, the subject of debate by a group of 49 former NASA scientists and astronauts who sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last week, criticizing the agency for its role in advocating a high degree of certainty that human-made CO2 is a major cause of climate change while neglecting practical evidence that calls the theory into question.

The group, which includes seven Apollo astronauts and two former directors of NASA´s Johnson Space Center, indicated in the letter that they were disappointed over the failure of NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) to make an objective assessment of all available scientific data on climate change. They believe that NASA is relying too heavily on complex climate models that have proven scientifically inadequate in predicting climate change only one or two decades in advance.

H. Leighton Steward, chairman of the non-profit Plants Need CO2, said many of the former NASA scientists have doubts about the significance of the CO2 climate change theory and have concerns over NASA´s advocacy on the topic. While making presentations in late 2011 to many of the signatories of the letter, Steward realized that the NASA scientists should make their concerns known to NASA and the GISS.

“These American heroes — the astronauts that took to space and the scientists and engineers that put them there — are simply stating their concern over NASA´s unusual advocacy for an unproven theory,” said Steward. “There´s a concern that if it turns out that CO2 is not a major cause of climate change, NASA will have put the reputation of NASA, NASA´s current and former employees, and even the very reputation of science itself at risk of public ridicule and distrust.”

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