January 17, 2009

Climate Scientist Dr. James E. Hansen says “Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth”

Barack Obama is almost our new President, just three more days! Back in November, not long after the votes were tallied and many of us had breathed a sigh of relief Dr. James Hansen, a well respected climate scientist, wrote a letter to the soon to be forty-forth president of the United States entitled “Tell Barack Obama the Truth-The Whole Truth.” In it he laid out where the climate is headed, if the future holds the same bull-headed inaction of past. Those implications are:

1. Mountain glaciers are receding worldwide and will be gone within 50 years if CO2 emissions continue to increase. This threatens the fresh water supply for billions of people, as rivers arising in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains will begin to run dry in the summer and fall.
2. Coral reefs, home to a quarter of biological species in the ocean, could be destroyed by rising temperature and ocean acidification due to increasing CO2.
3. Dry subtropics are expanding poleward with warming, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, and Australia, with increasing drought and fires.
4. Arctic sea ice will disappear entirely in the summer, if CO2 continues to increase, with devastating effects on wildlife and indigenous people.
5. Intensity of hydrologic extremes, including heavy rains, storms and floods on the one hand, and droughts and fires on the other, are increasing.

Beyond these effects, areas in the middle latitudes (southern Europe & southwestern United States) are projected to become 30% drier. And with the continued drying of West Africa, more conflicts resembling Darfur become increasingly possible. The primary issue according to Hansen, above CO2 emissions from our incessant driving is CO2 from coal burning. Bad news if you were all stoked to grab a new electric car, its actually going to produce worse emissions, assuming it is not run off an exclusively wind/solar/biomass/nuclear grid. The risk of humanity pushing atmospheric CO2 levels beyond the point where they are reducible is becoming immediate (read: with the coming decades).

Ideas of cap and trade are flying around the political circles but Hansen presents a simpler and more enticing offer that is getting little or no play in the mainstream. A “carbon tax with 100 percent dividend.” This translates to, every person pays more for fossil fuels, but the more we reduce our use the fatter the check returning from the Federal Government. And the 100% dividend means, “not one dime should go to Washington for politicians.” It all returns to the taxpayers (given that some money will have to be used to run the system).

Where Hansen and I diverge in our philosophies are on his suggestions for the use of new technologies. I am a strong advocate for wind and solar, my wife and I pay a wind offset every month for our small apartment. Although Hansen’s suggestions of investing in fourth-generation Nuclear are fascinating, what we need are immediate approaches and no alternative energy offers an “immediate” approach. Fourth Gen. Nuclear is at least six years away from its first active plant, so we can’t see the real-life impacts of the technology. Wind and solar are not there yet (though they are available and should be utilized), and can they truly meet the consumption needs of the globe, not just America?

My suggestion is, let us follow the path of the heart rather than the desires of our consumptive gut. Rather than turning to technology let’s do as many spiritual leaders have done and turn to ourselves. We often want technology to evolve to meet our energy “needs,” perhaps we should evolve and reduce those needs. I believe what is called for now is a dramatic reduction of personal consumption, in all areas of life. This is possible, though not by any means the most comfortable. One terrific example is No Impact Man. The point is, personal behavioral change is possible. Another is Scott Ballum with his ConsummeReconnection Project. We have the answer right at home, in our energy usage:
Turn out the lights.
Shut down the computer, don’t let it sleep.
Use and turn off powerstrips on TVs, Tivos, etc.
Use energy efficient appliances.
Use CFLs.
Turn down the heat.

Individual change may look different for each of us, but the outcome could be a more unified conscious society. A society where the Bodhisattva ideal, placing the well-being of all beings above personal gain, is held for the ideal. Right now, I would like to see us change the national dialogue from how can we meet our current needs to how can we change our needs and live simpler, more sustainable lives.

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