James Hansen heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. He spent two days in Toronto at the invitation of Science for Peace, speaking at its climate forum on September 16.
James Hansen’s opening remarks declared that Climate Change and the consequences of our collective inaction is primarily a moral issue. Just as we have come to recognise civil and human rights as vital to societies, our children and grandchildren must surely be entitled to protection from the potential harm they are likely to face if we fail to limit and reduce the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Hansen also believes this moral issue will ultimately become a legal issue, as courts (in the US) are less influenced by special interests—such as the fossil fuel industry, which have consistently ignored the warnings of scientists—suggesting that global warming is merely part of the natural geological cycles that drive periodic changes in climate ever since this planet came into being.
Hansen also believes there is a wide gap between what we understand about climate change and what is known about this topic in the scientific community. Politicians and lobbyists are of course reluctant to find out, and mainstream media does not go to great lengths to inform readers and viewers of the best available evidence.
There is ample data accumulated over the past few decades by scientists from several countries that point to a slow but steady rise in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean temperatures; however, climate change is for the most part so incremental as to go almost unnoticed by most of us. As such it presents the task of convincing skeptics and the general public, of the calamity we face once we go past the tipping point.
On average, oceans are about 6 kilometres deep and ice sheets about 2 kilometres thick. With the rising temperatures of oceans over the past few years, ice shelves—large tongues of ice in the polar regions—have been breaking off. One particularly large sheet was in fact recently photographed from space as it was detaching itself from the shelf. Consequently the number of icebergs drifting into the oceans has also increased. This in turn leads to a gradual rise in sea levels. This very perceptible disintegration of polar ice is an exception in that it is already happening, documented, witnessed and thus undeniable: it’s a continuing process that cannot be stopped or reversed, as several amplifying factors come into play: such as the greater absorption of heat from the sun over open water.
The bad news, discovered only two or three years ago, is that CO2 levels, which were around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial age, rose to 359, and recently peaked at 389 ppm. So we are already in the danger zone. To reverse this trend, we will need to adopt stringent means of curbing our use of coal, oil and natural gas. The reason all three fossil fuels are cheap is because they are subsidized. Hansen mentioned the extraction of oil from tar sands as another backward step.
The warming trend in global atmospheric temperatures also puts species under stress as climate zones shift, causing changes in agricultural production and species migration. Currently CO2 levels are growing at 2 ppm per year—this is 10,000 times more powerful than the natural variations of climatic conditions and is attributable solely to human/industrial activity. This demolishes the argument that human beings are not responsible for global warming and do not contribute significantly to the rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases,
Hansen considers cap-and-trade an ineffectual means of curbing emissions. It is promoted largely by and for big banks and special interests. China and India will never accept this approach. Instead they are investing heavily in alternative energy sources—solar, wind and nuclear power. Disinformation and the lack of political will likely remain the biggest obstacles to any progress in dealing with this universal problem,
Instead of cap-and-trade, Hansen proposes a fee chargeable to the fossil fuel industry, that could be used to fund alternative sources of energy and subsidize those who opt for cleaner energy.
James Hansen is also scheduled to appear at hearings into a proposed oilsands project to warn about the climate change consequences of approving Total E&P Canada’s $2 billion plan to build the Joslyn North mine.
Total is planning to develop a 5,400-hectare site near the community of Fort McKay along the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray.
Hollywood director James Cameron is also slated to make his own trip to the controversial developments.
Subir Guin is an editor of Peace.