Friday, June 27, 2008

The Most Important Thing to Read on Global Warming

James Hansen, the US’s leading climate scientist, to whom I turn for climate science, spoke to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, and the National Press Club on June 23 2008. His entire talk is only 4 pages. Read it. If you don’t think you'll get to it -- or maybe to inspire you to do the reading -- I’ve excerpted some of the high points.

These are Jim Hansen’s words:

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year…Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years….

Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation…

Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly… If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source….

Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits.

We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public. A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend3 is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry.
The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our
products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly…

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and
dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success…

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.”

Robin’s words: We can’t get sidetracked by cap and trade agreements. They may be "politically acceptable" but won’t produce the results in the time frame required or redirect the economy as needed. We need carbon taxes “incentives” as fast as is politically possible. We should all do everything we can to make sure our next president understands this clearly. See for ways to make your voice heard and see what others are doing.

$4/gallon gas may be a magic number

After years of not caring, Americans are changing their ways, and quickly.

1. Changed driving habits. From the New York Times:

“In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease — the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.”

2. Shopping closer to home. Consumers are beginning to question the "savings" gained from driving long distance to malls.

3.When buying cars, shirking the worst offenders. GM sales of SUV and trucks were down 25% in April, and down 37% in May over the previous year.

3. Buying houses where driving can be reduced. David Stiff, an economist who analyses housing prices nationally found that "even as overall sales volume drops, relatively stronger demand for housing will limit price declines in neighborhoods with shorter work commutes, better schools, and easier access to parks, recreation, and retail centers...Prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover." This effect can be seen in New York, metro Washington, Detroit.

4. And finally, choose jobs that are as close to home as possible, accessible by public transit, or can be walked, biked, or telecommuted to. These trends might be harder to spot in such a short period of time.

Employers, retailers, developers, planners, governments take notice. Lifestyles that reduce dependence on costly gas – producing even more costly CO2 emissions – are in demand. Those who have been able to make changes quickly, have done so, and more and more people will make these changes as the opportunities present themselves.

If you think you can't afford to make these changes, do the math. It'll cost more to not be energy efficient when gas prices reach $5, $8 and $10/gallon. We all - individuals, companies, and governments -- have a huge budget to work with: the impending increases in fossil fuel prices that they will have to suck up, if we don't reduce demand for it now.

Thanks to Keith Collins who made this case beautifully clear in his presentation at the MassImpact symposium.