29 november 2009

The Observer Debate:
Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis?

Nasa's James Hansen was the first to point out the perils of climate change to the US Congress. Here, he begins a heated debate with experts from around the world, from China to the threatened Maldives, and argues that our leaders must be shaken out of their complacency. But will they show enough courage at next week's Copenhagen summit to take the first steps to saving the planet?

James Hansen, The Observer, Sunday 29 November 2009

Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold, hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – "goals" for emission reductions, "offsets" that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual "cap-and-trade" mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics as usual.

Science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control.

Science also reveals what is needed to stabilise atmospheric composition and climate. Geophysical data on the carbon amounts in oil, gas and coal show that the problem is solvable, if we phase out global coal emissions within 20 years and prohibit emissions from unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and oil shale.

Such constraints on fossil fuels would cause carbon dioxide emissions to decline 60% by mid-century or even more if policies make it uneconomic to go after every last drop of oil.

Improved forestry and agricultural practices could then bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm (parts per million) or less, as required for a stable climate.

Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the "cap-and-trade" mechanism. They are lying through their teeth.

Unless they order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground (which nobody has proposed), they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels.

Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal export. Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide. Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies – or, if we want to be generous, they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves.

Is it feasible to phase out coal and avoid use of unconventional fossil fuels? Yes, but only if governments face up to the truth: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will continue and even increase on a global basis.

Fossil fuels are cheapest because they are not made to pay for their effects on human health, the environment and future climate.

Governments must place a uniform rising price on carbon, collected at the fossil fuel source – the mine or port of entry. The fee should be given to the public in toto, as a uniform dividend, payroll tax deduction or both. Such a tax is progressive – the dividend exceeds added energy costs for 60% of the public.

Fee and dividend stimulates the economy, providing the public with the means to adjust lifestyles and energy infrastructure.

Fee and dividend can begin with the countries now considering cap and trade. Other countries will either agree to a carbon fee or have duties placed on their products that are made with fossil fuels.

As the carbon price rises, most coal, tar sands and oil shale will be left in the ground. The marketplace will determine the roles of energy efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear power in our clean energy future.

Cap and trade with offsets, in contrast, is astoundingly ineffective. Global emissions rose rapidly in response to Kyoto, as expected, because fossil fuels remained the cheapest energy.

Cap and trade is an inefficient compromise, paying off numerous special interests. It must be replaced with an honest approach, raising the price of carbon emissions and leaving the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground.

Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap in the face, to make them face the truth? It will take a lot of us – probably in the streets. Or are we going to let them continue to kid themselves and us and cheat our children and grandchildren?

Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures is over. Can we find a leader who understands the core issue and will lead?

James Hansen is director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. His latest book is Storms of My Grandchildren.

Caroline Lucas: Reductions should not be imposed on poor countries

I think there is – but it will take a lot more than hollow promises and handshakes. We need much stronger public pressure and far greater political leadership than we've seen to date.

To have even a 50/50 chance of keeping global temperature rise below two degrees centigrade, industrialised countries need to adopt binding targets to reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2020, based on 1990 levels. These reductions should be made domestically – not outsourced to poorer countries. Significant funding for developing countries also needs to be on the table.

In addition to setting ambitious emissions reduction targets, governments need to facilitate a culture shift and recognise that investing in options to polluting and finite fossil fuels will actually benefit society and the economy, as well as the environment. We also need to change the way we communicate about climate change by painting a much more compelling picture of a healthier, more positive, zero-carbon society.

Politicians must make it easier for people to reduce emissions, through easily achievable initiatives such as smart electricity meters. A nationwide programme of energy efficiency, with warm homes at its heart, could also make a significant impact. There is still hope for achieving – at the very least – clear foundations for a global deal at Copenhagen which finally brings the US on board and stays true to the principles of Kyoto: binding emissions reduction targets, uniform accounting rules, strong compliance mechanisms and common but differentiated responsibility – recognising different historical contributions to the climate crisis. President Obama's attendance indicates that momentum is finally beginning to build.

But perhaps what would make the biggest difference would be a recognition that the impact of climate chaos is likely to be greater than any military threat we have ever faced and therefore demands a commensurate degree of urgency and political will.

Caroline Lucas MEP is leader of the British Green party

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