by James Hansen
September 6, 2011
The country's leading
climatologist talks about why he was arrested at the Tar
Sands protests in DC and what the pipeline will mean for
Hansen is director of NASA Goddard Institute for
Space Studies in New York City and adjunct professor in
the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at
Columbia University. Hansen is best known for his
research in the field of climatology.
In 1988, Hansen’s
testimony before the US Senate was featured on the front
page of the New York Times and helped raise broad
awareness of global warming. Hansen’s work has inspired
scientists and activists around the world to fight for
climate change solutions.
In recent years, Hansen has
become an activist for action to mitigate the effects of
climate change, which on several occasions has led to
In 2009 his book, Storms of My
Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate
Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity was
James Hansen being arrested at the White House, August 29, 2011.
Photo Credit: tarsandsaction.org
Tar Sands Action organized a civil
disobedience sit-in at The White House to oppose construction of the
Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that began on August 20 and will
culminate in a big rally on September 3rd.
On August 29 I joined 60 religious
leaders and other fellow protestors. I was arrested that day. But
before I was handcuffed, I addressed fellow activists who had
gathered outside The White House with these words:
Let us return for a moment to the election night in 2008.
As I sat
in our farmhouse in Pennsylvania, watching Barack Obama's victory
speech, I turned my head aside so my wife would not see the tears in
my eyes. I suspect that millions cried. It was a great day for
We had great hopes for
Barack Obama - perhaps our dreams were
unrealistic - he is only human. But it is appropriate, it is right,
in a period honoring Martin Luther King, to recall the hopes and
dreams of that evening.
We had a dream,
that the new President would understand the
intergenerational injustice of human-made climate change
would recognize our duty to be caretakers of creation, of the land,
of the life on our planet
that he would give these matters
the priority that our young people deserve
We had a dream,
that the President would understand the commonality
of solutions for energy security, national security and climate
that he would exercise hands-on
leadership, taking the matter to the public, avoiding
backroom crippling deals with special interests
We had a dream,
that the President would stand as firm as Abraham
Lincoln when he faced the great moral issue of slavery
that like Franklin Roosevelt or
Winston Churchill, he would speak with the public, enlisting
their support and reassuring them
Perhaps our dreams were unrealistic.
It is not easy to find an
Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. But we will not give up.
There can be no law or regulation that stops us from acting on our
Tar Sands and
Unconventional Fossil Fuels
In a previous post “Silence Is Deadly” I wrote,
“The environmental impacts of tar
sands development include:
irreversible effects on biodiversity
and the natural environment
reduced water quality
of fragile pristine Boreal forest and associated wetlands
aquatic and watershed mismanagement
disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife
particularly bird and caribou migration
negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities”
fossil fuel emissions (purple)
and 50% of
unconventional resources (blue).
Now, I’ll illustrate the emissions
scenario from potential burning of tar sands oil and other
unconventional fossil fuels (UFF) as contrasted with conventional
fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal).
Figure 1 above, helps make clear why the tar
sands and other unconventional fossil fuels ought not to be
developed and burned. The purple bars show the total emissions to
date from the conventional fossil fuels.
These past emissions, plus a smaller
contribution from net deforestation, are the cause of the CO2
increase from 280 to 391 ppm - where we are today.
“Easily available reserves of
conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2
well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth.”
The blue bar is 50% of known UFF
resources. Supporters of UFF development argue that only 15% of the
tar sands resource is economically extractable, thus we may
exaggerate their threat.
On the contrary, Figure 1 is a
conservative estimate of potential emissions from tar sands because:
the economically extractable amount
grows with technology development and oil price
the total tar
sands resource is larger than the known resource, possibly much
extraction of tar sands oil uses conventional oil and
gas, which will show up as additions to the purple bars in
development of tar sands will destroy overlying forest
and prairie ecology, emitting biospheric CO2 to the
We show in “The
Case for Young People and Nature”
that it is probably feasible to avoid dangerous climate tipping
points, but only if conventional fossil fuel emissions are phased
down rapidly and UFFs are left in the ground.
If governments allow infrastructure for
UFFs to be developed, either they don't “get it” or they simply
don’t care about the future of young people. Preserving creation for
future generations is a moral issue as monumental as ending slavery
in the 19th century or fighting Nazism in the 20th
Arrest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
George Bush confessed our addiction to oil.
Taking tar sands oil amounts to
borrowing a dirty needle from a neighbor addict. Fortunately,
Congress adopted and Bush approved the
Energy Independence and
Security Act 2007, which was intended to prevent US agencies from
buying alternative fuels that generate more pollution in their life
cycle than conventional fuel from customary petroleum sources.
Tar sands oil not only exceeds
conventional petroleum, but the energy used in mining, processing,
and transporting tar sands oil makes it slightly worse - in terms of
CO2 produced per unit energy - than coal.
Who would drive a car powered by coal!?
This raises a question:
Keystone XL pipeline is
approved, can we make a citizen's arrest on
Hillary Clinton and
Barack Obama for violating the Energy Independence and Security
If they were put in the back of a hot
paddy wagon in DC and held for at least several hours with their
hands tied behind their backs, maybe they would have a chance to
think over this matter more clearly.
Let's address a common criticism:
“It does no good to stop the
Keystone XL pipeline, because other pipelines will be built.”
Indeed, pipeline opposition and other
stopgap actions (closing a coal-fired power plant, etc.) have little
ultimate effect unless we put in place the real solution.
Let me address the following points that would lead to the real
'Law of gravity': as long as
fossil fuels are cheapest, someone will burn them.
Fossil fuels are cheapest
human health costs not
paid by fossil fuel companies
climate disruption costs
not paid by fossil fuel companies
Only workable solution: rising
across-the-board flat fee on carbon, collected from fossil
companies at point where fossil fuel enters domestic market
(domestic mine or port of entry).
Larson rate - $10/ton of
CO2/year - at year 10 yields 30% reduction in US emissions.
30% of US emissions is ~ 13
Keystone XL pipelines!!!
By year 10 the Larson fee is equivalent
to $1/gallon of gasoline.
The public will not allow this to happen
unless 100% of the collected fee is distributed to the public, which
could be done electronically to bank accounts or debit cards. By
year 10 the fee collected from fossil fuel companies would be over
$500 billion per year, providing $2-3,000 per legal adult resident
of the country.
Jim Dipeso, Policy Director of Republicans for the
Environment, endorses this approach, saying that it,
"makes use of market principles, by
prodding the market to tell the truth about the costs of
carbon-based energy through prices. It would not impose mandates
on consumers or businesses, create new government agencies, or
add a penny to Uncle Sam's coffers.”
“Businesses would seek out more
opportunities to improve their energy efficiency. Other
businesses would sell products and services that enable them to
do so. Low carbon energy sources would be more competitive with
“Transparent. Market-based. Does not
enlarge government. Leaves energy decisions to individual
choices. Takes a better-safe-than-sorry approach to throttling
back oil dependence and keeping heat-trapping gases out of the
atmosphere. Sounds like a conservative climate plan.”
How could this be achieved, given our
well-oiled coal-fired Congress? Not easily.
Obama had the chance when he was elected. He would have needed to
explain to the public that national security, energy security and
climate security all yield the same requirement: an honest price on
carbon emissions that provides market-based incentives for moving to
Obama lost his chance for a spot on Mount Rushmore by not addressing
the moral issue of the century. He would have needed Teddy
Roosevelt's drive and Franklin Roosevelt's ability to speak to the
A second chance if re-elected?
It would be much harder, even if
characters like Inhofe are smoked out by then. And it cannot be done
with a sleight-of-hand approach, pretending there will be little
impact on fossil fuel prices as in the proposed cap-and trade, or
with government picking winners as in the would-be “green jobs”
The energy/climate matter will be addressed eventually. But will it
be in time and which country will lead?
There is an incentive to be
the first to put an honest price on carbon:
future global technologic and
Europe squandered its resources on
government specified inefficient technologies
If the United States continues on its
current path, and if China seizes the opportunity to be the leader
by putting an honest price on carbon, it will probably mean
second-rate economic status for the United States for most of this
If President Obama chooses the dirty needle (approves the
Keystone XL pipeline) it is game over (for the earth's climate) because it
will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other
well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving
the addiction (of fossil fuels). Canada is going to sell its dope
(dirty tar sands oil), if it can find a buyer.
So if the United States is buying the
dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the
deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal
via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have
decided he is a hopeless addict.
Have no doubt - if the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is approved,
we will be back, and our numbers will grow.
For the sake of our children and
grandchildren, we must find a leader who is worthy of our dreams.