Game Over For the Climate

>> May 30, 2012


On May 9, well-known NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote (in an opinion piece in the New York Times) that: “If Canada proceeds (to harvest Alberta tar sands), it's ‘game over  ’ for the planet.”

Hansen, who has admitted that he was troubled by a comment from President Barack Obama which suggested that Canada would exploit its tar sands oil “regardless of what we do”, is equally as opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, he is opposed to continued discovery and use of fossil fuels in principle, which leads some to brand him a fearmonger, and others (environmentalists and clean energy advocates, for example) to wonder what Hansen has foreseen that the rest of us have merely imagined.  

Hansen is famous for his refusal to mince words when discussing global warming, aka climate change. In this, he stands head and shoulders above the crowd (of environmentalists) along with James Lovelock (Gaia Theory  ), Michael Mann   (the Hockey Stick graph), Joe Romm (DeSmogBlog  ), and of course Al Gore of An Inconvenient Truth   fame, who has since fallen into disrepute for chiding us about our global footprint while he continues to use a private jet.

Climate change deniers like the Heartland Institute   and Watts Up With That  , to name a few, are doing all they can to shut Hansen up or simply shut him down. This includes spending millions from such wealthy deniers as the Koch brothers. Fortunately for Hansen (and Mother Earth), Heartland has suffered a severe diminution of its own reputation as a result of Peter Gleick sneaking into its records and releasing internal funding documents and corporate position memos which suggest Heartland intends to brainwash school children into denying climate change.  

tarsandsAnother incident, in which Heartland posted billboards which equated climate-change scientists with psychopaths  , might have been the straw to break the camel’s back. The Heartland Institute’s seventh annual climate conference   took place in Chicago from May 21 through the 23, coincidentally at the same time as the NATO summit (and if you believe that, I have a nice bridge from Brooklyn that I can sell you). This event, booked for 270, actually netted only about 100 interested parties, or about 40 percent. Heartland, as a result of these incidents, has also lost about $825,000 worth of funding, from organizations which prefer their global warming proselytizing to be more subtle; hand saws, not hammers.    

Hansen also said, in January of 2009: “We have only four years left (for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world).” The implication being that, during the fifth year, with no measurable change in fossil fuel exploitation and consumption, it would become too late to make any meaningful changes.

These explicit warnings have borne fruit, especially in the winter and spring of 2011-12. Across North America, spring arrived at the earliest it had since 1896  . As an environmentalist living in Minnesota, I can confirm that this unheard of arrival, which brought robins in the middle of March (normal return, May 15) produced an odd but clearly uneasy silence among those whose ear is to the ground of global warming. As though not talking about the almost apocalyptic arrival of spring might rob it of its power to frighten.

How has Obama responded to this warning? He did place a moratorium on the Keystone XL pipeline, destined to cross another heartland, this one through the northern U.S. states of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.

That route has since been changed  . You notice I used the word ‘changed’, not ‘improved’. And Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has already admitted he will approve the pipeline on his first day in office – a level of honesty that is almost obscene.

Source: Clesias

There is no denying that Canadian tar/oil sands (and American tar sands, like the recently discovered play in the Green River Formation in Utah) are an environmental disaster of the first magnitude. Their U.S. counterpart, in Utah – which experts say is bigger than the rest of the known reserves in the world – is likely to be even more catastrophic, in terms of ecosphere consequences.  

tar sandsBut it isn’t simply tar sands. What Hansen has said, and continues saying, is that if we exploit the new sources while we continue to burn conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, the density of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will ultimately reach levels greater than existed during the Pliocene, when sea levels were at least 50 feet higher than they are now. At that point, species extinction could potentially reach 50 percent.(Let’s not forget that homo sapiens, or mankind, is also a species, and – while more adaptable than others – is nonetheless dependent on breathable air, potable water and a temperate climate).

Hansen, who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is the author of “Storms of My Grandchildren.” is seeing all his 1981 predictions come true lately. Heat waves in Texas and Russia,early spring   in North America, fierce spring in parts of Europe, and all likely to get worse as the most recent La Nina event ends, bringing in her twin brother, El Nino – he of the torrential rains in the south and more hurricanes in the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the world continues to offer small sacrifices at the altar of ‘stuff  ’. For example, UK retailer Sainsbury has reduced the size of the hole in the middle of its store-brand toilet paper  , a move that aligns with its environmental commitment and promises to remove 500 trucks from the road.

It’s a nice nod to sustainability, though not nearly as valuable as eliminating toilet paper (or replacing it with something almost instantly biodegradable in the presence of water). In other words, let’s not try to appease the gods with chicken feathers when what is needed is the whole chicken. 

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