NASA climate scientist pens personal appeal to Obama

James Hansen, one of the world's most eminent climate scientists, and his wife, Anniek, have written an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama on the urgency of the need to halt global warming.

Handout image from NASA of ice conditions at the end of the 2007 melt season in the Arctic. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice extent that year dropped to 38 percent below average and 24 percent below the 2005 record.
UPI Photo/Patrick D. McDermott/FILE
Dr. James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, speaks in July 2008 at the National Press Club to mark the 20th anniversary of the "Hansen Hearing," the Senate Energy Committee's hearing on climate change, which marked the first time a top climate scientist declared that global temperatures had risen beyond the range of natural variability.

James Hansen, one of the world's most eminent climate scientists, and his wife, Anniek, have written an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama on the urgency of the need to halt global warming.

The four-page letter [PDF], which Hansen has asked Mr. Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, to forward to the president-elect, warns of the "profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what the science demands for preservation of the planet."

Mr. Hansen, who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is an adjunct professor in earth sciences at Columbia University, testified before the Senate in 1988 about the dangers of greenhouse gases and is largely responsible for first introducing the concept of global warming to the American public.

"Factories of Death"
The Hansens propose a three-pronged approach to tackling the climate crisis. First, they call for a moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants that do not effectively capture carbon dioxide emissions (a technology that has yet to be proven reliable). Burning coal, they point out, releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all other fossil fuels combined. Phasing out coal, they say, "is the sine qua non for solving the climate problem."

They predict that the continued construction of coal plants would raise atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to the point at which one million species would be driven to extinction, which roughly works out to 400 species per plant. "Coal plants," they write "are factories of death."

An accumulated burnings tax

Second, they call for a straightforward, revenue-neutral carbon tax, as opposed to cap-and-trade mechanisms. The tax would apply to all oil, gas, and coal at the well-head or at the point of entry, so that it would affect all goods that rely on fossil fuels. One hundred percent of the revenue from the tax would be redistributed equally, with monthly deposits in citizen's bank accounts. Such a tax, they argue, would penalize those with high carbon footprints and reward those with low ones. They write:

No large bureaucracy is needed. A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money. A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend. Not one cent goes to Washington. No lobbyists will be supported. Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

The Hansens also point out that this scheme would discourage illegal immigration and encourage naturalization "because everybody pays the tax, but only legal citizens collect the dividend." (They don't mention that this plan would also penalize foreign students and resident aliens.)

A carbon tax is something of a hard sell in today's political climate. Obama prefers a cap-and-trade plan as did his rival, John McCain, along with much of the political establishment. And the ball is already rolling on cap-and-trade: On Jan. 1. the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading plan with mandatory emissions caps, went into effect for 10 northeastern states.

But the notion still has some friends in high places. According to the Carbon Tax Center, supporters of carbon taxes include Steven Chu, Obama's Energy Secretary-designate; Lawrence Summers, who will head the White House's National Economic Council; and Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, to name a few.

Former vice president Al Gore supports replacing the personal income tax with a carbon tax. “We should tax what we burn, not what we earn," he likes to say.

A green nuke deal

The third prong in the Hansens's approach is nuclear power. They propose greatly increasing R&D for so-called fourth-generation nuclear power technology, which is designed to improve safety and greatly minimize nuclear waste.

Most scientists believe that such technology will not be commercially available until 2030, but the Hansens say that stepped-up government support could make it a reality sooner.

As for the dangers of fissionable materials getting into the hands of militants or hostile foreign powers, the Hansens write:

Potential proliferation of nuclear material will always demand vigilance, but that will be true in any case, and our safety is best secured if the United States is involved in the technologies and helps define standards.
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