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A plea for Planet Earth

On April 14, 2008, James Hansen of NASA Goddard Institute and Columbia University Earth Institute wrote the following letter to Governor Jim Gibbons (Nevada) as a “Plea for Leadership” in the battle against global warming, a battle to save Planet Earth. We thought this “plea,” this request for stewardship, was worth repeating. For the complete document (including “Fossil Fuel Facts” referenced within) and supportive documentation on this issue, please check out http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/20080414_GovernorGibbons.pdf

Dear Governor Gibbons,

I hope that I may communicate with you as a fellow parent and grandparent about a matter that will have great effects upon the lives of our loved ones. I refer to climate change, specifically global warming in response to human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants.

Governor Gibbons, the scientific advances in just the past few years, paradoxically, carry both bad news and good news. We have already passed the threshold of atmospheric CO2 levels that we can allow to exist over the long-term. Mother Nature, as a friend of mine has noted, is wagging her finger at us, saying “Now you have gone too far!” Consequences of ignoring this admonishment would be dire. The Earth is nearing climate “tipping points” with potentially irreversible effects, including extermination of countless species, ice sheet disintegration and sea-level rise, and mass dislocation of populations.

The good news is that it is still feasible to solve the problem, to reduce CO2 emissions over coming decades and draw down the atmospheric CO2 amount through natural processes and with the help of improved agricultural and forestry practices.

However, solution of the problem has one unavoidable implication for fossil fuels. As the attached “Fossil Fuel Facts” make clear, atmospheric CO2 can be successfully constrained only if coal use is phased out except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered so that it does not enter the atmosphere. Utilities and the fossil fuel industry must reckon with the fact that the laws of Nature and the human instinct for survival will overrule any paper agreements that may exist now or be wrangled in the near-term.

Is it possible that I am wrong, that the governments are so larded with fossil fuel special interests that they will allow us to destroy the planet that we leave for our children and grandchildren? Sure – just as there was a chance that the United States and the Soviet Union could have blown each other off the face of the planet with nuclear weapons – but it is much more likely that we will come to our senses soon, as the scientific story and empirical evidence overwhelm the deceit of short-term special interests.

One of the “Fossil Fuel Facts” is that a substantial fraction of fossil fuel CO2 emissions stays in the air for what is, for all practical purposes “an eternity”, more than 1000 years. That is a well- established scientific fact – there is no debate. A direct implication is that we cannot be aiming for a 50, 80 or 90 percent reduction of emissions. We must transition over the next several decades to practically zero net CO2 emissions. Thus our energy focus must be to develop renewable energies and energy efficiency.

Energy departments, influenced by fossil fuel interests, take it as a God-given fact that we will extract all fossil fuels from the ground and burn them before we move on to other ways of producing usable energy. The public is capable of changing this course dictated by fossil fuel interests, but clear-sighted leadership is needed now if the actions are to be achieved in time.

Perhaps the most important question is this: can we find the leadership to initiate the tipping point among nations? Can we find a country that will place a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store the CO2? Unless this happens soon, there is little hope of avoiding the climate tipping points, with all that implies for life on this planet.

— James Hansen

Editor’s Note: This article was sent to Clarksville Online by Catherine Lowther, Ph.D. Ms. Lowther is a professor in the Goddard College Individualized B.A. Program. She holds a Ph.D. in Consciousness Studies from the Union Institute, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Vermont College, and a B.A. in Transpersonal Psychology from Goddard College. She is currently researching the relationships between peak oil, resource wars, 9/11, climate change, and the transition to sustainable living and local economies, all areas that are of interest to many of our readers.



  1. I admire Dr Hansen, but it is politically and economically impractical to have a moritorium on the building of new dirty coal-fire power plants, or the retrofitting of old ones:

    Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide — a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. “Beware of the scale,” he stressed.”

    “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.” –Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008

  2. Even Shakespeare is speaking out on global warming:

    Worrisome Falter of Global Climate

    On day of Feb. 2, 2007, `twere the thinking panel for United Nations wherewithal to ponder unhappy climate change in vantage to declare with a sudden vigor sooth that proof of warming this world o`er be “unequivocal,” alack th` effect of human contrivance hast “very likely” come to be cause of greater import in nature as in name for well on fifty year. . .


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