So the other day I found myself on a conference call with James Hansen, who is just back from a European trip during which he tried to convince environment ministers that we should stop burning coal. I was given the opportunity to put one question to the guy. So, referring to his many public letters that deal with the need to focus on coal, I asked if that means all the squabbling over whether the U.S. should lift the moratorium on offshore drilling is missing the point?
Before I get to his response, a little background. Hansen has been writing to heads of state and state governors for months now, trying to educate them on what he calls the “geophysical facts.” For example, in his Trip Report on his visit to Europe, he writes that it’s where the CO2 from fossil fuels go, and how long it stays in the atmosphere that should determine our priorities.
A critical fact is the long lifetime of CO2 emitted by fossil fuel burning. Half of a fossil fuel CO2 pulse disappears within 20-30 years, mostly into the ocean. However, much of the CO2, about one-fifth, is still in the air after 1000 years. Because of this long CO2 lifetime, we cannot solve the climate problem by slowing down emissions by 20% or 50% or even 80%. It does not matter much whether the CO2 is emitted this year, next year, or several years from now. Therefore, instead of a percent reduction in the rate of emissions, we must identify a portion of the fossil fuels that will be left in the ground, or captured upon emission and put back into the ground.
And that portion should be coal, because it’s not realistic to try to stop anyone from burning oil, because no one’s going to give up driving. Fortunately, we’ve already used up half the easy-to-get-to oil, and even if we put the rest of it through internal combustion engines, the resulting greenhouse warming won’t be all that great.
Which explains his idea for an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired plants, and a phase-out of existing ones (with the exception of any equipped to capture and sequester the carbon, of which there are exactly none in existence) within 10 years in the U.S. and 20 years or so for the rest of the world. If we do that, he says, we may be able to hold CO2 levels to 450 parts per million. And then reforestation and improved agricultural practices might be able to bring us back down to something like 350 ppm, which Hansen says is the long-term safe upper limit.
So, does that mean, I asked, we should stop worrying about oil and focus all our political energies on putting an end to coal? Well, yes and no, was the answer. I got the sense Hansen is torn between his conviction that getting rid of coal-fired plants should be our number one goal and the foolishness of continuing to pursue petroleum.
“I don’t worry about it excessively because compared to coal, it’s not a very large source,” he said, referring to offshore oil reserves, “That’s a wrong place to be looking for a solution. Trying to get every last drop of oil is not worth the effort. We should be … trying to find the post-fossil fuel source.”
He added that he “would encourage those states that can control their offshore resources to resist.”
Hansen also acknowledged the challenges that such issues pose for both the public and their politicians pondering the notion of increasing the accessible reserves. It’s easy to get confused because “it sounds so logical … but when you look at the numbers it’s just not the solution.”
At the end of the day, however “we shouldn’t get too hung up on that.”
So, offshore drilling is not a good idea, but it shouldn’t distract us from the really important problem. Maybe —;;;; and this is my idea —;;;; instead of including some limited, tightly controlled, environmentally responsible offshore drilling as part of a compromise package that also includes aggressive investment in clean energy, as Obama has hinted he would support, we should consider allowing some drilling in exchange for Hansen’s coal moratorium. But only if we have to.
Of course, that won’t go down well with West Virginia. It also suggests that the concessions extracted by the Sierra Club from a trio of electrical utilities in exchange for dropping opposition to what will be the biggest coal-fired power plant in Wisconsin may amount to little more than rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. According to Reuters;
The three utilities agreed to support state legislation to push up to 2013 from 2015 Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard to 10 percent of electricity generation and to increase that standard by 2025 to 25 percent.
The utilities will also seek state regulator approval to dedicate about $100 million over 25 years to protect Lake Michigan.
That’s it? I doubt Hansen would approve.
In case you were wondering, Hansen stuck around for the whole 90-minute call, which was hosted by Al Gore’s “We can solve it” group, and also held forth on nuclear power, scientific literacy, communicating climate science and several other topics. I might make some references to those comments later. But I don’t want to turn a climatologist into a saint by treating every utterance as gospel.