Wednesday 18 May 2011

Reflections on James Hansen's talk

The great atmospheric scientist James Hansen - one of the first to bring global warming to the attention of the world gave a public talk in Wellington and participated in a seminar on the future of coal: and I was able to attend.

Apart from listening to the science presented by one of the world's top atmospheric scientists I was listening to someone with great humanity and compassion.

A strong point of his talk was this is an issue of intergenerational justice - and he made frequent reference to his own grandchildren.

He made no bones about the fact that the route taken by the Kyoto agreement based on "cap and trade" was a failure that has led to an increase in carbon emissions (on increase of 20 % in New Zealand's case!).

His policy suggestion of introducing a carbon tax where the proceeds are distributed directly to the population as a direct incentive to reduce carbon footprint is the only possible solution that might work.

One point that was new to me was that while it is possible to reduce other greenhouse gasses such as methane relatively quickly (say by reducing agricultural emissions) carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a much longer period of time.  In addition it takes a long time for the effects of CO2 emissions to be reflected in changes in the ice caps and changes in climate.  This means that there are effects of emissions in the pipeline that we can no longer do anything about.  He is definitely of the opinion that reducing CO2 emissions from burning hydrocarbons was by far the most important priority; also that the effects of burning coal were greater than that of oil or gas.

My overall impression was that he seems to be making an effort to remain optimistic for the sake of his children and grandchildren; although it was also clear that was not his innermost feeling.  He responded to a question about a quote from Lloyd Geering a long the line that it may take a catastrophe to force people to make changes by saying "I hope not".


My main problem on listening to all of this is how to make sense of this in the context of Peak Oil and the obvious move towards economic, political and social collapse. We are simply reaching (or have reached) a point where a paradigm of Infinite Growth collides with limited resources.

Hansen seems to be saying, especially in his radio interview with Kim Hill that we need to invest in alternative forms of energy that do not emit greenhouse gasses and if we provide the right incentives this will happen.  

This seems to me to be over-optimistic for several reasons.

I recall, in the 2005 elections Jeanette Fitzsimons attempting to bring the issues of Peak Oil and climate change into the election debate.  She said we had a window of opportunity to use the oil available to produce the technology (such as wind and solar power) necessary to reduce carbon emissions.

Well, since then global oil production has certainly peaked and we have had the 2008 financial crash which has led to a situation where there is neither the energy nor the capital available to make these changes.

Not only that, but whatever technological advances are made take at least 30 years to introduce - and I don't think we have that sort of time available to us - neither in terms of climate change nor Peak Oil.

Hansen talked about nuclear power.  That is a case in point.  He talked about the technological advances; that fourth generation power plants are much cleaner. He lamented that the Fukushima accident had probably halted their further development.  Not only that, but in a world where increasing costs of oil have acted as a drag on the economy now most countries of the world are up to their eyes in debt and there is not the capital to invest in new nuclear power plants even if there were the will to do so.

In a rational world it would seem that in a world of oil production peaking and prices increasing - this might act as an incentive to move away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energy sources.

What seems far more likely to me is that Peak Oil is, along with a corrupt economic and political system killing off the economy and any possibility of a balanced, graduated move away from hydrocarbons.

In the meantime the response of governments (not least our own) and corporations is an irrational, greedy grab at whatever energy sources that are available - whether tar sands, whether lignite coal - and we know what the effects of that will be on the world's climate. 

It may well be that by the time James Hansen's grandchildren come to face the worst effects of rising sea levels and climate catastrophe that the modern industrial civilisation as we now know it may be history and those that survive the changes will be living in (to quote Jim Kunstler) 'a world made by hand'

To hear Dr. Hansen’s interview with Kim Hill click here.

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