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What James Hansen really said to Barack and Michelle

By Stephen Keim - posted Wednesday, 4 February 2009

When the climate change whistleblower of more than two decades standing, James Hansen, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote his letter (PDF 83KB) to the new President and his wife, Michelle, Australian newspapers reported in some detail the criticisms made of Australia’s recently adopted policies to reduce the growth in carbon emissions.

The letter has much of interest in its detail. It is as challenging for positions held by the conservation movement as it is for the fossil fuel industry. It is particularly challenging for any policy maker who has any real interest in doing something effective to restrict changes to the climate which will be devastating for both the natural world and human society.

The letter makes three policy recommendations. The first is that there should be a moratorium and phase out of coal fired power stations that fail to capture and store the carbon dioxide that they produce.


The Australian government and coal industry pretend to be in love with carbon capture and storage policies and the government hands out large wacks of money to the coal industry in pursuing this pretence. Professor Hansen has a novel idea. He suggests that the power generation industry actually use carbon capture and storage technology not just talk about it. The alternative is that the use of coal for electricity generation be phased out. It would be interesting to see the faces of coal executives being told that they actually have to deploy the “clean coal” technology about which they talk so unceasingly.

The second suggestion is that a gradually increasing carbon tax be imposed. Cap and trade emissions trading schemes of the kind proposed by the Rudd Government (and operating for some time in the EU) are rejected as generating lobbyists, special interests and non-productive millionaires at public expense with little gain for the environment. Similar criticism has been recently made of the Rudd Government’s scheme by ZeroGen, a company actually trying to operate a carbon capture and storage scheme. Professor Hansen’s proposal involves returning the revenue raised by the carbon tax to the populace on a per capita basis. Thus, small consumers of carbon will benefit and large consumers shall pay for the privilege. Products which avoid use of carbon in their production will be more competitive in the market place.

A rising carbon tax provides certainty for industry and deployment of the new low carbon technology is modulated by the rate at which the tax increases. A carbon tax proposal is a slap in the face for the economists who promote the complexity of emissions trading schemes in the name of using the market to promote an efficient allocation of resources.

Professor Hansen’s third policy recommendation is the allocation of large resources to the research and development of fourth generation nuclear power (with international co-operation). The suggestion that nuclear power in any form is a safe means of avoiding the danger of carbon emissions will challenge many conservationists.

Professor Hansen anticipates some objections to this proposal. He suggests that concerns that such technology will not be available until too late do not factor in focused Presidential involvement in the process of development of the new technology.

Fourth generation reactors are promoted by Professor Hansen as not only much safer than previous nuclear technology. He also suggests that have the potential to solve the problems created by earlier nuclear technology including the problem of storing or disposing of nuclear waste. He states: “Existing nuclear reactors use less than 1% of the energy in uranium, leaving more than 99% in long-lived nuclear waste. 4th GNP can ‘burn’ that waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years.”


Professor Hansen warns of tipping points that would take the disastrous trajectory towards an ice free earth out of human control. He indicates that an appropriate level of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is less than 350 parts per million, down from the existing 385 parts per million.

Finally, the Hansen letter is not complimentary of either the coal industry or the existing nuclear industry. The letter states that it is “noteworthy that, even with the presence of poorly designed nuclear power plants in the past, and in some cases demonstrably sloppy operations, the waste from coal-fired power plants has done far more damage, and even spread more radioactive material around the world than all nuclear power plants combined, including Chernobyl.”

As usual, Professor Hansen’s courage to say what (after careful thought) he thinks outstrips any desire he may have to win friends. Hopefully, at some stage, similar courage might be displayed by Australia’s politicians and public servants.

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About the Author

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

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