Monday, August 13, 2007

An Interview with Docter James Hansen

[It's Getting Hot In Here has a great interview with Dr. James Hansen, widely regarded as America's top climate scientist. Dr. Hansen discusses a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, the role of 'clean coal' technology, and youth participation in the climate solutions movement. Special thanks to Whit Jones and the It's Getting Hot In Here community for putting together this interview...]

Last weekend Iowa native Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute made a homecoming trip to the Hawkeye state to join the March to ReEnergize Iowa and deliver the keynote address at the final rally. See the complete transcript of his speech here and read about the rally in the Des Moines Register.

Dr. Hansen echoed his call for a moratorium on coal and increased youth participation in the preservation of our future. The It’s Getting Hot In Here community generated a list of questions that were delivered to Dr. Hansen and his responses are included below. Please be sure to leave your thoughts and responses in the comments section.

1) In the span of your career, public opinion on global warming has shifted dramatically, have we reached the tipping point necessary to effectively combat it?

That is unclear. Although there has been a recent widespread increase in awareness, it comes at just the same time as an energy crunch due to a booming global economy (especially emergence of China) that is causing a sudden surge of increased coal use. If this is not nipped in the bud, we could lose the ball game.

2) In one of your recent email dispatches (pdf), you made a bold statement by calling for a moratorium on coal without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. Does the attention and recognition paid to CCS technology divert money and energy from clean energy and efficiency technologies?

It certainly should not. CCS technology is still somewhat of a mirage. As of yet there is no “clean coal” in reality, and commercial availability is probably at least 10 years away with current efforts. If a requirement is placed that coal can only be used if it is truly clean, that will cause a sudden stop in any increased use of coal. Efficiency and renewable energies are likely to be the big winners from such a constraint, at least for a decade and perhaps forever. CCS may be so expensive that it will cause a big change in the attractiveness of coal. Coal is presently very cheap, partly because it is often subsidized and because it almost never has to pay for the environmental damage it does, including mercury pollution of lakes and oceans.

3) What role do you see for youth in bringing forth a moratorium on coal?

The damages of dirty coal will be visited mainly on the youth of today and on the unborn. This is true especially for the climate changes that will be put “into the pipeline” to appear in future decades, but also for effects of water pollution such as brain damage due to mercury in fish, and the mess that is left behind on bull-dozed mountains.

4) What was the major issue on campuses when you were a student? Were you involved?

The Vietnam war. I was a post-doc by the time students really got heated up. They took over buildings on the Columbia University campus. No, I was not involved. It doesn’t fit my personality, I prefer working on science problems. I have had to force myself to get involved in the present case. It seems to me that the most useful thing that I can do is try to contribute to the court cases against inefficient vehicles and coal-fired power plants.

5) If we remove subsidies from carbon-intensive energy sources and manage to put a price on carbon, won’t CCS coal be priced out of the market?

Perhaps, but only if there are alternatives, much of which would probably be energy efficiency. Much more than half of the energy that we use is wasted. So if coal is priced out, that would be great. Imagine the cleaner atmosphere and ocean, and all the good high tech jobs that would be needed to replace that energy source. There are a lot of jobs associated with energy efficiency, as well as renewable energies.

6) Do you think CCS Coal technology will be essential for a low-carbon future for countries like China? Is it problematic, practically, ethically and scientifically, to transfer this technology to China when it is basically untested here?

It will surely be tested here and elsewhere. It can be tested there, as well as here. It is not like this is a dangerous technology that is going to explode and kill people.

7) In light of the fact that the impacts of fossil fuel use extend beyond the greenhouse effect, to what extent should we address the life cycle costs, such as mountain top removal mining and exploitation of impacted communities when confronting global warming?

Absolutely, it is very important to look at the life cycle costs, especially for things such as ethanol. Germany is finding that the huge subsidies they gave coal are now coming back to haunt them. Some villages are sinking a few feet — there are tens of billions of dollars of future costs due to land subsidence. These costs will be born by today’s youth, and the unborn.

8) Traditional media has failed to reach youth with the message that fighting coal is necessary to preserve our future, what do you think is the role for new media.

Well, one problem is that the media always focuses on today. It shortchanges the young and future generations. I don’t know how to fix that.

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