Beyond Zero Radio show spoke to James Hansen the world's leading climate scientist about his call for CO2 emissions stabilisation at 300-350ppm, well below todays 385ppm. Podcast available
Interview with James Hansen - Nasa Goddard Institute of Space Studies - James Hansen on Coal, "pressure to in effect bulldoze those plants" on today's level of carbon, "385ppm is really going to produce a significantly different planet." Safe Greenhouse gas levels according to Hansen are down "at least to the 350ppm level"
Scott Bilby: In the studio with me are Beyond Zero team members Miwa, Matthew and special guest Philip Sutton from the Greenleap Strategic Institute. This morning on Beyond Zero we'll be interviewing James Hansen often described by many as the world's leading climate scientist. He is the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA and adjunct professor at earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. Wieslaw Maslowski has recently said that Arctic ice could be free in summer by 2013. Dr Hansen, are you there?
James Hansen: Yes I am. I hope you can hear me.
Scott Bilby: We certainly can hear you - As Wieslaw Maslowski has said the Arctic could be free of ice in summer by 2013. You've said that we need to keep to levels well below 350ppm. What do humans have to do to get Arctic sea ice... to basically get it back again?
James Hansen: Well, we will have to restore the point of energy balance because as it stands now we will lose the arctic sea ice without any more greenhouse gases, because there is additional warming that's in the pipeline, because the planet is out of energy balance, just because of the inertia of the system.
That means we would have to reduce the amount of CO2 at least to the 350ppm level, and we are already at 385. So, we've actually got to go backwards and it's really too bad that we didn't realise this earlier. We probably should have, based on the earth's history.
We can see that 385ppm is really going to produce a significantly different planet. And also just looking at what's now happening, not only in the Arctic, and the fact that the ice sheets are not stable with the current CO2 amount, and the fact that the sub-tropical regions have expanded noticeably by a few hundred kilometres, that's enough to effect the southwest US, the Mediterranean, and Australia I should point out.
So there's a lot of things, also coral reefs are another example. If we want to reduce the stress on coral reefs, we have to both reduce CO2 and the warming of the ocean temperatures. So there are a number of things like that which make it clear that we've already passed the target level that we should be aiming for.
Philip Sutton: Jim, how would you actually make the earth cool or go backwards? How would you actually restore that Arctic ice?
James Hansen: Yes, yes, it's still possible. If we get on the stick very promptly, it's still practical to do that in ways that are quite natural. The most important thing is to have a moratorium on new coal fired power plants that don't capture CO2 and then to phase out the dirty coal use over the next 2-3 decades. If we do that, you know that the system does still take up CO2, the ocean and the soils and things, so that other things being equal, CO2 would only go up to a bit more than 400 if we phase out coal use. But then we have got to take at least 50ppm out of the atmosphere, and that is possible with improved agricultural and forestry practices, things that we have not being paying much attention to.
In fact the practices have been quite the opposite. They've actually not encouraged the uptake of CO2 by the soils and by the biosphere.
Matthew Wright: And we have touched on that with Professor Johannes Lehmann from Cornell University, and in terms of the Australian political environment we've just had an interim report by Professor Ross Garnaut - he's doing sort of a mini Stern Report and he's just said basically that we need to stabilise global emissions within two years, and I think we'd agree with him there. But he's saying in a global carbon equity sense that Australia needs to go 90% by 2050, to the shock of media and commentators.
James Hansen: One thing that is important to point out, these goals for 2050 are not a sufficient way to look at it. We actually have to realise that the carbon dioxide is put in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, a good fraction of that will stay in the air for a very long time, about a fifth of this stays in there for about a thousand years. And we need to recognise the size of the reservoirs of oil, gas and coal; with coal being by far the largest of these and also it's the one which is potentially amenable to not putting the CO2 into the air. It's very difficult to see how we can prevent the oil from being used and the carbon getting in to the atmosphere because it comes from vehicles, but in the case of coal if we're going to use that, we could restrict it to power-plants and we should say it can only be used there if you capture the CO2. That becomes a practical way to look at this, and I think it's a better way than saying lets reduce it 80% or 90% or 60% or any particular number because we really can't let 40% or 20% of the coal to continue to be used; that's the one source that we really need to cut off.
Matthew Wright: Yes and if in somewhere like Victoria, which uses lignite, brown coal, if there was the gas resource available, which according to BHP Petroleum there is, to actually switch away form coal in 3 years and cut our emissions by half; our entire absolute emissions in Victoria by half. Would that be something you would encourage our government to pursue?
James Hansen: Yes absolutely, that would be consistent with the strategy of terminating the coal source as soon as possible.
Matthew Wright: Also Professor Garnaut, it seems like the government sort of started to distance themselves from him even though they commissioned him to run the report, and they're remaining committed to their 60% target. I guess a get out of gaol guard for them is to claim their 60% target by 2050 but adopt a very strong 40% by 2020 or something like that within that, if they're politically manoeuvring. It seems that targets are they way that they are going in terms of setting the cap in their 'cap and trade'. What do you think would be the right approach? ?obviously capping global growth in emissions within two years is a very good approach, but beyond that what sort of approach would Australia require?
James Hansen: Well, I think that the target in terms of percent when you're talking about a date which is quite a distance in the future is just not very helpful. It's a way for politicians to get out of doing something now, because they put off the target to a date when they'll be out of office. So I have no objection to that except that if it allows them to get away from taking actions that need to be done now.
Philip Sutton: We have a bit of a sense that in fact the government in Australia is beginning to gear itself up to take climate change quite seriously, but they're obviously struggling to come to terms with the seriousness of the real position on the ground. Do you have a sense of how long it would take to get the arctic ice back, presumably we'll lose it in a couple of years time; completely during summer. But just interested to know how long you think it would take to actually restore it if we could manage to trigger a cooling.
James Hansen: The Arctic sea ice is a very different problem from the ice sheet, in the sense that the Arctic sea ice is a reversible phenomenon on time scales that we can think about, unlike the ice sheets. If we let those reach a point of no return so they start to collapse then we're really in trouble, because it takes many thousands of years to build an ice sheet.
But the Arctic sea ice, that would require that we get the planet energy balance back in balance, and that is out of balance now by something between half a watt and one watt, so it's a fairly steep order to do that. It is the order of this 50ppm CO2 that we would need to get.
It can be done with a combination of methane, black soot and other pollutants [these] can contribute to the reduction in the forcing. So it's something that could be done in a time scale of a few decades. Now it's not certain that the Arctic summer sea ice is going to be gone in a few years. Some people say it could be as soon as 5-10 years and others think it could be a few decades. But to get it back is a time scale of decades I think, that's minimum.
Philip Sutton: Do you have any estimates of how much warming would actually be caused by the albedo flip itself. We've sort of seen some rough estimates of about a 1/3 of a degree. I was just wondering if that was anything in the ball park of what you've been seeing or calculating through your models.
James Hansen: If you want to look at it that way, that's the right ball park. It's a positive feedback, an amplifying feedback, which makes the change there go more rapidly, and to a certain extent it will contribute to warming at other latitudes. But I think it is the right order of magnitude. I haven't actually looked at it and done a calculation in that sense, but that's the right order of magnitude.
Philip Sutton: Right.
Matthew Wright: Matthew here again and just to let everyone know, that was Philip Sutton who has been assisting me with questions, from the Greenleap Strategic Institute, co-author of Climate Code Red which relies on a lot of material from Dr. James Hansen.
I noted that you had sent a draft letter the um? the U.K.?
Scott Bilby: Gordon Brown.
Matthew Wright: Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister requesting that they don't build any new coal fired power plants without carbon capture and storage, and a similar story where you've been in hearings in I think it was Iowa to stop Coal Power Plants.
James Hansen: Yes.
Matthew Wright: We've got some proposals here unfortunately that don't involve carbon capture and storage there's an HRL energy project in Victoria, and in NSW Michael Costa is pretty bullish on building a new coal fired power station. He sees no other option for them. What do you say to these politicians who are really pushing this line?
James Hansen: Well, I think that it's going to become very clear, I would say within a decade or so, that these coal plants are simply not compatible with keeping a planet resembling the one in which civilisation developed. And I think there is going to be eventually pressure to in effect bulldoze those plants, so economically they just don't make sense. You are not going to be able to leave them there 50 years. It will become clear long before 50 years that we have to get rid of those, so it doesn't make sense.
Matthew Wright: In terms of what we've heard from you and others, generally we've been pushing the line that we need to, as soon as possible, get all our emissions down to near zero emissions, so that could be a time frame of say 2020; halving our emissions in the next 3 years locally here in Victoria and then concurrently developing, you talked about soils, the agri-char process to draw down atmospheric carbon. Will we require things like seeding the atmosphere with sulphates in order to reflectlight away from the Arctic ice or will that be sufficient, just the agri-char concurrently developed while getting our emissions down near zero?
James Hansen: My comment on that would be, we don't know, you know we're pushing the atmospheric composition beyond the level which will give us a stable climate, so we're overshooting the acceptable level. And we don't know how long we can stay in a state where we've overshot that level. Obviously, if you overshoot for one day, that's not going to cause a problem. It's a question of how many years can you leave it at a level which is going to cause long term unacceptable impacts, like instability of the ice sheets.
We just don't have a good way to make an accurate assessment. That's because there has been no prior examples in the earth's history where greenhouse gases have increased this rapidly. There have been fast changes when negative forcings, when asteroids hit the planet or when large volcano's go off, but we don't have any examples of large positive warming forcings. So it's really a hard question to answer, but I think that sensible actions, phasing out coal use where we don't capture the CO2, and reducing non CO2 forcings may be able to get us back on a track without unnatural geo-engineering type actions. But that's my guess, I don't really have a good way to quantify that.
Philip Sutton: Yes, I think that question about the speed of bringing the system back into a safe sort of configuration is a really key question because when we looked at the recommendations from the Garnaut review, or the interim recommendations, that came out yesterday. It was very clear that they understood that things were much more serious than perhaps the IPCC consensus view had indicated but when you read the recommendations, it seemed like they felt we had a reasonable amount of time to get things under control. Is there any work being done through the scientific community to try and get a handle on that question of how rapidly we'd need to get things back to a safe configuration.
James Hansen: That's the key question, but it's a very hard one because the systems in question are non-linear. Inherently it's very difficult to predict a point of collapse. Whether you're talking about an ice sheet collapsing or whether you're talking about an ecosystem collapsing because as some species go extinct, that effects others because they're all connected. So it's just inherently a very difficult non-linear problem, and the models are just not up-to snuff as far as giving us the numbers for that. We can't simulate the responses that are occurring right now in Greenland and West Antarctica.
Philip Sutton: Do you think its worth, I mean when I look at the issue I tend to focus a fair bit on the arctic ice and then try to work out, I mean it seems to be the most significant big flip that we've had so far, that is very clearly under way?
James Hansen: Ok, that one is a little, a little easier, and it's partly because we can see what is happening empirically and because it is a reversible phenomenon. It's one where I would argue you can base your estimates on the planet's energy balance and we're not measuring that as well as we should. It requires good measurements of ocean temperatures throughout the whole ocean, including the deep ocean and the high latitudes. It is easier than problems like the ice sheets.
Philip Sutton: Right, do you think we can have a safe climate without having the Arctic ice restoration. In other words is that actually an essential??
James Hansen: You know that's a good question and it's probably not, because I can't imagine that in the long run Greenland would be stable if the Arctic is ice free in the warm season. I think we do need to plan on restoring sea ice in the Arctic, preventing a complete loss of sea ice there if we want to assure that our shore lines are going to stay where they are now.
Philip Sutton: Yes, it does seem me that because that was a much more visible and obvious and estimable problem that if in fact it turned out to be one of the critical links then even if we don't know the answer on a number of other parts of the puzzle that that may give us sufficient sort of policy guide in the short term to drive a lot of public policy, then of course as we get better modelling we can refine it in relation to other issues.
James Hansen: Yes I think that's a very sensible way to look at it.
Matthew Wright: On the solutions side, you said that if clean coal came with carbon capture and storage (CCS) - but we've actually got Australian scientists in the United States right who've got a lot of venture capital behind them 50, 100 million dollars, like Dr David Mills from Ausra. His technology uses Fresnel flat plate collectors to mimic those Mojave desert concentrating solar thermal plants. Wouldn't it be better for us to invest in that basically demonstrated commercial technology rather than keep pursuing coal carbon capture and storage, given that CCS with coal tends to be advocated not as a retrofit option?
James Hansen: Well, I think we have to do both of those and a number of another things. The problem is I don't think there is one silver bullet that is going to solve this problem. We've been putting far too little into research and development to find technological ways of addressing this.
Concentrated solar looks extremely promising but I wouldn't say that's going to solve all the problems so I think we should look at as many things as possible. And of course we would encourage that if we would have a carbon price. It would bring out innovation - some things that we can't even think of so we need to encourage technological innovation.
Philip Sutton: That's definitely one of the strong recommendations from the Garnaut review and the Australian government has indicated that it will in fact move quite strongly on the carbon cap and then generating a price from that.
James Hansen: I think that would be helpful.
Matthew Wright: Is there anything you can say to those people, I think the remaining big excuse that's being kicked around is that you've got your developing countries, you've heard it a million times and they're not doing anything so why should we. How do you frame the response around that? How do we put it to those people we're endangering ourselves here?
James Hansen: Well, they aren't going to do anything until we do, and they're not going to have the mechanisms for fixing the problem if we don't develop them. You know, we've caused the problem and we're going to have to help take the lead in developing the solutions and we don't have any time to waste arguing about whether developing countries will come along, I'm sure they will, we can't ask them to take the lead. We certainly have to do that.
Matthew Wright: So if we are looking at such dramatic cuts, the convergence is going to be clearly quite soon so we're going to have to develop these renewable energy technologies and other zero emission technologies and some people are even advocating that we'd be paying places like China to close down their older coal-fired power stations. Do you envisage that that would be the way?
James Hansen: We're going to have to help them with the technology. It's analogous to the way we solved the ozone problem, or at least that is on a direction which will solve it. We provide technology and we provided some economic assistance in adopting that technology, but China has as much to lose if not more than we do with climate change, so I'm confident that they will come along and they will be able to share the task of reducing the emissions, but we're at least going to have to provide the technological help and we should consider the technology that we develop to be for the global good and not insist that they pay special prices to the people who invented them because we're going to have to get them implemented pretty quickly.
Philip Sutton: Jim, I was just wondering going back to December last year, you gave a presentation to the American Geophysical Union Conference suggesting that the CO2 target might well be somewhere in the range of 300 parts per million to 350. What sort of reaction have you had from the scientific community and from the wider community to that proposition?
James Hansen:There has been some concern that they think this is unrealistic, and therefore they say, 'well, contrarians will use this as an argument that we shouldn't do anything because it looks like its too difficult'. Frankly, I don't agree with that. I think an initial target of 350 is doable provided we phase out coal, and although that sounds like a real tough job, in fact it's doable and if we don't do it there is no question, if you look at the times in the earth's history when there was that much CO2 in the atmosphere it was a completely different planet. We have to do it and it is doable, if you compare the difficulty of replacing coal-fired power with something else which could include coal provided it has CO2 capture. Well that's not that difficult, I mean if we compare it to how much effort we put into World War II, it's a doable job and the incentives are just as great as they were then. So I'm a little surprised that some scientists are saying we have to make the target something that is doable. I think we have to make the target whatever is needed.
Philip Sutton: My sense is that the scientific community, certainly the Australian community which I make some effort to keep in touch with, has been encouraged if you like to be much more focused on the science, from the very fact that you've been prepared to speak out like that. So I think that one shouldn't underestimate the long term effect on peoples' perception of the issue through taking what was at the time obviously a very courageous position. You know the feedback we're getting is a lot of people are now seeing that they can actually, if you like, put more emphasis on the science because you've done that yourself.
James Hansen: Well I'm glad to hear that.
Matthew Wright: Thank you very much Dr Hansen, we appreciate you joining us on the Beyond Zero show and hopefully we can speak to you again later in the year.
James Hansen: Ok great, it was my pleasure, thanks a lot.
Matthew Wright: You're on the Beyond Zero show with Philip Sutton from the Greenleap Strategic Institute, Scott Bilby campaigner with BZE and Miwa Tominaga - over to you Scott.
Scott Bilby: We've just been speaking with James Hansen director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA and you're listening to Beyond Zero and it's put on by Climate Change awareness group called Beyond Zero Emissions. If you want to find out more about Beyond Zero Emissions go to www.beyondzeroemissions.org The time now is 8:58, and if you'd like to get a copy of Code Red, a document released recently by Philip Sutton and David Spratt can you tell us what the URL for that is?
PS: OK it's downloadable from, http://climatecodered.net/
Matthew Wright: Thank you Philip our special guest this morning from the Greenleap Strategic Institute
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