A grandfather’s appeal to Obama

Politicians worry about the next election; business people worry about the next quarter. Who does that leave to worry about the longer term future? One top scientific expert believes the people who really do think ahead are parents, more specifically mothers. After all, they have to plan years, even decades ahead, when looking at schools and university – and also thinking about the kind of world their young children might inherit.

Dr Jim Hansen is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on climate. He is also a grandfather. Last December he wrote directly to Barack and Michelle Obama about the urgency of the planet’s climate crisis.

“I decided to send it to both of them because I thought there may be a better chance she (Michelle) will think about this or have time for it. The difficulty of global warming is that its main impacts will be felt by our children and by our grandchildren. A mother tends to be concerned about such things”.

The Obamas of course have two young daughters, who will as adults inherit a world potentially devastated by runaway climate change unless binding international agreements are immediately put into place to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions and lighten humanity’s ‘footprint’ on the planet.

Dr Hansen is most famous as the scientist who, in 1988, warned a US Congressional hearing that he was “99% certain” that global warming was to blame for the unusually hot weather that year and, more critically, that the planet was now in danger from rising carbon dioxide emissions, mainly produced from the burning of fossil fuels. He was the first major figure to push the complex science of climate change and global warming out of the specialist journals and onto the news headlines.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration”, Dr Hansen told the Guardian. “We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead”.

The eight years of the Bush administration have been catastrophic in the battle against ever-rising carbon emissions. Bush turned his back on the advice of scientists, instead filling key positions in his government with senior executives from the very energy industries his government is supposed to be regulating. He in effect put the foxes in charge of the environmental henhouse.

Fiddling around with a tweak here and a nudge there won’t make the slightest difference in terms of preventing global calamity, says Dr Hansen. He firmly believes the only way to make serious, permanent inroads is to introduce a carbon tax. The tax would be levied on oil and gas companies across the world and would push up the prices of fuels, as well as boosting efforts to develop fuel efficiency and alternate ‘clean’ energy sources.

Dr Hansen believes passionately that the mining of coal – by far the worst emitter of carbon dioxide – must be phased out entirely along with coal-burning power plants, which he calls ‘factories of death’.
“Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels combined. We must stop using it”. In essence, the only safe thing to do with coal is to leave it in the ground. Despite the worldwide recession, now is the time for massive programmes for developing wind, tidal, solar and other renewable energy plants, along with the development of next-generation nuclear reactors.

Ireland is blessed in having some of the best wind, wave and tidal energy resource in the world. All that’s missing is the collective vision on our part to develop them, backed by the political will to face down the mé feiners, special interest groups and public sector inertia that so throttle Irish public life.

With Ireland having had one of its coldest winters in decades, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe global warming isn’t really as bad as some have been suggesting. In fact, most of the planet was unusually warm last year. Only a strong La Niña – a vast cooling of the Pacific that occurs every few years – brought down the averages. “Before the end of Obama’s first term, we will be seeing new record temperatures. I can promise the president that”, says Dr Hansen.

The real proof of powerful underlying climate shift is that 11 of the years between 1995-2006 are among the 12 warmest years since records began in 1850. The odds of so many warm years all occurring in the last decade being a coincidence would be more than a million to one.

A vital first step on the way to solving any serious problem is to actually acknowledge the problem in the first place, and to accept our moral duty to inform ourselves, and act on that information. This isn’t just a job for politicians and administrators; the responsibility lies with us as citizens as well.

The future belongs to our children; they are counting on us to protect and preserve it for them. Are we stepping up to the challenge?

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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