Coal is killing America

Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them

By Jan Hansen

A year ago, I wrote to (British Prime Minister) Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this - coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet.

Theclimate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear andthere is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would beirreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over thenext few decades. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbsmore sunlight and speeds melting. As the tundra melts, methane, astrong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As speciesare exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse,destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by weatherfluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time to analyse decadalchanges. How can people be expected to evaluate and filter out adviceemanating from those pushing special interests? How can peopledistinguish between top-notch science and pseudo-science?

Those who lead us have no excuse - they are elected to guide, to protect the public and its best interests. They have at their disposal the best scientific organisations in theworld, such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy ofSciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallise,revealing the urgency. Our planet is in peril. If we do not changecourse, we'll hand our children a situation that is out of theircontrol. One ecological collapse will lead to another, in amplifyingfeedbacks.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has alreadyrisen to a dangerous level. The pre-industrial carbon dioxide amountwas 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, have increased this to 385 ppm; it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth,with its four-kilometre-deep oceans, responds only slowly to changes ofcarbon dioxide. So the climate will continue to change, even if we makemaximum effort to slow the growth of carbon dioxide. Arctic sea icewill melt away in the summer season within the next few decades.Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supplyhundreds of millions of people, will disappear - practically all of theglaciers could be gone within 50 years - if carbon dioxide continues toincrease at current rates. Coral reefs, harbouring a quarter of oceanspecies, are threatened.

The greatest danger hanging over ourchildren and grandchildren is initiation of changes that will beirreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal iceshelves buttressing the west Antarctic ice sheet continue todisintegrate, the sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sealevels by several metres in a century. Such rates of sea level changehave occurred many times in Earth's history in response to globalwarming rates no higher than those of the past 30 years. Almost half ofthe world's great cities are located on coastlines.

The mostthreatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species.Several times in Earth's history, rapid global warming occurred,apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case, more thanhalf of plant and animal species became extinct. New species came intobeing over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are timescales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellowspecies to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for ourdescendants than the world we inherited from our elders.

Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels,we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-freestate, with sea level 75 metres higher. Climatic disasters would occurcontinually. The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up intime, is that the changes that must be made to stabilise the atmosphereand climate make sense for other reasons. They would produce ahealthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean waterand an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat.

Fossil-fuelreservoirs will dictate the actions needed to solve the problem. Oil,of which half the readily accessible reserves have already been burnt,is used in vehicles, so it's impractical to capture the carbon dioxide.This is likely to drive carbon dioxide levels to at least 400 ppm. Butif we cut off the largest source of carbon dioxide - coal - it will bepractical to bring carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm, lower still if weimprove agricultural and forestry practices, increasing carbon storagein trees and soil.

Coal is not only the largest fossil fuelreservoir of carbon dioxide, it is the dirtiest fuel. Coal is pollutingthe world's oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and otherdangerous chemicals. The dirtiest trick that governments play on theircitizens is the pretence that they are working on "clean coal" or that they will build power plants that are "capture-ready" in case technology is ever developed to capture all pollutants.

The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. When I testified against the proposed Kingsnorth power plant, I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsiblefor the extermination of about 400 species - its proportionatecontribution to the number that would be committed to extinction ifcarbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm.

The German and Australiangovernments pretend to be green. When I show German officials theevidence that the coal source must be cut off, they say they willtighten the "carbon cap". But a cap only slows the use of a fuel - itdoes not leave it in the ground. When I point out that their new coalplants require that they convince Russia to leave its oil in theground, they are silent. The Australian government was elected on aplatform of solving the climate problem, but then, with the help ofindustry, it set emission targets so high as to guarantee untolddisasters for the young, let alone the unborn. These governments arenot green. They are black - coal black.

The three countries mostresponsible, per capita, for filling the air with carbon dioxide fromfossil fuels are the UK, the US and Germany, in that order. Politicianshere have asked me why am I speaking to them. Surely the US must lead?But coal interests have great power in the US; the essential moratoriumand phase-out of coal requires a growing public demand and a politicalwill yet to be demonstrated.

The Prime Minister should notunderestimate his potential to transform the situation. And he must notpretend to be ignorant of the consequences of continuing to burn coalor take refuge in a "carbon cap" or some "target" for future emissionreductions. My message to Gordon Brown is that young people arebeginning to understand the situation. They want to know: will you jointheir side? Remember that history, and your children, will judge you.

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