On the 27 March, 2008, Professor James Hansen, NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Science chief climate scientist and arguably one of the world’s most eminent authorities on climate change, sent a letter to Kevin Rudd (click on image for full letter):

The letter continued:

Global climate is near critical tipping points that could lead to loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic with detrimental effects on wildlife, initiation of ice sheet disintegration in West Antarctica and Greenland with progressive, unstoppable global sea level rise, shifting of climatic zones with extermination of many animal and plant species, reduction of freshwater supplies for hundreds of millions of people, and a more intense hydrologic cycle with stronger droughts and forest fires, but also heavier rains and floods, and stronger storms driven by latent heat, including tropical storms, tornados and thunderstorms.

Yet there are plans for continuing mining of coal, export of coal, and construction of new coal-fired power plants around the world, including in Australia, plants that would have a lifetime of half a century or more. Your leadership in halting these plans could seed a transition that is needed to solve the global warming problem.

If Australia halted construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester the CO2, it could be a tipping point for the world. There is still time to find that tipping point, but just barely. I hope that you will give these considerations your attention in setting your national policies. You have the potential to influence the future of the planet.

The letter was passed on to the Department of Climate Change and was answered on the 5 June, 08, by the Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Branch, outlining the government’s three pillars of climate change policy: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change that we can’t avoid, and helping to shape a global solution.

It is not known whether Kevin Rudd has read the letter. Given the government was elected on the promise of “evidence based” policies, and that the letter by the world’s eminent climate scientist included a warning regarding the future of the planet, the magnitude of the moral dilemma posed by Professor Hansen’s proposition would be clear.

Should the government adopt Garnaut’s Review recommendation of 10% emission cut by 2020 relative to 2000, such policy would be in line with attitudes Professor Hansen found to be a “sobering degree of self deception”, based on his visits to the UK, Germany and Japan in July, 2008:

The public, however, is not presented a realistic picture of how science works on such matters. Instead public discussion of global warming is befogged by contrarians, whose opinions are given a megaphone by special interests that benefit by keeping the public confused. Some of the contrarians were once scientists, but now they behave, at least on the topic of global warming, as lawyers defending a client. Their aim is to present a case as effectively as possible, citing only evidence that supports their client, and making the story appear as favorable as possible to their client. The best, the most articulate, are sought out by special interests, and even by much of the media, because the media likes to have “balance” in its coverage of most topics – and especially this topic because special interests have influence on the media.

We cannot pretend that a goal for future CO2 emission reductions will solve the climate problem. If we continue to ignore obvious geophysical facts about the magnitude of fossil fuel reservoirs, our children and grandchildren will have little reason to forgive our obtuseness.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey