Obama’s heralded US climate and energy plan suggests that the new administration fully recognises the challenge posed by what John Holdern, Obama’s chief science advisor, describes as a “global climate disruption“.

Outlining his energy priorities, Obama stated that the US would not be held “hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet”, calling for greater fuel efficiency and an “energy economy” aimed at creating millions of jobs.

A fundamental difference exists between the view of many/most climate scientists and government plans around the world: governments, including Australia, realise carbon emissions need to decrease. By contrast, the science indicates CO2 levels (387 ppm) are already in the danger zone due to feedbacks from warming oceans, drying/burning vegetation, methane release and the rapidly changing albedo due to ice melting.

This view is represented by Professor James Hansen’s (NASA’s Chief climate scientist) call for CO2 down-draw to safer levels of 350 ppm and lower. Unless CO2 draw-down technology is developed and applied, even lower levels carbon emissions will continue to contribute to the rise and accumulation of CO2 levels of long-term atmospheric residence times.

Hansen states “Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and the idea of continuing with “cap-and-trade” schemes, which allow countries to trade allowances and permits for emitting carbon dioxide, must now be scrapped. Such schemes, encouraged by the Kyoto climate treaty, were simply “weak tea” and did not work, and plans to include carbon trading schemes in talks about future climate agreements were a desperate error, it’s just greenwash”.

Having had his climate reports censored by the White House for eight years, Hansen now has the ears of the US president through his advisors. In an interview on 18 January, Hansen stated: “His (Obama’s) four-year administration offers the world a last chance to get things right. If it fails, global disaster — melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinctions and spreading deserts — awaits mankind.”

Scientists at the forefront of climate research face a stream of new data, not least the recent updates by the UK Hadley Met Office on rapid Antarctica warming. Contrary to claims by skeptics, over the last 50 years West Antarctica warmed by about 0.6 degrees C and East Antactica by an average of 0.3 degrees C.

In his December letter to Barack and Michelle Obama, Hansen favors carbon tax as the only practical means of limiting carbon emissions and enhancing alternative clean energy. This will include development of fourth generation nuclear plants (4th GNP) which can burn nuclear waste, leaving small residual volumes with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Coal-fired power plants will need to be equipped with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Any such plans will require major cuts in other US programs, possibly including NASA’s space program. To date the relative size of the US space program (2007: $21 billion) has exceeded funds allocated for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (2007: $378 million) by more than an order of magnitude reflecting an attitude as if planetary exploration can replace terrestrial climate mitigation and adaptation.

Peter Fray

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