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Jim Hansen's Letter to Obama
Alex Steffen, 24 Nov 08

Jim Hansen, in his latest newsletter, shares the letter he'll be sending President-elect Obama (PDF). Much of it is quite in line with the Inaugurate Change letter (which you can sign here). Certainly both share the same sense of urgency and the need for a ringing call to action.

Hansen is less convinced about energy efficiency and renewables, and pays less attention to urban planning and infrastructure, than many folks in the Worldchanging network (though to be fair, he spends most of his time directly engaged in climate science, so perhaps has less time to spend on the cutting edge of innovation in these fields, which is moving very, very quickly). He's a brilliant guy though, and his views required reading, and are almost entirely complementary to more design- and innovation-focused approaches. He also comes out even more strongly in favor of a cap-and-100%-dividend approach than in the past.

It's a long letter, but here're the money quotes:


Recent evidence reveals a situation more urgent than had been expected, even by those who were most attuned. The evidence is based on improving knowledge of Earth’s history – how the climate responded to past changes of atmospheric composition – and on observations of how the Earth is responding now to human-made atmospheric changes.

The conclusion – at first startling, but in retrospect obvious – is that the human-made
increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), from the pre-industrial 280 parts per million (ppm) to today’s 385 ppm, has already raised the CO2 amount into the dangerous range. It will be necessary to take actions that return CO2 to a level of at most 350 ppm, but probably less, if we are to avert disastrous pressures on fellow species and large sea level rise.

The good news is that such a result is still possible, if actions are prompt. Prompt action will do more than prevent irreversible extinctions and ice sheet disintegration: it can avert or reverse consequences that had begun to seem inevitable, including loss of Arctic ice, ocean acidification, expansion of the subtropics, increased intensity of droughts, floods, and storms.

Electrical Power:

The imperative of near-term termination of coal emissions
(but not necessarily coal use) requires fundamental advances in energy technologies. Such
advances would be needed anyhow, as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, but the climate crisis
demands that they be achieved rapidly. Fortunately, actions that solve the climate problem
can be designed so as to also improve energy security and restore economic well-being.

A workshop held in Washington, DC on 3 November 2008 outlined options. The workshop focused on electrical energy, because that is the principal use of coal. Also electricity is more and more the energy carrier of choice, because it is clean, much desired in developing countries, and a likely replacement or partial replacement for oil in transportation.

The workshop topics, in order of priority, were: (1) energy efficiency, (2) renewable
energies, (3) electric grid improvements, (4) nuclear power, (5) carbon capture and
sequestration. Presentations are available and a summary paper is in preparation.

Energy efficiency improvements have the potential to obviate the need for additional
electric power in all parts of the country during the next few decades and allow retirement of
some existing coal plants. Achievement of the potential of efficiency requires a combination of regulations and a carbon tax. National building codes are needed, and higher standards for
appliances, especially electronics, where standby power has become a large unnecessary
drain of energy. Economic incentives for utilities must be changed so that profits increase
with increased energy conservation, not in proportion to amount of energy sold.

Renewable energies are gaining in economic competition with fossil fuels, but in the
absence of wise policies there is the danger that declining prices for fossil fuels, and
continuation of fossil fuel subsidies, could cause a major setback. The most effective and
efficient way to support renewable energy is via a carbon tax (see below).

The national electric grid can be made more reliable and “smarter” in a number of ways.
Priority will be needed for constructing a low-loss grid from regions with plentiful renewable
energy to other parts of the nation, if renewable energies are to be a replacement for coal.

Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and an improved grid deserve priority and there
is a hope that they could provide all of our electric power requirements. However, the
greatest threat to the planet may be the potential gap between that presumption (100% “soft”
energy) and reality, with the gap filled by continued use of coal-fired power.

Therefore it is important to undertake urgent focused R&D programs in both next
generation nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration. These programs could be
carried out most rapidly and effectively in full cooperation with China and/or India, and other

Given appropriate priority and resources, the option of secure, low-waste 4th generation
nuclear power (see below) could be available within a decade. If, by then, wind, solar, other
renewables, and an improved grid prove that they are capable of handling all of our electrical
energy needs, then there may be no need to construct nuclear plants in the United States.
Many energy experts consider an all-renewable scenario to be implausible in the time-frame
when coal emissions must be phased out, but it is not necessary to debate that matter.

However, it would be exceedingly dangerous to make the presumption today that we
will soon have all-renewable electric power. Also it would be inappropriate to impose a
similar presumption on China and India. Both countries project large increases in their
energy needs, both countries have highly polluted atmospheres primarily due to excessive
coal use, and both countries stand to suffer inordinately if global climate change continues.

The entire world stands to gain if China and India have options to reduce their CO2
emissions and air pollution. Mercury emissions from their coal plants, for example, are
polluting the global atmosphere and ocean and affecting the safety of foods, especially fish,
on a near-global scale. And there is little hope of stabilizing climate unless China and India
have low- and no-CO2 energy options.

We should also urgently pursue R&D for carbon capture and sequestration. Here too
this may be done most expeditiously and effectively via cooperation with China and India.
Note that, even if it is decided that coal can be left in the ground, carbon capture and
sequestration with other fuels still may be needed to draw down the amount of CO2 in the air.
An effective way to achieve drawdown would be to burn biofuels in power plants and
capture the CO2, with the biofuels derived from agricultural or urban wastes or grown on
degraded lands using little or no fossil fuel inputs.


Tax and 100% dividend. A “carbon tax with 100 percent dividend” is required for reversing the growth of atmospheric CO2. The tax, applied to oil, gas and coal at the mine or port of entry, is the fairest and most effective way to reduce emissions and transition to the post fossil fuel era. It would assure that unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar shale and tar sands, stay in the ground, unless an economic method of capturing the CO2 is developed.

The entire tax should be returned to the public, equal shares on a per capita basis (half
shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in
bank accounts. No bureaucracy is needed.

A tax should be called a tax. The public can understand this and will accept a tax if it is
clearly explained and if 100 percent of the money is returned to the public. Not one dime
should go to Washington for politicians to pick winners. No lobbyists need be employed.
The public will take steps to reduce their emissions because they will continually be
reminded of the matter by the monthly dividend and by rising fossil fuel costs. It must be
clearly explained to the public that the tax rate will continue to increase in the future.
When fuel prices decline, the tax should increase, to retain the incentive for transitioning
to the post-fossil-fuel-era. The effect of reduced fossil fuel demand will be lower fossil fuel
prices, making the tax a larger and larger portion of energy costs (for fossil fuels only). Thus
the country will stop hemorrhaging its wealth to oil-producing states.

Tax and dividend is progressive. A person with several large cars and a large house will
have a tax greatly exceeding the dividend. A family reducing its carbon footprint to less than
average will make money. Everyone will have an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint.
The dividend will stimulate the economy, spur innovation, and provide money that allows
people to purchase low carbon products.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective. It will increase energy prices, but low and
middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come
out ahead. The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated
by how fast the carbon tax rate increases. Effects will permeate society. Food requiring lots
of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa,
encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

Beware of alternative approaches, such as ‘percent emission reduction goals’ and ‘cap
and trade’. These are subterfuges designed to allow business-as-usual to continue, under a
pretense of action, a greenwashing. Hordes of lobbyists will argue for these approaches,
which assure their continued employment. The ineffectiveness of ‘goals’ and ‘caps’ is made
blatantly obvious by the fact that the countries promoting them are planning to build more
coal-fired power plants.

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Dear James Hansen,

Thanks for telling the truth as you see it and for speaking out loudly, clearly and often about what everyone knows but precious few will say.

As you know better than most of us, "denial" is not only a river in Egypt. However we choose to look at the taxonomy of denial, you help us easily see that many too many leaders are collusively engaged in its practice. Even though it is perverse, denial is consensually validated behavior. If enough elite people remain in denial, something more, something illusory...can be put in place of what is more real and somehow likely to be more truthful.

Doing good work along the path toward a good enough future for children will not be an easy task for anybody. Evidently, everybody wants to be a somebody, but nobody in a position of power willingly assumes the requisite responsibilities and performs the duties of office. Such so-called 'leadership' is both ubiquitous and woefully inadequate.

Occasionally a great person like you can be found who goes against the tide of people with power...who disputes the elitists who uniformly favor whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable and religiously tolerated.

Certainly I share the view that everyone-in-power's silence with regard to what is happening in any "here and now" moment of space-time is the most formidable foe that the family of humanity faces.



Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 24 Nov 08

Alex, I am so happy that you posted this letter. I read it a few days ago and I've been waiting to see how greens will respond.

I suppose it's no less surreal than a snap $300 billion to bail out citigroup, but I believe Barack Obama's $150 billion spending initiative to create "five million green jobs" is bad policy in about every way imaginable. I appreciate that much of that money will likely be going to needed overhaul of infrastructure, but I don't think that should be bundled with buku billions in pork. This is such a sadly typical Washington solution to a massive intractable problem. Just throw an ungodly amount of money at it from on high. And it worked so well with AIG. Maybe if more congresscritters came from science, and engineering, and art, I would be more comfortable with them trying to pick the winners in green technologies, but that isn't the case.

Hansen's tax and dividend, on the other hand, is an honest, bottom up approach that is far more empowering to individuals. Figure out for yourself how to switch to a low carbon lifestyle and you automagically PROFIT as your dividend exceeds the amount you pay in tax. And of course, it provides just as much of an incentive for companies of all sizes to go green. The president elect says he's in favor of bottom up approaches to problem solving. A carbon tax and dividend is bottom up. A massive new federal program, not so much.

I don't know how it gets passed. NRDC, Environmental Defense, UCS; they all want a big corruptible cap and trade market, AND a giant Obama spending initiative. Which keeps the 'solutions' at the level of big corporations, the big environmental groups they consult with, and of course the federal government.

And for the paragraph that's not like the others, I also support Gen IV nuclear, especially the liquid thorium flouride reactor that Hansen specifically endorses in this letter. I think that technology put on a fast track will offset baseload coal faster and more surely than any wind or thermal solar project. There, I protested to the green orthodoxy.

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia on 24 Nov 08

Dr. Hansen seems to think emission reductions might really happen. I don't share his unbridled and unrealistic optimism. He is absolutely correct that the level of CO2 in the air today is a deadly dose, especially for the oceans.

Dr. Hansen's life as a climate physicist belies the reason he diminishes the role of CO2 in the oceans. Ocean acidification while being mentioned is not presented in the position it really holds. As climate change proceeds by definition at a glacial pace, ocean change is speeing up to such a degree that cataclysmic changes to the oceans are now reported in two seperate accounts to be destined by 2030.

Only the potency of ocean eco-restoration can possibly slow or even prevent the death sentence for the Southern and rest of the oceans. Ocean plant life diminished by 10% in the Southern Ocean, 17% in the N. Atlantic, 26% in the N. Pacific, and 50% in the tropic oceans must be restored. 20 years and a quarter of a billion in international research has shown us the way.

The late John Martins Geritol Solution replenishing iron rich dust to restore ocean plants can immediately begin to turn this cataclysm around. Read more on this topic at

Posted by: Russ on 24 Nov 08

How about including full references of Dr Hansen's letter on the need for nuclear power ?

How long can you prevent the truth from leaking out ? As they stand, 4th generation nuclear power is close to becoming a reality. It eats up nuclear waste and produces electricity. I cannot think a more beneficial thing to the environment than this !

Posted by: vakibs on 25 Nov 08

If fast-neutron reactors turn out to be practical and live up to the promise of using a fraction of the uranium and producing a fraction of a waste of conventional reactors, then I think they're a good idea.

What I think we need to do in the short run, though, is to undercut the neoconservative ideologues by demonstrating that addressing global warming is profitable and carries great quality of life benefits. The shouting match between the global warming activists and the nay-sayers about the economic costs can only be settled by demonstrating that the nay-sayers are wrong and enticing them to cash in on business opportunities presented by effiency and innovation.

I'd like to see a public education campaign that highlights successful ways the communities and businesses have gone green. It needs to be done on such a scale that the nay-sayers stop whining and start pitching in to help.

Posted by: Jay Turner on 25 Nov 08

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