The Sword of Damocles
Over a year ago I wrote to Prime Minister 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 world leaders. The reason is this – coal is the single greatest threat to
civilization and all life on our planet.
Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there
is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible – if we do not rapidly
slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades.
Tipping points are fed by amplifying feedbacks. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker
ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As tundra melts, methane a strong greenhouse
gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are pressured and exterminated by shifting
climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.
The public, buffeted by day-to-day weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little
time or training to analyze decadal changes. How can they be expected to evaluate and filter out
advice emanating from special economic interests? How can they distinguish top-notch science
and pseudoscience – the words sound the same?
Leaders have no excuse – they are elected to lead and to protect the public and its best
interests. Leaders have at their disposal the best scientific organizations in the world, such as the
United Kingdom’s Royal Society and the United States National Academy of Sciences.
Only in the past few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency – our planet
really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is
out of their control, as amplifying feedbacks drive the dynamics of the global system.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The preindustrial
carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil
and gas have increased carbon dioxide to 385 ppm, and it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per
Earth, with its four kilometer deep ocean, responds only slowly to changes of carbon
dioxide. So more climate change will occur, even if we make maximum effort to slow carbon
dioxide growth. Arctic sea ice will disappear in the summer season within the next few decades.
Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people,
will disappear – practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years, if carbon dioxide
continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harboring a quarter of ocean species, are
threatened, if carbon dioxide continues to rise.
The greatest threats, hanging like the sword of Damocles over our children and
grandchildren, are those that are irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If
coastal ice shelves buttressing the West Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the ice sheet
could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea level by several meters in a century. Such rates of sea
level change have occurred many times in Earth’s history in response to global warming rates no
higher than that of the past thirty years. Almost half of the world’s great cities, and many
historical sites, are located on coast lines.
The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several
times in Earth’s long history rapid global warming of several degrees occurred, apparently
spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case more than half of plant and animal species went
extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these
are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to
extinction we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world that we
inherited from our elders. We will leave a world haunted by the memories of what was.
Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide
would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state,
with sea level 75 meters higher. Coastal disasters would occur continually. The only uncertainty
is the time it would take for complete ice sheet disintegration.
The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must
be made to stabilize the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. The changes
would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water, and an
ocean providing fish that are safe to eat.
Actions required to solve the problem are dictated by physical facts, especially fossil fuel
reservoir sizes. About half of readily extracted oil has been burned already. Oil is used in
vehicles, where it is impractical to capture the carbon dioxide. Oil and gas will drive carbon
dioxide to at least 400 ppm. But if we cut off the largest source of carbon dioxide, coal, it will be
practical to bring carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm and still lower through improved agricultural
and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.
Coal is not only the largest fossil fuel reservoir of carbon dioxide, it is the dirtiest fuel.
Coal is polluting the world’s oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous
chemicals. The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretense 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 responsible for extermination of about 400 species – its
proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide
rose another 100 ppm. Of course, we cannot say which specific species should be blamed on
Kingsnorth, but who are we to say that any species are worthless?
The German and Australian governments pretend to be green. When I show German
officials that fossil fuel reservoir sizes imply that the coal source must be cut off, they say they
will tighten the “carbon cap”. But a cap only slows the use of a fuel, it does not leave it in the
ground. When I point out that their new coal plants require that they convince Russia to leave its
oil in the ground, they are silent. The Australian government was elected on a platform of
solving the climate problem, but then, with the help of industry, they set emission targets so high
as to guarantee untold disasters for the young and the unborn. These governments are not green.
They are black – coal black.
On a per capita basis, the three countries most responsible for fossil fuel carbon dioxide
in the air today are the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, in that order.
Politicians in Britain have asked me: why am I speaking to them — the United States must lead?
But coal interests have great power in the United States – the essential moratorium and phase-out
of coal likely requires a growing public demand and a political will yet to be demonstrated.
The Prime Minister should not underestimate his potential to initiate a transformative
change of direction. And he must not pretend to be ignorant of the consequences of continuing
coal emission, or take refuge in a “carbon cap” or some “target” for future emission reductions.
Young people are beginning to understand the situation. They want to know: will you join their
side? Remember that history, and your children, will judge you.