Hansen’s parting shot: show leadership, John Key

Before he left New Zealand, Jim Hansen wrote an open letter to prime minister John Key on behalf of the youth of New Zealand, and specifically 350.org. It’s well worth reading in full, because it encapsulates the case for taking action here, and now. I would be most interested in seeing a meaningful response from Key, but — as they say — I’m not holding my breath. Here’s the letter:

Dear Prime Minister Key,

Encouraged by youth of New Zealand, especially members of the organization 350.org, I write this open letter to inform you of recent advances in understanding of climate change, consequences for young people and nature, and implications for government policies.

I recognize that New Zealanders, blessed with a land of rare beauty, are deeply concerned about threats to their environment. Also New Zealand contributes relatively little to carbon emissions that drive climate change. Per capita fossil fuel emissions from New Zealand are just over 2 tons of carbon per year, while in my country fossil fuel carbon emissions are about 5 tons per person.

However, we are all on the same boat. New Zealand youth, future generations, and all species in your country will be affected by global climate change, as will people and species in all nations.

New Zealand’s actions affecting climate change are important. Your leadership in helping the public understand the facts and the merits of actions to ameliorate climate change will be important, as will New Zealand’s voice in support of effective international actions.

The fact is that we, the older generation, are on the verge of handing young people a dynamically changing climate out of their control, with major consequences for humanity and nature. A path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future is still possible, but not if business-as-usual continues.

The state of Earth’s climate is summarized in the attached paper [The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future, which can be found here],whose authorship includes leading world scientists in relevant fields. The bottom line is that Earth is out of energy balance, more energy coming in than going out. Thus more climate change is “in the pipeline”.

Failure to address emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of human-made climate change, will produce increased regional climate extremes, as seen in Australia during the past few years. But young people, quite appropriately, are concerned especially that continued emissions will drive the climate system past tipping points with irreversible consequences during their lifetimes.

Shifting of climate zones accompanying business-as-usual emissions are expected to commit at least 20 percent of the species on our planet to extermination – possibly 40 percent or more. Extermination of species would be irreversible, leaving a more desolate planet for young people. They will also have large effects on New Zealand’s principal export industry, agriculture.

Sea level rise is a second irreversible consequence of global warming. Some sea level rise is now inevitable, but with phase down of fossil fuel use it may be kept to a level measured in a few tens of centimeters. Business-as-usual is expected to cause sea level rise exceeding a meter this century and to set ice sheet disintegration in motion guaranteeing multi-meter sea level rise.

Prompt actions are needed to avoid these large effects. Phase-out of coal emissions by 2030 is the principal requirement. Also unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. These conditions, plus improved agricultural practices and reforestation of lands that are not effective for food production, could stabilize the climate.

I have had the opportunity while in your country to meet your science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and your climate change ministers, Hon Nick Smith and Hon Tim Groser, and discussed these issues with them. If I can be of any help with the science of climate change I am very willing to assist your government. Implications for New Zealand are clear.

First, New Zealand should leave the massive deposits of lignite coal in the ground, instead developing its natural bounty of renewable energies and energy efficiency. If, instead, development of such coal resources proceeds, New Zealand’s portion of resulting species extermination estimated by biological experts would be well over 1000 species. Most New Zealanders, I suspect, would not want to make such ‘contributions’ to global change.

Second, New Zealand should lend its voice to the cause of moving the global community onto a path leading to a healthy, natural, prosperous future. That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically, with the funds distributed uniformly to citizens, thus moving the world toward the carbon-free energies of the future.

Prime Minister Key, the youth of New Zealand are asking you to consider their concerns and exercise your leadership on behalf of their future, indeed on behalf of humankind and nature.

With all best wishes,

James E. Hansen,
Adjunct Professor,
Columbia University Earth Institute

The letter was copied to the PM’s science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, Nick Smith and Tim Groser. I would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall at Hansen’s meeting with the last two…

5 thoughts on “Hansen’s parting shot: show leadership, John Key”

  1. New Zealand punches well above its weight in many areas and it could lead the World with an electricity industry that does not include coal. its not that difficult, Huntley power station is nearing the end of its designed life and we should make the commitment and shut it. We are blessed with hydro power, geothermal and the best wind in the world. What we are lacking is political will.
    Shut Huntley and go for natural energy and just to make sure the population goes with it give the farmers a pass on carbon taxes. The farmers are right it is only a tax on them as there is no attempt to stop the production of methane as we have to get rid of the dairy industry to do that.

    1. Cows can be made to emit less methane by feeding them different food. i.e. diet supplements or different types of grass might reduce emissions enormously. We should encourage investment in the ag research to suss out this possibility, and tax farmers to provide them with an incentive to switch.

      Even lacking low-methane options for dairy, a tax on dairy methane emissions could promote switching to other, low-carbon, forms of farming. Why not encourage that?

      1. Absolutely. In fact, some of the research on this is being carried out by scientists in their spare time, because they can’t get funding to do it. Including farmers in a carbon tax would allow proper funding of this research, which would substantially reduce the burden on farmers in the long run.

        Or we could take the Federated Farmers’ approach, and pretend that climate change isn’t happening, take no steps to reduce emissions at all, and then have international treaties shut down our agriculture for us in a few years time.

        I know which option I would choose.

        1. Scientists at AgRresearch in Palmerston North have been working on white clover, which has a gene to make tannins that could possibly reduce methane production in animals grazing on it. The gene is not normally expressed, but since it is illegal to bust atoms or genes in New Zealand, any trials aiming to make the clover express it will have to take place overseas.

  2. citing: That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically

    FYI the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is now in print for something very similar or the same. Joe Romm, despite the politics etc, is s shrewd US reader of the mindset there and he rates the AEI “astounding” for this “big surprise”.

    There are others referenced at TP – 5 out of 6 in support – only the Heritage Foundation hanging out. Tho I’d suspect that limited once they find confirmed Rex Tillotson’s ( Exxon CEO ) deftly mentioned tax suggestions.

Leave a Reply