By Helle Abelvik-Lawson
Dr James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and currently Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, stated during his lecture at the London School of Economics on Thursday 16 May, that we must ‘leave unconventional fuels in the ground’.
The LSE lecture covered various topics, including his recent arrest at the White House (pictured) while campaigning against the Keystone XL, the pipeline being constructed to bring tar sands oil from Canada to Texas; detailed maps and graphs depicting ice sheet cover and recoverable fossil fuel reserves; and personal observations of the decimation of the Monarch butterfly population. Despite the short notice – Dr Hansen’s priority engagement in London was at the House of Commons in the morning – the large lecture hall was full.
Earlier in the day, Dr Hansen gave evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, where Green Party MP for Brighton and Hove Caroline Lucas asked him for his scientific assessment of leaked papers suggesting that ‘the UK is planning to reject a proposal to classify tar sands oil as so called “highly polluting” through the Fuel Quality Directive, which suggests that the UK is happy to see Europe import this oil from Canada.’
He states in response that firstly his evidence ‘is based on fundamental physics of the climate system, which there is absolutely no dispute about’, perhaps a reference to his career-long struggle against climate ‘sceptics’. Earth scientists understand the carbon cycle well, he says in his testimony, from researching records of the earth’s atmospheric composition going back hundreds of millions of years.
He clarifies to the Audit Committee that it is this science of the earth that has informed the internationally agreed-upon limits on ‘how much we can put into the atmosphere without guaranteeing huge impacts’. And that we are already treading dangerously: ‘When we look at how much [carbon] there is in conventional fossil fuels, we can’t even burn them all without sending the planet back to an ice-free state – with sea water 70m higher.’
Dr Hansen believes that there is some hope in limiting the exploitation of still relatively plentiful conventional fossil fuels through carbon taxes, or carbon capture and storage schemes. But in the case of unconventionals such as tar sands, tar shale, or fracking for gas, he says that ‘the potential amount of carbon in these is huge. If we exploit them, the problem becomes unsolvable’.
Hansen’s lecture demonstrated that he is clearly no stranger to equating the respect for human rights to a healthy environment – and implicit in that, a steady climate without increasing superstorms, droughts and floods. He once even publicly declared that Exxon Mobil’s influencing of changes in school textbooks in the US to downplay the reality of climate change as a ‘crime against humanity’.
His battle with the institutions that initially enabled him to research the Earth’s atmosphere was also clear and well-expressed. In 2006, as one of his slides illustrates, his former employer NASA had the first line of its own mission statement – ‘to understand and protect the home planet’ – quietly removed overnight, without any public discussion.
The lecture above all else showed a man dedicated to using his scientific knowledge to preserve a safe planet for future generations, most notably because he has numerous grandchildren. Following his book Storms of my Grandchildren, he is now writing Sophie’s Planet, formed in letters to his first granddaughter Sophie – so named by his own daughter after the Sophie of Jostein Gardner’s Sophie’s World – in as simple and non-technical language as he can manage.
Until the publication of that book, the UK Government will have to trust that this eminent scientist’s advice on unconventionals is worth heeding.
For the full testimony Dr Hansen gave at the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Thursday 16 May 16, click here. Dr Hansen’s evidence is at 10.41am.