The Hansen letter


Although it may be a bit rude to put it this way, climatologist James Hansen is the high priest of global warming alarmism. He once referred to coal trains as “death trains” that would be “no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.”

Little matter. Dr. Hansen is also the man who has probably done more to put global warming on the global agenda than any other living human being.

And while he is occasionally given to rhetorically jumping the shark, his concerns are based on a lifetime of rigorous atmospheric research that has helped to define modern climatology.

In short, his views should be afforded, at the very least, a decent respect by critics and admirers alike.

And especially by admirers, at the moment.

A couple weeks ago Hansen, who until he retired earlier this year was head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, together with three highly respected colleagues — NCAR’s Dr. Tom Wigley; Dr. Ken Caldeira, senior scientist with the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology; and Dr. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT — wrote a remarkable open letter to the world’s environmentalists, urging them to quit opposing nuclear energy in the interest of fighting global warming.

The letter, which is addressed to “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” deserves far more attention than it has initially received and merits being quoted at length. Here are some of the relevant passages:

“As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change …

“Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.

“We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

“Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology …”

The letter represents some long-overdue straight talk to environmentalists about what it will take to scale back global carbon dioxide emissions — starting with the fact that those who think alternative energy sources are up to the job of 1) replacing all fossil fuel sources of electric power, while 2) meeting the needs of a planetary population that’s growing at a rate of about 80 million people a year, 3) meeting the exploding demand for energy in China, India and the rest of the developing world, 4) meeting the increased demand for electricity driven by the introduction of new technologies like electric cars, 5) meeting the increased demand for electricity driven by the exploding demand for products needed to adapt to a warmer world, like air conditioners and desalination plants — are kidding themselves.

Hansen’s past apocalyptic warnings of climate change-induced extinctions may be overwrought, but there is no question that the damage from another Chernobyl or Fukushima would be orders of magnitude less than the damage associated with, say, a three- to sixfoot rise in sea level — and a lot easier to clean up. That much should be selfevident.

Environmentalists have been at a loss to explain why the world has become increasingly apathetic toward their warnings about the dangers of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even as the science behind the warnings becomes more compelling. Personally, I’ve been willing to accept the science. But I’ve felt for years that demands for action against global warming that come without a full-throated defense of nuclear power should not be taken seriously.

Hansen and his colleagues seem to have come to similar conclusions, and as a result I’ll take their views on what should be done a lot more seriously than I have up to now.


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