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Doomsday Clock

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Climate Scientist Warns That Time Is Running Out

By James Donahue

Dr. James E. Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, appeared this week before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming with the most severe warning yet about the need to act quickly to save our planet, and ourselves.

 “We have reached a point of planetary emergency,” the 67-year-old Hansen said. He warned that it is almost, but not quite too late to start defusing what he called “the global warming time bomb.”

Like other scientists before him, including England’s noted physicist Stephen Hawking, Hansen warned that the world is on the brink of runaway global warming.

"There are tipping points in the climate system, which we are very close to, and if we pass them, the dynamics of the system take over and carry you to very large changes which are out of your control,” he said.

Some researchers have warned that once we reach a certain point the heating planet will begin to generate even more greenhouse gasses long stored deep under the ocean and in dead and decaying plants, and the process cannot be stopped. Hawking once said he envisioned Earth reaching temperature levels comparable to that of Venus, hitting highs of 800 degrees, and no longer able to support life.

Hansen, who was among the first climate scientists to sound an alarm about greenhouse gas emissions 20 years ago, said he was concerned that the United States, one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions, is only now waking up to the danger. He said the next president will have a unique opportunity to “galvanize the country” in the development of new and nonpolluting energy systems.

While world leaders have been aware of this problem for at least 20 years, Hansen said no major U.S. law restricting greenhouse gas emissions has been passed. He said 21 new coal-fired generating units have been built and the total emissions of carbon dioxide in the US have risen by about 18 percent.

Hansen said it can no longer be business as usual if we expect to escape the looming world-wide calamity that now appears almost impossible to stop.

He recommended that the nation begins a major and sustained effort to find new energy sources and phase out the reckless burning of fossil fuels. He said there should be a moratorium on the construction of coal-burning power plants without also building scrubbers to capture carbon dioxide emissions.

Hansen said there must be a worldwide end to emissions from coal burning by no later than 2030.

He also called for a nationwide grid for distributing and storing electricity using new technology like wind turbines and solar-powered generators. He called for a carbon tax on the use of coal, oil and gas to speed up the rush to make the change.

Hansen said this issue is so important America must take on this enterprise in the same scale of past national initiatives like the Apollo space program, the construction of the federal highway system, and the response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He warned that the call by President Bush and GOP presidential candidate John McCain to allow offshore drilling for new sources of oil and gas is “crazy” and must not be allowed.

Hanson was critical of big business interests for “greenwashing” the issue with what he called environmentally friendly words that merely cover their plans for continuing their old way of doing things. He said they are also guilty of paying so-called “scientists” to stir public debate over the mere existence of global warming.

When their descendants look back on them, they should not be able to pretend that they didn’t know,” he said.