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Hansen to Obama Pt IV – Where to from here?

So what are the priorities for Obama, and indeed, for world governments, as they gather to discuss the next international treaty at Poznan this month? Can something meaningful be hammered out in Copenhagen in a years time? What are the implications of us collectively making a choice to do nothing, or at least very little? Can ‘politics as usual’ and international diplomacy be bold enough to make the critical decisions?

In this short concluding piece, the key options open to humanity – and the ‘no go zones’ –  are reviewed.


Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth (Part IV of IV)

Dr James E. Hansen

Implications. All of the slack in the schedule for averting climate disasters has been used up. The time has past for ‘goals’, half-measures, greenwashing, and compromises with special interests. We have already overshot the safe level of greenhouse gases. Things are just beginning to crumble – Arctic ice is melting, methane is bubbling from permafrost, mountain glaciers are disappearing. We must move onto a different course within the next year or two to avoid committing the planet to accelerating climate changes out of our control. Geophysical boundary constraints are crystal clear: coal emissions must be phased out and emissions from unconventional fossil fuels (tar shale, tar sands, e.g.) must be prohibited.

Priorities for solving the climate and energy problems, while stimulating the economy are steps to: (1) improve energy efficiency, (2) develop and deploy renewable energies, (3) modernize and expand a ‘smart’ electric grid, (4) develop 4th generation nuclear power, (5) develop carbon capture and sequestration capability.

Prompt development of safe 4th generation nuclear power is needed to allow energy options for countries such as China and India, and for countries in the West in the likely event that energy efficiency and renewable energies cannot satisfy all energy requirements.

Deployment of 4th generation nuclear power can be hastened via cooperation with China, India and other countries. It is essential that hardened ‘environmentalists’ not be allowed to delay the R&D on 4th generation nuclear power. Thus it is desirable to avoid appointing to key energy positions persons with a history of opposition to nuclear power development. Of course, deployment of nuclear power is a local option, and some countries or regions may prefer to rely entirely on other energy sources, but opponents of nuclear power should not be allowed to deny that option to everyone.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel. Coal burning has released and spread around the world more than 100 times more radioactive material than all the nuclear power plants in the world. Mercury released in coal burning contaminates the world ocean as well as our rivers, lakes and soil. Air pollution from coal burning kills more than 100,000 people per year. If such consequences were occurring from nuclear power, nuclear plants would all be closed. Mining of coal, especially mountaintop removal, causes additional environmental damage and human suffering. It is time for all the coal plants to be closed, indeed, averting climate disasters demands that all coal plants be phased out. Coal is best left in the ground.

Nevertheless, R&D for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) deserves strong support. It is needed to provide the full range of options in energy choices, for countries that insist on exploiting their coal resources. Moreover, CCS has another potentially more important role to play: it could be used at power plants that burn biofuels, such as agricultural wastes. This sort of ‘geoengineering’, which draws excess CO2 out of the air and puts it back in the ground where it came from, may be needed to get atmospheric CO2 back to a safe level.

Transition to the post-fossil-fuel era with clean atmosphere and ocean, requires a carbon tax. That tax will cause unconventional fossil fuels to be left in the ground, as well as much coal and some oil and gas that resides in remote regions. The public will accept such a tax if the funds are returned entirely to the public, no funds going to Washington and other capitols for politicians and lobbyists to determine its fate. Tax and 100 percent dividend is not sufficient by itself – many other actions are needed – but it is necessary. No time remains for a transition via ineffectual half measures.

Frank communication with the public is essential. At present, all around the world, governments are guilty of greenwash, an implausible approach of goals and half-measures that will barely slow the growth of CO2. The world, not just the United States, needs an open honest discussion of what is needed. It is a tremendous burden to place on the President Elect, who seems to be the only potential candidate. The only chance seems to be if he understands the truth – the whole truth.

Young people realize that they, their children, and the unborn will bear the consequences of our actions or inactions. They do not blame their parents, who legitimately ‘did not know’ what they were starting. Young people have recently worked hard to influence the democratic process. Now they expect the system to take appropriate actions. If that does not happen, surely they will begin to raise their voices louder.


That’s it from Hansen to Obama. If you want to keep up with his latest thoughts on climate science and policy, I’d encourage you to visit his website and subscribe to his mailing list.

Will Obama, or his new Energy Secretary, listen to this advice? Will they move with the required speed to push through the energy efficiency, technological R&D, massive renewable and nuclear layout required to avoid a climate and post-oil energy catastrophe? Will coal with no emissions capture be stopped? Will the Sustainability Crisis even be recognised for what it is by decision makers in time? I sincerely hope so.

But to be brutally honest, I doubt it. There will be movements in the right direction of course – two steps forward, one step back, partial solutions to individual issues, policies that go some way to fixing the problem. Too little, too late. Beyond the slight hope of a silver bullet solution, in 10 or 15 years, ‘we’ (global society) will realise to our horror the depth of our mistake – but by then, there will be no going back. Just countless bleak years lying ahead, when we’ll really appreciate what ‘adaptation’ means.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

27 replies on “Hansen to Obama Pt IV – Where to from here?”

A few thoughts:

1) Is conservation even mentioned? Not that I could see. Based just on California’s experience, rather a lot can be accomplished, at least in developed countries.

2) Hansen seems to be depending on the carbon tax to make the low-hanging fruit of conservation and efficiency happen. While plausible to a degree, I think a point of excess retardation of economic activity would be reached rather before enough C+E would be impelled. I see no downside to identifying an obvious range of steps such as density/anti-sprawl requirements for new development, appliance efficiency standards and energy efficiency retrofitting of the existing building stock. He does mention building code changes, but provides no details. See this interesting program for an example of the sort of thing that might be very appealing in developed countries at least.

3) It seems odd to limit R+D to nuclear and CCS. Why not crash programs to improve existing technology for solar power, batteries and LED light bulbs, e.g., and develop new ideas like this? Another important aspect of R+D is to extend a carrot to developing countries by committing to adapting and developing technology suitable for their level of development.


0) Some people lump efficiency & conservation together, and the former was (properly) 1) on the list.

1) For those in SF Bay Area, come and hear Hansen directly:

Portola Valley Green Speaker Series Event – Global Warming: Update from the Frontline of Science

The Town of Portola Valley invites you to hear Dr. James E. Hansen, the second speaker in our Pioneers of Sustainability Series. Dr. Hansen is considered one of the world’s foremost scientists focused on climate change and is well known for his testimony to Congress starting in the 1980s. Details: Tuesday, December 16th, 7:00 p.m. at the Town Center Community Hall, 765 Portola Road. Carpooling encouraged as parking is limited. For more information or to RSVP, please visit .

Note this is in our recently-opened & very green Town Center,
Amory Lovins was the first speaker.


I find it hard to fault any of that to be honest.

Other than favouring cap and trade… but I certainly would not lose any sleep if it were a tax, and I hope Hansen would applaud a genuine cap and trade were it introduced in the next few years. The downsides of both can be managed. POlitically I think cap and trade is much closer to acceptance than the tax however.

He did miss one priority: “Lower expectations of wealth and comfort.” By which I mean would it really hurt us to use less electricity at night, wake at dawn and sleep at sunset, no aircon. We could all still live pretty amazing lives without much of our energy consumption.


Steve @3
I’ll post something coherent tomorrow, but really, one must be careful of “crash” R&D programs, preferring instead “progressive commitment” in disciplined multi-stage R&D process management, like what we used to do at Bell Labs. My bosses always said:

“Never schedule breakthroughs”

There are actually some good lessons in the old Bell System, which:
a) Was very big
b) Thought long-term, including intense efficiency efforts over many decades
c) Created many key breakthroughs and scaled them big


‘Just countless bleak years lying ahead when we’ll really appreciate what adaption means.’

Like you Barry, I don’t see the sustainability crisis being overcome. Climate change is only one of many unfolding environmental disasters caused by humans. The human population cannot be sustained at its current level, destroying ever increasing amounts of the biosphere and further diminishing the population carrying capacity of the earth.

I don’t share the religious like faith of many that we can invent new and improved technologies that will solve the world’s problems. Our society is vulnerable because of its complexity – our systems and technology are increasingly becoming so complex that they are no longer fully understood or controlled. New technology is also subject to diminishing returns on investment making ‘eureka’ discouveries unlikely.

Take the present global financial crisis. It is becoming clearer by the day that we also have no idea how to stop it running its course. The actions taken to date to prop up financial countries are not only failing, they may  bankrupt countries. Just imagine what a moderate fuel shortage would do to our logistics and transport systems and what the flow on consequences would be to our society.

The one given with technologies is that without exception they all add to the pollution and degradation of our habitat. Our ancestors changed the vegetation of continents with the use of fire and agriculture, and, wiped out mega fauna with primitive weapons. Modern industrial processes and consumer waste are polluting and destroying ecosystems globally. 

My raging anger at our collective stupidity burnt bright during the last years of the twentieth century. It has been replaced with a nihilistic sadness as the melting ice, drying of the sub-equatorial zones and a resumption in the rise of atmospheric methane levels indicate climate change is now beyond human prevention.

The damage of climate change will be matched by the devestation caused as our unsustainable population consumes an ever increasing amount of the fast diminishing biota, fresh water and other resources of the planet while polluting land, water and air with our industrial waste.

What will remain in a thousand years – who knows. Most of the species alive today will have disappeared. There may still be small populations of humans around the world living in a far from Utopian post technological society.

Then again Homo sapiens may be included in the vast number of species that will die out in the now unfolding great Anthropocene extinction event.


Wilful @1: I agree with the above.

James @2: She’s waiting to follow, not lead. What’s new?

Steve @3: As JohnM says, ‘conservation’ in the energy context is synonymous with ‘energy efficiency’, which is mentioned by Hansen and me throughout this posting.

MattB @5: Yes, many argue for this ‘unpalatable’ conclusion. They’re probably right.


Interesting book for green technophiles reviewed here: “ten technologies to save the planet”; I note nuclear is not on the list.
I’d note that politically speaking, too vigourous pushing of new nuclear power has the potential to split the fragile green-general public anti-global-warming consensus, which would be used by governments to do nothing. Nuclear is fourth, not first, on Hansen’s list of five priorities, yet he has devoted most of this open letter to talking about it. In my opinion it should be about seventh. What is needed more urgently is rollout of existing high efficiency technology to the developing world. Ultimately we can’t stabilise the ecosystem without a stable world population. A stable world population relies on lower birth rates. People only cut the number of children they have when a) their standard of living is high enough that they can guarantee their children will survive childhood and prosper (hence the vital need to roll out better technology quickly) b) women have a chance at a a career other than child rearing and c) effective contraception is readily available. This means increases in foreign aid that are gender aware and aren’t driven by religious ideology about sex.
There are lots of reports that say that China and India can get a huge reduction in CO2 and increase in energy efficiency just by using the technology they have more effectively. e.g. here: This is an improvement that could be made almost overnight. If Hansen is right that the tipping point is within the next few years, what is the point of trying to build and roll out a brand new nuclear tech-tree, even if it is now theoretically cheap and safe? It will still take years and years!


JohnM and Barry, IMHO conservation is important enough to get a separate mention.

OK, JohnM, “controlled crash.” :) The other side of this coin is that expenditures must be seen as effective. Large-scale wastes of money (as are entirely possible with CCS and nuclear) risk loss of public support for a whole range of programs.

I used the VIVACE turbine as an example because of the 18 month planned gap between successful lab prototype (which is what they just announced) and installation of a small-scale field prototype. That seems way too long for something like this.


Hansen writes on page 4 (the sole mention of conservation):

Economic incentives for utilities must be changed so that profits increase with increased energy conservation, not in proportion to amount of energy sold.

Then on page 5 he writes:

There also must be better efficiency standards in building codes, for vehicles, and in appliances and electronics. Profit incentives for utilities must be changed, so as to encourage efficiency as opposed to selling as much energy as possible.

This seems confused at best as regards conservation.



Once upon a time, Bell Laboratories employed about 25,000 people in R&D, and was usually considered the premier industrial R&D lab in the world, for many decades. To be a Member of Technical Staff, one needed an M.S. or PhD. It was part of the Bell System, about which one can say “monopoly money is really nice.”

From its creation in 1925 onwards, Bell Labs generated:

– a few Nobel prizes
– numerous important breakthroughs
– a truly huge number of incremental improvements

See Bell Labs History, and see their pick of top 10 innovations. Modern technology has many other contributors, but an amazing amount of modern computing and communications technologies has some heritage somewhere in Bell Labs’ patents, software, or mathematics.

For example, if you use UNIX, Linux, MacOS, or even Windows, you use some features that originated in UNIX in the 1970s, and if you use the Internet, your packets are being handled by CPUs designed more for C than anything else.

I worked there from 1973-1983, fortunately mostly within excellent management chains and for many outstanding managers, including one who became CTO of Bell Labs and another who became President. Bell Labs generated many breakthroughs, BUT:

These managers always said:

“Never schedule breakthroughs.”

Why would they say that? And if great managers at a premier R&D lab didn’t think they could do it, should that be a caution?

Consider normal good R&D portfolio management, as practiced by companies and governments capable of long-term thinking, and who understand technology diffusion and inertia of huge installed bases.

Our classification was more-or-less as follows, although different people use different labels, and in some places, combine R2+D1, or D1+D2, or R2+D1+D2
I’ve never managed R1, have done/managed the rest:

Pure Research (R1) many little projects, modest $
Applied Research (R2)
Exploratory Development (D1)
Advanced Development (D2)
Development (D3) might include pilot plants, beta tests, etc.
Deployment & scaleup, cost reductions, etc. (D4) $$$$$$

The typical methodology is:

a) Spend a big chunk of $$ on deployment of what works already, knowing that volume & experience will help costs come down, and of course, in the energy case, there are plenty of efficiencies around that are zero-cost, although they may require upfront capital.

b) Meanwhile, spend some money on lots of little Research projects, select ones that have promise and take them further. This is usually called “progressive commitment”, i.e., you normally have lots of little R projects, and fewer, but bigger D projects, and then most of the money gets spent in deployment and scaleup of something you know works and can be scaled.

This avoids the common “MIT graduate student syndrome”:

Q: What can you build with 6 MIT PhD students?

A: Anything! ….
But you might only be able to build one of it…

c) One needs competent management of this process.

At Bell Labs, real R was only about 7%. Of course, that was tiny compared to the 100s of thousands of people involved in manufacturing, deployment, and support, and even small compared to the bulk of people doing Development.

The Bell System had more than 1M employees at that point, and really did think in terms of decades, which many businesses do not. The telephone network had some similarities with the power grid. Tiny efficiencies mattered. I recall a guy getting an award for saving a tiny fraction of the amount of gold needed for electrical contacts … but that was $Ms/year savings.]

Given the scale (in the old Bell System days), we had to install things that worked, not counting on what our R folks might invent. We knew they’d invent interesting things, but we also knew it might be *20 years* before we could really use them, and some things (like bubble memories) worked, but never well enough to win.

Some things were deemed interesting, but really niche, when first done … like lasers, or solar cells. Of course, while lasers have many surprise uses, one of the most importnat is running the fibreoptic links that carry most of the world’s communications traffic.

I know of two $B projects where they charged into fullscale Development too early, and wasted most of that money.

But, breakthroughs aren’t just accidents (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swans to the contrary – his books have much merit, but when he gets into R&D management, I think he’s out of his turf, and he certainly says some wrong things about specific people I know well.)

If you want to get things to happen, you set up disciplined R&D programs that allow for the somewhat chaotic nature of real R1. Bell Labs invested in the smartest people we could hire, supported them superbly, picked people working in areas likely to be relevant, gave them long term timeframes, and had management support for capitalizing on their findings and diffusing technology appropriately and *commercially*.

[That was one of my explicit assignments for years: keep in touch with researchers, see if they’d invented anything that could be further productized, and mention real problems to them in the hopes that they might get interested. Sometimes they did.]

Note that this is different from building things (like the Manhattan Project] where cost is essentially no object. One may note that even in the USA, many military projects that once seemed budget-unlimited turned as much as they could to COTS (Commercial-off-the-shelf) rather than hand-built-specials.

THESE DAYS, Bell Labs is a much smaller place, XEROX PARC isn’t what it was, and in general, large industrial R&D is less prevalent. Government R&D labs range from superb to rather slow, and sometimes cost-insensitive. DARPA did some awesomely good project management.

In the USA, most R (R1 + R2) is done at universities, with government and/or industrial funding. Places like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Georgia Tech, etc, etc have serious efforts in many areas of energy R&D. See the GCEP program for example.

a) One needs the right project managers in government.

b) Good R&D must happen in universities and elsewhere.

c) then, it has to get commercialized, which may happen through existing companies or maybe startups. I work with VCs. They don’t fund R, at least not on purpose :-). They love D3 and D4, although they might fund D2 if they must, to get in early.

d) Government doesn’t simulate VCs very well, with rare exceptions. I’ve had to tell a number of government people that, and they never like to hear it. Government must fund basic research, pass the right rules, encourage entrepreneurs, make it easy to start and stop businesses, offer sensible consistency for long-term investments, etc.

Government’s role seems mainly in funding R1+R2, and enabling D4, and sometimes helping D3 with purchasing power. But in picking the potential winners in the middle, it is rare to find the right skill-set in government.


I’ll happily listen to people advocating massive R&D for energy projects, IF:

1) They explain the starting portfolio, including what stage each of the proposed projects is at, any known barriers, risks, scaleup issues, costs, etc. [Obviously more is known on some project that’s further along.]

Even while being a techno-optimist living in the very heart of techno-optimism, I tend to want to be careful about new ideas, because simple descriptions don’t really explain how far along such things really are.

2) They explain the R&D portfolio management strategy and who’s going to run it.

Energy stuff is *harder* than what we did at BTL, since Laws of Thermodynamics != Moore’s Law.
Anyway, whenever anyone says “R&D” or Research I try to ask them what they mean by that, because different people mean very, very different things. Just throwing money at the problem is *not* a good idea, without good management of the process.

4th generation nuclear may be a good idea, especially if it can burn up the radioactive junk that’s around. By law in CA, there will be no new nuclear reactors until the disposal problem is solved, and the history is not encouraging so far. But, I sure hope there’s a disciplined R&D plan that could yield at most a few standardized designs to replicate. However, we certainly can’t wait for it, although good nuclear plants do have the great advantage of being concentrated, in the same way coal/gas plants are, but unlike wind-turbines, so they can re-use existing grid layouts easily. Of course, the nice thing about wind turbines and CSP is that the technical risk is ~zero.


Sorry guys – Nobel prize winners only have credibility when they are on Inhofe’s list. IPCC scientists for that matter too! The rest are just on the take from the AGW gravy train.


I don’t think there’s anything to come close to the IFR as a solution. Wind turbines are bad for migrating bats, which are highly desirable animals if you don’t like mosquitos.

But carbon sequestration is the worst. The idea is about as useless to combat global warming as teaching teenagers to ‘just say no’ to sex. Twelve thousand tons of carbon creates forty-four thousand tons of carbon dioxide, which makes burying uranium and plutonium (a very poor idea) look dead easy by comparison. especially when the mass of the fuel for nuclear reactors is measured in millions of pounds, while coal is measured in hundreds of millions of tons.


Time to dust off this letter and give it to the new US president. The measures I’d highlight are support for nuclear, especially SMRs, and the adoption of a CO2 fee. The first will increase the supply of–and lower the cost of–nuclear power plants; the second will increase the demand for them.


The 1-2 punch of a carbon tax and nuclear power would be very effective. For a glimpse of the potential, have a look at this interactive map from the University of Texas.

For setup, click on the box for “Include externalities” near the top, and on the “+” to the right of the blue box (nuclear).

Try lowering the CO2 price to a more reasonable 35 $/tCO2. And drop the overnight cost of nuclear to $4. (This input is finicky–just delete the 8 and type in 4.) Several SMRs anticipate an overnight cost well below this figure.


The US might consider a $15 CO2 tax paired with a 10 percentage point reduction in the corporate income tax. Low- and middle-income households would receive credits.


Time once again to dust off Dr. Hansen’s letter and give it to a new US president. It’s still relevant.

Chapter 44 from Dr. Hansen’s upcoming book Sophie’s Planet covers the time when this letter was written, providing some very useful background material.

The previous chapter had described a mini workshop entitled “Climate and Energy”, held in Washington, DC on Nov. 3, 2008, one day before Barak Obama was elected. The workshop had five priority topics: energy efficiency, renewables, grid improvement, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture.

On page 2 of Chapter 44, Hansen continues: “Two major policy implications emerged from the five workshop topics. First, we need a continually rising price on carbon emissions. A carbon price drives all five workshop goals – from energy efficiency through carbon capture – and it does so by letting the market set priorities and investments, which is economically effective. Second, the government needs to provide strong RD&D (research, development and demonstration) support of modern nuclear power.”

These two policies, I take it, should still be the top climate priorities for the US.

Click to access Planet.Chapter44.pdf


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