A letter from a climate scientist to Nevada’s governor
The following is a open letter to Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons from noted climate scientist James Hansen.
Dear Governor Gibbons,
I am honored to be the recipient of the Desert Research Institute’s annual Nevada Medal this year and to attend the awards ceremonies hosted by you and the First Lady.
I hope that I may communicate with you as a fellow parent and grandparent about a matter that will have great effects upon the lives of our loved ones. I refer to climate change, specifically global warming in response to human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. This topic has long remained in the background, but it is now poised to become a dominant national and international issue in years ahead.
Global warming presents challenges to political leaders, but also great opportunities, especially for your state. Nevada has the potential to be a national leader in protecting the environment and implementing technologies that can mitigate the crisis posed by global warming.
First, however, I want to make you aware of rapid progress in understanding of global warming. Warming so far, averaging 2 degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, is smaller than weather fluctuations. Yet it already has noticeable effects and more is “in the pipeline,” even without further increases of CO2, because of climate system inertia that delays the full climate response.
Effects of global warming are already seen in Nevada. One result is increased wildfires. Longer summers mean more dried out fuels, allowing fires to ignite easier and spread faster. The wildfire season in the West is now 78 days longer than it was 30 years ago. And the average duration of fires covering more than 2,500 acres has risen five-fold.
As the planet continues to warm, these and other impacts will grow worse for Nevada and the American West. The world’s leading climate researchers conclude that, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the region faces:
- Longer and more intense droughts, thus widespread water shortages, especially in areas of high population growth and where water resources already are heavily utilized, such as Nevada.
- Thus still larger, more intense wildfires.
- More winter and spring flooding, but reduced summer and fall run-off, with rivers in these seasons reduced to a trickle in many years; this will intensify competition for over-allocated water resources.
- More intense precipitation and storms when it does rain, with a resulting increase in flood risk.
- Longer and more intense heat waves, with a correspondingly adverse impact on public health, particularly for the elderly.
Governor Gibbons, the scientific advances in just the past few years, paradoxically, carry both bad news and good news. My paper, “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim” (with supporting material here), makes clear that we have already passed the threshold of atmospheric CO2 levels that we can allow to exist over the long-term. Mother Nature, as a friend of mine has noted, is wagging her finger at us, saying, “Now you have gone too far!”
Consequences of ignoring this admonishment would be dire. The Earth is nearing climate “tipping points” with potentially irreversible effects, including extermination of countless species, ice sheet disintegration and sea-level rise, and mass dislocation of populations.
The good news is that it is still feasible to solve the problem, to reduce CO2 emissions over coming decades and draw down the atmospheric CO2 amount through natural processes and with the help of improved agricultural and forestry practices. By drawing down the CO2 amount we can not only avert catastrophic irreversible effects mentioned above, but also alleviate problems that were beginning to seem intractable and inevitable. I refer here to regional effects such as those discussed above for the American West (and similar effects in the Mediterranean region, Australia, and parts of Africa and South America), acidification of the ocean with destruction of coral reefs, and recession of alpine glaciers worldwide with accompanying loss of a principal freshwater source for hundreds of millions of people during the dry season.
However, solution of the problem has one unavoidable implication for fossil fuels. Atmospheric CO2 can be successfully constrained only if coal use is phased out except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered so that it does not enter the atmosphere. In turn, the conclusion that coal use without sequestration must be phased out, over the next 20 years, foretells requirements and opportunities for Nevada.
The imperative of halting coal emissions does not recognize state or national boundaries. There is no doubt about the eventual position of the United States and the international community. The mutual peril has become crystal clear and it will soon be widely understood. The United States, although it was also slow to enter prior international battles with the future at stake, surely will begin to exercise leadership in this matter, independent of political parties, because of the clarity of the threat to the planet. Disinformation campaigns, by the fossil fuel industry and utilities, cannot succeed, and they raise great liability risks.
Utilities and the fossil fuel industry must reckon with the fact that the laws of Nature and the human instinct for survival will overrule any paper agreements that may exist now or be wrangled in the near-term. “Grandfathering” of fossil fuel plants and any ineffectual “cap and trade” scheme, should it be initiated, will necessarily be replaced by “cap and bulldoze." Uncaptured CO2 emissions from coal must be eliminated.
Is it possible that I am wrong, that the governments are so larded with fossil fuel special interests that they will allow us to destroy the planet that we leave for our children and grandchildren? Sure — just as there was a chance that the United States and the Soviet Union could have blown each other off the face of the planet with nuclear weapons — but it is much more likely that we will come to our senses soon, as the scientific story and empirical evidence overwhelm the deceit of short-term special interests.
A substantial fraction of fossil fuel CO2 emissions stays in the air for what is, for all practical purposes “an eternity,” more than 1000 years. That is a well-established scientific fact — there is no debate. A direct implication is that we cannot be aiming for a 50, 80, or 90 percent reduction of emissions. We must transition over the next several decades to practically zero net CO2 emissions. Thus our energy focus must be to develop renewable energies and energy efficiency.
Indeed, when you created a climate change task force last year, you said, “Nevada has to be a responsible member” of global society, and, with its abundant wind, solar and geothermal potential, the state can “leverage these resources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by investing in its renewable energy industries, thus promoting economic growth and energy security while maintaining and enhancing the environment for future generations of Nevadans.”
Governor Gibbons, I understand that you have also supported proposals for new coal-fired power plants, in Ely, Mesquite, and White Pine. These coal-fired power plants would expose ratepayers and Nevada to grave financial risk. Steeply rising construction costs and coal prices are themselves ratcheting up the cost of coal-fired electricity, and sure-to-appear federal legislation that demands elimination of CO2 emissions will drive costs much higher. Given that Nevada’s geology is not very well-suited for storing CO2, any assumption about retrofitting a coal-fired plant for CO2 capture is a dubious and financially risky proposition.
A major additional disadvantage of coal is the pollution associated with it. There is no such thing as “clean coal." Good stewardship of creation, of the planet that we inherited, suggests that the best place for coal is in the ground, where it is. Renewable energies are also superior in requiring little water, a resource that is becoming increasingly precious.
Although the fossil fuel industry pedals misinformation, claiming that renewable energies can only be a niche contribution to energy needs, that contention defies common sense. As proof of the contrary, consider just one of the renewable energies, solar power. The technology for solar thermal power stations already exists, power stations can be built rapidly, and as the market for them increases their unit costs will fall steadily, as the cost of coal power continues to rise. There is enough solar energy in a small fraction of our desert Southwest to provide all of the electrical needs of the United States. Nevada has the potential to be a leader in this field, providing power for itself and for distant locations as a low-loss grid is developed. Leadership would provide great economic benefit to Nevada and provide a large number of high-pay jobs and new businesses.
Note that renewable “fuels”, in addition to eliminating CO2 emissions, are cost-free and the source will last practically forever. This is in stark contrast to coal. One reason that the cost of coal has been shooting up is that coal is a finite resource requiring increasing efforts for extraction. The notion that the United States has a 200-year supply of economically extractable coal is a myth. I strongly recommend that you invite Prof. David Rutledge of the California Institute of Technology to brief you on current analyses of coal reserves.
An indirect source of energy, with enormous potential, is efficiency. This potential can be tapped much more if rules for utility profits are changed such that profits increase when the utility helps customers improve efficiency, rather than when the customers use more energy.
Governor Gibbons, I know that you have backed the construction of new coal plants. I also know, from colleagues at the Desert Research Institute, that you have a scientific background and ask penetrating questions. This is a time when, as Nevada’s top elected official, entrusted with protecting the interests of Nevadans and the state’s environment, you can benefit most from the objective methods of science in reevaluating your energy options.
I realize also that there has been a tendency for positions on energy issues to divide along party lines (for the sake of disclosure, I am an Independent), but I am confident that in making your decisions you will be guided by the considerations of the long-term prosperity of Nevada and the condition of the planet that we leave for our children and grandchildren. As governor, you can help inspire your state and the rest of the country to take the bold actions that are essential if we are to retain a hospitable climate and a prosperous future. If you should decide to come down firmly on the side of clean energy and energy efficiency, it could be a transformative moment for you, Nevada, and the future of coming generations.
Specifically, you could use your executive authority to suspend the permitting of the three proposed power plants until concrete plans for carbon capture are provided. Without a firm requirement and commitment for carbon capture, the likelihood that it actually would be included is remote. The proposed operators, in fact, are almost surely assuming that they will not need to capture the CO2, and when carbon capture becomes a national imperative the jolt to Nevada ratepayers will be severe. Far better than importing coal from other states, with vagaries of availability and a growing price, would be for Nevada to assume leadership in the development of its abundant free renewable energies. Unlike coal plants, the renewable energies will not deplete precious groundwater, and they will provide a larger number of construction and professional jobs.
I close on a note of optimism. I mention in my presentations the power gap in the face-off of fossil fuel interests against young people and nature. Fossil interests permeate state governments, as well as Washington. Young people must seem puny in comparison, and animals are of little help (don’t talk, don’t vote). Yet, as in our national revolution more than two centuries ago, the puny are united by a powerful force, a common goal for the common good. I am heartened that young people will make the difference in this war, on the side of nature and humanity.
Recently I met remarkable young organizers, including Jessy Tolkan who led the New Voters Project in Wisconsin, registering over 130,000 18-24 year old Wisconsin voters, making young people a powerful force in primary and general elections. These young people have now joined forces in a coalition of 47 youth organizations in support of bold climate action. The Energy Action Coalition is determined to mobilize at least one million youth as a powerful force, on the side of nature and humanity, focused on the essential goal of zero carbon emissions as soon as humanly possible. I recently learned that Energy Action, League of Young Voters, Rock the Vote and several other youth civic groups have identified Nevada as a principal state for their voter outreach programs. According to Energy Action, there are numerous young students at the University of Nevada, Nevada State, and several of your community colleges who are getting involved with this climate campaign.
Youth may still seem puny, aligned against fossil interests, but it would be a mistake for industry and political leaders to sell them short. They are not fooled by “green” advertisements of industry or tokenism in political actions. The leaders who put our nation on a course to carbon-free energy, allowing us to be good stewards of creation, of our planet, will find a strongly supportive public.
cc: Members of Nevada Climate Change Task Force, Nevada Public Utilities Commission