Another clear statement (PDF) from the nation’s top climate scientist on the scientific need for a dramatic change in global coal policy — this time addressed to the German chancellor, a fellow physicist. He points out that:

The fact that energy and climate advisors, in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere, do not understand the problem is starkly illustrated by repetition of goals to reduce CO2 emissions by a percentage (say 40% by 2020, 80% by 2050, or other numbers), while at the same time allowing construction of new, more efficient, coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester CO2 … this approach spells doom for life on the planet.

Why are political leaders pursuing mutually contradictory policies? Well, we all know solid carbon diamonds are forever — the corollary is that much atmospheric carbon is, too:

Part of the difficulty in grasping the problem may be the common misstatement that the atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel emissions is 50-200 years (Maiken finds this error in a current U.S. EPA document). In point of fact, a large fraction of the CO2 increment remains in the air for more than 1000 years, and the mean lifetime, dominated by this long tail, is about 30,000 years (D. Archer, “Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time,” J. Geophys. Res. 110, 2005).

To “preserve climate resembling that in which civilization developed,” what must be done?

The upshot, which I am confident Dr. Merkel will understand, is that we must have a prompt moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2, and we must phase-out existing coal-fired power plants over the next two decades. It is foolish to build new plants with the knowledge that they will have to be bull-dozed in the near future.

Hear! Hear!

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.