Dirty coal

Iowa is right in the middle of the mid west, of America, and is the home state of about three million Americans. You might not have heard of one of the most renowned Iowans but he was born in 1941 and has probably done more than any American to raise awareness about global warming. I write about James E Hansen, a climatologist and scientist.

He is employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in Greenbelt, Maryland and is also the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), in New York City. He is also a senior scientist in the Columbia University Earth Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia. He is responsible for defining the research direction of the Goddard Institute, obtaining research support for the Institute, carrying out original scientific research directed principally toward understanding global change, and providing relevant information to the public. He rpobably knows what he is talking about. 

Dr Hansen gave testimony to a number of US congressional committees twenty or so years ago. As a result of this the concept of global warming became widely known; many people disagreed with his science at first, but now almost all scientists agree with Hansen’s ideas. 

James Hansen was not the first person to come up with a theory that climate change is being caused by humans beings; in 1895 a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrenius, drawing on observations by Tyndall thirty years earlier who drew on Fourier in 1827 who concluded that the atmosphere operates like glass in a greenhouse and that increased amounts of carbon dioxide, especially from coal burning, was causing a greenhouse effect. 

Hansen thinks that global warming has been in part mitigated by a cooling effect of aerosols; otherwise it would have been far worse.

Dr Hansen is now worried by developed countries thinking of building new coal powered power stations. He warns against Germany and the United Kingdom building more coal fired power stations until they have developed the technology for sequestrating the carbon. Dr Hansen argues that burning fossil fuels, (coal, oil and gas), increases the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases and particles in the air. These gases and particles affect the Earth’s energy balance, changing both the amount of sunlight absorbed by the planet and the emission of heat (long wave or thermal radiation) to space. The net effect is a global warming that has become substantial during the past three decades.  

He believes that global warming from continued burning of more and more fossil fuels poses clear dangers for the planet and for the planet’s present and future inhabitants because coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air. He feels that rather than building new coal fired power stations we should phase out the use of coal entirely, unless its CO2 is captured and sequestered. Coal has more imbedded carbon in it than any other fossil fuel.

If James Hansen is right then the rising demand for power in the United Kingdom will cause us some problems. The availability of natural gas to Western Europe will likely fall as it becomes too scarce or expensive; oil will inevitably become more expensive (nearly $100 and rising) and as Western Europe has very little natural gas and oil it will to dig up or import coal and burn it to generate electricity.

Already Germany and the United Kingdom are thinking about two projects for new coal fired power stations. These kinds of projects or usually offered with assurances about carbon sequestration and public safety, but these promises are usually worthless as the reality of commercial interests kicks in and the multinational businesses to profit while the rest of the world pays the bill. 

Dr Hansen is probably worried about the number of coal fired power stations being built in China – around two every week at the last count. China’s carbon dioxide emissions are as a consequence rising at above 10% per annum, compared with rises of around 1½ % for the USA and the United Kingdom. China is now the developed countries’ industrial heartland; most of our goods are made there. It has replaced the Ruhr in Germany, the Midlands of England and the industrial cities of the mid west of America.  

Venture capitalists always encourage people to have goods and products made in China because labour prices are cheap there, and as a result the world is getting cheap but very dirty industry. Many will profit as economies grow and people become wealthier and able to consume more, buying goods far cheaper than otherwise and the environment suffers. We may not get the fog and smog from China in London, but the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are evenly distributed around the world.

No venture capitalist is really interested in the environment when care of it stands in the way of a profit. Dragons in the den breathe fire, emitting carbon dioxide copiously. 

Dr Hansen has gone on record that if we continue our present rate of emissions then by 2016 the changes in our climate will be irreversible. I hope that he is wrong, because I see no sign of there being the will or the desire to undertake the fundamental changes that are necessary. 

2 Responses

  1. I concur with your view that there is almost no realistic chance of the world being able to agree any siginificant measures which are likely to reverse the effects of climate change.

    However, not wanting to be too pessimistic is there not a possibility that future technology will be able to reduce the effects of climate changed or are we all doomed?

  2. People have been hoping that nuclear fisson might be able to do it but in the past fifty years we are no closer. i know of no other technology, but if anyone out there does please tell me!

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