«DIRECT TESTIMONY OF JAMES E. HANSEN Q. Please state your name and business address. A. My name is James E. Hansen. My business address is 2880 ...»
STATE OF IOWA
BEFORE THE IOWA UTILITIES BOARD
DOCKET NO. GCU-07-1
INTERSTATE POWER AND LIGHT
DIRECT TESTIMONY OF JAMES E. HANSEN
Q. Please state your name and business address.
A. My name is James E. Hansen. My business address is 2880 Broadway, New York, New York 10025.
Q. By whom are you presently employed and in what capacity?
A. I am employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), which has its home base in Greenbelt, Maryland. I am the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is a division of GSFC located in New York City. I am also a senior scientist in the Columbia University Earth Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia. I am 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. I am testifying here as a private citizen, a resident of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania on behalf of the planet, of life on Earth, including all species.
Q. What is your educational background?
A. I was trained in physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa in the space science program of Professor James Van Allen. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics, a master’s degree in astronomy, and a Ph.D. in physics, all from the University of Iowa. I also did research as a graduate student at the Universities of Kyoto and Tokyo, and I was a post-doctoral fellow of the United States National Science Foundation studying at the Sterrewacht, Leiden University, Netherlands, under Prof. Henk van de Hulst.
Q. Please describe your professional experience.
A. Upon graduating from the University of Iowa in February 1967 I joined the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where I have worked ever since, except for 1969 when I was a post-doctoral fellow in the Netherlands. In my first ten years at the Goddard Institute I focused on planetary research. I was Principal Investigator for an experiment on the Pioneer Venus spacecraft to study the clouds of Venus and I was involved in other planetary missions. In the mid-1970s, as evidence of human-made effects on Earth’s atmosphere and climate became apparent, I began to spend most of my time in research on the Earth’s climate. I became director of the Goddard Institute in 1981, focusing the Institute’s program on global change, while maintaining a broad perspective from planetary studies and the Earth’s history.
Q. What is the purpose of your testimony?
A. My aim is to present clear scientific evidence describing the impact that coal-fired power plants (without carbon capture and storage) will have on the Earth’s climate, and thus on the well-being of today’s and future generations of people and on all creatures and species of creation.
Burning of fossil fuels, primarily 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.
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. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air. Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered (stored in one of several possible ways).
Q. Coal is only one of the fossil fuels. Can such a strong statement specifically against coal be justified, given still-developing understanding of climate change?
A. Yes. Coal reserves contain much more carbon than do oil and natural gas reserves, and it is impractical to capture CO2 emissions from the tailpipes of vehicles. Nor is there any prospect that Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States and other major oil-producers will decide to leave their oil in the ground. Thus unavoidable CO2 emissions from oil and gas in the next few decades will take atmospheric CO2 amounts close to, if not beyond, the level needed to cause dangerous climate change. The only practical way to prevent CO2 levels from going far into the dangerous range, with disastrous effects for humanity and other inhabitants of the planet, is to phase out use of coal except at power plants where the CO2 is captured and sequestered.
Q. But why focus on a coal plant in Iowa? Coal-fired power plants are being built at a much faster rate in China.
A. The United States is responsible for more than three times as much of the excess CO2 in the air than any other country. The United States and Europe together are responsible for well over half of the increase from the pre-industrial CO2 amount (280 ppm, ppm = parts per million) to the present-day CO2 amount (about 385 ppm). The United States will continue to be most responsible for the human-made CO2 increase for the next few decades, even though China’s ongoing emissions will exceed those of the United States. Although a portion of human-made CO2 emissions is taken up by the ocean, there it exerts a ‘back pressure’ on the atmosphere, so that, in effect, a substantial fraction of past emissions remains in the air for many centuries, until it is incorporated into ocean sediments. Furthermore, even as China’s emissions today approximately equal those of the United States, China’s per capita CO2 emissions are only about 20% of those in the United States.
China, India and other developing countries must be part of the solution to global warming, and surely they will be, if developed countries take the appropriate first steps. China and India have the most to lose from uncontrolled climate change, as they have huge populations living near sea level, and they have the most to gain from reduced local air pollution. Analogous to the approach of the Montreal Protocol, developing countries, with technical assistance, will need to reduce their emissions soon after the developed world reduces its emissions.
Furthermore, it makes economic sense for the United States to begin strong actions now to reduce emissions. Required technology developments in efficiency, renewable energies, truly
Q. How can one power plant in Iowa be of any significance in comparison with many powerplants in China?
A. The Iowa power plant can make an important difference because of tipping points in the climate system, tipping points in life systems, and tipping points in social behavior. A tipping point occurs in a system with positive feedbacks. When forcing toward a change, and change itself, become large enough, positive feedbacks can cause a sudden acceleration of change with very little, if any, additional forcing.
Arctic sea ice is an example of a tipping point in the climate system. As the warming global ocean transports more heat into the Arctic, sea ice cover recedes and the darker open ocean surface absorbs more sunlight. The ocean stores the added heat, winter sea ice is thinner, and thus increased melting can occur in following summers, even though year-to-year variations in sea ice area will occur with fluctuations of weather patterns and ocean heat transport.
Arctic sea ice loss can pass a tipping point and proceed rapidly. Indeed, the Arctic sea ice tipping point has been reached. However, the feedbacks driving further change are not ‘runaway’ feedbacks that proceed to loss of all sea ice without continued forcing. Furthermore, sea ice loss is reversible. If human-made forcing of the climate system is reduced, such that the planetary energy imbalance becomes negative, positive feedbacks will work in the opposite sense and sea ice can increase rapidly, just as sea ice decreased rapidly when the planetary energy imbalance was positive.
Planetary energy imbalance can be discussed quantitatively later, including all of the factors that contribute to it. However, it is worth noting here that the single most important action needed to decrease the present large planetary imbalance driving climate change is curtailment of CO2 emissions from coal burning. Unless emissions from coal burning are reduced, actions to reduce other climate forcings cannot stabilize climate.
The most threatening tipping point in the climate system is the potential instability of large ice sheets, especially West Antarctica and Greenland. If disintegration of these ice sheets passes their tipping points, dynamical collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and part of the Greenland ice sheet could proceed out of our control. The ice sheet tipping point is especially dangerous because West Antarctica alone contains enough water to cause about 20 feet (6 meters) of sea level rise.
Hundreds of millions of people live less than 20 feet above sea level. Thus the number of people affected would be 1000 times greater than in the New Orleans Katrina disaster. Although Iowa would not be directly affected by sea level rise, repercussions would be worldwide.
Ice sheet tipping points and disintegration necessarily unfold more slowly than tipping points for sea ice, on time scales of decades to centuries, because of the greater inertia of thick ice sheets. But that inertia is not our friend, as it also makes ice sheet disintegration more difficult to halt once it gets rolling. Moreover, unlike sea ice cover, ice sheet disintegration is practically irreversible. Nature requires thousands of years to rebuild an ice sheet. Even a single millennium, about 30 generations for humans, is beyond the time scale of interest or comprehension to most people.
Because of the danger of passing the ice sheet tipping point, even the emissions from one Iowa coal plant, with emissions of 5,900,000 tons of CO2 per year and 297,000,000 over 50 3 years could be important as “the straw on the camel’s back”. The Iowa power plant also contributes to tipping points in life systems and human behavior.
Q. How can Iowa contribute to tipping points in life systems and human behavior?
There are millions of species of plants and animals on Earth. These species depend upon each other in a tangled web of interactions that humans are only beginning to fathom. Each species lives, and can survive, only within a specific climatic zone. When climate changes, species migrate in an attempt to stay within their climatic niche. However, large rapid climate change can drive most of the species on the planet to extinction. Geologic records indicate that mass extinctions, with loss of more than half of existing species, occurred several times in the Earth’s history. New species developed, but that process required hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. If we destroy a large portion of the species of creation, those that have existed on Earth in recent millennia, the Earth will be a far more desolate planet for as many generations of humanity as we can imagine.
Today, as global temperature is increasing at a rate of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade, isotherms (a line of a given average temperature) are moving poleward at a rate of about 50-60 km (35 miles) per decade (Hansen et al. 2006). Some species are moving, but many can move only slowly, pathways may be blocked as humans have taken over much of the planet, and species must deal with other stresses that humans are causing. If the rate of warming continues to accelerate, the cumulative effect this century may result in the loss of a majority of existing species.
The biologist E.O. Wilson (2006) explains that the 21st century is a “bottleneck” for species, because of extreme stresses they will experience, most of all because of climate change.
He foresees a brighter future beyond the fossil fuel era, beyond the human population peak that will occur if developing countries follow the path of developed countries and China to lower fertility rates. Air and water can be clean and we can learn to live with other species of creation in a sustainable way, using renewable energy. The question is: how many species will survive the pressures of the 21st century bottleneck? Interdependencies among species, some less mobile than others, can lead to collapse of ecosystems and rapid nonlinear loss of species, if climate change continues to increase.
Coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact. Increased fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, compared to the pre-industrial atmosphere, is due 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. As oil resources peak, coal will determine future CO2 levels. Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.
So, how many of the exterminated species should be blamed on the 297,000,000 tons of CO2 that will be produced in 50 years by the proposed Sutherland Generating Station Unit 4 power plant? If the United States and the rest of the world continue with “business-as-usual” increases in CO2 emissions, a large fraction of the millions of species on Earth will be lost and it will be fair to assign a handful of those to Sutherland Generating Station Unit 4, even though we cannot assign responsibility for specific species. Moreover, the effect of halting construction of 4 this power plant potentially could be much greater, because of the possibility of positive feedbacks among people.
Q. What tipping points in human behavior are you referring to?