To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
August 27, 2015
RE: Not just New Orleans -- many coastal cities may drown

James Hansen says sea levels
could rise faster than expected

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

James Hansen recently came out with a new prediction on global warming. This warning should be heeded by everyone looking to this December‘s summit meeting on global warming (to be held in Paris). Hansen issued his warning along with a group of 16 other scientists who have been working on global warming for years and are concerned about seeing the Paris summit take urgently needed decisions.

Who is James Hansen? Formerly chief scientist at NASA, Hansen left his post there in 2013 to become a full-time climate activist. Hansen has courageously campaigned on the issue of global warming for years. In 1981, Hansen and a team of other NASA scientists published an article in the magazine “Science” warning of increasing CO2. They said: “Potential effects on climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia ..., erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.” All this has come true. We get a preview of things to come when we see drought in California and the burning of forests in Washington state. Pine forests throughout the West are being eaten up by beetles that thrive in drought, and lack of snow in the Rockies is causing a drop in Colorado River water, threatening water supplies for Las Vegas and other Southwestern cities. Much of the West’s water problems are caused by excessive use and natural wet-dry climate cycles, but the problems are exacerbated by global warming. Last year was the warmest year on record and last month the hottest month ever.

Hansen and fellow scientists, in their new declaration, do not waste time debating whether human society is impacting global warming. They simply say humans began contributing to climate change 1,000 years ago, and human impact is intensifying today because of the 20th century’s explosive growth of fossil fuel use. The question is not whether our carbon-hungry society is causing climate change, but how disastrous will it be, how much time do we have, and what can we do to adjust to its effects? They argue at length, “There is no morally defensible excuse to delay phase-out of fossil fuel emissions as rapidly as possible.”

Continued production of fossil fuels is “morally indefensible”. Why? Because the results could well involve a rise in sea levels so substantial that the world’s coastal cities would all have to be abandoned. As Team Hansen says, “If greenhouse gas emissions grow at a rate that continues ..., multi-meter sea level rise would become practically unavoidable.” But a rise of that size would mean cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles would be largely under water. Some of their buildings would still stick up above water level, but one-story houses would be flooded, streets impossible to travel on (unless you were in a boat), and subways gone. Coastal cities would look like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (and New Orleans would be destroyed). Tens of millions of people would have to move farther inland, losing their jobs and livelihood while the nation loses its ports. The financial cost would be reckoned in trillions at least. And this is just the U.S.; coastal cities of China, India, Bangladesh, etc. would suffer a similar fate. Team Hansen sums it up: “Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Hansen’s paper emphasizes new discoveries about the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. New evidence of a feedback loop in the ocean shows that cool fresh water from melting glaciers forces warm salty sea water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up their melting rate. The result is the ice sheets melt ten times faster than previous consensus estimates. This is not just theory; numerous observations in the past 18 months indicate this is fact. Hansen is critical of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for trying to take a moderate, consensus view of global warming that allowed every world leader to agree to something minimal instead of boldly stating the hard facts. The IPCC itself had said that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 70% by the year 2050; yet despite their world climate summit meetings little if any progress has been made in reaching that goal. The melting of ice sheets means that sea level rise will be sped up by at least a century, and this makes emergency action necessary.

We cannot wait for world leaders to give up their fossil fuels and agree to a gradual transition to renewables that would take centuries. And we cannot wait for the effects of a new tax on carbon to kick in; this market-oriented measure would take decades at least to affect carbon use and in the meantime would alienate the poor and working class people whose support for the transition is essential. Many environmentalists including Hansen himself have advocated the carbon tax as a way to make the transition, but this means relying on the market to (maybe) bring about change. This is too slow and too unsure; the only thing guaranteed is that masses of ordinary people will get fed up with environmentalism and its costs. Instead of making ordinary people pay for the transition by way of higher taxes, we should make the polluters pay. What’s needed are massive restrictions on fossil fuel use. This will at the same time require massive investments in infrastructure – insulating buildings, new kinds of power plants, new kinds of transportation like electric cars and high-speed trains, etc. This will generate lots of new jobs, but we cannot allow it to become a boondoggle that profiteers get rich off of. Working class people must be brought into supervision of the transition, and this means mobilizing them to support environmentalist

Government leaders in the U.S. are dillydallying around, trying to avoid the hard questions while their friends in the oil and gas industry make their millions up to the last minute as coastal cities sink under water. Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan embraces dirty energy like fracked oil and gas and even – unbelievably, after Fukushima -- promotes nuclear power. Obama is trying to walk a line promulgating a few new regulations while continuing to embrace oil and gas and free-market fundamentalism. This won’t work. The greed of the frackers and profiteers won’t be satisfied until they’ve squeezed every last ounce of profit out of the old dirty technology, and if a few million people starve to death or drown or perish from a lack of clean drinking water, they won’t care. Already rich people in Florida are building private islands to shield themselves against the deluge they know is coming. But what happens to the poor? It’s as if Noah had guards around his ark demanding $10 million admission.

Since the politicians in charge, Republican and Democrat, are captured and beholden to fossil fuel interests, the big changes necessary to make the transition to renewable energy won’t be coming from them. Even lots of mainstream environmentalist organizations are eager to make deals with the energy companies, endorse their pathetic “green” programs, and support futile market-oriented measures that will take effect, if at all, in decades. We don’t have decades. A two-degree (Centigrade) rise in temperature is already unavoidable; the IPCC had said it would be unsafe to go beyond this, but that is now inevitable at a minimum. James Hansen warned in 2008 that we should not go above 350 PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, else we ran the risk of tripping dangerous tipping points for climate change. Today that 350 mark is long gone; we’re at 400 PPM and still rising. The time to start experimenting with new forms of energy was decades ago. But instead of helping develop new kinds of wind machines and solar cells the fossil fuel companies were sitting on their fat profits and fighting wars to monopolize oil. Even today, after BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, their “solution” is to drill the Arctic while fracking more oil and gas.

Ordinary people, workers and students and scientists, are actively protesting contamination of the earth while urging transition to a non-carbon economy. People are blockading coal trains, protesting new pipelines and leakages from old ones, demonstrating against nuclear power plants, surrounding ships going to drill the Arctic, and -- yes -- fighting against fracking. We need to help build such a movement and to bring forward the class issues to generate solutions to global warming.

(Pete Brown is active with the petition to ban fracking in Michigan) <>

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Posted on August 31, 2015