Tar Sands Oil Must Be Left in the Ground!

“If Canada proceeds [to exploit its vast tar sands reserves], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” So writes Jim Hansen of NASA in a May 9 New York Times op-ed. (If you’re not a Times subscriber, read it here.) He was responding to President Obama’s comment that we can’t do much because Canada will get the oil out even if we don’t build a pipeline to bring it down to the Gulf for refining and export. Examples of apocalyptic game-enders that would result if we ignore the warnings and do not insist on true, game-changing leadership are “the disintegration of the ice sheets,” rising sea levels that would destroy coastal cities, “intolerable” global temperatures, extinction of up to half of the world’s species, and economic meltdown that would put civilization at risk of breakdown. Even in the short term, Hansen predicted, if the Tar Sands oil is extracted and we do not drastically reduce emissions, “More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Do I have your attention?

Even if you know what’s behind this dire warning but have pushed it to the back of your mind, you need to bring it front and center, for Hansen is not just crying doom; he has a solution, but we must all put pressure on our leaders to make it happen. He proposes that President Obama first prevent any pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast and then introduce “economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.” His recommended method is to institute a tax on carbon that would come back to all Americans every month.

This is the latest of a perfect storm of calls for action to slow the warming we are causing: the May 5 Connect the Dots campaign demonstrating the causal link between extreme weather events and climate change, the EPA’s recent landmark proposal to set the first nationwide emissions standards to slow carbon pollution, and a new bill launched May 10 in Congress to end $113 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry.

Another important point of the op-ed: the science is settled. There’s no use wasting time trying to convince deniers. Here are Hansen’s final sentences:

Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.

This conclusion is not controversial; what is debatable is Hansen’s solution, a tax on carbon, which many economists and scientists say (a) can’t get enacted and (b) won’t work. They counter with a call for so-called cap-and-trade legislation. Watch for the resurfacing of the old argument between proponents of the two approaches from a few years ago, when Congress was considering–and we almost got–a cap-and-trade bill. I’ll link to those posts as they are available. Meanwhile, here are highlights of the earlier debate: Times columnist Paul Krugman said on his blog that Hansen “doesn’t understand the economics of emissions control” and took him to task for closing the door on cap and trade in late 2009, when such a bill seemed a real possibility. (Hansen had just published an op-ed calling for a fee on carbon instead.) The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists invited advocates for both systems to weigh in; nearly a dozen did so in 2008. In 2009 McKinsey Publishing invited two experts to argue the two sides and then invited comments from readers; those led to expansion of the argument, which is  summed up here. Back in 2007 Grist posted a guest essay by  Bill Chameides, chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, in which he too argued for cap-and-trade over a carbon tax, giving these reasons:

Unlike a tax, [cap-and-trade] encourages innovation by creating incentives and rewarding those who lower emissions at the least cost. And most importantly, a cap — unlike a tax — guarantees the necessary cuts to stabilize the climate. All a tax does is discourage emissions; it doesn’t specify an emissions target that must be met.

Finally, he argued from history: there was a precedent for a cap-and-trade system, for that’s what brought about the reduction of the sulfur oxide emissions that lead to acid rain. And, he added, ” we were able to do it quickly and cheaply.”

Note: At Think Progress, Joe Romm quotes large chunks of Hansen’s op-ed as he emphasizes the attack on Obama for failing at leading on climate change; he doesn’t go into the proposed solution, but he provides a graph that supports Hansen’s doomsday scenario.

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