Jun 30 2008


Things are heating up – a penguin joke. James Hansen testified before Congress 20 years after his famous warning about Global Warming. Famous, at least, for penguins and polar bears.

If I told you only two Congresspeople showed up to hear one of the world’s greatest experts talk about a threat that could end human civilization as you know it would you laugh or cry? Human civilization. Some of us consider that yet another penguin joke.

After reading Hansen’s testimony, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times posted his comments beneath the following headline: “Are Big Oil and Big Coal Climate Criminals?

[Hansen] said everything he has been saying for years: unabated warming would erode the ice sheets, flood coastal cities and drive many species into extinction.

But there was a much discussed recommendation in both his oral presentation and a written statement he prepared beforehand: that the heads of oil and coal companies who knowingly delayed action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions were committing a crime. “These CEO’s, these captains of industry,” he said in the briefing, “in my opinion, if they don’t change their tactics they’re guilty of crimes against humanity and nature.

Adelie Penguins – Photo: Heidi N. Geisz

From the penguin perspective, you humans have some odd ideas about crime. You can imprison a man or a woman for stealing money from a grocery store, but you seem to turn away from the larger crimes: destroying the Amazon forest, allowing the glaciers to melt, allowing species after species to disappear.

You are the smart ones, after all. Fire, the atom, the Space Shuttle, the iPod.

And now you seem to turn away from the obvious.

James Hansen terms it the “global cataclysm:”

He testified:

Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that
absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.

More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine
species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

Weddell Seal under the ice – Photo: Getty

A kind lady wrote to us recently kindly suggesting that we use too many words. That humans have a short attention span. That if we wanted to get our point across we needed to be more like television. What, we wondered, would that look like? How about: The End Is Near! Or maybe: “You’re Killing Us All!”

While we all think about the perfect 30 second spot, how about you think more about what Dr. Hansen has to say:

The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.

Like his very smart carbon tax, Hansen offered some clear ideas for action:

We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.

Now I imagine many of you are looking for climate criminal part. Are you ready?

Hansen continues:

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet.

What is the term you humans use? Oh yeah, we penguins are interested parties. Count us among those “countless species” who can lose.

I guess the question for you how much are a bunch of polar bears or a bunch of penguins worth? And if corporate greed and your need for a carbon economy kills us, are any of you quilty?

James Hansen calls it a high crime against humanity. Polar bears would call it a high crime against polar bears. And we’d call it a high crime against penguins. All of us would call it a high crime against nature.

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Jun 10 2008


Sorry. Sorry. A heartfelt penguin apology for not writing sooner.
We have been busy here in the land of ice and snow.

Many young people write us asking what they can do to save the earth. Of course, none of us have gone to school, let alone college. We have what we call “ice smarts” – you call it street smarts. But there is a very smart man who has a very simple but very smart idea about what can be done. James Hansen works for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and teaches Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.

His plan is called “Carbon Tax and 100% Dividend.” We’ll do our penguin best to describe it. Taxing fossil fuels raises the prices of fuel but spurs reduced use. That is what is absolutely necessary today. Reducing the use of the fuel that drives global warming. Unfortunately, there are those who are fighting against the global movement to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels – and the drive to increase the use of renewable fuels.

Of course, there are many different ways of taxing oil and gas and coal. Many allow companies to buy and sell the right to use energy. Many proposals are about business as usual and are designed by and favor the wealthy users of energy.

James Hansen’s plan
starts when fossil fuel energy is first sold – “within the
country or at the last (e.g., at the gas pump), but it can be collected easily and reliably.
You cannot hide coal in your purse; it travels in railroad cars that are easy to spot.”

So all users of coal, oil and gas are taxed. The question is how does the system work and how do you protect average working people.

Hansen continues:

A carbon tax will raise energy prices, but lower and middle income people, especially,
will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead. Product demand will
spur economic activity and innovation. The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus
economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases. Effects
will permeate society. Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport
will become more expensive and vice versa – it is likely, e.g., that the UK will stop
importing and exporting 15,000 tons of waffles each year. There will be a growing price
incentive for life style changes needed for sustainable living.

There is a price to be paid for addressing the climate crisis; but the price has to be paid fairly.

Hansen argues that there is a simple way to build in fairness:

The entire carbon tax should be returned to the public, with a monthly deposit to their
bank accounts, an equal share to each person (if no bank account provided, an annual
check – social security number must be provided). No bureaucracy is needed to figure
this out. If the initial carbon tax averages $1200 per person per year, $100 is deposited in
each account each month (Detail: perhaps limit to four shares per family, with child
shares being half-size, i.e., no marriage penalty but do not encourage population growth).

The price is oil is rising all over the world. The cost of producing and delivering food is rising. Working people are suffering as prices rise. An unfair tax system will only make things worse. Here is what Hansen has to say:

The worst thing about the present inadequate political approach is that it will generate
public backlash. Taxes will increase, with no apparent benefit. The reaction would
likely delay effective emission reductions, so as to practically guarantee that climate
would pass tipping points with devastating consequences for nature and humanity.

Americans, in particular, are always concerned about how the government spends their tax money. Hansen has some strong ideas about all this.

Carbon tax and 100% dividend, on the contrary, will be a breath of fresh air, a boon and
boom for the economy. The tax is progressive, the poorest benefitting most, with
profligate energy users forced to pay for their excesses. Incidentally, it will yield strong
incentive for aliens to become legal; otherwise they receive no dividend while paying the
same carbon tax rate as everyone.

Special interests and their lobbyists in alligator shoes will fight carbon tax and 100%
dividend tooth and nail. They want to determine who gets your tax money in the usual
Washington way, Congress allocating money program-by-program, substituting their
judgment for that of the market place. The lobbyists can afford the shoes. Helping
Washington figure out how to spend your money is a very lucrative business.

But we can save the planet and alligators by making sure that not one thin dime of the
carbon tax is siphoned off by lobbyists for their clients – 100% must be returned to
citizens as dividend. Make this your motto: “100% or fight! No alligator shoes!”

We started this blog to help you understand what is happening to our world. We are only penguins after all.

We have no vote. We pay no taxes. But you do.

Go to James Hansen’s website and read more.

Save the Ice. Save the Earth. Save our Home.

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