Next Tuesday is the fourth annual Hansen Day – or HD4 – how do you plan to commemorate it?

What’s “Hansen Day”? Hansen Day – or what should be known as Hansen Day – is July 13. It was on that date in 2006 that NASA scientist and leading climate change
expert James Hansen wrote in the New York Review of Books: “…we have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions. Our previous decade of inaction has made the task more difficult, since emissions in the developing world are accelerating.” (The entire article is worth reading, or re-reading.)

Statistics in the article still surprise me. How could I have forgotten? Warmer isotherms – the bands in which given temperatures dominate – are moving toward the poles at 35 miles per decade, while species that depend on those isotherms are migrating at four miles per decade. If we don’t change our ways – and we haven’t since Dr. Hansen published the article – isotherms will be moving at 70 miles per decade by this century’s end, a recipe for mass extinction.

The same business-as-usual scenario may yield an increase in sea levels of 80 feet (!) by the end of the century, wiping out every coastal city in the world, sending hundreds of millions of people scrambling and setting off global warfare. It seems too impossibly catastrophic to be true, so we ignore it and do nothing.

(I’m typing this at 6:30 a.m. It’s 82 degrees in northwest Vermont, the only time of day when I can be in my office without dissolving into a pool of sweat. It was 99 at 10 p.m. last night. It’s been above 90 for the last five days in this, the land of no air conditioning.)

None of this is inevitable. We have the technology in hand to substantially reduce our use of fossil fuels and their creation of greenhouse gas. We had those technologies four years ago when Jim Hansen wrote his article. We have not mobilized the political will to use them.

We need to tax carbon. Now. What’s happening so graphically in the Gulf of Mexico is exactly what we’re doing to our atmosphere each and every day, except it doesn’t look the same. The consequences, however, will be worse.

In his article, Dr. Hansen writes about Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina discovering, in the 1970s, the damage done to the Earth’s ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbon chemicals (CFCs) and how the global community reacted, via the Montreal Protocol, to phase out CFCs and reduce the damage and eventually, the threat posed by these chemicals. He calls for a similar effort on fossil fuels.

There are several problems here. Although the CFC industry actively lobbied for support from government, we did not live in a CFC economy. We do live in a fossil fuel economy. Oil and coal run the world, any doubts about that should have been laid to rest by the last two presidential administrations taking their marching orders from that industry – one willingly, one with embarrassment.

Second, the fossil fuel industry learned from the ozone crisis. It did not learn how to be a good global citizen and save humankind from the worst effects of our excesses. It learned how to undermine scientists and environmental organizations. It learned how to protect its short-term profits and executive compensation, even at the cost of our civilization. We see that playing out in Congress today as the “representatives” of those most damaged by the latest oil atrocity scream loudest for renewed deep water oil drilling.

This year marks the fourth Hansen Day – there are only six left. Hansen Day should be recognized as a day to take stock of where we have come since July 2006 (the wrong way, really) and think about how far we’ll have to go to avoid the hazards Dr. Hansen outlined in his article.

Maybe the global recession has bought us some time, maybe not. Certainly not enough for us to make up for four years of doing the wrong thing. Since Dr. Hansen’s article was published, China has become a world leader in renewable energy technology, but it has also become the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter. Not good news at the end of the day – or century.

How many more Hansen Days with pass with no action taken? How many can we afford? As he wrote, we have ten years, not to decide, but to fundamentally alter our trajectory.

Hansen Day is not for celebrating, but it should be noted.

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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