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Burned Up About the Other Fossil Fuel

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Here's something to ponder as you park your Prius: What if gas guzzling isn't the problem?

That rather counterintuitive theme emerged yesterday from a visit to Washington by James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute and one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming in a congressional hearing 20 years ago yesterday. As he undertook a commemorative, I-told-you-so tour, from Diane Rehm's radio show to ABC News to the National Press Club to the House of Representatives, he made a point of saying the biggest worry isn't what we put in our cars, but what we put in our power plants.

"Practically, I don't see how we can stop putting the oil in the atmosphere, because that's owned by Russia and Saudi Arabia," he advised the House committee on global warming. "We can make our vehicles more efficient, but that oil is going to get used and it's going to get in the atmosphere . . . and it doesn't really matter much how fast we burn it. But what we could do is stop the coal."

The theme was much the same at the press club, where he gave a luncheon speech. "CO2from oil is going to get into the atmosphere," he said, because "you're not going to be able to tell Saudi Arabia and Russia, the countries that have oil, not to sell their oil." Hansen's solution: "Phase out coal as promptly as is practical."

The message from the celebrated scientist was somewhat at odds with a popular culture that has equated global warming with miles per gallon. And while Hansen wasn't discouraging fuel economy -- he called it "very important," because it could discourage drilling for "every last drop of oil" -- he said there's hope of preventing the world from burning through the rest of the world's major oil reserves. If we don't put it in our Hummers, the Chinese will eventually put it in theirs. "We can't prevent [using] the big, easily available oil in these superdeposits that Saudi Arabia have," he said. "That's going to end up in the atmosphere. I don't see any way to avoid it."

But what we could do, Hansen said, is phase out all coal use by 2030 except at those power plants that could capture the carbon dioxide. With the help of a carbon tax, coal would be replaced by solar, wind and other renewable energy, he said. That, and improved forestry and agriculture, could return carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to safe-for-the-planet levels, even if we burn through the half of Earth's oil that we haven't already used.

Environmental leaders hailed Hansen as a conquering hero as he marked the 20th anniversary of his original testimony to the Senate energy committee yesterday. Former senator Tim Wirth introduced him at the press club as a "brave and lonely leader" of the fight against climate change. "Jim Hansen is a hero of science, a hero of our planet," Wirth said. Two hours later in the Rayburn House Office Building, Rep. Ed Markey called him a "modern-day Cassandra" -- but then abandoned that comparison for a more flattering one. "Dr. Hansen is a latter-day climate-change Paul Revere," Markey proposed.

But Hansen was too dour about the condition of the Earth to enjoy such praise. "We have limited time," he complained when the audience at the press club gave him an extended standing ovation. "Actually, it's not a time to celebrate. Although the issue has become popular, the fact of the matter is that the emissions are continuing, basically unfettered." Likewise, the first sentence out of his mouth after Markey's effusive introduction was this: "It's probably also worth pointing out that our actions to deal with climate change over the past 20 years have really been minuscule and we're really running out of time."

Hansen's stature was raised substantially -- if accidentally -- when Bush administration political appointees a few years ago tried to silence him by ordering him to make his public statements consistent with official policy. Because of the public embarrassment the administration suffered from that episode, Hansen is now untouchable. In addition to his duties at Goddard, he has an adjunct professorship at Columbia and takes "vacation" time to speak as a "private citizen" on the issue of global warming.

Yesterday was one such vacation day -- and Hansen showed no fear of his administration superiors as he sounded new and better alarms: "a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. . . . We've passed the tipping point. . . . We are going to lose all of the arctic sea ice within the next five to 10 years. . . . We are in the process of pushing off the planet polar and alpine species. . . . There's the potential for ecosystems to begin to collapse."

The Post's Sally Quinn asked Hansen if he has "had a chance to sit down face to face with President Bush and tell him everything that you've just told us."

Hansen laughed at the thought. "Unfortunately, no, I've not had a chance to talk to the president," he said. "I know that Michael Crichton did." (Bush was otherwise engaged yesterday meeting with members of the Phoenix Mercury, the winners of last year's WNBA championship.)

Since his appearance on the Hill 20 years ago, Hansen had lost most of his hair; the few remaining strands, suspended over his head by static electricity or some other force, gave him a crazy-professor look. Now 67, he still speaks in the slow cadence of his native Iowa and the technical dialect of a physicist. But he has embraced his role as polemicist as well, accusing fossil-fuel interests of "crimes against humanity" and demanding that politicians "have the guts" to embrace a carbon tax.

But the carbon tax remains a political nonstarter, and lawmakers were despairing as they listened to Hansen's grim presentation in the Rayburn Building -- just a few blocks from Congress's own coal-fired Capitol Power Plant. "You've been at this for two decades, and we've made marginal to no progress," Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) told Hansen. "What should be our short-term goal?"

The answer had nothing to do with Priuses and fuel cells. "There is a difference between oil CO2and coal CO2in that we can slow down the oil but we're not going to prevent it," the scientist said. "Coal is the one that we could prevent, so I think the most important near-term thing is to say let's have a moratorium on coal."

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