WILMINGTON, Delaware (AFP) — Global warming has plunged the planet into a crisis and the fossil fuel industries are trying to hide the extent of the problem from the public, NASA's top climate scientist says.
"We've already reached the dangerous level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," James Hansen, 67, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told AFP here.
"But there are ways to solve the problem" of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which Hansen said has reached the "tipping point" of 385 parts per million.
In a paper he was submitting to Science magazine on Monday, Hansen calls for phasing out all coal-fired plants by 2030, taxing their emissions until then, and banning the building of new plants unless they are designed to trap and segregate the carbon dioxide they emit.
The major obstacle to saving the planet from its inhabitants is not technology, insisted Hansen, named one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2006 by Time magazine.
"The problem is that 90 percent of energy is fossil fuels. And that is such a huge business, it has permeated our government," he maintained.
"What's become clear to me in the past several years is that both the executive branch and the legislative branch are strongly influenced by special fossil fuel interests," he said, referring to the providers of coal, oil and natural gas and the energy industry that burns them.
In a recent survey of what concerns people, global warming ranked 25th.
"The industry is misleading the public and policy makers about the cause of climate change. And that is analogous to what the cigarette manufacturers did. They knew smoking caused cancer, but they hired scientists who said that was not the case."
Hansen says that with an administration and legislature that he believes are "well oiled, our best hope is the judicial branch."
Last year Hansen testified before the US Congress that "interference with communication of science to the public has been greater during the current administration than at any time in my career."
Government public relations officials, he said, filter the facts in science reports to reduce "concern about the relation of climate change to human-made greenhouse gas emissions."
While he recognizes that he has stepped outside the traditional role of scientists as researchers rather than as public policy advocates, he says he does so because "in this particular situation we've reached a crisis."
The policy makers, "the people who need to know are ignorant of the actual status of the matter, and the gravity of the matter, and most important, the urgency of the matter," he charged.
"It's analogous to an engineer who sees that there's a flaw in the space shuttle before it is to be launched. You don't have any choice. You have to say something. That's really all that I'm doing," he explained.
Hansen was in Wilmington to receive a 50,000 dollar Common Wealth Award for outstanding achievement, along with the former prime minister of Australia John Howard, the US actress Glenn Close, and NBC news anchor Ann Curry.
The awards are provided by a trust of the late Ralph Hayes, a former director of Coca Cola and Bank of Delaware, now PNC. In 29 years, 165 former honorees in seven fields have included former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former US newsman Walter Cronkite, French marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Howard, who would not sign the Kyoto protocol when he was in office, told AFP: "I thought it was the right policy at the time because the major emitters" were not on board."
He added: "You need a new Kyoto protocol with all the major emitters committed to it. Then you are cooking with gas."
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