The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future

The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future describes what governments need to do to stabilize climate, fulfilling their obligation to young people and future generations. This is the science basis attached to suits being filed this week and in the future in different states and countries.

- Dr. James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, Columbia University Earth Institute, New York

by James Hansen, Pushker Kharecha, Makiko Sato, Paul Epstein, Paul J. Hearty, Ove HoeghGuldberg, Camille Parmesan, Stefan Rahmstorf, Johan Rockstrom, Eelco J.Rohling, Jeffrey Sachs, Peter Smith, Karina von Schuckmann, James C. Zachos

Abstract. We describe scenarios that define how rapidly fossil fuel emissions must be phased down to restore Earth's energy balance and stabilize global climate. A scenario that stabilizes climate and preserves nature is technically possible and it is essential for the future of humanity. Despite overwhelming evidence, governments and the fossil fuel industry continue to propose that all fossil fuels must be exploited before the world turns predominantly to clean energies. If governments fail to adopt policies that cause rapid phase-down of fossil fuel emissions, today's children, future generations, and nature will bear the consequences through no fault of their own. Governments must act immediately to significantly reduce fossil fuel emissions to protect our children's future and avoid loss of crucial ecosystem services, or else be complicit in this loss and its consequences.

1. Background

Humanity is now the dominant force driving changes of Earth's atmospheric composition and thus future climate on the planet. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in burning of fossil fuels is, according to best available science, the main cause of global warming in the past century. It is also well-understood that most of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels will remain in the climate system for millennia. The risk of deleterious or even catastrophic effects of climate change driven by increasing CO2 is now widely recognized by the relevant scientific community.

The climate system has great inertia because it contains a 4-kilometer deep ocean and 2-kilometer thick ice sheets. As a result, global climate responds only slowly, at least initially, to natural and human-made forcings of the system. Consequently, today's changes of atmospheric composition will be felt most by today's young people and the unborn, in other words, by people who have no possibility of protecting their own rights and their future well-being, and who currently depend on others who make decisions today that have consequences over future decades and centuries. Governments have recognized the need to stabilize atmospheric composition at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic climate change, as formalized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. Yet the resulting 1997 Kyoto Protocol was so ineffective that global fossil fuel emissions have since accelerated by 2.5% per year, compared to 1.5% per year in the preceding two decades.

Governments and businesses have learned to make assurances that they are working on clean energies and reduced emissions, but in view of the documented emissions pathway it is not inappropriate to describe their rhetoric as being basically 'greenwash'. The reality is that most governments, strongly influenced by the fossil fuel industry, continue to allow and even subsidize development of fossil fuel deposits. This situation was aptly described in a special energy supplement in the New York Times entitled 'There Will Be Fuel' (Krauss, 2010), which described massive efforts to expand fossil fuel extraction. These efforts include expansion of oil drilling to increasing depths of the global ocean, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.

The true costs of fossil fuels to human well-being and the biosphere is not imbedded in
their price. Fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source today only if they are not made to pay for their damage to human health, to the environment, and to the future well-being of young people who will inherit on-going climate changes that are largely out of their control. Even a moderate but steadily rising price on carbon emissions would be sufficient to move the world toward clean energies, but such an approach has been effectively resisted by the fossil fuel industry.

The so-called 'north-south' injustice of climate disruption has been emphasized in international discussions, and payment of $100B per year to developing countries has been proposed. Focus on this injustice, as developed countries reap the economic benefits of fossil fuels while developing countries are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, is appropriate. Payments, if used as intended, will support adaptation to climate change and mitigation of emissions from developing countries. We must be concerned, however, about the degree to which such payment, from adults in the North to adults in the South, are a modern form of indulgences, allowing fossil fuel emissions to continue with only marginal reductions or even increase.

The greatest injustice of continued fossil fuel dominance of energy is the heaping of climate and environmental damages onto the heads of young people and those yet to be born in both developing and developed countries. The tragedy of this situation is that a pathway to a clean energy future is not only possible, but even economically sensible.

Fossil fuels today power engines of economic development and thus raise the standards of living throughout most of the world. But air and water pollution due to extraction and burning of fossil fuels kills more than 1,000,000 people per year and affects the health of billions of people (Cohen et al., 2005). Burning all fossil fuels would have a climate impact that literally produces a different planet than the one on which civilization developed. The consequences for young people, future generations, and other species would continue to mount over years and centuries. Ice sheet disintegration would cause continual shoreline adjustments with massive civil engineering cost implications as well as widespread heritage loss in the nearly uncountable number of coastal cites. Shifting of climatic zones and repeated climate disruptions would have enormous economic and social costs, especially in the developing world.

These consequences can be avoided via prompt transition to a clean energy future. The benefits would include a healthy environment with clean air and water, preservation of the shorelines and climatic zones that civilization is adapted to, and retention of the many benefits humanity derives from the remarkable diversity of species with which we share this planet.

This comprehensive report continues: Link (PDF).


James Hansen, Pushker Kharecha, Makiko Sato, Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Earth Institute, New York
Paul Epstein, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, Boston
Paul J. Hearty, Bald Head Island Conservancy, North Carolina
Ove HoeghGuldberg, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia
Camille Parmesan, Integrative Biology, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany
Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University, Sweden
Eelco J.Rohling, Southhampton University, United Kingdom
Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Karina von Schuckmann, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, LOCEAN, Paris (hosted by Ifremer, Brest), France
James C. Zachos, Earth and Planetary Science, University of California at Santa Cruz