Transcript: 'Have we passed the point where humanity is doomed?' riff. 12 May 2008

James Hansen, the chief climatologist for NASA, is saying we need to reduce CO2 levels fast, they are already too high, and other countries are taking action, but Bush and McCain are procrastinating. Thom rifffs on the latest climate news and views. Is it already too late?

Thom Hartmann's 'Have we passed the point where humanity is doomed?' riff, 12 May 2008

John McCain goes to a Danish wind turbine facility to give a speech about global warming. He said, you know, a few reasonable things, wind power, bring America closer to energy independence, our economy depends on clean and affordable alternatives to fossil fuels. You know, some of his languages is so nice. It's sort of like, you know, maybe the free market will fix this problem.

Let me let me put a parallel analogy, a metaphor out here. If, if your house was on fire, if your neighborhood was on fire and somebody came along and said, 'you know, if we provided enough of an incentive to private corporations that they could come in and start private for-profit fire departments, we might be able to put this fire out' eventually, after your house is burned out. It's an imperfect metaphor but here's the bottom line.

'Scientists', this is David Adam writing in the Guardian. "Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million". This is up 40% since the industrial revolution. It's the highest in 650,000 years. From 1970 to 2000, the average concentration of carbon dioxide was rising at the rate of 1.5 parts per million per year, but since 2000 it has been rising at 2.1 parts per million per year. What does all that mean?

James Hansen, the chief scientist, the chief climatologist for NASA, the guy who really gets all this stuff has laid this out in a very, very stark report that just last week was issued and that Bill McKibben is writing about over at You can read his piece, it's called Civilization’s Last Chance. And Bill McKibben, who you know has been an activist in this arena and others for many, many years, a great guy, he says, "we have a new number that we have to worry about, that we have to direct our attention to. That new number, 350". Now, why 350 if right now the world is at 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide? Why 350?

Well this is what James Hansen wrote. This is quoting from a scientific paper by NASA's chief climatologist: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm". Now he suggests that there are six irreversible tipping points that we hit when we go above 350 parts per million, where we are right now by the way. Bill McKibben points out, "Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year — two decades ago", just twenty years ago it was going up half that fast.

And now the news, there's also news reports out that methane, which is actually more potent greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide, is dramatically starting to surge in our hemisphere. Why? Because huge patches of permafrost, particularly in the northern parts of Russia... Siberia, the Siberian permafrost as well as the Alaskan permafrost, northern Canadian permafrost are melting. And these are in many cases, this is locked up vegetation that has been frozen for 5, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100,000 years. It's melting and rotting and releasing methane from the rotting process into the atmosphere. This speeds up the warming.

On top of that you've got the ice caps, the polar ice caps that used to reflect 80% of the sunlight hit that them because they were white, melting being replaced by blue water which absorbs 80% of the sunlight. This is one of those tipping points.

Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC, he said, "If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment".

As Bill McKibben writes, "If we did everything right, Hansen says, we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly... We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff. More likely, though", McKibben says, "we’re the coyote", you know, "whoa", looking down, because if we really want to make this change what we have to do is make "car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way U.S. automakers made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II.". That's the kind of action that is going to be necessary.

Well, John McCain says, well, let's bring the free market in here and maybe we could do something about this by 2050. When he's long dead, many of us will be long dead. Well, many of us older farts, anyway. But the generation of people being born now and people much younger, young people now, they will still be around, but the planet will no longer be hospitable to life; to us.

At the same time the National Geographic organization did a survey on the environmental impact of consumer habits, Mary Shaw writing about this over at, and lifestyles in fourteen countries. Who's actually doing the most, and the least, to clean up this mess, this global warming mess. They looked at Brazil, India, China, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Spain, Japan, France, Canada and the US. And who is dead last? Us, the US.

And John McCain's solution? He says that we should set a goal that by 2050 the country will reduce carbon emissions. George Bush is saying, "well, let's start and 2025". Now, you know, to his credit, I suppose, John McCain also took a swipe, this Glen Johnson writing in the Associated Press. He "took a swipe at President Bush, who balked at the beginning of his term at signing the Kyoto ... protocols. John McCain says, "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto. The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach -- an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation". But again, his remedy is the so-called free market. While other nations around the world are saying, "no, we're going to do something about this right now".

It wasn't the free market that built the atomic bomb. It wasn't the free market the declared the Manhattan project. It wasn't the free market that built the Eisenhower highway system all across the United States. It wasn't, frankly, the free market to put the rail system in the United States in the 1850s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It was that government that built this infrastructure that made it possible for there to be a rail system. It was the government that built the atomic bomb for better or for worse. It was the government that said we're going to fight World War II, were going to stop Hitler and Tojo.

When you're confronted with a serious crisis you don't sit back and say, 'well, we're going to let the free market take care of this'. Because (a) there is no free market. It's like antibiotics right now. You realize there's a bacteria that soldiers are bringing back from Iraq for which there is no cure? That it's one of the leading causes of amputations among GI's who have been wounded because it's multi drug resistant? I mean, it's just become resistant to virtually everything. This is worse than MRSA, the multi drug resistance, I think its a staph. It's MRSA. This is even worse. We need a new antibiotic for it, but it's not going to be developed by the so-called free market; the drug companies aren't interested, they can make more money selling cholesterol medication. They want to sell drugs that people need to use throughout their entire lifetime or for years at a time rather than an antibiotic that somebody takes for two weeks.

Sometimes you have to say, "we the people, in the interest of solving a major crisis, we the people need to get involved". Now is the time. We have to get back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have to slow down this global warming that's happening. We have to change these atmospheric levels. Or we're, you know, as James Hansen says, NASA says, the planet may not be hospitable to life.


  • World carbon dioxide levels highest for 650,000 years, says US report.
    "Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million (ppm), up almost 40% since the industrial revolution and the highest for at least the last 650,000 years.

    The figures, published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its website, also confirm that carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than expected. The annual mean growth rate for 2007 was 2.14ppm - the fourth year in the last six to see an annual rise greater than 2ppm. From 1970 to 2000, the concentration rose by about 1.5ppm each year, but since 2000 the annual rise has leapt to an average 2.1ppm.

  • Civilization’s Last Chance: The Planet Is Nearing a Tipping Point on Climate Change, and It Gets Much Worse, Fast, Bill McKibben.
  • Spoiled Americans Fail the Green Test.
  • McCain urges free-market principles to reduce global warming.
    "He also took a swipe at President Bush, who balked at the beginning of his term at signing the Kyoto global warming protocols. McCain said he would return to the negotiating table.

    "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto. The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach -- an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation," he said.


Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.

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