What will President Obama do about THE GLOBAL WARMING TIME BOMB?

November 19, 2008

Student readings examining this crisis and President-elect Obama's plans to combat it are followed by discussion questions, subjects for inquiry, citizenship activities, and ideas for student follow-up after Obama is inaugurated.

What can be stated with "a certainty exceeding 99 percent is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb." These recent words from Dr. James Hanson, who informed Congress about the onset of global warming 20 years ago, are a stark warning the world ignores at its peril. The first two student readings below examine the "global warming time bomb" and the dilemmas it poses. A third reading details President-elect Obama's plans for an energy policy to combat global climate change. They are followed by discussion questions, subjects for inquiry, citizenship activities, and a proposal for student follow-up work on the Obama plan after he is inaugurated.

Teachers may find useful the following sets of materials on the energy and global warming issues: "Oil and the Bell-Shaped Curve," "Energy Debate: Oil, Nuclear & the Alternatives," "The Unpleasant News About Global Warming," "Paying for Climate Change," and "Gore & UN Panel Win Nobel for Work on Climate Change."

Go to http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/10/8/11550/3692 for a html transcript of "Barack Obama's Plan To Make America A Global Energy Leader" outlined in Student Reading 3.


Student Reading 1:

"The global warming time bomb"

June 23, 1988: Dr. James Hanson, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, became the first scientist to warn Congress that global warming was underway.

June 23, 2008: Dr. Hanson spoke again about the dangers of global warming, this time before the National Press Club of Washington.

During the 20 years in between, the U.S. did not lead the world or even show serious interest in taking action on global warming. Yet it is a problem that dwarfs every other problem.

In his speech to the National Press Club, Dr. Hanson said that there was one big difference between 1988 and 2008: What can be stated with "a certainty exceeding 99 percent," he said, "is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.

"The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation. Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control.

"A path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year."

Dr. Hanson believes that "climate is nearing dangerous tipping points" and that "elements [of] a global cataclysm are assembled." Among those elements:

1. Global warming causes Arctic Sea ice to melt. "Without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer," says Hanson. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets "are vulnerable to even small additional warming.  If disintegration gets well underway, it will become unstoppable." Hanson adds: "In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees."

2. "Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues."

3. In past warming periods there have been "mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet.  Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years."

4. "Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa."  Unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed, "mountain glaciers, the source of water for hundreds of millions of people, will disappear."

5. "Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home for one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide."

6. Carbon levels in the atmosphere have reached the highest levels for at least the last 650,000 years, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Hanson said last April that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted," these carbon levels must be reduced from their current levels of 385 ppm (parts per million) to, at most 350 PPM" (www.worldchanging.com, 4/21/08)

In his National Press Club speech, Dr. Hanson concluded: "We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly. Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming.

"CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature." Conviction of these CEOs would be no consolation, though, "if we pass on a runaway climate to our children."

A dwindling number of critics continue to argue that if any global warming is taking place, it is part of a natural cyclical process that has occurred in the past. But the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly on the other side.

Thousands of scientists worldwide who have worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have concluded after 20 years of study and four unanimous reports that the evidence is "unequivocal" that human activities, especially during the past 50 years, are the main force for the buildup of greenhouse gases causing global warming. They have also concluded that human beings have the knowledge and the technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its years of work on global warming. The IPCC shared the prize with former Vice President Al Gore, who has worked for years to publicize the panel's conclusions.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why does global warming "dwarf" all other human problems on earth?

3. Consider each of the six "tipping points." What are the implications of each for life on earth?

4. What are "fossil fuels"? According to Dr. Hanson, why must we "move beyond
fossil fuels"?

5. What are the "special interests" that have been blocking our "transition to our
renewable energy future"? Why?

6. According to the IPCC, what evidence is "unequivocal"? Why?


Student Reading 2:

The energy dilemma

"As President Obama faces our energy problem, he will have to address three overarching challenges," wrote Michael Klare, an energy expert, just after Barack Obama's presidential victory. The challenges, according to Klare:

1. The United States relies excessively on oil to supply its energy needs at a time when the future availability of petroleum is increasingly in question.

2. Our most abundant domestic source of fuel, coal, is the greatest emitter of greenhouses gases when consumed in the current manner.

3. No other source of energy, including natural gas, nuclear power, biofuels, wind power, and solar power is currently capable of supplanting our oil and coal consumption, even if a decision is made to reduce their importance in our energy mix.

This, says Klare, "is the essence of Obama's energy dilemma" — and, one might add, the world's. (Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum and other books on America's and the world's energy dilemma.)

Evidence of the challenges Klare describes:

1. The earth's oil supply is not inexhaustible. The consensus among energy experts is that the world has consumed about half of its oil inheritance and is close to peak production. Soon—perhaps in five or ten years—the supply remaining in major known global oil fields will decrease. The likelihood that oil companies' will discover major new oil fields is remote. Despite spending huge amounts of money, those companies have found few new fields in recent decades and only one since 1990.

China and India, hugely populous countries, are developing rapidly. This has greatly increased the demand for oil, exacerbating the oil shortage (and increasing global warming).

Conservation—reducing the use of energy, no matter its source—is a very big part of the solution. But to date, the US, the world's largest consumer of energy, has failed to develop a comprehensive plan to conserve, and US energy consumption has continued to increase.

2. The largest US energy source is coal, which is used mainly to produce electricity. When burned in the usual manner, coal emits more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel. China, India and other countries also rely heavily on coal. China already uses more coal for energy than even the US

When Barack Obama and John McCain talked about "clean coal technology" during the presidential campaign, they were usually referring to coal free of pollution, not to coal free of carbon emissions. There are no power plants in any country capable of burning coal that will not contribute to global warming.

One possible way to burn coal safely would be to capture the carbon it emits and store it somehow. Such a costly technique has not been fully tested, but is the only other known possible way of avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from coal.

3. The US has considerable reserves of natural gas, which of all the fossil fuels emits the least amount of carbon dioxide when burned. But natural gas reserves will reach peak production soon after oil does and then decrease. While nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide, nuclear power plant operations create major safety issues and produce radioactive waste that is very difficult (some would say impossible) to store safely.

Biofuels, wind, wave and solar power, and geothermal energy are inexhaustible and do not emit carbon dioxide. But obstacles to their widespread use are substantial and include investment, research and development. For example, wind and solar power require storage systems to collect energy when sun and wind are strong and to release it when they are not. They would also require the creation of an expanded national grid to link areas of reliable wind and sunshine with areas of need. ("The Energy Challenge of Our Lifetime." www.tomdispatch.com, 11/9/08) In some areas of the country, residents have overturned corporate plans to erect wind turbines, arguing that the construction of "wind farms" typically consisting of dozens of 40-story turbines (along with new power stations, electric lines and roads) would have negative environmental and economic effects. Concerns have been raised too about the installation of massive solar energy plants in desert areas.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider each of Klare's three challenges: oil, coal, and non-fossil sources of energy. What problems do President Obama and Americans face in connection with each?


Student Reading 3:

The Obama plan

During the presidential campaign, Obama released "Barack Obama's Plan To Make America A Global Energy Leader." Its opening sentence declares: "Our nation is confronted by two major energy challenges-global climate change and our dependence on foreign oil-both of which stem from our current dependence on fossil fuels for energy."

Obama's plan to combat global warming and achieve energy security" includes the following:

"Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level recommended by top scientists to avoid calamitous impacts."

The "cap-and-trade program" requires a cap, or limit, on carbon emissions. The emissions permitted are divided up into individual allowances for every company. The allowances have a financial value. A company that emits less carbon than its allowance permits may sell what remains to a company needing it because the buyer will otherwise exceed its allowance. Each year the amount of a company's allowance declines to meet emission targets.

All emission credits would be auctioned. This ensures that polluters pay for every ton of emissions they release. So, for example, emission rights will not be given away for free to oil and coal companies. The government will use some of the revenue produced by auctioning allowances "for research and development of clean energy, energy efficiency projects, and grants to low-income Americans to make their homes more energy efficient."

"Invest $150 billion over the next ten years to develop and deploy climate friendly energy supplies...and create millions of new jobs."

Money from the cap-and-trade auction will be added to this $150 billion investment. The money will support a variety of projects, including: doubling science and research funding on clean energy projects (such as those using solar and wind energy, new biofuels and "clean coal technology"). The plan also calls for creating a new digital electricity grid.

The plan includes "safe and secure nuclear energy" that addresses "four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation." It also includes investment in job training and transition programs to help individual workers and industries adapt to clean energy development and production.

"Dramatically improve energy efficiency to reduce energy intensity of our economy by 50 percent by 2030."

Meeting this standard requires such energy-saving actions as ensuring that the federal government takes the lead in reducing its energy consumption. One way is making federal buildings more efficient. New federal buildings will create zero-emissions by 2025; all existing federal buildings will be retrofitted to improve efficiency by 25 percent within five years. Other actions include a set of innovative measures to dramatically improve the efficiency of all buildings since they "account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States today."

"Reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce oil consumption overall by at least 35 percent, or 10 million barrels of oil, by 2030."

Among other things, this means doubling fuel economy standards over the next 18 years and providing tax credits and loan guarantees for auto plants and parts manufacturers to meet this goal. It also means federal investment in hybrid/flexible fuel vehicles which get more than 250 miles per gallon.

Other elements in this part of the plan call for reform of federal transportation funding: Fr example, a recommitment of federal funding for public mass transportation projects, requiring states to plan for energy conservation, and promoting incentives for use of public transportation.

"Make the US a leader in the global effort to combat climate change by leading a new international global warming partnership."

This would "require the United States to get its own house in order; re-engage and re-energize international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas pollution; and most importantly do so with the urgency this brewing crisis demands." The US will:

  • Re-engage with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Changes, the main international forum for addressing climate change.
  • Create a new forum of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, two of which are the United States and China.
  • Transfer American technology to developing world nations to fight climate change.
  • Work with major oil importers, such as China and India, to reduce oil demand.
  • Help developing countries address climate change issues.
  • Address tropical deforestation, which is responsible for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emission. When forests are cut and burned, "carbon stored in wood, leaves and soils are released into the atmosphere.

Among the reactions to the Obama plan:

According to the New York Times (10/26/08): Obama "has been criticized by climate activists, who otherwise tend to support him, for statements about pursuing 'clean coal' as a climate strategy.  The phrase 'clean coal' historically has applied to capturing sulfur dioxide and other contaminants released by burning coal. Capturing carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping emission, is far harder."

The chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Daniel Yergin, commented on the plan after Obama's election as president: "There is an opportunity to address energy needs in a way that hasn't been possible for decades." But, he added, "resources are going to be constrained and spending on energy will have to compete for dollars with spending on the financial crisis and two wars." ( New York Times , 11/6/08) However, in the second presidential debate, Obama said investments in energy efficiency and use of non-polluting sources are part of his economic recovery plan and will not be sacrificed even under a limited budget.

Michael Klare believes that our response to "the global warming time bomb" requires no less than "a major White House-led initiative on the scale of the World War II Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb or the Apollo Moon Project."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What does President Obama propose to do to fulfill each of the items in his plan?

a. a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions
b. increasing climate-friendly energy supplies and jobs
c. increasing energy efficiency
d. reducing our dependence on oil, especially from foreign sources
e. US leadership in combating climate change globally

3. What questions do you have about anything in the Obama plan?
4. What criticisms, if any, do you have of that plan?

For inquiry

The analyses by Dr. Hanson and Michael Klare and Obama's proposals all open possibilities for independent and small-group investigations. For example:

1. What did Dr. Hanson say on June 23, 1988, before a congressional committee about global warming? Twenty years later, what evidence is there to support any of his comments? What evidence is there to contradict any of them? Which comments, if any, are still impossible to verify?

2. What evidence is there that Arctic Sea ice melt, animal and plant species stress, the expansion of subtropical climate zones and damage to coral reefs are the product of global warming?

3. What evidence is there that atmospheric carbon emissions are the major factor in global warming?

4, How do climatologists refute the claim that global warming is a natural, cyclical event?

5. What evidence is there for peak oil and the gradual global decline of oil reserves?

6. What are the advantages and potential problems of such sources of energy as "clean coal" (using carbon sequestration), biofuels wind, solar, or nuclear? What about other potential green power sources?

7. What reason is there to believe or to disbelieve the worth of any item in the Obama plan?


For citizenship

In the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org are two sets of materials teachers may find useful in developing a citizenship project on global warming with students. "Teaching Social Responsibility" discusses the concept of social responsibility and approaches to developing socially responsible projects with students as well as a student activity to heighten students' insight into how they work together that aims to promote more effective participation in groupwork. "Youth Action on Climate Change" includes a section on "Youth Action Opportunities."

For follow-up on the Obama plan:

Late in his presidential campaign, Obama said investments in energy efficiency and use of nonpolluting sources are part of his economic recovery plan and will not be sacrificed even under a limited budget. Economic recovery tops his list for attention and action.

Organize students into three groups. Ask each group to follow and report back to the class on any actions President Obama takes on one of the following:

1. A cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What evidence is there that the system does or does not promise to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions to the level recommended by top scientists?

2. Developing and deploying climate-friendly energy supplies. What jobs are being created?

3. Reducing overall energy consumption and promoting conservation.

4. Reducing oil consumption and our dependence on foreign oil. What progress is being made to increase fuel economy standards for vehicles?

5. Making the US"a leader in combating climate change." What progress is the president making to create a forum for nations responsible for the largest greenhouse gas emissions?

In connection with each of these questions:

  • What problems is the president facing in each area? How is he responding to these problems?
  • What success is he likely to have? What makes you think so?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org