V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Obama takes on the world

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers January, 2009.

President Barack Obama has the weight of the world on his shoulders -- literally.

After taking the oath of office this week to become the most powerful man in the free world, Obama faces the Herculean task of turning the planet around from its current trajectory and saving the world.

At least that's what scientists and environmentalists are hoping for after eight years of inaction and complacency by the Bush administration.

In forceful language, NASA's top climate scientist issued a stark and urgent message to Obama last week, warning the new president he has only four years to act on climate change or risk fuelling an unstoppable wave of environmental catastrophe.

"(Obama's) four-year administration offers the world a last chance to get things right," said James Hansen in an interview with the U.K. newspaper The Observer. "If it fails, global disaster -- melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinctions and spreading deserts -- awaits mankind."

Hansen is the director of the Goddard Institute for Space and an adjunct professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute. He's often referred to as "the grandfather of climate change" for having sounded the alarm at congressional hearings in the 1980s and for being a prominent critic of industrial emissions.

Hansen's plea for urgent climate change action is no doubt buoyed by Obama's promise to make the planet a priority. In his inaugural speech Tuesday, Obama pledged to "restore science to its rightful place," a not-so-subtle missive against his predecessor's administration which has muzzled and censored some of the country's top scientists on climate change.

"We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age," Obama promised.

"With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet."

Obama's extended hand of friendship with the scientific community is particularly welcome for Hansen, who himself had been muzzled by the Bush administration for linking climate change with human activity. It was a bungled attempt at censorship that backfired once media outlets got wind of the story.

The muzzling of scientists, however, isn't isolated to the U.S.

Canadian experts -- or those who haven't been scared into silence -- have long complained about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's iron rule on the scientific community.

Climatologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria lashed out last year when then-Environment Minister John Baird ordered that all media inquiries be answered by communication officers instead of the experts themselves.

Meanwhile, in an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama, Hansen appealed to the president's role as a father, writing to him not as an eminent scientist but as "as fellow parent."

"Urgency now dictates a personal appeal," Hansen wrote last month.

"Scientists at the forefront of climate research have seen a stream of new data in the past few years with startling implications for humanity and all life on Earth."

The four-page letter makes recommendations which include: A moratorium and phase-out of coal plants that don't capture and store carbon dioxide; implementing a carbon tax; and "urgent" research and development on fourth generation nuclear power and international co-operation.

Coal plants are "factories of death," Hansen writes, and continued construction will lead to the the extinction of 100 million species. A carbon tax, meanwhile, is "honest clear and effective," while a cap-and-trade program generates special interests, lobbyists, and trading schemes, "yielding non-productive millionaires, all at a public expense."

And nuclear power, carbon capture coal-fired plants, he says, are the best candidates to provide the balance of carbon-free power that renewable energies can't meet.

Hansen, however, is not without his controversies or haters. He's been accused of cooking the books on climate change when it was discovered he used incorrect data for his climate analyses. He's also called for the trying of fossil fuel company executives for "high crimes against humanity and nature."

But after years of pleading on deaf ears, Hansen -- like so many people with their own interests -- has resurrected from dejection and is pinning all his hopes on the new president whose mantra has been "Yes we can."

"Of course it is unfair that everyone is looking to Barack to solve this problem (and other problems!)" Hansen wrote. "But they are. He alone has a fleeting opportunity to instigate fundamental change, and the ability to explain the need for it to the public."


Obama's plan


- Ensure 10% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012.


- Put one million plug-in hybrid cars -- built in America -- on the road by 2015.


- Create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next 10 years in clean energy.


- Within 10 years save more oil than the U.S. currently imports from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.


- Ensure 25% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2025.


- Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.



- Strengthen energy efficiency standards for a number of energy-using products, including light bulbs.


- Regulate the fuel efficiency of cars and light duty trucks, beginning with the 2011 model year.


- Cut industry air pollution in half by 2015.


- Impose mandatory targets on industry to reduce emissions by 150 megatonnes by 2020.

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