The Sword of Damocles


Over a year ago I wrote to Prime Minister Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other world leaders. The reason is this – coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.

Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible – if we do not rapidly slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades.

Tipping points are fed by amplifying feedbacks. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As tundra melts, methane a strong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are pressured and exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by day-to-day weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time or training to analyze decadal changes. How can they be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from special economic interests? How can they distinguish top-notch science and pseudoscience – the words sound the same?

Leaders have no excuse – they are elected to lead and to protect the public and its best interests. Leaders have at their disposal the best scientific organizations in the world, such as the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and the United States National Academy of Sciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency – our planet really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is out of their control, as amplifying feedbacks drive the dynamics of the global system.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The preindustrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas have increased carbon dioxide to 385 ppm, and it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth, with its four kilometer deep ocean, responds only slowly to changes of carbon dioxide. So more climate change will occur, even if we make maximum effort to slow carbon dioxide growth. Arctic sea ice will disappear in the summer season within the next few decades. Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people, will disappear – practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years, if carbon dioxide continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harboring a quarter of ocean species, are threatened, if carbon dioxide continues to rise.