Monday, 19 January 2009

River pollutants linked to male infertility

By Steve Connor, Science EditorMonday, 19 January 2009

The rise in male infertility and the decline in human sperm counts could be linked with chemicals in the environment known as anti-androgens which block the action of the male sex-hormone testosterone, a study has found.
Scientists have identified a group of river pollutants that are able to stop testosterone from working. These anti-androgens have been linked with the feminisation of fish in British rivers and could be affecting the development of male reproductive organs in humans, it found.
The study has established a link between anti-androgens released into rivers from sewage outflows and abnormalities in wild fish where males develop female reproductive organs. It is the first time that anti-androgens and hermaphrodite fish have been linked in this way.
Until now it was thought another class of chemicals, which mimic the effect of the female sex-hormone oestrogen, were responsible for sex-changed fish. However the latest study indicates that the cause may be the result of a rather more complicated interaction taking place between different pollutants.
Dr Susan Jobling of Brunel University, is one of the authors of the study carried out with colleagues from Exeter and Reading universities and the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology. She said: "We have identified a new group of chemicals in our study on fish, but we do not know where they are coming from or what they are. We've only been able to measure their testosterone-blocking potential."
For the study, published in thejournal Environmental Health Perspectives, the scientists analysed anti-androgenic activity in samples of river water taken near 30 sewage outflows. They were able to demonstratestatistically that this activity could be linked with hermaphrodite fish found in the same rivers.
Dr Jobling said that there are several chemicals in widely-used pharmaceuticals and pesticides that are known to have anti-androgenic activity. They included flutamide and cyproterone, used to treat prostate cancer, and several compounds found in agricultural pesticides.
The scientists detected relatively high levels of anti-androgenic chemicals near sewage outflows – suggesting they came from domestic sources. One possibility is that drugs excreted from the body may end up in rivers. However the scientists have not discounted the idea that anti-androgens may also be seeping into rivers as run-off from agricultural land.
Scientists first detected sex-change fish in British rivers more than 20 years ago. During the same period, medical researchers found that human sperm counts have been falling in several countries over a period of 30 years or more. This has been matched by a corresponding rise in other male reproductive problems, such as the congenital condition testicular dysgenesis, which can affect fertility.

Going green is not just good for the planet, it could help us out of recession

The link between the earth warming and increased greenhouse gas emissions from human activities has been established beyond all doubt. That means tackling climate change is the most serious environmental challenge we face in the 21st century.

By Paul GolbyLast Updated: 6:30PM GMT 18 Jan 2009

We need to find new and innovative ways of producing energy if we are going to ensure the UK has a sustainable mix of energy resources. For the economy, there are a number of opportunities, and we need to develop the right policies to put Britain in the best position to attract green collar jobs and services.
As the head of E.ON in the UK, I need to provide customers with an affordable, reliable and low-carbon supply of electricity but also to look at alternative sources of low-carbon sustainable energy.
In the spring of 2004 I met Sir David King, the then chief scientific adviser to the Government. One of the issues we discussed was the fact there was no forum for the private and public sector funders of energy to discuss the most challenging issues we faced. A little over a year later, the Energy Research Partnership (ERP) was established to help the UK to become a leader in the development of innovative new technologies.
One reason for creating the ERP was the perceived lack of co-ordination on energy policy and, in particular, research, development and deployment. A strategic vision that crossed sectors and technologies was missing.
However, since the ERP was formed we have seen an unprecedented shift in energy and climate-change policy, together with a worldwide consensus that we need to reduce our carbon dependency significantly.
While there are those who say it is for industry to fund research and drive policy, I believe it needs to be both the public and private sectors, working hand in hand.
It is clear that, even in the short time it has been in existence, ERP has built relationships to drive the greater co-ordination of funding between Government and industry, with its members forming part of the core group that established the Energy Technologies Institute, a public-private partnership with funds of up to £1.1bn over 10 years.
We can't afford not to make the shift to greener technologies and investment in that sector could even help us pull out of the recession. It is clear, however, that we need to ensure that our future energy sources are based around three vital key criteria: security, lower carbon and price. All three are vital if we want to maintain a competitive economy and to avoid fuel poverty.
The International Energy Authority has recently predicted that over $30 trillion (£20.5 trillion) will need to be invested in energy technologies over the next 20 years to put us on the path to just a 50pc reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than regard this as a risk, we should see this as an opportunity.
Innovations in low carbon technologies will pay off as global regulation drives out high carbon technologies over the next few decades. Equally, innovations in energy efficient buildings, in transport and in heat and electricity generation will offer opportunities to companies, and brings benefits to society.
ERP will shortly be publishing a comprehensive assessment of energy technologies, identifying those which have the greatest potential to deliver the UK's energy policy aims. This will, I believe, be a vital blueprint for the future as we look to drive down carbon emissions in the UK and, hopefully, across the world.
This month I will be stepping down as co-chair of the ERP and handing over to Nick Winser of National Grid. I believe that the status of energy research in the UK is now in much better shape than ever before and testament must go to both my private sector colleagues and those in government and the research councils.
Climate change and energy policy simply cannot be tackled solely by politicians; it will take Government and industry working together. When we achieve this, we have the opportunity to make a difference for the benefit of all. We have the innovation, let's see the action.
Paul Golby is the CEO of E.ON UK and is stepping down as co-chair of the UK's Energy Research Partnership this month.

New reality on display at Detroit auto show

By Lawrence Ulrich
Published: January 18, 2009

DETROIT: For decades, the marketing phrase "Sell the sizzle, not the steak" aptly described the scene at auto shows. Reporters flocked to gawk at glamorous space-age concepts or thundering sports cars, leaving more humdrum - and practical - machines to the tire-kicking public.
But new realities were on center stage last week at media previews of the North American International Auto Show. As car companies spoke grandly of the "electrification" of the automobile, it often sounded like the same old sizzle, best taken with grains of salt. Yet the atmosphere felt changed.
While some of the show's plug-in cars and pure electric vehicles will surely turn out to be hokum, the variety and scale of the offerings suggest that change is afoot - new, leaner meat will be added to the automotive menu.
Whether enough consumers are ready to have their habits and appetites changed is still a question. So is whether the Detroit-based automakers can survive to be part of the revolution.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota showed various hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles and pledged to bring the technologies to market in 2010-12. Underdog startups did the same, including Fisker Automotive, a California company whose $88,000 Fisker Karma sport sedan, a plug-in hybrid, is scheduled for production this year.

But the return of cheap gasoline has already dampened U.S. hybrid sales.
Throughout the show, auto executives emphasized that stable fuel prices or a coherent government energy policy would help them anticipate what consumers would buy next. Because of wild swings in fuel prices, "Every six months we get called stupid for having the wrong products," said Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman.
Electric cars did generate the show's central irony: The models that will most impress Detroit's new overseers in Washington will drag down their bottom lines for several years. Companies are deep in the costly research-and-development phase: GM says it plans to invest more than $1 billion to develop the Chevrolet Volt's technology, and that car, the first Detroit plug-in, is nearly two years from market and unlikely to be made in large numbers.
Still, if the Detroit Three can muddle through the economic crisis, developing new alternative-fuel technologies might end up being a smart investment in their long-term fortunes.
Ford showed here-and-now machines including the Fusion Hybrid sedan, whose city economy rating of 41 miles a gallon, or 5.7 liters per 100 kilometers, beats the Toyota Camry Hybrid by an impressive 8 mpg.
Toyota showed the third generation of its hybrid heavyweight, the Prius. Toyota expects the more frugal Prius to achieve a 50 mpg rating, preserving its title as the highest-mileage car in America. And if Honda cannot beat the Prius's mileage, it will beat its price: The 2010 Insight hatchback is to go on sale this spring as America's lowest-cost hybrid, offering 41 mpg for about $18,000.
With no-shows like Nissan, Infiniti, Ferrari, Porsche, Mitsubishi and others opening up main-floor vacancies, Chinese automakers were allowed out of the basement. BYD (Build Your Dreams, backed by Warren Buffett) and Brilliance showed their latest potential threats to the automotive order. These included plug-in and electric models from BYD, vehicles that executives said would be sold in the United States in two years.
These were among the future U.S. showroom models introduced here:
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: The latest edition of Mercedes's sedan is to go on sale in July with V-6 and V-8 engines and technology features that include Attention Assist, which monitors 70 parameters and flashes a coffee-cup icon and "Take a Break" warning when it senses that the driver is getting drowsy.
Lexus HS250h: Lexus's first hybrid-only model goes on sale in late summer. The sedan has a sleek cabin, the latest safety and convenience gadgets and a hybrid system that gets about 33 mpg adapted from the Camry.
BMW Z4: Ditching its fabric roof for a two-piece powered hardtop, BMW's taut two-seat convertible grows bigger and heavier, but the controversial design has evolved handsomely.
Cadillac SRX: The current SRX has impressive driving dynamics, but many potential customers did not embrace its styling. The new model, based on Chevy Equinox architecture, aims at putting Cadillac on a stronger footing in luxury crossovers.
Lincoln MKT: Due on sale later this year, the MKT is a luxury take on the well-received Ford Flex.
Ford Mustang Shelby GT500: Financial jitters could dampen the desire of blue-collar boomers for a $45,000, 540-horsepower Mustang.
Buick LaCrosse: A joint Chinese-American design aimed in part at the Buick-loving Chinese, this low-key midsize sedan is to go on sale this summer with a choice of V-6 engines and optional all-wheel drive.
Mini Cooper Convertible: Going on sale in March, the 2009 Mini convertible will start at $24,550. It adopts the platform and technology of the second-generation Mini hardtop, with added features including pop-up rollover bars.
Audi R8 5.2 FSI Quattro: This version of Audi's mid-engine sports car produces 518 horsepower from a version of the Lamborghini Gallardo's V-10. Able to reach 60 mph, or 96 kilometers per hour, in less than four seconds, it is to come to America in 2010.
Automakers also highlighted several concept cars, from barely disguised versions of future showroom models to fanciful projects that may never see the light of day:
Chrysler 200C: Chrysler's electric-car technology still seemed less market-ready than that of its competitors. But the design has the look of a potential mass-market home run - one that Chrysler desperately needs.
Audi Sportback: This stretched, creamy eclair of a four-door will be called the A7 when it goes on sale in 2010. A modified hatchback, it disguises its practicality with a hatch opening integrated into the roofline.
Volvo S60: The current S60 is getting old, but this glimpse at its replacement is sleek and modern. An efficient turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine produces 180 horsepower.
Lincoln Concept C: A bustleback ode to the Renault Megane, the cute hatchback offers hints of a future small Lincoln based on the Ford Focus.
Cadillac Converj: Its name may be the show's silliest, but the Converj appears serious. The four-seat luxury car adopts a modified version of the Chevy Volt plug-in system, now called Voltec.
Subaru Legacy: Subaru unveiled a larger, restyled version of its slick-driving all-wheel-drive sedan, with Audi-esque front end styling expected on a 2010 showroom model.
Volkswagen Concept BlueSport: VW's handsome mid-engine convertible was its vision of a more socially responsible sports car. The turbocharged 2-liter diesel engine is said to be capable of 50 mpg on the highway.
Dodge Circuit EV: With Chrysler pinching every penny, the chances of the Circuit's reaching dealerships seem low. But the all-electric Circuit, based on the Lotus Europa, was the raciest of four electric prototypes by Chrysler.
Toyota FT-EV: This stubby two-seater is the first taste of a battery-powered commuter car with a 50-mile range that Toyota hopes to offer in 2012. Toyota said it would lease small numbers of a plug-in Prius late this year to commercial customers.

Wind farm off Cape Cod clears hurdle

By Abby Goodnough
Published: January 18, 2009

BOSTON: A federal agency said Friday that the nation's first offshore wind farm, proposed for the waters off Cape Cod, posed no serious environmental threat, bringing it a major step closer to fruition.
Homeowners and boaters on the cape, including Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, have fought the project for eight years, saying it would hurt wildlife, fishing and tourism and spoil the beauty of Nantucket Sound.
Opponents have sued to stop the project, known as Cape Wind, and more challenges are certain, keeping the path to construction bumpy despite what supporters on Friday called a crucial victory.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group formed to fight the project, suggested that the Bush administration had unscrupulously rushed to approve it before President-elect Barack Obama takes office next week.
"They wanted some kind of a legacy," said Audra Parker, the group's executive director. "Cape Wind is far from a done deal, despite this favorable report."

The federal agency that released the final environmental impact statement on Friday, the Minerals Management Service, is a division of the Department of Interior.
The wind farm would cover 24 square miles — roughly the size of Manhattan — five miles off Cape Cod. From the shore, the 130 turbines, each 440 feet tall, will be visible half an inch above the horizon on clear days, according to Energy Management Inc., the company planning the project. Jim Gordon, the company's president, said that optimistically, construction could begin late this year, and that the wind farm could be producing electricity by the end of 2011.
The project would cost more than $1 billion, Gordon said, adding that he has spent $40 million since proposing the wind farm in 2001.
"This has been a long, hard road," Gordon said in a news conference at his Boston offices.
"We think," he said, "this wind farm is going to be embraced by the Cape Cod community, it's going to be embraced by the nation and, most important, it has already encouraged other states to look at developing their own coastal wind resources."
With Friday's release of the environmental impact statement by the Minerals Management Service, the new administration must wait 30 days before issuing a decision. If the decision favors Cape Wind, the federal government can then lease a section of Nantucket Sound to Gordon's company, according to the Minerals Management Service.
But Cape Wind would still need to wait for several permits, as well as a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration on whether the wind farm would interfere with airplane radar. Past studies by the FAA found no serious threat, but Jim Peters, an agency spokesman, said that FAA officials visiting the site last summer found evidence of possible electromagnetic interference.
Also yet to come are a final statement from the Coast Guard on whether the project would hinder marine radar, and the results of an investigation by the inspector general for the Department of Interior, requested by Cape Cod residents, into the environmental review process.
Kennedy, whose family compound in Hyannis Port looks out on the proposed wind farm site, has consistently opposed the project on the grounds that it would hurt navigation, the local economy and the environment.
"I do not believe that this action by the Interior Department will be sustained," Kennedy said in a statement. "By taking this action, the Interior Department has virtually assured years of continued public conflict and contentious litigation."
Aides to Kennedy made a point of saying Friday that an obstructed view was not among the senator's concerns.
Kennedy and other critics pointed out that the Minerals Management Service had not yet issued general rules for building offshore wind projects and that their absence continued to make Cape Wind legally vulnerable. Even the American Wind Energy Association, which supports wind projects, said the lack of guiding rules was problematic.
"It continues to be a big concern of ours," said Laurie Jodziewicz, the association's manager of siting policy, adding that the delay in publishing rules "holds up a lot of the projects under consideration right now."
Cape Wind supporters say the project would ultimately supply 75 percent of the electricity for Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. But others have cautioned that users' electricity rates will probably rise sharply. Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Cape Cod who is against the project, said in a statement that it could potentially double power costs for the region.
Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat who supports Cape Wind, wants Massachusetts to be a leader in creating alternative energy sources. This week, he set a goal of developing 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity — enough to power 800,000 homes, Patrick said — by 2020. The state currently has only nine large wind turbines capable of producing 6.6 megawatts.

UAE and US sign nuclear deal

By Robin Wigglesworth in Abu Dhabi
Published: January 18 2009 14:06

The United Arab Emirates has signed a nuclear energy co-operation agreement with the US, putting it on the path to become the first Arab state to develop nuclear power.
Despite international concern over Iran’s controversial nuclear power programme and uranium enrichment, many Arab states – particularly in the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf – have expressed a desire to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes.
In an important statement of US approval of the UAE’s atomic power ambitions, Condoleezza Rice, the outgoing secretary of state, and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister, on Friday signed a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear co-operation
“Under the terms of this agreement, the UAE will gain access to significant capabilities and experience in the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Sheikh Abdullah said in a statement. “This will allow the UAE to develop its civilian nuclear program to the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation.”
Ms Rice said the key to the deal is the UAE’s willingness to import, rather than produce, fuel that would be used in its proposed reactors. The UAE would also return all spent nuclear fuel rather than attain the technical capability to reprocess it.
“That really does minimise – matter of fact, almost eliminates – the proliferation risks,” Ms Rice said, according to Associated Press.
The deal could still run into difficulties. Barack Obama, the incoming president, will have to decide whether to ratify the deal, and some members of the US House of Representatives oppose the deal over concern it would lead to a nuclear energy race in the region.
“In the Middle East, a nuclear energy race could be as perilous as a nuclear arms race,” Ed Markey, a Democrat congressman, said on Thurday. ”I hope that President-elect Obama will seize the opportunity to put the brakes on the Bush administration’s policy of placing nuclear commerce above common sense.”
Despite an abundance of oil and gas in the region, many Gulf states are plagued by power shortages after the break-neck speed of economic growth in recent years. Electricity demand has soared in the UAE in particular due to energy-intensive water desalination and air-conditioning needed for much of the year.
Several emirates of the seven that make up the UAE suffer from periodic black-outs, as gas imported from neighbouring Qatar is mostly used for power generation in Abu Dhabi, the capital, and the commercial hub of Dubai.
The Opec member estimates that peak demand for electricity will double to 40,000 megawatts by 2020, but current capacity is only roughly half of this. The country also hopes that nuclear power will lessen its “environmental footprint”, among the worst in the world.
In 2007 six Arab Gulf states, including the UAE, asked the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to study the feasibility of a joint nuclear programme.
The six states have even called on Iran to co-operate in a joint development plan to defuse tensions over the Islamic republic’s continuing nuclear programme, which many fear could lead to Tehran developing nuclear weapons.
The US and the UAE first signed a memorandum of understanding on nuclear power cooperation in April 2008, which led to Friday’s so-called “123 Agreement”, known after Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, which establishes a legal framework for commerce in civilian nuclear energy technology and material.
The UAE signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with France last year, and several French firms have submitted proposals to the authorities in Abu Dhabi to develop two reactors. The UAE’s Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation last year awarded US engineering and construction company CH2M Hill a contract to manage its atomic investment programme.
“The agreement will also open opportunities for US firms to be active participants in the UAE nuclear energy program,” Sheikh Abdullah added in the statement.

Most glaciers will disappear by middle of century and add to rising sea levels, expert warns

• Melt rates for 2007 fall but still third worst on record • Threat to livelihoods of 2bn dependent on rivers
Juliette Jowitt, environment editor
The Guardian, Monday 19 January 2009

Most of the planet's glaciers are melting so fast that they will disappear by the middle of the century, a leading expert has warned. Figures from the World Glacier Monitoring Service show that although melt rates for 2007 fell substantially from record levels the previous year, the loss of ice was still the third worst on record.
The total mass left in the glaciers is now thought to be at the lowest level for "thousands of years".
Even under moderate predictions of global warming, the small glaciers, which make up the majority by number, will not recover, said Prof Wilfried Haeberli, the organisation's director.
The warning will raise concern among those who say that glacier melting is one of the greatest threats of climate change because it raises the risk of sudden avalanches of rocks and soil released from the ice, threatening the livelihoods of more than 2 billion people who depend on melt-water to feed rivers in summer. Glacier melting will also add to rising global sea levels.
"If the climate is not really cooling dramatically, they'll retreat and disintegrate," said Haeberli. "This means many will simply be lost in the next decades - 10, 20, 30, 40 years.
"If you have a realistic, mid-warming scenario, then there's no hope for the small glaciers - in the Pyrenees, in Africa, in the Andes or Rocky mountains. The large glaciers in Alaska and the Himalayas will take longer, but even those very large glaciers will change completely; they will be much, much smaller, and many of them will disintegrate, forming lakes in many cases."
The WGMS, whose backers include UN agencies and scientific bodies, collects annual data for up to 100 glaciers around the world, including 30 "reference" glaciers in nine different mountain ranges on four continents, for which data goes back nearly three decades.
Figures for 2005-06 showed the biggest loss of ice in a single year since those records began, and based on historic reconstructions, it was thought to be the worst year for 5,000 years.
The latest data for 2006-07 shows that 22 of the 27 reference glaciers for which data has been supplied lost mass, as did 55 of a longer list of 74 glaciers. The total losses were half that of the previous year, but still the third largest on record. In Europe it is thought glaciers have lost one quarter of their mass in the last eight years alone, said Haeberli.
Although the mass balance of glaciers would fluctuate with natural changes in temperatures and snowfall, climate scientists believe the sustained losses of recent decades are partly due to man-made global warming, with the 10 hottest years on record coming in the last 11 years.
"The general trend to increased loss rates is continuing," Haeberli said. "The year was a little bit less terrible than [the previous] year ... but still a very heavy loss. It's still two times the average loss rate of the 20th century."
Although the data only covers some of the world's glaciers, its figures are mirrored by reports from experts from around the globe.
Two years ago the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that if current trends continue, 80% of Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 30 years, although more recent estimates have suggested the 2060s or later.
Last year the UN environment programme and the WGMS jointly published data for 1,800 glaciers on all seven continents, which warned losses had been accelerating globally since the mid-1980s, so that the annual average decline for 1996-2005 was double that of the previous decade, and four times that of the decade before. Last week China Dialogue, a London-based organisation dedicated to debate on China's environment issues, launched a campaign to highlight the same trends in melting in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau.
Those glaciers feed all the main river systems in Asia, depended on by the estimated 40% of the world's population that lives in northern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, said Isabel Hilton, China Dialogue's editor.
"In a region that is already fractured and unstable, the melting of the 'third pole' glaciers is one of the most important challenges facing humanity in the 21st century," she said.
In December the US Geological Survey also warned that sea-level rise could be even worse than feared, as much as 1.5 metres by the end of this century, partly due to increased melting of the volume of water stored in glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.
Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for UNEP, said the latest findings should encourage more governments to follow moves by some politicians to invest billions of dollars in clean energy and efficiency as a way of curbing greenhouse gases.
He urged world leaders to agree a treaty to cut emissions. Water experts have also called for more investment in better water management.

President 'has four years to save Earth'

US must take the lead to avert eco-disasterRead the full interview with James Hansen here

Robin McKie in New York
The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama's first administration, he added.
Soaring carbon emissions are already causing ice-cap melting and threaten to trigger global flooding, widespread species loss and major disruptions of weather patterns in the near future. "We cannot afford to put off change any longer," said Hansen. "We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead."
Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.
Only the US now had the political muscle to lead the world and halt the rise, Hansen said. Having refused to recognise that global warming posed any risk at all over the past eight years, the US now had to take a lead as the world's greatest carbon emitter and the planet's largest economy. Cap-and-trade schemes, in which emission permits are bought and sold, have failed, he said, and must now be replaced by a carbon tax that will imposed on all producers of fossil fuels. At the same time, there must be a moratorium on new power plants that burn coal - the world's worst carbon emitter.
Hansen - head of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies and winner of the WWF's top conservation award - first warned Earth was in danger from climate change in 1988 and has been the victim of several unsuccessful attempts by the White House administration of George Bush to silence his views.
Hansen's institute monitors temperature fluctuations at thousands of sites round the world, data that has led him to conclude that most estimates of sea level rises triggered by rising atmospheric temperatures are too low and too conservative. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a rise of between 20cm and 60cm can be expected by the end of the century.
However, Hansen said feedbacks in the climate system are already accelerating ice melt and are threatening to lead to the collapse of ice sheets. Sea-level rises will therefore be far greater - a claim backed last week by a group of British, Danish and Finnish scientists who said studies of past variations in climate indicate that a far more likely figure for sea-level rise will be about 1.4 metres, enough to cause devastating flooding of many of the world's major cities and of low-lying areas of Holland, Bangladesh and other nations.
As a result of his fears about sea-level rise, Hansen said he had pressed both Britain's Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences to carry out an urgent investigation of the state of the planet's ice-caps. However, nothing had come of his proposals. The first task of Obama's new climate office should therefore be to order such a probe "as a matter of urgency", Hansen added.

'We have only four years left to act on climate change - America has to lead'

Jim Hansen is the 'grandfather of climate change' and one of the world's leading climatologists. In this rare interview in New York, he explains why President Obama's administration is the last chance to avoid flooded cities, species extinction and climate catastrophe
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009

Along one wall of Jim Hansen's wood-panelled office in upper Manhattan, the distinguished climatologist has pinned 10 A4-sized photographs of his three grandchildren: Sophie, Connor and Jake. They are the only personal items on display in an office otherwise dominated by stacks of manila folders, bundles of papers and cardboard boxes filled with reports on climate variations and atmospheric measurements.
The director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York is clearly a doting grandfather as well as an internationally revered climate scientist. Yet his pictures are more than mere expressions of familial love. They are reminders to the 67-year-old scientist of his duty to future generations, children whom he now believes are threatened by a global greenhouse catastrophe that is spiralling out of control because of soaring carbon dioxide emissions from industry and transport.
"I have been described as the grandfather of climate change. In fact, I am just a grandfather and I do not want my grandchildren to say that grandpa understood what was happening but didn't make it clear," Hansen said last week. Hence his warning to Barack Obama, who will be inaugurated as US president on Tuesday. His four-year administration offers the world a last chance to get things right, Hansen said. If it fails, global disaster - melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinctions and spreading deserts - awaits mankind.
"We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead."
After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen - who appeared in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund's top conservation award - are certainly far-reaching. In particular, the idea of continuing with "cap-and-trade" schemes, which allow countries to trade allowances and permits for emitting carbon dioxide, must now be scrapped, he insisted. Such schemes, encouraged by the Kyoto climate treaty, were simply "weak tea" and did not work. "The United States did not sign Kyoto, yet its emissions are not that different from the countries that did sign it."
Thus plans to include carbon trading schemes in talks about future climate agreements were a desperate error, he said. "It's just greenwash. I would rather the forthcoming Copenhagen climate talks fail than we agree to a bad deal," Hansen said.
Only a carbon tax, agreed by the west and then imposed on the rest of the world through political pressure and trade tariffs, would succeed in the now-desperate task of stopping the rise of emissions, he argued. This tax would be imposed on oil corporations and gas companies and would specifically raise the prices of fuels across the globe, making their use less attractive. In addition, the mining of coal - by far the worst emitter of carbon dioxide - would be phased out entirely along with coal-burning power plants which he called factories of death.
"Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels combined and it still has far greater reserves. We must stop using it." Instead, programmes for building wind, solar and other renewable energy plants should be given major boosts, along with research programmes for new generations of nuclear reactors.
Hansen's strident calls for action stem from his special view of our changing world. He and his staff monitor temperatures relayed to the institute - an anonymous brownstone near Columbia University - from thousands of sites around the world, including satellites and bases in Antarctica. These have revealed that our planet has gone through a 0.6C rise in temperature since 1970, with the 10 hottest years having occurred between 1997 and 2008: unambiguous evidence, he believes, that Earth is beginning to overheat dangerously.
Last week, however, Hansen revealed his findings for 2008 which show, surprisingly, that last year was the coolest this century, although still hot by standards of the 20th century. The finding will doubtless be seized on by climate change deniers, for whom Hansen is a particular hate figure, and used as "evidence" that global warming is a hoax.
However, deniers should show caution, Hansen insisted: most of the planet was exceptionally warm last year. Only a strong La Niña - a vast cooling of the Pacific that occurs every few years - brought down the average temperature. La Niña would not persist, he said. "Before the end of Obama's first term, we will be seeing new record temperatures. I can promise the president that."
Hansen's uncompromising views are, in some ways, unusual. Apart from his senior Nasa post, he holds a professorship in environmental sciences at Columbia and dresses like a tweedy academic: green jumper with elbow pads, cords and check cotton shirt. Yet behind his unassuming, self-effacing manner, the former planetary scientist has shown surprising steel throughout his career. In 1988, he electrified a congressional hearing, on a particular hot, sticky day in June, when he announced he was "99% certain" that global warming was to blame for the weather and that the planet was now in peril from rising carbon dioxide emissions. His remarks, which made headlines across the US, pushed global warming on to news agendas for the first time.
Over the years, Hansen persisted with his warnings. Then, in 2005, he gave a talk at the American Geophysical Union in which he argued that the year was the warmest on record and that industrial carbon emissions were to blame. A furious White House phoned Nasa and Hansen was banned from appearing in newspapers or on television or radio. It was a bungled attempt at censorship. Newspapers revealed that Hansen was being silenced and his story, along with his warnings about the climate, got global coverage.
Since then Hansen has continued his mission "to make clear" the dangers of climate change, sending a letter last December from himself and his wife Anniek about the urgency of the planet's climatic peril to Barack and Michelle Obama. "We decided to send it to both of them because we thought there may be a better chance she will think about this or have time for it. The difficulty of this problem [of global warming] is that its main impacts will be felt by our children and by our grandchildren. A mother tends to be concerned about such things."
Nor have his messages of imminent doom been restricted to US politicians. The heads of the governments of Britain, Germany, Japan and Australia have all received recent warnings from Hansen about their countries' behaviour. In each case, these nations' continued support for the burning of coal to generate electricity has horrified the climatologist. In Britain, he has condemned the government's plans to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth, in Kent, for example, and even appeared in court as a defence witness for protesters who occupied the proposed new plant's site in 2007.
"On a per capita basis, Britain is responsible for more of the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere than any other nation on Earth because it has been burning it from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. America comes second and Germany third. The crucial point is that Britain could make a real difference if it said no to Kingsnorth. That decision would set an example to the rest of the world." These points were made clear in Hansen's letter to the prime minister, Gordon Brown, though he is still awaiting a reply.
As to the specific warnings he makes about climate change, these concentrate heavily on global warming's impact on the ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica. These are now melting at an alarming rate and threaten to increase sea levels by one or two metres over the century, enough to inundate cities and fertile land around the globe.
The issue was simple, said Hansen: would each annual increase of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere produce a simple proportional increase in temperature or would its heating start to accelerate?
He firmly believes the latter. As the Arctic's sea-ice cover decreases, less and less sunlight will be reflected back into space. And as tundras heat up, more and more of their carbon dioxide and methane content will be released into the atmosphere. Thus each added tonne of carbon will trigger greater rises in temperature as the years progress. The result will be massive ice cap melting and sea-level rises of several metres: enough to devastate most of the world's major cities.
"I recently lunched with Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, and proposed a joint programme to investigate this issue as a matter of urgency, in partnership with the US National Academy of Sciences, but nothing has come of the idea, it would seem," he said.
Hansen is used to such treatment, of course, just as the world of science has got used to the fact that he is as persistent as he is respected in his work and will continue to press his cause: a coal-power moratorium and an investigation of ice-cap melting.
The world was now in "imminent peril", he insisted, and nothing would quench his resolve in spreading the message. It is the debt he owes his grandchildren, after all.
The climate in figures
• The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 385 parts per million. This compares with a figure of some 315ppm around 1960.
• Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can persist for hundreds of years in the atmosphere, absorbing infrared radiation and heating the atmosphere.
• The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's last report states that 11 of the 12 years between 1995-2006 rank among the 12 warmest years on record since 1850.
• According to Jim Hansen, the nation responsible for putting the largest amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is Britain, on a per capita basis - because the Industrial Revolution started here. China is now the largest annual emitter of carbon dioxide .
• Most predictions suggest that global temperatures will rise by 2C to 4C over the century.
• The IPCC estimates that rising temperatures will melt ice and cause ocean water to heat up and increase in volume. This will produce a sea-level rise of between 18 and 59 centimetres. However, some predict a far faster rate of around one to two metres.
• Inundations of one or two metres would make the Nile Delta and Bangladesh uninhabitable, along with much of south-east England, Holland and the east coast of the United States.