07/31/2009 07:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Physicist James Hansen calls for "Zero Coal"

Put a price on carbon to drive efficiency up and coal out

By Bill Shireman

The Waxman-Markey climate bill won't put the nation on the low-carbon diet it clearly needs. Instead, the current version of the legislation could actually increase our reliance on coal, warns Dr. James Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists:

The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere now stands at 387 parts per million, the highest level in 600,000 years and more than 100 ppm higher than the amount at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Burning just the oil and gas sitting in known fields will drive atmospheric CO2 well over 400 ppm and ignite a devil's cauldron of melted icecaps, bubbling permafrost, and combustible forests from which there will be no turning back. But if we cut off the largest source of carbon dioxide, coal, we have a chance to bring CO2 back to 350 ppm and still lower through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.

He goes on to explain that "the essential step, then, is to phase out coal emissions over the next two decades." However, "we won't get there with the Waxman-Markey bill, a monstrous absurdity hatched in Washington after energetic insemination by special interests."

Though Hansen's tough love on the cap-and-trade bill may be overstated for effect, his core message is clear: we need to look beyond Waxman-Markey, if we're serious about addressing climate change. Above all, Washington must implement a policy that puts a price on carbon, thereby weaning our country entirely from coal and increasing energy efficiency across all sectors of the economy.

These goals are attainable with a mix of political and marketplace activism.

THE GOAL: Grassroots environmentalists and justice advocates need to coalesce around the core policy needed to drive coal out of the economy: a no-loopholes price on carbon. Whether by tax shift or fee, we need to establish a price for carbon emissions and use the proceeds to cut taxes for hard-working Americans.

THE PRINCIPLES: To help keep policy solutions on track, we need to judge them against common principles that can draw together a broad support. U.S. climate policy should meet, at a minimum, these six principles:

1. Effective: Put a price on carbon sufficient to drive down emissions to the levels scientists say we need
2. Efficient: Eliminate costs with no direct benefits, and protect the economy from unnecessary costs and distortions
3. Fair: Advance social justice & equity, addressing the needs of low-income and displaced workers
4. Predictable: Ensure a stable cost trajectory for carbon; avoid excess volatility
5. Transparent: Make the program's operations easily understandable and transparent to all parties
6. Harmonious: Allow for and encourage the participation of the global community

If you agree with these principles, and want to help assure that they are reflected in the Senate version of climate protection legislation, please sign on here.