Coal and climate: Hansen agrees to debate Blankenship

June 22, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


This just in, from NASA climate scientist James Hansen, in response to Massey Energy President Don Blankenship’s challenge to debate global warming, the coal industry and the West Virginia economy. I received this note from Dr. Hansen, who asked that I forward the information on to Blankenship … I’ve done that, and I’m sharing it with Coal Tattoo readers as well:

Dear Don,

Thanks for your offer to publicly discuss climate change, human-made global warming, and its implications for the coal industry in general and mountaintop removal in particular.  That is an excellent suggestion.  I would be glad to participate in a format that allows the public to become better acquainted with the science and its implications.

I had planned to return to a meeting in Washington immediately after the activities at your place on Tuesday, but to accommodate a public discussion, I will stay another day.  I expect that we will be able to find a school auditorium that would be well-suited for presentations and discussion.  I am scouting that out now and will get back to you with specific information.

Usually I spend close to an hour on a climate science discussion for the public, but I can shorten that to about 40 minutes, so that you can have a similar time to present your views, if you would like that much time.  You are welcome to speak either before or after me.  After we have both spoken, we can open it up for discussion with the public.

If for any reason you are unable to find time for this discussion on Wednesday, I will give my talk anyhow.  Hopefully the public will then be able to get back to you with information and questions about how your practices relate to climate, the environment, and the future that will be faced by young people and future generations.

Thanks again for your helpful suggestion.  I very much agree on the importance of reaching out to the public and increasing public understanding of scientific matters.

Jim Hansen

Stay tuned, folks … I’ll update Coal Tattoo as soon as we have any more information on how this debate is going to be worked into the schedule for tomorrow’s big protest down in the Coal River Valley.

Updated, 10:50 a.m.:

Hansen has a new commentary on Yale’s Environment 360 blog called “A Plea to President Obama: End Mountaintop Removal.”   He writes:

The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise. It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill. The political pressures are very real. But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration’s larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate. Coal is the linchpin in mitigating global warming, and it’s senseless to allow cheap mountaintop-removal coal while the administration is simultaneously seeking policies to boost renewable energy.

Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into streambeds — an undeniably catastrophic

We must make clear that we the people want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now.

way of mining. This technique has buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have serious damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware. Mountaintop removal also poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Coal ash piles are so toxic and unstable that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the location of the nation’s 44 most hazardous coal ash sites must be kept secret. They fear terrorists will find ways to spill the toxic substances. But storms and heavy rain can do the same. A recent collapse in Tennessee released 100 times more hazardous material than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

 If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change? The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23rd at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia.

… We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries is over. It is time for citizens to demand — yes, we can.

22 Responses to “Coal and climate: Hansen agrees to debate Blankenship”

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    I wonder if WV Public Broadcasting will cover it. If it occurs, this debate will be an encounter of two iconic figures: one for whom scientific truth is the animating principle; the other blind to anything but the bottom line.

  2. Frank says:

    Goliath vs. Goliath?

  3. eastwood78 says:

    Ken: Thanks for this wonderful information. Dr. Hansen agreeing to debate Don Blankenship, and offering Mr. Blankenship the choice to speak first. As for a school auditorium being available, what better school to have this debate in than Marsh Fork Elementary School which is so near the Massey Energy. Inc. silo. I can vision now that Route 3 traffic is going to be heavy tomorrow, and many thousands of people will be using Route 3, either from Beckley to the Massey site, or from Charleston to the Massey site. May it turn out to be peaceful and orderly, and West Virginians show true respect to all visitors, be they the reporters from various newspapers, TV reporters or Massey coal miners. Mr. Blankenship asked for this debate, now let us see if he really wanted it, or backs out of it. We shall know soon enough, by the good information that Ken continues to give us.

  4. MU4WVU2 says:

    After two or three hours of canned statements, I predict the winner will be:

    Don Blankenship if you are associated with coal

    Dr. Hansen if you oppose coal or more particularly oppose Massey

    Where will debates be held? If in Matewan, advantage Blankenship.
    If in college town, advantage Hansen. I would think a shorter period of time for opening statements (monologue) and a longer period for an exchange between the two in response to questions generated equally by the participants would be more informative. Questions from the audience should be cleared/prefaced by inquiry as to whether participant had been pre-notified. These questions should also be balanced equally between the participants. All responses should have some time to be questioned by the opposition.

    This could be a good exchange that leads to an enhanced meeting of the minds from opposing points of view. Perhaps the opposing camps could meet and make a joint statement about the things they agree on as well as the areas of disagreement, with reasons of agreement or disagreement.

    This should be resolved before we spend enough to bankrupt the nation for no reason or that we are making a necessary investment to secure the future of mankind. Presently I cannot determine which is the correct direction since the scientific community cannot agree.

  5. Raving Patriot says:

    The sad thing is that while the myth of man-made global warming is destined to become the biggest UN-backed money-making fraud of all-time, this debate is being used as a red herring for the real issue of mountain top removal.

  6. Scott Finn says:

    We have offered to tape the event and even host it at our studios, if that is helpful. Still waiting on a response.

  7. Well I hope you know Massey will bus several hundred people in to give the audience the impression that the majority supports them.

    Could require a pretty big arena, etc.

  8. watcher says:

    Dr. Hansen should resign from NASA if he chooses to protest or endorse civil disobediance. I would not be so quick to complain about Massey bringing people (in) to gain a more favorable impression cauz theirs lots& lots of out of towners in Boone and Raleigh counties allready

  9. I agree with several of the comments above, particularly Goliath vs. Goliath and that the results of this debate with likely be a win for Don in the minds of coal supporters and a win for Dr. Hansen in the minds of the environmentally focused.

    Watcher, what brings you so strongly against civil disobedience? There is a long legacy by many of the more respected human beings to grace this planet that civil disobedience is, at times, appropriate, if not necessary.
    What are your thoughts?

  10. Criss Kraus says:

    I CHALLENGE Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, to address the following:

    – Fossil Fuels Are Finite

    – Fossil Fuels are being consumed faster than the planet can produce more

    – Humans currently have NO en-mass replacements for Fossil Fuels AND ALL their by-products (plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, air and water filters, the majority of composite material and fabric as well as cosmetics and pencils).

    – Estimations to complete depletion of Fossil Fuels is 50 to 300 years based on 2000’s world consumption rates.

    – The majority of our world civilizations, economies and governments are deeply embedded and reliant on Fossil Fuels and ALL their by-products.

    This isn’t a matter of if we are in Global Warming. This isn’t if we should drill or not drill. This isn’t about carbon caps or free enterprise. This crisis isn’t even about green renewable energy sources. Sure we do have some energy replacements in the works and THANK GOODNESS they are renewable and clean. But these will NOT replace airplane fuel, yet alone all the fossil fuel by-products in use today. Nor are they even close to “en-mass” production. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg.

    We need a two punch approach to this crisis. Reduce current consumption and simultaneously develop replacements for everything that fossil fuel and it’s by-products currently give us . The reduction will buy us the time to develop and deploy replacements.

    I am so dumbfounded that with all of our technology and brainy people we are avoiding the base issue? Why must we sit back and wait for the wars to start when we reach the 11th hour of fossil fuel extinction?

    What are you doing NOW about this?

  11. Vickie says:

    “Goliath vs. Goliath” gives Mr. Blankenship too much credit. His background is in accounting, if memory serves; what does he know about science? I’m trying to think of a more appropriate comparison; Richard Dawkins vs. Pat Robertson, perhaps?

  12. TitiXXXX says:

    / I CHALLENGE Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, to / address the following:
    / – Fossil Fuels Are Finite

    any scientific proof for that?

    / – Fossil Fuels are being consumed faster than the planet can / produce more

    if the planet produce them, they are not finite, period.
    Anyway, any scientific proof for that?

    / – Estimations to complete depletion of Fossil Fuels is 50 to 300 / years based on 2000’s world consumption rates.

    very precise… climastrologist any chance?
    but again, what are the scientific PROOF?

    Should have a look at the abiotic oil… ok, you better read russian to get the details, but at least some articles have been republished by PNAS for example so even you I guess can have a grip on it… least those got some positive results… and before all, check what is a scientific proof, and what is a scientific theory… not quite the same and it is not based on how many people believe in it.

  13. Bob Kutz says:

    Gasmender; Here’s a thought; for an agent of the government to make himself an advocate of civil disobedience is clearly a conflict of interest.

    He is representing the taxpayer’s interests. Like it or not, causing the government to deal with the added expense of policing those engaged in violating the law (just or otherwise) is a clear conflict of his fiduciary responsibility to 1) his agency (NOAA/GISS), 2) the congress who delegated the funds that support his agency, and 3) the taxpayers who pay his salary.

    For him to simultaneously take a paycheck (of any kind) from the government and advocate change is clearly illegal. When he advocates civil disobedience (i.e. lawbreaking), that changes the level of the offense from mearly civil (lose job, pay fines) to criminal (i.e. use of public office to break or conspire to break law is JAIL TIME).

    There’s really not a lot of gray area here.

    Hansen’s gotta go.

  14. Brian Powell says:

    @Bob Kutz:
    If Hansen was employed by a regulator that had direct control over the coal companies, you might have an argument on a conflict-of-interest. He’s not, and your argument is quite frankly, farcical.

    For example, your suggestion that he is violating a fiduciary duty to his agency because of his participation in the protest is nonsensical. His agency has no responsibility in policing and will not be stuck bearing any expense in policing the activities tomorrow. He can’t violate a fiduciary duty if there isn’t one involved in the first place.

  15. Thomas Rodd says:

    This debate, if it occurs, might be more useful if it occurred in a TV or radio studio, without a lot of supporters in a live audience.

    People could see what the two people are like, and learn what their thoughts are, without having to at the same time experience and process the real-time feelings and expressions of anger, support, encouragement, sadness, and disapppointment by people in the audience.

    I can imagine things getting pretty unpleasant.

  16. Dirk says:

    Mr. Blankenship asked for the debate, Dr. Hansen is providing it- this is a good thing. Hopefully we can have more of these debates, including followup, to allow people to come together on the facts.

    And hopefully the discussion can turn towards facts and reality and not just projections- because there are certainly disagreements regarding facts and reality that should be resolvable.

    I look forward to Coal Tattoo coverage of this event.

  17. RFD says:

    I predict it won’t happen. Hansen called his bluff, and Big Don knows he’ll be outmatched in the science department. He’s a bean counter, not a lab lizard.

  18. I dunno. Dr Hansen, I want your message to get out there.

    So I suggest you pare your 40 minute talk down to 4. Use lots of bumpersticker phrases and analogies. My favorite is “no smoking in the elevator” and “like ice cubes in a glass of coke, they melt and the level rises and it spills”

    Massey/Blankenship has very slick PR machines at his disposal. Do not underestimate his ability to influence opinion. (having long since given up on actually influencing science and facts)

  19. Ericka says:

    since when is a public debate civil disobedience?

  20. Ericka says:

    Icebergs that formed in the water will not raise levels, however ice sheets and glaciers that were on land do displace water when they fall in. Thats what all the hub bub is about. The ice sheets in places like Greenland , Antarctica, Russia,and Canada are melting into the ocean. Water that was never in the ocean is now there. if you add ice to coke yes you get watered down coke because it has added water.

  21. RFD says:

    Anyone notice how quiet all the “debate” talk got? Hansen called his bluff, and Don disappeared. He’ll have a scheduling conflict or something, and it won’t happen.

  22. […] In a letter to to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, Hansen commended Blankenship for taking an active role in discussing climate change, global warming and the coal industry — primarily mountaintop-removal mining. Hansen is in West Virginia this week for a protest at a Massey site and offered to stay for a debate if Blankenship could secure a location. (Read the whole letter here) […]

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