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What Does James Hansen Say to Mayor Daley about Chicago’s Coal Plants? Pass the Clean Power Ordinance!

NOTE: Dr. James Hansen wrote the following letter to Mayor Daley at the request of Eco-Justice Collaborative.  This letter was read into the record during the February 2011 hearing.

April 15, 2011
The Honorable Richard M. Daley
Office of the Mayor City Hall
121 N. LaSalle Street, Room 507
Chicago, Illinois 60602

Dear Mayor Daley and the Chicago City Council:

As a recognized expert on global climate, I have frequently advised governments, including United States Vice President’s Gore and Cheney, cabinet heads, and congress about the potential perils of climate change.  Today, I write to you not only as a scientist, but also as a fellow parent and grandparent concerned about the Earth that will be inherited by our children, grandchildren, and those yet to be born.

I believe that the urgency of climate change dictates a personal appeal as you and the City Council debate whether or not to pass a landmark ordinance that would regulate carbon emissions from two old and outdated coal plants in Chicago.  These coal plants spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide, a potent global warming gas, into the atmosphere each year.  While it is true that acting to curb these emissions by passing the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance will not alone stop the warming of the earth from burning fossil fuels, what passing this groundbreaking Ordinance can do is to show the world that Chicago is serious about doing its part to ensure that the planet is preserved for future generations.

In less than 200 years, carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere has risen from 275 parts per million to its present day levels of over 390 ppm. The burning of fossil fuels has poured CO2 into our atmosphere at an unsustainable rate, putting all life at risk.  If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will need to be reduced to  at most 350 ppm

As you consider the health impacts of Chicago’s coal plants on the health and welfare of city residents, many of whom are sick and dying prematurely, you might also consider the following:

  • The burning of coal is the largest contributor to climate change in the U.S..  Annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants are greater than the emissions from all cars, trucks, planes, trains, and other forms of transportation combined.
  • Coal contributes the largest percentage of anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of any primary fuel.  It is the most carbon intense of the fossil fuels. Producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal produces about 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, while producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas produces about one pound of carbon dioxide.
  • While coal produces half of the electricity used in the United States, it is responsible for 80% of the carbon dioxide released by electric utilities.
  • Coal consumption is far more concentrated than the use of other fossil fuels. A mere six hundred large coal-burning power plants account for nearly all coal usage, in contrast to the tens of millions of cars, trucks, planes, homes, businesses, and factories that burn oil and gas. Thus, reducing emissions from coal can be achieved most quickly.

We need to stop burning so much coal—and start using solar and wind energy and other sources of clean energy.  Passing the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance would reduce carbon emissions, consistent with your own city’s policies presented in your Climate Action Plan. Your plan calls on Chicago to repower its fossil coal plants and procure 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 as a strategy to attain its larger goal. That goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, with the sharpest reductions occurring by 2020.  These reduction targets are consistent with national and global goals recommended for preventing runaway climate change.

If we meet these targets together as a global community, then the earth’s soils and forests will slowly cycle some of that extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and eventually CO2 concentrations will return to a safe level. By decreasing use of other fossil fuels, and improving agricultural and forestry practices around the world, scientists believe we could get back below 350 ppm by mid-century. But the longer we remain in the danger zone—above 350 ppm—the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.

The challenges of climate change are great and urgent. While it is true that climate change is a worldwide issue, 75% of all greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the world’s urban areas.  No one city can solve the climate crisis alone. But the collective actions of cities across the world can make a difference.

Chicago is third largest city in the U.S. It also is recognized around the world as a leader in protecting our environment. When it comes to greening a city, many know that Mayor Daley sets a high bar for mayors and governors across the country. I believe that the nation is looking to Chicago to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a time when state and federal legislation have failed to do so.

Mayor Daley – you and your City Council have a fleeting opportunity to instigate fundamental change that can point the way for other local and state governmental jurisdictions.  I appeal to you to leave a legacy that you can be proud of.  Lead the nation by adopting the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance.  Show the rest of the world that Chicago is the city that works – and is not bogged down by politics that prevent life-giving change.  In so doing, you and the Chicago City Council will join world-wide efforts to preserve this world for our families and future generations.


James Hansen

NOTE: EJC is a founding partner of the Chicago Clean Power Campaign.  For updated information on the updated hearing, visit these websites: Eco-Justice Collaborative.org or Chicago Clean Power Coalition.


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