What Worries The World's Most Famous Climate Scientist?
By Andrew Nikiforuk
11 December, 2015
James Hansen is fretting about the Paris climate talks, and for good reason.
You might recall that Hansen was the NASA scientist that boldly warned the United States Congress about the perils of rising global temperatures as early as 1988.
And you might remember that officials with the U.S. administration of George W. Bush instructed the world's most famous climate change scientist not to talk about how fossil fuel burning could have a dangerous effect on climate in 2004.
But Hansen kept on talking about melting ice, rising seas, flooded coastal cities and super storms. And now he's worried that Paris will be another bureaucratic gabfest that avoids the true remedy: rapid fossil fuel emissions reductions driven by a carbon levy.
By rapid, Hansen doesn't think the world's industrial economies have time to be self-satisfied about stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions around 450 parts per million or even the alarming present amount of 400 ppm. No, to restore the Earth's energy balance, now unsettled by centuries of greenhouse gas emissions, the world needs to aim for 350 ppm and possibly lower.
Everyone agrees that business as usual will take the world to 600 ppm by 2050, along with a rise of temperature by four degrees.
That grim future will give the world drowned coastal cities, parched crops, millions of refugees and failing ecosystems. Nobody really knows what would remain of civilization, as we know it.
Hansen worries politicians still don't get the urgency. He also worries that U.S. President Barack Obama and others will sell our children and theirs "down the river" in Paris with more promises and no action.
He worries, too, that Big Green, a plethora of well-funded non-government organizations, have got their priorities all wrong. They mostly think the world can copy Germany's renewable revolution and be blissful ever after.
In a recent and worrisome communiqué posted on his website, Hansen details his concerns by highlighting a few facts about climate change that the mainstream media often ignore.
Climate change is not about today's carbon headlines, but about cumulative pollution that dates back to the industrial revolution, steam engines and the feverish mining and burning of coal, Hansen writes.
Although China can claim to be the world's top carbon maker today (the U.S. is a close second and India a rising third), that's not really the point.
The problem started nearly 400 years ago and much of that carbon has now been absorbed by the ocean and biosphere and has destabilized the world's energy balance. The damage has been done.
When looked at from a cumulative perspective, the U.S. accounts for one-quarter of man-made climate change and China but 10 per cent. Germany, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom have each played much bigger roles in destabilizing the climate than India, too.
On a per capita basis, the story gets worse. The coal-fired British Empire and the oil-burning American Empire hold the most responsibility for bringing anarchy to the globe's climate. That's a sobering fact worth thinking about.
In fact, Hansen writes, the U.K., U.S., and Germany "have per capita responsibilities exceeding the responsibilities of China and India by almost a factor of 10."
As Hansen notes, "the West burned most of the world's allowable carbon budget."
That means that the global commons must leave most of the remaining fossil fuels, including Canada's bitumen and British Columbia's shale gas in the ground, "or our children and future generations are screwed."
But most politicians including President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aren't really pushing the world in that policy direction.
Instead, they somehow think that voluntary negotiated reductions combined with stupid ideas such as cap and trade and carbon capture and storage will deliver a solution.
Caps on emissions won't work, argues Hansen, because you'll never get 195 nations to agree on a formula that is fair or at a rate that would prevent dangerous climate destabilization.
The approach has repeatedly failed. After 20 years of pleasant and often Orwellian rhetoric about cap and trade, emissions have soared.
In the last 14 years, 21 of the globe's most energy intensive nations increased their carbon emissions by 50 per cent, Hansen shows. Only economic stagnation helped a few nations such as the U.K. and Italy reduce their emissions by nearly 25 per cent.
The history of carbon capture and storage -- the absurd practice of burying carbon underground so you can behave the same way on top of it -- remains a chronicle of endless technical difficulties and obscene costs. Yet folks in Paris are touting the ridiculed technology as a solution.
Invented by the energy industry to create the myth of "clean coal," carbon capture and storage remains a boondoggle.
Even the Financial Times has noted that "Few technologies have had so much money thrown at them for so many years by so many governments and companies, with such feeble results."
The best solution
What worries Hansen even more is that neither the United Nations nor political leaders want to talk about the best solution: a progressive levy on carbon collected from energy companies at domestic mines and port of entry.
Once collected, the carbon levy would then be returned to all residents in equal per capita amounts to invest in reducing their energy intensity and carbon footprint.
People who use less energy would actually receive more in their monthly dividend than they pay in increased prices. The carbon fee would start small and rise each year, and thereby stimulate systematic energy and economic change.
"The required rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and phase-in of alternatives requires that businesses and consumers be confident that the fee will continue to rise," says Hansen in a related paper.
The fee, a form of honest energy pricing, also removes the economic inertia for change. As long as fossil fuels remain cheap and as long as prices don't reflect their ecologic, health and water costs to society, societies will burn them.
Hansen points to U.S. economic studies that suggest a carbon levy and dividend would decrease carbon emissions by 30 per cent in 10 years and more than 50 per cent in 20 years, while increasing gross national product. They would also create more than three million new jobs.
A carbon fee of $125 per tonne would collect $600 billion and yield a dividend worth about $6,000 per family (with two children) in the U.S. alone.
China and India would find such a system more palatable than voluntary caps because climate change threatens them with massive upheaval, reckons Hansen.
Several hundred million people live within a 25-metre elevation of sea level in China, and both countries stand to suffer grievously from intensification of droughts, floods and storms that will accompany continued global warming.
Hansen doesn't regard a carbon levy and dividend as a panacea. The globe will have to address its old cheap energy addictions to speed, quantity and mobility too. We might also have to abandon the myth of "clean energy," because every form of energy comes with an ecological price tag and a moral quandary.
Germany not the way
But nobody in Paris is really championing a carbon fee and dividend. Instead, the carbon-centric crowd continues to celebrate voluntary caps while Big Green points to Germany as the path forward.
For the record, Germany closed nuclear power plants, subsidized renewables and lowered emissions, which in turn led to high electricity prices. A cap and trade scheme played a role, too. At the same time, German industry exported the production of many consumer products to other countries that burn fossil fuels with abandon.
The end result, says Hansen, is that "global emissions decline little, if at all."
As a consequence, Germany remains an experiment that presents a question: "Can a wealthy nation with exceptional engineering ability and a public willing to subsidize renewable energies rapidly phase out carbon emissions?"
And so Hansen worries.
"The valid scientific message is that emissions must be reduced as rapidly as practical. And in turn, that implies the price of fossil fuels must be made honest by adding a rising carbon fee."
Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists. Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.