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Time For Better Ideas: James Hansen

By Madeline Ostrander

23 December, 2009
Yes Magazine

NASA climate scientist James Hansen never expected the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen to amount to much. He told the British Guardian newspaper that it would be better if Copenhagen failed. That’s because Hansen is a vocal critic of the economic policies discussed there, and he hopes Copenhagen’s failure gives the public a chance to talk about new options.

Hansen is arguably the world’s best known and most respected climate scientist. Sometimes called the “grandfather of climate change,” he began modeling the effects of warming three decades ago and first testified about climate change before Congress in 1988. He was one of the key figures to blow the whistle on the Bush Administration for censoring science and trying to muzzle warnings about the urgency of the climate crisis.

In the past few years, Hansen has expanded his activities outside the laboratory and into the political fray. In June, he was arrested after marching at a rally against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.

More recently, he has become a leading opponent of cap-and-trade, a market approach to greenhouse gas regulation that puts a limit on how much carbon can be emitted and then allows polluters to trade permits to emit. Hansen claims the approach ultimately will not produce the kinds of emissions cuts the world needs to avoid catastrophic climate change. It will simply allow “polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars,” he says. He is especially critical of the large number of offsets available under the current policy proposals, which allow polluters to pay for emissions reductions elsewhere in the world. He points to some offset schemes that have led to fraud, giving credit for pollution reductions that never actually happened.

Hansen is championing an alternative solution called fee-and-dividend, which would impose a fee on any pollution source (mines, ports of entry) and distribute the revenue back to the public. Both fee-and-dividend and cap-and-trade attempt to reduce carbon emissions by raising the price of fossil fuels, but Hansen insists the former is simpler and less vulnerable to speculation and gaming.

Advocates of cap-and-trade have been dismissive of Hansen’s arguments. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council says Hansen is simply wrong about cap-and-trade, insists the approach has been effective in the European Union, and maintains that the leading bills now before Congress have enough safeguards to avoid market manipulation. Economist Paul Krugman accuses Hansen of naïve thinking: “hard-science guys tend to assume that [economists are] witch doctors with nothing to tell them.”

Hansen has faced off critics before. He is not alone in his critique. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, says that “carbon-trading represents an unprecedented privatization of the atmosphere, and ... offsets ... threaten to become a resource grab of colonial proportions.” The Indigenous Environmental Network calls cap-and-trade a false solution “that will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue to do what they do—drill, baby, drill.” In November, two longtime U.S. EPA attorneys published a video online calling cap-and-trade “a huge mistake.”

I caught up with Hansen by phone on Monday morning to ask his reaction to Copenhagen and discuss his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, 2009).

Madeline Ostrander: Is the outcome of the talks in Copenhagen better or worse than you imagined?

James Hansen: I think it's a good situation. Now we can step back and look at what is really needed.

The proposals discussed in Copenhagen were like the indulgences of the Middle Ages. The sinners are the developed countries, which are responsible for most of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They want to continue business as usual, by buying off the developing countries.

If developing countries can get a hundred billion dollars a year, that's enormously attractive. But both parties are thumbing their noses at young people and future generations.

The hundred billion dollars a year—the money that Secretary of State Clinton claimed the United States would raise to give to developing countries—is vapor money. There's no mechanism for such financing to actually occur, and no expectation that it will.

The leaders can't just make up these greenwash statements and claim that they're dealing with the problem. They're doing the same thing they did with Kyoto. Before the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions had been increasing one and a half percent per year. After Kyoto, the rate accelerated to three percent per year.

Some countries did set goals to reduce their emissions under Kyoto, but when you look at the details, you see that those goals weren’t realized. For example, Japan had a very strong target under Kyoto, but its emissions actually increased substantially, and it bought off the difference using offsets—investing in China and in rainforests. A few countries in Europe reduced their emissions. But that didn't reduce global emissions, because the industry and the emissions just moved overseas. Products were then sent back to European countries on airplanes, which do not have any tax on their fuel.

Madeline: What kinds of solutions should political leaders be discussing?

Jim: You have to recognize that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they're going to be used. To change that situation, you have to place a gradually rising price on carbon emissions.

We have to have a very simple system—put a fee on fossil fuels at their origin at the mine or the port of entry. No exceptions.

If the carbon price rises to $115 per ton of carbon dioxide, considering the amount of oil, gas, and coal used last year in the United States, that would generate $670 billion dollars. That’s between $7,500 and $9,000 dollars per family.

That money needs to be given 100 percent to the public so that they have the resources to adjust their lifestyles—such as to buy more efficient vehicles or insulate their homes. As the carbon price rises, it's going to become less and less sensible, for instance, to import food from halfway around the world. The economics would favor a nearby farm, as opposed to agriculture at a great distance.

You cannot have these boondoggles in which we invest billions and billions of dollars in so-called clean coal and give money to polluters.

Madeline: Did you see any signs of progress in Copenhagen?

Jim: There was one. We did have a clear statement from Al Gore. I've been urging him to say that a carbon price is the best way to get emissions to decrease, better than cap-and-trade with offsets. Gore calls it a carbon tax. I don't call it that. Even John Kerry, the cosponsor of the lead bill in the Senate, made a statement admitting that a carbon fee needs to be considered. So I think there's a chance we can have an honest discussion of fee-and-dividend this coming spring in the United States.

The direction that the United States goes determines the direction that the world goes. If we have a sensible approach approved by Congress, then there's still a very good chance we could solve this climate problem.

Madeline: What do you think the public should do to move the United States toward a solution?

Jim: Public involvement is very important. Otherwise politics as usual tends to continue. When I was on the David Letterman show, he asked me that same question. I said people need to understand the difference between cap-and-trade with offsets and fee-and-dividend. Of course. he cut me off at that point [laughs], because that's not a subject for a comedy show. But the concept is not difficult.

For instance, fee-and-dividend will be beneficial for the economy. When you put that amount of money into the public's hands, it's going to stimulate the economy. It's not a net tax but a redistribution of income from the people who are burning a lot of carbon to those who are not. It will tend to discourage the processes that are the most wasteful of fossil fuels. That story has got to be communicated and understood by the public, and we have to put pressure on our politicians to act on behalf of the public, rather than on behalf of their campaign donors.

There are more than 2,000 fossil fuel lobbyists in Washington, and they have written most of the words for the leading climate bills—the Waxman-Markey House bill and the Boxer-Kerry Senate bill.

But we are beginning to see discussion of alternatives. During the campaign last year, Obama advocated for a 100 percent dividend. There was the Larson bill in the House, which had a small, but steadily increasing price on carbon. Now there's the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act, which gets rid of the offsets. It is still not exactly fee-and-dividend, but it gets very close. If there is an open discussion in the Senate and House about alternatives, I think it's possible we could get on a sensible path.

Madeline: You’ve said that climate change isn't just a scientific and political issue, but also a personal and moral issue.

Jim: Yeah, that's exactly the point. We're dealing with a planetary crisis. The climate system is in danger of passing tipping points. If we don’t address it, we leave our children with economic and social chaos within this century. Once that situation is understood, it becomes a question of intergenerational justice. It's analogous to the situation that Abraham Lincoln faced with slavery or Winston Churchill faced with Nazism. It is a moral issue, and you can't take a compromise position. You can’t say, "Oh, we'll do a little bit, but we won't solve the problem."

Madeline: You spend so much of time looking at the data and the scale of the problem. What keeps you hopeful?

Jim: Well, if the problem could be understood, there's no question that the public would support action. Look at the sacrifices the public made in World War II. Climate change is harder, because it's less visible. But many of us had hoped that President Obama would help press the world to make the right decisions. Now in the next several months, climate change needs to come to the fore, and people need to understand the actions that are really required.

Madeline: In your book, you describe how your grandchildren have inspired you to push harder to get action on climate change. How has your family influenced your work?

Jim: My grandchildren were the reason that I couldn't just continue to do the science without saying what the implications were. In 2004, I decided I would give one public talk, which I would prepare very carefully with scientific papers to back it up. But then I found that one talk doesn't really have that much effect. So one thing led to another. Finally, I wrote this book. I bring my grandchildren into the story to explain how difficult it is to preserve a climate that will allow humans to continue to exist. The climate of the last 10,000 years has been very stable, and if we don't get on a different path in the next several years, we're going to guarantee that we not only change the climate but destroy a large fraction of the species on the planet.

Madeline Ostrander interviewed James Hansen for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Madeline is YES! Magazine's senior editor.

YES! Magazine encourages you to make free use of this article by taking these easy steps. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License


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