James Hansen and climate solutions

March 11, 2010 at 6:13 am 1 comment

James Hansen is an unlikely climate activist. He admits he’d much prefer to spend his time out of the public eye, building on the decades of scientific research that has won him a reputation as the world’s top climate scientist.

For many years he refused media interviews and avoided public comment on climate change policy.

But he explained at a packed public meeting at Sydney’s Seymour theatre on March 8, the birth of his first grandchild in 2001 led him to change his mind. “I did not want my grandchildren, someday in the future, to look back and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear’.”

He told the meeting: “I realised that if the scientists don’t try to connect the dots from the climate science all the way to the end policy, then it’s the special interests that connect the final dots instead.”

Hansen is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. His Sydney lecture was organised by the University of Sydney’s “Sydney Ideas” program and the university’s United States Studies Centre.

He also addressed big meetings in Melbourne and Adelaide during his Australian visit.

Hansen’s recent book, Storms of my Grandchildren, is one important result of his decision to speak out about climate science and the failure of governments to act on this knowledge.

The book combines a thorough explanation of what is and isn’t known about global warming with an impassioned plea for ordinary people to get active before it is too late.

And he says without hesitation that “too late” is very soon.

The ongoing use of coal, oil and gas for energy, and fossil-fuel use in agriculture and in other industrial processes is the most important cause of dangerous climate change, he told the March 8 meeting.

Hansen also said other “climate forcings” — such as changes in the sun’s intensity and the climatic effects of volcanic eruptions — are measured very accurately. No evidence suggests the Earth’s recent warming can be put down to these other factors. Climate change today is caused by human activity.

Since industralisation, huge amounts of heat-trapping gases once stored safely underground, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, have been released into the atmosphere.

He described how the extra heat trapped by these gases has led to a “global energy imbalance”. Studies have revealed the Earth is absorbing more radiation from sun than before.

In Storms of my Grandchildren Hansen said researchers had estimated the Earth’s energy imbalance at about half a watt per square metre. But he told the Sydney meeting that new studies released in the past six months said the energy imbalance was about 50% higher — about three-quarters of a watt.

Two hundred years of treating the atmosphere like a carbon dump has caused the Earth’s average temperature to rise by about 0.8°C. Yet even were all emissions to miraculously cease tomorrow, a similar amount of extra warming is already in the pipeline.

In his book Hansen explained: “The effects of climate change have been limited in the near term because of climate system inertia, but inertia is not a true friend. As amplifying feedbacks begin to drive the climate towards tipping points, that inertia makes it harder to reverse direction.”

His warning is that if business-as-usual pollution continues, it will soon trigger climate feedbacks that would lead to catastrophic, runaway climate change.

There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, he told the Sydney meeting. To preserve a safe climate, we must aim to reduce the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million. Today, the level is about 390ppm and rising. He said the most important immediate step is to end the burning of coal for energy.

Years of advising the US government to change course has also led Hansen to draw new conclusions about politics. He said the mainstream politicians have not acted on climate change because they are either too compromised, or too corrupted, by the powerful fossil fuel lobby.

At first, he presumed politics would shift once the scientific knowledge of climate change was put out. He now says his early confidence was “disastrously wrong” for two reasons.

“First, special interests were remarkably successful in preventing the public at large from understanding the situation”, he wrote in his book. “The result was a growing gap between what was understood by the relevant scientific community about human-caused climate change and what was appreciated by the public.

“Second, it had become clear that greenwash was a near universal response of politicians to the climate change issue.”

Hansen also strongly criticised carbon offsets, “clean coal” and emissions trading schemes as false responses to the climate crisis. At the Sydney meeting outlined his proposal for a carbon tax as a policy alternative.

A strong point in his plan is that the tax would be leveled at the point of pollution, not on individual consumers. Power stations, mines, steel and aluminum plants and other big emitters would pay the tax.

He said a tax of about $115 per tonne of carbon dioxide, leveled on a national basis, would be enough to prompt a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use and make carbon-free energy alternatives far more attractive.

Hansen said the funds raised by the tax should be returned directly to the population. Under the proposal, each adult or family would receive a monthly “green cheque” to compensate for price rises. He estimated this would leave most people better off financially.

A big plus with Hansen’s carbon tax is its simplicity. Unlike highly-complex trading schemes, such as the Australian government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a direct tax on big polluters leaves no room for traders and speculators to manipulate a carbon market to their own advantage.

Also, given the climate crisis, a high price for carbon is far better than a low price — as long as steps are taken to ensure the tax is not simply passed on to consumers.

However, Hansen’s tax plan raises other questions. Is it really a good idea to give all the proceeds of a carbon tax back to the population — a kind of permanent, green version of Rudd government’s 2009 “economic stimulus package”?

Shouldn’t a carbon tax be designed to also fund the transition to a low-carbon economy? After all, to phase out fossil fuels quickly, we need to have the renewable infrastructure ready to replace it. Shouldn’t a carbon tax then make the big polluters pay to repair the damage they have done?

From the audience, I put these questions to Hansen at the March 8 meeting. His response was unambiguous — no.

All proceeds should go directly to people’s bank accounts for two reasons, he said. First, because we can’t trust governments to spend the money wisely. Second, because we can’t win public support for a carbon tax unless people are certain they won’t be worse off.

However, his argument still leaves the biggest questions unanswered: how can a rapid transition occur and who should pay for it?

Hansen stressed that government’s must also give other incentives for business to use carbon-free technologies. Yet by default, Hansen’s tax plan assumes a high carbon price will make big business invest heavily in clean alternatives. But relying on today’s vested interests to lead tomorrow’s energy revolution is an unsound strategy.

If we are to restructure our economy along sustainable lines in the short time we have left, then there is but one solution: the government has to do it.

The fact that most governments refuse to act in our interests is a bad reason to let them off the hook. It’s because most governments have been captured by the greenhouse mafia that the climate movement must rise to the challenge and become a strong enough force to give government’s no option but to act.

To be effective, any carbon tax on big polluters should be seen as part of a wider plan for a public program to quickly decarbonise our economy — not as an alternative to it.


Entry filed under: Carbon tax, climate tipping points, James Hansen.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho  |  March 11, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Of course. A carbon tax is a mere part, I would say the least important part, of a strategy to decarbonize society. But the scheme proposed by Hansen has another problem. We’re aiming for zero emissions somewhere in the future. But this means that the revenue from the carbon tax will decrease and, eventually, turn to zero. If people start depending on the revenue of a carbon tax for their living, then they probably won’t support eliminating carbon emissions, as it would mean less money in the end of the month.
    So far, I haven’t seen an answer to this from the “cap and dividend” and “tax and dividend” guys.


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