James Hansen on Obama, climate legislation, and the scourge of coal
Cross-posted from Earth Island Institute.
A recent article in the New York Times pointedly asked whether NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen still matters. The subtext to the story was, has Hansen been too vocal and too unconventional in his criticism of Washington’s response to climate change to be taken seriously?
Hansen, dubbed by some as the “father of global warming,” has been connecting the dots between science and politics since his groundbreaking 1988 testimony to Congress about the greenhouse effect. In the last year, however, Hansen has gone far beyond talking about climate change. He’s now taking direct action to stop it.
I began talking with Dr. Hansen when he took part in the Capitol Climate Action, a protest by more than 2,500 people last March at the coal plant that provides heating and cooling for congressional buildings. What struck me most about Hansen was that after more than 30 years of working within “the system” to solve the climate crisis, he felt driven to protest. When a man who knows more about the science of global warming than almost anyone risks arrest to get attention for the issue, perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to take heed.
Young people certainly are. Hansen’s relevance may be in question among some reporters, but to the youth who are spearheading the climate movement, he is a heroic force. When Hansen announced that he would attend the Capitol Climate Action, it doubled the number of young people who signed up on the action’s Web site. While Al Gore and Thomas Friedman question why young people aren’t doing more to stop global warming, Hansen is in the streets, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, so that the task of protecting future generations isn’t left to them alone.
What was your dream job as a kid?
When I started university, my goal was to be an astronaut, and a scientist astronaut. That’s why I was particularly interested in NASA as a graduate student. Then I got so wrapped up in science that I never got around to becoming an astronaut.
You’ve been called the father of global warming. What does that mean to you and is it actually true?
Of course it’s not true, in the sense that global warming goes way back into the 1800s. The first really good discussion was in the 1860s by John Kendall, who was a British physicist. He speculated that the climate changes from glacial to interglacial were related to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and that turned out to be right. We’ve only in the last several years realized and proven that about half of the temperature change in the glacial to interglacial changes is in fact due to changes of greenhouse gases — mainly carbon dioxide.
So it’s not accurate to say I’m the father of global warming. I think where that misimpression comes from is the fact that the public didn’t pay much attention to this science until the 1980s, when it became much more widely noticed in part because of the testimony I gave in 1988 [to Congress].
What would you say has made you different than many of the climate scientists who came before you?
I guess what seems to have made me different is that I am willing to say a little more bluntly what a lot of scientists are already beginning to think but are a bit reluctant to say publicly or at least not in a clear enough way that the public recognizes what they’re saying.
“You’ve got to cut off the coal source. Not only does Waxman-Markey assure that we will continue to run these coal plants, but it actually gives approval for additional coal plants. That simple test tells us that this bill is not adequate.”
One of the places most recently where you’ve been rather blunt is on the proposed Waxman-Markey climate bill. How would you summarize the problems that you see?
You can summarize the problem and prove that the bill is inadequate in a very simple way. You just look at the geophysical constraints on the problem and you look at how much carbon there is in oil, gas, and coal. And you see that the oil and gas is enough to get us into a dangerous zone for atmospheric carbon dioxide but not so far that we couldn’t solve the problem. But if you add coal and put that carbon in the atmosphere, then there is no practical way to solve the problem. So you just have to look at the proposed policy and see if it allows coal to continue to be used and emit the CO2 in the atmosphere.
You’ve got to cut off the coal source. Not only does [Waxman-Markey] assure that we will continue to run these coal plants that we have but it actually gives approval for additional coal plants. That simple test tells us that this bill is not adequate.
The basic point — the fundamental problem — is that because of government policies, fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy. They are not made to pay for the damages they do to human health and the environment. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy, they are going to be used. That’s why I say you have to address the fundamental problem and that is put a rising price on carbon emissions.
You’ve been an advocate for a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade. Why do you think a carbon tax is not getting much traction?
It’s partly because of the poor choice of words. I have a new description and that is “deposit and return.” Either a carbon cap or a carbon tax affects the price of energy and so they’re qualitatively not different. And so it’s kind of a mistake to call one a “tax and dividend,” and the other a “cap,” as if the cap does not increase the price of energy. If it doesn’t increase the price of energy, then it’s not going to be effective.
We have to begin to move to the sources of energy beyond fossil fuels. And the way you do that in a way that is economically sensible and beneficial is to do it gradually but continually. The public and the business community need to understand that the price of carbon will continue to rise in the future, and then we would begin to move more rapidly to the post-fossil fuel era.
So would it be fair to characterize the Waxman-Markey bill as business-as-usual, or is it even worse than business-as-usual?
Well, it’s a small probation of business-as-usual. It’s worse, in my opinion, than almost no policy because it does lock in, it does give approval for, some new coal-fired power. It puts a ceiling on the reductions that will occur. If you put a price on carbon emissions so that the competitors, the energy efficiency and the carbon-free energy sources, can begin to have the competitive advantage, then once you reach a certain point, things will move very rapidly and we will begin to leave the coal in the ground.
That’s what the coal companies are afraid of and they have been enormously effective in their impact on the politics, even though the truth is it’s not that big an industry and the total number of employees is not that large. But they are very powerful in terms of the number of senators and representatives they are able to influence, and apparently even the administration. It doesn’t make sense from an overall national perspective to give them such tremendous political clout. It is not in the best interest of the nation or the public.
You’ve had more experience than anybody in trying to translate the connection between science and policy. How do you feel President Obama is doing on the climate?
Well, I am disappointed that he has not become a little more involved. He seems to be letting the politics just play out, and perhaps planning to be a judge in the compromises. But it’s a case where we clearly need leadership. And he is still our best hope in achieving that.
What is clear is that we have to phase out the coal, and the place you would start is to say we are going to have a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants. Because when you look at the science, what we’ve shown is that if you phase out coal emissions within 20 years, then you can keep the peak CO2 at something between 400 and 425 ppm. But that is critically dependent on phasing out the coal emissions on that sort of timescale. If you’re going to do that, you would not build any new coal-fired power plants.
But to put a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, Obama would have to contend with the coal state senators and the coal lobby.
Yeah, it’s a nontrivial task. But he could do it, and he is the only one who could do it. Without that, it is just going to be this horse-trading that we’ve seen. And you just keep adding more and more bad things to the bill.
But anyway, you should have a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. That is very clear. And mountaintop removal [coal mining], which I understand is only about seven percent of our coal, obviously should be the place you start. I had hoped that the new administration would recognize this and would ban this practice. But again, they seem to be in a position of compromising, of making it a little more difficult but allowing the practice to continue. If [Obama] decided to exert leadership on this, he could. He is articulate enough to explain that to the American public. But so far he is not doing that.
I want to turn to your recent role in some big civil disobedience climate protests: the Capitol climate protest in D.C. last March, and the protest this past June in West Virginia against mountaintop removal coal mining, where you were arrested for the first time. How did somebody who has worked inside the system for so many years get to a place where you decided that you not only had to be out in a protest but that you were going to get arrested?
I prefer the phrase “civil resistance” rather than “civil disobedience” for reasons that Gandhi gives.
When I give a talk on this, I show that the three options for getting the actions that are obviously needed are through the democratic process, influencing the elections of the administration and Congress; secondly, the courts; and then thirdly, civil resistance.
The first at the top of the list, the democratic process: Well, we’re trying that and you have to continue [trying]. It’s very disappointing that the democratic process ends up with the same old politics, which is exactly what Waxman-Markey is. It does not do the job and it is selling short young people and future generations. And that has gotten to be very frustrating to many people, including me.
And so, you look at these other things, the courts and civil resistance. The courts: In my talks, I draw attention to the fact that it has long been a basic tenet in our democracy that the current generation is using nature and the property that we have inherited from our parents in what Thomas Jefferson described in his letter to James Madison as “in usufruct.” Meaning that it’s in trust, it’s property that belongs to future generations, and we’re obligated to deliver it in equally good condition as we received it from our preceding generations. Jefferson was thinking especially about the quality of the land and that you can’t degrade the land with agricultural practices that just use up the nutrients and leave nothing for future generations. So that, I think, may provide a basis for the courts coming to the assistance of young people and future generations. But I don’t know how well that will work out.
So then we arrive at [civil resistance]: I think the point is — just as Gandhi did — to try to draw attention to what is just and what is unjust. It is kind of a last resort, but the problem is we are running out of time. That is what science has made very clear. It is very hard for people to understand this because the magnitude of global warming is so small in comparison to weather fluctuations, and yet what has become clear in the last few years is that it doesn’t take a very large global change in order to have enormous implications in the long run.
So then we arrive at civil resistance. I think the point is — just as Gandhi did — to try to draw attention to what is just and what is unjust. It is kind of a last resort, but the problem is we are running out of time.”
Do you think, then, that more people should start getting involved in civil resistance, in particular when it comes to stopping coal and mountaintop removal mining?
Yeah. We have got to get Obama to pay attention to this because, as I say, I think he is our best hope. But so far, he seems to be forgetting his obligation to young people.
What do you think we can expect from Copenhagen?
Well, it is the same story as with U.S. policies. We cannot let the governments disguise the effectiveness of the actions they propose to take.
So, for example, in the Kyoto Protocol, that was very ineffective. Even the countries that took on supposedly the strongest requirements, like Japan for example — if you look at its actual emissions, its actual fossil fuel use, you see that their CO2 emissions actually increased even though they were supposed to decrease. Because their coal use increased and they used offsets to meet their objective.
Offsets don’t help significantly. That’s why the approach that Copenhagen is using to specify goals for emission reductions and then to allow offsets to accomplish much of that reduction is really a fake. And that has to be exposed. Otherwise, just like in the Kyoto Protocol, we’ll realize 10 years later, oops, it really didn’t do much.
What would be less fake?
Again, you have to go back to this basic test. Are you continuing coal emissions?
Because we know nobody is proposing that we are going to stop using the big pools of gas and oil. So therefore you’ve got to cut off the coal. If you want a strategic approach, all you have to do is look at the geophysical boundary conditions, how much carbon you’ve got in these different pools. And if you realize that the oil and gas is going to be used, and you can’t capture the CO2, it’s coming out of tailpipes, you have to cut off the coal.
So, based on science, whether we are talking about U.S. climate legislation or international negotiations, the litmus test for success is whether coal is banned or phased out?
Right. If you don’t do that, you can’t solve the problem. To get there, the most effective policy would be a rising price on carbon emissions. But you also have to have alternative technologies, which can be partially accomplished with energy efficiency, which would be encouraged by a [carbon] price.
What keeps you up at night in terms of the climate?
The fact that the solutions to this problem actually make sense — they add many other benefits — we just have to make that clear. Of course, there are special financial interests that would be harmed unless they start investing their money differently, but for the general public, it actually makes sense to move more rapidly beyond fossil fuels.
Energy companies, energy departments, not just the United States, just take it as the God-given fact that we’re going to burn all the fossil fuels. In fact, that doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of the public or the planet. We really should leave the larger part of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground, and that means especially coal and unconventional fossil fuels. We just have not succeeded in communicating what I think is clear scientifically. So that’s why I keep working so many hours per week — to try to help make that clear.
On the flip side, what gives you hope?
Of course, the most recent election in the U.S. gave us all a lot of hope. As I say, we’re disappointed by what’s happened so far, but this is just very early in the Obama administration. He is a smart guy, so I still hope he can realize the interests of young people and future generations above the politics of coal, which is basically the problem right now.
Get Grist in your inbox