Reflections of a climate veteran (1)

James Hansen is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. After 30 years in the field, he tells Tan Copsey why cheap fossil fuels are still obstructing progress – and why taxing carbon is the answer.

James Hansen is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a member of the United States’ National Academy of Sciences and an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York.

Tan Copsey: You’ve been involved in climate science for roughly 30 years now. Are you surprised at how little action governments have taken on the issue in that time?

Jim Hansen: Well, I’m no longer surprised. But if I had thought 30 years ago about what the government response might be, I would have expected that they would take account of what the science was saying, because we had experience with the ozone problem. When the science exposed that problem, governments were actually very prompt in their response. Initially they put in mild constraints on chlorofluorocarbons (which were depleting the ozone layer) and as the science became clearer, they put in stronger and stronger constraints. Now the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere is actually decreasing.

That problem was dealt with very effectively. But the climate problem is much more difficult. All they had to do to solve the ozone problem was develop new chemicals for refrigeration and other things that chlorofluorocarbons were used for. But with the climate problem, because of the central role of energy in national economies, there is a great reluctance to take the steps that are needed.

Governments say the right words about how they understand that we have a planet in peril and they set goals. But if you look at the actual emissions of greenhouse gases, they keep increasing globally. The reason they keep increasing is because fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source right now. In part, this is because they receive subsidies. But the main reason they’re cheapest is that fossil-fuel companies don’t have to pay for their costs to society. The effect on human health is quite enormous. There are more than a million people a year who die from air and water pollution, most of which is from fossil-fuel use of one sort or another. But all of those costs are borne by the public. They also do not need to pay for the damage they do to the environment.

The solution would be to move to the post fossil-fuel era sooner, rather than waiting until we’ve burned up all the fossil fuels on the planet. That would mean emphasising energy efficiency, renewable energies, nuclear power and other things that do not produce carbon dioxide. The one bright spot I see is the fact that China is investing a lot in all of these. It’s now investing more than any other country and that’s the right path to a solution.

But to make it work, there’s going to need to be a gradually increasing price on carbon emissions. That way people would begin to move towards cleaner energy. If we don’t put a price on carbon emissions, then we will just keep burning all of those fossil fuels. Coal, for instance, would still be very cheap.

TC: You have called coal the “single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”. China is heavily reliant on coal energy and is likely to be for some time to come. What would you propose China do?

JH: First of all, they’re doing the right thing with regards to investments in clean energy. They may be making those investments because they see the world is going to go in that direction and they would like to have technologies to sell. That’s fine. It’s something that the United States should have done.

But in order to make that work, there’s going to need to be a gradually rising price on carbon emissions. What I’ve been recommending to the United States is to collect a fee from fossil-fuel companies at the domestic mine or the port of entry and have that fee gradually rise over time so that the fossil-fuel energy becomes more expensive. Then distribute the money to the public so that they have the wherewithal to make changes in their lifestyles and energy use – moving to cleaner energies.

I think that something like that needs to be done in China as well. They need to encourage people to use cleaner energy. But of course if one country went into it by itself and the others didn’t, then it may be at a disadvantage in international trade because the products made from fossil fuels would become more expensive. So there really needs to be a negotiation between China and the US, so that they both put a price on carbon.

TC: Do you hold out any hope for international efforts to deal with climate change?

JH: I think it does require agreement between China and the US because those are the two main players. The US is responsible for more of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than any other country – about 27.5%. China is responsible for about 9.5%, which is three times less than the US but the second most overall. China also now has the largest annual emissions. Those two countries have to recognise the critical importance of reducing emissions to their countries’ future. Once they really understand that, then I think an agreement is possible.

The place you want to get to is actually a much better place than the one we are at right now. The pollution, not only from carbon dioxide but also from the other by-products of fossil fuels, is really quite damaging. Especially in countries like China, which have a lot of local pollution. It is in the interests of both countries to make sure that we move more quickly towards clean energies.

TC: You have been testifying to congress on and off for more than 20 years. Why does the United States in particular have so much trouble formulating coherent climate-change policy?

JH: It is because of the way our democracy now works. It is supposed to be one person, one vote. But it’s turned out that money has a huge impact on the executive branch and especially the legislative branch. Lobbyists make it very difficult to get a policy that is in the best interests of the public. There is so much money being made under business as usual. Fossil-fuel companies just want to continue that. So the bills that are talked about in congress are very ineffective. We really have to make changes to the US form of government and the role that lobbying plays in legislation. It has become extremely difficult to do what is clearly in the best interests of the public.

Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue.

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