James Hansen, In His Own Words


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Dr. James Hansen--scientist, father, grandfather, and activist--is often called the "grandfather of climate change science," although he eschews the moniker. In the 1970s and 80s, his advanced climate modeling and impassioned pleas for action brought the issue of global warming to the forefront, but since then too little has been done to slow our emissions. Hansen recently sat down with the Earth Island Institute for a taped interview to discuss his legacy and the prospects for a climate bill this year.Hansen has had a busy year. While maintaining his post at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen has participated in a number of global warming rallies, including the Capital Climate Action and a protest at a mountaintop removal site, owned and operated by Massey Energy, where Hansen was arrested. He also made waves when he came out against the Waxman-Markey global warming bill, saying it's too weak.

Earth Island Institute: You've been called the father of global warming. What does that means 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.

EII: 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.

EII: 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.

You can listen to the full interview on Earth Island Institute's website.

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