The Newsmaker Memo: An Interview With Pioneering Climate Scientist James Hansen
Having directed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for most of the past four decades, Dr. James E. Hansen retired this month to devote himself to the scientific activism that has brought both awards and catcalls during his long and distinguished career. On April 24, he will receive the Ridenhour Courage Prize in Washington, D.C., for “bravely and urgently telling the truth about climate change.”
Hansen recently spoke with The National Memo about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of nuclear power, the failures of both Republican and Democratic administrations, the imperatives of scientific advocacy – and how a carbon tax might actually replace “cap and trade,” which seems to be disintegrating in Europe.
Now 72, Hansen is the son of a tenant farmer who studied with the legendary space scientist James Van Allen at the University of Iowa, before going on to postgraduate work in the Netherlands and at Columbia University, where the Goddard Institute is located. He joined NASA in 1972, planning to study the effect of gas clouds on the climate of Venus, but eventually realized that investigating climate changes on Earth was “probably more important – a planet that is changing before our eyes and has people living on it.”
By 1981, his team at NASA-Goddard published its first major paper on carbon dioxide and climate in the journal Science, which prompted page-one coverage in the New York Times.
“We said we can’t burn all the coal without producing a very different planet,” Hansen recalls. But “it wasn’t until 1988 that I gave testimony which got a lot of attention, and that was because that was the year of a heat wave and tremendous drought in the Midwest United States.” Hansen’s warnings increasingly irked the Republican oilmen in the Reagan and Bush administrations, who tried to silence or fire him, but they never drove him out.
“Being at NASA and having the access to both computing capability and satellite observation capability is kind of the ideal research situation to try to understand global climate change. So of course I preferred to stay in the government — and I was fortunate that [the late] Senator John Heinz, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, came to my rescue when John Sununu [chief of staff in the first Bush White House] was on the warpath and wanted to have me fired.”
Publicly, he remained quiet for 15 years. “But the message in the science had become clearer and clearer…It was well accepted by  that the planet really was getting warmer and the cause was human-made greenhouse gases. And yet the policies still took no account of that, and the plan was to build more and more coal-fired power plants.”
He finally spoke out again at the University of Iowa – “to make clear that the Bush administration was not taking effective action.” That speech “drew the attention of the Bush administration,” he says, laughing, “and they decided to assign someone to keep track of me and prevent me from speaking out.” (Eventually the Timesreported that, too.)
In recent years, Hansen has been arrested in climate protests at the White House and elsewhere, and in retirement plans to intensify his activism. Freed from the strictures of government, he plans to assist in “legal actions against state and federal government for not adequately protecting the rights of young people and future generations. And also contributing to the cases where they’re trying to stop coal exports from the West Coast – and the [Keystone] tar sands pipeline. In May I’m going to Europe for a week to try to persuade some governments there that they should be putting an extra fee or tax on tar-sands oil because it is more damaging per unit of energy than the easily extractable oil.”
In order to remain effective, “I really have to say on top of the science, so most of my time will be spent on scientific research…But I also want to be involved in trying to make clear the implications of the science for policy. It seems to me that scientists are well trained for connecting dots – and I never quite understood why even the really good NASA high-level people would always caution me to ‘stick to the science, don’t mention policy.’”
Catastrophic climate change can be averted, Hansen says, but only if we start “putting an honest price on the fossil fuels that includes their environmental costs, both their effect on human health, those costs being paid completely by the public, their effects in air pollution and water pollution, but also their effects on climate.”
He scorns the current “dishonest” cap-and-trade scheme. “You have to have a simple system which is transparent and which actually reduces the fossil fuel use. There’s really no value added by bringing the big banks into the problem. But with the cap-and-trade [system], the prices fluctuate and because there’s so much politics involved the prices can collapse, and so no one has any confidence in that system.
“And the banks of course” – he laughs – “JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, they have skilled trading units, hundreds of highly capable people who will make big dollars out of trades – but it adds nothing of value to the system, and where does that money come from? It doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes out of the public, the people, paying more for their energy. “
The so-called cap-and-trade “offsets,” which award carbon credits for preserving trees, “can be really hokey, really hard to verify – and they don’t actually pay attention to the physics of the problem, which tells you that the fossil fuel carbon that you put into the atmosphere will stay in the climate system for millennia….That means that there is a limit on how much fossil fuel you can burn. And they’re trying to trade other things in there as if they were equivalent to this fossil fuel carbon, but they’re not.”
Instead, Hansen favors a simple carbon tax, or what he calls “fee and dividend,” with a rising surcharge on fossil fuels that is rebated in full to all taxpayers.
“The reason for the fee is simple – it really needs to be collected at the domestic mine or port of entry so that it’s just across the board – but unless you’re giving that money to the public, the public will never allow the fee to continue to rise because they will see the impact on the cost of gasoline at the pump and in their utility bills until there are some alternatives.”
The alternative that Hansen favors – a rapid worldwide expansion of nuclear power — is highly controversial among environmentalists, to say the least.
“I just published a paper with [fellow Goddard scientist] Pushker Kharecha, in which we point out the number of lives that have been saved by nuclear power. And that’s nuclear power of the early generations, 50-year-old technology. Even with that old technology the accidents that did occur — the number of lives lost – was very limited in comparison to the number that are killed every year by coal, by the air and by water pollution from fossil fuel burning and fossil fuel mining. “
Hansen believes that new cooling systems and advanced reactor designs can answer concerns about accidents like the meltdown at Fukushima, Japan – “that’s solvable now” — and how to dispose of radioactive waste. “With a fourth generation of nuclear power, you can have a technology that will burn more than 99 percent of the energy in the fuel. It would mean that you don’t need to mine uranium for the next thousand years. We have got enough excess weapons material and nuclear waste to provide the fuel for many centuries.”
Hansen knows this isn’t a popular viewpoint. “There are certain environmental organizations – especially the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council – which are just dead set against nuclear power. And I understand where they were coming from, several decades ago.”
Today he worries that solar, wind, and other renewable sources will not soon provide sufficient reliable energy. “I think that nuclear is probably needed but I’m quite happy to just say ‘let’s put a rising price on carbon and let the market decide.’ I hope that Germany or California is successful in their efforts to get these so-called renewables to provide most of the energy but I think that’s unlikely…If we would put this price on carbon it would favor renewables, and it would favor energy efficiency, and it would favor nuclear power – it would favor anything that is carbon-free. That’s the way to do it – not by government deciding, this is the winning technology.”
He stands with the environmentalists in strong opposition to the Keystone XL project, however. “If you make that pipeline, that sort of guarantees that over time, you’re eventually going to exploit a lot of that [tar sands] resource. And it doesn’t make any sense economically if you look at it – the only reason they go ahead with it is that it’s partly subsidized and it’s not made to pay for its cost to society. If we could stop it and get any sort of a price on carbon that even partially reflects the cost of CO2 to society, then tar sands would simply not be exploited.”
According to a paper he will soon release, “simple economic modeling shows that if you put a moderate rising price on carbon — $10 a ton, going up $10 a ton for 10 years — by the end of 10 years you would reduce United States emissions by 30 percent. And that’s 10 times or 11 times more than the volume of the Keystone pipeline. So there are much more effective ways of assuring our energy independence and contributing to stabilizing climate than trying to develop more fossil fuel sources.” Government should also adopt much tighter regulations to conserve energy in appliances, buildings, and transportation, he adds.
Politically, Hansen urges Americans to support Citizens Climate Lobby, a group advocating a simple flat carbon fee, with the money distributed to the public. He is considering whether to help found a “grandparents” movement against climate change. “But frankly in the United States it looks very difficult with our present two parties to get prompt action. I think we need a third party. Money has too big an influence on our politics in Washington and somehow we need to do something about that.”