SAN FRANCISCO, CA, DECEMBER 14, 2015 – Scientist and activist James Hansen doesn’t want to scare his young grandchildren, so he never talks to them about climate change.

James Hansen, frustrated with Paris Agreement. (Photo credit: David Appell)

But a few years ago, he gave an evening talk at a neighbor’s beach house and thought all the children were in bed. He didn’t see his eight-year old grandson sitting in the back row, who by the end of grandpa’s talk had tears running down his cheek.

Within a few years, though, his grandson had already figured out some of the major points that Hansen, the now-retired former director at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences in New York, emphasized again at his talk at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

‘Inertia of the system’

“We really have an emergency because of the inertia of the system,” Hansen said – or, as his grandson put it, unless we have a time machine, we can’t fix much of the climate change happening now and in the future.

“A solution is possible, and economic[ally] sensible, and it’s not been being advocated by any nation,” said Hansen, who expressed frustration about the outcome of the recent COP21 climate conference in Paris.

He said the idea that the world is “making good progress” is “baloney.”

Hansen’s preferred solution is a carbon fee-and-dividend, with all collected fees (taxes) distributed back on an equal per capita basis. Such a system has been backed also by groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Not one dime should go to the government,” he emphasized. Sixty percent of Americans would make money in that system, he said, because it’s the affluent in society who emit more than their individual share of carbon dioxide.

Hansen said a study from Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) found that a carbon tax-and-dividend that annually increased by $10 per metric ton of carbon dioxide would reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent in 10 years. And by more than 50 percent in 20 years, he continued, while creating almost three millions jobs and preventing 230,000 premature deaths over 20 years, with a slight increase in gross domestic product.

It is a “half-assed and half-baked” idea that a country like India would cap emissions now, Hansen said, nor can the United Nations force any country to cap carbon emissions or tax them. So he suggests a carbon duty at national borders on imports, one that other countries would be compelled to match out of self-interest. Perhaps just a few of the larger emitters – like China, the U.S., and the European Union, and perhaps just one of them – would suffice to kick-start such duties, Hansen said.

‘All hands on deck’ … including nuclear, but not CCS

The post-COP21 period provides “a golden chance to make fossil fuels pay their price” not just for polluting air and water, but also for damaging the climate, Hansen said.

COP21 participants were well aware that achieving a warming increase of no more than 1.5 degrees C – already exceeded from the pre-industrial era – would require negative emissions achieved through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Hansen didn’t mince words:  CCS, he said, is “pure unadulterated bull… .” and he said he is disappointed that U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has repeatedly stressed it as an important part of a solution.

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“India and China won’t do it,” Hansen said. “It’s too expensive, and who wants the CO2 underneath them?”

Nor should those countries be compelled to do so until those responsible for high emissions of CO2 already in the atmosphere – the U.K., U.S., and Germany on a per capita basis, with China an order of magnitude lower – take action first, Hansen argued.

China and India “have, of course, every right to raise their people out of poverty the same way we did, by burning fossil fuels.”

Hansen said he believes “we need all hands on deck – all noncarbon energies,” including nuclear power.

“Fossil fuels aren’t cheap – they don’t pay the cost of their pollution,” he said. “Using fossil fuels is not safe – it’s very dangerous,” even, said Hansen, compared to power generation by nuclear plants.

He said he believes many scientists are reticent about advocating for nuclear power, and also too reticent about other consequences of the climate problem, such as sea-level rise.

Hansen told the audience that his advocacy of nuclear power has come at a cost. “After a decade, my most reliable source of funding has suddenly disappeared, and I know exactly why.” He did not specify who that funder is.

David Appell

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections since 2012, David Appell, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, specializing in the physical sciences, technology, and the environment. His...