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Will We Miss Our Last Chance to Save the World From Climate Change?

“We have not hit the disastrous level,” says leading climate scientist James Hansen. “But we are close.”

In the late 1980s, James Hansen became the first scientist to offer unassailable evidence that burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet. In the decades since, as the world has warmed, the ice has melted and the wildfires have spread, he has published papers on everything from the risks of rapid sea-level rise to the role of soot in global temperature changes – all of it highlighting, methodically and verifiably, that our fossil-fuel-powered civilisation is a suicide machine. And unlike some scientists, Hansen was never content to hide in his office at NASA, where he was head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York for nearly 35 years. He has testified before Congress, marched in rallies and participated in protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline and Big Coal (he went so far as to call coal trains “death trains”). When I ran into him at an anti-coal rally in Washington, D.C., in 2009, he was wearing a trench coat and a floppy boater hat. I asked him, “Are you ready to get arrested?” He looked a bit uneasy, but then smiled and said, “If that’s what it takes.”

The enormity of Hansen’s insights, and the need to take immediate action, have never been clearer. In November, temperatures in the Arctic, where ice coverage is already at historic lows, hit 36 degrees above average – a spike that freaked out even the most jaded climate scientists. At the same time, alarming new evidence suggests the giant ice sheets of West Antarctica are growing increasingly unstable, elevating the risk of rapid sea-level rise that could have catastrophic consequences for cities around the world. Not to mention that in September, average measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record 400 parts per million. And of course, at precisely this crucial moment – a moment when the leaders of the world’s biggest economies had just signed a new treaty to cut carbon pollution in the coming decades – the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet elected a president who thinks climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese.

Hansen, 75, retired from NASA in 2013, but he remains as active and outspoken as ever. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, he argues, sweeping changes in energy and politics are needed, including investments in new nuclear technology, a carbon tax on fossil fuels, and perhaps a new political party that is free of corporate interests.

He is also deeply involved in a lawsuit against the federal government, brought by 21 kids under the age of 21 (including Hansen’s granddaughter), which argues that politicians knowingly allowed big polluters to wreck the Earth’s atmosphere and imperil the future well-being of young people in America. A few weeks ago, a federal district judge in Oregon delivered an opinion that found a stable climate is indeed a fundamental right, clearing the way for the case to go to trial in 2017. Hansen, who believes that the American political system is too corrupt to deal with climate change through traditional legislation, was hopeful. “It could be as important for climate as the Civil Rights Act was for discrimination,” he told me.

Earlier this year, I visited Hansen at his old stone farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It sits on 10 acres, with a tennis court and a row of carefully trimmed apple trees lining the walk to the front door. We talked in his office, a big room connected to a stone barn outfitted with solar panels. He had the cool, cerebral manner of a man whose mind is always processing complex algorithms. But at times he seemed downright cranky, as if he were losing patience with the world’s collective failure to deal with the looming catastrophe that he has articulated for the past 30 years. “It’s getting really more and more urgent,” Hansen told me. “Our Founding Fathers believed you need a revolution every now and then to shake things up – we have certainly reached that time.”

You’ve arguably done more than anyone to raise awareness of the risks of climate change – what does Trump’s election say about the progress of the climate fight?
Well, this is not a whole lot different than it was during the second Bush administration, where we had basically two oil men running the country. And President Bush largely delegated the energy and climate issue to Vice President Cheney, who was particularly in favor of expanding by hundreds the number of coal-fired power plants. Over the course of that administration, the reaction to their proposals was so strong, and from so many different angles – even the vice president’s own energy and climate task force – that the direction did not go as badly as it could have.

In fact, if you make a graph of emissions, including a graph of how the GDP has changed, there’s really not much difference between Democratic and Republican administrations. The curve has stayed the same, and now under Obama it has started down modestly. In fact, if we can put pressure on this government via the courts and otherwise, it’s plausible that Trump would be receptive to a rising carbon fee or carbon tax. In some ways it’s more plausible under a conservative government [when Republicans might be less intent on obstructing legislation] than under a liberal government.

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Hansen devoted his career at NASA to researching climate change.

Trump’s Cabinet nominees are virtually all climate deniers, including the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. Are Trump’s appointments a sign that climate denialism has gone mainstream?
Climate denialism never died. My climate program at NASA was zeroed out in 1981 when the administration appointed a hatchet man to manage the program at Department of Energy. Denialism was still very strong in 2005-2006 when the White House ordered NASA to curtail my speaking. When I objected to this censorship, using the first line of the NASA Mission Statement [“to understand and protect our home planet”], the NASA administrator, who was an adamant climate denier, eliminated that line from the NASA Mission Statement. Denialism is no more mainstream today than it was in those years.

How much damage can a guy like Pruitt do to our chances of solving the climate crisis?
The EPA is not the issue. They have been attacked several times by an incoming administration since I got into this business – but they always survive without much damage. EPA cannot solve the climate problem, which is a political issue.

If President-elect Trump called you and asked for advice on climate policy, what would you tell him?
What we need is a policy that honestly addresses the fundamentals. We must make the price of fossil fuels honest by including a carbon fee – that is, a straightforward tax on fossil fuels when they come out of the ground, and which is returned directly to people as a kind of yearly dividend or payment. Perhaps someone will explain to President-elect Trump that a carbon fee brings back jobs to the U.S. much more effectively than jawboning manufacturers – it will also drive the U.S. to become a leader in clean-energy technology, which also helps our exports. The rest of the world believes in climate change, even if the Trump administration doesn’t.

You know, he said exactly what was necessary to get the support of the people that he needed to win the election. But that doesn’t mean he necessarily will adopt the implied policies. So he wants to save the jobs of coal miners and fossil-fuel workers and make the U.S. energy-independent, but he also wants to invest in infrastructure, which will make the U.S. economically strong in the long run, and you can easily prove that investing in coal and tar-sands pipelines is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I would also tell him to think of what the energy sources of the future are going to be and to consider nuclear power. China and India, most of their energy is coming from coal-burning. And you’re not going to replace that with solar panels. As you can see from the panels on my barn, I’m all for solar power. Here on the farm, we generate more energy than we use. Because we have a lot of solar panels. It cost me $75,000. That’s good, but it’s not enough. The world needs energy. We’ve got to develop a new generation of nuclear-power plants, which use thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors [an alternative nuclear technology] that fundamentally cannot have a meltdown. These types of reactors also reduce nuclear waste to a very small fraction of what it is now. If we don’t think about nuclear power, then we will leave a more dangerous world for young people.

If the Trump administration pushes fossil fuels for the next four years, what are the climate implications?
Well, it has enormous implications, especially if it results in the building of infrastructure like the Keystone Pipeline, which then opens up more unconventional fossil fuels, which are particularly heavy in their carbon footprint because of the energy that it takes to get them out of the ground and process them. But I don’t think that could happen quickly, and there’s going to be tremendous resistance by environmentalists, both on the ground and through the courts. Also, the fossil-fuel industry has made a huge investment in fracking over the past 20 years or so, and they now have created enough of a bubble in gas that it really makes no economic sense to reopen coal-fired power plants when gas is so much cheaper. So I don’t think Trump can easily reverse the trend away from coal on the time scale of four years.

How would you judge President Obama’s legacy on climate change?
I would give him a D. You know, he’s saying the right words, but he had a golden opportunity. When he had control of both houses of Congress and a 70 percent approval rating, he could have done something strong on climate in the first term – but he would have had to be a different personality than he is. He would have to have taken the FDR approach of explaining things to the American public with his “fireside chats,” and he would have had to work with Congress, which he didn’t do.

You know, the liberal approach of subsidising solar panels and windmills gets you a few percent of the energy, but it doesn’t phase you off fossil fuels, and it never will. No matter how much you subsidise them, intermittent renewables are not sufficient to replace fossil fuels. So he did a few things that were useful, but it’s not the fundamental approach that’s needed.

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President Obama delivers remarks on energy after a tour of a Boulder City, Nevada, solar panel field in March 2012.

Climate change hardly came up during the election, except when Al Gore campaigned with Hillary Clinton. Do you think Gore has been an effective climate advocate?
I’m sorely distressed by his most recent TED talk [which was optimistic in outlook], where Gore made it sound like we solved the climate problem. Bullshit. We are at the point now where if you want to stabilise the Earth’s energy balance, which is nominally what you would need to do to stabilise climate, you would need to reduce emissions several percent a year, and you would need to suck 170 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is more than you could get from reforestation and improved agricultural practices. So either you have to suck CO2 out of the air with some method that is more effective than the quasi-natural improved forestry and agricultural practices, or you leave the planet out of balance, which increases the threat that some things will go unstable, like ice sheets.

You’ve described the impacts of climate change as “young people’s burden.” What do you mean by that?
Well, we know from the Earth’s history that the climate system’s response to today’s CO2 levels will include changes that are really unacceptable. Several meters of sea-level rise would mean most coastal cities – including Miami and Norfolk and Boston – would be dysfunctional, even if parts of them were still sticking out of the water. It’s just an issue of how long that would take.

Right now, the Earth’s temperature is already well into the range that existed during the Eemian period, 120,000 years ago, which was the last time the Earth was warmer than it is now. And that was a time when sea level was 20 to 30 feet higher than it is now. So that’s what we could expect if we just leave things the way they are. And we’ve got more warming in the pipeline, so we’re going to the top of and even outside of the Eemian range if we don’t do something. And that something is that we have to move to clean energy as quickly as possible. If we burn all the fossil fuels, then we will melt all the ice on the planet eventually, and that would raise the seas by about 250 feet. So we can’t do that. But if we just stay on this path, then it’s the CO2 that we’re putting up there that is a burden for young people because they’re going to have to figure out how to get it out of the atmosphere. Or figure out how to live on a radically different planet.

Trump has talked about pulling out of the Paris Agreement. How do you feel about what was achieved in Paris?
You know, the fundamental idea that we have a climate problem and we’re gonna need to limit global warming to avoid dangerous changes was agreed in 1992 [at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. This new agreement doesn’t really change anything. It just reaffirms that. That’s not to say there’s nothing useful accomplished in Paris. The most useful thing is probably the encouragement of investment into carbon-free energies. But it’s not really there yet. I mean, the U.S. should double or triple its investment in energy. The investment in research and development on clean energies is actually very small. There are these big, undefined subsidies, like renewable portfolio standards, that states place on their electricity generation, which can help them get 20 or 30 percent of their power from renewables. But we’re not actually making the investments in advanced energy systems, which we should be doing. There were agreements to do that in Paris. They have to be implemented – somebody’s gotta actually provide the money.

I think that our government has become sufficiently cumbersome in its support of R&D that I’d place more hope in the private sector. But in order to spur the private sector, you’ve got to provide the incentive. And that’s why I’m a big supporter of a carbon fee.

Is the target of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius, which is the centrepiece of the Paris Agreement, still achievable?
It’s possible, but barely. If global emissions rates fell at a rate of even two or three percent a year, you could achieve the two-degree target. People say we’re already past that, because they’re just assuming we won’t be able to reduce missions that quickly. What I argue, however, is that two degrees is dangerous. Two degrees is a little warmer than the period when sea levels were 20 to 0 feet higher. So it’s not a good target. It never had a good scientific basis.

In Paris, negotiators settled in an “aspirational” target of 5C.
Yes. But that would require a six-percent-a-year reduction in emissions, which may be implausible without a large amount of negative emissions – that is, developing some technology to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Let’s talk more about policy. You’re a big believer in a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Explain how that would work, and why you’re such a big supporter of it.
It’s very simple. You collect it at the small number of sources, the domestic mines and the ports of entry and from fossil-fuel companies. And you can distribute it back to people. The simplest way to distribute it and encourage the actions that are needed to move us to clean energy is to just give an equal amount to all legal residents. So the person who does better than average in limiting his carbon footprint will make money. And it doesn’t really require you to calculate carbon footprint – for instance, the price of food will change as sources that use more fossil fuel, like food imported from New Zealand, become more expensive. And so you attempt to buy something from the nearby farm.

So this would provide the incentive for entrepreneurs and businesses to develop carbon-free products and carbon-free energies. And those countries that are early adopters would benefit because they would tend to develop the products that the rest of the world would need also, so it makes sense to do it. But it’s just not the way our politics tend to work; they tend to favor special interests. And even the environmentalists will decide what they want to favor and say, “Oh, we should subsidize this.” I don’t think we should subsidise anything. We should let the market decide.

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Hansen being arrested at a White House protest in 2011. “We have to move to clean energy,” he says. “If we burn all the fossil fuels, then we will melt all the ice on the planet, and that would raise the seas by about 250 feet.”

r1278 nat hansen c 6a0a8393 f888 464b 804c d2063ceded26Hansen being arrested at a White House protest in 2011. “We have to move to clean energy,” he says. “If we burn all the fossil fuels, then we will melt all the ice on the planet, and that would raise the seas by about 250 feet.”

Of course, the problem with getting carbon-fee legislation passed is that Congress is run by people who don’t even acknowledge that climate change is a problem.
Yeah, although behind the scenes a lot of them do. And many of them would support a revenue-neutral carbon fee. And, you know, I am equally critical of the liberals and the conservatives, because the liberals are using climate policy as a basis for getting some support from people who are concerned about the environment and recognize the reality of the climate threat. But they’re not addressing the fundamental problem. The public understands that, and that leads to all the other things that people are concerned about, like the fact that you’re answering to lobbyists while you’re in Congress, then you become a lobbyist when you retire. [Former House Democratic Majority Leader] Dick Gephardt retired after he couldn’t get the nomination for president, and in the first year out of office he got $120,000 per quarter from Peabody Coal, almost half a million dollars a year from a single source. It’s like when Hillary Clinton is asked, “Why did you take $250,000 from the banks to give a talk?” and she said, “Well, that’s what they offered.” That’s the way it works.

We need a revolutionary third party that takes no money from lobbyists. Look at Obama and Bernie Sanders: Their campaigns initially were funded by small donors. They didn’t have to take lobbyist money. The public is not into the details of what’s going on, but it knows that it’s become a rotten system.

I agree that a carbon fee could be an effective tool to cut emissions, but how do you get the politics right to get it done? I mean, it’s one thing to…
Well, you have to make it simple. You can’t do this 3,000-page crap, like they did with cap-and-trade in 2009. You gotta simplify it down to the absolute basics, and you do it in a way that the public will not let you change it. If the public is getting this dividend, they won’t let you change it.

That’s the same argument people use for a flat tax, which will never happen because all the loopholes in the tax system are deliberate. And political.
That’s why we need a new party, which is gonna be based on these principles. These are the most fundamental things. The energy system and the tax system have got to be simplified in a way that everybody understands and doesn’t allow the wealthy few to completely rig the system.

Sounds like you think we need a Boston Carbon Party.
[Laughs] Something like that.

A lot of people say you are a great scientist, but when it comes to policy, that’s a whole other thing – and something you should leave to politicians.
Bullshit. What scientists do is analyze problems, including energy aspects of the problem. I got started thinking about energy way back in 1981, when I published a paper that concluded that you can’t burn all the coal, otherwise you end up with a different planet. There’s nothing wrong with scientists thinking about energy policy, in my opinion. In fact, if you have some scientific insights into the implications of different policies, you should say them. It’s the politicians who try to stop you. And that includes people who ran NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where I worked for 33 years. Before I would go to Washington to testify, I’d sometimes get a call from the director of the center – somebody who I respect a lot and is a very good scientist and engineer. But he would tell me, “Just be sure to only talk about science, not policy.”

Well, I don’t agree with that. Here’s another example – at NASA headquarters, we would have a trial run on press conferences. And at one of them, which was about declining sea ice in the Arctic, one of the trial questions was, “What can we do about it?” The scientist who responded said, “Well, we can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” And some of the more political types in the agency said, “No, you can’t say that. That’s policy!” [Laughs]

When I was working at NASA, I always felt I was working for the taxpayer. I was not working for the administration. When a new administration comes in, they think they can control public-information offices and science agencies and influence what they’re saying so they become, in effect, offices of propaganda. But that’s just wrong. When we have knowledge about something, we should not be prohibited from saying it as clearly as we can.

You were among the first to alert the world to the dangers of climate change back in the 1980s. Since that time, carbon pollution has just gone up. What does that tell you about humanity?
Well, that’s always been the way we do things. In the U.S., we didn’t face up to the dangers of World War II until we were forced to. And then we did a lot. But in this case, it’s particularly difficult and crucial because of the inertia of the climate system and the fact that the climate system gains momentum, and you’ve gotta stop that. It is a very powerful system. We’re close to that point of no return. Whether we’ve passed it or not, I don’t know…. We’ve passed it in the sense that some climate impacts are going to occur and some sea-level rise is going to occur, but we have not necessarily hit the disastrous level, which would knock down global economies and leave us with an ungovernable planet. But we are close. So this is why it’s really crucial what happens in the near term. But it will take a strong leader who is willing to take on special interests. Whether that can be done without a new party that’s founded on just that principle, I’m not sure. So we’ll have to see.

Do you ever feel a sense of futility about the situation we’re in – the essential insanity of continuing to emit carbon pollution, given what we know about the future consequences
It’s not at all surprising, because it’s related to the desire of people to raise their standard of living out of poverty levels. That’s what we did in the West. We discovered fossil fuels, which allowed us to replace slavery with fossil fuels. That’s what China and India and other countries want to do now. But if they do it the way we did, then we’re all going down together. If we go over there and say, “You guys do it differently. Use solar panels” [laughs], that’s stupid. We have to work together in a way that will actually work. And they understand the risks, too.

There is a lot of talk about the rise of China as a military power. Well, they’re not gonna bomb their customers. The bigger threat is this climate threat. That’s what could destroy civilisation as we know it.