James Hansen speaking in Houston in 2009

James Hansen has been in the news quite a bit lately, not because of anything the famous climate scientist just did but because of the memorable and disruptive words he spoke 30 years ago.

June 23, 1988, was a scorchingly hot day in Washington when Hansen, then the little-known director of a NASA climate-research unit in New York, told Congress that manmade global warming was no longer some theoretical warning for the future, but was almost certainly upon us.

“It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” he told reporters after his testimony to lawmakers.

His remarks that day proved to be enormously influential. Four years later at the Earth Summit, leaders of 154 nations, including President George H.W. Bush, agreed to launch a diplomatic process to address climate change. It was the first step toward 2015’s landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in which nearly 200 nations pledged to reduce climate-disrupting pollution.

Hansen is now retired from NASA but continues his efforts as an outspoken advocate of climate action and a fierce critic of politicians and others who he says aren’t adequately heeding the warnings of climate researchers.

In one of the numerous articles by prominent news organizations to mark last week’s 30th anniversary of Hansen’s appearance before a congressional committee, Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press reported:

The hotter world that Hansen envisioned in 1988 has pretty much come true so far, more or less. Three decades later, most climate scientists interviewed rave about the accuracy of Hansen’s predictions given the technology of the time.

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert wrote of the 30th anniversary that “it would be hard to think of a more lugubrious milestone.”

In the intervening three decades, nearly half of the Arctic ice cap has melted away, the oceans have acidified, much of the American West has burned, lower Manhattan, South Florida, Houston, and New Orleans have flooded, and average temperatures have continued to climb.

Hansen himself told The Guardian that the world has failed “miserably” to tackle climate change in the years since 1988.

All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem. We agreed that in 1992 [at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro] and re-agreed it again in Paris [when the 2015 agreement was reached]. We haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it. Promises like Paris don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s.

Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson interviewed Hansen in 2009 when he spoke in Houston as part of the Progressive Forum lecture series. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, in which Hansen described his support for a carbon tax, an idea that has supporters today including some prominent Republicans and corporations.


You’re perhaps the world’s best-known climate scientist and you’ve been spotlighting the dangers posed by climate change and calling for action to address it for a couple of decades or more now. Recently, you were in the news yet again when you told The Guardian that you hope the Copenhagen conference fails to produce a major, definitive agreement. Could you explain why you feel that way?

Of course if they produced an effective one that would be great, but they’re not talking about an effective one, they’re talking about the same old story. They’re talking about the Kyoto Protocol approach, where the core idea is cap and trade with offsets, which practically eliminates the value of any agreements. What they do is set targets, targets that they know in many cases will not be met, and when they are, it will be in terms of offsets, which mean they don’t really reduce their emissions, at least not much, and they buy their way out of it by paying some developing countries to do something that is supposedly useful like preserving a forest or reducing some of their pollution.

But these actually are counter. First of all, it doesn’t reduce the demand. For example, in the case of forests, it does not reduce the demand for wood or for land where you can grow cattle or other foods, or grow foods. Therefore, if you preserve one area of forest, the deforestation and wood harvesting just moves somewhere else. So these things are not really effective.

They won’t face up to the fundamental fact – which should be as plain as the nose on our face – which is that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy, they they are going to continue to be used. The reason they’re the cheapest form of energy is they are not made to pay for the damage that they do to human health and the environment and future climate. So the way that you would make them pay is to put a price on carbon emissions, a gradually increasing price so that people have time to adjust their lifestyles and their infrastructure.

So rather than this cap and trade, what I suggest is called fee and dividend. You put a fee on carbon at the mine, so it’s paid by the fossil fuel companies at the mine or at the port of entry where the fossil fuel is imported to the country, and that money should then be distributed to the public on a per capita basis. Ss for example if the carbon fee were $115 per ton of carbon, that’s equivalent to $1 per gallon of gasoline. With the amount of oil, gas and coal that we used in 2007, the collected tax would be $670 billion in the United States. If you distributed that to the legal residents, one share to each legal adult resident, that would be close to $3,000 per adult. And if you give half a share for children, up to two per family, then a family with two or more children would get $9,000 per year.

That would stimulate the economy and allow them to purchase the more efficient – next time they buy a vehicle, they buy a more efficient one and they insulate their home, whatever is necessary to reduce their carbon footprint. Because this fee on oil, gas and coal is going to increase energy prices. It’s going to increase the cost of gas at the pump and it’s going to increase your fuel bills for heating your home. But you’d like to minimize those, so that you get more in the dividend than you pay in your increased energy prices. Just looking at the distribution of incomes and energy use, about 60 percent of the people would get more in the dividend. The person who owns two houses and SUV’s and things would pay a lot more in increased energy than he gets in his dividend.

What would prevent folks from paying their share on something that doesn’t contribute to the solution?

Nothing, except they would know this carbon price is going to continue to go up, and most people in the long run are going to start to adjust their habits. The fee is not enough. You should also have regulations. You should have vehicle efficiency regulations and lighting efficiency and building standards and things like that, because even at a dollar a gallon, many people have so much money they don’t care.

But what would happen, if you have this gradually increasing carbon price, you’re going to hit some points at which alternatives become cheaper, at which renewable energy or some energy-efficiency device becomes cheaper than the fossil fuel. And then those things are going to suddenly take off and you get amplifying feedbacks. And so eventually we would move toward the post-fossil-fuel era and get off this addiction to fossil fuel. But we’re never going to get off this addiction as long as it’s the cheapest form of energy.

[Referring to Hansen’s 2009 book:] The book is entitled “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.” Why is it a catastrophe or will it be a catastrophe? Some scientists say, well, things are changing, but we can adapt.

The changes that have occurred so far, they’re moderate. You can see effects – the Southwest becoming drier and having more fires, same thing in the Mediterranean region and Australia, the places where the subtropics are beginning to encroach poleward. But the catastrophe is when we pass tipping points. And the single tipping point of greatest concern is the stability of the ice sheets. We see that Greenland is now losing mass at a rate of almost 300 cubic kilometers per year. Even more ominously, West Antarctica is losing mass at a rate of more than a hundred cubic kilometers per year. Those rates are higher than they were five years ago.

The primary mechanism is the fact that the ocean is absorbing more heat and it’s melting the ice shelves – the tongues of ice that stretch out from the ice sheets into the ocean. As those shelves melt, that allows the ice streams – the faster-moving part of the ice sheet – to discharge icebergs faster to the ocean. And that’s what we see happening in both of the major ice sheets. We know from the earth’s history that once ice sheets begin to disintegrate, they can disintegrate quite rapidly.

The transition from the last ice age to the current interglacial period, there was a time when sea level went up five meters per century for several consecutive centuries. That’s one meter every 20 years – because the Laurentide ice sheet went unstable. And once it starts to disintegrate, it sloshes into the ocean pretty rapidly. If that begins to happen, when Greenland starts putting out ice fast enough that the North Atlantic is cooled by the ice – and the same thing with West Antarctica – that’s why I talk about the storms.

Because that will keep the North Atlantic relatively cool – even a little cooler than it is now – but the low latitudes and the mid-latitude land areas will continue to be warmer as they have been for the last three decades. So the temperature gradients between the warm areas and the cool ocean areas will get larger. And it’s those temperature gradients that drive mid-latitude cyclonic storms. So those storms are going to get stronger. And when you combine that with rising seal level, even when it reaches a meter-type sea level, it’s going to be disastrous for hundreds of cities around coastal areas – the kind of storm that the Netherlands and England experienced in the 1950s.

When you get storm surges of several meters of sea level combined with the rising sea level and the increasingly strong mid-latitude cyclonic storms, that’s going to be something that you don’t adapt to. And that will be a chaotic situation which will have economic and social chaos as a consequence. So you don’t want to pass that tipping point where ice sheets become unstable. But that’s what will happen this century if we stay on business as usual. And then with that kind of chaos in place, we will probably pass the tipping point where the methane hydrates, methane clathrates, the frozen methane in the tundra, and continental shelves begins to melt and release methane to the atmosphere. And we know that has happened during the earth’s history. The PETM event, Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, got a sudden warming between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius when an amount of methane was released – the carbon equivalent to all of the fossil fuels. So it’s something that can happen.

You feel that we still have a certain amount of time?

We have very little time and that’s why we need an approach that would work rapidly. And it has been demonstrated in British Columbia, which adopted two years ago a carbon tax with a 100 percent dividend, where they provided their dividend in the form of a payroll tax deduction. But that became the election issue in the next election. The opposition party raised that carbon tax as the main issue, and the incumbent party was voted back into office because the public could see their payroll tax had been reduced and they were happy to have a carbon price. So now the opposition party has adopted it as part of its platform also.

Five months after the law was passed, the whole system was in place and functioning smoothly because it’s so simple. A carbon price is so simple. You just place the fee at the mine or the point of entry. Cap and trade is a nightmare, which would take years if not decades to try to implement in contrast to a simple fee at the mine. So I’m not slowing down anything with that proposition. It’s actually speeding up the actions.

Has your political activism and your increasing outspokenness in recent years on policy and political questions undercut in any way your credibility as a scientist? Some of your critics have tried to make that case.

Well, I don’t think so because science has its own ways of judging the merits of scientific papers. It’s done by the peer review process and publication. I prefer to do science. I just realized the policymakers were continuing to ignore the implications of the science. They say words as if they understand the issue. They talk about a planet in peril and such things. But what I realized was that their words are basically greenwash. They learn to say the right words because some of the public feels it’s important to deal with environmental issues, but they’re not willing to take the actions which will upset business as usual and the fossil fuel interests in particular.

You see what tremendous clout the coal industry has, for example, even though it’s a $50-billion industry. Compare that to the trillion dollars we spent on bailing out the banks and trying to solve the economic crisis. But even though it’s a small industry it has so much influence on our politicians, including the president.

[You can read TCN’s full interview with Hansen here.]


Image credit: Progressive Forum