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Former NASA scientist James Hansen has warned about global warming for decades. We still aren't listening.

Victory over climate change 

Former NASA scientist James Hansen has warned about global warming for decades. We still aren't listening.

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James Hansen sat in front of members of the US Senate and told them that the Earth is warming and that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are to blame. Back in 1988.

Hansen was director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the time and had been studying global warming and the greenhouse effect since the 1970's.

Scientists had already identified and warned of the link between global warming and carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. But Hansen delivered one of the first blunt, high-profile declarations.

Sadly, you could slap today's date on Hansen's 1988 testimony and it'd still be relevant. World leaders haven't done nearly enough to limit carbon emissions, which continue to grow yearly; the planet is warmer now than it was in 1988; and extreme weather occurs more often (Hansen warned about this, too).

"It's a frustrating problem because you can see that it's solvable, but it's not being solved," he says.

For close to 30 years, Hansen has sounded the alarm on climate change — retiring from NASA in 2013 to devote more time and effort to climate activism. (Before he left he'd emerged as a prominent, outspoken opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline).

Hansen is now director of climate science, awareness, and solutions at Columbia University's Earth Institute. And he's this year's keynote speaker for the Rochester Sierra Club's Earth Day forum, which is at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21.

In recent years, Hansen has used his profile and influence to advocate against fossil fuels development and for policies and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He pushes hardest for a carbon fee on fossil fuels, which would rise gradually over time.

The fee would make fossil fuels more expensive which, in turn, would make other technologies more competitive, he says. And he says that he wants the fee returned as an equal dividend to all legal US residents, which would prevent the fee from becoming a tax or encouraging bigger government.

The dividend would help blunt the effect of higher fuel prices on less wealthy Americans, Hansen says, and would make other technologies more effective.

But as US and world leaders prepare to negotiate a new global climate treaty in June, they're looking, instead, at carbon caps, which Hansen opposes. The carbon-cap approach was the basis of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but emissions continued to climb even after most of the world's largest nations signed on. The carbon-cap approach simply doesn't offer countries any incentive to reduce their emissions, he says.

"As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, then we're going to keep burning them," Hansen says. "And the countries that want to raise their standard of living are going to use whatever energy is the cheapest."

Hansen frequently works alongside environmentalists, although they sometimes disagree on the actions necessary to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power is an important example. Hansen thinks it's a necessary low-carbon power source, while many environmentalists flat-out oppose it because of issues with waste storage and concerns about the safety of the reactors.

Peter Debes, chair of the Rochester Sierra Club, doesn't downplay the disagreement, but says that their areas of agreement matter far more. Hansen and environmentalists agree that climate change is a significant challenge, that addressing it will take concerted action by citizens, and that people will find ways to cut carbon emissions if they're challenged to do so, Debes says.

"What we're trying to do here is build that resolve," he says.

In a recent interview, Hansen talked about the ongoing clash between climate science and politics, the urgency of addressing climate change, and his ideas for cutting carbon emissions. An edited version of that conversation follows.

CITY: What do you make of the global response to early warnings about climate change?

Hansen: There's actually been very little response in terms of actions that would make a difference. The emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels have not slowed.

There's a lot of discussion and even actions, but the actions are very ineffectual. They're symbolized by the Kyoto Protocol, which unfortunately adopted a cap-and-trade with offsets approach, which resulted in global emissions accelerating from an increase of, like, 1.5 percent per year in the few decades leading up to that to 3 percent a year since then.

The reason is very simple: nothing was done to affect the price of fossil fuels.

If you just add the costs of air and water pollution from fossil fuels to the price of the fuels, that alone would make clean energies competitive. But in addition, there's this climate cost that's beginning to be significant.

What we can show is it's going to get much larger in the relatively near future. Those costs should really be included in the cost of the fossil fuels.

But how do you get this to actually happen? You can see how difficult it is in the US both because the public is misinformed — every day they hear on the television that the United States is becoming the world's leading oil producer and that's good, that'll create more jobs — and our Congress is well-oiled and coal-fired. So getting sensible actions is difficult politically.

Often, environmentalists and others concerned about climate change say that it's difficult to get the public to take the issue seriously. Why?

Well, we've got two political parties, and it's hard for me to decide which one is worse on this problem. The liberals pretend that they're addressing the problem, but they do this by advocating solar panels and windmills, which are nice forms of energy in the sense that they're relatively carbon-free.

But solar panels provide less than 1 percent of our energy, and if that's all that we do is advocate sun and the wind, then what that means is we're stuck with fossil fuels and we're stuck, in particular, with fracking to get gas. You've got to have complementary power to go with intermittent energies like the sun and the wind, and that complementary power is going to be gas.

We have to phase out fossil fuels, and you can't do that by just advocating windmills and solar panels. You've got to actually put a price on carbon.

How do you educate the public on the need for a carbon price?

I'm trying to talk to conservatives, because if we can't persuade conservatives, it's going to be very hard to get action in the United States. I am getting some positive response from people even like Grover Norquist, who is the no-tax pledge-enforcer in Washington.

Conservatives in the long run have actually been supporters of the environment, but they're strongly against regulations and new taxes. That's why they deny the reality of climate change. But as they realize that this is not a hoax, then they also understand that if they pretend that it's a hoax, the public is going to turn against them.

Their worst nightmare is that the liberals will get control and there will be more regulations and more taxes. So they need to get ahead of the game by saying OK, we'll deal with this in a revenue-neutral way by putting a fee on carbon but not using that to make the government bigger.

Why do you say that nuclear power shouldn't be discounted as part of the solution to climate change?

If you look at China or India, who are now the largest — and becoming even larger — sources of the emissions that are causing climate change, there's no way that they can replace coal as rapidly as is needed without the help of nuclear power.

The anti-nuclear movement is a quasi-religion, which when you look at it carefully, it's pretty irrational. For example, the products of fossil fuel burning, if you look at the aerosols that are produced under a microscope, they're really ugly organic carbon and black soot.

Compare that with the particles that are emitted in nuclear radiation, and if you compare the biological effects of those, it's much more devastating what you get from this fossil fuel pollution: more than 10,000 per day are dying from those particles.

Somehow the nuclear radiation frightens people, but the problems from the fossil fuel emissions, they're willing to accept. As I say, it's irrational.

The thing is that the current nuclear reactors are outdated technology. You can make much better nuclear technology, which is safe in the sense that, first of all, you can't have a meltdown in any case, and if you had an accident, say that you lose power, it can cool itself — you don't need to have external power to cool it.

We could still be technology leaders and get the economic benefits of being leaders, but we're very soon going to lose that possibility if we don't encourage going back to the future, back to using technology to help solve the problem. And that would, I think, include advanced-generation nuclear power.

How much time does society have to rein in carbon emissions?

We published a paper about a year ago which originated to support the legal cases being filed by Our Children's Trust against the government for not doing its job in looking out after the rights of young people. This paper showed that if you want to stabilize the planet's energy balance, you would need to reduce emissions by 5 or 6 percent a year.

Of course, that's not occurring, but that's what this legal case is. What they're asking the government to do is provide a plan for how it's going to reduce emissions at a rate that would stabilize the climate by the end of the century.

That's a very stiff requirement which is practically not going to be met, given the inertia in the energy systems, or at least it'd be very difficult. If we'd put a price on carbon to make the fossil fuel price honest, then actually you could come close to that.

The one encouraging thing is that the sinks for carbon (natural features such as forests and oceans which absorb carbon dioxide from the air) are somehow larger than what the scientific community understands. We know some of it's going into the ocean — more than half of what's disappearing is going into the ocean, and that's completely expected.

But it was expected that the amount going into sinks would decrease as we go along, but actually it's been increasing. It's partly going into the soil and into the biosphere, even though we're cutting down more forests.

There are ways to do both agriculture and forestry in ways that would suck up more carbon. That's going to need to be part of the solution and makes it conceivable that you could still stabilize the climate by the end of the century. But that possibility disappears if we keep going gangbusters on fossil fuel use.

I still think it's a solvable problem, but only if we begin to move in the right direction, which we haven't done yet.

For more information on James Hansen's appearance, go to sierraclub.org/atlantic/rochester

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