Professor James Hansen: After Copenhagen – looking for real solutions
Source: Sydney Ideas
By Angela Dorizas
A carbon tax and dividend scheme is the only viable option for reducing greenhouse gases to a safe level, according to James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York.
At a recent Sydney Ideas event at the University of Sydney, the ‘grandfather of global warming’ warned that the earth had exceeded safe levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The bad news is that what has become clear is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no higher than 350 parts per million and we’ve already caused it to increase from 280 parts per million in a pre-industrial atmosphere to almost 390 parts per million now,” Professor Hansen said.
“But the good news is that it is still possible to go back to less than 350 parts per million.”
Professor Hansen said a ‘fee and dividend’ approach, instead of a cap and trade scheme, was the best solution for phasing out coal, oil and gas to reduce CO2 emissions.
“This is the most fundamental point: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy we’re going to continue to use them,” he said.
“We’re just kidding ourselves that any cap has any effect.
“The only solution that’s going to work is to put a gradually rising price on carbon emissions.”
Professor Hansen said the only way the public would allow the fee to increase to a higher level would be to give the money back to them on a per capita basis.
“I think it should be mainly in the form of a monthly green cheque or electronically deposited to bank accounts or debit cards,” he said.
Professor Hansen said the money could also be given back in the form of a payroll tax reduction, as trialled in British Columbia, Canada.
“They reduced the payroll taxes, and the public liked it. When the law was passed within four months it was in effect and working smoothly and the public re-elected that government.”
Professor Hansen said it needed to be a very simple scheme, not a “convoluted” system which “special interests are able to talk in their favour”.
Rhetoric and reality
Professor Hansen said there was a “huge gap” between the rhetoric and the reality of government responses.
“There’s no movement in the direction of phasing out coal by any means,” he said.
“The political leaders say that we have a planet in peril and we need to take actions to deal with that, but in fact the actions don’t correspond to that at all.
“It’s more a case of greenwash, where they say the right words, but nobody will stand up and say what is really needed in order to solve the problem.”
He said a gap had also emerged between what is understood by the scientific community about global warming and what is known by the public and policy makers. In the last six months, he added, that gap widened noticeably.
“The science has crystalised, has become clearer,” he said.
“Yet the public perception of the issue has become less certain, in part due to the fact that people who prefer to continue business as usual have perpetrated a great hoax on the public.
“The truth is that it is clear that we have a crisis – a planetary emergency.”
Professor Hansen said it was necessary for scientists to explain to the public what they understood about climate change and speak out against the great “intergenerational injustice”.
“The people in the future are going to look back on this age and say the science was becoming clear, so why didn’t you do something.”
Professor Hansen explained how after testifying on climate change to US congressional committees in the late 1980s he withdrew from the media spotlight to focus on the science.
“For 15 years I maintained that resolve, until 2004, in the middle of the Bush Administration, by which time it had become clear that the government was not doing anything to address this issue and furthermore they were actually censoring science and trying to prevent the public from understanding the full nature of it,” he said.
Professor Hansen said he re-entered the public debate for the sake of future generations.
“I rationalised that by saying that I didn’t want my grandchildren to say Oldpa understood what has happening, but he never made it clear.”
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