James Hansen

The Climate…In Your Backyard

Air Date: June 24, 2016

James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute talks about preserving the planet for the next generation

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Joining me today is perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, Director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Formerly the leader of NASA’s Space Studies, Hansen recently returned from the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Conference, where he pitched Warren Buffett and fellow investors on a carbon fee. His discussion, “Energy and Climate Change: How justice can be achieved for young people,” focused on the inter generational imperative of climate change and the harm climate disruption poses to us, Millennials and their children and grandchildren. Hansen’s newest study, alongside his European counterparts, projects more melted ice sheets, rising sea levels, and superstorms. As we have explored here on this program, the consensus of modeling forecasts, a dangerous doom and gloom, that puts in jeopardy the habitability of the planet, just decades from now. I want to welcome Jim, James, Dr. Hansen. Thank you for being here today.

HANSEN: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: Now, we were talking off camera. And in, in The Guardian, you said, in response to the Paris talks, “It’s really a fraud, a fake.” And I said, uh, well…

HANSEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: People in our industry have a tendency – not this show, per se – to hyperbolize. And so I asked you off-camera – I wanted to give you the courtesy of clarifying – people know your perspective and the science that substantiates it, but I wanted to ask you to elaborate: Why a “fraud” or a “fake,” the Paris talks?

HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. Because it’s not going to reduce the emissions globally. You know, it’s analogous to the Kyoto Protocol. People clapped themselves on the back after that and pretended that it was addressing the problem, and emissions accelerated. You know, as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, then people will keep burning them, so. But they are… Of course, they are not really the cheapest, because they don’t include the cost to society: The effect of fossil fuels on human health…on, um, on climate change. We need to include those costs in the price of the fuels.

HEFFNER: Now, the argument you were making to Mr. Buffett and his colleagues, uh, reminded me of a show I did with Kate Gordon, who leads the Paulson Institute, which has created this kind of index to measure the cost of doing dirty business…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER:…with carbon emissions. Was that the playbook that you went in there with, and how successful do you think your pitch was?

HANSEN: Well, I won’t know how successful until I… You know, I didn’t ask him for an answer on the spot, because I was afraid what the answer would be. But if he thinks about it, you know, he has children and he… He is a good person, I think. And once you really understand the moral implications of us continuing to burn fossil fuels – and what that’s going to mean for young people and their children – then it can change your perspective. [LAUGHS] One of my sisters said, um, “Where is Tiny Tim?” You know, we have got to… We have got to make people think about young people and what our actions mean for them. Just making more money is not a very good legacy. So in, in my remarks, I mentioned it could be his greatest legacy if he would just… Because the public… So much of the public has great respect for him. So if he would make a comment that we really need to make the price of fossil fuels honest, um, I think that could have a big effect… If I say it, you know, hundreds of people might hear; if he says it, millions of people hear it.

HEFFNER: The Buffett Rule, in the economic lexicon, was not adopted when it comes to tax reform. I remember he made a pitch to, through the Washington Post, a column there, about taxing the rich, and where has that gotten?

HANSEN: Well, well, that… Well, yeah. But that, uh, comment still rings. And I think we will address, uh, the disparity in the tax rules. I, uh… The public wants to see that fixed, and I think it will be fixed over… I am not sure how rapidly, but I believe it will be. And so I think his, his, uh, word means a lot.

HEFFNER: If you think about wildfires in California, or if you think about drought in the Midwest, alternatively you could think about Superstorm Sandy here in the Northeast, and the potential threat that looms for another Katrina or Rita type disaster on the Southern coast, the Southeast here… If you are making that pitch, the one thing Warren Buffett stays true to is his native Nebraska. How are the people of Nebraska being affected by climate change?

HANSEN: Oh well, I think… Climate change is now a global issue… It’s like…

HEFFNER: I, I appreciate that too…

HANSEN: Things like sea level rise…

HEFFNER: Mm hmm.

HANSEN: Well, if we allow the ice sheets to go unstable, we will lose the coastal cities. And more than half the large cities in the world are on coastlines. The economic implications of that are incalculable. And the number of refugees would be in the hundreds of millions. Compare that to the present number of a… A million or so is a, is a problem. Well, you are talking hundreds of millions… It may… The planet may become ungovernable.

HEFFNER: I completely acknowledge what you are saying. At the same time, realizing that politics is all visceral, and all local…

HANSEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER:…like the former Speaker Tip O’Neill said. And you are a Midwestern son.

HANSEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I am, I am wondering when you made that… When you constructed the pitch to a Nebraska…OK, a Nebraska constituency born and bred…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …what made that unique? And to your mind, was there that global consciousness, or are they saying, “Not in my backyard,” or at least, “Not in my backyard yet…”

HANSEN: You know, I was quite impressed by Nebraskans. They stepped up. Some farmers stepped up and said, “We are not gonna let this pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline…”

HEFFNER: Mm hmm.

HANSEN: “…cross our lands.” And they recognized the… Not just the effect of that on a possible spillage on their property… But also just the fact that it is an inter generational injustice for us to continue to expand the extraction of these fossil fuels – after we realize the problems they are going to cause. You know, our parents didn’t know that they were causing a problem for future generations, but we can only pretend that we don’t know. We know very well.

HEFFNER: What I find telling is… [LAUGHS] Remembering the New York Times A 1 photo of President Obama drinking the water from Flint, Michigan, and the ambivalence in his eyes when he was sipping that glass… Well, we see the impact of lead and paint or water fountains…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …and families are experiencing it. How do you relate your new ground breaking study here to the American family in Iowa or Nebraska?

HANSEN: That is the fundamental difficulty, you know? We don’t react until the problem is at our doorstep. And that’s what makes climate change a particularly difficult issue, because the climate system has this great inertia. Much of the response to the gases already in the atmosphere is going to occur over the next few decades and even few centuries. And another… And what makes it all the more difficult is the fact that our solutions are going to require changing the energy system, and that requires decades. So it’s a very difficult problem. But that’s… We are… That’s what we are faced with. And we have got to communicate that, this, uh, to the public. And you know, we should hope that our elected officials would help us do that… But in fact, what I find is that both political parties have substantial obligations to lobbyists, to special interests. Our democracy is not as pure as when it started out; there is too much role of money in Washington. And I find that’s true in both political parties.

HEFFNER: We were not, as a global community, paralyzed in the sense that we could not… You call it a “fraud,” but we could not agree to some basic terms… Now you say that it’s “minimal,” but…

HANSEN: Well, it’s an agreement that there is a climate problem…

HEFFNER: Right.

HANSEN: …but it’s not an agreement for a solution. You have to…

HEFFNER: What would that look like?

HANSEN: The solution has to be…recognize that we cannot allow fossil fuels to, uh… You, you… We are not only not making them pay their costs, we actually have governments who are subsidizing them. Um, you… Well, so it’s basically being unfair to young people and future generations, because the benefit of burning the fossil fuels goes to the present generation, while the future generations, uh, bare most of the cost…

HEFFNER: And you really think, Doctor, that a long term…a long term…shutdown of fossil fuels is not a viable strategy at this point?

HANSEN: Well, it’ll help… It… If, if you…

HEFFNER: It has to be short-term, or immediate?

HANSEN: No, no, it has… Oh well, it’s, it’s gonna have to be phased in. So what we advocate is a gradually rising carbon fee. Because you can’t suddenly just turn off the fossil fuels, you, it, the economic implications would be, uh, very disruptive, so. But what you can do is just add a, a rising fee…collect it from the fossil fuel companies at the, the domestic mine or at the port of entry, so it’s a very small number of sources…and you have to give the money to the public. So you don’t give the money to the government, because then it’s a tax, and a tax depresses the economy. But if you give the money to the public – especially if you divide it equally among all legal residents – it actually spurs the economy. The economic studies show that if you did – added a 10 dollar a ton, uh, tax or fee to, um, to fossil fuels – after the end of 10 years, it reduces U.S. emissions 30 percent. It increases the GNP, creates several million new jobs, so it spurs the economy. That’s, that’s what we need to do. And it, it’s straightforward. But politicians, um, prefer that… They have some, uh, a debt to so many lobbyists. So, you know, I… I went, uh, I, uh, into the office of, uh, Senator John Kerry when he was still the senator, and tried to persuade him: You have to have a rising carbon fee, and you have to give the money to the public. After about an hour, he agreed. Well, that, that’s better, that makes more sense. But I can’t get one vote for that in the Congress. So what did they do? They proposed a bill 3,500 pages long. Every lobbyist who could write a paragraph got it stapled into the bill. That’s the way our government is now working. Lobbyists are basically running the government. They, they are getting what they want. What we need is to do what the public needs; not what the lobbyists need.

HEFFNER: Do you see an instrument – other than the U.N. – that could operate as the source of global governance to institute that kind of…?

HANSEN: Oh, the United Nations cannot…

HEFFNER: …fee?

HANSEN: …cannot, um… It cannot… There is…

HEFFNER: But is there an entity that, that could?

HANSEN: The United Nations… You can’t have 190 nations sitting around, uh, a table. What you need is the major powers to agree. And that means China and the United States. It only requires those two nations. If they would say, “We are going to have a rising carbon fee…” They could also put border duties on products from countries that do not have an equivalent fee. That would be a huge incentive for these other countries to have their own fee, so they can collect the money themselves, rather than have us collect it at the borders. That would work. Economists say that would work…the World Trade Organization, that’s consistent with the rules of that…so we could do it. But it’s got… The… These, uh… The United States has to realize that there really is a problem here.

HEFFNER: You have been called a, an “alarmist,” but you are also portraying the reality of now, and the reality potentially even moreso of the future, Dr. Hansen. You must take some pride, or at least be cognizant of, if not the transformation of the vast lobbyist complex in D.C., the picture that was… the Bush administration, when that president’s team was editing out your findings of climate change being real… to a two-term presidency that may not have responded as comprehensively or acutely, um, where there is need, but that was not denying the problem – and in fact starting, beginning to address the problem…

HANSEN: I, uh, yeah, I… Unfortunately, I can’t do that, because … it… We missed an opportunity. If President Obama, at the beginning of his administration, had tried to explain…had taken this as the first issue… And it should have been the first issue, because national security, economic security, and climate security, all depend upon this.

HEFFNER: And health care – which was the first initiative – could have been interwoven into this…

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. But he has to explain it to the public. He would have to – like Franklin Roosevelt – he would have to have Fireside Chats. He didn’t tend to do that. And he didn’t take this as an early issue. And he didn’t seem to understand. He took the standard Democratic approach, which is “more regulations” and, uh, they have even attempted to get taxes on it… But that’s, that’s not gonna work. The… So, you know, I, I wish I could somehow…

HEFFNER: When you say “the standard Democratic approach.” If the Republican approach was denial; “the standard Democratic approach,” you are insinuating, is “regulation”?

HANSEN: Yeah, that’s, um…

HEFFNER: But expound on that…

HANSEN: Yeah, well… [SIGHS] So, you know, I have explained what I think is needed…

HEFFNER: Right.

HANSEN: …a revenue neutral, rising carbon fee. Um, and I can’t get either party to take that as their position. That’s why I argue… And I am going to conclude – in a book that I am starting to write now – that we probably need a new party, right? I call it the “American Party,” or maybe the “American Revolution.” It’s, it has to be… It has to give up with taking money from lobbyists. And it has to have policies that are in the public’s best interest. And, and this issue should be central, because this is actually the place you should get money to, um… Yeah, the economy should be partly based on, uh, how we price, uh, fossil fuels.

HEFFNER: And now with the explosion of natural gas – which is really an increasing…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …source of energy – that has been touted by this administration as a way to, hmmm…

HANSEN: It could be…

HEFFNER: …move…

HANSEN: It could be a bridge fuel, if you had a rising carbon fee, because then coal would fall off the table quickly. And things like tar sands…

HEFFNER: Mm hmm.

HANSEN: …which are very carbon intensive, they would fall off the table immediately. And temporarily, we would be using some gas, but then we would have to move off of that also, because there is a lot of gas in the ground. And when we look at the planet’s, uh, climate and carbon budget, we realize we can’t burn all that gas. So we have… You can’t take that and just replace coal with that, without this rising carbon fee. We have to… That has to be a bridge fuel.

HEFFNER: From the basic core of the research that is newest, as of…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …summer 2016, what are you finding now about the potential pattern of climate change and disruption that is new from what you found just within the last decade?

HANSEN: Yeah. Well, I think the important thing that’s new is that we find that the freshwater that is being injected onto the ocean surface, uh, around Greenland and around Antarctica affects the ocean circulation in a way which actually enhances the melting of the ice, uh, the ice shelves that come out from the ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland. And that’s a very dangerous amplifying, uh, feedback. Because, um, it allows… As you melt these ice shelves, it allows the ice sheets to discharge their ice to the ocean more rapidly. And, uh, there are at least several meters of sea level included in the, uh, in the vulnerable ice on Antarctica and Greenland. So there is the potential for several meters of sea level rise, relatively rapidly, because of these amplifying feedbacks. It makes things happen faster. And we are beginning to see that. The records are short, but when we look at the mass of the Greenland ice sheet, which you can now measure from the Gravity satellite very accurately – and the mass of the Antarctic ice sheet – we see that they are beginning to lose mass more and more rapidly. And we see that the, um, the oceans around, uh, Antarctic are beginning to cool from this freshwater that’s being injected from the melting ice.

HEFFNER: And plainly spoken, once those sheets melt, there is no recourse?

HANSEN: Yeah. The problem is, it takes thousands of years for ice sheets to build up. And so, sea level… If we once let the ice sheets disintegrate, those… All the coastal cities will be lost. All the history and the… The economic implications are just enormous, if we lose cities like New York City.

HEFFNER: Are we constantly monitoring the sheets? And do they have names?

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. And we now have this spectacular Gravity satellite, which can measure the gravitational field of the Earth so precisely that you can see not only that the ice sheets are losing or gaining mass, but it, how different pieces of the ice sheet are losing or gaining mass. So we are doing a pretty good job of, uh, monitoring the ice sheets. And also the ocean, because you know, the fundamental thing is that when you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it’s like putting a blanket on the planet. So it reduces, it reduces the amount of heat radiation going to space. So there is an imbalance: The amount of energy coming in from the sun exceeds the heat going out, and where is that energy going? The atmosphere has a very small heat capacity, so most of it goes into the ocean. And we now have more than 3,000 floats distributed all around the world’s ocean, which dive down into the ocean to a two kilometer depth, come back to the surface, radio the information to a satellite, so we can measure now the heat content of the ocean quite accurately. And what we see is the planet is out of energy balance: There is more energy coming in than going out, the oceans are getting warmer. And if we want to stabilize climate, we have to restore that energy balance. That’s how we come up with the fact that we had better reduce CO2 to no more than about 350 parts per million. That’s what we’ll have to do if we want to restore energy balance and stabilize climate.

HEFFNER: We had, uh, Gerardo Ceballos – I don’t know if you are familiar with that name – on, uh, the show recently. And we contemplated the potential for a mass human extinction through climate change…through weather, weather patterns that are gonna radically alter the way we are able to live, or not able to live… Hmmm, as I see you nod affirmatively…

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …in thinking about that future…what, to you, in the absence of these kind of radical steps that governments are failing to take, what is, what is the layperson watching this have, besides political capital, if they form with their brothers and sisters to make this a movement?

HANSEN: That’s the, the issue. They cannot personally solve the problem. Even if you band together with millions of people and try to reduce your emissions, there are billions of people on the planet, and there are many countries where they want to raise the people out of poverty, and they are going to burn fossil fuels, if there is no alternatives. So we have to have… We have to effect policies. Uh, governments have to step up to the job. And the job has to include making the price of fossil fuels honest, it’s very simple. And if governments would try to explain this to the public: You know, that you are gonna have to… The price of fuel at the pump is going to go up. But if the money that’s collected from the fossil fuel companies is given to the public, most people can come out ahead. So this could be explained, um… There was the director of the…an organization called Republicans for the Environment…who said, Gee, this makes a lot of sense. You could explain this in a, in a two minute elevator talk. Well, uh, so there are people who understand this, but our politicians are still too much bound by the special interests and the lobbyists and the fossil fuel money. And the public is confused because they see advertisements on television from “I am an energy voter.” The fossil fuel company makes it sound very logical: Oh, the… ..More oil in North Dakota is making the United States more energy independent and creating jobs…. Uh, yeah, it sounds logical. Unfortunately, it’s not actually what’s in our best interest, in the long run.

HEFFNER: When you describe – in the minutes we have remaining – when you describe that process by which the public would monetarily benefit – get a fee that is, that the fossil fuel companies are subjected to. How, how would you ensure that the money going to the public is not thrust back into the vicious cycle of the present scheme?

HANSEN: Sure. And on the first day that you get your dividends, you may go out and, and spend money on fuel for your present vehicle. But the next time you buy one, you would like to come out ahead. And, and you know, everything that you buy is affected by fossil fuel prices – some things more than others – so it will automatically be included… You will… When you buy things, you will tend to buy things that do not have as heavy a tax on them.

HEFFNER: It’s, it’s about creating a disincentive. That…

HANSEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …is the number one…

HANSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: …principle goal…

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. And as the economic studies show, … People will… Many people will change their practices, because they have other things to use their money for. They don’t want to waste it on fossil fuels, if they have alternatives.

HEFFNER: The whole idea of teaching one’s carbon footprint, is that an obsolete model of how, how are…?

HANSEN: You know… Well, you don’t even have to worry about it. You know, for example, if… As the carbon fee goes up, food that’s imported from New Zealand will become more expensive. The family… The nearby farm will be favored, because it’ll have a smaller transportation requirement. So, uh… Different things on the store shelves…

HEFFNER: Right.

HANSEN: …will have a bigger or smaller carbon footprint, and that will be reflected in their prices. So you don’t have to sit down and calculate…

HEFFNER: Right.

HANSEN: …your carbon footprint, you just pay attention to the prices of what you buy.

HEFFNER: What countries do you think are getting it right, in adopting models like the carbon fee you imagine?

HANSEN: Well, uh, no one has adopted, um, a revenue neutral, carbon fee. I have gone to about a dozen different countries and tried to persuade, um, them of such a model. It turns out that the fossil fuel industry is powerful in all governments that I have, uh, become acquainted with… So the public is gonna have to understand this. Um, it’s not easy. But, uh, the future for our children and grandchildren depends upon us getting this right, and doing it soon.

HEFFNER: Is there a country that’s come close, remotely close, to what you are imagining?

HANSEN: Well, there, there are… Sweden is a good example of a country that de carbonized its electricity. And that’s the most fundamental requirement for solving the climate problem. Because, although they still have a carbon footprint because their vehicles are using petrol…are using carbon based fuels. But you can make, uh, fuels, once you have carbon-free electricity. So they, uh, have a lot of hydro power, and they have built nine nuclear power plants. So they have completely carbon-free electricity. So they have come the closest. They have the smallest carbon footprint.

HEFFNER: Dr. Hansen, thank you for being here today, and for sharing an example of some possible progress in the future.

HANSEN: Thanks.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.