Hansen calls climate change “predominant moral issue of the 21st century,” slams Congress, Cantwell-Collins

NASA Scientist wins major environmental prize

UPDATE:  Hansen just won The Sophie Prize (see below).

The country’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, writes in HuffPost:

The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change, comparable to Nazism faced by Churchill in the 20th century and slavery faced by Lincoln in the 19th century. Our fossil fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren, and most species on the planet.

I have no doubt that this will be the predominant moral issue of the 21st century.  In general, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to compare un-comparable things, like unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions and slavery and Nazism.

That’s especially true in a blog post (on a highly trafficked website) that doesn’t actually make the scientific case or even link to the scientific case, either of which HuffPost would have allowed.  I wish Hansen would spend more time articulating the science, where he is a credible expert and where the public polling has dipped a tad, and less time opining on policy, where he isn’t an expert and where public support remains high (see “Memo to policymakers: Public STILL favors the transition to clean energy“).

Hansen has long decried cap-and-trade, and so his strong criticism of cap-and-dividend, while it may be surprising to some, is at least consistent:

But so far Congress has been steamrolled by special interests. Congressional leaders add giveaways in their bills to attract industry support and specific votes. The best of the lot, the Cantwell-Collins bill, returns 75 percent of the revenue to the public. But it is still a cap-and-trade scheme, and its low carbon price and offset-type projects create little incentive for clean energy and would have only small impact on carbon emissions.

I and others have criticized the low carbon price, but I was wondering when somebody would point out that Cantwell-Collins uses offset-type projects.

That said, making compromises to attract “support” and “votes” to pass legislation is something politicians must do, but scientists don’t.  By rejecting this core component of our political process, Hansen renders himself irrelevant.  It does, however, leave Hansen free to propose something that is politically inconceivable.

The fundamental requirement for solving our fossil fuel addiction and moving to a clean energy future is a rising price on carbon emissions.

Can’t argue with that.

An essential corollary to the rising carbon price is 100 percent redistribution of collected fees to the public — otherwise the public will never allow the fee to be high enough to affect lifestyles and energy choices. The fee must be collected from fossil fuel companies across-the-board at the mine, wellhead, or port of entry. Revenues should be divided equally among all legal adult residents, with half-shares for children up to two per family, distributed monthly as a “green check”. Part of the revenue could be used to reduce taxes, provided the tax reduction is transparent and verifiable.

He’s starting to lose people here.

The fee-and-green-check approach is transparent, fair and effective. Congressman John Larson defined an appropriate rising fee. $15 per ton of carbon dioxide the first year and $10 more per ton each year. Economic modeling shows that carbon emissions would decline 30 percent by 2020. The annual dividend then would be $2000-3000 per legal adult resident, $6000-9000 per family with two or more children.

I suppose as an intellectual exercise, this might have value, though again it would be nice if he actually linked to a study.  In any case, as a contribution to public policy, this is just wasting everybody’s time.

This bill wouldn’t get double digit support in either the House or the Senate.  It is just brutal to businesses, among other things.  Here’s the kicker:

The public, if well-informed, can be expected to support this policy.

Damnit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker!

Seriously, though, this single sentence explains why Hansen is wasting his time with this blog post, indeed with focusing virtually all of his piece on policy.

The scientific community has utterly failed to inform the public well, as Hansen knows better than most (see “Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change“).  Yes, much of this is the fault of the status quo media and a staggeringly well-funded disinformation campaign that borrows the best of the tobacco industry’s tactics to blow smoke in the public’s eyes.

But scientists need to go back to job one — messaging well on science.  And that is something Hansen has been doing longer and better than most (see links below).

UPDATE:  Hansen just won the $100,000 Sophie Prize:

James E. Hansen (born 1941) has played a key role for the development of our understanding of human-induced climate change. In his early career he researched atmospheres of other planets, but began studying Earth’s climate as evidence of possible human effects emerged in the 1970s. As early as 1988 he presented results for the American congress testifying to the probability that human-induced climate change was a threat to the planet. His clear message has met resistance, and he experienced censorship of his scientifically based statements during the Bush-administration.

–  Researchers that have warned against climate change have for many years had to endure great personal costs in the US. Still James Hansen has chosen to warn us against the threat of human-induced climate change. He is an example to follow. Hansen is the person that has made it impossible for us to tell our grandchildren that we did not know what we were doing, says chair of the Sophie Prize Nina Drange.

Dr. James E. Hansen is an outstanding scientist with numerous scientific articles published in high-ranking journals. His conscience, and later his role as a “concerned grandfather”, has committed him to combine his research with political activism based on personal conviction. This has led him to participate in political demonstrations against coal mining, and has made him testify in court in defence of demonstrators using civil disobedience to stop the building of new coal-fired power plants in the UK. In 2009 he published the book STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDRENThe truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.

Industrial development has led to an increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The preindustrial level was 275 ppm (parts per million), but we now have a concentration of 387 ppm. This is continuously increasing. Based on his research Hansen has concluded that 350 ppm is the upper limit of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere if we are to avoid dramatic climate change. This limit has inspired the formation of the world-wide movement, that were very involved in lead-up to the Copenhagen Summit.

Hansen strongly believes that we need to phase out our coal mining and let fossil reserves stay in the ground. If all reserves of oil, gas and coal that still exist on this planet are used and the emissions are let out into the atmosphere it will be the end of our civilization. Still “some see it as their God-given right to harvest and burn all fossil fuels that are within their territories”, states Hansen.

The Sophie Prize is awarded to one or several persons, or an organisation, which has created awareness of alternatives to modern-day development and/or initiated such alternatives in a pioneering or particularly inventive manner. The Sophie Prize is an annual environment and sustainable development prize (US$ 100.000). This is the thirteenth time it has been awarded. The prize was established in 1997 by the author Jostein Gaarder and Siri Dannevig.

Kudo to our top climatologist for a well deserved award.

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56 Responses to Hansen calls climate change “predominant moral issue of the 21st century,” slams Congress, Cantwell-Collins

  1. Wit's End says:

    Joe, on behalf of the organizers and participants I would like to invite both you and Dr. Hansen to join us in Washington DC on April 22 to petition our President to take the lead on climate change.

    Maybe you could sign books! I really hope to see you both there at this important event, differences in political strategies notwithstanding.

    From the website:

    “April 22, 2010 – Earth Day Citizens’ Climate Congress in Washington DC (EO, ES)

    On Earth Day 2010, environmentally concerned groups and individuals from around the world will assemble at 1:00pm in front of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Go here to pledge your support in Washington DC to demand immediate action from US leaders to deal with climate change.

    Our number one demand will be for President Obama to take immediate steps to ensure that misinformed Americans become informed about climate change and the importance of acting now in order to preserve a livable climate for us and generations to come.”

    Climate Progress readers unable to attend, please sign the petition linked to at the website!

  2. Ivy Bear says:

    Expertise in one area doesn’t translate into all areas. Some humility and deference to social scientists and economists in the area of policy proposals and implementation schemes would be appropriate for climate scientists. But I haven’t seen many climate scientists willing to recognize their limitations, as they continue to pontificate in areas where they have no training or understanding.

  3. paulm says:

    “It is just brutal to businesses, among other things”

    Joe, if you think that the future model of business will be anything like what we have now if we are to really take on AGW then you need to take your shades off.

    There is no way that effective Climate Action will maintain the status quo of our current standard of living in the west.

    [JR: The money goes back to individuals, which makes his proposal incredibly hard on businesses. Needless to say, they will oppose it, rendering it meaningless. As I’ve said many times, individuals already support the bill. If you can’t construct a bill that businesses will support, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. I am happy that you understand what the future holds — I have spent a great deal of time trying to spell it out. Until Hansen and the entire scientific community spells it out in great detail to the public, the media, and policymakers, then your comment, like Hansen’s post, is moot.]

  4. mike roddy says:

    This is a very difficult area to navigate. I have no problem with Hansen’s proposal, but let’s keep in mind that first single payer, and then the public option, were not even allowed to be in the health care bill.

    The reasons were the insurance industry’s ability to put the screws on members of Congress. The pharmaceutical companies stripped any meaningful provisions for cheaper drugs, too.

    In both of these cases, public opposition was aroused by calling health care “Socialism”. Hansen’s proposals make excellent sense, but are a lot closer to socialism than the proposed health care fixes. That means that they are born dead, because the industries that oppose them will find it easier to push people’s buttons here.

    Unfortunately I have to agree with Joe’s basic analysis of the political realities. But that leaves the key question unanswered: will cap and trade and offsets, as outlined by Waxman/Markey and the upcoming Kerry/Graham/Lieberman bill, be effective in pricing carbon? Has anyone quantified the likely outcomes on carbon prices?

  5. Voice From The Future says:

    Hansen has been right about the science for a long time.

    Maybe he is also right that a carbon tax at the wellhead and redistribution to consumers is the only way to achieve the rapid cuts in emissions that are necessary?

    Maybe Joe is right that this is politically impossible.

    If Hansen is right, then this means we are doomed and there is no hope to avoid a coming catastrophe. Unfortunately, Hansen and Joe may well both be right.

    Car analogy: suppose you are speeding towards at brick wall at 100mph.

    Hansen: “we have to stop the car by pressing the brake pedal in the next 3 seconds”.

    Joe: “it is is politically impossible for us to press the brake pedal, so Hansen should stop making silly suggestions and go back to modeling the movement of the car”.


  6. Preben Borch says:

    The Sophie prize 2010 is awarded to Dr. James E. Hansen

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, as you well know Hansen’s relatively severe proposal results from his scientific assessment that we need to decarbonize very quickly. You may be right that it’s not politically possible to proceed in accordance with that assessment, but in that case we’re looking at a train wreck. In other words, our political process may indeed render Hansen’s views irrelevant, but scientific reality may do the same favor for our society’s expectations about the future. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

    [JR: Well, I have spelled out what I think is the best we can do now — which is to put people in a position to have a chance at addressing this problem when they get sufficiently desperate. I am not at all against proposing things that aren’t politically possible now. But what has been put on the table would in fact give people in 2020 a fighting change and does not deserve vilification.]

  8. Herman Leben says:

    If it is a moral issue, they why is it treated as a political issue? The political circles and the fartherst from being vanguards of morality I have ever seen.

  9. ken levenson says:

    I’m coming to the conclusion that no matter how inept the scientists are at communicating or how awful the press coverage has been of the science – the fundamental problem is not the scientists nor the press.

    The fundamental problem is our political, business, religious, military and community leadership.

    The scientific information is all there as clear as anything scientific can be.

    The leadership from all core sectors of our society must relentlessly, vocally, and with multiplying intensity…LEAD.

    The press will follow.

    (And then there will be no need for a brilliant guy like Hansen to make such wasteful use of his energy as his Huffington Post piece.)

  10. Chris Dudley says:

    The simpleness of the proposal is a problem. It does not confront all the issues involved with fossil fuels. Our largest danger is tar sand and oil shale as Hansen has pointed out, saying that it is a dead certainty that using these will lead to the Venus Syndrome. They are the largest fossil reservoirs. And, they only look attractive owing to the value of oil (same goes for coal-to-liquid). Thus, reducing oil consumption to the level where development of these things is unattractive is what is most needed to avoid the worst disaster.

    From this, we see that not all fossil fuels are equal. There are easy substitutes for coal, including, temporarily, natural gas, but oil is the hard problem. And, a carbon price has the least effect of oil because it is the most expensive per carbon atom. So, the ‘simple’ approach is the worst approach. A fuel-by-fuel approach is much more effective because it addresses the actual problem while the simple approach does not.

    What could be done to make oil exploration and development less attractive (including coal-to-liquid)? Dropping the price of oil is the only method that can have global reach. Who can do that? The US. If we ration consumption using our standby rationing plan, we could start today with a presidential order and bring the price down to $20/barrel. The president could also impose import price controls allowing only $30/barrel or less oil to be imported. The strategic petroleum reserve is adequate to wait out the market to assure oil will be available at that price on the world market. Some producers cannot stop pumping without ruining their fields so they have to sell.

    Doing something about carbon emissions integrated out to 2050 starts with a radical shakeup of the oil market. Without that, business as usual is guaranteed. Simple approaches like cap-and-trade or a carbon fee just won’t prevent the exploitation of tar sands and oil shale so they will not avert disaster. A fuel-by-fuel approach is needed. Oil exploration must cease and a low price for oil is what is needed to stop it.

  11. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Recent analysis suggests that we could stabilize temps if we bring the amount of our contribution of CO2 down to around 1GT/year.

    From 28GT/year currently.

    Hansen’s anxieties are those of a man watching people build a skyscraper on a foundation of landfill. Politics and modesty really don’t apply.

  12. paulm says:

    Thanks for that link #6

  13. Theodore says:

    Mr. Hansen is saying what needs to be said.

    The limitations of political realism makes all participants into puppets, dancing to the rules of the established order. We need a new puppet master. It’s time to cut the strings that control us.

    Maybe Mr. Hansen should get some scissors and run for office. He may not be a good dancer, but I like the way he shakes. I would vote for him.

  14. Preben Borch says:


    The Sophie Prize 2010 Statement

    The Sophie Prize 2010 is awarded to American climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen.

    Wednesday 07 April 2010

    Dr. James E. Hansen (born 1941) has played a key role in the development of our understanding of human impact on the climate for more than 30 years. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and at Columbia’s Earth Institute, and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981, where he has been researching planetary atmospheres. He is frequently called to testify before Congress on climate issues. His main focus has been on climatology, and primarily how greenhouse gases affect the global climate. As early as 1988 he presented results for the American congress testifying to the probability that human-induced climate change was a threat to the planet.

    Dr. James E. Hansen is an outstanding scientist with numerous scientific articles published in high-ranking journals. His conscience, and later his role as a “concerned grandfather”, has committed him to combine his research with political activism based on personal conviction. He has managed to translate his research into concrete and understandable warnings about what will happen if we do not act to reduce the human CO2 emissions. Based on his research Hansen has predicted that 350 ppm should serve the upper limit of atmospheric CO2 concentrations if we are to avoid dramatic effects of climate change. This has inspired the formation of the worldwide activist movement

    Hansen’s clear message and warnings have been met with a lot of resistance. As a scientist he has experienced censorship. He has endured criticism for his activist engagement, seen by some as unscientific. Hansen has stood firm and countered these arguments by exposing the economic interest of the actors that spread doubt about human impact on climate change. Whilst these voices often have economic interests backing them, it is the youth of today and the ecosystems with their biodiversity that will pay the price in the future.

    According to Hansen, humanity is at a tipping point. We have to act now, or we can trigger feedback mechanisms that may cause damage beyond repair. Hansen states that the international community is not responding to this rising crisis fast enough. The measures taken today are not sufficient to reach the necessary level of reduction in CO2 emissions. This is why he is advocating an end to coal mining and a substantial tax on CO2 to ensure a fast transfer to alternative forms of energy. Hansen emphasises that this might also contribute to new opportunities: New high-tech workplaces, new energy sources and cleaner air for everybody.

    Dr. James E. Hansen is the person that has made it impossible for us to tell our grandchildren that we did not know what we were doing. He is awarded the Sophie Prize 2010 for his vital research, for his abilities to communicate his findings, and for his genuine and inspiring involvement for future generations.

    The Sophie Prize is awarded to one or several persons, or an organisation, which has created awareness of alternatives to modern-day development and/or initiated such alternatives in a pioneering or particularly inventive manner. The Sophie Prize is an annual environment and sustainable development prize (US$ 100.000). This is the thirteenth time it has been awarded. The prize was established in 1997 by the author Jostein Gaarder and Siri Dannevig.

    More here:

  15. Wes Rolley says:

    Joe, in your recent series of posts regarding Koch Industries lobby efforts, you mentioned Americans for Prosperity Foundation and their “Hot Air Tour” and their “Regulation Reality Tour”. Where it the group that will sponsor a Jim Hansen or Joeseph Romm led “7th Generation Tour”? Who will come forward with the funding for such an event? I don’t see any volunteers stepping forward.

    We can not equate activist posts on sites read primarily by activists with reaching the audience that needs to hear the truth.

    I would like to see someone put together the 7th generational scenarios. Show us what happens with each succeeding generation under the status quo. Take the show on the road. Digitize the show and put it in every IMAX in the country, etc. Whatever it takes. Until the funding and media outreach for doing this matches what is coming from the Koch Bros. we lose the battle. Until capital G Green money gets behind candidates who will take a pledge to consider effects until the 7th generation for every vote, the political reality in Washington will not change.

    I keep hoping that SEFORA will find some results from their candidate training session. But, since my own congressman, with a PhD in Mathematics and a career in wind energy, does not fully meet my expectation, it will remain just hope for a long time.

    btw… you neglected to mention that the early political career of Rep. Dana “dinosaur flatulence” Rohrabacher (R-CA) was funding by Koch money.

  16. MapleLeaf says:

    I’m with Dr. Hansen on this. We pay sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco, now there is a new kid on the block that has a very real cost to society and the environment. Don’t want to pay a lot more tax? Don’t consume as much, make your home energy efficient, drive a fuel efficient car etc. How the taxes are implemented is tricky, but people have thought about this, and there are certainly far fewer caveats than Cap and trade.

    Cap and Trade may have work well for SO2, that does not mean it will work well for CO2. If Obama et al insist on going with Cap and trade, then I sincerely hope that they look very carefully at the problems experienced by the Europeans, and address those issues.

    IMHO, Cap and trade might be the equivalent of reducing our CO2 intensity, but as well all know, that does not reduce net emissions.

    That is why we all need to suck it up and take a hit for the team. If we all do that the cost to each of us will be much less and much more manageable.

    And this is coming from someone who will likely be unemployed in 6 months.

  17. sasparilla says:

    There’s alot that’s attractive in Dr. Hansen’s suggested actions, however I agree with Joe that its not politically feasible (not even a little bit).

    At this point, its not the option we have. We’ll have to go with what we can get (thank goodness it looks like we might be able to get something through congress this year – as opposed to blowing out chance) and then hope we can tighten that up in the future as the expediency of the situation becomes more apparent (ala the chloroflourocarbon production example) – we just won’t have much time to start tightening.

  18. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #14: Congrats to Jim for winning that prize! Hopefully this will be a strong hint to the Nobel Prize committee(s). My hope would be for Jim to be co-awarded the physics prize along with Suki Manabe.

  19. Adam Sacks says:

    Joe, I think that CP is truly an invaluable climate resource. But I view it the way you view Hansen: great on the science, hopeless on the politics. The political approaches that you advocate are business-as-usual environmental activism, the same kinds of activism that has helplessly watched over the past 40 years as our life support systems have continued to collapse, ever more rapidly.

    [JR: Uhh, you are mixing apples and oranges in your comment. I advocate the public begin marching in the streets on global warming. I advocate every single American rise up and tell every elected leaders that they have become a single issue voter on climate. I recommend lots of non-business as usual environmental activism at every level. That is completely separate from whether I support trying to pass a bill that would enable a global climate deal vs. just retreating to an ivory tower and proposing politically untenable strategies. I take a similar political perspective to Al Gore on this. You can hold your breath until doing everything you want is possible. I can’t.]

    The U.S. has never been a democracy, and the closed-door decision-making that began with the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (just to pick an arbitrary starting point) is as alive and well as ever. As Emma Goldman once said, if voting made a difference it would be illegal. National and international decision-making bodies (including the invisible ones) are incapable of acting in a timely manner on climate, it’s simply not in the DNA, the vested interests and the PR machines are too powerful.

    If anything good happens, it will be grassroots, local, regional. Wangari Mathaai’s greenbelt movement is one example (, Kiva is another (, the relocalization movement represented by Transition Towns is another ( And managed grasslands worldwide – which holds the only key to date for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere short of insane geo-engineering schemes, is yet another – to which I wish you’d start paying some urgent attention (

    I agree that it would be really really nice if the powers that set up Kyoto, Rio, Bali, Copenhagen, etc. etc. would do something meaningful, but how much evidence do we need before we stop throwing good efforts after bad, and face the reality of the unsustainability of anything resembling our current exponentiating economy.

    We have to live completely differently, no time to keep tweaking.



  20. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #15: Wes, write that up formally and send it to Hansen. That $100k check he’s getting would be at least a good start on it.

  21. MapleLeaf says:

    Steve @18, I’ll second that.

    I was reading Manabe’s early modelling papers (from 1991 and 1992 in J. Climate). They pretty much nailed everything from the loss of Arctic sea ice, to little change in Antarctic sea ice, to strongest warming over northern high latitudes etc. Very impressive works.

  22. Jeff Huggins says:

    Agree, and Washington on Earth Day

    As I’ve said before, I haven’t run all the numbers or focused on the details of the latest policy approaches.

    BUT, I do (still) tend to agree — a lot! — with those who say that a substantial carbon price is needed and that the money raised should be mostly rebated to the public. In other words, I still agree with what I understand P. Barnes to be saying and with what it sounds like Dr. Hansen is suggesting.

    Joe, you write, “By rejecting this core component of our political process [i.e., political compromise and deal-making and expediency, I take it], Hansen renders himself irrelevant.”

    But a key component of our political process also involves public expression, civil and responsible activism, the use of excellent reasoning, and so forth.

    Why do we think that intensive political compromise, watering-down, deal-making, and expediency are the most important “core components” of our political process, at this point, when the largest public expression of concern over climate change hasn’t even involved more than several thousand people in any single location? In my mind, the responsible approach (scientifically and politically) at this point does not involve compromises upon compromises upon compromises, and political deal-making, and ending up with ineffective mush. Instead, the public should be expressing concern and insisting on effective legislation, and many more scientists should be doing precisely what Hansen is doing.

    On this one, (although I haven’t read all the details), I tend to think that Hansen is right. And I’ll be in Washington on Earth Day. I hope you can make it, and perhaps Dr. Hansen too?!

    By the way, congrats to Dr. Hansen!

    Cheers and Be Well,


  23. Richard Brenne says:

    While there are many good points here made by all, I strongly recommend that we not use terms like “meaningless,” “no understanding” and “waste of time.”

    We’re all discussing what needs to be discussed and nothing should be taken off the table of discussion. Sweeping away another’s point to say that your point is the only one that should be discussed is not a helpful tactic.

    All the points could have been made and would be valid with less strident language.

    And metaphor and historical precedent are keys to communicating, especially about something so complex and important.

    Yes, Hansen’s proposal is simplistic, idealistic and unrealistic right now. So was abolishing slavery in 1860 or standing up to and defeating Germany in 1940, but just two years later in each case things were very different.

    While climate change appears to be getting more dramatic over time, I don’t think that there will ever be one Pearl Harbor moment of climate change, the effects will be cumulative and disputed, unlike Pearl Harbor.

    But I think Peak Oil and related issues could supply us with such a moment. Peak Oil is the powder keg and the fuse could be war involving Iran, the U.S., Israel and others. War or terrorism could block the Straits of Hermuz through which 25% of the world’s oil is shipped. The Saudi or Mexican governments could be overthrown, or other or any combination of scenarios could come to pass.

    And as oil investment banker and Peak Oil author Matt Simmons points out, any of those scenarios could create a run on gas stations as we saw in the 1970s and the fearful equivalent to the Great Depression runs on banks. At that point we have a Peak Oil crisis. There would have to be government rationing to keep food in all supermarkets and grocery stores. At that point almost anything for evil or good is possible, and the side that is most prepared will have a better chance of prevailing.

    Of course no one knows when something like that might happen, but it seems likely within some small number of decades but could easily happen in some small number of years.

    That or anything like it could change the current gridlocked equation entirely.

    Thus Hansen’s stating an ideal is valuable. Then we need Joe’s expertise in the political realities as well, but with the understanding that these political realities are shifting all the time and could well shift dramatically in ways we need to be prepared for.

    Most of all we need to stop bickering among ourselves and using the kinds of terms I found objectionable and get on the same page. Everyone here is in 95% agreement.

    Those opposing us are in 100% agreement that they want to oppose us. Right now that difference has them winning.

    Let’s agree to disagree – as vehemently as we want – in private. In fact I’m working on the mechanism for the key players to do just that. Then we need to agree in public.

    Carl Sagan and Stephen Schneider not only didn’t work together on nuclear winter, they fought each other and didn’t speak for years because Sagan (and Turco, Toon, etc) thought we’d have nuclear winter while Schneider and others at NCAR thought we’d have nuclear fall. The distinction was more about egos than anything and they were 95% in agreement because with either scenario crop output would be diminished so much that the vast majority of people on Earth would starve if there was a full nuclear exchange.

    In the end they won out, convincing Reagan and Gorbachev and their governments that such nuclear war was unwinnable because that would change the climate.

    Now we’re changing the climate more slowly, but if Hansen is right as I think he is, even more dramatically over time.

    This is too important for quibbling and egos. Let’s have heated discussions, but ideally in private, and decide on a unified voice in public whenever we can.

    I have as much respect for Jim Hansen, Joe Romm, Al Gore and Bill McKibben as for anyone on Earth. I just want to lock them in a room for as long as it takes to have them come out agreeing about how to act.

    And I think Hansen’s idea to work toward when the opportunity arises and Romm’s and Gore’s political savvy and realism are both needed.

  24. Mark Shapiro says:

    Don’t worry. We can’t decarbonize too quickly.

    (Joe Romm and others want us to decarbonize at least as quickly as possible. Jim Hansen and others want us to decarbonize more quickly than is possible now. All of us want to make it more possible, and more probable, that we decarbonize more quickly than is possible today. I can do this all day . . . or . . .)

    Don’t worry. We can’t decarbonize too quickly.

  25. fj2 says:

    Cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, and carbon taxes come off as peacetime strategies not suitable to the war-like strategies necessary to address the environmental crisis.

    In the United States during World War II not a single new car was manufactured for nearly three years to support the production of war machinery on a scale that would have been previously considered impossible; produced the greatest increase in life expectancy despite the war (something like 7 years); ended the Great Depression.

    Saving and restoring Eden will be a war-like effort of the most daunting proportions and ultimately — hopefully — of extraordinary benefit.

    [JR: No question!]

  26. bill says:

    Decarbonisation as a preventative for climate change is missing the point. Decarbonisation now is the only rational response to the twin problems of peak oil and population growth. A society can either decarbonise before those two problems go critical, or get caught into the bitter, to the death struggles over an anyway expiring resource. Adapt or die. If it suits the political elite to, at present, couch the coming existential nightmare in terms of climate change, let them. Its a function of social democratic politics that the rulers are too frightened to tell the ruled the truth. Hence ‘a narrative’; hence, ‘man made global warming’.

  27. Icarus says:

    Hansen’s proposal may indeed be ‘politically inconceivable’ in the US today, but that doesn’t mean it will always be so. We know that he’s been right all along on climate – maybe in a few years we’ll see that he’s been right all along on the way to deal with CO2 emissions as well. In that case we’ll know he was right to be spending time and column inches explaining it now.

  28. Leif says:

    Damn I love this site. Thank you all for the various points of view.

    Would it be possible to peg investment in green energy and sustainability to the growth of GDP that the green energy contributes to the nations economy. I admit that this is not thought thru nor do I have the ability if I hand a few lifetimes to work on it. However a concerted attempt of get fossil to own up to even minimal responsibilities to provide seed money, a minimal gas tax to generate a bit more both focused toward infrastructure improvement and putting people to work on stuff that needs to happen but improves the GDP (green funds) but helps all and tracking green investments to reinforce all??? Who can complain if needed cash flow comes from growth in GDP that would not be there without investment and effort in sustainability.

  29. Ronald says:

    But then where is everybody?

    How come every science magazine not start with an editorial article asking people for action and activism.

    Where are the smart people to mobilize people. college professors? students? journalists?

    Is this (meaning the collective activism of the planet and it’s inability to motivate enough people and business) it? Then maybe the mobilization will be greater when the temps are greater.

  30. MarkB says:

    It seems a major political problem with Hansen’s proposal is that it inevitably hits individuals in states currently most heavily reliant on fossil fuels on a per capita basis the hardest.

    By granting allowances, Waxman/Markey largely resolves the imbalance. Without some form of this, lawmakers not in low per capita emissions states are going to oppose the legislation.

  31. richard pauli says:

    This is the most colossal of all human dramas — a test of our civilization, of human understanding, of our willingness to prepare for and meet the future.

    To purposefully ignore the science, or pretend that there can be a political or economic solution to a physical problem is high hubris and deep tragedy.

    We don’t even know if there can be a sufficient future in which history will be able to record this current level of stupidity

  32. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #30: Mark, a similar compensating mechanism could be added to Hansen’s idea.

  33. paulm says:

    #17 “…its not politically feasible (not even a little bit).”

    This is the true problem that needs to be solved right now. Then we go on to the technical bit. The mind set has to move from there to a war footing.

    Obama and the echelons have to recognize this soon. And I am sure they will as extreme weather events take their toll. Hopefully sooner (ie like this year) rather than later.

    Leadership is calling, there is no way a consensus is going to get us there.

  34. Alex A. says:

    Every time Hansen spouts his policy nonsense my blood pressure goes up. A lot. Does he really think that he’s smarter than all of the very, very educated and well meaning people who advocate cap and trade? When people like Hansen and McKibben whine in public about cap ‘n trade’s little flaws, it drives me nuts.

    1. In theory, there is no reason why Hansen’s pet idea is more effective than cap and trade. Cap and trade could potentially control C02 emissions more strictly than price controls alone.

    2. If introduced in congress, Hansen’s “source tax” would become more corrupted and abused than cap and trade. See: current corporate tax policy. What makes people think it would be passed without being laden with all kinds of loopholes and exemptions and giveaways?

    3. Hansen’s socialist nonsense arbitrarily redistributes wealth and would drive small businesses, such as my employer, out of business.

    4. It’s hard to argue that climate legislation isn’t a socialist ploy when a leading government scientist proposes using climate policy as a socialist ploy.

    5. It will never pass. Period. Stop wasting breath.

    Let me remind everyone that we currently have NOTHING. Cap ‘n Trade gives us the potential to get a foot in the door and have something which can be the foundation for future improvements. We cannot let deniers and delayers successfully divide and conquer.

    Cap ‘n Trade is the best game in town. Either get on board or shut up.

    I’m going for a walk now to calm down. Thank you.

  35. William T says:

    Hansens’s ideas are an incredibly valuable contribution to the debate on how to address this problem – he is right to say that it is this generation’s defining moral issue. And starting from that point of view, his proposals for fee and rebate are entirely consistent, casting it as a personal issue. And even if this is “not politically possible” (at present) it makes a positive contribution to the Overton window.

  36. David B. Benson says:

    To add some sort of perspective, CO2 levels are now in the range which prevailed during the Miocene, with sea levels around 30–50 meters higher than now.

    Where do you live?

  37. Dan Miller says:

    I agree with #5 that Joe and Dr. Hansen may both be right. Since it’s not possible to change the science that Dr. Hansen’s describes, the only choice is to change the politics that Joe is talking about. I go around giving talks on climate change (see and I can say that most people, including business and political leaders, do not understand the predicament we are in. We are not on a war footing because most people don’t know that we really don’t have a choice (unless collapse of civilization is considered a choice) or just don’t want to know it.

    I think that climate change is the biggest psychology problem we have ever faced. If we don’t invest research dollars in how to get people to understand the problem, then the other climate change research dollars may be for naught. I should note that outside of Climate Progress and a few other venues, the concept of climate change causing the collapse of civilization is not ever discussed and most people don’t know it’s possible (let alone likely). It might be time to shift some of the “green is good” rhetoric (which I agree with) to “inaction is doom”. It’s not a happy message, but one that may shift the politics that Joe is talking about.

  38. paulina says:

    To Dr. Hansen:

    Congrats re the Sophie Prize! And a gigantic thank you.


    Dr. Hansen’s family members already have all the reasons they need to be very, very proud of him, of course, but I’m guessing a “Sophie” prize might carry some special significance (see Storms of My Grandchildren).

  39. Minority Report says:

    Paul Krugman’s suggestions regarding climate. He discusses both James Hansen’s suggestions and the current political realities.

  40. Walter Miale says:

    So Hansen’s bill wouldn’t get anywhere in either the House or the Senate.

    But neither would a bill to cut off funding our various wars.

    Or for single-payer health care.

    Or to require the investment bankers to pay for their shenanigans.

    Or to restore the Bill of Rights.

    Is getting legislation through congress a realistic strategy for a livable planet?

    Is Hansen wrong to look for change not to congress but to people?

    It was a social movement which eventually resulted in the abolition of slavery.

    And in the rights of labor.

    And in women’s right to vote.

    And in the end of Jim Crow.

    Problem now is the clock is ticking.

    As you know Joe, the climate crisis is a holocaust in the making.

    The same corporate America that brought us Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of our wars (I’ve lost count of them); that brought us the health-care nightmare; that engineered and enjoyed the housing bubble and is still calling the shots after its collapse; and that has suspended the Bill of Rights—-the same corporate America that “owns” congress—-doesn’t want the climate crisis to cramp its style. It’s “watching a world in peril and fighting over the pieces.”

    Hansen is outlining policy to achieve survival and justice. He is “wising up the marks.”

    At your best Joe, “wising up the marks” is exactly what you do. You of all people should know what happens when politics clash with physical reality.

    Here’s some of what’s happened, or rather hasn’t happened, over the last 15 months: No “Green New Deal.” No greened auto industry. No nationalized banks to provide loans to retrofit factories and build a green infrastructure. No binding international agreement; a retreat from Kyoto. And on the horizon: starvation, massive human displacement, and permanent underdevelopment.

    Instead of pinning our hopes on what a bought-and-paid-for congress may do, in my view we should be joining James Hansen in deepening our personal civic commitment, for example by marching in the streets and committing acts of civil disobedience. In his words prior to his arrest in West Virginia last year, “Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose. But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right.”

  41. Dr. Hansen is doing anything but wasting his time pushing his message harder & farther. Though not a policy wonk, he is a courageous, dedicated leading climate scientist who understands the dire consequences of ripping past tipping points more than most.

    It’s going to take commitment & passion to get the ship turning, someone to rally & fire up the troops, aka MLK or RFK. Find him a Plouff & Axelrod to help orchestrate his next move, & Dr. Hansen may yet prove to be that someone. After all, who before the Iowa Caucus believed that a black Jr. Senator from Illinois could possibly snag the nomination & presidency from the consensus candidate? Not politically feasible, not even a little bit?

    Stranger things have happened. Just look at all the progressive comments here to the left of even Joe.

    Bravo Zulu to Dr. James E. Hansen!

    ~IANVS & grandkids

  42. paulm says:

    By the way Al Gore avocates both capntrade and tax&dividen. Basically everything has to be thrown at the problem.

    What interesting posts and points on this topic. This is one of the best of for the blog joe. Anyway to included in the new book?

  43. already dealt with? says:

    British Columbia already has a very similar tax to the one proposed by Hansen

    [JR: It goes up $10 a ton every year? Don’t think so.]

  44. JeandeBegles says:

    Let us add some more controversy from France. Hansen is right to debate on political grounds, it is every one duty, specially for such a well informed citizen like him on the huge issue we are facing.
    His proposal is in the right direction, but not fair enough. Indeed the earth atmosphere and climate is a common good shared between every human being.
    So the carbon price represents a fee that should be paid by everyone according to his carbon emissions (easy to perform with a tax at the well head), and the money collected belongs to everyone so every one on earth owns the same share.
    Instead of redistributing between every US citizen, we should redistribute between every human being.
    According to the IEA 2006 figures, a 10$ per CO2 ton, on a world wide basis would give the following numbers (roughly):
    Equal redistribution per human being: 50$ per year.
    Yearly expenditure for the average habitant of the following countries:
    USA: 200$ (versus 50$ redistributed)
    western europe: 100$ (versus 50$)
    China : 30$ (versus 50$)
    India: 13$ (versus 50$
    Senegal: 4$ (versus 50$)
    These figures are considered as politically unacceptable for the G20 governments. Sorry to waste your time.
    But these figures are globally right and fair and based upon the principle of justice: every human being has the same rights ans duties with the climate.

  45. fj2 says:

    The President has shown that he is a man of action.

    And, he must know how impossible the task is before us.

    And, he also knows that we are alive and that life is about intelligence, survival, extreme tenaciousness, and extraordinary powers.

    And, as the dire realities of the environmental crisis continue to close in around us he will call us to action and we will respond and ultimately prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds.

  46. Richard Brenne says:

    To me you state the ideal and then work to move toward it the best you can.

    Stating an ideal is what Hansen has done. This is what Frederick Douglas did about abolition, including in the White House to Lincoln.

    Then Lincoln sees this ideal (which according to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers became Lincoln’s own ideal, though he couldn’t say so) and works toward it as quickly as circumstances and the nation allow.

    I think Hansen was referencing Lincoln and Churchill hinting that Obama could become such a leader for the ages. But leaders must be followed, and it will unfortunately probably require a crisis of the magnitude Lincoln and Churchill faced for this to happen. I outline one of the more likely scenarios for such a crisis in my previous comment here (#23).

    Jim Hansen understood the atmosphere of Venus better than anyone and then worked to understand the atmosphere of Earth better than anyone, and he says that if we don’t do anything the latter will come to resemble the former, making all economic and political squabbles truly meaningless.

    His discussing what he sees as the ideal solution to this is not meaningless, he does not need to get on board or shut up, and every climate scientist I know and people like Paul Krugman tell me they consider him a hero for the ages.

    Disagree with such a person all you want (like many I was frustrated that he wasn’t more of a team player leading up to and during Copenhagen), but please do so respectfully.

  47. fj2 says:

    The President stands there straight and tall as a vision; the stuff of all great stories.

    Story is a metaphor for life and life is written in time.

  48. Wit's End says:

    JR @19 says: “I advocate the public begin marching in the streets on global warming. I advocate every single American rise up and tell every elected leaders that they have become a single issue voter on climate. I recommend lots of non-business as usual environmental activism at every level.”

    Is that an affirmative RSVP for marching in the streets in Washington on Earth Day?

  49. Barry says:

    #43 & Joe: BC carbon tax started at $15 and rises $5 per year until 2012 when it will be $30 per tonne.

    So BC implemented half of Hansen’s rate. Hansen asking $10 isn’t that outrageous as opening big in policy proposal. Everyone asks high and compromises down on all policy.

    [JR: It’s the continuation of $10/year that makes this very different from BC.]

    I really like the carbon-pollution tax. I wish USA would just do what BC did years ago and get a quick but low carbon tax on now while negotiating a cap.

    Carbon tax it has lots going for it like:

    — very easy for citizens to understand and trust
    — very quick to implement
    — hard to create loopholes/exceptions

    [I have posted at length on this here. Look at the U.S. tax code. It isn’t simple and it is easy to create loopholes and exceptions.]

    If citizens voted directly on carbon pricing I can imagine Hansen’s proposal winning the vote.

    But we live in a representative democracy so it is Senators (aka states) that are also voting. Very different. Also Senators don’t personally care much about a little carbon check but they do care a lot about big donation checks from industries.

    So, as Joe and others have pointed out, to get through the Senate a carbon tax has some big hurdles to jump. To me this makes it very risky to insist that it as the ONLY ACCEPTABLE policy tool for people to bet the future on.

    In particular, one of carbon tax’s greatest strengths is also its greatest weakness:

    — hard to create exceptions

    The nation isn’t a homogeneous carbon landscape for consumption, production or dependency for daily lives. To gain and maintain support in the Senate in particular, all states and regions must feel it is fair enough. That requires lots more than national-level per-capita checks.

    A final point that Joe makes, and I think many miss, is that we are NOT going to get a bill that is close to the full solution to carbon and climate. The goal at this point is to get MECHANISMS in place that can be quickly ramped up to match rising public awareness (panic).

    From that standpoint I’m in strong favour of pushing for even a messy and underpowered cap & trade bill. Cap & trade take a long time to define and implement. Years. The sooner we have something running the better positioned we will be to ramp it up quickly.

    The carbon tax is much quicker to implement when awareness hits high gear. The CAP is hard….and I like the certainty of a CAP in the mix.

    My favourite would be “tax until cap” though i would not call it that to sell it. I’d love to see a quick, low-but-ever-rising carbon-pollution tax now — which sunsets with cap is implemented.

    Good conversation

  50. Joe —

    Thanks for providing a positive space for discussion.

    I’m heartened by the outpouring of support for Jim Hansen’s outspoken activism, including his advocacy of a rapidly rising carbon fee-and-dividend.

    [JR: Well, 1 out of 2 ain’t bad. Not sure I’ve seen a groundswell of support for this tax yet.]

    In responding to #43, you appeared to deride British Columbia’s carbon tax. True, the BC carbon tax rises by only $4.50/tonCO2 per year ($5/metric ton), but by July 1 it’ll stand at $13.50, which is probably $13.49 higher than Waxman-Markey’s “revealed” price would have been at that time.

    [JR: This makes no sense. 1) You are comparing a bill that passed the House would one that could never pass the house or even get double digit votes. So the “revealed” price of the tax is zero. Second, Waxman-Markey has a rising price floor, starting at $10, so again, your comment is inaccurate.]

    I don’t follow your reasoning in saying that the Larson carbon-tax bill would be “brutal to business.” Businesses would pass their carbon-tax costs through. Some — those whose prices would go up a lot because of high carbon content — would lose sales. Others — those whose prices would go up relatively little, e.g., booksellers — would gain sales because consumers would have more $$ due to the green check. The shifting of the mix would be significant, as it needs to be, but the net impact would be slight or zero.

    [JR: Not all businesses can easily pass on costs as a you of all people know. This approach has such gross regional inequity that it could never become law so I suppose the “revealed” tax is zero. But all I can say is ask some of the businesses in the Midwest and South whether they think they can pass on 100% of their costs.]

    I estimate that under the Larson bill those green checks would average $1,400 per person by 2020, at which point CO2 emissions would be 30% less than they were in 2005. My calculations are in a spreadsheet model I’ve developed for the Carbon Tax Center, which Jim sometimes relies on. Jim’s “dividend” estimate differs somewhat from mine because (i) I calculate per-capita whereas Jim calculates per-family, and (ii) I allow for reductions in carbon-tax revenues due to reductions in emissions.



    [JR: Again, getting public support for climate action is something we’ve done. The tricky part is getting support from members of Congress and businesses.]

  51. fj2 says:

    Climate action is key. Forget all the gimmicks.

  52. mike roddy says:

    Richard Brenne, excellent comments. Thank you.

  53. Richard Brenne says:

    Right back at ya, Mike – always. Thank you.

  54. FencePost Man says:

    Obviously, everyone on the planet owes this guy a lot. He deserves every honor he gets, and more.

    Still, it must be said, he’s pissing away his voice. The less credible he appears on one subject, i.e. policy, the easier it will be for critics to dismiss what he says about the subject he is the grand old master of, climate.

    In the runup to Copenhagen the one guy in the world the media would take as the most quotable to comment on whether the target under discussion, i.e. 2 degrees or 450 ppm, was credible, was Hansen (“the grandfather of climate science”).

    He’s stated repeatedly that this target is a “recipe for global disaster”, and because his views have changed on this (first announced publicly Dec 2007) during the period of the negotiations, and he claims that “the relevant experts” support his views, it seemed that Hansen could have served us all well if he had held this banner high no matter what else he thought it necessary to do.

    But, he stepped into the biggest spotlight the climate issue has ever experienced and told everyone only that the negotiators were choosing the wrong method to achieve their 450 ppm, 2 degree C, global disaster, i.e. cap and trade, leaving out any mention of the elephant in the room, i.e. that they were aiming at the wrong target.

    The author of the cap and trade section of the Kyoto agreement, Chilchinisky, notes that nations are free to achieve their reduction commitments in any way they see fit, cap and trade, carbon tax, decree, or whatever.

  55. Shelly says:

    Hansen is 100% right on this. Cap and trade is a joke and will do more harm than good. Listen to Hansen’s speech in Sydney from March 11th (find it on Blip TV) and he explains things much better than a simple blog post on Huffpo. He is right to compare this to other major problems like slavery. Climate change needs far more leadership than Obama is giving it and everyone knows that. Obama is punting on this issue and what might get his attention is a NASA scientist comparing this to slavery. Get it?

    We do need a green check system and he understands the psychology of the public much better than most writers. I find Hansen very realistic when it comes to what will work, and this idea is not new at all. The green economy isn’t going to happen without a huge price on carbon and that won’t happen without a way to tax the daylights out of Exxon and others and return some of that money to the public so they can pay the higher energy bills that are coming.

    I think you need to give Hansen more of the benefit of the doubt than you do. He knows what he’s talking about. I wish the Obama admin. listened to Hansen over most other people they do listen to, including the Center for American Progress.

  56. fj2 says:

    Going into war-like mode responding to the environmental crisis it will be necessary to evaluate the resources available to do the most that can be done to support the industries and people — human capital — working on the effort and we will increasingly learn to achieve more with less.

    Money provides certain efficiencies for transferring resources but, is not the end-all and direct access to the necessary resources and the most effective use of them is crucial which is essentially the process of survival.

    Much of the hand-wringing about financials is like putting a financial value on the natural services required for life and human civilization and is meaningless.