There’s been a noticeable shift in the way that prominent figures talk about how to deal with climate change. Many advocates have shifted from a more accommodating “let’s all join together and develop clean energy” message to directly targeting the fossil fuel industry as a villain. This effort, embodied in 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour, has become a central piece of messaging in the environmental community.
In the research community, scientists are increasingly stepping beyond their conservative comfort zones and making bolder statements about observed and projected changes to the climate — even saying we have a moral obligation to do something. Some, like NASA’s James Hansen, are straddling both of these messaging platforms. To the delight of both climate messengers and climate skeptics, Hansen is undoubtedly the most outspoken climate scientist today. He has been for almost 25 years.
In his speeches and media appearances, Hansen displays a unique sense of moral outrage that many scientists avoid and sometimes chastise. (For more on Hansen’s moral/scientific approach to talking about climate change, watch his outstanding TED Talk from this March called, “Why I must speak out on climate change”).
But Hansen doesn’t just talk in broad brush strokes about the need to transition away from fossil fuels. He’s been very upfront about taking the fossil fuel industry head-on, loosen its grip on politics, and make it pay for environmental damage. He’s also not afraid to call out both parties for bending over backward to accommodate the fossil fuel industry during an election year.
“The politicians are not willing to say that we cannot burn all the fossil fuels without guaranteeing a different planet,” said Hansen in an interview with Ceyk Uygur on The Young Turks last night. “Neither party wants to offend the fossil fuel industry” by explaining the hard choices we have to make, he explained.
HANSEN: Neither party wants to offend the fossil fuel industry. They want to win the election. And they know the power of the fossil fuel industry. You can’t turn on your television without seeing these advertisements about clean coal, tar sands, and the claim that there’s more jobs associated with fossil fuels than with other energies. That’s of course not true, but they’re hammering that into the voters heads. And so if anyone challenges the fossil fuel industry, they know they’re going to lose the money that they get from the fossil fuel industry. And secondly, they’re going to have the fossil fuel industry against them in the election.
UYGUR: So it seems to me based upon what you’re saying is that we can’t solve the climate change problem until we solve the money in politics problem. Because this money has flooded politics, if you will, to the degree that they’ve effectively shut down our politicians who should be fixing this.
HANSEN: Yeah, campaign finance reform has been lost as a topic. However, the real problem is that fossil fuels are still the cheapest energy because we subsidize them. The taxpayer subsidizes them. We do not make fossil fuels pay for their cost to society — air pollution and water pollution from fossil fuels…And these climate effects — $20 billion effect from this storm. Who’s gonna pay for that? You are, the taxpayer. Not the fossil fuel industry. So what we have to do is collect a fee from the fossil fuel company at the domestic mine or the port of entry and distribute that money to the public. So the fee will then increase the price of fossil fuels, but the people will then have the money to make the decisions of what energy sources they’re going to use. And gradually we will move away from fossil fuels as this fee rises toward clean energies. And that’s what we’re going to have to do. The politicians are not willing to say that we cannot burn all the fossil fuels without guaranteeing a different planet — and cheating our planet.
Hansen is still unique in his willingness to call out politicians and fossil fuel companies for stalling action or covering up the issue. As the problem gets worse, it’s likely we’ll see others join his side.