Notes from a lecture by climate scientist and political activist, James Hansen

By Laurèn DeMates

This week I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the ‘grandfather of climate change’, a title in which he humbly denies. James Hansen gave a presentation titled ‘Itinerant Farming to White House Arrest: A Scientist’s View of the Climate Crisis’ at Princeton University on Monday, October 14th, 2013. Hansen began the talk with a snapshot of himself in handcuffs being escorted by a police officer and revealed that he has been arrested five times in his role as a climate change activist. Although the mood was light, it was a surprising start. Hansen integrated personal stories of his life and grandchildren parallel to his groundbreaking work and influence on climate change science and policy. For those of you who may not know, James Hansen worked for NASA, just retiring this year, and first published a paper about rising CO2 levels in 1981. He also gave a famous climate change testimony to congress in 1988 and has been dedicated to addressing climate change since.  His bio is of course very impressive, but I will leave it at that.

At this event he covered some of his research and gave a refresher on climate change science and evidence including extreme weather anomalies, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, etc. When Hansen dove into his experiences it was obvious that he understands the realities of the scientific and political community in regards to climate change. For this reason, I would like to use the remainder of the is op-ed to briefly highlight some of my favorite comments that Hansen made during the latter half of the lecture when he conveyed a ‘what we need to do’, forward-looking prescription.

-We need to stop doing everything we can to get more fossil fuels. We need to just phase out coal and stop trying to use unconventional fuels, just leave them in the ground

-Nothing is going to happen until the U.S. takes on the fossil fuel companies

-Above all, what we need is a price on carbon. Set a price on carbon and let alternatives compete

-Support a ‘fee and dividend’ bill where 100% proceeds from carbon tax or fee are reallocated to the public on a per capita basis to cover an increase in fuel prices

 Hansen kept coming back to the power of a price on carbon. Although policy, technology, divestment are important, in reality the only prescription that can trigger a shift away from fossil fuels is a fee or tax on carbon. When the negative effects of fossil fuels in the form of CO2 emissions are represented in an increased price, alternatives can then compete and firms have incentives to clean up their act and emit less CO2. At the Sustainability Co-Op we recently discussed this in our article ‘Renewables Energy 101 and the role of incentives’, but instead of lowering the price of alternatives to compete (in which our post was focused), raising the price on fossil fuels is another way to level the playing field for renewables to compete. Hansen discussed the role of this tax internationally with countries taxing at production and the port of entry and possibly putting fees on imports from countries that do not have the same carbon fee in place (although to be honest,  I was wondering how fast it would take countries to file complaints to the WTO under this scenario). The last two interesting notes to convey are that Hansen confirms that funds from the tax need to be 100% reallocated to the public (if it is not 100% then it just won’t work), and that he also supports nuclear as one of the supplementary sources for fossil fuels. He states that even though nuclear power is considered dangerous, thousands of people die from the hazardous direct and indirect effects of fossil fuels so it still should be considered.

Overall, it was an honor to hear such an influential individual in climate change speak especially considering the number of talks he must have given about climate change over the years.

Here is a list of organizations that Hansen supports and hopes can affect climate policy: 350.org, citizensclimatelobby.org, ourchildrenstrust.org

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