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Leading Climate Scientist James Hansen on Why He’s Pleased the Copenhagen Summit Failed, “Cap and Fade,” Climategate and More

StoryDecember 22, 2009
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We speak with the nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen. He wasn’t at the Copenhagen climate summit and explains why he thinks it’s ultimately better for the planet that the talks collapsed. We also speak with with Dr. Hansen about his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are just back from Copenhagen. Even as global criticism of the proceedings and final outcome of the two-week climate summit in Copenhagen continues to mount, the United Nations is trying to put a positive spin on the non-binding Copenhagen Accord. Speaking to reporters Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insisted the accord was “quite a significant achievement.”

    SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: While I’m satisfied that we sealed a deal, I’m aware that the outcome of the Copenhagen conference, including the Copenhagen Accord, did not go as far as many would have hoped. Nonetheless, they represent a beginning, an essential beginning. We have taken an important step in the right direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Today I’m joined by the scientist who first convinced the world to take notice of the looming problem of global warming back in the 1980s. Yes, I’m talking about the nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen.

But the outspoken director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies wasn’t at Copenhagen. He decided to sit out the climate conference, saying it would be better for the planet if the summit ended in collapse.

James Hansen also teaches at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He’s just out with his first book; it’s called Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth [about] the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity..

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMES HANSEN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hansen, start off with why you weren’t at Copenhagen. I mean, this is your thing. It was the global warming summit of summits.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, they were talking about having a cap-and-trade-with-offsets agreement, which is analogous to the Kyoto Protocol, which was disastrous. Before the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions of carbon dioxide were going up one-and-a-half percent per year. After the accord, they went up three percent per year. That approach simply won’t work.

And I’m actually quite pleased with what happened at Copenhagen, because now we have basically a blank slate. We have China and the United States talking to each other, and it’s absolutely essential. Those are the two big players that have to come to an agreement. But it has to be an honest agreement, one which addresses the basic problem. And that is that fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy on the planet. And unless we address that and put a price on the emissions, we can’t solve the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go for a minute to a quote of Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman is the New York Times op-ed columnist. You had written a very interesting piece in the New York Times called ”Cap and Fade.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said about your December 7th op-ed — his response was called “Unhelpful Hansen.” And he said, “James Hansen is a great climate scientist. He was the first to warn about the climate crisis; I take what he says about coal, in particular, very seriously.

“Unfortunately, while I defer to him on all matters climate, today’s op-ed article suggests [that] he really hasn’t made any effort to understand the economics of emissions control. And that’s not a small matter, because he’s now engaged in a misguided crusade against cap and trade, which is — let’s face it — the only form of action against greenhouse gas emissions we have any chance of taking before catastrophe becomes inevitable.”

Your response?

JAMES HANSEN: That’s not right. In fact, I’ve talked with many economists, and the majority of them agree that the cap and trade with offsets is not the way to address the problem. You have to put an honest price on carbon, which is going to have to gradually rise over time.

But what you need to do — and many people call that a tax, but in fact the way that it should be done is to give all of the money that’s collected in a fee, that should be across the board on oil, gas and coal, collect that money at the mine or at the port of entry from the fossil fuel companies, and then distribute that to the public on a per capita basis to legal residents of the country. Then the person that does — that has less than average carbon emissions would actually make money from the process, and it would stimulate the economy. It would give the public the funds that they need in order to invest in low-carbon technologies. The next time they buy a vehicle, they should get a low-emission one. They should insulate their homes. Such actions. And those people who do that will come out ahead. That’s — the economists agree that that’s the way you should address the problem, with a price on carbon. Otherwise, the emissions will just continue to go up.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what’s meant by “cap and trade.”

JAMES HANSEN: Cap and trade, they attempt to put a cap on different sources of carbon dioxide emissions. They say there’s a limit on how much a given industry in a country can emit. But the problem is that the emissions just go someplace else. That’s what happened after Kyoto, and that’s what would happen again, if — as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they will be burned someplace. You know, the Europeans thought they actually reduced their emissions after Kyoto, but what happened was the products that had been made in their countries began to be made in other countries, which were burning the cheapest form of fossil fuel, so the total emissions actually increased.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play an excerpt of what the Australian scientist Tim Flannery says. He was speaking on Democracy Now! earlier this year in defense of cap and trade.

TIM FLANNERY: Look, cap and trade, by itself, is not enough, but it is essential in terms of these international negotiations. And one way of showing that is to look at the alternatives. Just say the US went with a carbon tax. That would leave the President in a position where he’d be going to Copenhagen and saying, “Look, we’ve got a carbon tax, but we’ve got no idea really what it’s going to do in terms of our emissions profile.” So, countries would just say, “Well, what are you actually pledging to? What are you — how are you going to deal with your emissions?” You know, the only method, really, to allow countries to see transparently what other countries intend to do and then share the burden equally is through a cap-and-trade system. So it’s not enough to deal with emissions overall, but it is an essential prerequisite for any global deal on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: The Australian scientist Tim Flannery. Dr. Hansen?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, I guess I would turn Krugman’s comment around and say Tim is a great biologist, but he hasn’t looked at the data on emissions and the effect of a cap with offsets. In fact, it does not decrease emissions. And that’s one reason, in my book, I say that I’m going to update the graphs every month and every year, just showing what’s really happening, because, in fact, you have to actually decrease the emissions.

And the only way that will happen is if the price of the fossil fuels is gradually rising so that the alternatives — energy efficiency, renewable energies, nuclear power, the things that can compete with fossil fuels —- begin to be cost-competitive. That’s the only way it will work.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back for a minute and talk about what we are actually facing. I mean, it’s amazing to come back from Copenhagen after two weeks there, where the entire discussion was about global warming, back to the US media, where there is almost no mention. It’s more the politics of what did it mean for President Obama to swoop in, did he save the talks, did he collapse the talks, whatever. But actually, what the stakes are. You begin your book, Storms of My Grandchildren, by talking about a tipping point. What do you mean by that, Dr. Hansen?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, there are tipping points in the climate system, where we can push the system beyond a point where the dynamics begins to take over. For example, in the case of an ice sheet, once it begins to disintegrate and slide into the ocean, you’ve passed the point where you can stop it. So that’s what we have to avoid.

Another tipping point is in the survival of species. As we begin to put pressure on species and move the climate zone so that some of the species can’t survive because they can only live within certain climate parameters, because species depend upon each other, you can drive an ecosystem such that when some species go extinct, then the entire ecosystem will collapse. So you don’t want to push the system that far.

And these tipping points are not hypothetical. We know from the earth’s history that these have happened in the past, especially when we’ve had large global warmings. We’ve driven more than half the species on the planet to extinction. And then, over hundreds of thousands and millions of years, new species come into being. But for any time scale that we can imagine, we would be leaving a much more desolate planet for our children and grandchildren and future generations. So we don’t want to pass those tipping points.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know that we are headed in that direction?


AMY GOODMAN: What, in your work, has told to this?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, in the case, say, of the ice sheets and sea level, we see. We began in 2002 to get this spectacular data from the gravity satellite, which measures the gravitational field of the earth with such a high precision that you can get the mass of the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheets. And what we see is that in 2002 to 2005, we were losing mass from Greenland at a rate of about 150 cubic kilometers per year. Well, now that’s doubled to about 300 cubic kilometers per year. And likewise, the mass loss from Antarctica has also doubled over that time period.

So we can see that we’re moving toward a tipping point where those ice sheets will begin to disintegrate more rapidly, and sea level will go up. And that’s one of the bases, and others, for saying that a safe level of carbon dioxide is actually less than what we have now. It’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Which is?

JAMES HANSEN: What we have now is 387 parts per million. But we’re going to have to bring that down to 350 parts per million or less. And that’s still possible, provided we phase out coal emissions over the next few decades. That’s possible. We would also have to prohibit unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and oil shale.

But if you look at what governments are doing, the reason that you know that the kind of accords they’re talking about are not going to work is because, look at what they’re actually doing. The United States had just agreed to have a pipeline from the tar sands in Canada to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In Alberta.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, so they’re planning on actually burning those tar sands, which we can’t do.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how that works. What are the tar sands? I mean, this was a major issue in Copenhagen, and we played a number of pieces, especially indigenous people, for example, marching on the Canadian embassy —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- to try to stop the drilling.

JAMES HANSEN: They’re among the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet. There’s oil mixed in the ground with the sand. You have to cook that material to get oil to drip out of it. That takes a lot of energy to cook it. And then you end up with oil, which also has carbon. Then you burn the oil, and you get more carbon. So it’s much more carbon-intensive than oil itself.

AMY GOODMAN: We get more oil from Canada than anywhere else in the world, is that right?

JAMES HANSEN: I’m not sure about that, but the plan is, in the long run. There’s much more there in tar sands than even in Saudi Arabia.

So the point is, we’re going to have to move to the energy system beyond fossil fuels. We need to drive the economic system so that we move to a clean energy future. And there are many other advantages in doing that: cleaning up the atmosphere, cleaning up the ocean. You get — the mercury and arsenic and all these pollutants are coming from fossil fuels. So we need to get off this fossil fuel addiction. And the way you do that is to put a gradually rising price on the carbon emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: How many times have you been arrested protesting now the issue of coal and mountaintop removal?

JAMES HANSEN: A couple of times in West Virginia, with regard to the mountaintop removal, and in Boston, where we were sleeping out on the Boston Commons. But, yeah, trying to draw —

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you go from being the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to getting arrested for these protests?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, these protests are what we call civil resistance, in the same way that Gandhi did. We’re trying to draw attention to the injustice, because this is really analogous. This is a moral issue, analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery or by Churchill with Nazism, because what we have here is a tremendous case of intergenerational injustice, because we are causing the problem, but our children and grandchildren are going to suffer the consequences.

And our parents didn’t know that they were causing a problem for future generations, but we do. The science has become very clear. And we’re going to have to move to a clean energy future. And we could do that. And there would be many other advantages of doing it. Why don’t we do it? Because of the special interests and because of the role of money in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you don’t just protest outside of, you know, these companies that do mountaintop removal; you were protesting outside the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah. They and some other environmental organizations have become too much of the Washington scene, and they’re trying to work on the terms that Washington now works on, in which the lobbyists are driving the legislation. We have to get the legislation designed in the public’s interest, not in the interests of the people who have the money to influence the process.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back. Our guest today is James Hansen. Storms of My [Grandchildren]: The Truth [about] the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is his first book. He’s the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, teaches at Columbia University. He’s been arrested protesting coal mining and didn’t go to Copenhagen, because he wanted those talks to collapse, felt they wouldn’t save the planet. This is Democracy Now!

Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Jim Hansen. Storms of My Grandchildren is his new book, The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

I wanted to play for you, Dr. Hansen, the comment of the Prime Minister of Nepal. Days before the climate talks began in Copenhagen, cabinet ministers from Nepal held a cabinet meeting on Mount Everest, at the base, to send a message on the impact of global warming on the Himalayas. I spoke to the Nepalese Prime Minister in Copenhagen.

    PRIME MINISTER MADHAV KUMAR NEPAL: Global warming has its impact on the top of the mountain. And the snows are melting. Glaciers, many of the glaciers, Himalaya glaciers, has evaporated, has disappeared. Many glacial lakes are emerging, and many of the glacial lakes are the [inaudible]. So we have seen many landslides there and no regular land or rainfall there. Droughts and all these problems relating to the health of the people has been seen. And we have seen power plants that is damaging many of the villages. The natural calamities has been seen. And the impact on the mountainous region is much more in the downstream, where 1.3 billion of the population live in India, in Bangladesh. So the problem of Nepal is not only the problem of Nepal’s people, rather the problem of at least 1.3 billion of population.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Nepali Prime Minister Nepal. That is his name. Your response to that, Dr. Jim Hansen?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, yeah, we see the climate changes. It’s at the top of the mountains. The glaciers all around the world are melting. And those glaciers are actually very important, because they provide fresh water for the major rivers of the world. During the dry season, the rivers, such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges Rivers, more than half the water in the river is from melting glaciers. So once those glaciers are gone, it’s a real problem.

But the problems are also occurring at the other end of the rivers. The coastline of Bangladesh, for example, is going to be moving inward, and you’re going to have hundreds of millions of people who will be refugees. So it’s especially these poor nations around the world that will suffer from climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week I also caught up with the President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. Now, this is a low-lying island, the Maldives, at the frontline of climate change. And I asked him what a three degree Celsius rise in temperature, because the IFCCC, the climate change conference — apparently there was this document that we exposed on Democracy Now! with the French news organization Mediapart, saying that their plans, what they were putting forward, wouldn’t actually increase the temperature by two degrees Celsius, but actually by three degrees. And I asked the Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed to describe what that would mean for his country.

    PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: That would mean that we won’t be around. That would mean the death of us. And that’s really not acceptable for us. We cannot survive with that kind of temperature rise.

    AMY GOODMAN: For people who don’t understand climate change, which is probably most people in the United States, why wouldn’t you be around? What would happen?

    PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: Sea levels would rise. We are just 1.5 meters above the water. And if we have sea levels rising to seventy, eighty centimeters, that’s going to eat up most of our country. So we won’t be around.

    AMY GOODMAN: Are you making preparations for a mass population removal to dry land?

    PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, you know, we’ve been there in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the last 10,000 years, and we have a written history that goes back 2,000 years. I can move, but where would all the butterflies go, all the sounds go, all the culture go, all the color go? I don’t think it really is a feasible option to move. It’s going to be almost impossible for us to convince our people to move.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly the problem. And that’s what was happening in Copenhagen. The wealthy countries are trying to basically buy off these countries that will, in effect, disappear. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, and the danger is that these countries will see this money — that’s why the United States offered to promote $100 billion per year, which is imaginary money, because I don’t think that’s going to happen. The United States’ share of that, based on our contribution to the carbon in the atmosphere, would be 27 percent, $27 billion per year. Do you think that our Congress is going to vote $27 billion per year to give these poor countries? It’s not going to happen. What we — but that’s the danger, that these poor countries will say, “Gee, that’s a lot of money. Maybe we can get that.” What we actually have to do is solve the problem, not pay people off. And that requires reducing the carbon emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the East Anglia controversy, the University of East Anglia, that the climate deniers, the climate change deniers, are using. Explain what happened, actually, the discussion between the scientists, what is being called Climategate, in emails that hackers got a hold of, and how it’s being used.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, well, obviously, this discussion between some of the climate scientists revealed frustrations that they have with the contrarians who continually will nitpick about “Is the station data good?” or “Is that one not?” And what they should have done is release their full data immediately, because there’s no question about the actual climate change. And by having —- by this attempt to not be completely open, they opened themselves up to criticism.

But, in fact, the climate record is not debated, and it’s not debatable. If they give all the data, then they give the opportunity to somebody else to show, “Oh, it’s really not warming.” But, of course, they can’t show that, because the evidence is all over the place that the climate really is changing.

But unfortunately, this episode has been very confusing to the public, so now there are many in the United States, especially, who are skeptical about whether the climate change is real. So it’s been a public relations disaster, but it doesn’t change the science one iota. In fact, the science has become clearer and clearer over the last several years.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where the United States is versus Europe? I talked to people throughout Europe in Copenhagen. I mean, thousands of people came out. Whether you wanted those talks to collapse or not, the level of networking and of groups all over the world was truly remarkable that took place there largely outside of the Bella Center -—


AMY GOODMAN: — but also inside, because in the last few days, civil society was really kept out of those talks. But they said the United States is years behind in just the discourse, because we are at the point of —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- if you even have a discussion in the US media, it’s about whether global warming exists.


AMY GOODMAN: Whereas in Europe, it’s about — the debates are about, well, what do we do?


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, carbon sequestration? Should there be cap and trade? What are the alternatives? That’s where the debates lie there. Here, we’re way behind.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, and for a very good reason: because of the effectiveness of the industries that don’t want to see change. They have had an enormous impact on the public’s perception of the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see that with scientists, for example? We just did that piece on healthcare, the amount of money they’re pouring in lobbying on healthcare. What is it in — on global warming legislation that didn’t pass the Senate, $300,000 a day from coal, oil, gas?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, yeah, there are more than two-and-a-half thousand energy lobbyists in Washington, so that’s more than four per congressperson. And that’s — unfortunately, the public just doesn’t have that kind of representation. And it’s also a fact that the industry influences the media, so that you always see this presented as if it’s an either — there’s one side and there’s another side, as if they were equal. But, in fact, the science has become crystal clear. And we have the most authoritative scientific body in the world in the National Academy of Sciences. So all the President would need to do if he wants to make this issue clear to the public is ask the Academy to give him a clear report on this subject, and the answer would be very clear.

AMY GOODMAN: The effect of the EPA now announcing that carbon, methane, that they are threats to public health? Can the EPA just start regulating regardless of Congress passing legislation?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, they can. But then, when we have a new election and a different party comes to power, that their ability to do that might be changed. And so, that’s why it’s preferable to have laws written by Congress and signed by the President. But in the absence of that, EPA can get us moving in the right direction. And they are beginning to do that, for example, in vehicle efficiencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the level of suppression of science in the United States. You personally experienced it. There was this exposé in the Times where you first were talking to Andrew Revkin and explaining what was happening under the Bush administration, and even before that, the suppression of your work when you testified before Congress to, what, Senator Al Gore at the time.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah. There are two major problems. One is that the public affairs offices of the science agencies are headed by political appointees, and they tend to try to control the information that goes from the science agencies to the public, if it is a politically sensitive topic. In many topics, maybe 99 percent, there’s no interference. But when it becomes a sensitive issue, as it was with global warming, there is that tendency.

So the solution to that would be to have professionals, career civil servants, head the public affairs offices. Otherwise, they are offices of propaganda. And it still — it doesn’t matter which, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans; as soon as there’s an election, a change of the party in power, they replace the heads of these offices. So they’re still offices of propaganda, in my opinion.

The other thing is, is if a government scientist testifies to Congress, he has to first show his testimony to the White House. Doesn’t make sense. Why should Congress not get the best opinion of the scientists? This is a power which is just taken by the executive branch, and the Congress has not objected to it. Again, it doesn’t make sense, because the scientific — the scientists are paid by the public, so they shouldn’t be under the control of the White House. They should be free to give the best scientific advice they can.

AMY GOODMAN: You had a young man, twenty-four years old, named George Deutsch, put in charge of you as the top scientist over at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies under the Bush administration. It turned out he hadn’t graduated from college, whatever. He was determining who you got to talk to in the media, what information you were putting out? He was —-

JAMES HANSEN: Well, that’s the way the story came out in the New York Times. And it sounded as if this low-level person was responsible for the censorship. He was reporting to the highest level at NASA headquarters, the head of the public affairs offices. So, in fact, this was the problem I just described. It’s the fact that the administration in power feels that it gets to control the information that goes to the public. It doesn’t make sense in a democracy. A democracy doesn’t work right if the public cannot be honestly informed.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel your work is being suppressed now? You still work with NASA.

JAMES HANSEN: No, I don’t feel that it’s being suppressed now. But the fundamental problem has not been solved, in that the heads of these offices are still political appointees. But I’ve been -— ever since this issue became open during the Bush administration, I’ve been allowed to say what I want, because I think the bad publicity of any censorship is not worth it, so they’re not trying to control what I say.

AMY GOODMAN: You were reporting to the top people. It was not only the top people controlling what you had to say. You were meeting with Dick Cheney, the Vice President, you were meeting with Colin Powell, to warn them about global warming. What was their response?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, yeah, I had the opportunity at the beginning of the Bush administration to speak to the energy climate task force, which was headed by Vice President Cheney and which had six cabinet members plus the EPA administrator and the national security adviser on it. But what I learned was — and we, I think, gave them a clear story about the dangers in continuing greenhouse gas emissions, but the decisions on what the policies were made were made a couple of weeks before they listened to the science stories, as I discuss in one of the chapters in my book. So the policies were based on other considerations rather than the scientific information.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you think needs to happen right now?

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, what needs to happen right now — we have this great opportunity this spring, I would say, to have discussions in the House and Senate about what really needs to be done to solve this problem. And it’s not cap and trade with offsets. We can prove that that’s completely ineffectual. What we have to do is put a price on carbon, and the money that’s collected needs to be given to the public, not used for boondoggles, like Congress is taking — plans to take the money from cap and trade that’s collected in selling the permits to pollute and to use that money for things like clean coal or to give the money back to the polluters. That won’t solve the problem. We have to give the money to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the Obama administration in any way going in this direction?

JAMES HANSEN: I think it’s possible. There were a couple of encouraging things in Copenhagen. For one thing, Al Gore made a clear statement that a carbon price is a better solution than cap and trade. And John Kerry also indicated that he had an open mind on that question. So that’s why I say the discussions in the next few months are very important, because the way the United States goes is going to determine the way the world goes, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Dr. James Hansen is our guest. He is author of Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity and one of the world’s leading climatologists.

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