Dr. James E. Hansen visited Denison at the end of September for the Denison High School Class of 1959 reunion and sat down with the Bulletin and Review to discuss climate policy in the United States.
Hansen is the director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program of the Columbia University Earth Institute.
Between 1959 and 1967, he earned a BA in physics and mathematics, an MS in astronomy and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Iowa, where he studied under space scientist James Van Allen.
Since the 1980s, Hansen has been an advocate of action to avoid the dangers of climate change.
Hansen said he thinks the politicians who say climate change is a hoax don’t necessarily believe what they are saying.
“They think if you accept it as reality it implies the Democrats will be able to impose regulations and taxes and that’s why they automatically oppose it,” he said.
“For a while that sort of worked because the timescale on which global warming and large scale climate change (occurs) is so long that you don’t see much happening so you can get away with that, but we’ve almost got to the point where these guys are going to be exposed.”
People have taken note of the extreme weather events in recent years, he said.
“If you look at the global statistics, then you see that indeed things are changing,” Hansen said, “and they’re changing in the way we thought they’d change if we stayed on the business-as-usual path, which we have done, so far.”
He was disappointed by President Barack Obama’s actions on climate change during his administration.
Hansen and his wife, Anniek, wrote a letter to Barack and Michelle Obama recommending two specific actions his administration should take to combat climate change.
“To make a long story short, he did not do either one of the things,” Hansen said.
The cost of fossil fuels must be made honest by including their costs to society, he said.
“Carbon fee and dividend” is the first of the two policies Hansen suggested.
“You collect a fee from the fossil fuel companies across the board – oil, gas and coal at the domestic mine or ports of entry – so you’ve got everything with a carbon fee, which will rise gradually over time so that in an economically sensible way you can replace fossil fuel infrastructure with clean infrastructure,” he said.
“The other half of this is you have to give the money to the public, because the public will not allow a tax. If they see the price of gasoline at the pump going up they are going to object. They are going to throw out the politician that did that.”
The money would instead be uniformly distributed to citizens.
Seventy percent of people would come out ahead with this arrangement, according to Hansen.
“And if they want to stay on the positive side of things, they should pay attention to the price of things on the shelf, because those things that have a lot of fossil fuels in their production will become more expensive,” he said.
Wealthy people usually have a large carbon footprint and would lose money under carbon fee and dividend, but they can afford it, Hansen said.
Hansen said he had persuaded former Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) about the policy.
“But they do what Democrats do; they want the money,” Hansen said.
In the Boxer-Sanders bill, only 60 percent of the money would have gone to the public.
“But then only something like 30 percent of the people come out ahead,” he said. “Most people are going to see the price going up and they will feel they’re losing, so you can’t do that. You have to give the money to the public”
A fee of $10 per ton of CO2 equivalent would be assessed to CO2 producers under carbon fee and dividend.
“It goes up $10 a ton (each year) so at the end of 10 years it’s $100 a ton,” Hansen said. “That’s 90 cents a gallon of gas.”
Those funds would be distributed monthly or quarterly.
Instead of supporting that policy, Obama supported “cap and trade,” which had worked to reduce sulfur emissions. Hansen said it worked for sulfur because sulfur only comes from one product: coal.
“But with CO2, that’s throughout the economy,” Hansen said. “It’s everywhere, so you need an across-the-board way of dealing with it.”
Decarbonizing electricity is the second of his policy recommendations.
Democrats didn’t help the cause when President Bill Clinton ended research and development of nuclear power, Hansen said.
“We’re still getting 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear, but that‘s 50-year-old technology,” he said.
Nuclear power is needed to replace coal, he said, because solar and wind power can’t do enough.
Hansen believes the nuclear waste problem can be solved.
“You have to support research and development of advanced generation nuclear power,” Hansen said. “Even the existing 50-year-old technology is the safest energy that we have, but we can do it much better.”
The United States needs to lead on the issue of climate change action.
“(CO2) emissions continue to grow, let alone peaking and beginning to come down,” he said.
The United States used fossil fuels to raise the standard of living from 150 years ago, he said.
“One gallon of gas contains the equivalent of 400 hours of labor by a healthy strong adult,” Hansen said. “That is how we raised the standard of living in half the world – and the other half wants to raise theirs.”
If other countries don’t have alternatives, they will do it the same way – by burning fossil fuels.
“You may think that coal is going away because you don’t see it burned here as much, but coal is still the biggest producer of CO2,” he said.
China, India, Indonesia and other countries continue to burn it.
If the United States institutes the fee and dividend policy, border duties would be applied to countries that don’t have a carbon tax or fee.
“That would be an incentive to have their own carbon fee so they can collect the money themselves, rather than have us collect it at the border,” Hansen said.
“If the United States would adopt it, Europe would agree quickly and other nations would want to avoid the border duties, so most nations would agree.”