HAPPY EARTH DAY?
Hansen recently spoke with The National Memo about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of nuclear power, the failures of both Republican and Democratic administrations, the imperatives of scientific advocacy – and how a carbon tax might actually replace “cap and trade,” which.
Now 72, Hansen is the son of a tenant farmer who studied with the legendary space scientist James Van Allen at the University of Iowa, before going on to postgraduate work in the Netherlands and at Columbia University, where the Goddard Institute is located. He joined NASA in 1972, planning to study the effect of gas clouds on the climate of Venus, but eventually realized that investigating climate changes on Earth was “probably more important – a planet that is changing before our eyes and has people living on it.”
By 1981, his team at NASA-Goddard published its first major paper on carbon dioxide and climate in the journalScience, which prompted page-one coverage in the New York Times.
“We said we can’t burn all the coal without producing a very different planet,” Hansen recalls. But “it wasn’t until 1988 that I gave testimony which got a lot of attention, and that was because that was the year of a heat wave and tremendous drought in the Midwest United States.” Hansen’s warnings increasingly irked the Republican oilmen in the Reagan and Bush administrations, who tried to silence or fire him, but they never drove him out.
“Being at NASA and having the access to both computing capability and satellite observation capability is kind of the ideal research situation to try to understand global climate change. So of course I preferred to stay in the government — and I was fortunate that [the late] Senator John Heinz, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, came to my rescue when John Sununu [chief of staff in the first Bush White House] was on the warpath and wanted to have me fired.”
Publicly, he remained quiet for 15 years. “But the message in the science had become clearer and clearer…It was well accepted by  that the planet really was getting warmer and the cause was human-made greenhouse gases. And yet the policies still took no account of that, and the plan was to build more and more coal-fired power plants.”
He finally spoke out again at the University of Iowa – “to make clear that the Bush administration was not taking effective action.” That speech “drew the attention of the Bush administration,” he says, laughing, “and they decided to assign someone to keep track of me and prevent me from speaking out.” (Eventually the Times , too.)
In recent years, Hansen has been at the White House and elsewhere, and in retirement plans to intensify his activism.
Freed from the strictures of government, he plans to assist in “legal actions against state and federal government for not adequately protecting the rights of young people and future generations. And also contributing to the cases where they’re trying to stop coal exports from the West Coast – and the [Keystone] tar sands pipeline. In May I’m going to Europe for a week to try to persuade some governments there that they should be putting an extra fee or tax on tar-sands oil because it is more damaging per unit of energy than the easily extractable oil.”
In order to remain effective, “I really have to say on top of the science, so most of my time will be spent on scientific research…But I also want to be involved in trying to make clear the implications of the science for policy. It seems to me that scientists are well trained for connecting dots – and I never quite understood why even the really good NASA high-level people would always caution me to ‘stick to the science, don’t mention policy.’”
Catastrophic climate change can be averted, Hansen says, but only if we start “putting an honest price on the fossil fuels that includes their environmental costs, both their effect on human health, those costs being paid completely by the public, their effects in air pollution and water pollution, but also their effects on climate.”
He scorns the current “dishonest” cap-and-trade scheme. “You have to have a simple system which is transparent and which actually reduces the fossil fuel use. There’s really no value added by bringing the big banks into the problem. But with the cap-and-trade [system], the prices fluctuate and because there’s so much politics involved the prices can collapse, and so no one has any confidence in that system.
“And the banks of course” – he laughs – “JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, they have skilled trading units, hundreds of highly capable people who will make big dollars out of trades – but it adds nothing of value to the system, and where does that money come from? It doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes out of the public, the people, paying more for their energy. “
The so-called cap-and-trade “offsets,” which award carbon credits for preserving trees, “can be really hokey, really hard to verify – and they don’t actually pay attention to the physics of the problem, which tells you that the fossil fuel carbon that you put into the atmosphere will stay in the climate system for millennia….That means that there is a limit on how much fossil fuel you can burn. And they’re trying to trade other things in there as if they were equivalent to this fossil fuel carbon, but they’re not.”
Instead, Hansen favors a simple carbon tax, or what he calls “fee and dividend,” with a rising surcharge on fossil fuels that is rebated in full to all taxpayers.
“The reason for the fee is simple – it really needs to be collected at the domestic mine or port of entry so that it’s just across the board – but unless you’re giving that money to the public, the public will never allow the fee to continue to rise because they will see the impact on the cost of gasoline at the pump and in their utility bills until there are some alternatives.”
The alternative that Hansen favors – a rapid worldwide expansion of nuclear power — is highly controversial among environmentalists, to say the least.
“I just published a paper with [fellow Goddard scientist] Pushker Kharecha, in which we point out the number of lives that have been saved by nuclear power. And that’s nuclear power of the early generations, 50-year-old technology. Even with that old technology the accidents that did occur — the number of lives lost – was very limited in comparison to the number that are killed every year by coal, by the air and by water pollution from fossil fuel burning and fossil fuel mining. “
Hansen believes that new cooling systems and advanced reactor designs can answer concerns about accidents like the meltdown at Fukushima, Japan – “that’s solvable now” — and how to dispose of radioactive waste. “With a fourth generation of nuclear power, you can have a technology that will burn more than 99 percent of the energy in the fuel. It would mean that you don’t need to mine uranium for the next thousand years. We have got enough excess weapons material and nuclear waste to provide the fuel for many centuries.”
Hansen knows this isn’t a popular viewpoint. “There are certain environmental organizations – especially the , the , the – which are just dead set against nuclear power. And I understand where they were coming from, several decades ago.”
Today he worries that solar, wind, and other renewable sources will not soon provide sufficient reliable energy. “I think that nuclear is probably needed but I’m quite happy to just say ‘let’s put a rising price on carbon and let the market decide.’ I hope that Germany or California is successful in their efforts to get these so-called renewables to provide most of the energy but I think that’s unlikely…If we would put this price on carbon it would favor renewables, and it would favor energy efficiency, and it would favor nuclear power – it would favor anything that is carbon-free. That’s the way to do it – not by government deciding, this is the winning technology.”
He stands with the environmentalists in strong opposition to the Keystone XL project, however. “If you make that pipeline, that sort of guarantees that over time, you’re eventually going to exploit a lot of that [tar sands] resource. And it doesn’t make any sense economically if you look at it – the only reason they go ahead with it is that it’s partly subsidized and it’s not made to pay for its cost to society. If we could stop it and get any sort of a price on carbon that even partially reflects the cost of CO2 to society, then tar sands would simply not be exploited.”
According to a paper he will soon release, “simple economic modeling shows that if you put a moderate rising price on carbon — $10 a ton, going up $10 a ton for 10 years — by the end of 10 years you would reduce United States emissions by 30 percent.
And that’s 10 times or 11 times more than the volume of the Keystone pipeline. So there are much more effective ways of assuring our energy independence and contributing to stabilizing climate than trying to develop more fossil fuel sources.” Government should also adopt much tighter regulations to conserve energy in appliances, buildings, and transportation, he adds.
Politically, Hansen urges Americans to support , a group advocating a simple flat carbon fee, with the money distributed to the public. He is considering whether to help found a “grandparents” movement against climate change. “But frankly in the United States it looks very difficult with our present two parties to get prompt action. I think we need a third party. Money has too big an influence on our politics in Washington and somehow we need to do something about that.”
The first step to any recovery is recognition of the obvious: Earth has a problem. In fact, beaucoup problems. For example, despite the squawking of profiteering polluters and professional deniers, our very atmosphere — without which everyone and everything is dead — is rapidly being degenerated by our own addiction to fossil fuel, literally altering Earth’s climate in disastrous ways. Yet, as we burn, energy corporations blithely fiddle.
They’re fiddling with tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada, uncaring about the vast amounts of ozone-destroying carbon that will be released by ripping open Northern Alberta’s boreal forest to get at the junk oil, or about the extra carbon-dioxide contamination that will come from processing this especially toxic sludge at Big Oil’s Gulf Coast refineries.
Also, they’re fiddling with the Earth itself, by fracking deep underground shale to bring gas and oil — plus more ozone-depleting methane — to the surface. And they’re still fiddling with the priceless ecology of America’s ancient Appalachian Mountains and streams by exploding off the mountaintops — merely to make it easier and cheaper for Big Coal to extract the ozone-killing carbon.
There are plenty of horrors to make you weep this Earth Day. But tears don’t bring change. That comes only from the determined effort of ordinary grassroots people to organize, strategize and mobilize. The good news for our Earth and our own existence is that such people are on the move in every part of America. They’re confronting the greedheads and boneheads, creating effective energy alternatives, forging fresh and sensible polices, lifting heads out of the sand — and producing the change we must have.
The courageous and tenacious mountaineers of Appalachia, for example, are at last beginning to score big victories in their long, hard fight against the coal giants, including winning an agreement last November from one, Patriot Coal, to cease all mountaintop-removal coal mining.
Also, from Vermont to California, the frackers are getting fracked, as local groups are winning fights in city halls, legislatures and courts to stop the rampant exploitation of their land, water and communities. And, all across the country, including in the reddest of red states, grassroots advocates are producing a sensible shift from fossil-fuel dependency to renewable fuels and conservation.
That’s what Earth Day is about, so don’t weep — cheer the progress we’ve made, and join the movement for more.
In fact, some communities are going so far as to imagine achieving “net zero.” That’s the wonky name attached to an elegant idea, namely a conversion to total renewable energy, complete recycling and a culture of conservation to bring humankind’s carbon footprint into a sustainable balance with a healthy earth.
Now, imagine the least likely place you’d expect this net zero ideal to take root — and even flourish. How about oil-saturated Texas? Yes! On an Army base, no less. Astonishingly, America’s sustainable energy future is being pioneered in El Paso on a sprawling military base named Fort Bliss, home to 35,000 soldiers.
The post already has a 1.4 megawatt solar array and rooftop solar panels on all base housing (generating 13.4 megawatts of energy), and it’s in partnership with El Paso Electric to complete a 200-acre, 20-megawatt solar farm by 2015.
It also has a plan with the city of El Paso to convert the post’s waste into energy, and it’s engaged in wind, geothermal and conservation projects. Adding to the effort, base officials are encouraging the use of energy-efficient vehicles — and even building bicycle lanes throughout the base.
The Army! Who knew they cared?
Practically everyone on the base is committed to achieving the goal of net zero by 2018, meaning the base will generate all of the energy it uses — and do it with renewables. The troops have planted nearly 15,000 trees and have become converts to recycling. To encourage the latter, the base commander, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, has put the million-dollar-a-year recycling revenue that Fort Bliss earns into skating parks, exercise facilities and other morale-boosting recreation projects.
“Everybody is getting involved,” he says, noting that the effort is changing behavior and fostering a conservation culture, which he hopes “our soldiers will take with them when they go on.”
There’s hope for the Earth when even the Army begins to care, take action and change attitudes. In this case, let’s all “join the Army.”