James Hansen, world-leading climate scientist and Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, talks about his personal, professional and public life in a one-hour interview with Phillip Adams during his visit to Australia in March 2010. [13 March 2010 | Peter Boyer]
Phillip Adams: James Hansen has been warning about the dangers of global warming for almost 30 years. His latest book is Storms of my Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate change catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity. No-one can accuse James of hiding his feelings in an obscure title. Hansen is in Australia for a series of public appearances. He’s just reminded me he’s here in a private capacity; he’s not travelling on the government penny. He took part in a debate in Melbourne at the end of last week; he’s spoken to Sydney Tonight as a part of Sydney Ideas; he’ll be in Adelaide later this week for a public address, After Copenhagen: Looking for real solutions. James Hansen is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and at Columbia’s Earth Institute, and I welcome him to our little wireless program. And this is a more than usually personal welcome, James — it’s great to meet you.
Adams: It’s fair to say you’re convinced that the Earth is warming and of the danger that warming presents, as the title of your book attests, so in time I’d like you to take us on your journey of discovery, the gradual process by which you became convinced. But my first question to you is this: Have you read a recent book by Dale Maharidge, called Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America?
James Hansen: Yeah, I have that book, and I’ve read most of it. Yes, that’s my home town, a small town in western Iowa.
Adams: Hence the question. Well, he thinks that this town is emblematic of America. How did you find it when you were little?
Hansen: Well, I didn’t realise its nature. It’s actually a good book. It does point out that the roots were mostly German immigrants. My ancestors were Danish immigrants to western Iowa. But it was a good place to grow up – you could go outdoors as a kid. I saved enough money as a newsboy to pay my way to college. Things were probably easier in those days. I think young people now have a harder time getting an education than I did.
Adams: When did you realise that you were scientifically inclined?
Hansen: Well, even in high school what was easy for me was mathematics and physics, and I was lucky because at the University of Iowa we had Professor James Van Allen as the head of the physics department. So I was starting out in mathematics, but when I took a course in the physics department under Van Allen — the class wasn’t taught by Van Allen — but I soon got caught up in the excitement of research in that department.
Adams: And, of course, astronomy.
Hansen: Yeah, astronomy. Actually, my first experience with science, doing it myself, was observing the moon from a corn crib — from a small telescope in a corn field.
Adams: Well, you graduated from the moon to the planet Venus, and I want you talk about your early research into Venus and its atmosphere, and this becomes important in the current context, because as we’ll get to you’re now arguing that our use of fossil fuels is leading us towards a Venus syndrome. So tell us about Venus.
Hansen: Yeah, that was another lucky break actually. I was a very shy student and I didn’t want Van Allen to know how ignorant I was, so I kind of avoided him. But I passed the graduate exams when I was a senior, and I was the first undergraduate to do that, so he noticed me, anyway. And he suggested to me that there was some new data on Venus which implied — it was radio emissions from Venus — it implied that either Venus was very hot or it had an ionosphere which was emitting these radio waves. And he suggested I study that for my thesis. Which I did, and eventually realised the reason the emissions were high was because Venus was very hot, and it was very hot because of all the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.
The Venus connection
Adams: So the listener is already getting a hint of where this is going. But you were looking at Venus before the orbiters, weren’t you — before Pioneer visited Venus in 1978.
Hansen: Well, yes — that original research was based on very first observations during the space age. But then I proposed an experiment, to go to Venus to measure this haze that was surrounding the planet, and try to understand what this haze is veiling the planet, what it was made of. And in fact our investigations eventually showed that it was sulphuric acid. But while this experiment was being built, which took five years, I became interested in the Earth’s atmosphere, because we realised that the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere was changing. We could see that methane and nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide were all increasing. So this became an even more interesting planet than Venus, because here’s a planet that’s changing before our eyes, and we know that that should have some implications for humanity. So I ended up resigning as the principal investigator on that Venus experiment and letting one of my friends take that over, and I began to work full-time on trying to understand the Earth’s climate.
Adams: Jim, at what point — I don’t want to harp on the Venus syndrome, but it’s very fascinating — at what point did you start to connect our atmosphere, and that of Venus, with a greenhouse effect, which of course had been postulated in the 19th century.
Hansen: Well, very early on, because the planets provide this nice set of experiments. We have Mars, which has less greenhouse gases than the Earth, then we have the Earth in the middle, and then Venus has much more carbon dioxide. And, as it turns out, Mars is therefore too cold; it’s frozen — any water on Mars is ice under the dust there. And Venus once had an ocean — we can tell that from the hydrogen isotopes in the atmosphere — but the ocean began to boil, it had a runaway greenhouse effect, and now it’s several hundred degrees on the surface of Venus.
Adams: A very good friend of this program is James Lovelock, and it’s a moot point about who is the most profoundly pessimistic about our future, you or James, but…
Hansen: I think he wins that one.
Adams: Does he?
Hansen: Because I think we can still solve this problem.
Adams: Well James still thinks we might, to be fair. But as you know, he thinks that — well not within our lifetimes, because you and I are getting on a bit — but within the lifetimes of our listeners the planet will become virtually uninhabitable for human beings, as of course Venus became uninhabitable for everything. So you make that connection, don’t you?
Hansen: Yeah, that’s possible if we stay on business-as-usual. We could push the system to a point where we pass tipping points, where the dynamics of the system begin to take over, and leave our children and grandchildren with a system that’s out of their control.
Adams: How long did the Venus process take, though. Wasn’t that fairly slow?
Hansen: Oh, the Venus… to get to the Venus situation we would first have to melt all the ice on the planet. That does take time. That’s not going to happen even this century. But we could pass tipping points this century; in fact we could pass them very soon. We could pass them within the next few years — where the ice sheets would become unstable, for example — and that… because of the chaos, the economic and social chaos, that would come about if the ice sheets become unstable. Because so many of our cities are on coastlines — including in Australia by the way — that the governments may just lose control of the situation. And that’s a real danger.
Adams: We’ll get into the politics later, because that’s an immense difficulty. But way back in 1981 you were predicting that global warming was from CO2 emissions, that it was real, and was an immensely significant development.
Hansen: Yeah, that was our first paper that got a lot of attention. It was published in Science magazine and reported on the front page of the New York Times, by Walter Sullivan, the science writer, and yes, we said that if we continue increasing CO2 that we would get an opening of the fabled North-West Passage in the 21st century. Well, that’s just happened.
Adams: Tell us about some of the other predictions you made way back when, which have since been validated.
Hansen: Well, we said that the 1980s would likely be the warmest decade in the period of instrumental measurements, and that the 1990s would be still warmer. And both of those turned out to be right. And we said that the signal of global warming — global temperature — would begin to rise out of the noise by the 1990s, and IPCC [UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] came to the conclusion that that was right.
Early Earth climate modelling
Adams: It was about this time that I was getting interested in the issue, and I recall Model Zero. Tell the listener about the Model Zero.
Hansen: Well, that was the model that I started to work on after I resigned as the principal investigator on Pioneer Venus. It was a full-time job to try to make a global climate model that would simulate many physical processes that become involved when you allow long time scales to come into play, because you have to include the deep ocean, you have to include the ice sheets, you have to include the vegetation on the land. So that was an attempt… we started with a weather model, which is normally used to predict how the atmosphere will change over a few days. But we then had to add in the physics for these other processes that occur on long time scales.
Adams: Your supporters and your critics will agree that nothing is more complex than this sort of modelling, that it’s so multi-factorial, so inter-active, so problematic that it makes the brain ache.
Hansen: Yeah, of course what I always point out in my talks is that our understanding of the climate system and global climate change is based first of all on the Earth’s history, on the knowledge of how the Earth has responded in the past when changes in boundary conditions occur.
Adams: Usually over much longer time scales.
Hansen: Yeah. And secondly, it’s based on observations — satellite global observations today — of how the system is responding to the rather rapid changes that humans are applying. Climate models come only third in that list, because they are still rudimentary.
Adams: Jim, in 1988 you make a memorable — historic — appearance before the US Senate and you put the fear of God in them, by warning of the dangers of global warming. At that time you were already absolutely, totally, unequivocally convinced.
Hansen: Well, what I said was that the warming was unequivocal, and it was consistent with what we expected, given the changes in the atmospheric composition. I said you could say with 99 percent confidence that it was a real, long-term warming trend, it was not an oscillation, it was not a fluke. And the 99 percent statement is one of the things that caught their attention.
Adams: You’ve made the point that you were a shy student. I still get the sense that you’re a shy adult, and that being a show-pony, as you have to be these days, hasn’t come naturally or very easily.
Hansen: That is certainly true. After the 1988 and 1989 testimony I decided I was going to get out of that business, because I’m not a natural public speaker, I don’t consider myself a good speaker, and there are people who do that very well, and…
Adams: I think in a way though it’s your simplicity — the fact that you can achieve simplicity when dealing with these sort of complexities, and that you’re not “Al Gorean” if you like — that makes people trust you.
Hansen: Well, I would hope they would, because there’s really… they really should trust scientists more than they do, I think, because scientists take this profession not because it’s a lucrative one [but] because we like to understand how things work. And sometimes we’re not very good at explaining it, and we don’t have ulterior motives.
Adams: I want to deal with those ulterior motives after I identify the program. [Repeats Hansen’s credentials, program details] Just before I came in to have our chat I was looking at a website, an Australian denialist website, which apart from having a very strange Christian message also insists that scientists like you are involved in a plot for world domination and world government. Confess: that is your real motive, isn’t it?
Hansen: [laughs] No, actually I do have an ulterior motive, and that’s what caused me to come back and speak again in 2004, after fifteen years of maintaining my vow not to get in the public eye. And that is my grandchildren.
Adams: Beautiful photos of them in the book [Storms of my grandchildren].
Hansen: Yeah, well I realised that the changes in their lifetimes can be enormous if we stay on the business-as-usual path that we’re on.
Adams: You and I probably timed our life-spans pretty well. We’ll escape the worst of it, but our kids and grandchildren will not. Now one of the arguments that I’m bombarded with on this issue is that scientists are cooking this up because they’ll all get lovely R&D grants. But of course we’ve sat here for the last eight years looking at what happens to scientists in America when they do take public positions. Because under the Bush administration that led to the opposite; it led to a cutting off of funding.
Hansen: Yeah, absolutely, and that is not uncommon. I call it the John Mercer effect, and to some degree… he was a scientist who warned that the West Antarctic ice sheet might be unstable if we have ocean warming and it begins to melt the ice shelves that buttress the ice sheet. And he promptly lost his funding. When I published a paper in 1981 that got a lot of attention — published on the front page of the New York Times — the Department of Energy promptly changed their mind about funding a grant to us. So the people who speak out do not get rewarded. I suppose, if it got attention for the scientific issue, that the field in general might get more funding, but the people who speak out certainly do not.
Adams: I was trying to remember the moment in history when suddenly this became so politicised. At the beginning, twenty to thirty years ago — that was before the collapse of the Soviet Union — people warning about this problem were not addressing capitalism as such, because the Soviet was as big a problem in terms of its pollution record, and in fact its environmental standards were often worse than the capitalist world. But all of a sudden a decision was made that scientists like you are involved not only in a conspiracy to get funds, but also in a left-wing conspiracy for world government. Now you haven’t dealt with that.
Hansen: Well, I think anything they can come up with they will use. It’s the people who benefit from business-as-usual — fossil-fuel interests, in particular, will think up whatever excuses they can to try to demonise the people who give the message.
Adams: A bit like the cigarette industry in its time.
Hansen: Yeah, absolutely.
Adams: Nonetheless I hold here in my hand — there’s a McCarthy line — a document which we’ve just got, the United States Senate’s report into the CRU [Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom] controversy, and it could hardly be more hostile: “The scientists involved in the CRU controversy violated fundamental ethical principles governing taxpayer-funded research and in some cases may have violated federal laws.” And it goes on in this vein. How do we deal with the fact that some otherwise reputable scientists have been a bit silly lately?
Hansen: Well, by “a bit silly” you’re referring to the East Anglia…
Adams: And others, yes.
Hansen: Um, it looks to me like the standards that the scientists are being held to are much higher than what the accusers hold themselves to, or the media hold themselves to. Now it’s true that there were cases where this theft of emails from East Anglia revealed conversations amongst scientists, and some of them concluded that they were reluctant — I think these scientists felt they were under attack by these contrarians, and they just didn’t want to cooperate…
Adams: That’s your preferred term for denialists now…
Hansen: Yeah, denialists or contrarians. And they resisted giving data and getting involved in discussions with them, which in hindsight was a mistake, because you always should give out your data — in science you have to give out your data that your conclusions are based on, so that others can check it.
Adams: So the body of science in effect has had some minor abrasions, but they’re being beaten up into fatal wounds?
Hansen: But, for example, that data that they were talking about is available. We put on our website the data that we use to determine the global temperature change, and we publish the program that analyses that data. So if there was any way to change our result, these groups, which are very well funded by fossil-fuel industry, would do it in a heartbeat. But in fact they can’t change the result, so all they’re doing is focusing on misbehaviour, or discussion among scientists. They can’t challenge the fundamental scientific facts.
Adams: I mentioned the name of McCarthy a moment ago when I brandished this US Senate report. And that’s a term that’s being tossed around a bit now. There’s a new McCarthyism.
Hansen: Well, it has a lot of resemblances to that dark period in American history. What they’re saying is just nonsense, and it’s very easy to show that it’s nonsense. I’m a little surprised that they’re willing to go that far because if they were to ask, for example, for the National Academy of Sciences evaluation — is what the scientists are saying correct or not — they would get a very clear answer.
Adams: In bygone years, both Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould have been on the program [Late Night Live], united in their detestation of creationism or some of its modern variants. At the same time, these two went at each other hammer and claw for years, because they disagree on the mechanisms, or some of the mechanisms, of evolution. But neither of them wanted to dismantle that majestic theory. Equally, there must be a lot of areas where there is strong disputation within the scientific community about the mechanisms we’re describing or thinking about, and their relative importance — ?
Hansen: Well, there’s no disagreement about the physics of radiative transfer, and the fact that adding infrared-absorbing gases to the atmosphere is going to make the atmosphere more opaque in the thermal spectrum — in the long waves — and that will reduce heat radiation to space. And if you reduce the radiation to space, given the fact that the amount of energy coming from the sun is unchanged, then you have to warm up the planet. You’ve got an energy imbalance. And until the planet warms up enough to radiate that energy away it’s going to continue to get warmer. So the basic physics is very hard to dispute.
Adams: There is another argument that’s been ticking over for years, with which people are less familiar, and that is the slight offset created by global dimming, by the atomising of various pollutants up there, including of course by vast numbers of jet aircraft, which may in fact have slowed the process of warming a tad.
Hansen: More than a tad. The effect of human-made aerosols, mostly from fossil-fuel burning, is indeed a significant climate forcing — that’s something that perturbs the planet’s energy balance with space — because these particles reflect sunlight. That, therefore, has a cooling effect. And until the 1970s there was a pretty good competition between this cooling effect and the warming effect of greenhouse gases. But the greenhouse gases have a very long lifetime. They stay in the air hundreds of years, even thousands of years in the case of CO2, while the aerosols fall out after several days. So their amount depends upon how much you continue to pump them into the atmosphere, and eventually the greenhouse gases have to win out because of their long lifetime, and that’s what’s been happening in the last thirty years.
Adams: [Repeats Hansen’s credentials, program details] Of course that global dimming phenomenon is also being raised as an issue in terms of some who want to see a technological quick-fix — in other words we put up quite purposefully — what do you call them — aerosols around the planet to solve the problem. How do you feel about that?
Hansen: Well, that can’t solve the problem completely. You can’t cover up one pollutant with another one, because the carbon dioxide not only causes warming, it also causes the ocean to become more acid, and that’s a problem for much of the life in the ocean. So you could help restore the planet’s energy balance with that kind of a concoction but you’d have to keep doing it, and you’d have to do it more and more, and eventually you’re going to have a very dirty atmosphere.
Adams: A bit like all the little bits of debris left up there by satellites. It would become a cure which is perhaps as bad as the disease.
Hansen: Yeah, it would have additional disadvantages. So the sensible thing is to move on to the energy world beyond fossil fuels a bit sooner than we would have otherwise.
Adams: We also wouldn’t have any more blue skies, would we James?
Hansen: No, they become milky-white as you have more and more sulphates in the sky.
Adams: Very bad for poetry and art. Okay, now when we brought James [Lovelock] out to Australia, for the Adelaide Festival of Ideas primarily, he shocked the audience, who adored him — he was Saint Jim — by saying he had reluctantly come to the view that in many nations the least worst answer, given the crisis, given the tipping point, was nuclear. You’ve come out and made the same point. Are you getting a lot of hate mail?
Hansen: I’m not getting hate mail, but I’m getting a lot of email from people who are very disappointed.
Adams: In you?
Hansen: In me, because they feel that I’ve let them down. They feel very strongly about nuclear power and they think that’s not a solution.
Adams: I know that you and your wife have a pretty cordial relationship with Michelle and Obama. Can we credit you with his recent decision to start advocating nuclear power?
Hansen: I don’t think so, but I think…
Adams: No-one’s listening — you can confess.
Hansen: [laughs] …but I think that, when I list the priorities for how we can deal with the carbon dioxide climate problem, at the top of the list I put energy efficiency and next renewables. But if you look at it quantitatively, it seems very implausible that those alone will be enough. If you look at Germany they’re trying very hard. They’re supporting renewables, subsidising them to a very strong degree, and they now provide seven percent of their electrical energy needs.
Adams: In other words, it’s not the base-load answer.
Hansen: It’s not the base-load answer.
Adams: Well, what about… You’re visiting this country, which is famously, in a poem we learned to chant, a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, and quite a few scientists that I knew, now gone to God, always insisted that we could put a few very large solar installations in the middle of the Nullabor [Plain] and produce not only enough base-load for Australia but theoretically enough for the entire world. How long will it take before solar, for example, does have base-load capacity?
Hansen: Well, the issue is one of cost. I think that solar, if it’s going to work any place, Australia has the best shot at it. But I think that you need to allow the alternatives — examine the alternatives — and it’s certainly not going to make the world a more dangerous place to have one nuclear power plant. I think if you’re going to wait twenty years to see if solar is going to pan out, then you’re going to really be in trouble, because you will have put yourself in a position where you’ve run out of time and you don’t have any alternatives.
Adams: Australia’s also pretty good for geothermal, theoretically. Do you give that much credence?
Hansen: Geothermal can help a bit. You know, it’s really a case of “all of the above are needed”. You need efficiency, you need renewables, and unless we can find something else for base-load power, it looks like we need nuclear.
Adams: Okay, but when you talk nuclear, as my old mate from England [James Lovelock] does, you’re not talking Chernobyl or Three Mile Island nuclear, you’re talking new nuclear.
Hansen: Yeah. Three Mile Island… Chernobyl was of course an incredibly poor design. You would never allow that kind of a power plant to be built. It didn’t even have a containment vessel. Three Mile Island was second-generation nuclear power. That’s what exists in the United States now, and France, other places. But third generation is an improvement on second generation, but it’s still light-water reactors, thermal reactors, that burn less than one percent of the nuclear fuel. But they’re safer than second-generation because they’re designed so that they shut down if there’s an anomaly. You don’t need humans to turn them off.
Adams: Jim, what about the argument which is now also emerging, which we’ve discussed on the program a bit, of the mini-power stations, the mini-nukes that can be decentralised around a huge country?
Hansen: Yeah. Mini versus large is an issue which is true both for nuclear and other sources of power. It does make sense to try to make the power closer to the users in many cases. But Australia is actually a country that’s well-suited for nuclear power in the sense that most of the people are living along the coastline. You could site your plants such that they had cooling from the ocean and they took water in from the ocean and desalinised it during the times away from peak power.
Adams: James, we’re having this conversation in Sydney. Sydney is the capital of New South Wales. New South Wales can be seen — particularly from the air if you’re flying down from Brisbane — as one immense coal mine. Because we dig up anything, anywhere, and coal always, always wins. We are vastly increasing our coal production capacity — new railway lines, hugely improved or enlarged shipping facilities in places like Newcastle. Many of us are involved in futile efforts to slow this juggernaut down. You regard coal as the biggest problem in the world, much larger than nuclear.
Hansen: Absolutely. It’s the biggest source of carbon dioxide. It’s the one… I say those trains are death trains, because we can see what the impact is going to be if we exploit fully the coal resource.
Adams: [whispering] We’re getting rid of it though, Jim, we’re sending it overseas. Don’t tell anyone.
Hansen: [laughs] Well, you see before we realised the climate problem then you couldn’t blame people, but now that we understand the consequences of continued and increased exploitation of coal, we are responsible, and we need to recognise what the implications of that are.
Clean coal: carbon capture and sequestration
Adams: But Jim, you’re being such a pessimist here. The coal problem has been solved — clean coal!
Hansen: That, of course, is a way in which they’ve been able to fool the public into thinking that they’re working on a solution to the coal problem. The Bush Administration had a clean coal program…
Adams: They got rid of it though…
Hansen: And at the end of their term, they simply cancelled it, because they didn’t do anything during the eight years.
Adams: Cannot we sequester?
Hansen: Well, carbon capture and sequestration is worth investigating, because we may need to use that with biofuels, because we’re going to need to draw down the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. We’ve already passed into a dangerous zone. We can see that the ice sheets are going to be unstable even if we just stayed at 390 parts per million [concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere]. So we could burn biofuels in a power plant, capture the CO2, put it underground, then we would draw down in that way the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But I don’t think that using it with coal is going to work. It’s going to make the coal so much more expensive that other alternatives would be preferable.
Adams: I want to go back to the issue of expense and the political implications thereof in a minute. But just a couple of other questions I’d like to ask you: Are you pro-biochar as a technology?
Hansen: That’s worth investigating. There are some people who are very disturbed… If you try to do it too much there may be some disadvantages in that, but the notion of working charcoal into the soil, making the soil more productive, that’s been shown to work, and…
Adams: By the Peruvians…
Hansen: Yes. And it does store more carbon in the soil. So at the moment we’re ploughing up the soil; our agricultural practices are not optimal. We plough up the soil and it releases carbon to the atmosphere. We need to have more low-till and no-till agriculture and even try to sequester carbon in the soil.
Putting a price on carbon
Adams: Okay, now we get to the costs that must be paid, or the price. Obviously the world is priceless and we couldn’t possibly… we shouldn’t think about these things too much; we’ve got to save a planet. But the politics kick in, big time, and here some of your friends, some of the people who admire you, think that you’re wildly impractical — that the sort of advice you try to give Obama, or indeed our own beloved Prime Minister, is beyond political reach. What do you say when you hear those arguments?
Hansen: Well, it’s beyond political reach if you define it that way, but in fact the things that are needed — putting a price on carbon and using the proceeds that are generated that way to give back to the public so that they can make the adjustments to reduce their carbon usage — actually make sense from an economic standpoint: stimulating the economy, solving the addiction to fossil fuel use, as well as solving the climate problem.
Adams: What would you tell the New South Wales government — who are totally dependent, it seems to me, on two streams of revenue, one is gambling and the other is coal — they’re addicted to coal. How could they possibly get off that monkey’s back?
Hansen: Well, Australia actually has a great potential for other things, including solar energy, nuclear power. So if you set up a system where you’re gradually increasing the cost of carbon emissions, it’s going to drive these alternatives. That’s where you’re going to have to go in the long run, anyhow, and by doing it sooner, you can preserve the planet for young people and future generations.
Adams: Jim, you want a carbon tax, don’t you. You don’t want a trading system.
Hansen: Yeah. And by the way, you can call it a carbon tax, but a fee on carbon emissions. Some people say it’s politically unrealistic, but look at British Columbia. They passed a law for a carbon tax, and within four months it was in place, functioning well, and the party that put it in place won the next election because the public likes it, because the money is given back to the public, 100 percent, through a payroll tax deduction.
Adams: This is what you call your fee-and-dividend approach, isn’t it?
Hansen: Right. There needs to be a fee which is across the board, so there’s no monkey business, the way there is in these ETS [emissions trading scheme] carbon-cap schemes. Put a fee at the mine or the well-head or the port of entry, and the money that’s collected should then go to the public, either through a monthly green cheque or a payroll tax deduction. It preferably needs to include a monthly green cheque because half the people are either unemployed or retired, so you wouldn’t catch everybody if you just used a payroll tax deduction. But in the United States tax reductions are very popular, so maybe you could use half the money for payroll tax deductions and half for a green cheque.
Adams: You live in a very strange country. We sit here on this side of the Pacific gazing across at the U.S., and we have a comprehensive — by no means perfect, but a comprehensive — national health scheme, as does much of course of Western Europe and the U.K., and we watch Obama try and get through an endlessly compromised, wishy-washy version of a public health scheme, and being torn apart by the hard right, by Fox News etcetera, to his great political detriment; he seems to have spent a lot of political capital getting nowhere. In tackling the area you’re describing, he would be dealing with powers, with lobbyists, who are much more powerful and better-funded than even the health industry. And your Supreme Court has just said you can spend all the money you like on political campaigns, you corporations — it is your right.
Hansen: You’re pointing out all the problems, which are very real. Unfortunately, we can’t give up…
Adams: I’m not suggesting you do.
Hansen: For the sake of our grandchildren, we can’t give up. And you know, it may be the public is also very fed up with our government, the way they go at each other’s throats, the two parties, and forget about the best interests of the public. I’ve begun to work with religious groups, a Coalition for Creation Care — it’s a combination of Catholic, Jews and Protestants who believe that we should do a better job of taking care of the planet.
Adams: Not to do so is surely blasphemous.
Hansen: [laughs] Right. And we’re going to define in the next few weeks a citizens’ climate bill which will be basically the fee-and-dividend approach. I think — and I’ve talked with… I went to Washington and talked with Senator [John] Kerry and some people in the House of Representatives — I think that we could get bipartisan support if the money is used half for tax relief and half for public dividend.
Denying man-made climate change
Adams: I think having a religious coalition would certainly confuse the hard right and the Republican Party. Many many years ago I was involved in bringing a very young and at the time impeccable American to Australia — his name was Ralph Nader. He’d just written a book called Unsafe at any speed. This one young bloke, using a pay-phone in the hall of a boarding house in Washington, transformed America in terms of the motor industry. But he wasn’t dealing with denialists. Yes, the big corporations did everything they could to sully his reputation, but he wasn’t dealing with people who said cars don’t cause accidents. Everyone bloody well knew that they did.
You’re doing a bit of a Nader now yourself, with this technique you’re describing. But the amount of denialism — and it’s not all coming from the corporations; a lot of it is spontaneously combusting on the net —
Adams: …for all sorts of reasons. I mean, there’s a complicated piece of computer modelling for you — what’s going on in the mind. It seems to me that one of the problems is that just as people deny personal mortality and invent all sorts of ways of getting out of that, that when you’re confronted with the notion of a planet on the verge of destruction, self-destruction, that it’s comforting to pooh-pooh and lampoon the science and to find a way out.
Hansen: Yeah, well I think that’s what we’re witnessing right now. It is amazing how this gap between what was clear scientifically and what the public knows, how that gap has increased, because I think the public would rather there isn’t a problem. So it’s very easy for them to accept these claims.
Adams: Clutching at straws comes to mind, doesn’t it?
Adams: How far will you go with personal activism. I’ve just been reminded that you were recently arrested.
Hansen: Well, I think that it’s like… this is a moral issue like slavery, like civil rights. We are going to have to get the public in the streets, I think, before politicians will take the steps that are necessary.
Democracy, China and climate action
Adams: Jim, do you entertain the possibility, and some of my friends in Australia worry about this a lot — scientific colleagues of yours — they worry about the ability of a democratic society to deal with these issues, because of its election cycle, because politicians finish up vacillating or being pusillanimous, whereas an authoritarian society can say “thou shalt” and people bloody well will.
Hansen: Yeah, well that is absolutely right. And that’s why, at this time, the best hope for quick action is China. They understand that the science is real, they understand that they do not want to have the fossil fuel addiction that has plagued the United States. So they’re taking all the right initial steps. They’re going to be the leaders, very shortly, if they aren’t already, in solar power, in wind power, and in nuclear power. They’re building twenty-four nuclear power stations right now. So they’re…
Adams: And insofar as Beijing can impose its authority, and it’s by no means a lay-down misere for even them to do it, there are encouraging signs.
Hansen: There are encouraging signs, but they know that their public likes the idea of the personal vehicle, and they’re starting to get more wealthy, so they need to think now about how to avoid the United States-type problems. And I think they went to Copenhagen actually willing to negotiate the idea of a carbon price, but they’re not going to accept a cap. That’s why this whole cap-and-trade thing is a stupid way to go at it, because you know that they are not going to accept a cap.
Adams: You, in a sense, declared a fatwah on Copenhagen. You said “I hope it fails”. That didn’t make you very popular, either.
Hansen: Well, no, but it is important because if we start down that path again, that’s the Kyoto-type approach. We wasted thirteen years with the Kyoto Protocol. Emissions accelerated after the Kyoto Protocol — they were going up one and a half percent per year prior to Kyoto and three percent per year after it, because this is a fake solution, when countries accept caps which are not really hard caps and then you have these offsets, and then some places aren’t capped — it doesn’t work. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we’re going to keep using them more and more.
Adams: I would like to avoid Australia slipping into a China model because I’m one of the people that might get rounded up. But I was fascinated by the quite deliberate insult that China did with Obama. Here was the President, the world’s most powerful man, and a middle-ranking bureaucrat is put opposite him. I mean, China went in boots and all into Copenhagen.
Hansen: I don’t know what that means.
Adams: Well, they played it rough and tough.
Hansen: Yeah, well, they’re going to do what is in their best interests — there’s no doubt about that. That’s why I say there’s no chance of a cap. They’ll never accept that. Their emissions are only a fraction per person of those in the United States…
Adams: Thus far.
Hansen: Thus far, and they’d better stay that way if we’re going to have any hope of saving the planet.
Adams: Isn’t China also fudging its own commitments? Isn’t it re-defining its carbon output?
Hansen: Well I don’t know about that, but I know that they understand that they’ve got three hundred million people living near sea level. They don’t want to have big climate change, and I think that they are willing to take steps in the direction of minimising their addiction to fossil fuels by putting a price on carbon. And that’s what we need. Actually, the economists will tell you, and show you, that by far the most effective way to reduce emissions is with a rising price on carbon emissions, not with a cap.
Adams: I think the cap-and-trade idea has peaked, anyway.
Hansen: I hope so.
Obama and leadership
Adams: You wrote a letter to Michelle and Obama. What did you tell them? Now it’s a public document I’m not invading privacy.
Hansen: No. Well, I wanted them to understand that we are in a crisis, that you can’t easily see it because the weather fluctuations are larger than the trend, but when you look at the tipping points in the climate system, and the difficulty of turning around the economic, the fossil fuel system, then we’re really at a point where we cannot afford to dawdle through another administration. So it’s really up to this administration to change the direction.
Adams: Garry Wills [U.S. author], who I greatly admire, said in a letter to Obama in the New York Review [of Books], better to be a one-term president than to waste this opportunity.
Hansen: Well, I don’t think that he would have any danger of being a one-term president if he would be frank. That’s what the American public were hoping for, and they’re a little disappointed. You know, it’s a case of… You know, Winston Churchill gave the public the bad news that there was a problem and they were going to have to do something about it. And if you explain it — and Obama is very articulate — he could do that. But what did he do in the State of the Union message when he got to the climate subject? He turned to the Senators and Representatives and said, I know some of you don’t believe in global warming, and then there was this big laughter and everything.
This is a time… global warming is not something about a belief. You know back in the days of Galileo, Galileo had to recant that the Earth was going around the sun…
Adams: You don’t believe that, do you?
Hansen: [laughs] Well, but, that’s what I’m saying: he had to go along with the belief of the Catholic church, but that’s not the way science works, that’s not where we are today. The president should stand up and say, the science is clear…
Adams: And so should our Prime Minister, I entirely agree. The trouble is, of course, that Fox News and other contrarians, as you so charmingly describe them, look at all that snow being dumped on North America and say, global warming — what the hell are you talking about? And that’s one of the difficulties: it’s communicating that predictions that you made decades ago, that we were going to have wildly fluctuating weather events, that global warming doesn’t mean that it will always warm.
Hansen: Yeah. The contrarians were… it was a perfect storm for them, because they managed to steal these emails at the same time in the same winter — it was the coldest winter and the most snowy winter since the 1970s.
What’s happening now?
Adams: Look I’m not going to let our emails get into public hands, because they’d be devastating for me. Okay, what do I tell people in Australia at the moment. The recent evidence is a growing indication of ocean temperature increases, the weather this summer has been very humid and wet due to the influence of the Pacific.
Hansen: Yeah, sure, if you look at the overall situation around the planet there’s no question. It’s clearly consistent with and confirms what we expect. The ice is melting all over the planet, the Arctic sea ice has decreased a few tens of percent from what it was a few decades ago, the ocean is getting warmer and that’s a problem because it’s melting the ice shelves around Antarctica. We have this spectacular satellite called GRACE — it’s a gravity satellite that measures the gravitational field of the Earth so precisely that we can see small changes in the mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and what we see is that the rate at which these ice sheets are now shedding ice has doubled in just the last five years. So we can see what’s happening on the large scale, and that often is different than what happens on small-scale weather.
Adams: I’ve been talking to James Hansen, who is running this global conspiracy, whose whole purpose is world government, which he will run, global domination by James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia [University], and at Columbia’s Earth Institute.
END OF INTERVIEW