CCL at COP21, Day 3: An American (climate scientist) in Paris

Dr. James Hansen presents to a packet room at Place 2 B in Paris.

Dr. Jim Hansen presents to a packed room at Place 2 B in Paris.

By Peter Joseph

Somewhere, deep in college-time memory, I recall a few Greek tragedies from my obligate and wonderful humanities courses. On the way to destruction, the hero’s hubris blinds him from heeding the sage advice of a soothsayer, usually a wizened old man who pops up from behind a rock or tree on the hero’s path. (I may be conflating these with equally dim, dark recollections from Shakespeare, but no matter.) The rest is history, or rather, tragedy. Today is our heroic moment of choice between hubris or humility, truth or consequences. The prescient man is speaking. Will we — that is, our leaders and organizations gathered to decide the fate of the earth — finally heed him?

Jim Hansen isn’t wizened. In fact, at 74 he’s spry and sporty, but he’s our modern soothsayer and civilization the victim of its own hubris — the misguided belief that we are so special, so entitled and important that Earth’s climate system will tolerate our spewing garbage into it and not just spit us out and kick us off this lovely island.

On the second evening of COP21, Dr. Hansen spoke to a packed room at Place 2 B, a lively hostel near the bustling Gard du Nord with a basement meeting space and bar, more likely a music and dance venue than a lecture hall where a mainly youthful crowd gathered to hear about the end of the world as we know it. He opened a bit apologetically, saying he hadn’t been expecting to give a talk, so he cued up the slides he’d prepared for his official UN news conference the following day. But for this event he changed the opening slide: from “Climate Justice and Governmental Honesty” to  “Climate (IN)Justice and Governmental (DIS)Honesty.

Those who know Dr. Hansen also know that he’s a shy, polite, mild-mannered, somewhat reticent mid-western scientist, not prone to hyperbole. But that night he minced no words while maintaining that understated style, sharply critical of all parties who have delayed climate action, including President Obama and predecessors, Congress, the UN, “Big Green” and, of course, the fossil fuel industry. You can watch it all here (in 3 parts.)

Some pearls:  

Our parents didn’t know they were causing climate change, but we have to pretend not to know. It’s cumulative emissions that cause climate change, and the US, UK and Germany are responsible for 50% of them. Developing countries have just as much right to develop as we have had. We’ve burned their share. The per capita emissions of Indians barely register against the total.

Since the atmosphere is thin and has a low heat capacity, we’ve felt only half of the global warming impact already incurred. The rest lurks in the oceans. The maximum temperatures of the Holocene (the age civilization has known) have already been exceeded. The current forcing of 0.6 watts per square meter means that CO2 must be reduced to 350 ppm. We can’t burn all the fossil fuels — only a small fraction before we get off of them completely. Fracking for oil equals doom.

Fossil fuels are not really the cheapest energy source, which is why we need a fee on them. You can’t solve this problem with 190 individual country goals and no enforcement because it’s about total cumulative emissions (and CO2 stays up there for millennia.) That’s why we need a global approach — a global fee. Individual nations’ caps are ineffective because as one nation uses less fossil fuel, the price will decline and another nation will burn them. If just a few major players do fee and dividend with border duties, the rest will follow.

Dr. Hansen gave us some really good news, too! Skeptical of his own calculations since writing Storms of My Grandchildren, he no longer believes that the Earth can cook like Venus because it’s not close enough to the sun to fry all the carbon out of the earth’s crust. What a relief!

Pray that Jim’s presence here, and that of his outstanding scientific colleagues can bend the arc of these discussions towards accomplishing what needs to be done: world wide carbon pricing through a revenue neutral carbon fee, dividend and duty. And if the UN can’t, let them admit that they can’t, rather than offer faux solutions, false hopes and smiley faces. Let the UN process call for help from the major emitting countries who have caused most of the problem and demand they first fix their own economies while there’s still time, then help those least responsible but most at risk to obtain the technology to save them both.

After being mobbed like a rock star, Jim was extracted into the cool, fresh Paris evening air, a city seemingly alive and well despite its fresh sorrows. The cafes are full, and winter has yet to come.

See Jim’s latest posts here and here.

Peter Joseph is the group leader for the Marin County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter at @valklimate.