Hansen: Can’t burn all fossil fuels without creating a different planet


Hansen: Can’t burn all fossil fuels without creating a different planet

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an international call featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.

The speaker for our May call was Dr. James Hansen, the American adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Recognized by many as America’s leading climate scientist, Dr. Hansen is a member of CCL’s Advisory Board and is the author of Storms of My Grandchildren. He joined us on the call to talk about some of his most recent work and ongoing climate advocacy, which for him began many years ago.

A 40-Year Fight

Dr. Hansen has been drawn to climate science since 1975. At the time, he was focused on testing satellite measurements to improve weather forecasts, and the issue of the ozone came up. He realized that he could use the same type of method to measure impacts on the ozone. Soon, though, his focus shifted to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “It became obvious pretty quickly,” according to Dr. Hansen. The magazine Science published his first major paper on this subject in 1981, after which the scientific community recognized, “You can’t burn all of these fossil fuels without creating a different planet,” Dr. Hansen said. “Already at that time, 35 years ago, the picture was pretty clear. The world is going to have to phase off of these fossil fuels. And yet that conclusion is so resisted by the world and by the fossil fuel industry that we’re still fighting that.”

In Dr. Hansen’s view, the truest arrow in our quiver for this ongoing fight is a revenue-neutral fee on carbon. Two simple facts led him to this conclusion. The first, he said: “We know the world needs more energy if it’s going to eliminate poverty in countries like China and India. But they’re going to keep using fossil fuels as long as those are the cheapest energies. So if we’re going to phase over to clean energies, we have to make fossil fuels more expensive. You have to do this across the board — that implies you should be collecting fees from fossil fuel companies at the source.” The second fact (that even non-scientists know) is that the public is never too happy with rising fuel costs, particularly at the pump. The simple answer there seems to be to return the revenue to households to offset that rising cost.

Speaking Out 

Dr. Hansen recently spoke at the Berkshire-Hathaway shareholder meeting. Speaking directly to Warren Buffet, but also hoping to catch the ear of audience member Bill Gates, Dr. Hansen offered essentially this choice: “Do they want to be the wealthiest men in the world, or do they want to use their wealth and their power in a way that would benefit humanity?” The way he suggested they benefit humanity, specifically, is by supporting a revenue-neutral, rising fee on carbon to help combat climate change. Dr. Hansen said, “I think both of them actually agree that the climate change issue is real and we’re going to have to do something. We can’t burn all the fossil fuels.” With that common understanding, Dr. Hansen hopes to have Buffet’s public support of a carbon fee by next year. Read his full remarks to the shareholders here.

The Research Continues 

Dr. Hansen has had a long career, and his climate study continues to this day. His most recent paper is titled, “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: The Threat of Irreparable Harm” and is published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Dr. Hansen explained, “If you have a system which includes a number of amplifying feedbacks, then once you start moving in the direction of a warmer planet, these amplifying feedbacks can cause the change to become quite rapid.” But we needed to understand those processes better, so using a global model, Dr. Hansen and his co-authors explored what an increasing level of ice melt would do to atmosphere ocean circulations. As it turns out, Dr. Hansen said, “Unfortunately, the system is more sensitive than has been realized.” Click here for a video summary of the main points of this paper, or check out the transcript.

At the end of the video, Dr. Hansen poses these challenging questions to us all: “Do you agree that we have reached a dangerous situation? Do you think we may be approaching a point of no return, a situation in which our children inherit a climate system undergoing changes that are out of their control, changes that will cause them irreparable harm? That’s the bottom line.” Because if that’s where we are, then we must act.

Hear Dr. Hansen’s full remarks on our May 2016 podcast, and be sure to check out his TED talk.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.