Pres. Donald Trump issued a major executive order last week that, if successful, could undercut the nation’s fight against global warming. In particular, the order kicks off an attempt to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from the power sector. While Trump’s move represents a big blow to U.S. climate efforts, the renowned scientist James Hansen sees a different—and, he argues, better—way forward on global warming. “The problem is the Clean Power Plan is really not that effective,” says Hansen, former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who brought climate change to the U.S. public’s attention in his famed 1988 congressional testimony. “It’s a tragedy that [the Obama administration] continued to pursue a regulatory approach.”
The solution Hansen believes will work best is one recently advocated by a group of Republican statesmen: a “carbon fee and dividend.” Although it is not a tax, the approach would put a price on carbon—a step Hansen thinks is absolutely essential for cutting back greenhouse gas emissions. Hansen, who has been called the father of climate change awareness, recently spoke about the issue along with Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs, a leading expert on economic development, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Scientific American followed up with Hansen, also director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia, to discuss this strategy and how he thinks it will help the U.S. turn the tide on global warming.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What’s the United States’ best hope for solving climate change at this point?
The only effective way of addressing climate change is to make the price of fossil fuels include their cost to society. That could be done in a simple way by collecting a fee from the fossil fuel companies that would gradually rise over time—a carbon fee and dividend. Studies show this would benefit the economy and this is a conservative approach, where you let the market move you toward a better situation.
I call it a carbon fee because you would give all of the money to the public, a dividend to each legal resident. [A group of Republicans] have adopted [this approach] almost precisely as I proposed it in 2008. The starting level of the fee varies from one proposition to another—I believe that they start at $40 per ton of carbon. [I] suggest $55 per ton—[that price] yields a dividend of $1,000 per legal resident and $3,000 for a family with two or more children, with one half-share for each child [and] a maximum of two half-shares per family.
This way it actually stimulates the economy. If it’s a tax taken by the government, it makes the government bigger and it depresses the economy. That’s why I object to the Democrats as much as to the Republicans. The only way the public will allow a carbon fee is if you give the money to them—people don’t want to see the price of gasoline at the pump going up.
That’s what’s frustrating about this problem—the fact that there’s a solution, which is not difficult and not economically harmful. It would be remarkable if the Trump administration would actually understand this and realize that it would be popular. It would work, unlike some of the things that Trump is advocating.
What is the number-one action the U.S. could take to reduce its emissions, without the federal government?
Unless you get a fee on carbon, you cannot solve the problem. As long as fossil fuels appear to be cheap energy, they’re going to keep being burned by somebody. So ultimately the solution has got to involve the government.
You view nuclear energy as an integral part of addressing climate change—why?
Nuclear energy—even in its current sad state—is doing a lot to reduce carbon emissions and deaths and illnesses from pollution. There’s no way countries like China and India are going to phase out their coal use without the help of advanced nuclear power.
The safety record of nuclear power is actually very impressive. We should have developed the technology of advanced nuclear power but the bias against nuclear has been so strong that the industry has not developed. It’s still not too late because there are a lot of innovative start-up companies out there—but these need to be encouraged.
You’ve been focusing your energy on helping people understand the urgency of global warming. Are you hopeful that the public will demand major action from the government soon?
Climate change is not going to register on the public’s list of priorities, so we need the help of an intelligent government system. Even though the fossil fuel industry money has been able to distort the climate science in Congress, the judicial branch can come into play. That’s why I’m a plaintiff along with 21 young people in a lawsuit against the federal government [suing it for having taken—and continuing to take—actions that support fossil fuel production and create greenhouse gas emissions].* We now have a really bulletproof case, which I think will win even with a conservative Supreme Court.
It’s going to be a combination of using the judiciary branch of the government and then using the democratic process to shape the policy that’s accepted. Between those two, I’m optimistic we could get on a path that would then influence the world.
So then is communicating with the public even useful?
This is somewhat analogous to civil rights—the courts did not force the government to carry out policies to end segregation until the public began to make an issue of it. Courts don’t often move in front of public opinion, so it is important to try to get public pressure.
How should climate scientists—both federal government researchers and outside scientists—react to the Trump presidency?
We have to use the scientific method and facts to make it clear that we’re being objective, and that there’s nothing political about the science. Scientists should stick to trying to explain the science as clearly as possible.
Given the president's stance on global warming, are you concerned about climate scientists’ ability to communicate with the public?
I’m very concerned about their inability to communicate with the public, but that’s nothing new with Trump. That problem has come about over the last decade or two, because of the political preference of those politicians who support the fossil fuel industry—they’ve found that an extremely effective technique is simply to deny the science or politicize it, or make it appear that scientists have an agenda. It’s made it difficult for science to provide effective advice to the government.
Why is it important that climate scientists be able to openly communicate with the public about climate change?
We have to make this situation clear to the public. The public still does not treat this as a high-priority issue, while in fact it should be near the top of the list. It’s a difficult story to communicate to the public because you just don’t see that much happening—the fact that the climate system has a delayed response is what makes this whole thing so dangerous. You might think the great inertia of the ocean and the ice sheets is our friend because we’ve seen a relatively slow response so far. But it’s very clear in the science that we’re building in bigger changes in the future, so there’s a danger of handing young people a system that’s out of their control. We’re setting up a situation that’s extremely dangerous. That’s just crystal clear in the science.
*Editor's Note (4/10/17): This sentence has been updated with additional information since its original posting.