James Hansen is making his second visit to the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, COP23 in Bonn to declare that the Paris Agreement “ambition” is a “hoax”. Meet the man still raising the climate alarm.
Nick Breeze (NB): Can you rate the progress that the Paris Agreement has achieved since COP21?
James Hansen (JH): I would say there is very little progress because there is no reductions in global emissions of carbon dioxide. If you look at the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and methane in the atmosphere, it is actually growing more rapidly than it was two years ago.
NB: Is this what you expected?
JH: I expected very little from the Paris Agreement. It is analogous to the Kyoto Protocol. There, politicians agreed that climate was a problem and that nations would try to reduce their emissions; in fact, the emissions accelerated. The rate of growth increased.
If you look at developed countries their emissions peaked in 1980 and since then have been flat. There is no evidence of an impact of the Kyoto Protocol or the framework convention in the 1990’s.
Now we got to 2015 and we have the Paris Protocol, all the politicians clapping each other on the back as if something had been accomplished but there is not going to be a reduction in fossil fuel use as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy. And that’s the situation.
We have to make fossil fuels include their cost to society. That means the air pollution cost, the water pollution cost, the climate change cost. So we have to add a carbon fee, a carbon tax, which has to be across the board: oil, gas and coal. Not some cap and trade gimmick which does almost nothing.
There is no realisation of the politicians that they have not taken the needed actions, so in that sense, there has been no progress.
NB: Do you speak to leading figures from the UNFCCC or government officials?
JH: I have gone to different countries and tried to make this case and they do not really change their approach. I tried to persuade them that cap and trade with offsets is really not doing anything. And they have to admit that!
I met with the science advisor to the European Commission and she agreed that cap and trade is not working and what you need is an across the board carbon tax or carbon fee. But, she says, you have to persuade them, the bureaucrats in Brussels.
Well that is hard to do because there are all these deals and as yet, these politicians are working more for the fossil fuel industry than they are for the public.
When you see words like “ambition” – a word tied very closely to the COP – how do you interpret that and what do you think?
JH: Yeah, that is just a hoax in my opinion! They say that they are going to try to do something but it won’t work. As long as fossil fuels are allowed to be the cheapest energy someone will burn them.
Some countries will try real hard and they’ll reduce their emissions by twenty percent, or by thirty percent but look at the global emissions. They are still staying at least the same, if not increasing and that is going to be true as long as fossil fuels are allowed to be the cheapest energy.
NB: Could you summarise what you’d prescribe as a course of action?
JH: Yeah, the course of action should be to collect a fee from the fossil fuel companies at the domestic mines and the ports of entry and give the money to the public; an equal amount to all legal residents.
That way the person that does better than average in limiting their carbon footprint will make much more money. In fact, if you look at the distribution of energy use by the public, about 70% of the people could make money with the present distribution.
Wealthy people would lose money but they can afford that. They have a bigger carbon footprint because they travel more and they live in bigger houses, but this would be a big incentive for people to pay attention to what they are buying.
As the carbon fee rises, products that are made with fossil fuels will become more expensive. So people will tend to buy other products and this will move us off of fossil fuels. Economists all agree: this is the way to do it, let the market help you solve the problem. You can’t do it by regulations, and by subsidising solar panels. It does very little good because we’re getting less than 1% of solar energy from solar panels.
NB: When you look across the political spectrum today, do you feel that we could go in the direction you are prescribing?
JH: I think we will go in that direction because China will eventually go in that direction. They are already beginning to have internal carbon price and carbon tax and they have a few hundred million people living near sea-level.
They do not deny the science, they understand it and they want to go to clean energy because their pollution is so bad. So they are going to move in that direction and as their economy continues to grow, relative to the rest of the world, they may be in a position where they could virtually impose this.
You see, either the United States, or China, or the European Union has to decide that ‘we are going to have a carbon fee or a carbon tax’. None of them have done that yet. But if just one of them would do it they could practically impose it by means of border duties on products from countries that do not have an equivalent carbon fee. That then is a big incentive for other countries to have their own carbon fee so they can collect the money themselves.
The World Trade Association agrees that such a border duty would be justified and that is what we need but we haven’t got any one of these three economic powers to agree to do it yet.
NB: Why is this view not being considered as part of the roadmap to 1.5 or 2 degrees?
JH: The reason that we are not doing what every economist says we should do and have a carbon tax, is that the fossil fuel industry is too damn powerful in capitals all around the world. In Washington DC and in other capitals.
I thought that the U.S. was worse than the rest of the world and in some ways at the moment it is but I went to about a dozen countries and I found that the fossil fuel industry is very powerful in very capital.
NB: So are you hopeful we will turn this situation around?
JH: I think we’ll turn it around but we better do it pretty soon because the fundamental difficulty is the delayed response of the climate system. We have only witnessed about half of the change for the gasses that are already in the atmosphere just because the ocean has so much inertia. It doesn’t warm up quickly. There is more energy coming into the planet than there is going out.
Therefore the oceans are going to continue to rise even if we stabilised atmospheric CO2 today. Then the ice sheets also have great inertia. So they are beginning to melt but sea-level is only going up at a rate that if it continues a hundred years is only [~40cm’s] but that rate has doubled a few times in the last hundred years and if it doubles a few more times then you are talking about metres.
Then we would lose all coastal cities if we stay on that path. So we really need to begin to stabilise atmospheric composition and that means reduce fossil fuel use rapidly over the next few decades. We should be off fossil fuels by the middle of the century if we want to stabilise climate.
NB: But even if we stabilise, what you are saying is that we are still going to see the impacts?
JH: Well, if we would reduce emissions a few percent each year, which economists say you could easily do if you had a rising price on carbon, then the maximum temperature rise would be 1.5 degrees [Celsius]. It is already a little more than 1 degree and it might still go up for a few decades but it would peak at about 1.5 and then begin to go down.
We would also, in addition to reducing emissions a few percent a year, need to store more carbon in the soil and biosphere. But that is possible and has other advantages with improved agricultural and forestry practises the soil can contain more carbon and become more fertile in the process. And we can do that.
NB: This is a hope story in a way?
JH: It’s plausible. Economic studies show that if you had a reasonable rising carbon fee then emissions would go down by a few percent a year, so it’s feasible but not without a carbon price.