How to Solve the Climate Problem | The Nation


How to Solve the Climate Problem

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The following is excerpted from James Hansen's "Storms of My Grandchildren," the climate scientist's new book about what is needed to stop global warming.

About the Author

James Hansen
James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is adjunct professor in the...

Also by the Author

James Hansen bravely told the truth even when the Bush administration tried to silence and penalize him.

If Congress follows these five suggestions, we could solve the problem of global warming.

We have finally arrived at the main story: what we need to do to solve the climate problem, and how we can save a future for our grandchildren.

The problem demands a solution with a clear framework and a strong backbone. Yes, I know that halting and reversing the growth of carbon dioxide in the air requires an "all hands on deck" approach-- there is no "silver bullet" solution for world energy requirements.

People need to make basic changes in the way the live. Countries need to cooperate. Matters as seemingly intractable as population must be addressed. And the required changes must be economically efficient. Such a pathway exists and is achievable.

Let's define what a workable backbone and framework should look like. The essential backbone is a rising price on carbon applied at the source (the mine, wellhead, or port of entry), such that it would affect all activities that use fossil fuels, directly or indirectly.

Our goal is a global phaseout of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions. We have shown, quantitatively, that the only practical way to achieve an acceptable carbon dioxide level is to disallow the use of coal and unconventional fossil fuels (such as tar sands and oil shale) unless the resulting carbon is captured and stored. We realize that remaining, readily available pools of oil and gas will be used during the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world. But a rising carbon price surely will make it economically senseless to go after every last drop of oil and gas--even though use of those fuels with carbon capture and storage may be technically feasible and permissible.

Global phaseout of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions is a stringent requirement. Proposed government policies, consisting of an improved Kyoto Protocol approach with more ambitious targets, do not have a prayer of achieving that result. Our governments are deceiving us, and perhaps conveniently deceiving themselves, when they say that it is possible to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 with such an approach.

A successful new policy cannot include any offsets. We specified the carbon limit based on the geophysics. The physics does not compromise--it is what it is. And planting additional trees cannot be factored into the fossil fuel limitations. The plan for getting back to 350 ppm assumes major reforestation, but that is in addition to the fossil fuel limit, not instead of. Forest preservation and reforestation should be handled separately from fossil fuels in a sound approach to solve the climate problem.

The public must be firm and unwavering in demanding "no offsets," because this sort of monkey business is exactly the type of thing that politicians love and will try to keep. Offsets are like the indulgences that were sold by the church in the Middle Ages. People of means loved indulgences, because they could practice any hanky-panky or worse, then simply purchase an indulgence to avoid punishment for their sins. Bishops loved them too, because they brought in lots of moola. Anybody who argues for offsets today is either a sinner who wants to pretend he or she has done adequate penance or a bishop collecting moola.

Be prepared for energy experts telling you that a kazillion units of energy will be needed in 2050 or 2100. They will calculate how many square miles of solar power plants must be built every day or how many nuclear power plants must be built every year, and then they will wring their hands and perhaps try to sell you something. Yes, energy use is going to increase--mainly because parts of the world are developing rapidly and raising their standards of living and energy use. But energy growth need not be exceedingly rapid--energy use hardly grew during rapid economic growth in the world's largest economy, even though the great potential of energy efficiency was barely tapped.

Also remember that the solution to the climate problem requires a phasedown of carbon emissions, not necessarily a phasedown of energy use. We will need to slow the energy growth rate and decarbonizes our energy sources to solve the problem.

Why do fossil fuels continue to provide most of our energy? The reason is simple. Fossil fuels are the cheapest energy. This is in part due to their marvelous energy density and the intricate energy-use infrastructure that has grown up around fossil fuels. But there is another reason: Fossil fuels are cheapest because we do not take into account their true cost to society. Effects of air and water pollution on human health are borne by the public. Damages from climate change are also falling on the public, but they will be borne especially by our children and grandchildren.

How can we fix the problem? The solution necessarily will increase the price of fossil fuel energy. We must admit that. In the end, energy efficiency and carbon-free energy can surely be made less expensive than fossil fuels, if fossil fuels' cost to society is included. The difficult part is that we must make the transition with extraordinary speed if we are to avert climate disaster. Rather than immediately defining a proposed framework for a solution, which may appear to be arbitrary without further information, we need to first explore the problem and its practical difficulties.

Two alternative legislative actions have been proposed in the United States: "fee-and-dividend" and "cap-and-trade." Let's begin by looking at the simpler approach, fee-and-dividend. In this method, a fee is collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas), i.e., at its first sale in the country. The fee is uniform, a single number, in dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public does not directly pay any fee or tax, but the price of the goods they buy increases in proportion to how much fossil fuel is used in their production. Fuels such as gasoline or heating oil, along with electricity made from coal, oil or gas, are affected directly by the carbon fee, which is set to increase over time. The carbon fee will rise gradually so that the public will have time to adjust their lifestyle, choice of vehicle, home insulation, etc., so as to minimize their carbon footprint.

Under fee-and-dividend, 100 percent of the money collected from the fossil fuel companies at the mine or well is distributed uniformly to the public. Thus those who do better than average in reducing their carbon footprint will receive more in the dividend than they will pay in the added costs of the products they buy.

The fee-and-dividend approach is straightforward. It does not require a large bureaucracy. The total amount collected each month is divided equally among all legal adult residents of the country, with half shares for children, up to two children per family. This dividend is sent electronically to bank accounts, or for people without a bank account, to their debit card.

A rising carbon price does not eliminate the need for efficiency regulations, but it makes them work much better. The best enforcement is carbon price--as the fuel price rises, people pay attention to waste.

Let's discuss cap-and-trade explicitly. Then I will provide a bottom-line proof that it cannot work.

In cap-and-trade, the amount of a fossil fuel for sale is supposedly "capped." A nominal cap is defined by selling a limited number of certificates that allow a business or speculator to buy the fuel. So the fuel costs more because you must pay for the certificate and the fuel. Congress thinks this will reduce the amount of fuel you buy--which may be true, because it will cost you more. Congress likes cap-and-trade because it thinks the public will not figure out that a cap is a tax. How does the "trade" part factor in? Well, you don't have to use the certificate; you can trade it or sell it to somebody else. There will be markets for these certificates on Wall Street and such places. And markets for derivatives. The biggest player is expected to be Goldman Sachs. What is the advantage of cap-and-trade over fee-and-dividend, with the fee distributed to the public in equal shares? There is an advantage to cap-and-trade only for energy companies with strong lobbyists and for Congress, which would get to dole out the money collected in certificate selling, or just give away some certificates to special interests.

Okay, I will try to be more specific about why cap-and-trade will be necessarily ineffectual. Most of these arguments are relevant to other nations as well as the United States.

First, Congress is pretending that the cap is not a tax, so it must try to keep the cap's impact on fuel costs small. Therefore, the impact of cap-and-trade on people's spending decisions will be small, so necessarily it will have little effect on carbon emissions. Of course that defeats the whole purpose, which is to drive out fossil fuels by raising their price, replacing them with efficiency and carbon-free energy. The impact of cap-and-trade is made even smaller by the fact that the cap is usually not across the board at the mine. In the fee-and-dividend system, a single number, dollars per ton of carbon dioxide, is applied at the mine or port of entry. No exceptions, no freebies for anyone, all fossil fuels covered for everybody. In cap-and-trade, things are usually done in a more complicated way, which allows lobbyists and special interests to get their fingers in the pie. If the cap is not applied across the board, covering everything equally, any sector not covered will be able to lower its price. Sectors not covered then increase their fuel use.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.