James Hansen has got a doomsayer’s reputation, maybe for his lack of diplomatic skills, and not only because he made an explosive testimony before the US Congress in 1988 warning of climate change risks well in advance. As a climate scientist at NASA, a federal agency, he managed to publicly blame the Bush administration for trying to silence him. Even today, after his retirement, he isn’t holding his tongue at the UN climate change negotiations: ‘Without a carbon tax, the Paris agreement is broken,’ he bluntly says.
Fossil fuels are partially subsidised, Hansen argues, but their price does not include the cost of air and water pollution on human health. ‘The climate effects which are beginning to be significant, are also not included,’ he remarks. ‘The solution would be pretty straightforward: let’s add those costs to the price of fossil fuels. Not suddenly, but gradually over time.
‘I argue that it should be done across all fossil fuels, at the source: the domestic mine or the port of entry. I also argue this money should be given to the public, in equal amounts to all the legal resident of a country. Then, the household that does better than the average in limiting their carbon footprint, can actually make money.’ In his opinion, this would address the income inequality in the world too, since low-income people tend to have a lower carbon footprint. ‘People with big houses that fly around the world will pay more, but they can afford to do that.’
“You can’t say the Paris talks are moving rapidly. After the declarations of the world’s presidents and kings, negotiations are back to their normal, sluggish pace”
He makes the point that this would be a transparent, market-based solution, capable of stimulating the economy. ‘According to some studies,’ Hansen says, ‘if you had a fee of $10 a tonne of CO2 and you distributed money to the public, after ten years you would have an emission reduction of 30 per cent in the United States, and more than 50 per cent after 20 years. This would also spur the economy, creating three million new jobs in a decade.’
Hansen describes this as the only viable international approach. ‘You cannot ask each of the 195 countries to individually limit their emissions,’ he argues, implicitly criticising the agreement being negotiated in Paris. On the contrary, he adds, ‘if you put a rising carbon price on fossil fuels, you only need to have a few of the major players on board. Those countries that do not want to have that fee, would put a border duty on products and, furthermore, we will rebate to our manufacturers the carbon fee when they export a product to a non-participating nation. This is a fair way to rapidly move us out of fossil fuels.’
You can’t say the Paris talks are moving rapidly. After the imposing, and maybe boastful, declarations of the world’s presidents and kings, the negotiations are back to their normal, sluggish pace. ‘This is the rhythm of diplomacy, get used to it,’ a European delegate sarcastically tells me.
The prospective agreement to be signed next week – which prescribes voluntary, not compulsory, emission reductions from most of the world’s countries – doesn’t add up to limiting the temperature rise below the famed 2°C mark. Hansen’s most recent paper warns of a possible feedback loop in Antarctica: cooler freshwater from melting glaciers may force warmer, saltier water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate. ‘You can’t never rule out tipping points,’ he cautions.
The former NASA scientist may not be completely right. The trouble is, he can’t be completely wrong.