The Passion of James Hansen

Like many people, I suppose, when it comes to important and complex issues I tend to be swayed by the latest plausible thing I’ve read. Following the failure of the Copenhagen conference to make any serious headway on climate change, I’ve started to think that James Hansen is right.

hansenjamesHansen is one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world, mainly because of his activism. That activism stems from his passion about the urgent need for climate action, which has led him to stick his neck farther out than any of his peers. All this is evident in his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. As the title suggests, Hansen does not limit himself to cold reason and analysis, though there is plenty of that. This is a deeply personal book (sometimes a little too personal; the bit about his prostate surgery doesn’t really add to the argument) in which repeated references to his three grandchildren highlight the stakes for the coming generations if we fail to address climate change adequately now.

I won’t recap his overview of the state of climate science, except to say that it’s terrifying. (Pretty much everything we’ve been warned about is happening, only faster.) More interesting, and controversial, are his prescriptions, which will discomfit many environmentalists. Above all, Hansen believes that humanity simply must stop burning coal for energy, as well as leave most of the rest of the planet’s fossil fuels in the ground. Coal is Hansen’s chief villain, not only because of its contribution to climate change, but also because it demonstrably kills tens of thousands of people every year—year after year.

Not much argument there. But Hansen adamantly does not believe that efficiency and renewables have a prayer of replacing coal, at least anytime soon. He points to Germany and Japan, two technically advanced nations that lead the world in efforts to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Germany is building more coal plants as it phases out nuclear power, while Japan—which hosted the Kyoto protocol negotiations and pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels—has seen its emissions rise to 9 percent above that benchmark. Forget the technical arguments, Hansen implies: it’s what is technically and politically possible that matters. And these nations have done the best anybody could do.

Hansen also argues that cap and trade programs are a snare and a delusion: too readily gamed and loopholed and offsetted to death by the hordes of lobbyists (repeatedly referred to as the alligator-shoe people) and greenwashers. (Hansen’s contempt for the corruption in climate policy is palpable.) And the only sensible technical solution, he believes, is nuclear power: third- and fourth-generation plants that are modular, supposedly cheaper and faster to build, supposedly much safer, and—in the form of “fast” reactors—actually capable of gradually eliminating the waste problem (they burn spent fuel from first-generation reactors).

I often found myself nodding, a bit uneasily, in agreement. He makes good points. Cap-and-trade programs do indeed look very squishy; the European experience to date sounds a cautionary note. But while Hansen’s preferred alternative, the fee-and-dividend approach (a price on all carbon, with the money rebated to consumers), sounds simpler and more workable, you just know any such proposal in the United States will be labeled a tax and immediately crash in flames.

 Moreover, concerning nuclear power, Hansen does not directly address the points made by Amory Lovins and others that nuclear power is too expensive (billions of dollars per power plant) and slow to come on line (roughly 10 years per plant). Nor does he talk about the risks inherent in fast reactor technology, which uses plutonium that can be diverted into weapons. And finally, his prescriptions beg the question of how will those same political systems, with their built-in friction and sensitivity to special interests, do any better in getting rid of coal plants or siting new nuclear plants, however benign they may turn out to be?

Which brings us to Hansen’s strategy—and I believe he’s absolutely right about this, whichever course makes sense: “The public must demand a strategic approach that leaves most fossil carbon in the ground. …Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward. They hesitate; they hang back. Therefore it is up to you. You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren on this matter. …It is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved.”

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