Warming To The Idea

A (truncated) interview with climate change guru Dr. James Hansen

by Gordon Campbell

For someone so apparently mild mannered, Dr. James Hansen seems an unlikely catalyst for the climate change debate. Yet it was Hansen’s credibility as a NASA scientist that enabled his 1988 Congressional testimony to put the issue on the map as a grave and legitimate concern for scientists and the public alike. The pressure brought to bear on him in 2005 by the George W. Bush administration has only fed the legend. At 70, Hansen’s transition late in life to political activism, which has been motivated by his conclusion that action is now a moral imperative (given the serious implications of his scientific findings) has also helped to make him a larger than life figure.

Along the way, the scientific battle on climate change has essentially been won. It is the sceptics now who are muttering darkly from the sidelines, and then usually only about the details of the interaction between human-induced climate change and natural processes, Flat out denial of global warming and/or outright disbelief that humans are playing a significant role in the process is now an isolated ( and scientifically indefensible) position. Hansen, more than any other single person, has been responsible for this scientific revolution. At a political level however, the impetus for action seems if anything, to be losing ground.

Hansen’s recent tour of the country was so extensive that thousands of people took the chance to hear him in person. Unfortunately for me, Hansen’s packed schedule also meant that my own interview got cut from 40 minutes to about 15 minutes. What had to be jettisoned was a planned foray into the scientific conflict between Hansen and one of his remaining credible opponents in the scientific community, M,I,T, meteorology professor Richard Lindzen.

For those seeking the groundwork of Hansen’s scientific thinking, the excellent Kim Hill RNZ interview with Hansen is as good a starting point as any. For those interested in one of the recent rounds of Lindzen’s residual concerns with Hansen and human-created global warming – some of Lindzen’s dissent has to do with the role of clouds and cloud vapour as a natural thermostat – I strongly recommend this New York Times commentary (with useful links) from January last year.

From this, it appears that it is Lindzen who is on the back foot, but my opportunity to get Hansen’s take on the current state of play had to be curtailed – ironically, in order to get Hansen on time to his meeting with Climate Change Minister Nick Smith. Here (with apologies ) is the text of the abbreviated interview.

Campbell : For many people, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth doco five years ago was their wake –up call on climate change. Do you think the climate for political action on climate change has improved or deteriorated since then?

Hansen : I’m afraid it has deteriorated, and it is not an accident. There’s been a very effective effort to dis-inform the public. The public now believes that the science is much more uncertain than it is. And that negation is partly because of – for example – some mistakes that were found in the IPCC reports on climate change. These reports were thicker than the New York City telephone book, and to think there would not be some statements in those thousands of pages that could be questioned, well…(laughs) any scientist would say of course there could be some statements you could question. The principal one they jumped on was the statement that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone in 30 years. That’s not a true statement because obviously the highest mountains in the world are NOT going to lose all their glaciers in that time period. Yet that doesn’t alter the fact that glaciers are disappearing all over the planet, and with consequences –

Are you saying that much of the muddying of the waters has been done by those with a vested interest in quibbling, rather than in taking action?

Absolutely. No question about that.

You were censored by the George W. Bush administration. How did you become aware of it happening, and what options did you feel you had at the time?

Well, it was easy to become aware. Because I was told that I would not be able to speak to the media except with prior approval from NASA headquarters. If I received a call from the media I was told I would have to tell the media “ You’ll have to contact NASA headquarters.” And they would have the option of supplying someone else. I let that happen for a week or so, and then decided I would tell the New York Times about it, and that created a big flap. So was able to get that restriction removed. It was ridiculous.

On the other hand, what I’m surprised at is that the practice has not really disappeared. One of the fundamental problems that I pointed out was that offices of public affairs in science agencies are headed by political appointees who have an agenda : to make the President look good. And so when a government scientist testifies to Congress his testimony must be approved by the White House. It seems to me that those are abhorrent practices, and yet they have not been removed. Furthermore, I had thought well, other countries must be more democratic than the United States. But I found…even in New Zealand a scientist was fired – Jim Salinger –

There are eery parallels.

Right. In Australia also, a CSIRO scientist was fired.

Well, lets bring this up to date. Your own criticisms of cap and trade schemes have been used by Republicans to discredit President Obama’s emissions trading proposals. Did you resent being used as a club for that purpose?

Aahhh, no. As long as they were saying that I think cap and trade is ineffectual and more harm than good then that’s fine with me. Because that’s what I think. Now, what usually happens though is what I say is often misrepresented…

There’s usually a shoe missing, isn’t there? The people willing to cite your authority in that context usually don’t follow through with support for your counter-offers.

Exactly. Precisely.

Do you think the integrity of science is at risk from the extent of its dependence on corporate support – or worse, when its findings put government action at odds with business interests?

Well, I don’t know that science is dependent on corporate support. But there may be a public perception that scientists are getting rich on the back of corporate support, which is of course a nonsense.

Let me explain. With the reeling back of government spending on all fronts, science has taken its share of that – and it has left scientists dependent on corporate largesse, with the liaisons between drug companies and research labs being the classic example. In your neck of the research woods, do you see that tendency posing any risk to the integrity of science?

I think that science cannot allow it to be a factor. In terms of getting support for research I think you’re better off if you let the science take you where it will. I’ve suffered from what you’re describing. In the first Bush administration our funding was cut and I had to fire five people because they didn’t like the answers we were getting. [Those problems did not disappear during the Clinton/ Gore administration, he adds, after he didn’t do everything they wanted] But in the long run, you have to let the chips fall where they may. And I think you’re better off if you just play it straight. That’s all you can do. That’s all a scientist has to do.

As a scientist and as an activist, you focus on the destructive role of coal in climate change. Yet coal is widely available, easy to use, easy to transport and store, and unlike the refining costs associated with oil and gas, you just mine it and use it – plus, as an electricity source it is reliably efficient. Isn’t it unrealistic to expect governments to turn their backs on such a resource?

Its quite realistic to say that the cost of the resource, and the price of the resource should not reflect the cost to society. And that should include the effect on air pollution and water pollution and the environmental effect of climate change. So if you add those costs – right now, they’re borne entirely by the public. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t have to pay for those.

Isn’t that because we’ve just woken up to the way we’ve been treating greenhouse gas emissions as externalities? Meaning, there’s been little accountability for the harm done to public goods such as clean air and water by companies going about their lawful pursuit of short term gain. The conflicts are arising now because we’re trying to make companies pay the tab for costs and harms not previously recognized – but do you see any sign of corporates being willing to assume that burden ?

Well, yeah. I think a lot of leading businessmen are saying: just give us a clear pathway and signal for what has to be done, and we can deal with it. What they don’t like is jumping back and forth – you’ve got a regulation, then you remove it. That’s why I say what you want to a gradual rising price on carbon – and if you tell the business community this is going to happen then they will make the investments. But they don’t like to make investments if the policies may flip again.

Interesting you say that. Because I’ve generally seen energy companies as being more interested in carbon sequestration than environmentalists – who have tended to treat CCS [carbon capture and storage] more as greenwash than as science. Do you see clean coal as being a false hope, or a genuine hope ?

Well so far at least in the United States – and perhaps other places – its been more of a gimmick for allowing coal use to continue while trying to create the perception that there will be a clean-up in the future. But that’s the sort of thing we should be deciding based on a price on carbon, rather than on giving money to develop the [CCS] project…I don’t know if it can contribute or not, to clean energy in future. I think energy efficiency via other clean energies are likely to win out over clean coal but not necessarily. If we can find a way to do it cheaply enough, it might be a competitor..

Well, if people talk of making CCS a mandatory requirement for consents to any coal-fired power stations in future, that’s going to be problematic if the technology is not viable, or not affordable.

My position is very simple. A carbon tax : that is a carbon fee which rises over time, and will either cause carbon capture and storage to be part of the utilities business or else it will lead to different energy sources…. I don’t think we should try to prescribe which one. The marketplace should make that decision.

Your critics would probably say that won’t (a) stop the energy companies from internalizing the cost and passing it on to their customers and ( b) the 100% tax dividend you envisage being returned to consumers will be spent on further consumption that arguably, the planet can’t sustain.

But that’s not the way even, that markets work. Of course, someone is free to waste the money if they want. But pretty soon, as the price gets higher and higher, it will make the incentive so strong that it will have the desired effect. We’ve done the economic modelling and shown that by the time it gets to $US1 a gallon for gasoline at a rate that takes ten years to get to that pint, it reduces US emissions by 30 per cent…. That’s much better than any cap and trade system.

Are you pessimistic or optimistic that the current moves in Congress to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating against air pollution will be defeated?

Again, we wouldn’t need the EPA’s regulations …(pauses) Well, you still want to have some energy efficiency requirements. With vehicles for instance, you still should have some efficiency standards. Likewise with houses, you should have [energy efficiency] building standards. And that’s a good example, because they don’t work very well unless you have that price signal.

Let me get this straight. If you view the EPA’s regulatory powers as a flawed signal, are you saying you wouldn’t be too upset if the current attempts to prevent the EPA from using the regulatory powers they got in January, were withdrawn by Congress ?

No. I would be very disappointed if the EPA lost its power to regulate. Because that’s something that’s putting pressure on the system to comply.

Right. Over time, you’ve chosen to become an activist – and there was quite a lapse of time between your Congressional testimony in 1989 and your emergence as a public activist in the mid 2000s. What advice would you give to any scientist thinking of taking a public stance on the policy implications of their work?

Well, I think that it’s an obligation to some degree – if we have that information – to transmit it to the public. Our salaries are paid by the public. That’s the argument I made when I resisted the administration’s attempts to change my testimony in 1989 and then the Bush administration in 2005. Because I argued that I’m not working for the President, I’m working for the public…But I can understand that a young scientist might be more reluctant. In my case I’m old enough to speak out. Okay, if I get fired then…(he shrugs)

Your equivalent among the climate change sceptics is Richard Lindzen. Are those battles between you and Lindzen now over, or are there residual grounds for conflict ?

What I found difficult about this was the fact that his statements would change over time. So I decided in the 1990s that I was going to make a table of our positions – when I had an official debate with him, I made this table of principal issues on which we differed. Because I knew that over time, it would become clear. And what I was finding was that as new evidence came in, it didn’t alter his line, even though it should have, if you’re an objective scientist.

Among the things he was saying – if I’m summarizing him accurately – was that your computer models on climate change were inadequate for example, in dealing with the cloud vapour-as-natural thermostat issues.

Yeah. But you see, the point is – and I think I made this clear in my talks – our conclusions are not made on climate models. Climate models are useful for projecting the future to the extent they’ve been calibrated against the real world. But our interpretation of climate change is based on the Earth’s history, and how the Earth has responded in the past to changes in the boundary conditions. And on observations on how it is responding now that we are very rapidly changing the atmospheric composition. Climate models come in only on the third level – but he had made many statements…In the late 1980s, he said global warming was one tenth of a degree. He disputed the nature of the observations because one of his colleagues had claimed there were some errors. Since then, its been evaluated very well.

Going back to your proposal of the progressive carbon tax at source on oil, gas and coal, with 100 % of the dividends returned to the public – do you think President Obama would have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that plan through Congress?

He should have made this his top priority when he took office. Because at that time, he had a 70% plus approval rating. And he could have gone to the public – the same way that Franklin Roosevelt would go to the public-and then he would have had to talk to the public. And Obama had the ability to do that. But he chose to let politics decide. So he gave the climate problem to John Kerry and Barbara Boxer. He didn’t get involved.

To the point where he didn’t make any reference to climate change at all in this year’s State of the Union address.

Yeah. And in the prior year, he made a statement where he said : I know some of you don’t believe in global warming. As if it is a belief. And then there was this big laugh from the Republicans. It was ridiculous. The thing is this is really tied to energy policy and national security and energy independence. He could have wrapped these together and had a programme
So in your view, its been a lost opportunity..

Yes, a lost opportunity. I hope if he gets re-elected, Obama starts right out at the beginning of the term putting this as a high priority. Because his place in history will depend on what he does with this.

People have seen the problems at the Fukushima nuclear facility after the earthquake and tsunami as sounding the death knell for the nuclear power industry. Do you think that’s a fair and a rational response – or can far safer, far smaller reactors be a legitimate part of an emission-free solution in future?

I think it is irrational. Not that nuclear power needs to be used everywhere. We keep pointing out that New Zealand has such a great set of renewable energy options that it doesn’t need nuclear power. In China and India, I don’t see how they can possibly replace their coal as a base load electric power source, without the help of nuclear energy…

The data from the preliminary April 2011 atmospheric tests at the Mauna Loa testing centre in Hawaii show a CO2 reading of 393.18ppms. That’s continuing the trend line of a 2 points per year rate of increase – but do we know at which point the irreversible, planetary changing effects of global warming will inexorably kick in ?

That’s a good question. It depends on which effects. One I particularly worry about is the stability of ice sheets.

In Greenland and Antarctica ?

Yes. And as we’re warming the ocean, the ocean affects the ice shelfs that come out into the ocean, and that allows the ice sheets to discharge ice faster. Because we’re warming the ocean, we’re getting very close to that point. These are non-linear problems, so its very difficult to answer your question…I would say we’ve got ten years to get on a downward track. But we’re on a rapidly upward track with regard to emissions…

And that’s the basis of a paper we’ve just finished. It will be the basis for some lawsuits that are to be filed against the government, for not doing their job. We’re arguing that you’ve got to get on a downward path now, very rapidly. Or it will become impractical [to avert global warming and its catastrophic effects]

You’ve talked about the intergenerational injustice of us creating a legacy of climate change harm for our children to inherit. From the perspective of someone in the developed world what’s so different – haven’t colonial powers always stolen priceless resources from current and future generations in the Third World? Isn’t there in fact some justice that with climate change at least, some of the chickens may finally be coming home to roost?

No. Because it is the young people in the developing countries as well as developed countries that are disadvantaged by continued abuse of the resources by the current generation. It is not going to be limited to young people in the developed world.