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James Hansen: The One Thing We Should Be Doing to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change

The country's leading climatologist talks about what our future looks like if we continue along with business as usual -- and what we could do to prevent catastrophe.

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TL: What kind of policy changes should we be advocating for immediately?

JH: Yes, that's a good question and it's actually quite clear what we should do. The fundamental fact is that as long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest energy to the consumer then we'll just keep burning that. That's what's happening so far. The truth is fossil fuels are not the cheapest. If we would eliminate the subsidies for them and if we would include in their price, the external costs of them — the human health effects of air pollution and water pollution from burning and mining of fossil fuels are presently worn by the public entirely without any of the health effects being charged to the fossil fuel industry. The public picks up their health costs and the effect of climate change. The increased climate extremes are already causing some very expensive events. 

Either the public picks it up by just suffering the damage or the federal government may come in and provide relief of billions of dollars. But again, that comes out of the taxpayers’ pocket. So what we should do to solve the problem and get us to move to a clean energy future is to book a gradually rising price on carbon, which would be a fee that you collect from possible fuel companies at the domestic mine or the port of entry. So it's a very small number of sources and very accurately known. So you can just have a carbon fee which we suggest, for example, should be 10 dollars a ton to start with and increase year-by-year. The money that's collected should be distributed 100 percent back to the public, to all legal residents, in equal amount. That way people would have the resources needed to make changes over coming years. 

When they buy a new vehicle, they buy one that's more efficient, they insulate their homes, they make choices. And it would provide the incentive for the business community, for entrepreneurs to develop low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources and products that are more energy efficient. And would stimulate our economy and make us much more competitive on international trading by making us leaders in clean energies. That is finally beginning to be recognized. 

You may have noticed in the past two weeks, there was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, a conservative newspaper, by George Shultz and Gary Becker, which advocated exactly what I just described. The carbon fee with 100 percent of the money distributed to the public. So it does not make the government any bigger and it allows the market to determine what are the most efficient ways to move to a clean energy future. Yesterday, the Washington Post, which is a liberal newspaper, had an editorial saying essentially the same thing, they were pointing out that the European cap and trade system has collapsed and is completely ineffectual. That's what we've been saying for the last few years that cap and trade with offsets is a hokey system, which has no hopes of solving the climate problem. We need a simple honest approach, which makes fossil fuels pay their true cost to society and which stimulates the development of clean energy alternatives. 

Unless you make fossil fuels pay their true costs, people will just keep burning them. The [Obama] administration's approach is, “Well, let's reduce coal use and make vehicles more efficient.” Those things will reduce U.S. carbon emissions, but they won't solve the problem because they reduce the demand for fossil fuels which makes them cheaper and somebody else will burn them. 

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