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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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The only way to solve the problem is to put an honest price on the fossil fuels. And it's going to need to be international. So the United States and China are going to have to get together and agree on the fact that they both will need to put a gradually rising price on carbon emissions. And I feel that's a doable thing because China knows that they will suffer from climate change more than most places. They have their 50 million people that are living near sea level. They have tremendous pollution, air and water pollution from fossil fuels. So they have a strong incentive for wanting to deal with this problem. 

And to have a bilateral agreement between China and the U.S. is a practical solution. While trying to get 190 nations to agree with the Kyoto protocol type approach is hopeless as we've seen from the negotiations that have occurred over the last 20 years. That's kind of a truth telling, which we have to have. Otherwise, we just continue down this line where we pretend that the UN is going to solve the problem eventually and they're not doing anything to help. 

TL: If governments can't move fast enough, and so far our government especially has not moved much at all, what's our plan B?

JH: It's interesting, I was at a meeting of some of the 20 top scientists in the country just a few weeks ago and they're already at the point of saying, “Well, we have to do geoengineering.” So they keep thinking of finding ways to suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere, well it will be incredibly expensive and we will be leaving that job for young people. It's not clear that it will work, it's not clear that it will be practical. It will be so expensive that it will make no sense. 

We really need to have a plan A, plan B just is frightening. That's why I think it's really important that the U.S. and China start talking to each other about this. And you know, there actually was a meeting within the last two weeks between Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese counterparts. One of the outcomes is that they will have some continuing talks between the two nations on the climate issue. And that is probably the most promising avenue for a plan A. 

TL: I remember probably about five years or so ago everyone was talking about peak oil and then we had this resurgence of fossil fuels with the tar sands and fracking. Is the use of more unconventional sources more of a sign that we are in fact running out of the cheap and easy stuff and that we are running toward peak oil or does that mean the predictions of peak oil were actually off? 

JH: Well, it's a sign that governments don't get it. That they think we just continue to go after every fossil fuel we can find including those that are very hard to get at, it takes a lot of energy to extract them and they're particularly dirty and cause other environmental problems as well as climate change. They don't get it, we can't exploit the unconventional fossil fuels without guaranteeing that our children and grandchildren will have problems that are out of their control. That's the message that has to get through. 

I'm hoping that the Obama administration is beginning to understand this and that they will reject the Keystone Pipeline. That's becoming more likely than pundits have been suggesting because it is just crazy to approve that pipeline. It would guarantee that we do exploit a significant fraction of those tar sands. Whatever we extract out of there and put into the atmosphere we're going to have to take back out somehow and it's going to be very expensive and may be impossible. If it's impossible then our children will suffer the consequences. 

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