An American Climate Scientist in Paris

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Originally published on Citizen’s Climate Lobby.
By Peter Joseph

Somewhere, deep in college-time memory, I recall a few Greek tragedies from my obligate and wonderful humanities courses. On the way to destruction, the hero’s hubris blinds him from heeding the sage advice of a soothsayer, usually a wizened old man who pops up from behind a rock or tree on the hero’s path. (I may be conflating these with equally dim, dark recollections from Shakespeare, but no matter.) The rest is history, or rather, tragedy. Today is our heroic moment of choice between hubris or humility, truth or consequences. The prescient man is speaking. Will we — that is, our leaders and organizations gathered to decide the fate of the earth — finally heed him?

James Hansen ( Hansen isn’t wizened. In fact, at 74 he’s spry and sporty, but he’s our modern soothsayer and civilization the victim of its own hubris — the misguided belief that we are so special, so entitled and important that Earth’s climate system will tolerate our spewing garbage into it and not just spit us out and kick us off this lovely island.

On the second evening of COP21, Dr. Hansen spoke to a packed room at Place 2 B, a lively hostel near the bustling Gard du Nord with a basement meeting space and bar, more likely a music and dance venue than a lecture hall where a mainly youthful crowd gathered to hear about the end of the world as we know it. He opened a bit apologetically, saying he hadn’t been expecting to give a talk, so he cued up the slides he’d prepared for his official UN news conference the following day. But for this event he changed the opening slide: from “Climate Justice and Governmental Honesty” to  “Climate (IN)Justice and Governmental (DIS)Honesty.

Those who know Dr. Hansen also know that he’s a shy, polite, mild-mannered, somewhat reticent mid-western scientist, not prone to hyperbole. But that night he minced no words while maintaining that understated style, sharply critical of all parties who have delayed climate action, including President Obama and predecessors, Congress, the UN, “Big Green” and, of course, the fossil fuel industry. You can watch it all here (in 3 parts.)

Some pearls:  

Our parents didn’t know they were causing climate change, but we have to pretend not to know. It’s cumulative emissions that cause climate change, and the US, UK and Germany are responsible for 50% of them. Developing countries have just as much right to develop as we have had. We’ve burned their share. The per capita emissions of Indians barely register against the total.

Since the atmosphere is thin and has a low heat capacity, we’ve felt only half of the global warming impact already incurred. The rest lurks in the oceans. The maximum temperatures of the Holocene (the age civilization has known) have already been exceeded. The current forcing of 0.6 watts per square meter means that CO2 must be reduced to 350 ppm. We can’t burn all the fossil fuels — only a small fraction before we get off of them completely. Fracking for oil equals doom.

Fossil fuels are not really the cheapest energy source, which is why we need a fee on them. You can’t solve this problem with 190 individual country goals and no enforcement because it’s about total cumulative emissions (and CO2 stays up there for millennia.) That’s why we need a global approach — a global fee. Individual nations’ caps are ineffective because as one nation uses less fossil fuel, the price will decline and another nation will burn them. If just a few major players do fee and dividend with border duties, the rest will follow.

Dr. Hansen gave us some really good news, too! Skeptical of his own calculations since writing Storms of My Grandchildren, he no longer believes that the Earth can cook like Venus because it’s not close enough to the sun to fry all the carbon out of the earth’s crust. What a relief!

Pray that Jim’s presence here, and that of his outstanding scientific colleagues can bend the arc of these discussions towards accomplishing what needs to be done: world wide carbon pricing through a revenue neutral carbon fee, dividend and duty. And if the UN can’t, let them admit that they can’t, rather than offer faux solutions, false hopes and smiley faces. Let the UN process call for help from the major emitting countries who have caused most of the problem and demand they first fix their own economies while there’s still time, then help those least responsible but most at risk to obtain the technology to save them both.

After being mobbed like a rock star, Jim was extracted into the cool, fresh Paris evening air, a city seemingly alive and well despite its fresh sorrows. The cafes are full, and winter has yet to come.

See Jim’s latest posts here and here.

Peter Joseph is the group leader for the Marin County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Reprinted with permission.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book

Holiday Wish Book Cover

Click to download.

Our Latest EVObsession Video

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Guest Contributor

We publish a number of guest posts from experts in a large variety of fields. This is our contributor account for those special people, organizations, agencies, and companies.

Guest Contributor has 4312 posts and counting. See all posts by Guest Contributor

One thought on “An American Climate Scientist in Paris

  • Jim Hansen is a great man, and we all owe him a huge debt for his insights and courage in stating the inconvenient truth: our modern Galileo. But that does not mean he has much political sense. Look: for 20 years after the nations of the world committed themselves in the 1992 Rio Convention to avoid harmful global warming, the top-down approach comprehensively failed. Since this was scrapped (key date Warsaw 2013 IIRC) for the second-best, bottom-up, “coalition of the willing” approach we see today, there has been dramatic progress and the likelihood of a global deal. It will not include the first-best carbon tax, though it naturally allows (and may encourage) it as a national policy. It will be incremental: the agreement will explicitly not be the last word, and will include a mechanism for regular national and joint reviews and intensification. There will be a lot of pressure in 2020 to improve the targets. And it is likely (it was in Hollande’s speech, and France is in the chair) that the 1.5 deg C or 350 ppm first-best target will get a mention as an aspiration – creating a wedge for serious negotiations down the road.

    Robert Watson-Watt was another fine scientist, in Hansen’s class. But he knew in 1930’s Britain how to work with politicians and airmen on the development of radar for air defence: “second best tomorrow”. Without him, we could be living in a “Man in the High Castle” world.

Comments are closed.