POLICY: Hansen hopes lawmakers' cap-and-trade approach to climate will fail (05/04/2009)
Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter
NEW YORK –NASA's leading climate scientist says he hopes that climate legislation proposed by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.) and Edward Markey (Mass.) to introduce carbon emissions trading to the United States fails. He says lawmakers should abandon cap-and-trade initiatives altogether and implement a simple carbon tax instead.
James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a vocal advocate for action on global warming, told an audience at a conference hosted by Columbia University climate policy students that cap and trade is a scheme devised by Wall Street that will do nothing to alleviate the global warming problem.
"Trading of rights to pollute … introduces speculation and makes millionaires on Wall Street," Hansen said in his keynote lecture at Columbia University's 350 Climate Conference held here Saturday. "I hope cap and trade doesn't pass, because we need a much more effective approach."
Hansen also stands opposed to so-called "cap and dividend" proposals that would introduce pollution trading and a near full auctioning of emissions, with proceeds from the auctions going back to the public. Instead, Hansen proposed a "tax and dividend" approach to tax fossil fuels at the point where they are extracted from the ground, to set a firm price on carbon. Proceeds from the tax, rather than from the auctioning of allowances, would then be distributed to consumers.
"It could be implemented in one year, as opposed to decades with cap and trade," he said. "The bureaucracy is very simple."
Public remains apathetic about climate
Hansen also said climate activists need to be more vocal and strategic in getting the public to lobby harder for action to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. He pointed to recent public opinion polls showing that among Americans' concerns, climate change ranks nearly last in the order of priority, well behind the economy and the United States' dependence on foreign oil.
"It's hard for people to realize that we have a crisis, because you don't see much happening," he said. "If people understood the implications for their children and grandchildren, they would care."
Hansen also urged conference participants to press the United States to negotiate a robust international agreement by the final negotiating round of U.N. climate change talks this year at Copenhagen. He said the new agreement has to be much more far reaching than the Kyoto Protocol, which he deems to have been entirely ineffective, and the Copenhagen talks should emphasize action by the United States and China.
The Kyoto Protocol "didn't do anything to global emissions," said Hansen. "We need real action, not just another Kyoto Protocol."
But ultimately, an effective response to climate change will require a variety of actions, he argued. That includes a new, much stronger international agreement, action by U.S. lawmakers to finally put a price on carbon through a tax, and new policies designed to ultimately phase out fossil fuel consumption.
"We're going to have to make the decision to leave coal in the ground" or burn it only at power plants utilizing carbon capture and sequestration technology, Hansen said. "Perhaps the best chance is in the courts," he added.
Speaking before Hansen's attack on cap-and-trade legislation, Mark Crane, director of Columbia University's graduate degree program in climate and society, suggested that climate activists start adopting more strategic language to get the public more engaged in the issue.
The term "climate change" is better than "global warming," he said, but Crane suggested "deteriorating atmosphere" as a much more visual term to employ. If "cap and trade" does move forward in Congress, proponents should consider calling it a "pollution reduction refund" to gain public acceptance, he said.