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Hansen Offers Options for Addressing Global Warming


Speaking at the American University in Washington, D.C. on Monday, renowned U.S. climate scientist James Hansen offered a series of recommendations to stave off the most dangerous effects of climate change. The “worst-case� consequences of global warming, including disintegration of the Earth’s polar ice sheets and the extinction of many animal and plant species, could be avoided by taking five key steps to limit the increase in global temperature to less than 1 degree Celsius, Hansen said.

Hansen’s suggestions included scientific, economic, and political approaches to fighting global warming, among them placing a moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants until technologies for carbon capture and sequestration are further developed, likely within the next 5–10 years. This is a reasonable proposal, according to Hansen, since in the future companies are “probably going to bulldoze power plants� that contribute to the growing climate crisis.

Hansen’s second suggestion was to implement a gradually increasing carbon tax that could be used to fund investments in clean technology. Unlike wildly fluctuating gasoline prices, he said, a predictable, steady carbon tax would not be detrimental to the U.S. economy. And new technological investments would promote innovation and efficiency while also creating high-tech, high-paying jobs.

A third step—increased energy efficiency—is the most imperative and easiest challenge for both Congress and the public to take on, Hansen noted. Technology already exists to make buildings and vehicles significantly more efficient, he explained, and implementing these technologies more broadly is a key factor in reducing carbon dioxide emissions quickly. As a fourth measure, Hansen said the U.S. National Academy of Sciences should assemble the best scientists to execute a study on the stability of ice sheets, a serious issue that remains under-researched.

Finally, Hansen noted the important role the U.S. public can play in helping to “address threats to American democracy.� People have a right to know the truth about climate change, he said, and effective campaign finance reform is needed for this end. “As long as politicians are getting support from special interests, then special interests are going to have special privileges,� he observed.

To read more from James Hansen himself, click here.

Alana Herro writes for Eye on Earth (e²), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e² provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.

[Image courtesy of American University, photo by Jeff Watts]

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Hansen is correct that a predictable, steady carbon tax would not be detrimental to the U.S. economy. Because a carbon tax provides a certain price signal, preferably increasing at a steady rate, business and individual consumers will be able to make rational financial decisions to reduce their carbon emissions through increased efficiency or use of lower-carbon energy. This contrasts with the frequently discussed alternative, a cap-and-trade system, which will lead to volatile prices as the cost of carbon allowances fluctuates with changes in demand for energy caused by unpredictable weather and economic growth.

Is a carbon tax politically viable? Yes, if it is revenue neutral and combined with progressive tax-shifting with the revenues used to reduce payroll taxes or the revenues are simply rebated to all Americans using a mechanism similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund. For more details, see the Carbon Tax Center's website at

Posted by: Dan on 4 Mar 07

The action which would have the most immdiate effect on reducing emissions would be do do what we did in the 1970s, establish a 55 mph speed limit for autos and trucks. Recent experiemce has shown that gigh gas prices which a carbon tax would produce, do very little to reduce auto usage.

Posted by: John J Burton on 4 Mar 07

why not incorporate the good stuff from the personal carbon allowances idea in the tax system? if every citizen were entitled to a payment equal to the taxes they would have paid on carbon up to and including the current cap(s), regardless of whether or not they used that carbon, that'd get really close to a market system. then you could really hit the caps hard knowing that people weren't being punished for living but for living BEYOND.

then you know, as the cap drops, lower the refund. then you could make it an annual thing: here's your refund check, and here's how we're doing with our effort to get the numbers down. that'd be good. simper, too, than giving people a credit card.

Posted by: hibiscus on 4 Mar 07


also, you know what? that doesn't have to be a check. it could be deposited to a carbon-reduction bank? over the course of the year. like in a checking account. then you'd get a statement at the end, in the flurry of tax documents.

Posted by: hibiscus on 4 Mar 07

I'll see Hansen's first suggestion, and raise him one. As I blogged last Monday, reflecting on the proposed TXU buyout:

I've been thinking a lot about coal lately, musing about the financial strategies that would enable shutting down and writing off the entire industry. Why not buy out owners, employees and communities -- and take the financial hit now, rather than over a century or two of continued subsidies and escalating environmental and climate damage. It seemed like a pipe dream, or at least a dream that needed a lot of details worked out. It may be that events will move faster than I ever imagined.

Corporations can "write down" non-performing assets. Let's write down the industry. Even if we taxpayers have to pay part of the cost. It's better than continuing to subsidize an industry with such serious impacts.

(Any financial mavens or institutions interested in talking with me about how to do it?)

PS to John J Burton: Let's not regulate speed if what we're after is emissions; a) indirect regs are not as effective; b) they can thwart needed innovation.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 4 Mar 07

Hanson is actually endorsing a watered down version of the policies recommended by a 1983 EPA (Reagan) publication entitled "Can we Delay a Greenhouse Warming?". It called for the abolishment of the use of coal and a 300% charge on carbon emissions.

After 24 years, we are finally catching up to these orginal honest assessments of the EPA before the vested interests joined the so called scientific debate.

Over these many years, Hanson has truly demonstrated courage and stamina since he first testified to Congress in the late 80s.

He's a hero in my book.

Posted by: oZ on 5 Mar 07

I am not sure that Mr. Hansen isn't crying that the sky is falling. He has said that calamity is a worse case situation. Why should we spend billions or trillions of dollars when we cannot even accurately predict the true cause of global warming, if it is even occurring?

Posted by: Sean on 5 Mar 07

sun spots? or alien black helicopters? what do YOU think is warming the earth? then: did someone THROW that apple at newton? still a hot topic.

Posted by: hibiscus on 5 Mar 07

The article mentioned 5 key ideas from Hanson, but I'm only seeing 4 listed - what's the mystery 5th idea?

Posted by: JG on 6 Mar 07

This reminds me catching up a train already left hours ago. All and every action plan to reverse the giant clock running faster and faster every minute (progressive) must be immediately changed to massive survival plans. PLAYING god of earths nature again? Taxes? Long term discussions on tax? The US refused permanently to enter into the large international environment agreements and got no expertise on anything related to environment although its scientist warning since the 60s already. Stop all energy sources today and you wont reverse a far more complex process initiated decades ago. The ice IS melting, world regions ARE reporting triple of temprature, storms and rain falls, islands around ALASKA are under red alert, 80 species disapeared, ozon holes grew 4000%, so what are you are talking about in the theory of a distant place not hitted yet but tomorrow for sure! Our responsability asks for saving lives, water, agricultural alternatives NOW and not letting the population in the dark of such nonsens.
Authorities are usually cowards in admitting desasters to come. Everybody knows. So please read yourself the january boletin of the EU environment agency and doble its predictions and warnings by 2 to 4 times. Panic and lots of deads are to be avoided by acting now and not talking anymore.

Posted by: Horst Ludwig on 6 Mar 07

my comment is not ment to reduce or judge Mr.Hansens thoughts but he didnt improve a lot since the early 80s and on top of it early 80s efforts are nothingelse as a recycled issue spoken and written 20 years before already. funny that these kind of discussion and proposals are in the EU community alive since many years and plenty of laws made industrial germany to the cleanest place on earth already. and this got nothing to do with capital but with responsable citizens not allowing politics to screw around feeded by special interests. another thing is warning the public. if the public only reacts by marketing and the yell of capital interests better to close down this place because this attitude is responsable for exploiting the world with greed, hunger and selfish behaviour.
the US is one of the big polutors of the world and only China is worse at this specific moment. and thats all what will be left if the US folks dont stand up and close down the hollywood circus called white house and all those "I do all for money" people ruling this country. they all knew since the 60s including the Bush industries.
Point is that the train left hours ago, action is needed!

Posted by: Horst Ludwig on 6 Mar 07

An even simpler way of implementing Hibiscus' idea (for domestic power/gas use anyway) is to graduate sales tax/VAT by amount of energy used. So, up to a certain amount (say, 3000kWh/year), the tax is zero, on the next 3000kWh you pay 20%, the next 3000kWh 40%, and so on (numbers used for illustration only - exact levels would need careful calculation). That way you don't penalise poorer people who tend to use small amounts of energy in their homes, while providing a powerful incentive to those using more to reduce their use due to the high incremental cost. I see no reason why this cannot be implemented immediately, since all it requires is a small investment in billing system software. It's clearly fair as the more you use, the more you pay. The principle would be more difficult to apply to vehicle fuel use, but surely it's not beyond the wit of humans to devise a way of having an 'allowance' that is untaxed followed by steeper and steeper rates the more you use - ideas anyone?

Posted by: Doctor Edge on 7 Mar 07


Posted by: shyuzn on 24 Mar 07



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