James Hansen is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Since 1988, he has warned about the threats of heat-trapping emissions, including carbon dioxide, that result from burning fossil fuels. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he received the Heinz Environment Award in 2001 for his climate research. In 2006, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Question: Will the cap-and-trade proposal curb emissions?
James Hansen: Yeah. You know, Obama is still perhaps our best hope, but he's going to have to study this problem and understand it. Presently, his approach is to let Congress debate it and make their horse trading, and end up with some sort of compromises with the polluters. And then we end up with this cap-and-trade and offsets, and a completely ineffective system. But this situation, in which we can see what we are doing to future climate and what the implications will be for young people -- we're in danger of sending them into a situation where dynamical system will be out of their control. But this -- the intergenerational injustice of that is -- this problem is analogous to that faced by Abraham Lincoln with slavery, or Winston Churchill with Nazism. It's not a problem where you can compromise. Lincoln couldn't say, well, let's reduce the slaves by 50 percent. You can't compromise on this; we have to phase out the carbon dioxide emission over the next several decades. And frankly, that means phasing out coal emissions. And this cap-and-trade system doesn’t do it at all.
Question: Why do you feel many politicians support the bill?
James Hansen: Well, they are -- they're taking the easy way out. They're allowing the polluters to write the bill. The Waxman-Markey bill in the House is 2,000 pages long. Do you think that Representative Waxman wrote this? No, this is written by the polluters; and even by environmentalists -- there are good points in those bills also. It's filled with the polluters' point of view and some environmental things to increase solar power, for example. But that's not going to solve the problem. It's just like the old Kyoto Protocol approach. They have to face the fundamental issue: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, then they are going to be burned, and their use will continue to increase. You have to face it. That's what the lawmakers are not facing, and that's what President Obama has got to understand. So the only way you can address that is by putting a rising price on the carbon emissions. Then the alternatives -- the renewable energies, energy efficiency, nuclear power, anything that doesn't produce carbon -- will compete more effectively, and those which are most effective will begin to win economically.
Question: Do you feel anybody in Washington sees this?
James Hansen: Yes, there are people in Washington who get it. There is one bill that was introduce in the House which had a gradually increasing carbon price. The Democratic Party -- it was introduced by a Democrat, and I'm sorry I can't think of his name of the moment -- but it was conveniently ignored by the Democratic Party. We've got to have an open discussion of this. I think the public is not excited about this issue the way they were about health care. But we need to have that kind of an open discussion so that we see what the alternatives are, because this approach that is being pushed by the Democratic Party is a disaster.
Despite its significant downsides, nuclear energy is still absolutely vital for America's (and the planet's) future. This will become all the more true when cleaner fourth generation reactors become available.