Hansen hopes lawmakers’ cap-and-trade approach to climate will fail

James Hansen came out today saying today that he hopes Waxman-Markey hansenfails and that the U.S. government abandons cap and trade.

Very bold.

POLICY: Hansen hopes lawmakers’ cap-and-trade approach to climate will fail


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.

12 Responses to “Hansen hopes lawmakers’ cap-and-trade approach to climate will fail”

  1. 1 CTF May 5th, 2009 at 8:56 am

    As usual, James Hansen is right on the money.

  2. 2 Matt Maiorana May 5th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    See the link below for an in-depth rebuttal of this position by Joseph Romm. Interesting debate. I tend to fall on Romm’s side of the argument – we currently face some very real political realities. I’m all for making bold statements and pushing the envelope, but there has to be a meaningful strategy behind it. I don’t see the benefits of calling for a carbon tax given what’s currently happening in Congress.


  3. 3 Matt Leonard May 5th, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    But we also face some very real climate realities. How far are we willing to go in accepting political compromises, and as Romm put it – following “the Golden Rule” (those have have the gold write the rules) before we simply say enough is enough?

    Carbon trading has a disastrous track record and has served to further delay emissions reductions while giving the worst polluters windfall profits. The ACES bill gets worse and worse day by day as industry interests carve out more giveaways, loopholes, and caveats to drift the bill further and further away from science-based climate targets.

    While I don’t agree with everything Hansen says – I do applaud him for sticking to the realities of science, and not accepting the compromises of politics. Political realities are only real if we allow them to be. And there is simply no argument – that we need a massive paradigm shift in our political thinking and structures if we are to create a sustainable and just world. That’s the reality.

  4. 4 Nick Engelfried May 5th, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I must admit that I am growing more and more wary of cap-and-trade the more I learn about it. Perhaps an optimally-designed cap-and-trade system could eliminate the loopholes that will allow corporations to make a profit through carbon trading. But our chances of passing a comprehensive cap-and-trade policy without it being considerably watered down are virtually zero – the “optimal plan” is not what we’re going to get. In Oregon, despite large Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, a governor committed to climate issues, and our reputation as a leader in all things green, we just witnessed a state-level cap-and-trade program go down in flames – illustrating the political difficulty of passing such a policy in the current political climate.

    Yet a carbon tax is even more certain to fail. For environmentalists to put all (or even many) of their eggs in the carbon tax basket would be, I believe, nothing short of disastrous. Not because a tax on carbon is a bad idea, but because there is virtually no realistic chance of such a proposal making it through Congress. We can talk about escalating our movement, new ways of getting our message across, all of that – but a carbon tax is just not going to fly anytime soon.

    Instead of these proposals that use the market, in one way or another, to cut emissions, what about simply pushing for a moratorium on the most destructive fossil fuel projects, along with massive clean energy and energy efficiency programs? I believe a climate package which includes a moratorium on new coal plants and tar sands development, a plan to phase out the current fleet of coal plants over a couple decades, ambitious new fuel economy standards, and huge investments in renewable energy, efficiency, and public transportation is our best hope at this point. The public understands that coal plants are bad and renewable energy is good much more readily than they understand how a carbon tax could be implemented without imposing a burden on middle-class folks (I think it could be done, but that’s not the point – most people still don’t see it that way). Plus, projects like these can be more easily linked to other national priorities, such as reducing oil dependence and creating jobs in the green energy sector.

    If cap-and-trade is doomed to fail when it comes to actually reducing emissions, and a carbon tax is political suicide (which I believe it is), then our best hope may be a more old-fashioned “ban the bad stuff and encourage good behavior” approach. Thoughts?

  5. 5 Matt Maiorana May 6th, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Just to clarify, I’m behind Hansen 100% on the scientific realities we face and the massive problems with Waxman-Markey. The bill isn’t anywhere near where we need to be. He looses me, however, when he starts pushing for a carbon-tax. At this point, I think we need a combination of a cap-and-auction approach, along with a strong RES, CAFE standard, removal of oil subsidies, and executive action through the EPA endangerment finding. I would love to see a tax as well, but republicans would have a field day if that was seriously pushed.

  6. 6 Andrea May 11th, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Thank goodness someone is talking sense in Washington! Too bad it’s not our lawmakers. I agree wholeheartedly with Hansen on this issue. It’s time we implemented a simple carbon tax, instead of allowing loopholes so companies can trade pollution credits. How does that help our environment, anyway? It just spreads more muck and misery around, it doesn’t encourage companies to clean up their act. Quite the opposite. Instead it encourages a system where companies can avoid paying penalties for polluting.

    We need to address environmental concerns, of course, and that’s taking into consideration the fact that man’s Herculean efforts to reduce climate change, even if strictly enforced, will, at best, only make a tiny dent in air quality, while at the same time taking a huge chunk out of our nation’s economy. So is it worth it? I can sympathize with people who say no.

    The fact is that any action we take can only help, but we must be careful to not completely dismantle our energy infrastructure, putting millions out of work, until we have a better infrastructure in place with the jobs to support it. In the meantime we should be setting standards and enforcing them, not letting people trade places to avoid penalties.

    Job losses and economic impacts aside though, the trade portion of cap-and-trade is counterproductive, and it won’t work here any better than it’s worked in Europe, where air quality and emissions are worse than here in America.

    It’s time we took the trade out of cap and trade. Period.

  1. 1 Hansen: cap-and-trade approach to climate will fail … « Christopher A. Haase Trackback on May 5th, 2009 at 11:22 am
  2. 2 Agree to Disagree: Cap-and-Trade vs. Carbon Tax? | EcoSilly Trackback on May 5th, 2009 at 1:01 pm
  3. 3 Memo to James Hansen: Your opposition to Waxman-Markey is ill-conceived and unhelpful. There isn’t going to be a carbon tax nor should there be. Get over it and move on. | Climate Vine Trackback on May 5th, 2009 at 6:10 pm
  4. 4 Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy » Cool Green Morning: Wednesday, May 6 Trackback on May 6th, 2009 at 9:05 am
  5. 5 This is a new post « Steve Kirsch's Blog Trackback on Nov 8th, 2009 at 6:02 pm
  6. 6 Why Hansen is Right: Cap-and-trade will Make the Climate Problem Worse, Not Better « Steve Kirsch's Blog Trackback on Nov 8th, 2009 at 6:06 pm
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Scott Parkin is a Senior Campaigner with Rainforest Action Network and organizes with Rising Tide North America. He has worked on a variety of campaigns around climate change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mountaintop removal, labor issues and anti-corporate globalization. Originally from Texas, he now lives in San Francisco.

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