Until last year, James Hansen ran the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA. In that role, he issued some of the earliest warnings about the risks of climate change.
Hansen was in Eugene this past weekend to give a keynote speech at the Environmental Law Conference. Before the speech, Hansen sat down with EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita to talk about his new life as a public speaker and climate scientist at Columbia University.
Q: Dr. Hansen, it's been almost a year since you left NASA. How has your work changed?
A: Well, it's become ... I have more things to do, but I have less administrative things to do so I can do more of what I really want to do, and that's to try to to help address the climate issue and the fact that we have to make changes in our energy systems for the sake of young people and future generations because otherwise we're headed off a cliff.
Q: You've been warning people about the effects of climate change for decades. What are your biggest concerns today?
A: Well, the biggest concerns are with irreversible effects. We're putting a lot of pressure on different species, and when we combine that with climate change and rapidly shifting climate zones it has the potential to drive a large fraction of the species on the planet to extinction.
Q: The other thing that's getting close to a reality is the disintegration of ice sheets at a rate that would raise sea level substantially by meters, and that would mean that coastal cities all around the world would practically be lost.
A: But there are also practical things you can begin to see happening now. Just recently big floods in the United Kingdom and extreme fires and record temperatures in Australia, and the changes in the United States, a very extreme drought in California – yeah, it's beginning to have some effect and we need to use this as an opportunity now to explain what is needed in order to slow down the climate change and eventually stabilize it.
Q: And what is needed?
A: What is needed is to make the fossil fuels pay their cost to society. Right now they're able to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground free of charge. So what we need to do is add a fee to fossil fuels. Which we would collect at the domestic mine or the port of entry. It would just be a flat fee across oil, gas and coal, and the money should be distributed to the public.
Q: How much support do you find for that kind of solution?
A: You know there's a lot of support for that solution as soon as people hear about it and understand it. Because conservatives realize this is actually the way conservatives think: Let the market make the choices. Don't let the Democrats tell us we need to have a solar panel on our house or whatever. Let the market give us that incentive.
Q: What's standing in the way of that kind of solution being implemented?
A: It's the understanding. We need to have responsible people in the positions in Washington and the other governments but so far our governments tend to be well-oiled and coal-fired and they are very often responding to their lobbyists more than they are to the public needs.
Q: You worked for NASA through multiple administrations. What do you think of President Obama's leadership on climate change?
A: Well, I'm disappointed because he says that we have a planet in peril, and he is taking steps to do very useful things like increase vehicle efficiency and try to phase out coal-fired power plants, but what we really need is this carbon fee.
Q: In the Northwest we've seen numerous proposals involving fossil fuels including coal export proposals and crude oil traveling by the railroads. What's your perspective on those kinds of projects?
A: I'm enormously impressed by the bravery of the people in the Northwest in trying to stop the transport of these fuels because it's crazy that the United States, after burning its fair share of fossil fuels is now trying to make money by spreading this stuff to other places. It's like addicting people to smoking or something. It's not morally defensible.