Long before it was fashionable, NASA scientist James Hansen was raising a ruckus over the link between fossil fuels, greenhouse gases and global warming. Under the Reagan administration in 1981, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled the plug on his funding after he and several colleagues wrote a paper for the journal Science predicting the world would get warmer throughout the 1980s and sea ice would be melting by the 21st century.
The 21st century is here: The world is warming, sea ice is melting, and Hansen is still taking the heat for his outspokenness. As director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in 2006, Hansen said the Bush administration tried to hush him up over his views on global warming. That attempt at muzzling failed. In March, he testified before a congressional subcommittee about political interference in government climate change science.
In August, Hansen wrote a letter to the N.C. Department of Air Quality opposing Duke Energy's new, 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant slated for construction near Charlotte: "[I]t has become clear that in order to avoid creating a different planet with disastrous consequences for humanity and other species, over the next few decades we will need to 'bulldoze' old-style power plants that do not capture and store carbon dioxide."
And in October, he testified before the Iowa Utilities Board against a proposed new coal-fired power plant in that state, arguing that carbon dioxide emissions from these facilities are contributing to climate change.
Hansen recently spoke in Chapel Hill, where he called for a 10-year moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, the amount of time required to develop sequestration technology, which would bury, rather than emit, carbon emissions. "It's assumed it's a God-given fact we'll continue using fossil fuels. We can't do that without creating a different planet."
What has been the industry response to your call for a moratorium?
I got the e-mail addresses of every utility commissioner in every state. I put them on my e-mail list, since some of the discussion is directly relevant to coal-fired power plants. A few of them have asked to be removed, so I replace them with the next person in line. The mining association has asked me to cease and desist, pointing out that this would be detrimental to mining and railroad industries.
But the thing we need to do is get energy via efficiency and renewables, and create high-paying jobs in those industries that improve the economy.
What is the likelihood of a moratorium succeeding either on a state-by-state or federal level?
The truth is there is so much potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy that we could have a moratorium. Utilities should be allowed to profit from energy efficiency, and their profits shouldn't be proportionate to the amount of energy sold.
But the powerful energy lobby, particularly coal interests, would likely fight it.
The powers you mention subvert the democratic process, but we still have elections and we can make it an issue. The government is under too much influence by big business. We have to get young people involved and have them make it clear to their elders—to captains of industry and political leaders—that this is an important issue. Religious organizations should be involved. I've met with evangelical leaders and they're beginning to recognize the stewardship issues.
What specifically do you recommend?
Phase out coal plants except those that sequester their carbon dioxide, and that will require at least a decade until the technology is in place. The other thing is the carbon price. You can ration rights to emit, you can cap-and-trade, or there can be a carbon tax. There has to be a price on emissions. The external costs are borne by all.
How much should the tax be?
It doesn't have to be very large as long as it's understood it will be increasing. People have to recognize it's real.
How effective has the Kyoto Protocol been?
The Kyoto Protocol was relatively inefficient because the U.S. didn't join. It wasn't a global agreement. Although it wasn't effective, it still was useful in that if you look at emissions from the countries that signed on, there were small reductions, even if they didn't meet their goal.
What are the essential components for the next protocol?
The U.S. has to participate. Now it's not possible to deny global warming. [The protocol] will need to pay special attention to coal and address the price on carbon. It doesn't make sense to plan to exploit unconventional, inefficient fossil fuels, such as tar shale. The next agreement has to have a graduated, increasing tax on carbon to discourage the exploitation of the dirtiest fossil fuels.