Paris, December 3, 2015
Somewhere, deep in college-time memory, I recall a few Greek tragedies from my obligate and wonderful humanities courses. On the way to destruction, the hero’s hubris blinds him from heeding the sage advice of a soothsayer, usually a wizened old man who pops up from behind a rock or tree on the hero’s path. (I may be conflating these with equally dark recollections with from Shakespeare, but no matter.)
The rest is history, or rather, tragedy. Today is our heroic moment of choice between hubris or humility, truth or consequences. The prescient man is speaking. Will we — that is, our leaders and organizations gathered to decide the fate of the earth — finally heed him.
Jim Hansen isn’t wizened. In fact, at 74 he’s spry and sporty, but he’s our modern soothsayer and civilization the victim of its own hubris — the misguided belief that we are so special, so entitled and important that Earth’s climate system will tolerate our spewing garbage into it and not just spit us out and kick us off this lovely island — for cause.
On the second evening of COP21, Dr. Hansen spoke to a packed room at Place 2 B, a lively hostel near the bustling Gard du Nord with a basement meeting space and bar, more likely a music and dance venue than a lecture hall where a mainly youthful crowd gathered to hear about the end of the world as we know it, described in sober detail by one man who knows its mechanism well — the man who began is career studying Venus, our evening star, our Goddess of Love — that hellhole where lead melts because of its runaway greenhouse effect.
Dr. Hansen opened a bit apologetically, saying he hadn’t been expecting to give a talk, so he cued up the slides he’d prepared for his official UN news conference the following day. But for this event he changed the opening slide: from “Climate Justice and Governmental Honesty” to “Climate (IN)Justice and Governmental (DIS)Honesty. We knew we were about to experience a serious teach-in by someone who has nothing to lose after shedding his government-issued handcuffs. In that warm, slightly fetid room I felt 20 again, only this time it wasn’t Vietnam. (There will be no deferments or conscientious objectors this time. We’re all on the front lines.)
Those who know Dr. Hansen also know that he’s a shy, polite, mild-mannered, somewhat reticent mid-western scientist not prone to hyperbole. But that night he minced no words while maintaining that understated style, sharply critical of all parties who have delayed climate action, including President Obama and predecessors, Congress, the UN, “Big Green” and, of course, the fossil fuel industry. You can watch it all here (in 3 parts.)
“Our parents didn’t know they were causing climate change, but we have to pretend not to know.”
It’s cumulative emissions that cause climate change, and the US, UK and Germany are responsible for 50% of them. Developing countries have just as much right to develop as we have had. We’ve burned their share. The per capita emissions of Indians barely register against the total.
Since the atmosphere is thin and has a low heat capacity, we’ve felt only half of the global warming impact already incurred. The rest lurks in the oceans. The maximum temperatures of the Holocene (the age civilization has known) have already been exceeded. The current forcing of 0.6 watts per square meter means that CO2 must be reduced to 350 ppm. We can’t burn all the fossil fuels — only a small fraction before we get off of them completely. Fracking for oil equals doom.
Fossil fuels are not really the cheapest energy source, which is why we need a fee on them. You can’t solve this problem with 190 individual country goals–and no enforcement– because it’s about total cumulative emissions (and CO2 stays up there for millennia.) That’s why we need a global approach — a global fee.
Individual nations’ caps are ineffective because as one nation uses less fossil fuel, the price will decline and another nation will burn them. If just a few major players do fee and dividend with border duties, the rest will follow.
The climate system has been pushed too far, and within a decade there will be hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing coasts and broiling equatorial areas. Yet the executive secretary of the UNFCCC said, when announcing that carbon pricing would not be on the agenda for this conference, “Life is too complicated.”
Dr. Hansen described his own skepticism about his personal scientific work and thus has little patience with politicians, business leaders and even environmentalists who still don’t seem skeptical of their own positions, who don’t seem to understand that we are out of time and need a global price on carbon NOW. In his shy and gentle style, he gave it to us straight, warming up for the next day’s journey into the official Blue Zone.
Beware: hubris wears many masks but eventually manifests. We ignore ours at our deepest peril.
But Dr. Hansen gave us some really good news, too! Skeptical of his own calculations since writing Storms of My Grandchildren, he no longer believes that the Earth can cook like Venus because it’s not close enough to the sun to fry all the carbon out of the earth’s crust. What a relief!
Pray that Jim’s presence here, and that of his outstanding scientific colleagues can bend the arc of these discussions towards accomplishing what needs to be done: world wide carbon pricing through a revenue neutral carbon fee, dividend and duty. And if the UN can’t, let them admit that they can’t, rather than offer faux solutions, false hopes and smiley faces. This is no time for egos, vested interests, turf battles and institutional inertia. Let the UN process call for help from the major emitting countries who have caused most of the problem and demand they first fix their own economies while there’s still time, then help those least responsible but most at risk to obtain the technology to save them both. There’s not enough time to wait for all the countries of the world to come to consensus when it seems that the only thing they can agree on is that they would like to agree, but can’t, on how to fix a problem everyone knows is about to unite all nations in doom. “Don’t worry, be happy” just doesn’t cut it.
After being mobbed like a rock star, Jim was extracted into the cool, fresh Paris evening air, a city seemingly alive and well despite its fresh sorrows. The cafes are full, and winter has yet to come.
Peter Joseph, MD.