James Hansen Is Optimistic On Global Warming (Because of China, Not Us)

  • Published on November 24th, 2010

Hansen just got back from China, and sees the Chinese as getting serious about doing something about global warming and climate change (unlike Washington, which looks to be stuck in gridlock for the next two years).

“I have the impression,” he says in a recent email, “that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles.  At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly.  The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient.  This is not to say that fossil fuel interests have no power within China, but they do not rule the roost.”

Before he goes all optimistic on us, he frames the problem in stark terms:

I must start with a fundamental law: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they will continue to be burned.  This law is as certain as the law of gravity.  No “caps”, “goals” for future emissions, or other self-deceptions can alter this fact.  Caps only alter who burns the fuel and the pace of burning – they will not leave fossil fuels in the ground, as science demands. Caps are also inherently disingenuous – a pretense that the price of fossil fuel energy does not need to steadily rise, an attempt to circumvent the “law of gravity”
Warping the market
Why are fossil fuels cheap? Because the free market doesn’t really operate on them.
  • Fossil fuels are cheapest in part because they are subsidized.
  • They also do not pay their costs to society.
  • Enormous world-wide medical costs due to air and water pollution, primarily caused by fossil fuels, are borne by the public, not fossil fuel companies.
  • Nor do they pay for environmental damage or the costs of climate change, which instead will be shouldered especially by our children and grandchildren.
  • And those are just the tip of the iceberg – there are a number of other costs involved.
So, he suggests, the only way to be able to deal with the reality of fossil fuels is by changing the price structure. Build the real costs into that pricing. Call it a tax or a fee or whatever, but it’s the only way to re-couple the energy-purchasing decisions made by individuals, companies, and governments to the real-world costs.
Hansen’s solution:
  • A  steadily rising carbon fee must be collected from fossil fuel companies.
  • All funds should go to  the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations.
  • As the fee rises, fossil fuels will become increasingly unprofitable and will be phased out,  replaced by carbon-free energy and increased energy efficiency.
“This,” Hansen says, “is the economicallyefficient path to a clean energy future – the cure to fossil fuel addiction.” And it’s also not “Cap and Trade”, which he calls “a system designed by big banks and fossil fuel interests that assures continued fossil fuel addiction”.
With Big Oil and Big Money dominating  Washington, it’s impossible at the moment for any real action to happen in the US. But the picture is different in China:
  • China will suffer more than most nations from changing climate and rising sea level
  • China has horrific air and water pollution from fossil fuels
  • China wants to avoid the enormous costs and burdens that accompany fossil fuel addiction
  • There is great economic advantage in having the leading low-carbon technologies
China vs the US
Here’s why he thinks China will act first. At the recent Beijing Forum,
Jiang Kejun laid out sector-by-sector projections of transitions to low-carbon and nocarbon energies and improved energy efficiency that would allow CO2 emission growth to be slowed and then reversed over the next few decades.  Technology development is supported,  and, when lower carbon technology becomes available, efficiency standards are promptly ratcheted downward.  Most encouragingly, there is recognition that this strategy requires a rising  carbon price for most successful results.  The Chinese authorities appear to grasp that rapid attainment of the tipping points at which clean energies quickly displace dirty energy requires an economic incentive.
And what of America?
My “A-Team” (student-teacher-researcher team) showed years ago (as did others)  that existing technology would allow a 30 percent vehicle efficiency improvement, saving $100 billion per year in imported oil costs.  Yet our automobile efficiency standards were stuck for decades.  I testified in court on the side of states trying to force better standards, e.g., Vermont vs. Auto Manufacturers, while our federal government stood in court alongside the polluters.
And that
We “won” the court case, yet appeals stretched the time of action for years.  I came away feeling  that not only is it nearly impossible to get effective legislation through Congress, but that the special interests can prevent implementation almost interminably.  Democracy of the sort intended in 1776 probably could have dealt with climate change, but not the fossil-money-‘democracy’ that now rules the roost in Washington.
So Hansen has basically given up on us. China and Europe will move forward, and we’ll play catchup – or not. If we don’t, we’ll “descend into second-rate and third-rate economic well-being.” But the rest of the world will be moving forward on global warming and climate change.
For more background on climate change and global warming:
  • Climate Change and Science – Cutting Through the Talking Points to the Truth
  • Uncool – Climate Skeptic’s Documentary Flops
  • “Cool It” Documentary: Lomborg talks Sense and Nonsense on Global Warming
  • Is The Opportunity To Reduce The Risk Of Climate Change Beneath Us As Americans?
  • Is Sea Level Rise Really a Big Deal?
  • (Image by MikeBehnken under a CC license)

    About the Author

    Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
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    • Well that makes sense, seeing as ‘Global Warming’ was a communist plot all along anyway.

    • This analysis is right on as far as it goes, but it misses a few key points. First is that China is building all types of energy systems right now. Conventional fossil ones including coal, sexy renewable ones like lots of wind and solar (inc PV) and a bunch of nukes. By official counts China has 25 reactors under construction. Certainly more than any other country today. They are significantly expanding their capacity, so their effect is likely to continue to be negative.

      But the Chinese will move slowly from its current 80% coal feed power grid. The dirtiest of these coal plants might get closed, but new larger (and modestly cleaner) new coal plants will take their places.

      China is also exporting lots of dirty technology to neighboring countries. Especially steel and aluminum, but other lower value added items. This is only secondarily to reduce pollution and primarily to move up the economic food chain.

      China should be lauded for building more renewables than nuclear. But they are a long way from being any type of development model.