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Cap And Trade Inadequate To Thwart Climate Change Catastrophe

March 12, 2009

Renowned climate scientist James Hansen said greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced more rapidly and deeply than previously believed just two years ago in order to avoid dire consequences. 

Furthermore, a direct carbon tax is the only realistic means to achieve that goal, he said during an interview with AFP on the sidelines of a climate conference in Copenhagen.

New research shows an even gloomier snapshot of global warming than the already sobering United Nations report released in early 2007, said Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981.

Hansen made headlines throughout the world in 1988 when he testified before Congress that climate change was already well under way, a highly controversial statement at that time.

“What we have realized is that the dangerous level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is much lower than what we thought a few years ago,” the AFP quoted him as saying.

To avoid devastating droughts, famine, extreme weather and forced migration by the end of this century, CO2 concentrations must be kept under 350 parts per million (ppm), Hansen said.

“We are actually going to have to decrease the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere,” he said,  adding that the current level, which is still increasing, is 385 ppm.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had suggested that an upper limit of 450 ppm would avoid the worst effects of climate change.

While simple, Hansen’s argument is grim: continuing to drain Earth’s store of fossil fuels will lead the world to climate disaster.

Only a profound and sudden change in the way we consume energy can avoid a global warming catastrophe.

A cap-and-trade system in which “polluting rights” are exchanged in a carbon market will likely be the favored approach by attendees of this December’s U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen.

Indeed, President Barack Obama has already proposed the system for the U.S., and it is already in place in the European Union.

However, Hansen is skeptical it can work.

“It takes about 10 years to negotiate it and get all the countries on board, and then you make all sort of compromises, so it turns to be very ineffectual,” he said.

“If it’s going to be cap and trade, I’d rather nothing came out of Copenhagen. I’d rather take another year and two and get it right.”

Hansen’s concerns are supported by the fact that prices in the EU carbon market have plunged in recent weeks due to the global recession.

Instead, Hansen advocates a direct tax, as close to the original source as possible, on fossil fuels.

“A carbon tax is the mechanism that allows you to make an international agreement globally effective in a short period of time,” Hansen said.

“You could start with the EU, United States and China — that would be enough,” he said, adding that other nations met with a carbon-tax on their exports would soon follow suit.

To create robust “green” incentives, the tax should be given directly back to the public on a per capita basis, Hansen said.  In the United States, that would translate into thousands of dollars per household.

“A person with several large cars and a large house will have a tax greatly exceeding the dividend. A family reducing its carbon footprint to less than average will make money,” wrote Hansen last December in a letter to then president-elect Obama and his wife Michelle.

A third part of Hansen’s proposal pertains to coal, the most polluting and plentiful of all the major fossil fuels.  Hansen supports a ban on all new coal-fired power plants should, with older plants retro-fitted to capture carbon emissions and bury them underground.

Hansen’s proposals received unsolicited support at the climate conference from Yale University’s William Nordhaus, a leading U.S. economist.  Nordhaus told 2,000 experts that a cap and trade system “is inefficient and prone to market failure.”

“It is better to change now, and quickly replace the cap and trade structure by a tax on green gas emissions,” Nordhaus said.

Hansen withdrew from the public arena to focus on science following his 1980s Congressional testimony.  However, he’s decided to become publicly involved once again after what he sees as a gap between scientific certainty and public doubt on the climate threat, along with the Bush administration’s censuring of his institute’s positions on the matter.

“I decided that I didn’t want my grand-children to say, ‘grandpa understood what was happening but he didn’t make it clear’,” Hansen said.

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