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‘Father of global warming’ advocates for carbon fee and nuclear energy

James Hansen, a renowned climate change scholar and environmental activist, spoke Thursday evening at Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) for the annual Bender Lecture, urging young people to take action to combat climate change. 

Henry Scott, chair of IUSB’s physics and astronomy department, introduced Hansen, the 2022 Bender scholar-in-residence. Scott recounted Hansen’s education and career, particularly his decades-long work leading the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“I suspect everyone here knows that Dr. Hansen is often referred to as the ‘father of global warming.’ I hope it is also known that, that is deserved for raising awareness and that no one is here expecting an apology,” Scott joked.

Scott discussed Hansen’s pivot from studying Venus and helping to send a satellite to photograph the veiled planet.

“As you may know, Venus is incredible and frankly, terrifyingly hot. As Dr. Hansen worked to improve our understanding of why this is so, he shifted his attention to Earth and how its atmosphere may change over time due to human influences,” Scott said. “Over 40 years ago, he was the lead author on a paper which concluded that rising carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere would lead to greater warming that had been previously predicted. And that was just one of his nearly 170 published journal articles over his career.”

Hansen began his lecture by speaking to his larger aims. 

“I’m going to skip what I wrote for notes here because, you know, we need to get young people to understand that they can actually influence the future, and they need to do that. And it’s possible,” Hansen said.

In a wide-ranging lecture discussing the legacies of various presidents as well as his upbringing and career, Hansen largely warned about the challenges of reliance on fossil fuels. 

He also discussed his process and philosophy as a scientist.

“To be successful, you must use all the data. Be very skeptical of your interpretation and honestly reassess from scratch when new data becomes available. And your preference, your ideology, your politics must not affect your assessment. This last point is difficult. For most people, even scientists,” Hansen said.

Going through the risks of ocean warming, rising sea levels, the threat of species being exterminated and belts of the planet becoming unlivable, Hansen said he was cognizant of the value of fossil fuels.

“Now to be positive, plentiful energy has enormous benefits. Fossil fuels are actually marvelous, and they have been a boon to humanity. The Industrial Revolution raised living standards in much of the world. The energy source initially was coal and in the 20th century, oil and gas joined the party, and their condensed energy is comparable to that of coal and it’s more convenient. One gallon of gasoline contains the work equivalent of 400 hours labor by a healthy adult. So fossil fuels raise living standards in half of the world and the other half wants to follow that path, and they have the right to raise their living standards,” Hansen said. “So fossil fuels are wonderful, but they also cause a problem. So what should we do?”

Hansen pointed to the lack of progress on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that the quantitative reduction by countries like the U.S. was simply a function of moving production abroad to countries like India and China. Those emissions now appear on other nation’s tallies, he says.

“The CO2 emissions are not counted in the United States total; they’re counted as part of China and other countries. In the future, emerging economies will be the source of most emissions. So we should work with China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the other economies that are growing rapidly. In fact, in the West, we have an obligation to do that because we use more than our fair share of the carbon budget,” he said.

Ultimately, Hansen’s plan comes down to two large policy reforms. First, he says it is imperative to include the cost to society in the price of fossil fuel, a plan he calls the carbon fee and dividend, previously billed as the carbon tax and dividend.

“The practical way to do that is to collect a fee from the fossil fuel companies at the sources, which are a small number: the domestic mines and the ports of entry. And to make it work, that money should be distributed to the public so that they would have the means to deal with the increased prices of fossil fuels,” he said.

“So if the United States and China would agree on a rising carbon fee the climate problem you would be well on its way to solution,” Hansen added.

Second, Hansen outlined the need for nuclear power arguing for its promotion and development, as well as for related technologies.

“History shows that once a good design for a nuclear power plant is approved, nuclear power provides the fastest way to decarbonize because of the massive amount of energy that’s provided by a single power plant. De facto cooperation between China and the U.S. drove down the cost of solar panels, wind and wind energy. We can do the same for nuclear power,” he said.

Hansen extensively addressed fears about nuclear power, referring to statistics about the minimal harm of nuclear energy, particularly in comparison to current methods of energy production.

“Ten thousand people a day are dying from indoor air pollution. Many of the deaths are similar to those from smoking, very unpleasant to the victim and his family. Ten thousand people in one day is more than killed by nuclear power in 50 years,” he said.

Hansen also discussed his frustrations with the current political system, especially with campaign contributions — which he dubbed “legalized bribery.” He promoted the idea of a third party emerging, and of ranked choice voting. He also spoke to the political power of college students and other youth.

“They have tremendous political power, even high schoolers,” Hansen said.

Hansen closed his remarks with a plea for action from youth, before taking questions from audience members.

“It’s going to be dependent on young people to understand the situation. You cannot simply say, ‘Climate change is important to us, please fix it,’ because then they come up with the fix that the special interests are willing to do. And that’s not going to do,” he said.

Contact Isa Sheikh at isheikh@nd.edu