Isolation Of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Part I

Earlier this year I received a message from a protracted-time reader of my Communications [1], who was persuaded of the urgency of the climate problem. As a significant supporter of the Democratic Party, he had the chance to satisfy President Obama, and he was preparing a specific question: would the President be willing to “meet with Jim Hansen,” who, the supporter asserted, understood the problem as well as anyone and has “some viable ways to repair the issue?”

Obama’s response: he had already read my stuff (presumably meaning my book [2]), but would be involved in talking if it were about policy (presumably meaning that he was already convinced about the truth of the science). My response to the supporter was that we should check whether the offer was real after my long-overdue “Ice Melt” paper was submitted for publication.

This summer, after submitting the paper, my supporter tried valiantly, but dolefully reported that he could not get through, the President was too well protected. Not so easily deterred, I reported the matter to Obama’s Science Adviser, John Holdren, and sent him my Ice Melt paper. Holdren responded that it was a valuable paper, but he ignored my request to satisfy the President.

So who does the President listen to? It’s worth revealing. But first let’s note facts that should be included in honest capable advice. China now has the most important fossil fuel emissions (Fig. 1a). U.S. emissions are dwindling a bit, and they’ll continue to be a decreasing portion of ongoing global emissions. India, the #3 emitter behind the U.S., is moving up fast.

However, human-caused climate change is not proportional to current emissions; instead, climate change is dependent upon cumulative emissions [3]. CO2 from early emissions is now largely incorporated into the ocean and biosphere, nevertheless it had an extended time to affect climate, compensating for the small fraction remaining within the air today. Stated differently, the date of burning is irrelevant because of the millennial lifetime in the Earth system of CO2 released in burning of fossil fuels.

We see (Fig. 1b) that the U.S. is responsible for more than a quarter of worldwide climate change. Europe can be liable for more than one quarter. China is liable for about 10 percent, India for 3 percent and so forth. However, even Fig. 1b is misleading about responsibilities.

Fig. 1. Annual 2014 and cumulative (1751-2014) fossil fuel CO2 emissions (CDIAC data, BP updates). [4]

Fig. 2. Per capita cumulative (1751-2014) fossil fuel CO2 emissions [4] based on 2010 populations.

Per capita responsibility for climate change (Fig. 2) has the UK, where the industrial revolution began, as most responsible, followed closely by the U.S. and Germany. Chinese responsibility is an order of magnitude smaller and India’s share is barely visible (Fig. 2).

Another crucial fact is that we have now already burned a lot of the carbon that we can afford to put into the climate system [5,6] (even under the flawed proposition that 2°C global warming is a safe “guard rail”). In other words, the West burned a lot of the world’s allowable carbon budget.

The scientific community agrees on a vital fact: we must leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground, or our children and future generations are screwed. Yet Obama isn’t proposing the action required for the essential change in energy policy direction, even though it will make economic sense for developed and developing countries alike, especially for the common person.

How can such miserable failure of political leadership be explained, when Obama genuinely wants climate policy to be one of his legacy issues? Do not blame it on the fossil fuel industry; many industry leaders are beginning to say sensible things concerning the direction needed. And Obama is in his final political office — he could act — he doesn’t need oil industry money.

My thesis is that Obama actually means well, has some gumption, and needs effective actions to be taken, but he is being very poorly advised. Because of this, people on the working level have been given no effective direction and are producing little. Mostly they are engaged on spin.

Get ready for the nice deceit and hypocrisy planned for December in Paris. Negotiators do not want the worldwide leaders to appear to be fools again, as they did in Copenhagen. They’re determined to have leaders clap each other on the back and declare the Paris climate negotiations a success.

A prelude of Paris deceit is shown by Chart 3, a press conference with John Podesta, once czar of Obama’s climate policy, and Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz. They express optimism on the Paris summit, citing an agreement of the U.S. and China to work together to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS). That spin is so gross, it’s best described as unadulterated 100 percent pure bullshit.

I’m not criticizing Ernie Moniz, an exceptional Energy Secretary who did yeoman service in negotiations to limit nuclear weapons proliferation. I am only declaring the dishonest spin that’s being put on total failure to deal with the elemental issue.

China and India coal use is the main source of growing global CO2 emissions (Fig. 4), but China and India are not going to attach carbon capture and storage to their thousands of coal plants, which would be hugely expensive. We (the West) used coal and other fossil fuels to boost our standard of living, without capturing the CO2 — and in the process we burned much of China and India’s fair proportion of the global carbon budget. If which means China and India must capture CO2, the West should pay the price — but we all know that isn’t going to happen either.

Chart 3. Excerpt from news article (The Hill, 24 August 2015).

Solution requires realistic definition of the problem. The fundamental fact is that fossil fuels are the cheapest energy for developing countries, providing the perfect chance to boost people from poverty to a better standard of living. China uses coal for that purpose, as does India, and they will continue to take action. Climate goals and targets is not going to change that fact.

However, fossil fuels appear cheapest to the consumer only because they don’t incorporate their costs to society, including the results of air pollution, water pollution and climate change. Economies are more efficient if energy prices are honest, including external costs in the worth.

A consequence of this fundamental truth is that climate change could be addressed at no net cost, indeed with economic gain, provided that true costs are added into the worth gradually. A simple transparent strategy to do that is to gather an across-the-board (oil, gas, coal) carbon fee at domestic mines and ports of entry.

Fig. 4. Fossil fuel and cement CO2 emissions of China and India by fuel source [4] . There are uncertainties in both the coal use rate and the carbon content of the fuel, as discussed elsewhere. 4

If the funds collected are given in equal amount to all legal residents, the fee is revenue neutral and spurs the economy. It is a conservative approach, because it allows the market to assist change and it does not provide a dime to make government bigger.

Such a common sense approach has not been tried by any government. Instead legislation is proposed by liberal governments who want funds for bigger government or programs comparable to renewable energy subsidies. A carbon tax is hidden in “cap-and-trade-with-offsets,” yielding higher energy prices, more government controls, and a burden on the general public and businesses. The proposed bill within the United States (Waxman/Markey) included 3500 pages of giveaways to each lobbyist who could raise his arm to write a paragraph that was then stapled into the bill.

I have suggested, asked, or begged lawmakers, in more nations and states than I can remember, to consider a simple, honest, rising carbon fee with all funds distributed to legal residents. Instead, invariably, if they’re of a bent to even consider the climate issue, they propose the discredited ineffectual cap-and-trade-with-offsets (C&T) with all its political levers.

In my frustration, I describe C&T as half-assed and half-baked, which is an accurate assessment if the target is a formulation that may address the global climate problem. C&T is half-assed, because there is no practical strategy to make it global as it requires individual adoption by 190 nations, and half-baked because there is no enforcement mechanism.

In contrast, a carbon fee would require agreement of only a small number of the most important economic powers, for instance, the United States and China. Upon agreement, they might place a border duty on products from nations without an equivalent carbon fee, and they might give fee rebates to domestic manufacturers for exports to non-participating nations. This could be a huge incentive for other nations to have an equivalent carbon fee, so they could collect it themselves.

Why would conservatives in the U.S. agree to a carbon fee? Utility and oil industry executives and other “captains of industry” that I have encountered in the past two decades invariably approve of such an approach — indeed, utility CEOs almost beg for such simple guidance for their investments, rather than more government prescriptions and regulations. It is not essential to destroy capitalism to fix the climate – most captains of industry want to be part of the answer.

Would China be willing to impose a domestic carbon fee? China has little responsibility for global climate change (Fig. 2) and will surely give first priority to raising its living standards. Same for India. They have every right to do that — they didn’t cause the climate problem. Furthermore, raising human living standards is the best thing for the natural world, the best way to cut back human population growth, putting less pressure on other species.

But consider this. China and India have huge air pollution problems from burning of fossil fuels. Additionally they stand directly in the trail of some of the best impacts of climate change, including hundreds of millions of individuals living near sea level. The potential of needing to handle millions of climate refugees, including their very own citizens in addition to those from Bangladesh and other low latitude countries, is a real threat.

In such countries a carbon fee and dividend to legal residents has multiple merits. It encourages the general public to concentrate to their fossil fuel use. The fee and dividend is progressive, with most low income people coming out ahead, because their added energy costs are outweighed by the dividend, so it addresses growing income inequality. The necessity for a citizen to be registered to receive the dividend helps to reduce undocumented aliens. Perhaps most important, it makes citizens feel that they’re a part of the solution — instead of complaining about air pollution and other woes, they’ve a way to help solve the problems.

Chart 5. Excerpt from news article (Reuters, 28 October 2015)

Fee-and-dividend shouldn’t be a panacea, many other things are required including smart technology development, but a rising carbon fee and dividend is the required underpinning, the sine qua non. Economic studies show that within the United States fee-and-dividend would decrease carbon emissions by 30 percent in 10 years and more than 50 percent in 20 years, while increasing GNP and creating greater than 3 million new jobs. [7,8]

Don’t be misled by some economists or pseudo-economists who say, oh let’s do something better than giving 100 percent dividends, let’s reduce some other tax. The general public won’t buy that one. And shortly it would be forgotten what tax was reduced, people would demand that the carbon tax be removed or at the least not rise — because the carbon fee is a tax if there will not be 100 percent dividend.

How do we all know that a “cap” approach can never solve the climate/fossil fuel problem? You have to beg 190 nations to each set a low cap. What is India’s cap? Why would India accept a low cap, after they have not caused the climate problem (Fig. 2)? But for illustration, for example that miraculously India agreed to have a low carbon cap across all carbon sources (though caps are never across-the-board on all fossil fuels at the source). What can be the effect of that success? It would reduce demand for the fossil fuels, making them cheaper, thus facilitating their use in other places. The answer is a carbon fee that is made near-global via border duties.

The Threat of a nasty Paris Accord.

The danger is that Paris will lay a Kyoto. That is the easy way out. Each country promises to do better, but there is no global carbon fee. Fossil fuels remain cheap. Someone keeps burning them.

Understandably, developing countries give attention to near-term support to deal with climate impacts, as they have done little to cause climate change but stand to be hit hard. It is smart to provide funds, because cooperation of developing countries is needed to sequester carbon via improved forestry and agricultural practices, and to limit trace gas emissions. Mutual needs could make this work, with payments contingent on cooperation and success in each program.

However, we cannot let developed countries use these payments to purchase business-as-usual. The future of individuals in all countries requires rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions. An across-the-board carbon fee is needed to realize rapid emissions reduction, avoiding the Kyoto debacle.

Yet UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres declares that the Paris accord won’t include a carbon price (Chart 5). “(Many have said) we need a carbon price and (investment) could be so much easier with a carbon price,” Figueres said, “but life is rather more complex than that.”

Baloney. A flat carbon fee is too complex? Figueres deserves our respect and thanks for hard work, but we cannot let politeness damage the future of our planet and loved ones.

I know the “complexity” Figueres encounters with global leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel [9]. Merkel is suggesting that others adopt the German approach: close nuclear power plants, subsidize renewables, reduce emissions via resulting high electricity prices and a cap & trade scheme, and export production of many products for domestic consumption to other countries (where fossil fuels could also be used). Result: global emissions decline little, if in any respect.

Germany is providing a valuable experiment. Can a wealthy nation with exceptional engineering ability and a public willing to subsidize renewable energies rapidly phase out carbon emissions?

However, it’s a mistake to assume that each one other nations will follow the German example or even that this approach leads to carbon-free electricity, which is the elemental technical requirement for phasing out CO2 emissions. Indeed, it is disquieting that Germany is building coal-fired power plants and other nations are building gas-fired power plants. If this continues, the “technology lock-in” from long-lived power plants could guarantee expanded fracking and high CO2 emissions through most of this century.

The danger that Paris may mimic Kyoto is heightened by the “guard rail” concept, which allows governments to vow future emission reductions rather than arrange a framework that fosters rapid emissions reductions. Climate science does not define a safe guard rail; instead science indicates that atmospheric CO2 is already into the dangerous range, as shown by a gaggle including world experts in the carbon cycle, paleoclimate and other relevant areas. [10]

The valid scientific message is that emissions have to be reduced as rapidly as practical. And in turn, that implies the value of fossil fuels have to be made honest by adding a rising carbon fee.

However, instead, in pre-Paris negotiations each nation is being asked how much it is going to reduce emissions. These pledges are then used to estimate whether global temperature can be within the “guardrail”. Meanwhile low fossil fuel prices continue, guaranteeing that more fossil fuel infrastructure might be built and high emissions will continue. Valuable time is wasted.

Fig. 6. Fossil fuel emissions growth this century in the 21 nations with largest current emissions. [4]

The situation is summarized in the emissions changes of the 21 highest emitting nations (Fig. 6). Global emissions increased almost 50 percent within the last 14 years. Most developed nations achieved only small reductions, although in Italy and the United Kingdom reductions are about 25 percent.

The underside line is that this: rapid reduction of worldwide emissions will not be happening with no fundamental economic drive toward clean energies. A rising revenue-neutral carbon fee [7,8] would strengthen economies. So why should this not be pursued and be potentially achievable?

The truth is, with agreement between the United States and China, it could possibly be achieved. As far as I do know, they haven’t ceded authority to a United Nations bureaucrat to decide what is possible.

If the U.S. fails to steer, it seems unlikely that China would immediately take the result in propose a carbon fee, on condition that China is just not the cause of most climate change. However, China may take leadership as their self interest in preserving climate grows, especially if bickering between political extremes continues to hamstring the United Statesa . In that case, the very best hope for young people and the planet shall be rational Chinese leadership, which will likely find many other nations able to form a coalition of the willing.

You might argue that such a diplomatic agreement would never be approved by conservatives (not only in the U.S., but also other nations). I disagree. Thoughtful conservatives, behind the scenes, are coming around to the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Obama’s carbon regulations are of little value for reducing global emissions, but they’re a useful bargaining chip for persuading conservatives to support a revenue-neutral carbon fee as a compromise.

I don’t suggest that Obama would get prompt agreement from the U.S. Senate for a Paris accord with a carbon fee. Acceptance likely would take quite a few years, but if a world framework for common domestic carbon fees is arrange (with border duties on products from nonparticipating nations), pressure to affix would mount as climate impacts grow.

Compare that approach with the route Obama appears to be on. First, note that his signature victory (EPA regulations that reduce domestic emissions), assuming that it stands up in court, amounts to only several percent of U.S. emissions, which is about one year’s growth of global emissions through the past 14 years. Second, what’s the possibility that what he is proposing for Paris will fly with the U.S. Senate? Zilch. Even many Democrats would oppose it. Not significantly better than the Clinton-Gore 97-0 blowout. The fossil fuel industry’s ‘I’m an energy voter’ campaign, energy independence, easily wins. They’d laugh all of the way to the bank.

[a] As I’ll discuss partly II, it is not difficult to make a case that extreme liberals have done as much damage to the future of young people and other life on Earth as “human-made climate change is a hoax” extremists. [8]

Obama’s climate legacy, on his present course, will likely be worse than a miserable failure: it is going to be an unnecessary miserable failure. His popularity in 2008 was 70 percent and his party controlled both houses of Congress. Anniek and that i wrote a letter [11] to Michelle and Barack Obama in December 2008 explaining the climate situation and needed policies, which he could have initiated then. However, John Holdren wouldn’t deliver the letter, arguing that he wouldn’t be confirmed as Science Adviser for months. Obama, instead, listened to Big Green.

Big Green consists of several “environmental” organizations, including Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), each with $100+M budgets, each springing from high-minded useful beginnings, each with more high-priced lawyers than you can shake a stick at. EDF, with purblind equation of the sulfur and carbon pollution problems, was chief architect of the disastrous Kyoto lemon. NRDC proudly claims credit for Obama’s EPA strategy and foolishly allows it to migrate to Paris.

Obama still has an opportunity at a positive climate legacy, if he ditches Big Green. Better to take a seat down with the Chinese leaders, who’re technically trained, rational, and understand we’re together in the same boat. We had better determine find out how to plug the leaks together or we sink together.

Watch what happens in Paris carefully to see if all that the leaders do is sign off on the pap that UN bureaucrats are putting together, indulgences [2] and promises to reduce future emissions, after which clap one another on the back and declare success.

In that case President Obama can have sold our children, and theirs, down the river.


[3] Hansen, J., M. Sato, R. Ruedy, P. Kharecha, A. Lacis, R.L. Miller, L. Nazarenko, K. Lo, G.A. Schmidt, G. Russell, 2007: Dangerous human-made interference with climate: A GISS modelE study. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2287-2312.
[4] From with data sources there being Boden et al. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and British Petroleum data concatenated for many recent years.
[5] Hansen, J., P. Kharecha, M. Sato, V. Masson-Delmotte, F. Ackerman, D.J. Beerling, P.J. Hearty, O. Hoegh-Guldberg, S.L. Hsu et al., 2013: Assessing “dangerous climate change”: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature. PLOS ONE, 8, e81648, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.
[6] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Climate Change 2013, Stocker, T., Dahe, Q., Plattner, G.K., et al., eds., Cambridge University Press, 1535 pp., 2013.
[8] Hansen, J.E., 2015: Environment and development challenges: the imperative of a carbon fee and dividend, within the Oxford Handbook of the Macroeconomics of worldwide Warming, Eds. L. Bernard and W. Semmler, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199856978.013.0026 also available
[9] Eight years ago, on the recommendation of the Science Adviser to Merkel, I foolishly agreed to withdraw an open letter to Merkel on energy policies that was to be published in Die Zeit, instead agreeing to a visit to Berlin to discuss the matter with the German government, on the rationale that such was the way to really have an impact on policy2.
Because it turned out I only met Minister Gabriel, who promptly said that cap & trade and phase-out of nuclear power were irrevocable German policy. The function of their 2°C “guardrail” gave the impression to be to allow several decades for phasing down CO2 emissions. In response to repeated assertion that the target should be 350 ppm, not 2°C, he repeatedly said they could “tighten the carbon cap”. In response to the question of what’s the cap for India, which proves that a cap approach cannot work, he had no answer. Any serious policy discussion was successfully avoided.2
[10] Hansen, J., M. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008: Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231.

This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, at the side of the U.N.’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view all the series, visit here.

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