On Monday, world leaders representing 190 nations (along with tens of thousands of journalists, protesters and conference attendees) will convene in Paris to kick off the 21st annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21). In the lead up to the talks a number of countries are scrambling to prove their commitment to climate-friendly policy: the Dutch voted to phase out coal power plants, Canada pledged over $2 billion to the UN climate fund, Japan pledged over $10 billion in assistance for climate policies in developing nations, and dozens of other countries pledged to cap their emissions at various levels in the coming decades.
Yet in spite of these lofty commitments and goals, not everyone is impressed with the proposed solutions that are surfacing ahead of the Paris talks. This includes the leading climate scientist James Hansen, who published an editorial on Friday in which he derided an Obama-led climate initiative as "unadulterated 100% pure bullshit."
The professed goal of this year's climate conference is to "achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate," an ambitious platform which would be an unprecedented achievement after two decades of UN sanctioned climate talks. The ultimate goal of this binding agreement is to keep global warming under the 2C threshold—a development which would prove catastrophic for millions around the globe. Considering that we're already halfway to that catastrophic milestone, and our current commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions set to expire in 2020, figuring out a way to put the brakes on climate change is more urgent than ever.
The problem, as Hansen sees it, is that the pervasive optimism in the lead up to the climate talks is only so much hot air, the desired result of spinsters in Washington who are promising change while hedging their bets on ineffectual climate policies.
As "a prelude of Paris deceit," Hansen points to an August press conference held by Obama's ex-climate czar John Podesta and Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, in which both men express optimism about the Paris summit and an agreement between China and the US to work together to promote carbon capture and storage (CCS), an incredibly efficient technology for capturing carbon as it is produced during electricity generation. As Hansen outlines in his editorial, such a plan is so far-fetched and doomed to fail that expressing optimism about its prospects is akin to being intentionally deceitful.
"My thesis is that Obama actually means well, has some gumption, and wants effective actions to be taken, but he is being very poorly advised," Hansen wrote. "I am not criticizing Ernie Moniz, an exceptional Energy Secretary…I am only pointing out the dishonest spin that is being put on total failure to address the fundamental issue."
For Hansen, the fundamental issue is that fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy for developing countries such as China and India, a result of the fact that the true cost of using them are not factored into their market values. Yet rather than trying to stem the rising carbon emissions from developing nations by creating what he sees as yet another Kyoto Protocol (an agreement defined by its promotion of demonstrably ineffective cap-and-trade policies), Hansen suggests a "simple, transparent" solution: "an across-the-board (oil, gas, coal) carbon fee at domestic mines and ports of entry, [where] the funds collected are given in equal amount to all legal residents."
Hansen, a NASA alum who put global warming on the map in a big way with his congressional testimony in 1988, is no stranger to controversy: he's called out NASA for censoring his data on climate change, he's been arrested twice at the White house for protesting the Keystone pipeline, and he's called for a trial of the CEO of ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel magnates for "high crimes against humanity and nature." While his latest foray into pot-stirring is less flamboyant, it doesn't mean the issues at hand are any less pressing.
Hansen admits that a carbon fee is not a perfect solution, but he sees it as the necessary groundwork for other necessary actions like developing climate friendly technology. Some may disagree with Hansen that the Paris agreement is shaping up to be little more than a Kyoto 2.0, although a quick glance at the comprehensive list of climate pledges by country seems to buoy Hansen's suspicions. What is more, a significant amount of research buoys his claims: in the US for instance, studies have shown that a fee-and-dividend model as advocated by Hansen would decrease carbon emissions by 20 percent within 10 years and more than 50 percent in 20 years, in addition to creating over 3 million new jobs.
Yet despite the convincing argument made by Hansen, he remains pessimistic about the upcoming climate talks. The UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has already expressed skepticism about the viability of a carbon fee, calling the measure too "complex." So, Hansen ends his plea on a note of warning:
"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, and promises to reduce future emissions, and then clap each other on the back and declare success," Hansen wrote. "In that case President Obama will have sold our children, and theirs, down the river."