Scientist: Urgency Needed On Climate Change Action The NASA scientist who accused agency administrators and the Bush White House of manipulating public releases of climate data says he is disappointed that President Obama hasn't taken more action on the issue.
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Scientist: Urgency Needed On Climate Change Action

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Scientist: Urgency Needed On Climate Change Action

Scientist: Urgency Needed On Climate Change Action

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We're going to hear next from a leading climate scientist who is not attending the climate summit in Copenhagen. James Hansen works for the U.S. government. During the Bush administration, he was invited to address a climate meeting chaired by former Vice President Dick Cheney. He came to believe the Bush administration was trying to stifle discussion on global warming. And though the political climate has changed, Hansen says it hasn't changed enough.

Dr. JAMES HANSEN (Climate Scientist): The politicians now use the right words. They talk about a planet in peril, but their actions really consist of green wash. They're basically wanting to continue business as usual.

INSKEEP: James Hansen still holds a senior position at the space agency NASA. He is also the author of a new book called "Storms of My Grandchildren." He has been arrested twice this year while protesting. The first was at a coal processing plant in West Virginia. The second time was at Boston Common.

Dr. HANSEN: After spending three or four years interacting with the Bush administration, I realized that they were not taking any actions to deal with climate change. And I decided I didn't want my grandchildren to say O-Pa understood what was happening, but he didn't make it clear. So I decided to give one talk, and then it snowballed into another talk, and eventually to even protesting and getting arrested.

INSKEEP: O-Pa, that's what's your grandchildren call you?

Dr. HANSEN: Yeah, my wife is Dutch, and that's the Dutch word for grandpa.

INSKEEP: I want to clarify something here, because you very publicly opposed the view of the Bush administration on global warning. But these arrests, if I'm not mistaken, have taken place in 2009, after a change of administration.

Dr. HANSEN: Yeah. You know, we're quite disappointed. Although I think Barack Obama may still be our best hope for getting a change in direction, but so far we're certainly not seeing it. He's allowing Congress to set the agenda for actions to try to deal with climate change. They want to use cap-and-trade to try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but, in fact, you can continue to burn coal and emit the carbon dioxide.

INSKEEP: Let's verify these terms for people. When you say cap-and-trade, this would set a limit on how much carbon the United States can produce. It would actually push that limit down over time. Various industries would get the right to pollute some, and if your company ran out of pollution credits, so to speak, you could go buy them from someone else who is polluting less.

Dr. HANSEN: Yeah. So, in principle, you would be reducing the CO2, but in practice, you would be reducing it very little. The fundamental problem is fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy. As long as that's true, then they are going to be burned by somebody.

INSKEEP: Somebody might say it's an imperfect bill, but at least it does something. It restrains carbon emissions. It may even drop them a few percentage points, and many people may feel relieved that at least we're doing something about global warming. Will we do something about global warming if we restrain it by a few percentage points, the emissions?

Dr. HANSEN: No, because some other countries will burn it. We already did this experiment. It was called the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. And many counties - not the United States - but many countries, Europe and Japan, reduced their emissions several percent. But emissions globally actually shot up even faster because fossil fuels were cheaper than any other form of energy. And as long as that's the case, the actual emissions are going to continue to increase.

INSKEEP: Somebody might say, well, that's why they're doing this big meeting in Copenhagen. They're trying to come up with something that the whole world, or most of the world can agree on. You're not hopeful for that, either?

Dr. HANSEN: No, because you see what's happening. The developed countries are doing what Congress is doing. They're saying we'll have a cap-and-trade system. It's very analogous to the indulgences of the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church sold these forgivenesses at the end of the year.

INSKEEP: Oh, the right to sin, or to get away with a sin you had committed.

Dr. HANSEN: Right. And it's great for both parties. The church collects - the bishops collect a lot of money, and the sinners are still able to go to heaven. So they're both very happy. That's what's happening in Copenhagen. The developed countries are going to continue to pollute, and the developing countries will get a small amount of money. And so they'll go away and be sort of semi-satisfied.

INSKEEP: And if I'm somebody sitting at home listening to this, one question that may be on my mind is: Can I fix global warming, along with billions of my fellow citizens, by tweaking my lifestyle a little bit? Or do I have to live a radically different life than the life I'm living now?

Dr. HANSEN: You don't need to live a radically different life. Energy is not the problem. It's carbon that's the problem. We need to move to the energy systems beyond fossil fuels. And what you need to do is influence the political process, because right now, what's happening is the fossil fuel industry is influencing the political process.

INSKEEP: But help me figure this out, because you're saying that we don't have to change much in our individual lives, as long as we get a cleaner source of energy. That's the problem, isn't it? Coming up with that cleaner source of energy in quantities that are great enough to deal with all the demand?

Dr. HANSEN: Right. And those we know are available in order of importance are energy efficiency, renewable energies and next generation nuclear power.

INSKEEP: That last one, though, new sources of nuclear power, that's a serious political, as well as technological problem, isn't it? To build enough nuclear power plants to get every coal plant in the world offline, say?

Dr. HANSEN: It certainly is a challenge. And you do need to take advantage of the energy efficiency and renewable energies, as well as next generation nuclear power. And there may be other things. There's plenty of energy for the kind of lifestyles that we have now and we want in the future, but we need to get that energy from clean sources.

INSKEEP: Do you plan to get arrested again anytime soon?

Dr. HANSEN: I don't have any immediate plans.

INSKEEP: But you'd be willing, it sounds like.

Dr. HANSEN: Well, if we can use that as a mechanism to draw attention to what we're doing to our children and grandchildren, then sure. I'm glad to do that.

INSKEEP: James Hansen is author of "Storms of My Grandchildren." Thanks very much.

Dr. HANSEN: Sure. Thank you.


Although, as we just heard, James Hansen is disappointed with President Obama's actions so far, the administration did take one step on its own yesterday. The Environmental Protection Agency made an official finding on global warming. The agency says manmade greenhouse gases threaten the health of Americans. That conclusion allows EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases under the Clean Air Act, and it could be a step toward creating new rules for cars, power plants and factories.

INSKEEP: The EPA announcement was followed by some news at the climate summit in Copenhagen today. The World Meteorological Organization says this decade is very likely the warmest on record.

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