NASA scientist and leading global warming alarmist James Hansen has written an open letter to President-Elect Obama, in which he wants to tell the truth on these important matters. There are some refreshingly candid quotes, but in the end it seems Dr. Hansen has fatally undercut his own position.
First, the really refreshing stuff. Hansen thinks we (by which he means the government of course) should definitely prepare for the possibility that energy efficiency and renewable sources will not be enough to completely wean humanity from carbon emissions. Hansen thus recommends massive R&D efforts to develop “4th generation” nuclear power, which would abandon the inefficient and waste-producing current approach of Light Water Reactors and would instead rely on Integral Fast Reactors, Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactors, or (perhaps) other methods. Now one can argue about whether government subsidies are needed, as opposed to simply removing regulatory roadblocks to nuclear development. In any event, it is nice to see Hansen write:
It is specious to argue that R&D on 4th generation nuclear power does not deserve support because energy efficiency and renewable energies may be able to satisfy all United States electrical energy needs. Who stands ready to ensure that energy needs of China and India will be entirely met by efficiency and renewables?
It is also refreshing to see the reasons why Hansen openly calls for a carbon tax, rather than the Trojan Horse of a cap & trade program. I am quite skeptical, even if we concede the scientific claims that carbon emissions pose large negative externalities. But many, perhaps most, economists who do think the government should impose penalties on carbon emissions, agree with Hansen that a straightforward tax—coupled with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in other tax burdens—is the most efficient way to implement the scheme.
But there’s the rub. The politicians are not going to impose a simple carbon tax. Instead, they will install a confusing cap & trade program, because it will be easier to hide its impacts (in terms of higher energy prices) from voters, and because it provides the politicians with more opportunity to bestow blessings or punishments on certain sectors. For example, the various cap & trade plans differ in their details over whether the permits should be auctioned or freely disbursed, and which groups (power plants, local governments, etc.) should get the free permits. And we can be quite certain that the politicians will, on net, extract far more revenue from the economy after the imposition of the new carbon scheme.
Ironically, Hansen seems to know all of this, for he writes:
Optimism is fueled by expectation that decisions will be guided by reason and evidence, not ideology. The danger is that special interests will dilute and torque government policies, causing the climate to pass tipping points, with grave consequences for all life on the planet.
The President-elect himself needs to be well-informed about the climate problem and its relation to energy needs and economic policies. He cannot rely on political systems to bring him solutions – the political systems provide too many opportunities for special interests.
And yet, Hansen’s eight-page missive is on what policies the government ought to pursue, since persuasion and argument are obviously inadequate. Professor Hansen is sure that he is right, and he wants the new President to force everyone else into line—immediately.
We can only hope that in his next letter, Dr. Hansen explains how the leader of the U.S. political system will implement these suggestions without recourse to the political system. I don’t consider it too flippant to compare Hansen’s letter to a request that the Pope reform the Catholic mass without involving the Church.
Perhaps deeper reflection about real-world choices will lead Hansen to the conclusion that adaptation without politics is better than mitigation with politics.