A Free-Market Energy Blog

Hansen on Climate/Energy Policy: An Evaluation and Rebuttal

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- July 28, 2022

“… fossil fuels are a convenient, condensed source of energy that has helped raise living standards throughout much of the world.”

“We must all be aware that demands for effective policies will yield only superficial change as long as the role of special interests in government remains unaddressed.” (- James Hansen)

James Hansen speaks truth to power in a number of areas regarding energy and climate. There is a lot to like. But when it comes to public policy, he refuses to go where his sober analysis tells him. He is not ready to make a tectonic shift toward adaptation rather than mitigation, despite the latter’s impossible economic and policy math.

“Magical Thinking”

Magical thinking has plagued climate policy. Vaclav Smil has explained the problem with little pushback. Smil, in fact, is in the mainstream as shown by the NYT’s April 2022 article, “This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real.”

James Hansen, father of the climate alarm, and a major activist today, also recognizes what Michael Mann, Andrew Dessler, and Mark Jacobson et al. refuse to see. Energy density, energy reality. Hansen, specifically, has called out the fallacy of wind and solar as a foundation for energy/climate policy, using such memorable language as:

Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

And on the Paris Climate Accord:

It’s is a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.

But this climate scientist/activist is himself engaged in some magical thinking. He refuses to consider a lower climate sensitivity than his own. He ignores the manifold benefits of the human influence on climate, much less the gains from CO2 enrichment (plant biology, as explained by Craig Idso here, here, here, and here).

Public Policy Magic

And when it comes to public policy, Hansen increasingly pretends that the climate math can work with mitigation–rather than accept the ever-obvious choice of adaptation, of anticipating and ameliorating climate change, natural or anthropogenic.

Here is Hansen’s latest–and my critical comments.

Given the present Russia-Ukraine war, with its impacts on global energy use and climate, this is a good time to reflect on energy policies. It’s important that young people understand causes of the spectacular, continuing failure of governments to adopt effective long-term energy and climate policies. We must all be aware that demands for effective policies will yield only superficial change as long as the role of special interests in government remains unaddressed.

Comment: Special interests polluting government policy is an inherent part of political capitalism, the “middle way’ of U.S. Leviathan. A classical liberal approach of limited, constrained government on the one hand, and robust civil society on the other, is far superior to the whiplash of temporary political majorities. In short, Hansen needs to understand the downside of government climate activism, to factor in government failure with his diagnosis of “market failure” before engaging in intrusive climate policy.

One fundamental fact is that fossil fuels are a convenient, condensed source of energy that has helped raise living standards throughout much of the world. Fossil fuels will continue to provide a large fraction of global energy (now about 80 percent) and release CO2 to the air as long as the price of fossil fuels does not include their costs to society, i.e., as long as we allow the atmosphere to be a free dumping grounds for the waste products of fossil fuel mining and burning.

Comment: Bingo … Bravo! and the inherent advantages of dense, mineral energies have not diminished but remain essential to affordable, reliable energies…. But ‘free dumping grounds for the waste products of fossil fuel mining and burning…’? Carbon dioxide (CO2) needs a lot more respect than that (see the Idso links above, part of the benefit side of the man-made climate-change equation.

A second fundamental fact is that the United States is most responsible for climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions as measured by total national emissions, but even more so on a per capita basis … [Note that India and Pakistan … as of today are negligible contributors to global warming, but they suffer grave impacts.]

Comment: Correct. This explains the impossible politics of the global CO2 crusade where the U.S. is wed to the same energies that made it prosperous and poorer countries are eager to reap the benefits of superior energies. Regarding impacts, adaptation is key, not mitigation that will not appreciably change climate indicators for decades, at best.

There is no indication that incumbent governments are even considering the fundamental actions that are needed to slow and reverse climate change. Instead, they set goals for their future emissions and hope that the collective outcome will be good. When data suggest otherwise, they revise hopes for future emissions downward, all the while knowing – if they have any common sense and technical understanding – that their claims for the expected future emissions are (to put it plainly) hogwash because they have not taken the fundamental actions required to achieve those goals.

Comment: Vintage Hansen, speaking truth to power. But he has no answer, given that his silver bullet of new nuclear power is so financially costly and distant. That leaves resiliency and adaptation.

It is asking a lot to expect young people to understand the overall global predicament, let alone to help lead in crafting a solution. Yet that’s not inconceivable….

Comment: “Young people” need to have an open mind and read such books as Fossil Future by Alex Epstein and Unsettled by Stephen Koonin. One-sided propaganda about climate alarmism creates pessimism and ‘climate anxiety’ versus a positive view of CO2 and future climate.

The United States has a lead role in creating the problem and the potential for a lead role in solving it. Almost 15 years ago the carbon fee and dividend idea … became popular ….. Barack Obama – who promised to give priority to a “planet in peril” in his campaign – … was elected President in 2008, facing immediately a global financial crisis and opportunity.

Comment: It is ‘always something’ that slows the climate crusade because here-and-now problems trump distant, speculative ones. And the public obviously is not biting on climate alarm with all the past warnings of now-or-never (Hansen too).

Economists agreed that a gradually rising carbon fee (increasing $10 per ton of CO2 each year, reaching the equivalent of 90 cents per gallon of gasoline in 10 years) would by itself reduce U.S. fossil fuel emissions 30% in 10 years. With the funds distributed uniformly to the public, most people (especially low-income people) would gain financially. In 15 years, emissions and fossil fuel use would be reduced by about half….  

Comment: So, how does the U.S.-side effort work as the rest of the world, particularly developing nations, emit more and more CO2 emissions? Do the climate math to tell us what avoided warming and sea level rise a US-side carbon tax will result?

Second, it is fanciful to believe that the U.S. government will rebate the collected monies “uniformly to the public.” (Uniformly … social justice?) And if the payees do not get the “dividend’? That’s all pain, no gain.

If initiation of a F&D program had been included in the legislation to address the financial crisis, the U.S. would have capacity today to produce the fossil fuels needed to replace Russian exports to Europe. European fossil fuel requirements also would have declined due to a border duty on fossil fuel products, which would have encouraged a rising carbon fee in Europe and other countries.

Comment: This is peculiar economics and historical speculation…. Hansen is way out on a limb here. There is no God in the climate policy machine.

Obama was aware of F&D but made no effort to include it in his financial rescue package…. Instead, every relevant lobbyist in Washington who did not have a broken arm got to write a piece of the bill, which was several thousand pages long – but even it failed to pass because fossil fuel special interests opposed it.

Comment: That’s government in a mixed economy–and reason to demote government on the front end. Limited constitutional government is called for, to prevent the special-interest feeding frenzy.

Will this support of young people overcome the power of special interests? No. But they learn something. Many young people are getting involved in the political process in a positive way. As they witness the power of special interests over our government, they can adjust tactics….

Comment: Young people need to understand economic freedom versus government to lobby for the commoner and not the intellectual/political elites that are pushing global climate planning, a road to serfdom.

Military-industrial-congressional complex. When President Dwight Eisenhower was preparing his farewell address, in which he warned the nation of the threat of a growing military-industrial complex, an early draft of the speech referred to the military-industrial-congressional complex.  But Ike backed off.  When his brother, Milton, asked about the deletion he replied “It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.”

Comment: What about the Climate-Industrial Complex? The Climate-Intellectual Complex? Government failure, expert failure?

The aim of this commentary on the politics of the climate/energy situation is to help people – especially young people – understand that the fundamental actions to address climate change are not being taken – and the reason they aren’t has a lot to do with a basic underlying problem: the role of money in government.

Comment: Good intentions are not enough. It is time to end the futile, costly climate crusade, recognize and appreciate the benefits of CO2-enrichment, and adapt, not whine. The climate math is politically impossible. We are really out of time, as Hansen once admitted:

“We have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.” (Hansen, 2006: “The Threat to the Planet,” New York Times Review of Books)

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