NASA’s Hansen Presses Obama for a Carbon Cost and Nuclear Push

 A host of thinkers and doers focused on energy and climate have contributed statements they’d give if President Obama used his State of the Union message to announce a listening tour on how to shape a sustained American energy quest. They include Nate Lewis, the head of one of the “innovation hubs” created by the Department of Energy, the author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Gal Luft, an expert on energy security. Oscar Hidalgo for The New York Times James Hansen in 2008.Here’s another, from James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, author and anti-coal campaigner. (There are more coming later today.) In 2001, Hansen was among a variety of climate scientists who were brought in to brief the full Bush cabinet, including Vice President Cheney. I’ve asked Hansen periodically if he’s been consulted by the Obama White House in its first two years. Not yet, is the answer. Presumably this is because, even though Hansen is a leading, if sometimes controversial, climate researcher, his personal views on energy policy clash with those the administration first focused on. If there’s another reason, I can’t think of it. Whether you agree or completely differ with Hansen, not having him as part of a national energy and climate conversation seems pretty ill considered.

Here’s what he wrote:

It would have made good sense to give energy/climate a high priority right at the start. Solving our fossil fuel addiction and altering the course of global warming can be handled with a good overall strategy, but that strategy would not be based on a compromise that has special interests defining the details. That’s why I wrote a letter to Michelle and Barack Obama [in 2008], starting it while stuck in London, where Anniek [Hansen’s wife] had a heart attack. John Holdren agreed to deliver the letter, but not until after he was confirmed, so I made it a public letter. I understand that John told the media that he was not free to discuss what he communicated to the President and what reaction he received. In any case, I never heard back anything from the White House. Another reason for concern: the President’s comment on global warming in his 2009 State of the Union message, which began with something to the effect: I know some of you don’t believe in global warming… It is not a matter of belief. Galileo had to accept the reality that whether the Earth orbited the sun or vice versa was a matter of belief (if he did not want to go to an early grave), so he recanted his statements (probably with his fingers crossed). But we are not living in a time when beliefs should trump science. The President should use his ascendancy to the most powerful position on the planet to help set a new sensible course for the planet and humanity. It would have required being blunt and honest about the situation and what was needed to break our addiction and avoid the tremendous inter-generational injustice that the present path will bring to pass. The path to a clean energy future would not be painful for the public, but it requires standing up to special interests who benefit from business-as-usual. It is both a moral issue and a question of where the United States will stand in the future. Our economic standing is going to become second class this century if we do not move smartly toward a clean energy future. No where is the lame middle-of-the-road go-slow compromise approach clearer than in the case of nuclear power. The Administration has been reluctant to admit that the Carter and Clinton/Gore administrations made a huge mistake in pulling the U.S. back from development of advanced nuclear technology. That is the way to make nuclear power safer (nuclear power already has the best safety record of any major industry in the United States) and resistant to weapons proliferation. The approach to nuclear power is to take a few baby steps with current technology. People such as Bill Gates are despairing at the lack of leadership in Washington — investing his own money in development of advanced reactor designs. But even Bill Gates does not have enough money to make up for the lack of dynamic leadership in Washington. If we took advantage of our brainpower (which is rapidly aging!), we could still be the leader in developing safer clean energy for the future and producing a better future for our children, rather than going after the last drop of oil in pristine environments, off-shore, in the tar sands. It is such a purblind foolish approach. We need someone with the courage to stand up to the special interests who have hamstrung U.S. policy, including the minority of anti-nukes who have controlled the energy policy of the Democratic party. We are still waiting for an Abraham Lincoln, a leader who will stand tall. It is a moral matter. Lincoln would not have released half of the slaves…. The other thing not mentioned above is that the most fundamental problem, which I keep repeating, is this: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, somebody will keep burning them — implication, we must put a rising price on carbon. (Not cap-and-trade! A simple, honest approach — collect a fee from fossil fuel companies at first sale, distribute that money, 100 percent, to the public.) Nevertheless, the easiest thing that he could do, and perhaps the best that we can hope for, is for him to give a strong boost to nuclear power. Unfortunately, he seems to fall prey to Democratic politics on this, rather than being a responsible leader.

NASA’s Hansen Presses Obama for a Carbon Cost and Nuclear Push By ANDREW C. REVKIN/NYT


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