“Our parents didn’t know what they were doing. We can only pretend not to know.” — James Hansen

My granddaughter, Juniper, helping me re-pot tomatoes

My granddaughter, Juniper, helping me re-pot tomatoes

Last night I joined five colleagues to hear James Hansen at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Hansen is one of our leading Climate Scientists, so I expected to hear Lots of More Bad News. Frankly, I wasn’t all that pumped about attending.

But instead he cast a vision for a way out.

Our tickets included the reception afterwards, which felt a bit hoity-toity but I embraced the moment, a glass of Pinor Noir, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with other Portland area thinkers, movers and shakers. And to hear more personally from Hansen. By then he had donned a slightly crushed yet comfortable hat, and up close he looked like a friendly grandpa who wanted to spend his last years working to leave his grandchildren a viable world.

James Hansen

James Hansen

A summary of highlights–in bullet points to save words since I easily get overly wordy on such matters.

  • Yes–of course–a brief summary on the reality of climate change with both worse droughts and worse flooding/storms. 
  • What motivates Hansen, 72, are his grandchildren, whose pictures he kept showing us during his presentation. He doesn’t want them, at some point in the future, to look back and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.” So Hansen actively works to make it clear. And to bring policy change to Washington. He has testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, been arrested on several occasions for opposing blowing the tops off mountains to get at coal, and continues regular writing and speaking as a NASA top climate scientist arguing that climate change is caused by human activity–particularly our use of fossil fuels.  (Although he left NASA this spring to devote his full time to bringing policy change).
  • Hansen speaks with some optimism. The good news is that we can still turn this around IF we leave the fossil fuel that’s still in the ground, in the ground. That’s a big IF.
  • How does one motivate people who will continue to choose coal-powered electricity because it’s least expensive? Raise the cost of coal to reflect its real cost–so that it is equal to other options and encourages the pursuit of other options. Hansen (and others) believe we must implement a carbon fee (like $10/ton of carbon–can’t remember the particulars there) that will increase 10% each of the next 10 years. The economic and carbon projection models show this would decrease our carbon emissions by 30% in 10 years.
  • What’s the impact on me and you? Think about a gallon of gas costing $1 more each year for the next 10.
  • Back the Train Up! How can he possibly suggest this? Only the rich could possibly absorb such a fee! It would cripple the working poor and the lower middle class, and significantly hinder the middle class.
  • Relax. Ask where the money goes.
  • Where does the money go? BACK TO EVERY AMERICAN, equally distributed. This is not intended to raise money for the government or for corporations so they will develop green energy. It will stimulate the economy. And people will consider efficiency in their car choices, they will likely eat more locally and seasonally since local and seasonal food will cost less than food shipped overseas or across the continent. People will choose to adopt green energy alternatives because they will no longer cost more than coal. The heavy users of fossil fuel will end up paying more, the middle users will break even, the light users will benefit because everyone gets the same return regardless of how big a carbon fee your lifestyle means you pay.
  • Is this just Hansen’s idea? No–it’s actually got some traction already in Congress–though the bill under consideration would give something like 40% of the money to the government. Hansen can’t imagine it will go anywhere with our current congress. This is a conservative plan that does not enlarge government but has huge potential impact. He called it a simple plan, and responded to questions about some particulars.
  • One other piece–we need one other country to also adopt this plan for it to become global. (Remember these are supposedly bullet points, so I’m not unpacking all this like Hansen did). The other country: China. Some more good news: China is motivated to establish a carbon fee and Hansen might have said (unsure here), already considering it. China doesn’t deny the climate change problem, or human agency in it, and are already being impacted and will be impacted by climate change more profoundly than we will.
  • China can do this in a day. (This is me speaking now, not Hansen.) Perhaps the only benefit of a dictator is that change can come about rapidly when necessary (but unfortunately also when detrimental). The political process in the US works Really Slowly, or not at all. I prefer a democracy Big Time, but my lingering lack of optimism comes from doubting we’d get Congress to agree to a carbon fee. Hansen’s not optimistic on this point either–and says part of the problem is the number of folks in congress “supported” by petroleum companies.
  • This is a bi-partisian plan. Hansen is an independent and thinks we need a new mainstream party that doesn’t gather followers from the margins. He criticizes both the republican and democratic parties–and congress in general for failure to act given the overwhelming science that has sounded this alarm for several decades now.
  • What can I do? Someone asked him, and I love that he said besides policy change (which must happen), eating lower on the food chain is the best individual course of action. I’ve written about that myself in Walking Gently, so Hansen made me feel smart. The other thing you can do is check out Citizens Climate Lobby and join efforts to help Washington take our concerns seriously enough to do something about them.

I have to conclude by saying I’m writing this on the picnic table outside. Fragrant lilac wafts over on a warmer-than-usual breeze for April. We’ve had three hot, sunny days and our new transplants need lots of water to stay alive.

The gift of this unseasonal warmth holds poignancy. I relish it, but with an awareness of what warmer-than-usual weather represents, and want to hold fast my commitment to living and speaking and writing and doing whatever advocacy work I can, so that my grandchildren will be able to relish it still.


1 Comment

  • Lisa,

    You captured Hansen’s presentation — style and especially content — perfectly! So glad you were able to be there, and even happier you were able to re-state it here for us.

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