James Hansen’s proposals to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Dr. James Hansen gave a speech entitled “Combating the Climate Crisis: The Path from Science to Action” at MIT on April 15, 2014, about what needs to be done to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid dangerous climate change.

I have been an avid reader of Hansen’s work over the last 5 years ever since he published Storms of my Grandchildren. He is a much better writer than public speaker. Watching him stumble through this speech, you would never guess how clear and well-argued his scientific papers are. He really needs others to amplify his idea in the public sphere, because his message is so important if we are going to save the planet.

I heartily agree with most of what Hansen says in this speech, especially the importance of revenue-neutral fee-and-dividend as the most feasible policy in the USA, rather than cap-and-trade and a straight carbon tax. I also really liked his argument about the morality of collaborating and sharing technology with the developing world, especially China. I also agree with his idea that we need to make a bilaterial agreement with China to bypass the impasse at the UN negotiations, and our fee-and-dividend will quickly be adopted by the rest of the world, obviating the need for further UN negotiations. I still wonder how we will decide what the tax on imported goods will be for countries that don’t have a fee-and-dividend, because it is very hard to calculate embodied carbon in order to impose the tax.

Nonetheless, I do disagree with Hansen’s arguments about fast breeder nuclear. First, it will take several decades to do the necessary R&D and then roll it out on a massive scale. We simply don’t have the time to wait for this new technology when we already have clean alternatives which take far less time to implement. Solar and wind plants can be implemented within 1 to 2 years, not 10-20 years for conventional nuclear plant or 20-30 years for fast-breeder nuclear. Hansen argues that nuclear could be rolled out faster if it was a national priority, but nuclear plants will never be build as fast as wind and solar plants.

Second, electricity generated by fast breeder reactors will probably cost more than wind, solar and geothermal. New generators of wind, solar and geothermal currently cost less than new generators of conventional nuclear, and I doubt that fast breeder generators will be much cheaper, whereas the cost of wind is falling 11% per year per kilowatt-hour and solar is falling 14% per year.

On an economic basis nuclear power simply doesn’t make sense, and the security risks are enormous. Even with new designs which are much safer, they can still be sabotaged by terrorists and the history of nuclear plants shows that they have very poor regulatory oversight. In the US, they are often run far longer and at higher levels than they were designed, which increases there risk as cement and steel decays over time.

Hansen believes that nuclear is necessary because wind, solar and geothermal simply can’t supply enough energy and it isn’t as reliable. This may be true for some countries, but the US has plenty of wind and sun, it just needs to over build the capacity, a high-voltage direct current network, and a smart grid which can monitor and quickly reroute energy to areas that need it. Mark Jacobsen et al. (2009, 2011) says that the world can switch to all renewable electricity without nuclear by 2030 and all our energy including transportation by 2050. One problem I see is that Jacobsen, Hansen and many others plan to implement more hydroelectric dams, but these dams generate large amounts of methane and CO2 in areas with heavy vegetation. Studies show that hydroelectric power in tropical rainforests generate more greenhouse emissions per kilowatt-hour than burning coal.

Another area where I disagree with Hansen is his faith in the private market to do long-term energy R&D. The private sector does good short-term R&D which can lead quickly to commercialization, but long-term and massive-scale R&D needs government. Fast-breeder reactors will never be developed by the private sector. Hansen argues that the government is too slow, but the governments during WWII showed that they can be very fast during emergencies. I would argue that we need an interventionist government like we had during WWII to transform the industrial output of the major economies to produce energy efficient devices, trains, buses and other public transport, wind turbines, solar panels, insulation and many other things needed by the green economy. Still, I bow to Hansen’s political judgment that command and control like we had during WWII simply isn’t going to happen, so fee-and-dividend is the best we can hope for, at least in the short term. If we have some planetary disasters, the political will for command-and-control and government intervention might arise. We can only hope.


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