NASA's Hansen: California's Cap & Trade Doomed to Fail

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Climate scientist James Hansen: no fan of cap-and-trade. (Photo: NASA)

As climatologists go, James Hansen is a legend. In 1988, he was already warning Congress about the dangers of global warming.

The scientist normally speaks in measured tones, but he evoked nervous laughter from the crowd at the Commonwealth Club of California last night when asked by Climate One host Greg Dalton why he didn't favor California's cap-and-trade program to control greenhouse gas emissions. Hansen's response: "Because it's half-assed."

Based on other statements from the climate pioneer, including an interview to be aired on KQED on December 24, it's pretty clear that Hansen was taking aim at cap-and-trade as a concept -- but he made clear that there are features of California's program that he thinks will make it specifically ineffective.

Hansen said California "is a leader and really has people who understand this and want to do something about it, so I'm very disappointed when they choose a half-baked system like cap-and-trade, with offsets." Offsets allow industry to comply with the regulation partially by funding carbon-reduction projects elsewhere, rather than cleaning up their own operations." The comment drew applause from the audience of about 180 in San Francisco. "That's been tried in Europe and it didn't do much,"  Hansen told the audience. "What you want is a system which is very simple."

Hansen, who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, favors "putting a price on carbon" in the form of an outright tax or "fee" on fossil fuel combustion, with proceeds distributed to taxpayers to stimulate the economy and help offset increases in energy prices. In fact, Hansen even has a price in mind: $10 per metric ton of carbon emissions, to start, escalating at $10 per year. That just happens to be within a few cents of the price established at California's first auction of carbon pollution permits, held last month. But when asked by Dalton if cap-and-trade didn't have some "certainty" of lower emissions built into it, Hansen snorted and said, "It's certain that it won't be effective. That's what's certain."


California's program is the result of years of study and public input. It was authorized by the 2006 climate law still known by its legislative shorthand, AB 32.

Other notable moments from the ClimateOne program:

Hansen said that corporate executives whose actions knowingly contribute to global warming should be "tried for crimes against humanity."

On Hansen's penchant for getting himself arrested at protests: "I think peaceful disobedience is one way to draw attention. I'm not suggesting that young scientists do that and get an arrest record but when you're my age, it's fine."

Hansen appeared at the Commonwealth Club of California to accept the second annual Stephen Schneider award, given to scientists who are judged to be outstanding communicators of climate science. The first award went to Penn State's Richard Alley, who has hosted a series of PBS documentaries on Earth's changing climate.

There's more background on California's cap-and-trade program on the KQED Science special coverage page.