Visionary climate change scientist James Hansen recently toured New Zealand, giving several public lectures. I’m told that on at least two University campuses the audiences were the largest ever seen for a talk, with Hansen’s presentation broadcast to about 1000 people in several different lecture rooms simultaneously. In short, crowds were huge. Not that you’d know it from the media attention mind you. Coverage was sporadic at best. I guess a world authority speaking to record audiences on the greatest challenge facing our civilisation isn’t the right kind of news then. Hmmmm.
The University of Otago has put a podcast of Hansen’s talk on line (bravo!). So if you have some time to spare on long (and wet?) weekend, do yourself a favour and find an hour to watch it. After introductions Hansen starts at about 5:15 in the clip:
Right out of the gate Hansen sets climate change as a moral issue of intergenerational injustice. He calls on us to force our governments to protect the future of young people, and future generations.
As anyone who is not wilfully blind to the evidence knows, we have a crisis on our hands. Hansen highlights the gulf between what the scientists know, and the general level of public understanding. Our climate has a lot of inertia, there is already significant warming “in the pipeline”, and several possible tipping points (where runaway effects become self reinforcing) are in play. Hansen notes that humans are 10,000 times more significant than current natural sources of C02. In other words, it is humanity that is driving the future climate.
Focusing on the important limit of 350ppm C02 in the atmosphere (see 350.org), Hansen stressed that we have to leave the coal in the ground. Specifically, in New Zealand, we must not mine the extensive lignite reserves in Southland. (That call at least got some media attention, and see related here and here.)
On the current state of the global response, Hansen discusses the huge gap between our rhetoric and our actions, that the “greenwash” / disinformation campaign is winning, and the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen. As a solution (45:05 in the clip) Hansen favours a simple universal price on carbon emissions (oil gas and coal at first point of sale). This carbon tax should be paid directly and equally to every member of the public to compensate for rising energy costs and so on. In this way alternative energy sources will become cheaper than fossil fuels – Hansen is strongly in favour of letting the marketplace make the decisions.
Closing on notes of optimism (54:00), Hansen stresses that China “gets it”, and is making enormous investment in carbon-free energy. He also recommends that citizens adopt a legal approach, using the judiciary to force governments to action (57:10). The atmosphere is a public trust asset, which government has a “fiduciary obligation” to manage. Fascinating stuff.
One interesting, and depressing factoid to emerge from the post-talk questions, was Hansen’s reaction to his meeting with Nick Smith, our Minister for Environment and Climate Change. That, Hansen said, was “a very unpleasant discussion” (1:14:20). Yeah, that sounds like Nick Smith all right – makes me so proud to be a New Zealander.
Anyway, that’s my quick summary, but as I said, do yourself a favour and watch the whole talk. Tell your friends. Unless we the public demand action from our politicians, our kids are pretty much screwed.