James Hansen is NASA’s chief climate scientist. He recently testified for the defense in the trial of 20 climate activists convicted of “conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass” on a Ratcliffe coal plant in England. Although Hansen is refreshingly candid about the impact of carbon mitigation strategies, he suffers from a basic confusion over the economics of climate change legislation.

Activists on Trial

Hansen took the stand to declare that carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants pose a threat to humanity.  A Guardian (U.K.) story summarizes the episode with a sympathetic eye:

Nasa’s top climate scientist Jim Hansen told a jury at the trial of 20 environmental activists that he had begun speaking out about climate change again in the past five years because of his grandchildren.

“I did not want them to say: ‘Pa you understood what was happening but you never made it clear’,” the 69-year-old told the trial last Monday.

The activists were found guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass by the court today, and could now face suspended prison sentences.

Hansen had flown overnight from his home in the US to give evidence about the science of climate change and in particular the threat posed to humanity by the burning of coal at plants such as E.ON’s at Ratcliffe-on-Soar.

Hansen, whose speech to Congress in 1988 is seen as pivotal in first bringing climate change to the world’s attention, is well-versed in speaking out against the coal industry. Nottingham is not the first British court where he has given evidence. He testified last year in the case of the “Kingsnorth Six”, who had climbed up E.ON’s coal plant. They also used the climate change defence – that their actions were designed to prevent immediate harm to human life and property from climate change – and were acquitted.

In his witness statement submitted for last week’s case, he argues that if the burning of coal continues to grow at its current rate, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will rise to between 500 and 600 parts per million. This is way above the current level – of about 389ppm – and the maximum level considered safe by an increasing number of scientists of 350ppm.

Let’s Count Benefits and Costs of Restricting Coal

It is ironic that someone would travel thousands of miles using transportation which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide to testify about the evils of emitting carbon dioxide. But let’s put that irony aside and for the sake of argument, let’s also put aside the technical issue of whether carbon dioxide emissions pose the threat that Hansen claims. Suppose he’s right. Even so, his position that these particular power plants pose an immediate threat to human life and property doesn’t make sense.

We are not lawyers, but in a commonsense meaning of the terms, coal burning does not pose an “immediate harm to human life and property,” any more than James Hansen could be accused of manslaughter for taking his carbon dioxide emitting trans-Atlantic flight to testify in the case. Even if the underlying climate science were exactly as Hansen describes, it’s still not true that we could point to specific people this year who would die because of any particular coal plant.

Furthermore, even if we broaden the definition and include vague notions of statistical deaths due to the accelerated climate change, then by consistency we would have to quantify the “immediate harm to human life and property” coming from rising energy prices. The more “immediate” the criterion, the worse things will be for the climate activists, because expensive energy hurts now, whereas the vast bulk of avoided climate damages of Hansen’s computer models don’t accrue until decades down the road.

Lest there be any doubt that Hansen’s aggressive climate objectives would impose economic pain, consider this quote from later in the Guardian article:

[Hansen] is scathing about discussions at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen last year and Cancún, which reaches its climax today, over agreeing emissions targets, based on a cap-and-trade system. “Cap-and-trade with offsets will not work. Because by definition they are trying to trick you. By saying you can put a cap on but it’s not going to make energy much more expensive – if it doesn’t make energy much more expensive it’s not going to be effective.”

If we are going to tout the benefits of carbon mitigation strategies (i.e. restricting the use of coal and other fossil fuels), then we should also discuss the costs. Ironically, if we look at the estimates put out by the IPCC itself—which is supposed to represent the “scientific consensus” on climate change—then the case for aggressive government action falls apart.

Thinking on the Margin

Hansen displays more ignorance when he suggests that failure to implement curbs on emissions will hurt a country economically:

“What I realised is that the most important thing is China,” he says, cradling a beer and still wearing his trademark cowboy-style wide-rimmed hat. “They have shot past the US as the biggest emitter by far and they are going to go higher still. It’s to their advantage to put a price on carbon. They stand to suffer more from climate change than most places. They have air and water pollution which is horrendous. They don’t want to follow the path of the US where the country becomes addicted to fossil fuel and has to protect the supply lines around the world. They have taken the right first step. They are now the number one producer of solar cells, wind and nuclear power.”

He is less positive about his own country. He points to the legal battle in the US in 2007 over tough new car emission restrictions which demonstrated the susceptibility of federal government to lobbying by big business he says. “The government stood in court alongside the automakers resisting improved vehicle energy efficiency. It’s not democracy the way it was intended to be. It’s money democracy where $1 is what counts rather than one vote.” If the US does not start weaning itself off fossil fuels soon, he believes the country is “headed for second- or third-grade status in decades to come”. [Bold added.]

Again, for the sake of argument, let’s concede that the environmental damage wrought by continued fossil fuel emissions is just as dire as Hansen says. Even so, an individual country prospers to the extent that it can avoid cutting back its own emissions, while other emitters go through the painful withdrawal. Even if we take Hansen’s view of fossil fuels at face value, the situation would be analogous to one baseball team’s players being allowed to use steroids, while every other team had to renounce them. That wouldn’t spell doom for the team in question; they would gain a tremendous advantage over their rivals.

Hansen, however, seems to want it both ways in the quotation above. He has already admitted that reducing emissions to the extent he deems necessary, will require painful increases in energy prices. Therefore, if China does the “responsible” (according to Hansen) thing and weans itself of fossil fuels, while the U.S. “foolishly” (according to Hansen) continues with the status quo, then the U.S. will gain economically relative to China. U.S. businesses and consumers will have access to cheaper energy than their Chinese counterparts, while the possible climatic impacts would not discriminate on the basis of the emitter nation(s).

Even if the alarmists like Hansen are perfectly correct in their warnings, global climate change is a global problem. For a given level of global emissions, the impact on China from climate change will be the same, whether the emissions come from China or from the U.S.

On the other hand, the costs of restraining emissions largely fall on the individual countries imposing them. It is this asymmetry that makes international emission negotiations so difficult. If China or European countries scale back their emissions, they will have to “share” the (theoretical) climate benefits with everybody on Earth, whereas their own people will bear the lion’s share of the sacrifice.

Now it’s certainly true that this outcome could be construed as grossly unfair, from Hansen’s point of view. But if he is going to jet around the world in a carbon-dioxide emitting plane, lecturing governments on how they need to revamp their citizens’ energy system, he should at least understand the very basics of climate change economics. If Hansen wants to appeal to Americans’ sense of fairness or responsibility, his warnings would at least be coherent. But it makes no sense to tell Americans, “We need to seriously raise energy prices, lest we fall behind China economically.”

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