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I manage Restore Mass Ave, an environmental non profit that adds urban forest​ in Washington DC. Debthink is my personal site for posting about science and the environment, with info about my books.
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Tuesday
Sep082009

Should scientists attack the cap and trade bill?

June 2009

Physicist James E. Hansen is a walking, talking study in the social responsibility of scientists. He’s chosen to act politically out of scientific conviction—a choice more US scientists will face as the political debate about climate change heats up this summer.  Below I ask visitors to this blog if they see an analogy with the Manhattan Project scientists who campaigned for nuclear arms control after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hansen is famous for his early and continued calls for action to stop global warming, He now uses his celebrity to demonstrate against mining and burning of coal, the chief US and global source of harmful emissions. “Better leave the coal holding up mountains,” he says.

June 23 Hansen and actress Daryl Hannah were arrested at a demonstration against Massey Energy’s plan to scrape off more mountain top to get coal in West Virginia. The resistance was organized by  Coal River Mountain Watch. Hannah’s account  is on Huffington Post and Hansen’s statement is  here.

Hansen compares the trains carrying coal to power plants with the trains that carried victims to camps of the Holocaust. Further extraction and use of coal is a crime.

“CEOs of fossil energy companies…are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature,” he said in a June 2008 speech at the National Press Club. Last year in  "Hansen: Earth’s Climate Near the Tipping Point," I contrasted Hansen’s radicalism with mainstream environmentalists’ support for cap and trade legislation. I wrote that Hansen contends that the United States is abetting global warming past a planetary tipping point. He’s a bit dodgy about when the point will be passed. But he’s adamant that the cap-and-trade bills in Congress won’t point US emissions low enough, soon enough. All the while, he maintains his job as Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and his scientific reputation.

His quixotic-seeming goal that planetary concentrations be stabilized at no higher than 350 parts per million volume (ppmv) is attracting more US followers. So is his proposed solution of a carbon tax. Indeed some economists who are not exactly left wing eco-nuts, such as Kevin A. Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, favor a carbon tax over cap-and-trade.

Last September Hansen testified at a trial in Great Britain in defense of six protesters trying to block a new coal plant proposed at Kingsnorth. (They were acquitted.) He had also asked Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada to suspend the permitting of three proposed coal plants. You can follow Hansen’s appearances via Google, Bing, or the Jame E.  Hansen page maintained by Columbia University.

I invite your comments on two questions:

(1) Does anyone besides me see an analogy with the special responsibility of the scientists who created the first atomic bombs and, when they saw the effects, campaigned for nuclear arms control?  

The Federation of American Scientists has a brief video of physicist Hans Bethe at recalling their decision to warn of nuclear weapons’ dangers at About FAS. The FAS page explains: “they believed that scientists had a unique responsibility to both warn the public and policy leaders of the potential dangers…and to show how good policy could increase the benefits.”

(2)  Activists pressing the United States to limit emissions, to avoid runaway effects, face the same dilemma that I described in my Hansen article

The House passed a cap-and-trade bill June 26, known as the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454) or by its acronym ACES. Mainstream green groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council supported this bill because at least it would lower US emissions from the “business as usual” pathways that would fry the Earth’s  atmosphere in about 100 years.  But the bill doesn’t cap US emissions enough to stabilize global levels at 350 ppmv, assuming other nations followed suit. The cap is also pock-marked with loopholes. (The Pew Center on Climate Change has good summary on its ACESA page.)

The Senate will consider similar legislation soon; the President wants a reconciled version  to sign into law. Mainstream greens support the current approach, hoping that later,  somehow, the caps and loopholes can be fixed (as I wrote).

Should activists, including scientists, support the pathway that Congress and the Administration are on? Or should they attack or debunk it?

Please comment below.

References (13)

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