Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 11, November 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Top Climate Scientist:
Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future

Nadia Prupis

This article was originally published in
Common Dreams, 4 October 2016
under a Creative Commons License

The report warns that future generations may be forced to use "negative emissions" measures to forcibly extract CO2 from the atmosphere as temperatures keep rising. (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

"Make the price of fossil fuels honest. Stop subsidizing them. And make them pay their cost to society."

Fossil fuels must be taxed out of existence to ensure that future generations are not saddled with a world of rising seas and extreme weather—and all the costs that come with them—according to a new research paper by renowned climate scientist and Columbia University professor James Hansen.

"The science has become crystal clear," Hansen said Tuesday during a press conference to discuss the report, Young People's Burden (pdf), co-written with 11 other top scientists and published in Earth Systems Dynamics Discussion. "We have to phase out carbon emissions over the next few decades."

The research paper warns that "The assumption that young [people] will somehow figure out a way to undo the deeds of their forebears has crept into and spread like a cancer through United Nations climate scenarios."

As it becomes increasingly difficult to keep global temperature rise below the agreed-upon climate threshold of 1.5°C, the report states that future generations may be forced to use "negative emissions" measures to forcibly extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Those range from simply "improved agriculture and forestry practices" to carbon capture and storage (CCS), a more controversial technique that could cost from $104-570 trillion.

"It is a very dubious idea and the cost of it is not negligible," Hansen said.

One of the most important measures that can be implemented now is a steadily increasing tax on carbon and an end to government subsidies for the dirty energy industry, Hansen said Tuesday.

"There's a
misconception that
we've begun to address
the climate problem."
—James Hansen
"Make the price of fossil fuels honest," he said. "Stop subsidizing them. And make them pay their cost to society."

"If we put a gradually rising fee on carbon emissions, it will spur the business community and entrepreneurs and the public to develop carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, and it will spur the public to change their choices so that we move rapidly to reducing emissions and move to clean energy," he said.

The research paper also finds that the planet is the hottest its been in 115,000 years, all due to climate change—and the landmark climate agreement is unlikely to bring about substantial change, Hansen warned.

"There's a misconception that we've begun to address the climate problem," he said. "This misapprehension is based on the Paris climate deal where governments clapped themselves on the back but when you look at the science it doesn't compute, it's not true."

The former NASA scientist is one of nearly two dozen plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit filed against the U.S. government by the legal nonprofit Our Children's Trust, which alleges that lawmakers are actively causing climate change and not protecting the environment, thereby depriving future generations of their constitutional right to life, liberty, and property. The other plaintiffs range from ages nine to 20.

They include Hansen's 18-year-old granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, who said in a joint video discussion released alongside the report, "Today's adults benefit from fossil fuel burning and leave the waste for young people to clean up. We should be moving on to clean energy, leaving dirty energy in the ground."

In Canada on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the launch of the nation's first-ever carbon tax that will begin at $10 per ton in 2018 and increase by $10 per year until 2022.

The framework "sends a clear signal that we're all in this together and that we need a federal approach to regulate carbon pollution," said Amin Asadollahi of the International Institute of Sustainable Development, but critics said the tax price is too low to make an impact.

"I was very disappointed we were starting with $10 per ton," said MP Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, "which is so low under British Columbia's carbon tax of $30 per ton. It was an obvious political calculation."


Nadia Prupis joined Common Dreams as a staff writer in June 2014. She previously held a reporting fellowship with Truthout and has been published in The Nation, New America Media, Ms. Magazine, and other outlets. Before joining Common Dreams, Nadia lived and worked on a literacy development project in Kenya.

Young People's Burden:
Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions

James Hansen et al

This article was originally published in
Earth System Dynamics, 4 October 2016
under a Creative Commons License

Abstract: The rapid rise of global temperature that began about 1975 continues at a mean rate of about 0.18 °C/decade, with the current annual temperature exceeding +1.25 °C relative to 1880–1920. Global temperature has just reached a level similar to the mean level in the prior interglacial (Eemian) period, when sea level was several meters higher than today, and, if it long remains at this level, slow amplifying feedbacks will lead to greater climate change and consequences.

The growth rate of climate forcing due to human-caused greenhouse gases (GHGs) increased over 20 % in the past decade mainly due to resurging growth of atmospheric CH4, thus making it increasingly difficult to achieve targets such as limiting global warming to 1.5 °C or reducing atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Such targets now require "negative emissions", i.e., extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

If rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions begins soon, most of the necessary CO2 extraction can take place via improved agricultural and forestry practices, including reforestation and steps to improve soil fertility and increase its carbon content. In this case, the magnitude and duration of global temperature excursion above the natural range of the current interglacial (Holocene) could be limited and irreversible climate impacts could be minimized. In contrast, continued high fossil fuel emissions by the current generation would place a burden on young people to undertake massive technological CO2 extraction, if they are to limit climate change.

Proposed methods of extraction such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or air capture of CO2 imply minimal estimated costs of 104–570 trillion dollars this century, with large risks and uncertain feasibility. Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, possibly implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both, scenarios that should provide both incentive and obligation for governments to alter energy policies without further delay.

Citation: Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., von Schuckmann, K., Beerling, D. J., Cao, J., Marcott, S., Masson-Delmotte, V., Prather, M. J., Rohling, E. J., Shakun, J., and Smith, P.: Young People's Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions, Earth Syst. Dynam. Discuss., doi:10.5194/esd-2016-42, in review, 2016.


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