Politics and the Planet2


Up to this point, Hansen has built a sturdy case. His discussion of the science is heavy-going, if only because paleoclimatology and radiative physics can make for a difficult slog, but this is still an excellent primer. Hansen walks the reader step by step through the detective's tale of how he came to his conclusions, laying out uncertainties and addressing objections. Yes, many climatologists would disagree with his views on sea levels and the direness of our current situation. But it is also true that past forecasts from "consensus" groups like the IPCC appear to have been too rosy on matters like ice-sheet loss—a reason to listen carefully when Hansen speaks.

But when Hansen steps out of the scientific arena and into politics, he starts to stumble. Politics, after all, is an area of expertise like any other. Just because you are a world-class scientist doesn't automatically make you an authority on how Congress works. Hansen keeps insisting that "special interests" rule Washington, and that lobbyists have weakened the cap-and-trade bill before Congress beyond repair. Instead, he proposes, Congress should discard the whole thing and pass a simple tax on carbon-dioxide emissions. Problem solved! Except that if Congress is festering with lobbyists and special interests, wouldn't they just rip apart a carbon tax, too? As it turns out, that is what happened to Bill Clinton's ill-fated BTU tax in 1993. If there is one thing lobbyists are good at, it is scraping out exemptions in tax bills. What's more, even after House Democrats bent over backward last year to accommodate electric utilities and other polluters, Congress only barely squeaked out the votes for a cap-and-trade bill. Why would it be any easier to pass a robust carbon tax?

There is nothing wrong with demanding more of Congress. Tackling global warming is going to be a massive endeavor, and outsized reforms always require both outsiders who ask for the moon and insiders who know when to compromise to get something passed. Yet Hansen seems to deny that compromise is ever necessary. In recent months, he has spent his time trying to poison all ongoing efforts to tackle climate change. At the Copenhagen summit in December, he was rooting publicly for the international talks to collapse. But what would happen if they did? Would everyone start over again and magically arrive at a better agreement through sheer willpower? He seems to believe so. In his book, Hansen presumes that China and the United States would agree to a global carbon tax "once both countries realize they are in the same boat and will sink or survive together." This sounds like Obama's critics on the left, who in recent weeks have lobbied Congress to scuttle its health care bill and try again for an even more ambitious package, even though killing the current efforts could wipe out all further momentum for reform.

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