Government Intervention Needed to Control Climate Change

Jenna Orkin


  The government has to step in to prevent climate change from getting out of control, said James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science, speaking at the New Yorker Festival on Saturday.  Buildings could become 50% more energy efficient if the government installed a price on emissions.  Regulations are also needed on lighting, Hansen said.  Otherwise energy-saving frugality on the part of conscientious consumers will simply drive the price down resulting in other consumers' squandering.   Insisting that solutions to climate change need not involve deprivation and that they were 'more doable than you think,' Hansen reminded the audience that solutions were found for the ozone problem.  Of course, in the case of the Montreal protocol on ozone, the United States took a leadership role which could hardly be said of the Kyoto Protocol.  However Hansen suggested that the Kyoto Protocol did not go far enough.  It is inadequate to say that some countries must act immediately while others will follow later; everyone has to act now.   Dr. Martin Hoffert of NYU agreed that government intervention is needed though he stressed investment rather than regulation.  "The invisible hand of the market won't do it," Hoffert said, citing prior examples where innovation came from government investment, for instance in the military.   The only member of Saturday's panel to mention Peak Oil, Hoffert maintained that there is enough coal to replace oil but that using it would drive the climate back to the Cretaceous period.  He also said that a 'paradigm shift' is necessary in the economy, an opinion which was echoed by former Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado.  Asked by FTW if by that they meant relocalization, Hoffert agreed in principle though neither panelist elaborated on what, in their view, a reformed economy would look like.    Senator Wirth differed with Hansen on the value of individual acts to combat climate change illustrating with the eyebrow-raising example of Walmart that tried to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its 100 million customers.  (Dr. Hansen pointed out that solid state lightbulbs are even more efficient.)  The Senator suggested that global warming would be greatly alleviated if Walmart did the same with biofuels.   Asked by FTW to compare the Energy Returned on Energy Invested of oil (30:1) to ethanol (according to some experts, negative) and other biofuels, Senator Wirth alleged incomprehensibly that the EROEI of oil was "75%."  Dr. Hoffert told FTW, "I happen to agree with you on biofuels but we'll get into a big fight."   Hoffert, a physicist, admitted to a fondness for innovation, citing a possible central location for nuclear power that could safely sell to international customers including Saddam Hussein; or a plant that would collect solar power during the day and sell it to a country on the other side of the world where it was night.  He also said that nanotubes might one day make it possible to enter outer space in an elevator.    Hansen said that global warming has to stay below 1 degree Celsius or positive feedback will kick in.  The hottest the earth has been in the last million years is 1 degree hotter than now.  The Ice Age was 5 degrees colder.  Two million years ago, the temperature was 3 degrees hotter but there was no ice in the Arctic.   As a way of conveying to the public the urgency of the situation, the panel suggested that the military might be the appropriate body since in general they command respect, an idea that elicited queasy laughter among the audience.