Top Climate Scientist: Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future

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.


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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.”

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