"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay - TT's Lost in Tokyo

Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Prominent climatologist Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, who has long been warning of the long-term consequences of man's essentially uncontrolled experiment with the world's climate through emissions of GHGs (CO, methane and CFCs), soot and agricultural practices, has recently ramped up his message that urgent action is needed in order to avoid triggering "dangerous" climate change in the form of rising temperatures and an irreversible melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. 

1.  Hansen has apparently decided that it is time to take the gloves off in a battle that he thinks requires government action, which action he views as having been delayed by fossil fuel firms that have benefitted from (and underwritten efforts to stall movement away from) the status quo.  Accordingly, in order to shift the political balance, Hansen has decided to call not merely for decreases in GHG emissions, but direct leverage against the fossil fuel companies (in an op-ed at the Huffington Post):

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and 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. If their campaigns continue and "succeed" in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials. ...

The fossil-industry maintains its stranglehold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

(emphasis added)

Is this rhetoric appropriate?  Certainly not, even as the frustration that underlies it is an understandable manifestation of the frustration that is common (and perhaps unavoidable) in politicized fights over the use of government to satisfy one's preferences over the preferences of others (viz., "rent-seeking").  Granted, much is at stake (particularly if Hansen's views of the risks are correct), and my sympathies are with Hansen (I am persuaded that his concerns have merit, and the rent-seeking by fossil fuel firms is undeniable), but such rhetoric is inappropriate as long as it is unsupported by allegations of actual criminal behavior - as opposed to simple frustration that the fossil fuel firms have been effective in lawfully manipulating the political system for their private gain. 

While a libertarian may sanction the use of moral suasion and opprobrium - even civil litigation - to strong-arm one's opponents, calling for criminal sanctions by the state against those have successfully manipulated politicians and bureaucrats is a step that simply compounds the underlying illness of statist rent-seeking.

One suspects that Dr. Hansen is simply playing a public relations game, and is not serious about the "state trials", as he has not called for the firms to be muzzled, but rather expressed his opinion and hope that they should some day be held to account for their actions.  Well, Dr. Hansen is certainly entitled to his opinion AND to castigate fossil fuel firms for behaviors that he objects to; while his rhetoric is disturbing, at least he's only volunteering to be a witness and not prosecutor, judge and jury.

Sadly, differing preferences over how to use resources are inevitably politicized when there are no clear owners of such resources or ownership is socialized through government ownership or regulation.  The fossil fuel companies and their heavy users have clearly been rather adept at manipulating political levers up until now; whether Dr. Hansen's effort to turn up the heat on them will be effective or simply provides them with more ammo remains to be seen.

2.  On another level, I do think that Hansen's rhetoric on this is unfortunate, as it is likely to detract from his scientific message, which he elucidates very well in articles, presentations and scientific publications available at his Columbia U. webpage (linked above).  It also draws attention away from his specific policy positions, which have been critical of pork and bureaucratic management of the type presented by the Warner-Lieberman bill.   Hansen has recently expressed strong preference for a simple carbon tax that is fully rebated on a per capita basis, as further noted in the same op-ed (in which Hansen sounds very much like George Will, who also prefers a carbon tax over cap and trade):

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual's bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.

Washington likes to spend our tax money line-by-line. Swarms of high-priced lobbyists in alligator shoes help Congress decide where to spend, and in turn the lobbyists' clients provide "campaign" money.

Hansen's “tax and 100% dividend” proposal, which he floated earlier this month, is based on Peter Barnes's "Sky Trust" cap and dividend approach outlined in “Who Owns the Sky: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism” (Island Press, Washington, D.C., 2001) and reviewed here.

3.  Libertarian legal scholar Jonathan Adler cited Hansen's op-ed at the Volokh Conspiracy blog; I copy below a few comments that I noted in response:

Jon, first, let's not forget that Hansen is specifically addressing not only oil cos but also the coal firms like Peabody and Massey - firms that are leaving massive messes because either they deal in publicly owned and bureaucratically administered land or because they've managed to capture the police, prosecutorial, judicial and political machinery where they operate, as well as the favor of the administration and federal regulators [see my blog post here].

Second, all of his words about public trials notwithstanding, Hansen is obviously waging battle in the courts of public opinion, which is obviously something he has every right to and, far from infringing libertarian principles, seems entirely consistent with them. As Gene Callahan has recently noted,

One way negative externalities can be addressed without turning to state coercion is public censure of individuals or groups widely perceived to be flouting core moral principles or trampling the common good, even if their actions are not technically illegal. Large, private companies and prominent, wealthy individuals are generally quite sensitive to public pressure campaigns.

After all, if libertarians had their way and government stepped out of the roads and regulatory businesses, it's long been the libertarian position that private actions, including lawsuits against road owners, would lead to voluntary collective actions and large damage suits that would better manage resources by incentivizing reductions in pollution and other externalities. (In this context, there are, of course, private action suits now under way against the major fossil fuel firms for climate change damage; these face obvious hurdles, but a libertarian might wish for success, simply to breathe a little more life into common law remedies and take the pressure off of the demands for state action.)

Libertarians do not, as a matter of principle, object to informal public pressure. It is simply Hansen's implication that criminal trials are more appropriate than the common law tort mechanism - which is sadly not too well known and admittedly rather withered due to the success in polluters in subverting injunctive remedies and in capturing the resulting regulatory process - that offends.

On the policy end, of course Hansen does have a statist proposal, but it is probably the cleanest one out there: the carbon tax and 100% rebate proposal, which would put all carbon tax revenues back in the pockets of Americans and than cut short alot of the rent-seeking and pork-management efforts now underway. That's why George Will has recently concluded that a carbon tax is the best approach.

Published Fri, Jun 27 2008 11:25 AM by TokyoTom

Comments

# re: Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Monday, June 30, 2008 8:11 AM by lucia

<i>However, I do think that Hansen's rhetoric on this is unfortunate, as it is likely to detract from his scientific message, which he elucidates very well in articles, presentations and scientific publications available at his Columbia U</i>

The rhetoric detracts very much from the message he wishes to get out.  Nearly every discussion I have read at blogs or newspaper articles has been either a) a reaction to his call for criminal charges or b)discussions justifying his frustration (without accompanying discussion of the evidence for climate change!)

Yours is probably the first post to actually provide links to the tax plan, or discuss it.  

I'll probably blog later. :)

# Lomborg's brilliant climate plan: leave GHG externalities alone and let governments spend 0.05% of GDP on picking winning low-carb technologies!

Monday, June 30, 2008 8:36 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

The folly practically speaks for itself . Why does Bjorn Lomborg think that governments can better determine

# re: Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Monday, June 30, 2008 11:22 AM by Dan Hughes

"(In this context, there are, of course, private action suits now under way against the major fossil fuel firms for climate change damage;  .... )"

Let's see, those who consume the products and services of 'major fossil fuel firms' actually cause, as in are responsible for, 'climate change damage', so let's go get those who provide the products and services.  Very sensible and rational in these days of victimhood.  I can't take responsibility for what I do, so let me blame everyone else.

And its very ironic that those who have started these private action suits could not have taken the very first step in the process without the products and services of the very firms they are suing.

Energy consumption is truly omnipresent in every thing we do.

# re: Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Monday, June 30, 2008 11:28 AM by Dan Hughes

"CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and 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."

Apparently Hansen himself is unaware of his dependence on, and consumption of, the products and services of major fossil fuel firms.

Where does this lead us?  Automobiles kill thousands every year.  Let's sue the auto makers.  Oh, wait a minute, that's been tried wrt guns.

# re: Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Monday, June 30, 2008 11:05 PM by TokyoTom

Dan, thanks for the comments.

1. It sounds like you really don't have any clue about the nature of the private damage suits I'm referring to.  But your approach is very much like the upstream industrial manufacturer saying to those downstream air or water suffer (adversely affecting their health, property and economic planning) to just lump it, because they may also get some benefit from cheaper products which do not reflect the externalizes costs of pollution.

Adopting the "grin and bear it" approach to the costs that economic activities impose on others is a great way to concentrate gains in those who own the economic enterprise, while shifting costs to others.  As far as I know, such a "beggar your neighbor" principle isn't very well grounded in libertarian or free-market ideals, though it's a common enough occurence when the powerful control the formal and informal institutional infrastructure.

The fact that there is a legacy aspect to the problem (given the long-term nature of the influences exerted by GHGs and soot) coupled with the ubiquity of activities that generate them make it virtually impossible for anyone to obtain a private remedy.  But these don't change the conceptual analysis.

2. "I can't take responsibility for what I do, so let me blame everyone else."  Isn't that what you're arguing, implicitly?

3. "Apparently Hansen himself is unaware".  It sounds to me like he is fully aware; in fact, probably more aware than virtually anyone.  I suppose that is why he is speaking out.  If you have a conscience, with knowledge comes responsibility.

4. "Where does this lead us?"  The atmosphere and oceans are vast unowned and unmanaged commons.  Like it or not, we must - at some time or another - develop some institutions to manage them.  The only real question is how much damage we will do to those resources, to ourselves and to other unowned resources that depend on them before we actually undertake and implement effective management.  (Important but ancillary questions relate to the nature of the managment systems and their efficacy and costs.)  

We can start now, or we can start later.  How much damage do you vote for?

5. "CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing".

You seem to have missed that what Hansen is really addressing is not so much the public positions taken by these firms as their hidden use of think tank proxies to discredit science that they publicly support, and their behind the doors dealings with politicians.  I think that these are legitimate points of concern (and are endemic to rent-seeking from government).

# Big Coal is VERY concerned about how Jim Hansen is "cheapening the dialogue"

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 5:22 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

In response to Jim Hansen's recent expressed desire for "public trials" for fossil fuel

# Why top demagogues (Jim Hansen, Florida Power, RAND, Exxon, AEI, Margo Thoring, major economists, George Will) prefer rebated carbon taxes

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 7:12 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

I have previously blogged on libertarian, non-state, approaches to climate change; allow me to use this

# re: Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

Thursday, July 3, 2008 7:19 AM by David Zetland

There are precedents for trying CEOs when they sought to evade the law OR, knowing the penalty to be weak, broke the law because the profits would be larger than the penalties. OTOH, note how BIG cigarette companies managed to expand their market power under the tobacco settlement while passing the cost to smokers. Tread with caution.

# Peabody Coal is VERY concerned about how Jim Hansen is &quot;cheapening the dialogue&quot; - TT`s Lost in Tokyo

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# Peabody Coal is VERY concerned about how Jim Hansen is &quot;cheapening the dialogue&quot; - TT`s Lost in Tokyo

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# Why top demagogues (Jim Hansen, Florida Power, RAND, Exxon, AEI, Margo Thorning, major economists, George Will) prefer rebated carbon taxes

Friday, August 28, 2009 12:52 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

[Note to first-time readers: the title is tongue-in-cheek.] I have previously blogged on libertarian