COP23: Famed climate scientist Hansen warns of 'bigger problems' than Trump

James Hansen talked to DW about liberal governments that don't act coherently when it comes to global warming – and why they're more dangerous than climate change deniers like US President Donald Trump.

DW: What do you think about the energy policy of Germany as the COP23 organizer? There are still more than 70 coal power plants operating in Germany - we are actually only about 50 kilometers away from Europe's biggest coal mine. Isn't that a contradiction, especially when you consider Germany's goal of a 40 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020?

Nature and Environment | 10.11.2017

James Hansen: Yes, Germany is a problem. Because it made an unrealistic assessment of the time scale on which we have to solve this problem. We can't set up new power plants that are burning brown coal, we have to phase out carbon emissions rapidly. Germany is actually useful in the sense that it's demonstrating just how difficult it is to switch to all renewable electricity - that is expensive.

Read more: Why Trump can't kill the climate deal

I think that Germany made a mistake when they decided to phase out nuclear power. But we don't want to expand the all-nuclear-power and light water reactors [either]. We have known for decades how to use much better technologies that are much safer and much more difficult to [weaponize].

Nature and Environment | 09.11.2017

Unfortunately Germany is not following a path on which they will be able to rapidly phase out carbon emissions. But we have got a worse problem in places like the United States. I don't want to spend too much time criticizing Germany.

COP23 Klimakonferenz in Bonn Sophie Kivlehan und James Hansen

Hansen with his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan at COP23 in Bonn. Kivlehan, with a group of 20 other people aged 10 to 21, filed a lawsuit against the US federal government in 2015 for its inaction on climate change.

Trump is withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. But this won't go into effect until November 2020. Do you think the United States will really leave the agreement?

Frankly I don't think it matters a lot. It is completely hopeless with the US government [anyway]. It was already hopeless with the preceding government, which pretended that it was solving the problem but was taking only baby steps. It allowed the building of tar sands pipelines, the development of fracking to get more gas out of the ground, tar shale to be developed in North Dakota, and drilling in the deep ocean, drilling in the Arctic.

Governments that say climate change is a problem and then propose half-baked solutions that don't solve anything are in some ways a bigger problem than the Trump-type governments. With those, everybody got to see what they were doing and that they were in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. But liberal governments are not solving the problem either.

Then what is your formula to reduce carbon emissions?

We have got to get somebody in power who will admit the simple fact that as long as fossil fuels are allowed to be cheap, you cannot solve the problem. By subsidizing solar panels and such, you cover a few percent of our energy need [with renewables]. But fossil fuel use continues with no substantial reduction.

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Environment | 09.11.2017

Living Planet: Germany's coal problem

We have got to make the price of fossil fuel honest. That means you must have a rising carbon fee, the carbon tax. We argue that you need a carbon fee and dividend. You collect the money from the fossil fuel companies, but distribute it to the public in an equal amount to everybody. So the person who does better than average in limiting their fossil fuel use will make money.

That will spur entrepreneurs to develop clean energies and energy efficiency, and it will encourage people to pay attention to the carbon footprint. Unless we have that price on carbon, I don't see how we can solve the problem.

James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA, is seen as "the father of climate change awareness" because of his early warnings in a famed US congressional testimony in 1988.

Nature and Environment

Exit coal - now!

One day before COP23, thousands of anti-coal mining activists gathered to urge a complete phase out of coal for use in power stations. The protesters, dressed with in protective white suits, walked for about 10 kilometers — from a nearby village to the Hambach coal mine.

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Block the destruction

Hambach is the largest CO2 emitter in Europe. Its expansion has already partially cleared out a 1,000-year-old forest and left several ghost villages behind — with more to come. Activists believe the climate talks going on in Bonn, only 50 kilometers away, are a complete nonsense while the mine keeps running.

Nature and Environment

Fighting in peace

Despite a heavy police presence, the mood for Sunday's protest was very peaceful. The protagonists waved colourful banners and wore painted faces. Some brought guitars and played music - at least during the first part of the day.

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Attention: danger to life

As protesters approached the mine, police officers moved in and began blocking the march. With loud speakers, they warned the demostrators that they were trepassing on private property and they posed a risk to security.

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Run, run, run

As the drew closer to the mine, the long line of demonstrators suddenly burst into life, with many people running and shouting, forgetting the many kilometers they had already walked.

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A one-day success

Activists said that blocking this type of coal infrastructure was the best way to make their voices heard for an immediate transition away from coal. And yes, at least for a while, the giant digger stopped operating. The hundreds of activists who made it to the coal mine hailed the stoppage as a great success.

Nature and Environment

No more coal for climate

Anti-coal activists say no other place in Europe represents the dependence on coal for electricity as well as the Hambach mine. Among the many signs carried by protesters, one of the often repeated ones was: Exit coal, protect the climate.

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Far from an end

Towards the end of Sunday's march, two more groups who had gotten separated from the main demonstration, joined up with their comrades. Here you can see the police have lined up to prevent their advance.

Nature and Environment

Time for action

The activists were successful in shutting down parts of the Hambach mine for just a day. But whether politicians will take any long-term measures regarding coal mining during the COP23 climate conference remains to be seen.