Special interest groups with big wallets are ruining the chance of making any progress toward critical issues — from climate change, drug pricing and the advancement of next generation nuclear technology, an expert said this week.
Dr. James E. Hansen was in Utah Tuesday for a special event hosted by The Nature Conservancy and the Natural History Museum of Utah, where he detailed the pitfalls and mistakes made by the United States, and other countries around the globe, to get serious on cooling down the atmosphere.
In an interview with the Deseret News, he was blunt about big money interests and lobbyists exerting their will on two polarized political parties that have been so castrated they can’t achieve any effectiveness on making meaningful change — in just about any arena of public policy.
In the meantime, he said, the U.S. public in the middle of the extremes are alienated with the whiplash swings of a political hierarchy that leaves them like a stalled car on the side of a remote highway, with no one offering substantive help. The emergency lights keep flashing, but no one is paying attention.
“We’ve got political parties on both sides taking money from special interests,” he said. “And unless we solve this problem with our democracy, we really can’t change the climate change problem. And the public knows this. That is why they are so fed up with Washington; the swamp they call it, the swamp of special interests.”
Just fixing the price of drugs is held up by pharmaceutical companies due to special interest money, and like climate change, any effective progress is held hostage by the dollar, he said.
Climate change as a political hostage
Hansen said he has met with high ranking officials from multiple administrations over the years, scratching his head over the seismic shift from hope for change to a nosedive landing in the universe of impossibility because of votes — again ruled by special interest groups with big pockets.
When it comes to presidential administrations, Hansen was generous in his criticism: George H. Walker Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were among those he mentioned.
Obama, for example, started out as a politician who Hansen said eschewed big money contributions and relied on $25 from donors but hit Wall Street after the Great Recession in 2008.
“Obama eventually gave in and took the big money and he did not understand what was needed.”
What exactly is needed, according to Hansen? A fee and dividend system in which the price of fossil fuel is gradually raised to reflect carbon emissions, and those dividends from the revenue generated get returned to people — not the government. In fact, according to a research paper Hansen recently coauthored, the very wealthy who have a much larger carbon footprint, as well as the government, would not see a return.
But, 70% of lower income and middle income people would receive more money than the cost of the fee, the research notes, citing a U.S. Treasury study.
He said the United States may have cut carbon emissions more than any other country in the world, but that ignores the harsh reality of the country’s cumulative emissions over the years. China may lead the world in its emissions now, but the United States has had a long love affair with fossil fuel pollution.
However, immediately cutting off fossil fuels is not the answer, Hansen says.
“I have been advocating for close to 20 years for a policy called fee and dividend. It makes the price of fossil fuels honest. But you have to do that gradually, because fossil fuels are very useful,” Hansen said. “I mean fossil fuels have raised the standard of living in the United States and the Western world tremendously and the rest of the world also wants to raise their standard of living. Unless there is a better alternative, they’re going to do it the same way we did. That is what China is doing, that is what India is planning to do.”
Why Hansen says nuclear energy is the answer
With developing countries aiming to raise their own standard of living, Hansen said relying on fossil fuels as did the United States and the Western world will not work to cool the warming atmosphere.
Nuclear energy is the key, he says, adding he organized a workshop in China to discuss the pursuit of this type of power generation.
“That is one of the big problems we have had in this country where we have had particular problems with the Democratic Party, which decided there were a lot of votes in being anti-nuclear. And the truth of it is, with the old, current technology, which is 50 years old, it is our safest form of energy.”
He and three other scientists wrote a letter to three of the largest environmental organizations asking them to reconsider their opposition to nuclear energy and they rejected it.
“And when we met with the leader of one of the biggest organizations, we found out the reason is they are getting a lot of contributions, which they would lose if they change their position on nuclear power.”
He said the groups and governments rely on scare tactics.
“And so what we’ve got is these so-called environmental organizations who are in many ways our worst enemy for the environment and our young people. We just have to overcome that.”
The nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, amplified the fear and gave the U.S. government and other countries the reason to pull out of nuclear altogether or make the licensing of a new facility through the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission so onerous it naturally deterred new investment.
“That is intentional,” he said, adding that NRC is designed to “kill” nuclear power, not facilitate its development in a safe way.
He also called the worries over nuclear waste storage a “big bugaboo,” asserting it is stored safely in dry casks and waiting to be repurposed for use in next generation nuclear technology.
Hansen actually criticized the International Panel on Climate Change with its thousands page of documents in a report that buried the fact that new nuclear energy reactors have the smallest geographic footprint of power energy sources, but it disallowed Germany to use nuclear energy as a qualifying clean energy source.
“Renewable energy has a major role to play in the future, but it is not sufficient by itself,” Hansen said.
Their future, our youth
Hansen said he was once interviewed by television commentator Larry King on climate change, and King told him no one cares about what is happening 15 years from now.
“That is the problem, where this inertia of the system delays response, and so that means it is an issue for the young people.”
He said Biden is not working on the problem and is instead in pursuit of hegemony to appear “tough” by not working with China on climate change and its energy goals.
“In order for the United States to be the leader, we really need to be the shining city on the hill. We have to fix our democracy and the Democratic Party thinks fixing our democracy is electing more Democrats. That’s not the problem, it is the money in Washington.”
While it will be a long road, he believes young people — who do care about what is happening 15 years from now — can bring enough pressure to elect a few leaders from their own, alternative party to Congress. Then, both of the other political parties may have to move away from the extremes.
“I think most of the republic does realize there is something wrong in Washington and that is why they are oscillating from one extreme to another. ... So my recommendation is for the young people to start working for a new political party.”
Hansen wants young people to push the older generation to put pressure on both parties by that third party that will not take money from special interests.
“And young people have shown you do not need the money, you can use social media to get the message out without advertising on television.”