Yesterday I went up to Auckland University business school to attend Prof James Hansen’s public lecture on climate change and moral implications – or so was the official title. What he mainly presented to the hundreds of people who were fast enough to grab a seat in cramped the lecture theatre (they had to stream to another room, so popular was the talk), was a wrap-up of scientific findings showing that yes, climate change is happening, that carbon emissions are our key concern (all the natural processes that also lead to climate change are much slower and therefore can’t really be blamed for the speed of current changes), and how irresponsible governments are to acknowledge the issue but not to do anything/enough about it to make sure that we stay below a certain tipping point, after which global processes will be entirely out of our control. Despite the fact that most in the audience (made up of a healthy mix of citizens all the way from party leaders to entrepreneurs, the “concerned public” and students) will have already known about this, the attention was total. In fact, I don’t remember any public lecture where so many people were so attentively listening. But then again, the talk was about the future of our life on this planet…
Unfortunately, Prof Hansen spent more time running through the scientific evidence than focussing on moral implications (apart from showing pictures of his grandchildren on the presentation slides). When asked about his stance on Nuclear energy, he revealed a questionable moral standing himself by persisting that Nuclear energy was still the best option for most countries, as renewables wouldn’t be able to do the job. That might be explained by his American focus and nationality, as in other countries people are more optimistic about their coal and nuclear free energy future. Nevertheless, considering his argument pro nuclear that only a few – if at all – of the people involved in nuclear accidents actually died from that exposure to radiation makes one want to send him a flight ticket over to Chernobyl in good old Ukraine to get a more real-life perspective. Considering that he spoke to a kiwi audience (New Zealand declared itself a nuclear free zone quite some time ago) there was not a lot of buuuh or baaaah to be heard. Only some energetic head shaking from the younger crowd – which will have been too intimidated anyway to speak up against the highly decorated and distinguished Columbia University professor and NASA research leader (apparently Mr Hansen receives on average two prestigious awards a year).
Judges and China: Our only hope?
After a couple more questions from the audience (among other he confirmed that expanding coal mining will be a bad thing for New Zealand to do), Hansen came up with two notes of optimism how we might still be able to tackle the global warming issue. First, the legal system. The judicial branch, he noted, was less influenced by big carbon business lobbying than parliaments and governments and could therefore be expected to show a bit more courage regarding climate change issues than the other two. Second, and this was interesting, China. More than any other country on earth, the Chinese are investing in carbon-free energy (although I would add they are investing in coal and Nuclear plants, too). Apart from that, soon China will have surpassed the US economically not least because it has jumped on the green economy band waggon – and the US has not.
Prof Hansen’s talk itself was not world-changing. What struck me though was how many people (and how diverse!) showed up and how attentively they were listening to what he had to say. It shows that more and more are taking climate change serious as an issue that – if not them – might seriously affect their kids or grandchildren. Moral implications (not only issues of justice between nations and continents, but also between generations of the same family) are becoming more apparent. As Hansen put it: Your kids or their kids might very well ask you one day: “Grandpa, you knew about the problem but didn’t do anything about it when you still could?!” That might be a tough one to explain…
Update: Professor Hansen was interviewed by Kim Hill on RadioNZ. There he talks a bit more about why carbon cap and trade systems are doomed to failure and why a carbon tax is the way to go. Get the mp3 here.
Picture credit: Joy Garnett creative commons