Dr James Hansen is justly described as the grandfather of climate science. His classic scientific articles over 20 years have been landmarks in the growth of understanding of how human-induced climate change happens,  and how it can be fought.  He recently visited Australia on a 10-day speaking tour promoting  Storms of my Grandchildren, his new book explaining to general readers his scientific and political thinking.

Hansen spoke in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Media interest was minimal, and focused on disagreement between Hansen and Australian anti-nuclear advocates such as Mark Diesendorf and Greens Senator Scott Ludlum. The Australian environmental movement took little interest. Hansen was not invited to meet government environmental ministers or officials in Canberra.   His talks were organised by his publishers, with help from Professor Barry Brook’s pro-nuclear Safe Climate Australia, and from university public outreach programs.

Australia’s environmental groups tragically turned their backs on the opportunities his visit presented for major public education exposure to cutting-edge world climate science and policy thought. [My accompanying blog on Rooted is a compressed summary of what I take to be main themes in Hansen’s rich and comprehensively argued book].

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Anti-nuclear activists were determined to discredit his view that nuclear energy cannot be excluded as part of a multi-pronged global decarbonisation solution.   Hansen’s argument is that if we truly conclude from the science that climate change is the greatest threat facing our children and grandchildren, nuclear power prototype research should be pursued:  and that the risks associated with nuclear energy (accident, safe storage and pollution, weapons proliferation) are manageable second-order risks if nuclear energy proves to be a necessary part of a global decarbonisation strategy.

Hansen doesn’t care whether Australia builds nuclear power stations or not: he knows Australia could probably rely on a non-nuclear renewable energy solution,  and advanced nuclear power research is happening anyway in the countries that will need it — China, India, Japan, Europe (France),  and now by Obama’s decision the US. Dogmatically to rule out nuclear energy as a possible part of a global decarbonisation strategy is another kind of climate change denialism. On this view, it is more important to keep nuclear power out of Australia than to confront the greater challenge of protecting the climate security of our descendants — a strange moral ordering.

Hansen’s firm preference for a simple fully refundable carbon tax, over complicated corruption-prone carbon trading systems. exposed him to the silent hostility of environmental groups that accept the Rudd government’s “politically realistic” stance that ETS/CPRS is the best policy. Hansen’s contrary arguments deserved to be heard and discussed, especially after Copenhagen.

Australia could not deal properly with Hansen, because in our political culture, everything has to be dumbed down to one or two simplified  “debates”, from which there must be winners and losers. Australia was the loser, from the way Hansen’s rich thought was rejected or ignored by those groups in the best position to understand his massive contribution to world climate science,  and to policy thinking on how there is still time for solutions to disruptive climate change. These groups would rather wallow in existential pessimism and self-righteousness. Climate change denialists and fossil fuel carbon lobbyists can only have looked on in silent delight.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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