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The Hot Air in John Kerry’s Disappointing Climate Change Op Ed

John Kerry’s heart might be in the right place when it comes to combating global warming, but not his head.

John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State, speaks during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The Global Climate Action Summit brings together industry and political leaders working on improving the conditions and concerns facing climate in the world today. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

This week Kerry wrote a New York Times op ed on climate change, which I found to be exceedingly disappointing. To my mind, Kerry’s op ed did little more than relate dire descriptions of unmet expectations from the Paris climate agreement, a global environment in steady decline, and President Trump’s policy to increase the rate of green house gas emissions.

Descriptions are fine. However, what is tragically missing from Kerry’s op ed is advocacy for a sensible global price for carbon. That, I would argue, is where his head needs to be.

There is some history worth recalling here. Kerry headed the U.S. delegation to negotiate the Paris agreement. Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, Kerry engaged in a dialogue about carbon pricing with James Hansen, who it is fair to say is the best known climate scientist on the planet. In a one hour exchange, Hansen forcefully argued for incorporating carbon fees into climate change agreements, stating that such agreements would lack teeth without them.  Kerry might have listened, but he rejected the idea.

James Hansen sits for a portrait in his home in New York on April 12, 2018. NASA’s top climate scientist in 1988, Hansen warned the world on a record hot June day 30 years ago that global warming was here and worsening. In a scientific study that came out a couple months later, he even forecast how warm it would get, depending on emissions of heat-trapping gases. (AP Photo/Marshall Ritzel)ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the end the Paris agreement contained no provision pertaining to instituting a global price for carbon. At the time, Hansen used the terms “fraud” and “fake” to describe the final accords, saying that without a carbon fee, the world would not live up to the fossil fuel goals articulated in the Paris agreement.

In contrast, an ebullient Kerry stated his view that with all due respect to Hansen, transparency and disclosure would be sufficient for countries to live up to their Paris agreement commitments. Kerry went on to say that he believed Americans would not accept their country backtracking on their country’s commitment to the agreement. He added say that he did not believe it possible for an American president to be elected unless he or she understood climate change and was committed to the kind of policy spelled out in the Paris agreement. Moreover, he said, even were a Republican to be elected president, American public opinion would prevent U.S. backtracking on these commitments.

Well, in retrospect, Hansen was right and Kerry was wrong. Indeed,  those who care to review Hansen’s past writings will discover that he has been prescient when it comes to the big picture issues. Hansen should have a lot of credibility. However, as he has noted, politicians do not behave rationally, which comes as no surprise to behavioral economists.

Here we are three years after Paris, with an international climate change conference taking place in Katowice, Poland, whose delegates are bemoaning the failure of signatories to live up to the Paris agreement, along with other issues highlighted by Kerry in his op ed.

The world does need to price carbon and other greenhouse gases. In 2015, Hansen suggested a fee of $15 a metric ton that would increase by $10 a year. That compares to a plan put forward about two years ago by a group of Republican dignitaries, namely George P. Shultz, James Baker and Henry Paulson. Under their plan, the fee would initially be $36 per metric ton, which would give rise to an increase of about 36 cents per gallon of gasoline and an increase in retail electricity rates between 5% and 10%. The fee would be increased annually by 2% and the rate of inflation.

Nobody I know claims that a carbon fee is a panacea that will solve global warming with nothing else required. Rather it is a necessary condition to induce people around the world to reduce their fossil fuel consumption and invest in innovative cleaner alternatives.

It is time for proponents of climate change policy like John Kerry to accept climate scientist James Hansen’s position about a carbon fee, and forcefully support it.  Otherwise their words about climate change will do nothing except create more hot air.

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