News & Media Opinion Pieces James Hansen of NASA says a carbon tax must be universal – Edinburgh Medal Oration

James Hansen of NASA says a carbon tax must be universal – Edinburgh Medal Oration

James Hansen of NASA says a carbon tax must be universal – Edinburgh Medal Oration

James Hansen of NASA says a carbon tax must be universal – Edinburgh Medal Oration

James Hansen, one of the most respected figures in science has been awarded the Edinburgh Medal and will give his Oration today at the Edinburgh Science Festival; this event is symbolic for Hansen’s leadership, for Science in Scotland and for a capital city that lead the Enlightenment.

The Edinburgh Science Festival is a partnership between the University, the City of Edinburgh and local commerce.

In his Oration Hansen says that current generations have an over-riding moral duty to their children and grandchildren to take immediate action on climate change. The science is now crystal clear. It is an issue of inter-generational justice on a par with ending slavery.

Why Scotand?
Reason and truth as reflected in science were pillars of the Enlightenment as was the emergence of moral duty and justice.  In 1750, Scotland had a population which was 75% literate, the most literate in Europe. Scotland was a keen driver in the Enlightenment, which replaced the existing order with reason and truth based on science.

Why the link with slavery?
Moral duty and justice flowered with the Enlightenment and the evils of the slave trade were no longer tolerated. By contrast, today the ideals of the Enlightenment are threatened. Instead of the authority of the Church and Monarchy, we have the power of corporatism. The Enlightenment is usurped over the science of climate change.

Why Edinburgh?
Today one can stand at “The Cross” of Edinburgh and know that 50 men of genius lived and debated within a stone’s throw; David Hume, Adam Smith (the Wealth of Nations) James Watt, Robert Adam and 46 more, the names of whom are known to all scholars today.

Under the Act of Union, Scotland retains its educational system independent from England. Its 5 million people retain a passion for education, which carries almost religious fervour. When I studied medicine in Edinburgh some years ago Oatmeal Mondays were still preserved to reflect this commitment. They allowed for a long weekend holiday when students could hasten back to their Highland crofts for supplies.

During the 17th century, Scottish university students lived in very basic accommodation and had to bring their own fuel, peat, to maintain a fire. Their diet was meager and consisted of oatmeal which they would make into porridge. This lifestyle would remain typical until the late 19th century, Rev. James Sharp noted that as a student at the University of Edinburgh, “the liberal arts, sciences and theology were cultivated on oatmeal, with an occasional glass of beer on a Saturday night.”

Scotland with a population of 5m has Edinburgh in the top 50 Universities in the World; the only comparable small country, Switzerland (8m) has two. Interestingly, both are countries without natural resources (apart from the 30 years of Scottish oil royalties spent by the UK) and both are dependent on their intellectual skills. Australia, with a population of 23m, has two universities in the top 50, ANU and Melbourne, both ranked below Edinburgh.

Scotand is a very different nation to England. English internationalism is based on colonisation and the Empire. Scottish internationalism is founded on science and learning, as epitomised by Adam Smith.

Why James Hansen?
He will endear himself to the Scots for he is a reticent man, a brilliant scientist and a man who has been arrested in the cause of education.

In his oration he says that the challenge facing future generations from climate change is so urgent that a flat-rate global tax is needed to force immediate cuts in fossil fuel use.  Hansen said his proposal for a global carbon tax was based on the latest analysis of CO2 levels in the atmosphere and their impact on global temperatures and weather patterns. He has co-authored a scientific paper with 17 other experts, including climate scientists, biologists and economists, which calls for an immediate 6% annual cut in CO2 emissions, and a substantial growth in global forest cover, to avoid catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

The paper, which has passed peer review and is in the final stages of publication by the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that a global levy on fossil fuels is the strongest tool for forcing energy firms and consumers to switch quickly to zero carbon and green energy sources. In larger countries, that would include nuclear power.  Under this proposal, the carbon levy would increase year on year, with the tax income paid directly back to the public as a dividend, shared equally, rather than put into government coffers. Because the tax would greatly increase the cost of fossil fuel energy, consumers relying on green or low carbon sources of power would benefit the most as this dividend would come on top of cheaper fuel bills. It would promote a dramatic increase in the investment and development of low-carbon energy sources and technologies.

Essentially this is what the Australian government is promoting with its carbon tax

On a personal note I completed 3 degrees at Edinburgh University. Every learning moment was a pleasure and I believe that Edinburgh University makes every student into a life long Scholar- in the true sense of the word. – Ed


Read a full report in the Guardian UK