Dr. James E. Hansen brought a message of intergenerational justice to Salem last month. He brought an even more fervent version of the warning from his 2009 book “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity,” which he wrote in hopes of avoiding his descendants’ reproach for not having done enough to warn the world about the crisis.  He refers repeatedly to his fears that his grandchildren will say “Opa knew what was happening, but he couldn’t explain it to people.” So Opa hits the road, trying to wake up a sleeping world.

An adjunct at Columbia, Hansen sports a beard and a dapper fedora that would fit on another rugged professor (Anthropology prof. Indiana Jones). In Salem to give the Dempsey Lecture for the Willamette University’s Center for Sustainable Communities, he gave Salem Weekly nearly an hour beforehand, warning that humanity has very little time left to reduce fossil fuel emissions that are pushing us into a completely foreseeable human-caused disaster of widespread species extinctions, droughts, famines, and floods. He is adamant that we must stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal and tar sands, as rapidly as possible.

Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For over a century, we have known that CO2 traps the sun’s reflected heat, keeping it from radiating out into space, the same way that water vapor on a foggy Salem spring night traps the day’s warmth. Except that, unlike water vapor, CO2 persists for centuries.

Hansen is touring, speaking out, writing, and even getting arrested as part of a prophetic campaign to warn the world of the wages of sin, burning fossil fuels, but also offering a uniquely American idea for redemption: use financial incentives to reward efficiency and innovation, and count on the magic of the marketplace to do the rest.

That’s the kernel of Hansen’s novel “Fee and Dividend” proposal: a small but inexorably rising fee imposed on any fossil fuels extracted from any source, collected at the mine mouth, or well head, or at the port of entry, with the same fee added to the cost of imported products like cars and iPhones, unless they come from countries that have the same or greater carbon fees already applied.

If this sounds like a tax, it isn’t, because it does not produce any revenue for government. Because Hansen’s fee comes with a dividend: he calls for the government to give every penny of the fee collected back to Americans each month, with no cut for government at any level.  Indeed, he estimates that 60% of us would make money on the deal, even after taking into account the way higher fossil fuel costs would pervade throughout the economy. We would see higher prices for all carbon-emitting energy, and also for anything mined, mowed, made, or moved with carbon-based energy (which is essentially all food and manufactured goods today). But not necessarily forever, thanks to the powerful incentive to shift to renewable, low-carbon and carbon-free sources.

The plan postulates an initial fee starting at $10 per ton, increasing another $10 annually until reaching $100, when Hansen estimates that our carbon emissions would drop by a third. The “hands-off” strategy is designed to avoid repeating past blunders that turn out to be environmental and ecological disasters, like the Carter-era “syn-fuels” and ethanol programs.

Rather than rely on government-mandated technological solutions, Hansen says fee and dividend would produce the tech breakthroughs all over the world, as exporting nations would adopt the same fees if only to avoid having their exports hit with the fee at our ports, with the revenue going to our residents.

A small detail in the proposal may create crossover appeal that unites the Occupy Salem crowds and the people who taunted them, folks who hate anything that smells like a tax and who are frequently heard to complain about the about the costs that “illegals” impose on taxpayers. That’s because the proposal is that the monthly dividends go only to legal US residents. (Faced with rising prices for all goods and services, but denied the dividend needed to pay them, it does seem plausible that many undocumented immigrants would flee the US if they could not obtain legal status.)

According to Hansen, the tiny “average” heat imbalance – about six-tenths of a watt when averaged over the entire surface of the earth – is 20 times greater than all of humanity’s energy use today, and is about the same amount of heat energy as 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic weapons being exploded . . . daily, 365 days a year. Thus, even what sounds at first like a tiny energy imbalance is actually enough to rapidly destabilize Earth’s climate and possibly force hundreds of millions of people to flee rising sea levels and agricultural calamities such as drought and heat stress.

Hansen returns in every talk to the theme of climate as a justice issue, because it is our actions now that will determine whether future generations have any hope for a stable climate – and because the evidence makes clear that we can no longer pretend that the climate isn’t changing to justify our refusal to respond:

“Our parents didn’t know, but we can only pretend we don’t know. The science is now crystal clear . . . we’re running out of time. If we do sensible things now that are actually beneficial for our nation relative to other nations, and are beneficial to the economy, we can solve the problem, but not if we pretend that there isn’t a problem. And it will not only help with the climate, it will help with our national security [and] our energy independence. So there’s every reason to do it.”

A condensed version of a talk similar to Dr. Hansen’s Dempsey Lecture at Willamette is available at http://tinyurl.com/James-Hansen-in-Salem