After the signing of a historic climate pact in Paris, we might now hope that the merchants of doubt – who for two decades have denied the science and dismissed the threat – are officially irrelevant.
But not so fast. There is also a new, strange form of denial that has appeared on the landscape of late, one that says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs.
Oddly, some of these voices include climate scientists, who insist that we must now turn to wholesale expansion of nuclear power. Just this past week, as negotiators were closing in on the Paris agreement, four climate scientists held an off-site session insisting that the only way we can solve the coupled climate/energy problem is with a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power. More than that, they are blaming environmentalists, suggesting that the opposition to nuclear power stands between all of us and a two-degree world.
That would have troubling consequences for climate change if it were true, but it is not. Numerous high quality studies, including one recently published by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, show that this isn’t so. We can transition to a decarbonized economy without expanded nuclear power, by focusing on wind, water and solar, coupled with grid integration, energy efficiency and demand management. In fact, our best studies show that we can do it faster, and more cheaply.
The reason is simple: experience shows that nuclear power is slow to build, expensive to run and carries the spectre of catastrophic risk. It requires technical expertise and organization that is lacking in many parts of the developing world (and in some part of the developed world as well). As one of my scientific colleagues once put it, nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.
The only country in the world that has ever produced the lion’s share of its electricity from nuclear is France, and they’ve done it in a fully nationalized industry – a model that is unlikely to be transferable to the US, particularly in our current political climate. Even in the US, where nuclear power is generated in the private sector, it has been hugely subsidized by the federal government, which invested billions in its development in order to prove that the destructive power unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be put to good use. The government also indemnified the industry from accidents, and took on the task of waste disposal – a task it has yet to complete.
We also have to pay attention to the problem of continued fossil fuel development. Climate activists have focused attention on divestment as a means to remind the world that continued investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure is inconsistent with the decarbonized economy that we need.
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And here, there are some interesting facts that most people don’t know. In a recent study that I did with my colleague Richard Heede, we examined the potential impact of using the proven reserves of fossil fuels in the world. We discovered a surprising fact: if all the reserves in the hands of investor-owned companies were to be burned, we would not exceed the 2C (3.6F) target.
What puts the world at risk are the reserves in the hands of nation-states – which are mostly coal – and the continued exploration for more oil and gas by private companies like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP and Shell. Most of the coal reserves are in developing nations such as China, which increasingly recognizes the very serious damage that coal use entails and is looking for alternatives modes of development. So this leaves us with the investor-owned companies seeking new reserves, and it means that we must find a way to convince – or prevent – these companies from continued exploration.
So far no one has proposed a plan to do that, and we probably won’t get very far if the alternatives to fossil fuel – such as renewable energy – are disparaged by a new generation of myths. If we want to see real solutions implemented, we need to be on the lookout for this new form of denial.
There have been important signs of late of cracks in the Republican rejection of climate science, as some party leaders have signaled their willingness to consider carbon pricing. Still, as new forms of denialism continue to emerge, it is hard to imagine federal implementation of a climate plan any time soon, much less the sort of ambitious plan that would help keep the world below the 1.5-2C (2.7-3.6F) level of warming, per the Paris agreement.
When President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, many critics of the decision (and even some supporters) said it was merely symbolic. Symbols matter – so even if it were, that would not necessarily be bad. But rejecting XL was a crucial step in the direction of rejecting new commitments to fossil fuel infrastructure.
The key to decarbonizing our economy is to build a new energy system that does not rely on carbon-based fuels. Scientific studies show that that can be done, it can be done soon and it does not require nuclear power.