A message to the climate community.
Friends, so many of you have posted wonderful pictures of celebrations, escapes into beauty, and reflections on both the joys and the sorrows of the past, while projecting and wishing good things for our future.
In this moment of wishfulness and open introspection, I want to inject a somber note and personal challenge. We are entering the third decade of this 21st millennium with a raging catastrophic climate crisis — caused by emissions that are not stemmed at all by the sum of global efforts to date.
There have been many diverse efforts to address this problem involving many brilliant thinkers and activists. Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Michael Brune, James Hansen, Christiana Figueres, Steve Schneider, Naomi Klein, Marshall Sanders, Bob Inglis, Jay Faison, Katherine Hayhoe, President Obama, and more recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg come to mind. We are exhorted to act but we have found no workable solution to our essential challenge: meeting our enormous global energy needs “cleanly,” meaning without emitting CO2, methane or other heat-trapping gases. So we keep burning fossil fuels at increasing levels.
In the past 15 years of my deep dive into climate solutions, I have found many surprises involving both good and bad news. The good news: we actually can have a workable solution to this problem which could be achieved on a global scale and on time. The bad news: we are too polarized to accept the solution. What is it? Build clean energy grids using solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power—which are our best clean energy sources—and effect the right policies to encourage this solution to be used globally.
Ironically, environmentalists also attack nuclear. Originally, because inflamed fears of nuclear bombs and nuclear power helped them build the environmental movement in the first place. After 60 years of safe operating history, now they oppose nuclear for its “unsafe” waste, when that waste has been safely stored for 60 years. The solution to waste has always only been blocked by politics; and now, if things go right, old waste may have use as fuel for the next generation of nuclear plants, which are in development . . . !
If you haven’t guessed, the controversial part is using nuclear power, which today provides 55% of all of the U.S.’s clean energy. It is the only clean energy source that is not weather dependent and provides base load, reliable power enabling us to avoid further investment in natural gas or coal.
Expanding nuclear also affords us the luxury of having excess power for critical climate services like water desalination, carbon sequestration and hydrogen production. With low-cost hydrogen and CO2, we can cost-effectively produce synthetic fuels, that can be used by the installed base of combustion engines for “carbon-neutral” operation, until they can be replaced by electric versions, thereby eliminating the need to drill for petroleum.
Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry has attacked nuclear since it emerged on the scene because it is the only technology that competes with coal, oil and gas on price and reliability. They have successfully branded nuclear as “dangerous” even though more people die every day from fossil fuels than have been killed by nuclear energy in its entire 60 history.
What I have learned is that there are two whole and very different sectors that are working on climate solutions for us but they are NOT working together and many feel they are working in opposition. This dysfunction is possibly the cause of our failed efforts to date—both groups need to collaborate if we are to succeed. Environmentalists, green policy people, academics and progressives support the build out of wind and solar but want to close nuclear plants. On the other side, most energy experts, climate scientists and the IPCC, the national labs, the nuclear industry, bipartisan majorities of Congress and most conservatives support the modernization of nuclear power for environmental, economic and even national security reasons.
If we were able to unite these two disparate groups and get them to collaborate on designing clean, reliable grids, we’d have the makings of a powerful and strategic alliance that would be able to work against the political power of the fossil fuel industry. With very little but bipartisan political will, we could:
1) End fossil fuel subsidies, 2) Price CO2 externalities, 3) Level the policy field for ALL types of clean energy, not just “renewables,” which means that every geographic region of the world can pick which clean sources work best there, whether Solar, Wind or Nuclear power, 4) prioritize funding of innovative technologies that rapidly improve these clean technologies and their economics (which are still making them more expensive than cheap gas) along with carbon sequestration technology, and 5) apply nuclear’s excess capacity, so we can begin to restore the climate.
My challenge to you is to consider whether you are able to yank yourself out of your personal mindset, and demand from all leaders (from environmental NGOs to elected officials) that we support and use ALL clean energy types (not just your personal favorite) and deploy bipartisan solutions to save our future which is much dimmed by climate threats. Working smarter together to end fossil fuel’s choke hold on our politics is the only way we are going to get our emissions on the right track this decade, as we most urgently need to.