We Can Save the Earth
This article was published in The Post Millennial on March 26, 2019 under the title "We can address climate change without fear mongering".
I suggest a new rule for any discussion we have about climate change. The rule is simple: from now on, every article we write on the subject for a broad audience must include some variation of the phrase “we can solve global warming”. It has the virtue of not only being true, but also helpful.
While serious policymakers and scientists correctly identify global warming as a grave danger to humanity, it’s a mistake to rely solely on fear to motivate people. Research in behavioral psychology has shown that most people tune out when threats appear overwhelming or unresolvable. It’s no wonder, then, that the infamously dour New York Times article on the new IPCC findings last year quickly faded into the background.
However, pessimism about our chances of addressing global warming isn’t just bad strategy, it’s also wrong. Avoiding the worst effects of global warming requires decarbonization, which means severing the connection between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. This is a very achievable goal. In fact, it’s been done before. As Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist write in their recent book, A Bright Future, Sweden decarbonized their electricity sector in the latter half of the 20th Century by investing heavily in nuclear energy and hydroelectric power. Both technologies are extremely low-carbon, with the only significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from their construction and decommissioning.
Sweden’s clean energy transition is one of the greatest technological feats of our time. In 2015, fossil fuels generated only 2% of the country’s electrical supply, while hydroelectric power and nuclear energy accounted for over 80%. Some of the credit for this rapid change also goes to the tax on greenhouse gas emissions that the government enacted 1991, which currently stands at €114/metric ton of carbon. The Swedes are famous for being among the happiest people in the world, which belies idea that tackling climate change involves pain. Decarbonization on a global scale won’t be as simple, of course, as the shift to clean energy in a relatively small country. Yet France – a much larger country – also managed to decarbonize its electricity sector by switching to nuclear power following the 1970s oil shocks.
We would be wise to follow the blueprint laid out by both countries. The United States government can lead the way in developing efficient, low-carbon electricity generation through a public-private partnership to manufacture the next generation of nuclear power plants, creating a standardized design that brings down the cost of production for private firms. It doesn’t have to be expensive. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, doubling the world’s present nuclear capacity by 2040 would cost $80 billion dollars annually. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to total global economic output every year, which in 2016 was $75.4 trillion dollars.
The expense of building new plants in the United States could decline significantly if we transition to small modular reactors (SMRs) instead of conventional technology. These reactors can be prefabricated on an assembly line and shipped to location. NuScale Power, a private energy company, has already designed a power plant that uses SMRs and are projected to cost around $3 billion dollars to construct. Such an SMR plant would generate 730 megawatts electric. The total capacity of all nuclear power in the United States is currently 99 gigawatts electric, which is 20% of our country's electrical generation, and around 60% of the carbon free electricity. For an average yearly price tag of roughly $37 billion dollars, or 0.93% of the total federal budget in fiscal year 2017, we could construct 136 new plants using SMRs and double America’s nuclear capacity by 2030. If we don't prematurely retire any more nuclear plants and the share of wind and solar grows at the currently projected rate, clean sources of electricity could make up over half of the country’s energy sector within eleven years. Even this upbeat projection might be overstating the costs of the energy transition, however. NuScale believes it can place their reactors in the footprint of retiring coal plants around the country and produce zero-carbon electricity.
State governments can also expand their renewable portfolio standards to include nuclear power and make their emission reduction targets even more ambitious. The federal government can help by expanding the renewable energy standard for the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public utility company and a legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-poverty crusade. Federal funding for the expansion of electrified public transit, research and development for low-carbon steel production, and energy efficient buildings should also be part of the package. After all, technological innovation and infrastructure spending are as American as apple pie.
To make clean sources of energy even more competitive with fossil fuels, we also need to make pollution expensive. The case for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions is basic economics. Increase the cost of an item, and firms and consumers will want less of it. Most economists, irrespective of their political affiliation, support pricing emissions.
Think of taxes as moral instruments. An emissions tax informs you of the value that society loses when it burns fossil fuels. Again, the clearest success story here is Sweden, which reduced its emissions by 26% in less than 30 years after imposing its tax. But why stop there when we can go even bigger? One recent bipartisan proposal in Congress would reduce emissions by 40% in twelve years and return all the revenue to the people as a universal dividend. If law, it could create 2.1 million new jobs over the same timeframe. It’s a win for both social justice and the environment. Another, equally ambitious bipartisan bill introduced last July would spend most of the revenue on repairing infrastructure.
Any effective strategy to save the planet from the worst effects of global warming will require all of us to rethink some of our political beliefs. Conservatives and libertarians in the United States, for example, need to accept that government sometimes plays an important role in developing new technology beyond funding basic science. This hostility to government intervention of any kind is one of the reasons why some powerful actors on the political right still deny, or downplay, the findings of most climate scientists. As a libertarian myself, I share many of my friends’ concerns the government interfering with the free market. Before deciding upon any course of action, however, we should look at the alternatives. The costs of business as usual, which range from mass extinction of wildlife to severe shocks to the economy, are simply too high. Unlike the outcome of bad tax or drug policies, this kind of damage is not reversable. But it is avoidable.
At the same time, liberals and democratic socialists need to make their peace with nuclear power. Opposition to atomic energy on much of the left overlaps with fear of nuclear weapons, even though the fuel for weapons is far more complicated to produce than the enriched uranium we use in plants. Anti-nuclear activists also frequently cite the danger of radioactive material. However, 2007 study in The Lancet concluded that nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy generation that we know of. In 2013, NASA climatologists James Hanson and Pushker Kharecha estimated that nuclear power had already saved up to 1.84 million people worldwide from premature death by reducing air pollution. This isn’t a surprise, given that a nuclear power plant generates 6% of the emissions of a coal plant over its entire lifecycle for the same amount of electricity. There are risks, as with any other form of electricity generation. But most of the hazard comes from mining uranium, and not the operation of the plants themselves or waste disposal.
Perhaps you’re still uneasy about nuclear energy and want utilities to power society with 100% renewable sources of electricity. Unfortunately, this strategy is a dead end. Wind and solar by themselves can’t generate reliable electricity around the clock like nuclear energy does, and in the U.S. we’ve already hit the ceiling on hydroelectric power. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report last year that explored multiple pathways to decarbonization with a clear verdict: the only clean energy portfolios that do not create obvious supply shocks involve nuclear power. This isn’t just theoretical. When the Vermont Yankee Power Plant shut down prematurely in 2014 after pressure from an anti-nuclear governor and competition from natural gas, both energy prices and greenhouse gas emissions increased, reversing a long trend of falling emissions in New England. Our overblown fear of radiation poisoning is more dangerous to the planet than nuclear energy itself. In contrast to the fiasco in Vermont, the Democratic governor of Connecticut recently displayed true leadership when he saved the Millstone plant from retiring. It’s imperative that we follow his example and protect existing nuclear plants from being prematurely shut down.
Strictly on their own, carbon pricing and nuclear power won’t be enough to avert the worst effects of global warming, nor can the United States alone solve the climate crisis. We need a broad portfolio of measures to finish the job, including policies to reduce pollution from farming and transportation, as well as new ways to produce steel without coal. But these problems are speed bumps, not roadblocks. By adopting a can-do attitude and relying upon strategies that work, we can turn the decade that humanity met the challenge of global warming into its proudest moment. We can rise to the occasion while lifting vulnerable communities out of poverty and avoiding unnecessary sacrifices. The future of our planet can still be a bright one if we act quickly enough.
I would like to thank Brian Carpenter, a nuclear engineer, for fact-checking this article, as well as Eric Meyer, David Watson, River Bennett, Jonathan Tweet, Jim Hopf, David Cornell, and Alan Medsker from Generation Atomic for helping me correct the many blind spots in the original draft.