James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, is one of the most impassioned and trusted voices on global warming. People listen closely to what he says about how drastically the climate is changing.
But when Hansen suggests what to do about it, many of those same people tune him out. Some even roll their eyes. What message is he peddling that few seemingly want to hear? It’s twofold: No. 1, solar and wind power cannot meet the world’s voracious demand for energy, especially given the projected needs of emerging economies like India and China, and No. 2, nuclear power is our best hope to get off of fossil fuels, which are primarily responsible for the heat-trapping gases cooking the planet.
Many in the environmental community say that renewable energy is a viable solution to the climate problem. So do numerous energy wonks, including two researchers who penned a 2009 cover story in Scientific American asserting that “wind, water, and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy” by 2030. Hansen calls claims like this the equivalent of “believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
He’s not the only environmental luminary who is bullish on nuclear power. Last year, Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, echoed Hansen’s argument. A number of other champions of nuclear power have stepped forward in recent years, from Australian climate scientist Barry Brook to American writer Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy. A breakaway group in the traditionally no-nukes environmental movement has also begun advocating passionately for nuclear power. That story is the subject of a new documentary that is premiering this month at the Sundance Festival.
These are not corporate stooges of the nuclear industry; to a person, their embrace of nuclear power is motivated by a deep concern about climate change and the conviction that no other carbon-free source of energy is sufficient (and safe) enough to replace coal and gas. They see themselves as realists who want to solve the full equation of global warming and energy, not a fantasy version of the problem.
The stark reality of the challenge at hand is that the global politics of climate change has stalled. Few countries are willing to make economic sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions.
Another reality is this: Coal is the source of nearly half the world’s energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report last month projecting that the trend will increase throughout the decade. “In fact,” according to IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven, “the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tons of coal per year by 2017 compared to today—equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States."
Hoeven said the “the biggest hope for reducing emissions from coal plants” globally was natural gas, which has already started to happen in the United States. Although natural gas is cleaner than coal, it too is a major source of greenhouse gases and prolongs our dependence on dirty energy. Then there is the controversial issue of fracking. The drilling technology has helped usher in a huge gas boom but has also triggered much grassroots opposition due to a new set of environmental concerns. Prominent greens were touting natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future just a few years back, but if anything, gas seems to have put off investments in clean energy.
Where does that leave us? Some environmentalists continue to insist that renewable energy (primarily solar and wind) can provide enough juice to power the world. The Energy Collective, a site that boasts “the world’s best thinkers on energy & climate,” recently put up a piece titled: “100 Percent Renewable: The Only Way Forward.” (In fairness, the site features a broad range of views.) The article describes the climate imperative and states: “If human beings are to preserve modernity and planetary habitability, we must soon shift to 100 percent renewable energy in all sectors.”
This is, to put it charitably, wishful thinking. Renewable energy analyst Vaclav Smil lays out the major drawbacks with wind and solar: The energy it produces is intermittent, there is marginal storage capacity, it is still too costly, and it takes too long to scale up to become a meaningful substitute for coal. Community opposition to the industrialized footprint of solar installations and wind farms is increasing.