Wednesday, November 17, 2021

You Want Sustainability? You're Going to Need Sustainable Politics

The movement to contain climate change has certainly generated a lot of support on the center-left, particularly among elites and activists. What it hasn't generated is a serious, sustainable politics that could plausibly lead to the changes such elites and activists advocate.
Peter Juul runs the sad realities of this down in a new piece on The Liberal Patriot:
"Last Saturday, the COP26 global climate summit drew to a close in Glasgow. Though the usual suspects declared it a failure even before it finished, the conclave of world leaders and officials did yield some incremental progress on climate change....Ironically enough, the summit occurred in the midst of a global energy crunch that illustrates the limits inherent in contemporary climate politics. It’s a crisis that’s apparent in Europe, where a tight global natural gas market and the limitations of intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar have caused energy prices to spike in recent weeks and months. Here in the United States, average gasoline prices have soared well above their both their pre-pandemic and 2020 levels – to the point where a gallon of gas in October 2021 cost more than a dollar more than in October 2020. With winter coming in both the United States and Europe, moreover, higher natural gas prices will mean higher heating costs for average Americans and Europeans.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we’re seeing the shortcomings of our current climate politics and policies play out in real time with dreadful consequences for ordinary citizens. Spurred on by warnings of an inevitable climate apocalypse, over the past decade the United States and European nations embarked on energy transitions that weren’t fully thought through and, as a result, remain incomplete and inadequate to their energy needs. What’s more, these transitions have enhanced the geopolitical leverage of fossil fuel producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia – witness European fears about Russian gas diversion and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent attempt to cajole Riyadh into increasing oil production.
In other words, today’s climate politics have become unsustainable."
Juul suggests three ways to remedy this unsustainable politics, all of which I heartily endorse:
1. "Be realistic and honest about energy transitions. Right now, climate politics and policies rest on heroic assumptions about the ability of renewable energy sources like wind and solar to meet the lion’s share of our energy needs. Despite the claims of many climate activists and advocacy groups, these intermittent sources can’t do so without help from coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy that can generate “baseload power” that keeps the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. That also means recognizing that we’ll still need sources of oil and gas during this transition period if we’re to avoid future energy crunches of the sort we’re seeing now. Careful planning will be required to phase out oil and gas over time without imposing unnecessary hardships on citizens and economies that currently depend upon them – hardships that could politically threaten these transitions. Realism and honesty about energy transitions doesn’t entail catastrophism; on the contrary, they’re indispensable to the sort of rational optimism needed to make progress against climate change.
2. Go nuclear. It’s hard to see how the United States, Europe, and other industrial nations can maintain their standards of living without a substantial increase in the use of carbon-free nuclear energy. At minimum, that means keeping existing nuclear power plants like California’s Diablo Canyon up and running – not shutting them down. It also means building new nuclear reactors, either to replace existing ones as in the UK or to make good on national commitments to carbon neutrality as in France. Here in the United States, there will need to be significant regulatory reforms to reduce the cost of nuclear construction and allow research and development of new, more advanced nuclear technology to proceed more efficiently. But there’s no politically sustainable path to net zero carbon emissions without more nuclear power capacity, most likely in combination with renewable energy sources like wind and solar as well as geothermal power and carbon capture systems.
3. Turn down the rhetorical heat. There’s no doubt that climate change is a serious problem, but extreme rhetoric doesn’t convince anyone – even those of us concerned about climate change. Though most current and former elected officials who take climate change seriously don’t indulge in the catastrophism put forward by many climate activists and advocacy groups, they still speak of a “rapidly closing window” (in President Biden’s words) to meet unrealistic and fairly arbitrary global temperature targets like 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the world won’t spontaneously combust if that target isn’t hit, and too many progressives use the imagined prospect of an imminent climate apocalypse to advance largely unrelated ideological wishlists like the Green New Deal. Instead, President Biden and other political leaders should much more strongly emphasize U.S. commitments to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 – and note that other countries like China, India, and Saudi Arabia have made similar net zero pledges as well. It’s an altogether easier and more concrete way to measure progress toward an achievable objective and hold countries to their commitments."
On Juul's second point, go nuclear, I also recommend this new piece by Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute on understanding the anti-nuclear movement, where it came from and who is behind it today.
"In the popular imagination, the central character in the decades-long campaign against nuclear energy is a hippy with a No Nukes sign. This caricature has served both nuclear advocates, who use it to characterize opponents of nuclear energy as hair-shirt wearing opponents of progress, and many “very serious” skeptics of nuclear energy, who use it to accuse nuclear advocates of being “hippy-punching nuclear bros” while simultaneously distancing themselves from the extreme claims and wild exaggerations that the “according to Hoyle” anti-nuclear movement has long trafficked in.
In reality, the true face of the anti-nuclear movement today is a highly credentialed progressive policy wonk, a lawyer, or, academic, or journalist, who often claims not to be opposed to nuclear energy at all. The problem with nuclear energy, in this rendition, is not the risk of a “china syndrome” style meltdown, it’s that nuclear power plants are just too darn expensive to build......
What has been clear, from the beginning of the nuclear era is that when nations decide that they want or need nuclear energy, they can and have repeatedly taken steps to put programs and regulations in effect that allow them to have it, safely and at a reasonable cost. This has been true in France, Korea, Japan, even Germany, and today in China. The US was always to some degree an outlier. Our great nuclear build-out in the 1960s and 70s was less a response to energy scarcity than a Cold War showpiece. There were always abundant fossil fuels available domestically. When environmental opinion, and then elite opinion more broadly, turned against it, there were plenty of cheap, albeit dirty alternatives available - first coal then, from the late 80’s onward, oil and gas.
Opinion on the subject has started to turn again, largely driven by concern among left-of-center folks about climate change and rising concern, more generally, about energy prices, as natural gas prices have risen substantially and the realities of attempting to operate a grid primarily with intermittent sources of renewable energy have begun to hit home. It turns out that the only thing more costly than trying to build out a zero-carbon grid with nuclear energy, even with all the challenges associated with building large, current generation, light water reactors in the current regulatory and political environment, is trying to build out a zero-carbon grid without nuclear energy.
The problem is that the constituencies most committed to tackling climate change are also those most ambivalent about nuclear energy. Similarly, the elite technocrats and experts most skeptical that nuclear energy can overcome the many significant obstacles it faces to broad commercialization have in fact been the architects of most of those obstacles. Of these, the elites, in my opinion, are the greater problem, because they provide the rationalizations that many left-of-center generalists follow and are deeply embedded in universities, environmental NGOs, Democratic politics, and the NRC itself. If nuclear is to have any future in the United States and play a role, as it almost certainly must, in the effort to deeply decarbonize the US economy, they will need to be confronted."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.