THIS past summer, the Group of 7 nations promised “urgent and concrete action” to limit climate change. What actions exactly? Activists hope for answers from the coming United Nations climate conference in Paris, which begins Monday. They should look instead to Washington today.
The single most important action we can take is thawing a nuclear energy policy that keeps our technology frozen in time. If we are serious about replacing fossil fuels, we are going to need nuclear power, so the choice is stark: We can keep on merely talking about a carbon-free world, or we can go ahead and create one.
We already know that today’s energy sources cannot sustain a future we want to live in. This is most obvious in poor countries, where billions dream of living like Americans. The easiest way to satisfy this demand for a better life has been to burn more coal: In the past decade alone, China added more coal-burning capacity than America has ever had. But even though average Indians and Chinese use less than 30 percent as much electricity as Americans, the air they breathe is far worse. They deserve a third option besides dire poverty or dirty skies.
In America, the left worries more about our five billion metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions and what it might do to Earth’s climate. On the right, even those who discount the environmental effects of fossil fuels can’t deny their contribution to economic volatility. We saw this in 2008 when a historic high oil price coincided with a historic financial crisis.
The need for energy alternatives was already clear to investors a decade ago, which is why they poured funding into clean technology during the early 2000s. But while the money was there, the technology wasn’t: The result was a series of bankruptcies and the scandal of Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer in California that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving a federal guarantee of hundreds of millions of dollars. Wind and solar together provide less than 2 percent of the world’s energy, and they aren’t growing anywhere near fast enough to replace fossil fuels.
What’s especially strange about the failed push for renewables is that we already had a practical plan back in the 1960s to become fully carbon-free without any need of wind or solar: nuclear power. But after years of cost overruns, technical challenges and the bizarre coincidence of an accident at Three Mile Island and the 1979 release of the Hollywood horror movie “The China Syndrome,” about a hundred proposed reactors were canceled. If we had kept building, our power grid could have been carbon-free years ago.
Read more: The New Atomic Age We Need
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