Denying science got us into this mismanaged pandemic which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. It also gave us four extra and untimely years of rampant greenhouse gas emissions. Progressives are right to call for trust in science and action based on evidence.
This means that we should take bold action to solve climate change. It also means that we should include all solutions that the IPCC says are necessary — or even simply useful, because the science shows that lives can be saved by solving the crisis as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, there’s a tendency among my fellow climate activists to call for ambitious climate action while simultaneously demanding that certain solutions stay off the table. Chief among these are nuclear power, capture and storage of CO2 from factories or power plants, and even sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere. Bernie Sanders called these “false solutions” in his Presidential campaign climate plan.
I understand where this comes from. The environmentalist movement that developed during the Cold War era questioned the use of all large-scale infrastructure — “small is beautiful.” To many older environmentalists (now turned climate activists) the idea that large power plants of any kind might have a role in a decarbonized world is scary. There is inherent distrust of large infrastructure, which sometimes leads to the erroneous assertion that such infrastructure can’t ever be clean.
A prominent local climate activist in my area — who I very much respect otherwise — went so far as to write in an op-ed last year “Nuclear energy is neither carbon-free, nor ‘clean’ and should be eliminated from the energy arsenal.”
My engineering-trained mind goes “What!?!” Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the country. It is as clean as electricity can get, producing less toxic waste even than solar power, and hundreds of times less than coal. It uses far less raw material to generate the same amount of electricity, because nuclear fuel is so concentrated, so its manufacturing emissions are trivial compared to other power plants. It has caused the fewest deaths per unit of electricity generated than any other form of power humans have ever used, again including solar and wind.
Any objective look at the evidence demonstrates that nuclear power is the cleanest and safest source of electricity generation we have on the table, and is indeed “carbon-free.” It is not only irrational, but dangerous, to accept climate science but reject nuclear science. We can’t choose our facts. We have to act based on all the objective evidence.
This is not only true, but important for solving climate change: most models predict that significant new nuclear power will be necessary to complement solar and wind in a decarbonized grid. Taking it off the table would, at a minimum, delay the time when we reach net-negative global greenhouse gas emissions — the moment when we will finally no longer be worsening climate change impacts. That means “eliminating nuclear from the energy arsenal” would cost lives.
The same is true for carbon capture (CCS) on fossil fuel power plants or factories. No, CCS is not a great solution for everything and it can’t be used to enable continued large-scale use of fossil fuels. That’s a scientific truth, because smokestack CCS technology doesn’t capture 100% of CO2, meaning it doesn’t totally decarbonize that factory or power plant. But there are technologies for methane power plants with a different fuel cycle that enables 100% carbon capture. And then there’s cement making, which emits CO2 not only from the fuel burned to heat cement kilns, but from chemical reactions inherent in turning limestone into cement. To decarbonize cement making in time, we probably need to incentivize or mandate CCS on cement factories.
Finally, remember I noted that reaching net-negative global emissions was the point at which climate impacts stop worsening and start slowly lessening? We can’t simply get to net-zero. Warming and its impacts are driven by the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, not each year’s additional emissions. So we need to draw down the levels of greenhouse gases as fast as we can. That means various methods to sequester CO2 from the air — everything from regrowing forests to literally filtering CO2 with arrays of fans and pumping it underground. We need all of those methods working at their maximum capacity, even once we reach near-zero annual emissions, to draw down cumulative atmospheric greenhouse gas levels as fast as we should. Sequestration, like CCS and nuclear, is not only not a “false solution,” it’s an essential solution — among many others.
So to my fellow progressive climate activists: some facts might not fit every piece of our ideology, but we must not try to choose our facts. We are all devoting our lives to solving this most pressing issue facing humanity today, based on trust of the science and data that shows it is indeed the most pressing issue. We should likewise base our calls for action on science and data, so that we eliminate global emissions as soon as possible and save the most lives.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, is a former Massachusetts state legislator and lifelong climate activist. See SolomonGR.com. He also now works for Virya, LLC, which makes impact investments in climate change solutions including some mentioned here.