Opinion

opinion | Joshua S. Goldstein and Steven Pinker

Inconvenient truths for the environmental movement

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Congressional Republicans make an easy target for their denial of climate change: “I’m not a scientist” is the new “Drill, baby, drill.” But denial also infects large swaths of the environmental movement. Environmentalists deserve enormous credit for calling the world’s attention to the threat to humanity posed by climate change. But precisely because this challenge is so stupendous, we need an uncompromisingly focused plan to solve it. Instead of offering such a solution, traditional greens have been distracted by their signature causes, and in doing so have themselves denied some inconvenient truths.

The first is that, until now, fossil fuels have been good for humanity. The industrial revolution doubled life expectancy in developed countries while multiplying prosperity twentyfold. As industrialization spreads to the developing world, billions of people are rising out of poverty in their turn — affording more food, living longer and healthier lives, becoming better educated, and having fewer babies — thanks to cheap fossil fuels. In poor countries like India, citizens want reliable electricity to power these improvements, and stand ready to vote out any government that fails to deliver it. When American environmentalists tell the world to stop burning fossil fuels, they need to give Indians an alternative that delivers the prosperity they demand and deserve.

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That brings us to the second inconvenient truth: Nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source. In today’s world, every nuclear plant that is not built is a fossil-fuel plant that does get built, which in most of the world means coal. Yet the use of nuclear power has been stagnant or even contracting.

Nuclear power presses a number of psychological buttons — fear of poisoning, ease of imagining catastrophes, distrust of the unfamiliar and the man-made — and so is held to an irrationally higher standard than fossils. When a coal mine disaster kills dozens, or a deep-water oil leak despoils vast seas, nobody shuts down the coal or oil industries. Yet the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan, which killed nobody, led Germany to shut down its nuclear plants and quietly replace them with dirty coal. Even France — which gets three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power and has never had an accident — now plans to shut down many plants under pressure from environmentalists.

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Nuclear today is relatively expensive, but that is largely because it must clear massive regulatory hurdles while its fossil competitors have been given relatively easy passage. New fourth-generation nuclear designs, a decade away from deployment, will burn waste from today’s plants and run more cheaply and safely.

Without nuclear power, the numbers needed to solve the climate crisis simply do not add up. Solar and wind are growing quickly, but still provide about 1 percent and 4 percent respectively of electricity production, and cannot scale up fast enough to supply what the world needs. Moreover, these intermittent energy sources could power the grid only with big advances in battery technology that are still in the basic-science stage. Even with them, we must not triple-count the energy promised by renewables: they cannot supplant existing fossil fuel use and replace decommissioned nuclear plants and meet the skyrocketing needs of the developing world.

These arguments have been forcefully made by pragmatic environmentalists such as James Hansen and Stewart Brand. But the largest groups with the loudest voices, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, remain implacably antinuclear.

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A third truth is that climate change must transcend ideology. A particularly pernicious form of denialism is the conceit within the political left that we must cure longstanding social ills such as inequality, corporate greed, racism, and political corruption along the way to dealing with climate change. Naomi Klein’s campaign to “change everything” casts global warming as an opportunity for the left to step up its various crusades. Whatever you think of such goals, and we agree with many of them, they must not distract us from the priority of preventing catastrophic climate change.

The left also seeks to mobilize support with a narrative that blames the problem on a hateful enemy. The Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, and the Republican Party seem all too eager to step into this role. But even if all these devils magically vanished, we’d still be burning fossil fuels until we found something better.

So what should environmentalists be demanding? Foremost, governments need to fund research and development for low-carbon energy technologies at Apollo-program levels of commitment. Breakthrough innovations are needed in batteries, nuclear energy, liquid biofuels, and carbon capture. The required funding of this ultimate public good is too great a risk with too little a reward for private companies. But it is easily fundable by governments.

The second priority is carbon pricing: charging people and companies to dump their carbon into the atmosphere. Economists across the political spectrum agree that such a price would incentivize conservation, decarbonization, and R&D far more effectively than regulating specific industries and products (to say nothing of sermonizing for a return to an abstemious preindustrial lifestyle). Without carbon pricing, fossil fuels — which are uniquely abundant, portable, and energy-dense — simply have too great an advantage. Yet despite a strong campaign by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a policy that ought to be a no-brainer has yet to catch on with politicians or the public.

Today, climate activism shoots off in too many directions: divesting from portfolios, urging asceticism, ending capitalism, demonizing ogres, prophesying doom, changing everything. This scattershot campaign is morally invigorating but distracts people from acknowledging the most inconvenient truth of all: None of this will stop catastrophic climate change. The movement should hit “Pause,” do the math, and work for the combination of policies that can actually solve the problem.

Joshua S. Goldstein is emeritus professor of international relations at American University and a research scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the percentage of electricity production that comes from solar and wind. Solar provides about 1 percent, and wind provides about 4 percent.

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