Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Among Climate Scientists, a Fraught Debate on the Path Forward

Clinton Nuclear Generating Station in Clinton, Ill., the focus of a recent effort to save the state's nuclear power. (Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen / Wikipedia) Click to Enlarge.
A scientific debate or an ideological one?
Among climate scientists ... both the nuclear energy proponents and the renewable energy purists claim authority.

"I'm a physicist, and I'm looking at energy data," James Hansen[, a former scientist at NASA famous for raising the alarm about climate change before Congress in 1988,] said.  "I have as high a level of expertise as anyone I know."

Broadly, Hansen said the world should impose a stiff carbon fee while remaining agnostic about the technology solutions.  Part of this strategy includes saving aging nuclear plants from shutting down and may lead to building new ones.

On the other side, atmospheric scientists like Mark Jacobson at Stanford University say that wind, water and solar are all that's needed to power the modern world.  The avoided health and environmental damages offset the costs of building up this grid, and nuclear energy is an expensive, time-consuming distraction from this effort.  The only thing lacking, he argues, is political will.

"He's a great climate scientist, and he's real passionate about solving the problem.  I completely admire him for that," Jacobson said about Hansen.  However, he said that Hansen and many scientists who have joined him haven't published any peer-reviewed research on comparing energy sources, while Jacobson has published dozens.

"Most of the people who do talk about it, they're not actually doing an evaluation of the science," Jacobson said.  "They've examined the problem, but they've never examined the solutions."

Though researchers on either side of the debate remain largely cordial, the divide has become a flash point in public debates and even in otherwise stolid scientific meetings, leading to testy exchanges and heated arguments over whose approach is most rational.
The 'old geezers' are passing the torch
The divide among scientists has a corresponding fissure among activists.

"To me Jacobson's work seems rigorous and detailed, and more to the point countries like Denmark are now showing it's entirely possible.  The technology is there; we need the political will to match," said environmental activist Bill McKibben, founder of, in an email.  "I'm convinced by the careful work of Mark Jacobson and others that this is possible."

Others argue that the 100 percent renewable energy vision is a luxury afforded by wealth,

"In rich countries, people turn against nuclear," said Shellenberger.  "A lot of it is [not in my back yard]-ism.  A lot of it is Malthusianism."

"Malthusianism" is often shorthand for population control, building on the ideas of 18th-century scholar Thomas Robert Malthus who projected that without checks, the number of people on Earth would grow faster than the resources available to sustain them.

"In order to maintain the fiction of energy shortages, you have to take nuclear off the table," Shellenberger said.

Other countries that are counting on kilowatt-hours to cut infant mortality aren't so picky, nuclear advocates note, and it would behoove wealthier parts of the world to help them gain access to energy, even if it's not the cleanest available.

The concern now is which vision will be codified in policy.  In March Democrats introduced a bicameral resolution that would set a target of 50 percent clean energy in the United States by 2030, not mentioning whether or not nuclear would fit on the "clean" side of the portfolio .

"What the climate science tells us is that we have to leave most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground," Hansen said.  "Unfortunately, our governments have become so dominated by money that both parties are heavily dependent on contributions from industry, including especially the fossil fuel industry."

Ultimately, most of the people who will have to live with the worst consequences of climate change are not old enough to vote, and Hansen argues that they should be the ones that make the final decisions about their energy sources.

"It shouldn't be the old geezers who are running the system now," he said.

Read more at Among Climate Scientists, a Fraught Debate on the Path Forward

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