How precarious has our climate predicament become? Bad enough that four prominent climate scientists --- including one very prominent activist --- are now publicly calling on major environmental advocacy organizations to embrace nuclear power. Yes, nuclear power.
They say nuclear energy must be included as a necessary tool in meeting rising global energy demand while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions if humanity is to have any hope of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and that "continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change."
In a letter, authored by James Hansen (retired NASA scientist, now with Columbia Univ.), Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Institution), Kerry Emanuel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Tom Wigley (National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Adelaide), the four assert that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar cannot be deployed fast enough to meet global energy needs while still avoiding dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate destabilization.
Not everyone agrees, but they've certainly grabbed the attention of environmentalists.
The four scientists ask the nation's largest, most prominent environmental organizations to support development of new nuclear technology because, they say, "there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power"...
In the letter, they write [emphasis added]...
As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.
While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.
With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions.
While acknowledging the many problems with nuclear energy, the four climate scientists assert that advances in "21st century nuclear technology" can adequately address entrenched public opposition to nuclear power --- issues with safety, radioactive waste, and weapons proliferation. They argue that nuclear power is the only technology that can meet rising global demand for cheap, reliable energy while at the same time sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Major national environmental advocacy organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have long opposed nuclear power as "a uniquely dangerous energy technology for humanity."
Hansen, one of the four authors, was the first scientist to bring the dangers of global warming to mainstream prominence when he testified before the U.S. Congress in 1988. Hansen has since retired from NASA to focus on climate activism, and was arrested alongside Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in February for protesting against approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House. He famously described the full exploitation of the massive Canadian tar sands oil deposits via the Keystone XL pipeline as "game over for the climate."
Alan Nogee, former Energy Program Director with the Union of Concerned Scientists, responded to the scientists' letter via Twitter, contending that the authors "misstate and exaggerate" the shortcomings of renewable energy deployment, suggesting they have overlooked the far higher costs of new nuclear power plants, the industry's massive taxpayer subsidies [PDF] and the cost of special protection from liability in the event of an accident.
Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), downplayed the letter, telling CNN, "I don't think it's very significant that a few people have changed their minds about nuclear power." He says that, while the NRDC hasn't rejected nuclear power out of hand, the safety issues and costs are too high.
According to the Washington Post, NRDC President Frances Beinecke echoed Cavanagh's sentiments, saying in a statement, "The better path is to clean up our power plants and invest in efficiency and renewable energy."
The pro-nuclear advocacy of the four scientists was also met with some pushback from renewable energy industry advocates and academics across social media, questioning the authors' familiarity with the rapidly-changing renewable energy sector. As reported in a recent Green News Report, Stanford University's Mark Jacobson, Director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy program, argues renewable energy sources are capable of meeting 100% of the world's energy needs with currently available technology.
Longtime solar advocate and anti-nuclear activist and author Harvey Wasserman of NukeFree.org wasn't nearly as polite. "Renewable energy, along with increased efficiency, is more than ready to power our entire planet safely, cheaply and cleanly," he told The BRAD BLOG tonight. "The four scientists who have advocated more nuclear power as a solution to global warming should go to Fukushima. No technology but nuclear is capable of inflicting upon us all the horrifying catastrophe now unfolding [there]. Instead of wasting our time and insulting our intelligence by advocating still MORE nuclear reactors, these scientists should lend their alleged expertise to do whatever they possibly can to contain the harm being done at Fukushima. To do less is grotesquely irresponsible."
In international climate treaty negotiations, world governments have agreed to target 2C above pre-industrial levels as their goal to reduce global emissions of heat-trapping gases. Mainstream climate science indicates limiting global temperature rise to 2C will likely still result in dangerous, but adaptable, impacts. As international climate treaty negotiators prepare for the next round of talks later this month, a leaked draft of the upcoming report projecting climate change impacts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that global warming is already impacting the global food supply, and that overshooting the 2C target will lead to devastating drought, heat waves, famine and war.
That's bad enough, but a report published recently by the journal Nature Climate Change concludes that, with current emissions growth, the globe is on track for a rise in temperatures between 4C and 6C. Buckle up.
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Desi Doyen is the co-host and managing editor of The BRAD BLOG's Green News Report, the producer of KPFK's The BradCast and a frequent guest host on The Young Turks. Follow her on Twitter at: @GreenNewsReport.