By late 2008, I was pretty stressed about climate change. Working on the science of climate (and other anthropogenic) impacts on natural systems, as I do, I could foresee potentially insurmountable problems for biodiversity and human civilisation this century. A time of consequences. Things looked grim, unless there was a massive change in attitudes towards energy supply and resource sustainability. This was exemplified by my post on the Olduvai Theory and Paul Gilding’s short essay on “The Great Disruption”. I got really annoyed by ‘climate change sceptics’ because I felt they were undermining our collective will (and political capital) to take effective action, using mostly recycled, pseudo-scientific distractions.
Then, I started to study the energy problem in detail. It was a Damascene conversion, as I came to realise, via the analysis of the real-world numbers rather than hype or spin: (a) the inadequacy of renewable energy as a complete (or even majority) solution to achieving low-carbon future (…and therefore avoiding the worst of climate change impacts), and (b) the comprehensive value of nuclear energy in solving the energy and climate challenges the world now faces, in the race to supplant our dependence on fossil fuels.
At this point, mid- to late-2009, I got really annoyed with anti-nuclear protesters, because I felt that, through their outdated ideology and inexcusable hypocrisy, they were undermining the collective will (and political capital) needed to pursue a future in sustainable atomic energy. What galled me the most about this was that I felt I was now fighting a war on two simultaneous anti-science fronts — against trenchant ‘fossil fuels forever’ interests (who ironically understood the need for energy security and technological prosperity) on one side, and hardline ‘nuclearphobles’ (who ironically understood the need for action to avoid serious climate change) on the other.
Now though, I’m much more relaxed about it all. In short, I’ve learned to stop worrying about ’sceptics’ and ‘antis’ and love energy economics (the real-world outcome, not the academic discipline!). Let me explain briefly, prior to further elaboration in the comments section.
Historical emissions of fossil fuels have come largely from the developed world (US/Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, etc.). In the 21st century, the growth in emissions, and quite soon the total mass of emissions, will come from the developing world (China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, etc.).
In the developed world, there is general recognition of the energy and climate problems, but little real political incentive to do anything meaningful about it (at least in the short term). There are, however, many minority (but influential) special-interest groups trying to block or stymie change. Now, environmental well-being is ultimately very important to these societies, as is steady economic growth and maintenance of high standards of living, but they also (think they) have the luxury of making choices that balance these priorities against more nebulous or philosophical concerns. This has, in turn, led to inaction, endless circular debates, media wars, unstrategic planning, and public policy that is guided by political points scoring and partisanship rather than rational analysis and long-term cost-benefit. In short, slow, suboptimal change.
In the developing world, there’s a race on. A race to higher standards of living and lots of energy, delivered as cheaply as possible. Environmental concerns have tended to take a back seat, although immediate, local problems, such as air and water pollution, are quickly rising to prominence. These nations represent an economic and demographic freight train, and nothing we ‘decide or advise’ in the developed world is going to slow it down. Anti-nuclear campaigners and climate change sceptics are both utterly irrelevant in these places. By the time the dust has settled, and these societies have the ‘luxury’ of paying any attention to special interest groups, it’ll already be game over — be it a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’.
Now, if the Chinas and Indias of this world do end up following a fossil-fuel-intensive pathway to development, we’re all stuffed — whether they manage to make it all the way up the development curve or fail in the attempt. It won’t matter at this point what gains the currently developed world might have managed to achieve. If, alternatively, these rapidly growing economies are able to develop and deploy non-fossil energy sources cheaply and on a massive scale, we all win. Whether the technology ends up being ‘proven up’ in China, the US, or wherever, the very fact that it will have proven cost-competitive with coal will mean that everyone has won. I return to my favourite quote from Steve Kirsch:
Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound. The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We’ll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty. Been there, done that. It’s not going to happen. If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.
Take a nation like Australia. It has very high per-capita carbon emissions. It currently has an anti-nuclear government. It has many noisy, influential climate change sceptics, including leading politicians. It makes token gestures towards subsidising renewable energy, but won’t commit to it seriously (for good reason, in my opinion). The upshot is that we’ll vacillate, debate and tinker with toy solutions for years. Then, when it makes economic sense to do so — when those places with the incentive to make things happen have done so and the cheaper-than-coal alternative energy is available — we’ll follow like sheep as the viable-clean-energy bell calls us home. As such, I see my role as a messenger, a public educator, a futurist, a facilitator (e.g. via SCGI). I won’t change what’s coming, but I might influence the timetable of events!
So, the debating point I open to BNC readers is this. Do climate sceptics and anti-nukes matter? My evolved position is that they don’t — at least not in any way that is meaningful — but I’m happy to debate it below. The floor is open…
(Acknowledgements to Dr Strangelove for the title of this thread. Also, regarding the topic of weapons proliferation and used nuclear fuel, I highly recommend the following essay that has just been posted on DepletedCranium, “Why You Can’t Build a Bomb From Spent Fuel“. It’s the best layman’s summary of the issue I’ve yet seen, bar none, with lots of useful diagrams too. Do yourself a favour and go read it.).