Getting to carbon-neutral without the GND

March 3, 2019

I am relieved to discover that in order to criticize the Green New Deal you have to get in line. Knowing that there are more serious individuals than I would have guessed looking hard at the GND restores my faith in humanity.

For for those who maintain that there are no true political independents I offer up the outpouring of sober GND evaluation as evidence against the proposition. Criticism is coming from those who reject both the right’s assertion that climate change isn’t real (or if it is real it doesn’t have anything to do with us) and the left’s assertion that we can make it all go away and reap a bounty of green bliss if we’ll just hold hands and embrace renewables.

I really don’t know what to say to the climate change deniers. At this point it’s not that you don’t know, it’s that you don’t want to know. The science on climate change is quite sound and not that difficult to comprehend.

There is no reasonable doubt that the planet is warming. There is no reasonable doubt that we are the principal cause of that warming. That’s something that you ought to cheer by the way. If we are the cause of warming we can change our behavior to fix things. But if warming is caused by cosmic rays, or perturbations in celestial mechanics, or something to do with the Sun’s luminosity it’s all over except for the slow walk and the sad singing.

As for the GND acolytes who may be interested in what happens in a country that has already done what you want I suggest looking at Germany — where energy costs are high, progress towards becoming carbon-neutral is low, and the anticipated green payoff is nowhere to be found.

Now to working the problem. As good as climate science has been at predicting that warming was becoming a problem it’s been bad about predicting where it’s all going. The models upon which climate science relies to make predictions have consistently underestimated the amount of warming that we are actually experiencing.

That said, the projections about what the world is going to be like in 50 or 100 years are basically guesses. We know that the planet will be warmer. We know that warming will produce changes in the atmosphere and oceans that we are not likely to enjoy. But how all of that affects weather patterns, ocean currents and other phenomena that push our environment on a smaller scale is unknown. Sea levels will rise and average temperatures will be higher for sure. But you also might turn currently arid areas into lush farmland. We just don’t know.

Faced with such uncertainty, and faced with the fact that the GND basically has a thumb on the scale for renewables over other sources of reduced carbon energy, I think that we need to take a closer look at everything that we can do to affect warming. Fortunately there are options beyond renewables that are either currently within our reach or close enough that we’ll get there in time.

The best option on the energy side to curb warming, one that is available to us right now, is to increase our use of nuclear power. Nuclear is as green, and arguably greener, than most renewables. Hear me out.

Whenever you do anything on a sufficiently large scale you produce adverse consequences. The very manufacturing of solar panels involves social and environmental misery and their deployment over large areas has well-documented adverse effects. Wind turbine farms are somewhat better but have their own set of environmental issues.

Solar and wind both require an additional source of energy to buffer the load when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing (storing this energy involves another set of issues). Unless the buffering source is either nuclear or gravitational it has to be fossil-fuel. Now you are not carbon-neutral anymore.

Nuclear energy, if not for unreasonable regulation that has stifled innovation, could be produced at costs that are competitive with (if not lower than) renewables and without the requirement for ancillary fossil-fuel use. Most of the fear of nuclear energy is based on hype that is pretty far from the truth. Get past that and we could make giant strides toward de-carbonizing rapidly.

Other options to thwart warming include carbon dioxide scrubbing technologies that are increasing in both scale and efficiency in leaps and bounds. We could also, at a relatively low cost, invest in global dimming technologies to decrease the amount of sunlight entering Earth’s atmosphere. The most promising of these involves deploying a series of sunlight-reflecting satellites around Earth’s equatorial belt to reduce insolation.

We have more than one option when it comes to addressing climate change. Renewables have their place in all of this (A solar roof on every home!) but there is a veritable cornucopia of technology that may be used to address a warming climate. We should have a rational look at all of these before we tip the scales in favor of the less than great.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.