Juslin Gillis of the New York Times plans a monthly column on climate change, answering charges that the Times had downgraded its environmental coverage; his first entry, “In Search of Energy Miracles,” explores the ideas of Lockheed Martin, Bill Gates, and Chinese scientists for new forms of nuclear power. Go to the piece for details on that; here I want to draw attention to his overall framework:
Beyond the question of whether they will work, these ambitious schemes pose a larger issue: How much faith should we, as a society, put in the idea of a big technological fix to save the world from climate change?
A lot of smart people are coming to see the energy problem as the defining challenge of the 21st century. We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future.
Yet we have already poured so much carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere that huge, threatening changes to the world’s climate appear to be inevitable. And instead of slowing down, emissions are speeding up as billions of once-destitute people claw their way out of poverty, powered by fossil fuels.
Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today’s renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there.
Gillis goes on to describe and assess the various efforts to improve nuclear power, giving a not especially hopeful verdict, but offering sage counsel with regard to the parameters of energy policy and climate change:
Two approaches to the issue — spending money on the technologies we have now, or investing in future breakthroughs — are sometimes portrayed as conflicting. In reality, that is a false dichotomy. The smartest experts say we have to pursue both tracks at once, and much more aggressively than we have been doing.
An ambitious national climate policy, anchored by a stiff price on carbon dioxide emissions, would serve both goals at once. In the short run, it would hasten a trend of supplanting coal-burning power plants with natural gas plants, which emit less carbon dioxide. It would drive investment into current low-carbon technologies like wind and solar power that, while not efficient enough, are steadily improving.
And it would also raise the economic rewards for developing new technologies that could disrupt and displace the ones of today. These might be new-age nuclear reactors, vastly improved solar cells, or something entirely unforeseen.
In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth. . . .