Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rational Environmentalism

Suppose you really, really care about climate change. You think that global warming is the absolute biggest game changer in the world, one that will cause absolutely horrible damage throughout the world. Florida and Bangladesh will disappear under the seas, Arizona will erupt into flames, Chicago will become livable--Al Gore kind of stuff. What do you do?

You should favor a crash program to build as many nuclear plants as technically feasible to replace all natural gas/coal plants. Then you mandate that all cars be electric, and hook them up to the grid. It looks like that the vast majority of greenhouse gases in the US come from electricity generation or transportation, so at a stroke you could virtually make the entire country emissions-free.

Remember, all you care about is climate change. You know wind and solar can't scale up in time, and electric cars hooked up to coal plants just shift emissions elsewhere. Sure, nuclear waste is an issue, but it pales in comparison as a problem to Africa self-detonating.

This isn't pie-in-the sky--France did it in the 70s, with 70s technology. Today, they don't any fossil fuels for electricity. They didn't even care about the greenhouse gas angle--they just wanted cheap power and energy independence.

With the advances in nuclear power since then, it's even easier to get cheap, clean power for the entire country. Why doesn't anyone talk about that? Why do we keep looking at futuristic technologies that are too expensive or difficult to scale up? Why does energy have become an issue over guilt, rather than a place where we take the most cost-efficient solution and apply it everywhere?

In fact, environmentalists--the people who should be caring about global warming--have been the biggest roadblocks to this happening. This is a perfect example of letting the perfect be an enemy of the good--letting good, safe, clean technology become overlooked because "better" technologies exist. It's also a perfect example of an interest group trying its hardest to work against their own interests.

Environmentalism has always been a torn movement, divided between the sentimentalists (Emerson and company) and the more pragmatic (Teddy Roosevelt). Someday, I hope the latter crowd win and we get hyper-rational, capitalist environmentalists. People who don't just care about the environment for the sake of caring about things, but are actually driven to see improvements. They'll start venture funds, lobby to build nuclear plants, and pore over data. You'll have climate investors demand to see a return on their investment. The environment is too important a cause to be defended by environmentalists. If the Gordon Gekkos and Goldman Sachs of the world decided to care about the environment, you would see improvement very quickly.

This would make for a great political platform too, which could unite business interest (cheap energy) as well people who care about the environment, but don't buy into Greenpeace. It's a no-go area for the Democrats (because of Harry Reid, among other reasons), but some Republicans are talking about it (Mitch Daniels?). China and India realize that nuclear offers a great way to generate cheap, clean, energy and are rapidly building more. Assisting countries like that to make more nuclear power, and then turning all power at home into nuclear, is the only way to seriously cut down greenhouse gasses while keeping energy cheap. That makes for an amazing political platform--but you'll have to plow through the environmentalists first.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Interesting Post. I definitely agree with you that most enviromentalists are more concerned with following the dogma and axioms of the movements originators then with improving the condition of the planet. I've also recently heated up to the potential of nuclear energy to bridge the gap from now until we can develop wind a solar and phase them in over the next 30-50 years. Obviously given what has happened in Japan nuclear energy will most likely be completely removed from the discussion and roll backs and closing of current plants will likely be the publics cry. But i really hope that we will let scientists and experts monitor what happened, decipher what the long term effects are, and dispassionately evaluate the long term safety issues of this technology. Unfortunately what happened at three mile island (catastrophe was more or less averted) is probably a better guage as to what will happen now.