Why the latest climate report will be ignored


I spent some time last Sunday reading news stories about the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formally unveiled in Berlin the same day.

Pretty dire stuff. Here’s a sampling of some of it:

The Wall Street Journal headlined the fact that emissions rose quicker between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the previous three decades, not withstanding declines during 2007 and 2008 due to the global economic crisis.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that by 2010, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted due to human activity since 1850 had reached 515 billion tons. But greenhouse gas emissions for the year 2010 alone were 49 billion tons. If continued at this rate, accumulated human-caused emissions would reach 1 trillion tons by 2020. Other studies have concluded that if accumulated emissions pass the 1 trillion ton mark, average global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial age levels by the end of the century. If that happens, extreme consequences, like the melting of large parts of the Greenland ice cap and the flooding of coastal cities, may occur.

•In order to prevent rapidly melting arctic ice, significant sea-level rise, flooding and storms by the end of the century, emissions must be lowered by 40 to 70 percent of what they were in 2010 by 2050, according to the Washington Post. The paper also reported that countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa have orchestrated “a renaissance of coal” as their populations and economies grew, and they thus joined the ranks of major emitters of greenhouse gases.

The New York Times reported that although it remains technically possible to keep planetary warming to a tolerable level, “only an intensive push over the next 15 years to bring those emissions under control can achieve the goal.” The paper quotes committee cochairman Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist, as saying “We cannot afford to lose another decade. If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

And so on. 

Both the authors of the report and the reporters covering it displayed a lot of anxiety over whether its findings and recommendations will be ignored by the world’s decision-makers, as has been the case with previous IPCC reports. They needn’t have bothered worrying. Of course they will be. The report’s findings and recommendations will be ignored for a number of reasons, including this one: The report paints a picture of an impending crisis so dire that the only possible conclusion one can draw is that the world should be deploying its most powerful available technologies to avert it.

In the case of reducing carbon emissions, the most powerful available happens to be nuclear power.

Nuclear power is a mature technology. It does not require further development (although further development will make it more efficient, economical and safer). Unlike wind and solar, it can supply base-load electricity at a competitive price. Until wind and solar can supply base-load electricity, they are not adequate replacements for fossil fuels.

Nuclear power can be deployed relatively quickly, if not impeded by gratuitous political and environmental objections. China is building nuclear power plants in about half the time it takes in the U.S. and at about half the cost.

Nuclear power is not perfectly safe. There have been three major reactor accidents since the dawn of the nuclear age — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima — but it is safe enough to be used to meet an existential threat, which is what the IPCC is suggesting lies just over the horizon where perfect safety is a luxury you can’t afford.

Nuclear can be added to the U.S. economy in large amounts without having to put a country on a wartime footing. For example, nuclear reactors cost about $10 billion a piece and produce 1,400 megawatts of electricity. Building 10 a year would cost $100 billion a year, not a trivial sum, but an amount certainly manageable by a country with a $17-trillion-a-year economy. If the U.S. were to do that, in the space of 25 years the country would have added enough zero-carbon emissions electric generating capacity to replace all existing coal-generating capacity (318,000 megawatts).

Chances are most of the world’s decision-makers are aware of all this. So what are they to make of a report that not only fails to call for the immediate deployment of nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels, but barely manages to mention it at all?

The 37-page Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC report devotes nine lines to nuclear power. In the six news stories I read on the IPCC report, the word “nuclear” appears two times, once in the Christian Science Monitor’s story and once in NPR’s, both times in passing.

If I were a policymaker contemplating this omission, I would conclude that the authors of the IPCC report are not nearly as concerned about the threat of climate change as they claim to be. If they were, they would be demanding the world launch a crash program for nuclear power plant construction, and continue it until such time as wind and solar become capable of providing base-load electricity.

In the absence of them doing so, their report is easy to ignore.

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.