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Get Real on Global Warming

By / 7.1.2013

President Obama came to office with ambitious plans to combat global warming and galvanize clean energy development. Then he ran smack into two brick walls: a weak economy and Republican hostility to science.

So Obama last week issued a new “climate action plan” aimed at bypassing GOP obstructionists in Congress, relying instead on regulatory steps the administration can take on its own. Expect conservatives to squawk loudly about “job-killing regulation,” but remember it’s their intransigence that’s ruled out what the country really needs: a market-based approach that uses a carbon tax or cap to allocate the costs of carbon reduction efficiently and drive private investment toward cleaner energy.

The president’s grab bag of things he can do by executive order may be the second-best option, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Democrats, however, have blind spots of their own, and one of them is nuclear power. It doesn’t even rate a mention until page 18 of the 21-page plan, where there’s some anodyne language restating Obama’s support for “safe and secure use of nuclear power.”

This is no time to treat nuclear energy as an afterthought. The urgent and undeniable premise of the president’s plan, after all, is that America must do its part to cut greenhouse gas emissions. His goal is to cut them 17 percent below 2005 levels. That’s a start, but the World Bank warns that without more concerted global efforts to cut carbon pollution, the Earth could get 2 degrees C hotter by the end of this century. Scientists say this could mean more violent, Sandy-like weather, rising sea levels that submerge coastal communities, and disruptive changes in the present geography of world food production.

We have to act to avert these dangers, but the critical question is how to do that without pulling the plug on our economy. To its credit, the White House plan acknowledges that shale gas is helping to cut carbon pollution by encouraging a shift from coal to gas in the power sector (and from diesel to LNG in heavy trucks). But it sees gas as merely the “bridge” to a future in which renewables and efficiency combine to replace fossil fuels as America’s main source of energy. Renewables, however, are nowhere near being on track to take over a huge chunk of baseload electricity generation in the United States, or to replace oil in the transportation sector. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), for example, projects that the share of electricity generated by renewables will reach just 16 percent by 2040.

This highlights a stark incongruity in the campaign by environmentalists to convince Americans to take global warming more seriously. If, as activists like Bill McKibben warn, we really are on the brink of doing irreversible damage to the earth’s climate, why oppose nuclear power – the biggest potential source of zero-carbon energy in the near-to-medium term? Yes, nuclear power, like all energy sources, entails risks, but do those risks really outweigh the hazards of overheating the planet? If environmentalists’ rosy forecasts about the growth of wind, solar and other renewable power don’t pan out, how will we run America’s economy without contributing to a climate catastrophe?

President Obama has previously shown a willingness to challenge the anti-nuclear taboo.  Let’s hope the climate plan isn’t his last word on the subject.