The latest United Nations climate report is out and has provided ample fodder for the usual suspects to embark upon the latest installment of the climate science wars. Climate advocates argue that the report shows that global temperatures remain higher than they have been in thousands of years. Climate skeptics crow that temperatures have remained flat for over a decade.
In reality, nobody actually knows what exactly will happen if global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide exceed 450 parts per million. Higher emissions mean higher temperatures and greater climate risk. Lower emissions mean less.
But one thing that appears to be a virtual certainty is that emissions, which are rising faster than ever, are likely to go well past 450. The United Nations still hews to the conceit that we must stabilize global emissions below 450 ppm by 2050. But the reality is that world is on track to blow through that threshold decades earlier.
Twenty-five years of efforts to cap and reduce global emissions have utterly failed. Two decades of heavy subsidies for renewable energy have not had any measurable success moving the needle on emissions or clean energy. We will, in the decades to come, be living on a hotter planet. How much hotter will depend on what we do now.
If insanity is continuing to do the same things that haven’t worked, then its inverse is that one useful guide to how we might decarbonize our societies in the future is to look to how we have done so in the past. While contemporary efforts to regulate emissions, and to displace them with renewable energy have thus far failed, major economies have, in the past, succeeded in rapidly decarbonizing their economies.
The only countries in the world that have moved to zero-carbon energy at the rapid pace that would be required to keep emissions close to 450 ppm are France and Sweden. Both did so by moving to nuclear, and to a lesser extent hydro-electric, energy.
To a lesser extent, the United States today, and the UK in the 1990’s, achieved very significant emissions reductions by switching from coal to gas. Indeed, since 1950, natural gas and nuclear prevented 36 times more carbon emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal combined. Nuclear avoided the creation of 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide, natural gas 26 billion, and geothermal, wind, and solar just 1.5 billion.
Unfortunately, the people who express the most concern about global warming are also typically adamantly opposed to gas, nuclear, and hydro, the technologies most capable of reducing emissions. Indeed the paradox of contemporary climate politics is that the energy technologies favored by the climate-skeptical right are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic left. Today, green leaders find themselves in the awkward position of demanding that the world keep atmospheric emissions to under 450 ppm while opposing the only technologies capable of achieving that goal.
Help might come from an unlikely alliance between climate skeptics and climate scientists. That’s because both groups tend to be strongly pro-nuclear, albeit for completely different reasons. Two of the country’s leading conservative writers on energy and the environment, Steve Hayward, formerly of American Enterprise Institute, and Robert Bryce of Manhattan Institute, express great skepticism of the climate science while advocating nuclear energy. “The smartest, most forward-looking U.S. energy policy,” wrote Bryce, “can be summed up in one acronym: ‘N2N’,” — meaning going to natural gas and then to nuclear power.
And climate scientists have increasingly criticized green groups for remaining anti-nuclear. “Environmentalists must accept some measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem,” wrote MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel in a recent book. “The danger,” wrote James Hansen, “is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed.”
Though the world is not going to keep atmospheric carbon concentrations below 450 ppm, nations can work together to prevent them from reaching higher and more dangerous levels. In the place of a global treaty, big nations can find other ways to cooperate. For example, the U.S. and China should step up efforts to develop safe natural gas and next generation nuclear technologies. And while we should not expect dyed-in-the-wool greens to change their minds any time soon, the rest of the country might gradually come to see that these long-demonized technologies have a great deal to offer.
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are the Chairman and President of The Breakthrough Institute and co-authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. They were named “Heros of the Environment” by TIME in 2008. The views expressed are solely their own.