Much is being made regarding this week’s unveiling of a “climate-change simulator” by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and think tank Climate Interactive. It poses a series of questions and offers several choices for the reader to pick. When the reader finishes, the simulator shows the impact of the choices made, the bottom-line conclusion being that addressing climate change requires a disruption of our lives, something we’re reluctant to do.
What the simulator shows is that it isn’t about developing more renewable energy. It’s about reducing our use of fossil fuels. It’s explained using a dieting analogy. You don’t toss some lettuce on the cheeseburger and expect to lose weight, just as we can’t add solar and wind to our expanding use of fossil fuels and expect to reduce emissions.
That’s counterintuitive to the narrative we hear most often, which is that renewable energy is expanding across the globe and that by 2050 it will represent roughly half of the electricity produced globally. Problem solved.
While the numbers may be accurate, the problem is that the world’s economy continues to expand, which means — using current models — that our fossil fuel use will expand along with it. Carbon emissions will be less than they would be if renewables weren’t in place, but the level of emissions will be higher than they are today.
That can’t be anyone’s definition of a successful strategy. To the contrary, to the experts it’s the definition of catastrophic.
The obstacle is us. It can’t be confined solely to political leadership. The general public is opposed to the discomfort any plausible solution would involve. The reference to “we” applies globally. The riots in France last year were over the proposed increase on diesel. This year’s riots in Iran involved the same proposal. The same happened in Ecuador. The same reaction happens in Vermont; for a politician to propose a substantive tax increase on a gallon of gas, or heating fuel, etc., invites a quick rebuke by the political opposition.
What MIT’s model shows is that we content ourselves with the fluff and don’t want to deal with what we consider to be indigestible. We continue to add more lettuce, ignoring the fact that the bun and the burger are increasing in size, and ignoring calls to eat the lettuce and not the meat slathered with melted cheese.
If climate change is the existential threat it’s said to be, then it’s nothing short of remarkable to see how a message of comfort trumps the truth.
That’s the value of MIT’s simulator: You can change the variables anyway you’d like, but the only way the outcome changes in any meaningful way is if we find a way to reduce fossil fuel usage. Building more renewable energy on top of the existing fossil fuel usage leaves us with higher emission levels than we have now, which is precisely what happened in 2018. Despite the increase in renewable power, we saw our carbon emissions rise by over 60 million tons of CO2.
Why? An increasing manufacturing economy, the closing of six nuclear power plants in the last several years [Vermont Yankee included], and building new natural gas plants. We keep forgetting that solar and wind together represent about 12 percent of our electricity generation. 65 percent of it is generated by fossil fuels and 20 percent comes from nuclear.
As the MIT model shows, there’s no way that the development of renewables can be scaled quickly enough to replace fossil fuels. Then, there is the problem of space [lots of it], permits, grid connections and replacing transmission lines.
To offer perspective, in 2016 Vermont generated about 119 megawatts of intermittent wind power. Vermont Yankee generated 604 megawatts, or five times the energy produced by all the state’s wind power pooled together. And it produced that 604 megawatts emission-free power at a much lower price. Nuclear power plants, according to the Scientific American can last a half century or longer, whereas wind turbines last roughly 20 years.
Do the math.
Even the Union of Concerned Scientists is coming around to the admission that climate change can’t be effectively addressed without nuclear power; the degree depends on being able to resolve disposal issues and costs.
But given the level of potential electrical output, it should be obvious that climate change can’t be resolved without the expansion of nuclear power.
The challenge in our era of fake news, is getting people to believe that. We believe what we think best suits our comfort.
by Emerson Lynn