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Will the US go from Dunce’s Corner to Front of the Class on Climate in the Next Year?

Nuclear Power Plant

Until recently, anyone who fully considered the implications of the remaining “carbon budget” for limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2°C had reason to be rather despondent. Those on the “political right” were often in denial about climate change, while those on the “political left” were campaigning vigorously and successfully against nuclear power.

Neither side was paying any attention to works such as Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen’s book, “Climate Gamble – Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future?” Or, for that matter, to readily available information showing that

per unit of power, nuclear is the safest, not the most dangerous, option.

Nuclear Power Safety

And that it is one of the lowest CO2 emitting choices.

Very Low GHG Emissions from Nuclear

Representing the political right, Donald Trump’s record on climate change has earned the US a privileged spot in the Dunce’s Corner. He succeeded in reversing three years of decline of US carbon dioxide emissions. Among other climate protection rollbacks, he took steps to withdraw the US from the Paris climate treaty, replace Obama’s Clean Power plan for reducing US power plant emissions, and weaken fuel economy standards for cars.

As for the Democrats, on December 16, 2019 USA Today reported, “Perhaps nothing shows the lack of seriousness more than the candidates who play the anti-nuclear card even while claiming to be sincere about global warming.” Bernie Sanders called nuclear energy a “false solution,” and both he and Warren were calling for its phase-out.

The USA Today article made two important points:

First, both wind and solar only function intermittently, and aside from hydro-electric power, the only non-nuclear power sources that can provide the necessary backup up are fossil fuels.

Coal mine in Germany, Gordon Welters, NY Times

Second, “The record on getting rid of nuclear power has been disastrous.” Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power capability after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. As a result, it has had to use coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, to supply energy on demand, despite having spent enormous sums on renewables that do not supply energy at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. Increasing the number of renewables by any multiplier will not change this. In the article accompanying this photo, the New York Times pointed out, "Today, nearly a quarter of all electricity produced in Germany still comes from burning lignite, often called brown coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, making Germany the world’s leader in the mining and burning of lignite, according to the International Energy Agency."

So where is the cause for renewed hope? For the first time, there is a real climate change mitigation plan on offer from the Democratic candidate for president. Joe Biden has published “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.” It does not consist of hand-waving and vilifying nuclear power; rather, it is a considered and comprehensive look at what has to be done to keep this planet liveable by limiting global temperature rise.

For example, Biden's plan:

  • Sets a goal for the US of achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050

  • Recommits to the Paris Agreement and promises to take a proactive leadership role “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets ... and make sure those commitments are transparent and enforceable”

  • Promises to"take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment”

  • Cites the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the IPCC Special Report and NASA data, under the heading, “The Biden Promise – Science, Not Fiction,” a welcome change from prevailing gut-reaction responses to climate issues

  • Invests $400 billion over 10 years in an Advanced Research Projects Agency to focus on grid-scale storage, small modular nuclear reactors, nuclear energy, non-global warming refrigerants, zero net energy buildings, decarbonizing industry, food and agriculture and carbon capture

  • Stops financing dirty energy, such as coal, and provide “green debt relief” for developing countries that make climate commitments

  • Makes climate change a core national security

Let's hope the electorate is paying attention.

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