Guessing at Failure: On Climate Change, Nuclear Disaster, and Geoengineering

From Common Dreams:

Continuing to burn fossil fuels is certain disaster, but rapid expansion of nuclear power is no solution

On November third James Hansen joined other scientists in signing an open letter addressed to environmental organizations urging them to demonstrate “real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”

Like Hansen and some notable long-time environmentalists who have recently come out in support of nukes, I am desperate. I am desperate because, like them, I know we we have very little time left to pull off the greatest technological “re-boot” in human history, turning global fossil-fuel-istan into global renew-conserve-istan before it is too late. That is why I recently sent my own open letter to those in the climate justice movement who argue that green capitalism is an oxymoron and climate change can only be solved by economic system change. In my view those who argue that greener capitalism is a false hope and not worth pursuing have no sense of time. They have no sense of how fast irreversible climate change is coming compared to how fast we can marshal support for economic system change. However, I find it sad that people like Hansen are caving on nukes when we do not need dangerous or new technologies to solve the problem.

The problem with geoengineering schemes like pumping sulphur dioxide aerosols into the atmosphere or fertilizing the ocean with iron filings is that they are unproven and highly risky. And if history is any guide regarding small scale human ecological experimentation, we should anticipate that an attempt to prevent climate change through geoengineering on a global scale may well have disastrous unforeseen consequences. In all likelihood focusing on geoengineering schemes will prove fruitless and only distract us from getting on with mundane solutions we know will work.

However, unlike geoengineering proposals where long-run consequences are highly unpredictable, the long-run consequences of making the global energy system fully nuclear is predictable. Where geoengineering schemes pose unknown dangers, we know very well what dangers lurk if we fully embrace a nuclear future. Just ask the residents near Fukishima. Nukes are the epitome of the present generation going easy on itself by refusing to solve a problem it could solve by safe means today, and instead kicking disaster down the road onto our children or grandchildren. Of course it is also a way for major international corporations to turn a crisis largely of their making into a new source of bloated profits at public expense. If this were not the case it is hard to imagine that a “nuclear solution” would even be discussed.

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