It has become increasingly common since the 1960s for environmental activists to face off against big business. Activists have opposed oil drilling, coal-fired power plants, fracking for natural gas, and fuel pipelines in an effort to reduce pollution. However, the current climate crisis that the United States is facing cannot be overcome by simply saying “no.”
The economy will need an unprecedented amount of new energy investment if we are to decarbonize it. The fossil fuel industry’s infrastructure, which has been in place for centuries, must be replaced by clean energy technologies within the next few decades. There needs to be at least a doubling of the United States’ transmission-line capacity, and hundreds of thousands of square miles of wind and solar farms will need to be constructed. And the same laws that environmental groups used to halt or postpone fossil-fuel projects are now being used by NIMBYs to obstruct the country’s transition to clean energy. An endless series of environmental reviews and lawsuits have halted the construction of windmills off the coast of Cape Cod, a geothermal facility in Nevada, and what would have been the largest solar farm in the United States.
The good news is that, with reasonable reforms, the energy transition is well within reach. The private sector is investing more and more in renewable energy as even Big Oil sees that fossil fuels have no future. However, for some eco-activists, this may not be enough. Recently, Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and an environmental activist, told Rolling Stone, “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. What a nightmare it would be, though, if we simply carried over the same harms into a clean energy economy. It is the consensus of many progressive commentators that the West’s political and economic systems must be radically reorganized in order to effectively combat climate change. “The level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ is fundamental, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” writer Phil McDuff has argued. Naomi Klein, an advocate for the Green New Deal, has said that climate change “may be the finest argument progressives have ever had” to limit the power of corporations, renegotiate free trade agreements, and reinvest in public services and infrastructure.
Comments like this make one wonder whether preventing climate change or eliminating capitalism is the true objective. Real progress on decarbonization can be made before the proletariat has seized the means of production if climate change is treated as a worldwide problem and technology solutions (yes, often produced and deployed by private businesses) are acknowledged. The rapid shift to clean energy, which, like all revolutions, will have unexpected outcomes, requires a tremendous influx of private investment made not out of altruism but in the hope of future rewards.
There is a widespread assumption among progressives that elites can perfectly plan the rollout of the renewable energy revolution. Bernie Sanders said, “To get to our goal of 100% sustainable energy, we will not rely on any phony solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators,” in the manifesto outlining his version of the Green New Deal. The Vermont senator isn’t alone in his opposition to these innovations; many environmental organizations have voiced similar concerns. However, the climate emergency requires that we examine some of them more closely before ruling them off entirely. Policymakers should adopt the mindset of a venture capitalist in the face of ambiguity about the optimal decarbonization strategy, i.e., they should spread their bets across multiple technologies in the hope that some will pan out while the portfolio as a whole will be profitable. Sanders’s “false solutions” may turn out to be just that. It’s possible that geoengineering won’t work and that nuclear power will never be competitively priced. However, it is impossible to predict.
Traditional environmentalists have been reluctant to embrace nuclear power, but this may be changing. After Fukushima, nobody imagined that California would reverse its decision to close the Diablo Canyon facility, and Japan would declare intentions to begin investing in nuclear energy again. This is encouraging because nuclear energy produces less deadly greenhouse gas emissions and human fatalities per unit of electricity than either wind or solar power (and concerns about waste are overblown). However, there is still a significant obstacle to deployment: Nuclear power station building costs have climbed over time, in contrast to the huge decreases witnessed in solar and wind energy. Advanced nuclear systems, such as compact modular reactors, show tremendous promise, but the current generation of nuclear technology isn’t expected to be a major climate tool. Cost-effective nuclear fission or perhaps nuclear fusion might have enormously positive effects on the environment, making it an attractive strategic bet despite the low probability of success.
For some types of geoengineering, such as carbon-dioxide removal, to be practical as a climate solution, the associated costs would need to be drastically reduced. In contrast, the same was true of solar and wind decades ago, and the government sped up the learning curve in those industries by providing an early source of demand and lowering the direct costs for consumers. Technology that mitigates the climate impact of fossil fuels rather than eliminating them is controversial among many progressive environmentalists. On the contrary, we require such choices. We are already quite likely to exceed the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond preindustrial levels because it will be difficult to decarbonize some big industries, such as aviation and cement and steel production. Reversing that warming permanently will require removing carbon from the atmosphere through some sort of vacuuming mechanism. Traditional carbon capture and sequestration strategies, which aim to absorb greenhouse gases as they are produced at huge pollution sources, are less promising than carbon-dioxide removal because they often leave some residual emissions.
In many other areas, Americans will have to settle for less-than-ideal circumstances. Some eco-activists have doubts about geothermal energy since it necessitates deep drilling. Theoretically, it can be put everywhere in the world, despite its modest geographical footprint, and it has great potential as a source of clean baseload power (if you drill deep enough). Providing geothermal energy with the same streamlined licensing process afforded to the oil and gas industry for leases on federal land will encourage more investment in this sustainable energy source.
Nevertheless, many environmentalists would be opposed to the loosening of regulations and laws necessary for successful permitting reform. Anyone who wishes to oppose or postpone a proposed energy project, whether out of altruistic concern for society or for purely economic reasons, has a great deal of sway because of the National Environmental Policy Act’s review requirements. It is a huge obstacle in the way of constructing sustainable energy infrastructure. A review of government data by the R Street Institute found that 66% of “in process” or “planned” energy projects are related to renewable energy, while 16% are dedicated to electricity transmission. More offshore wind generation is waiting for permits than is either operational or under construction. By the end of the decade, U.S. climate spending might reach over $500 billion; yet, without regulatory reform, these funds likely won’t be used to build much actual infrastructure. Some have criticized West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s new permitting-reform bill for its perceived favoritism toward fossil fuel projects like the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline. However, in the grand scheme of things, clean-energy infrastructure stands to benefit more than fossil fuels from streamlined permitting given how much of it is still to be built.
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Nothing here suggests the U.S. should throw caution to the wind and let the energy market go crazy. Instead, strict federal oversight is required to guarantee that carbon-removal technologies live up to their billings (unlike the carbon offsets market, which is fraught with fraud and “greenwashing”). Solar, wind, and battery costs have all been significantly reduced because of government investments in sustainable technology. However, without allowing various alternatives to the status quo to develop and prove themselves, we will not be successful in combating global warming. False solutions to climate change include not only geoengineering and nuclear energy, but also the rejection of certain technologies outright and the discouragement of private investment.
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