Since the 1960s, fighting for the environment has often meant fighting against corporations. To fight pollution, activists have worked to thwart new oil drilling, coal-fired power plants, fracking for natural gas and oil pipelines. But today, Americans face a climate challenge that cannot be solved by simply saying no over and over again.
Decarbonizing the economy will require an unprecedented amount of new energy investment. Fossil fuel infrastructure built over centuries must be replaced over the coming decades with clean energy alternatives. The United States will have to build hundreds of thousands of square miles of wind and solar farms; deploy enough battery storage to keep power flowing through the grid even on calm, cloudy days; and at least double the capacity of the country’s transmission lines. And the same laws that environmental groups have used in the past to block or delay fossil fuel projects are now being exploited by NIMBYs in ways that, however well-intentioned, will slow the country’s transition to clean energy. . Windmills off Cape Cod, a geothermal facility in Nevada and what could have been America’s largest solar farm have all been stymied by an endless series of environmental reviews and lawsuits.
The good news is that with sensible reforms, the energy transition is within reach. Private investment in clean energy technologies is skyrocketing, and even Big Oil is beginning to realize that there is no future in fossil fuels.
But that may not be enough for some environmentalists. Jamie Henn, environmental activist and director of Fossil Free Media, recently said rolling stone“Look, I want to take carbon out of the atmosphere, but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same misdeeds in a clean energy economy, and that’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks, oh man, what a nightmare. Many progressive commentators agree that tackling climate change requires a fundamental reorganization of the West’s political and economic systems.” level of disruption required to keep us below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ temperature is fundamentally, at a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” writer Phil McDuff explained. The Climate Crisis, the climate crisis lawyer insisted Green New Deal Naomi Klein, ‘might be the best argument progressives have ever had’ to roll back corporate influence, tear up free trade deals and reinvest in public services and infrastructure.
Such comments raise a question: what is the real goal here: to stop climate change or to abolish capitalism? Taking climate change seriously as a global emergency requires an all-on-deck attitude and a recognition that technological solutions (yes, often built and deployed by private companies) can deliver real decarbonization progress before the proletariat seizes the means of production. A massive injection of private investment, made not for charitable purposes but in anticipation of future profits, is precisely what is needed to accelerate the transition to clean energy, which, like all revolutions, will yield unpredictable results. .
The belief that top-down decision makers can choreograph precisely how the clean energy revolution will unfold runs deep in progressive circles. In the manifesto outlining his version of the Green New Deal, Bernie Sanders said: “To achieve our goal of 100% sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions such as nuclear, geo-engineering, capture and carbon sequestration or waste incinerators. Many environmental groups share the Vermont senator’s dislike of these technologies. But the climate emergency demands that we take a closer look at some of them before canceling them altogether. In the face of uncertainty about the best path to decarbonization, policymakers should think like a venture capitalist, placing many bets in the hope that some technologies will fail but the investment portfolio will succeed in its own right. together. The “false solutions” denounced by Sanders could indeed prove to be unachievable. Nuclear energy may never be cost-competitive and geo-engineering may prove technically unfeasible. But we cannot know in advance.
Environmental activists have always been skeptical of nuclear power, but that attitude may be changing. California reversed its decision to shut down the Diablo Canyon plant and Japan announced plans to resume investing in nuclear power, an outcome few expected after Fukushima. This is good news, given that, per unit of electricity generated, nuclear power causes fewer deaths than wind power and creates less carbon emissions than solar (and waste concerns are exaggerated). However, a major barrier to deployment remains: unlike solar and wind, which have seen dramatic cost declines, the construction costs of nuclear power plants have actually increased over time. While this means the current generation of nuclear technology is unlikely to be a major climate tool, advanced nuclear systems such as small modular reactors hold great promise. The potential climate benefits of cost-effective nuclear fission or even nuclear fusion are so great that they are worth strategic bets, even in the long term.
Some forms of geoengineering, such as carbon dioxide removal, would require massive cost reductions to be viable as a climate solution. But the same was true for solar and wind decades ago, and the government was able to accelerate the learning curve in these areas by being an early source of demand and reducing direct costs to consumers. Many progressive environmentalists feel uncomfortable with technologies that lessen the climate impact of fossil fuels rather than banishing them altogether. And yet, we need such options. Some major industries, such as aviation and cement and steel production, will be difficult to decarbonise, and we are already likely to exceed the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. . The only way to permanently reverse this warming will be to suck the carbon straight out of the atmosphere. More traditional carbon capture and sequestration methods, designed to capture greenhouse gases when they are generated by large sources of pollution, are less promising than carbon dioxide removal since they leave usually residual emissions, but they are certainly better than unmitigated. the use of fossil fuels.
In various other ways, Americans will have to choose between the perfect and the good. Some environmentalists are skeptical of geothermal energy, which requires extensive drilling. Still, it has high potential as a clean baseload power source with a small geographic footprint that can, in theory, be deployed anywhere in the world (if you drill deep enough). One way to accelerate investments in geothermal energy would be to give this clean technology the same expedited permit that oil and gas companies already receive for leases on federal lands.
Yet allowing reform requires a relaxation of regulations and laws dear to many environmentalists. The National Environmental Policy Act mandates reviews that give enormous power to anyone who wants to block or delay a proposed energy project, either out of genuine social concern or self-interest. In practice, this is a major bottleneck for building clean energy infrastructure. According to an analysis of government data by the R Street Institute, 65% of energy projects classified as “in progress” or “planned” are related to renewable energy, and 16% relate to electricity transmission. And nearly 20 times more offshore wind power is locked in licensing than is currently in operation or under construction. U.S. climate spending could exceed more than half a trillion dollars by the end of this decade, but without enabling reform, those investments won’t translate into much physical infrastructure. A new permit reform measure proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has drawn criticism for accelerating some specific fossil fuel projects, such as the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, but in general, clean energy infrastructure has much more to gain. to fossil fuels by streamlining permits, because there is still a lot to build.
None of this means that the United States should let the energy market go wild. On the contrary, the federal government will have to be rigorous to ensure that technologies such as carbon dioxide removal actually deliver on their promises (unlike carbon offsets – a sketchy market rife with fraud and greenwashing). And public investment in clean technologies has already played a vital role in reducing the costs of solar and wind energy as well as batteries.
Yet we cannot succeed in the fight against global warming without giving many alternatives to the status quo the opportunity to evolve and prove themselves. In reality, the false solution to climate change is not geoengineering or nuclear energy, it is the belief that we can only decarbonize the economy by disrupting our economic system, by outright rejecting certain technologies and by rejecting private investment.