350.org recently sent around a strategic planning survey to people on their email lists. It sought to inform their planning on which campaigns to prioritize. The questions, however, took for granted that the only plausible or desirable way to prevent catastrophic climate change is to commit to an immediate transition from our mass dependence on fossil fuels to a global economy 100% based on renewables like hydro, wind, and solar.
I’ve written before about how climate change policy planning requires the consideration of multiple dimensions of uncertainty simultaneously. We shouldn’t choose strategies where we only succeed if other unknowns work out favourably for us (reducing the cost of renewables, dealing with the intermittancy problem, rebuilding energy grids). Even in terms of researching geoengineering, I can see the sense of evaluating whether it could be a backup plan if mitigation proves too hard, or if powerful positive feedbacks kick in. (That said, Gwynne Dyer paints a frightening picture where disputes over how quickly and energetically to begin geoengineering could be the spark for global conflict.)
I can see why pledging 100% renewables makes life politically simple for environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs) and activist groups. Most of their supporters and allied organizations are deeply opposed to nuclear energy, though the threat of climate change has brought some around. Likewise, they tend to oppose big dams and (arguably) most large industrial projects. Too often, they assume that massive reductions in energy demand will be achieved through improved efficiency, though considerable evidence suggests that as people around the world get richer, their demand for energy rises substantially as they choose air conditioning, high-energy forms of transport, and other lifestyle benefits long taken for granted in rich socities. (Though activists sometimes do support large solar farms, wind farms, run-of-river hydro projects, electrified transport, and other large-scale climate-friendly infrastructure.)
Rejecting low-carbon energy options like nuclear power stations and large dams (both of which are very expensive and carry with them a variety of forms of damage and risk, from methane release from hydroelectric reservoirs to the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation) makes for a more harmonious coalition among groups demanding aggressive action on climate change, but it introduces new risks into our long-term planning. In his excellent Sustainable Energy â€“ Without the Hot Air, David MacKay convincingly argues that a future where energy use levels are adequate and more equitably shared around the world requires us to “say yes” to big electricity sources that do little or no damage to the climate:
Because Britain currently gets 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, itâ€™s no
surprise that getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes… Given the general tendency of the public to say â€œnoâ€ to wind farms, “no” to nuclear power, “no” to tidal barrages â€“ “no” to anything other than fossil fuel power systems â€“ I am worried that we wonâ€™t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, weâ€™ll settle for half-measures: slightly-more-efficient fossil-fuel power stations, cars, and home heating systems; a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations.
Solving climate change quickly enough to avoid intolerable damage requires the rapid deployment of all low-carbon energy generation options. It’s better to spend the money and accept the other costs and impacts of multiple pathways to a sustainable future than it is to bet everything on one possibility and hope to our good luck.