The shockwave generated by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report on the severity of the climate crisis is rattling the long-standing climate canon, leading to a reconsideration of the required partnerships and the role of nuclear power in meeting this urgent challenge.
In an unprecedented joint Op-Ed, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of climate solutions and nuclear risk-reduction programs, and the CEO of Exelon, a leading U.S. energy company with significant nuclear facilities, agreed on four steps to address climate change: “a limit on carbon emissions, the rapid deployment of renewables, the exploration of carbon-capture solutions, and the use of safe and secure nuclear power that does not increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.”
Their collaboration marks a dramatic departure from the climate clash that has made meaningful progress difficult. It is a battle that has divided environmentalists, the energy industry and the non-proliferation communities for more than three decades.
The courage shown by MacArthur and Exelon, despite opposition to their partnership, should inspire other leaders in the business, philanthropic, and non-governmental sectors to move out of their comfort zones. Real progress requires that all sides collaborate and rethink their entrenched positions.
This change might be easier for the electric utility industry than the philanthropic and NGO communities, which for the most part view renewable energy as the primary solution to the climate crisis and have significant antipathy toward nuclear power despite its zero-carbon benefits.
Utilities are profit-driven, and they see low-carbon requirements coming at them, if not at the federal level then by the states. Getting ahead of that trend makes economic sense, but it requires a healthy, vibrant, and socially responsible nuclear power industry.
The nuclear industry is not monolithic, and it operates in a global context. At the moment companies in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and South Korea are struggling against the aggressive, state-financed companies of Russia and China that are winning contracts for new nuclear projects around the world.
Western companies have proven their willingness to work with civil society on climate, nuclear security, and related issues, but it is unclear whether Chinese or Russian companies would do so since they operate in lock-step with the geopolitical objectives of their country. This has profound implications for nuclear and global security because historically the strongest nuclear supplier nations have written the international governance rules. The winner of this competition can be expected to impact the effectiveness of nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation in this century and beyond.
There is some momentum behind the MacArthur-Exelon proposal. The MacArthur Foundation has supported from its pilot-project origins the Global Nexus Initiative, which is a first-of-its-kind collaboration among top climate, nuclear, security, and energy policy stakeholders. It analyzes and develops policy responses to the real-world linkages between climate change, nuclear power, and global security. Exelon has been an important and constructive voice at a number of multi-stakeholder policy conferences on the climate-nuclear connection and has financially backed the Schultz-Baker carbon pricing proposal.
Together, MacArthur and Exelon have created a platform on which this necessary cross-sector dialogue can continue. To take deep root, it will be important for others in the philanthropic and corporate communities to join them and all stakeholders in expending political and financial capital to make this a success - because the price of failure is much higher for everyone.
The IPCC determined that the world has to limit global warming to 1.5°C within two decades and that achieving this goal will require "unprecedented changes." This assessment won't support business as usual. It is a call to arms.
PGS has been a pioneer in the climate-nuclear-security space through GNI and other initiatives. It will be supporting this new “break the mold” collaboration enthusiastically.