The Perilous Convergence of Climate, China, and Continued Complacency

The nexus of climate change, nuclear energy, and the global security challenge from China are rapidly converging issues that require a new policy playbook. Rather than confronting this reality, the world seems to be in a COVID-induced coma, relying on traditional issue stovepipes to develop responses that are blithely blind to the important intersection of these collective, critical concerns.

It is impossible to ignore the historic wildfires now ravaging America’s West Coast, the unprecedented blanket of smoke they have produced, and the resulting negative impact on renewable energy generation. This smokey swathe has significantly reduced the generation capacity from California’s solar farms which has fed rolling electricity blackouts and turned major cities dayglow orange. This dystopian sequence is occurring in a state that ranks as the equivalent of the world’s fifth largest economy.

Denying that climate change is a contributor to this disaster or defending an over-reliance on renewable energy as the only clean energy answer are equally inexcusable responses to this tragic reality.

Still, resistance to the development of all zero-carbon power sources is persistent, particularly when it entails the potential contribution from nuclear power.

This bias endures despite the fact that a new Senate Democratic special committee report and a special subcommittee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (composed of financial, corporate, and non-governmental members) have reached extremely similar conclusions about the economic impact of climate change.

The Senate committee leads its report by starkly stating, “[t]he climate crisis threatens our lives and livelihoods.” The CFTC group assesses that, “[c]limate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy.”

It is, therefore, difficult to fathom the financial concern that is the go-to argument from nuclear opponents when the stakes are so high and scale so skewed. At issue is sustaining and expanding over $20 trillion in U.S. GDP, currently the largest economy in the world, versus the hundreds of millions the U.S. is investing in next-generation nuclear technologies.

A nuclear subsidy may be considered a crime against the U.S. taxpayer by some, but the government underwrites a range of energy technologies. And the amount pales in comparison to the crime against humanity that would be the collapse of the U.S. and developing nation economies because of a continued climate battering. These new reactors can replace carbon producing fossil fuels and cleanly power developing nations, many of which have small, distributed electric grids and are facing unprecedented climate ravages.

In fact, the Senate special committee determined that, “[t]he clean energy transition in the electric sector will not proceed rapidly enough without the aid of substantial government investment” including for nuclear advancement.

This situation has geopolitical implications as well. America’s main emerging rival, China, would like nothing more than to help hobble the U.S. economy, assume the global GDP crown, and dominate next generation technology. As a new book notes, China’s leaders believe that for it “to win, America must lose.”

The U.S.-China struggle also impacts global security and the future of nuclear proliferation.

A new analysis identifies that one of seven trends that will shape the future of proliferation is the declining “ability of the United States to use civil nuclear energy sales and assistance to advance nonproliferation objectives.” That erosion impacts the “U.S. ability to write the rules of the game” and cedes important technological, energy, and geopolitical territory to China and Russia, “which provide nuclear assistance on more competitive terms – and with fewer nonproliferation strings attached.”

Allowing Russia and China to write the 21st century’s nuclear norms will be a monumental mistake because it could facilitate the creation of new nuclear weapons states. But it may be unavoidable if these nations are able to corner the next-gen nuclear market because the U.S. and its allies cannot produce and effectively market small nuclear power plants. The cost of this outcome will dwarf any government investment in the development and demonstration of the technology.

The convergence of climate change, China, and nuclear security presents a new force of nature. Responding to this nexus requires new thinking, expertise, and investment. But inertia is impeding the development of a new policy playbook, and if that continues much longer it will be extremely perilous.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security