The Political Challenge of Climate Innovation and Ambition

The American West is once again on fire or covered with heavy smoke from numerous blazes. Through mid-July of this year, there have been over 34,000 fires in the U.S. compared with about 28,000 at the same juncture last year.

The causes – multi-year drought, undersized winter snowpack, unusually high temperatures causing early runoff, and lack of rain. The contributing culprit, climate change.

In the face of this intensifying conflagration, it remains a mystery why some climate concerned analysts continue to dismiss the full suite of zero-carbon technologies that can reduce global warming and profess a lack of faith in the full-scope of innovation that is necessary to tackle the challenge.

Much of this technology discrimination is designed to sideline the role of nuclear energy. That’s surprising given its current outsized role in delivering zero-carbon energy in major industrialized nations and the potential of next-generation technologies to cleanly power developing economy nations. There also is considerable opposition to carbon capture technologies that would support the continued, but cleaner, use of fossil fuels.

Despite the negativity from some experts, it seems that the European Union and the U.S. are thinking with increasing creativity about how to manage a climate that is not evolving for the better. But that ambition is facing off against painful political realities.

Official Washington, which seems perpetually challenged in effectively addressing large, multi-dimensional crises, is discussing both greenhouse gas reductions and resiliency measures to weather the growing climate change storm.

A legislative response has been developed by Democrats as part of a $3.5 trillion budget framework. This bill is based on the Biden administration’s goals, so likely will not draw bipartisan support which is an unfortunate manifestation of the deep divisions that rend the republic. But, if passed, it could define a national clean energy standard that includes a full suite of responses including those, like nuclear energy and carbon capture, that are necessary but unpopular among inflexible non-governmental climate commissars.

The European Commission also continues to wrestle with the role of nuclear power in its proposed green finance taxonomy, even as the EU unveiled a dozen major proposals designed to deliver “the first climate neutral continent by 2050” in a new package of legislation. It must be endorsed by 27 member countries and given the ambition of the package, that could be a difficult objective because of the diverse energy profiles of EU nations. Some are highly nuclear energy dependent like France and others are deeply reliant on coal like Poland.

Based on a “polluter pays principle” the most controversial components of the proposal are to: tax foreign companies for the emissions that they produce particularly for steel, aluminum, and concrete; tax shipping and aviation fuels for their climate impacts; and require a 100% reduction in automobile emissions requiring a massive expansion of battery-powered cars on the continent.

The EU package also calls for 40% of its energy be produced by renewable sources by 2030 with the anticipation of further expansion through 2050. Germany’s environment minister summed up the objective, “There needs to be a coordinated, massive expansion of sun and wind power from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.”

But achieving that coordination in Europe or any other region is not going to be easy.

There is a multinational backlash against the massive scaling of renewable energy based on the large volume of land and water that is required for its deployment and the impacts on the farming and marine industries.

While governments and environmentalists have crowned renewable energy as the superior choice, those that have to live with the results are pushing back, causing numerous wind, solar, and geothermal projects to be stalled.

By contrast, nuclear reactors use under 1% of the space required by wind and solar power when measured by unit of energy produced. And it is unlikely that fossil fuels will be phased out by mid-century.

The response to climate change certainly will require the creative and controversial if it is going to be successful. And recent proposals in America and Europe have been both.

But it makes little sense to ramrod the technological response to excessively favor renewables. It is highly unlikely that the divisive politics of the moment will support that approach and it could damage nascent recognition of the climate crisis among skeptics.

A balanced, technology neutral response is a better path forward. That has the important benefit of diversifying the energy supply, supporting reliable clean power, and requiring a significant investment in science and technology R&D. In the end, that agenda will engender deeper political support and better serve national objectives over the long term.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security