Response to David Williams on Energy

To the editor:

David Williams (April 2008) takes issue with my commentary (January 2008) “Winning the climate race.” His main concern is that the commentary contains “not a single mention of the role nuclear power can and must play if the climate change problem is to be addressed--a truly remarkable omission.”

But it happens that Williams and I nearly agree on this. It’s clear from my commentary that the stated recommendations are not mine but instead come from George Monbiot’s book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Monbiot’s aim is to take on the quite daunting task of explaining how industrialized nations can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 90 percent by 2030. Halfway through the book he discusses nuclear power briefly, puts it at the bottom of his list of preferred solutions, and never mentions it again. Since I was offering Monbiot’s recommendations, rather than my own, as one way to get to 90 percent reductions, I didn’t list nuclear power as part of the solution.

The task of getting to large reductions rapidly is lightened by adding nuclear power to Monbiot’s list of recommendations and I, unlike Monbiot, agree that we should do this. I also agree with Williams that nuclear waste disposal is not a reasonable argument against nuclear power today, and I’d add that the same goes for the catastrophic accident argument against nuclear power. I do think that nuclear weapons proliferation concerns are an important drawback of nuclear power, and am happy to see that Williams is also concerned about this. Mainly because of proliferation issues, I greatly prefer efficiency and renewables to nuclear power, but nuclear will be part of the mix that solves the global warming problem. Indeed, this is already happening in China and India.

I do disagree with Williams’ two other points. He suggests that Monbiot’s recommended measures are “draconian and grossly unrealistic,” and lists restrictions on automobile travel and long-distance air travel as examples. But these travel modes are already shrinking, and people are changing their living habits by moving from suburbs to central cities, due just to the increase in oil prices that we’ve seen recently. There’s plenty of reason to think that such increases will keep coming, and that gasoline will before long reach $5 per gallon or more, with corresponding increases in jet fuel prices and thus airline prices. If you add that to the legislated carbon prices that are surely only a few years away, it becomes obvious that car and airplane travel are due for big reductions. It’s neither draconian nor unrealistic to suggest that by 2030 we’ll see a big shift to reduced travel and alternative transportation modes. In fact, it seems unrealistic to expect that there will not be such a shift.

Williams dismisses what’s commonly referred to as “contraction and convergence” (C&C) as the fair long-term apportionment of the planet’s limited future GHG emissions rights. C&C was developed in response to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 1992 call for an equitable distribution of carbon emission rights among nations. It calls for a contraction of global emissions that, by 2050, converges on equal per-capita emission rights globally. Those rights would be about 1.5 tons/person-y, some 13 times less than Americans emit today but 50 percent more than Indians emit. This would presumably be accomplished by a cap-and-trade emissions agreement under which high-emission nations would buy their needed emissions permits from low-emission nations, thus helping to finance new technologies in the developing nations. During this process, the developing nations should also receive the developed world’s technological assistance, as Williams properly suggests. C&C is supported not only by China, India, and most African nations, but also by the European Commission and the European Parliament, which endorsed it in 1998. I can’t imagine that the developing nations would accept any plan that did not eventually converge on equal per-capita emission rights. Although C&C is the fair solution, it is not, as Williams puts it, “ideological.” It is dictated not only by fairness but also by practicality and realism: The nations of the world will agree on nothing less.

Art Hobson
Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Arkansas
Author, Physics: Concepts & Connections (Prentice Hall, 4th ed 2007)

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.