This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic
Since the 1960s, fighting for the environment has frequently meant fighting against corporations. To curb pollution, activists have worked to thwart new oil drilling, coal-fired power plants, fracking for natural gas, and fuel pipelines. But today, Americans face a climate challenge that can’t be solved by just saying no again and again.
Decarbonizing the economy will require an unprecedented amount of new energy investment. Fossil-fuel infrastructure built over centuries needs to be replaced within the next few decades by clean-energy alternatives. The United States will need to build hundreds of thousands of square miles of wind and solar farms; deploy enough battery storage to keep power flowing through the grid even on calm, cloudy days; and at least double the country’s transmission-line capacity. And the same laws that environmental groups leveraged in the past to block or delay fossil-fuel projects are now being exploited by NIMBYs in ways that, however well intended, will slow the country’s transition to clean energy. Windmills off Cape Cod, a geothermal facility in Nevada, and what could have been the largest solar farm in America have all been blocked by an endless series of environmental reviews and lawsuits.
The good news is that, with reasonable reforms, the energy transition is fully within reach. Private investment in clean-energy technology is skyrocketing, and even Big Oil is starting to realize there is no future in fossil fuels.
But this may not be enough for some environmentalists. Jamie Henn, an environmental activist and the director of Fossil Free Media, recently told Rolling Stone, “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks—oh, man, what a nightmare.” Many progressive commentators similarly believe that countering climate change requires a fundamental reordering of the West’s political and economic systems. “The level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ is fundamentally, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” the writer Phil McDuff has argued. The climate crisis, the Green New Deal advocate Naomi Klein has insisted, “could be the best argument progressives have ever had” to roll back corporate influence, tear up free-trade deals, and reinvest in public services and infrastructure.
Such comments raise a question: What is the real goal here—stopping climate change or abolishing capitalism? Taking climate change seriously as a global emergency requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude and a recognition that technological solutions (yes, often built and deployed by private firms) can deliver real progress on decarbonization before the proletariat has seized the means of production. A massive infusion of private investment, made not for charity but in the anticipation of future profits, is precisely what’s needed to accelerate the clean-energy transition—which, like all revolutions, will yield unpredictable results.
The belief that top-down decision makers can choreograph precisely how the clean-energy revolution will proceed runs deep in progressive circles. In the manifesto describing his version of the Green New Deal, Bernie Sanders declared, “To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.” Many environmental groups share the Vermont senator’s aversion to these technologies. But the climate emergency demands we take a closer look at some of them before writing them off completely. In the face of uncertainty about the best path to decarbonization, policy makers should think like a venture capitalist—placing lots of bets in the expectation that some technologies will fail but the investment portfolio will succeed as a whole. The “false solutions” that Sanders decries may indeed prove unworkable. Nuclear energy might never be cost-competitive, and geoengineering may prove technically infeasible. But we can’t know in advance.
Environmental activists have historically been skeptical of nuclear energy, but that attitude may be changing. California reversed its decision to shut down the Diablo Canyon plant, and Japan announced plans to start investing in nuclear energy again—an outcome few predicted after Fukushima. This is welcome news, considering that, per unit of electricity produced, nuclear energy causes fewer deaths than wind energy and creates fewer carbon emissions than solar (and concerns about waste are overblown). However, one major barrier to deployment remains: Unlike solar and wind, which have seen dramatic cost decreases, nuclear-power-plant construction costs have actually increased over time. Although that means the current generation of nuclear technology isn’t likely to be a major climate tool, advanced nuclear systems such as small modular reactors show considerable promise. The potential climate benefits from cost-effective nuclear fission or even nuclear fusion are so large that they’re worth some strategic bets—even at long odds.
Some forms of geoengineering, such as carbon-dioxide removal, would require massive reductions in cost to be viable as a climate solution. But the same was true of solar and wind decades ago, and the government was able to accelerate the learning curve in those fields by being an early source of demand and reducing the direct costs for consumers. Many progressive environmentalists feel uneasy with technologies that blunt the climate impact of fossil fuels rather than banish them entirely. And yet we need such options. Some major industries, such as aviation and cement and steel production, will be hard to decarbonize, and we’re already likely to overshoot the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius greater than preindustrial levels. The only way to permanently reverse that warming will be to suck carbon directly out of the atmosphere. More traditional carbon capture and sequestration methods, designed to capture greenhouse gases as they’re generated at large pollution sources, are showing less promise than carbon-dioxide removal given that they typically leave some residual emissions, but they’re still certainly better than unmitigated fossil-fuel use.
In a variety of other ways, Americans will have to choose between the perfect and the good. Some environmentalists are skeptical of geothermal energy, which requires extensive drilling. Yet it has high potential as a source of clean baseload power with a small geographical footprint that can, in theory, be deployed anywhere in the world (if you drill deep enough). One way to accelerate investment in geothermal energy would be to give this clean technology the same expedited permitting that oil and gas companies already receive for leases on federal land.
Yet permitting reform requires loosening regulations and laws that many environmentalists hold dear. The National Environmental Policy Act requires reviews that give enormous power to anyone who wants to block or delay a proposed energy project, either out of genuine social concern or for self-interested reasons. In practice, it is a major bottleneck to building clean-energy infrastructure. According to an analysis of government data by the R Street Institute, 65 percent of the energy projects categorized as either “in progress” or “planned” are related to renewable energy, and 16 percent have to do with electricity transmission. And nearly 20 times as much offshore wind power is held up in permitting as is currently in operation or under construction. U.S. climate spending could exceed more than half a trillion dollars by the end of this decade—but without permitting reform, those investments won’t translate into much physical infrastructure. A new permitting-reform measure put forth by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has drawn criticism for fast-tracking some specific fossil-fuel projects, such as the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, but in general clean-energy infrastructure has much more to gain relative to fossil fuels by streamlining permitting, because so much of it still needs to be built.
None of this means that the United States should let the energy market run wild. On the contrary, the federal government will need to use a heavy hand in ensuring that technologies like carbon-dioxide removal actually deliver on their claims (unlike carbon offsets—a sketchy market rife with fraud and greenwashing). And public investment in clean technologies has already been pivotal in driving down the costs of solar and wind power as well as batteries.
Yet we cannot succeed in the fight against global warming without giving many alternatives to the status quo an opportunity to evolve and prove themselves. In reality, the false solution to climate change isn’t geoengineering or nuclear energy—it’s the belief that we can decarbonize the economy only by upending our economic system, categorically rejecting certain technologies, and spurning private investment.