James Hansen: the reality of sustainable energy

Read the Andy Revkin blog in the Times, here:

The NY Times blog by Andy Revkin, DOT EARTH, features a commentary on a recent interview by former NASA climate change scientist James Hansen, “Jim Hansen Presses the Climate Case for Nuclear Energy”.


“I encourage you to watch this short video interview with climate scientist and campaigner James E. Hansen, posted by the folks who brought you “Pandora’s Promise,” the flawed but valuable film arguing for a substantial role for nuclear energy in sustaining human progress without disrupting the climate.

Those preferring text can read a few transcribed excerpts below. Hansen proves himself, as always, somewhat inconvenient for almost everyone.

To me, for example, Hansen’s far too confident about the scale at which nuclear power, particularly the new technologies that he prefers, could be deployed by the middle of this century. But his statements pose a particularly tough challenge for those who embrace his take on the dangers attending an unabated greenhouse-gas buildup but see a fast transition to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources as the solution. Here he reprises the points he made in a 2011 essay, “Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid“:

Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

Here are some excerpts, starting with a basic endorsement of nuclear power plants: I think the only hope we have of phasing down emissions and getting to the middle of the century with a much lower level of fossil fuel emissions — which is what we will have to do if we want young people to have a future — we’re going to have to have alternatives and at this time nuclear seems to be the best candidate.

Following a discussion of the lessons from the great earthquake and tsunami that badly damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, he focuses on more resilient reactor designs:

A Reality Check on a Plan for a Swift Post-Fossil Path for New YorkA Film Presses the Climate, Health and Security Case for Nuclear EnergyCan Wind, Water and Sunlight Power New York by 2050?Kerry Proposes U.S.-India Push on Carbon and Climate’Pandora’s Promise’ Director and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Debate Nuclear Options

But with the new technologies, they are passively safe in the sense that if there is an anomaly like an earthquake or tsunami or both, it will just shut down and they don’t require power to cool them.

He discusses the merits and limits of energy efficiency as a path to lower greenhouse gas emissions:

It’s useful to show that you can have a lifestyle which produce less carbon, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Because if that’s all that happens, even if you convince a thousand people or a million people or a billion people to reduce their emissions what it does is reduce the demand for the fuel, lowers its price and somebody else will burn it.

Here’s what he says about renewable energy:

I think it’s unfortunate that so many environmentalists are just assuming that these renewable energies will be able to satisfy all of our requirements. Renewables are only providing between 1 and 2 percent — the soft renewables. Hydropower provides a significant amount of electricity but that’s limited. The hope that the wind and the sun and geothermal can provide all of our energy is a nice idea but I find it unlikely that that’s possible.

The environmental community is basically asking governments to try to reduce their emissions and asking them to subsidize clean energies. Well, that simply doesn’t work because we don’t get enough energy from the renewables to make a difference. And that then forces any government to approve expanded oil drilling, hydro-fracking to get more gas, mountaintop removal to get coal. We’re not going to turn the lights out. No government, no president or governor is going to turn out the lights. There has to be energy. If renewables aren’t providing it, it’s been fossil fuels.

In the video, Hansen doesn’t discuss his preferred mechanism for propelling a shift away from fossil fuels — a rising fee on carbon-containing fuels that is fully returned to citizens. It’s a strategy that has won him some support in conservative circles. But I don’t see how this mechanism provides the support for the research, development and deployment of new nuclear technologies that he champions in his remarks.

I’ll try to arrange a conversation with him sometime soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: