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Opinion: A New Climate of Realism Emerges in Energy Debate

Progressives and conservatives must embrace ideas and partners they’ve shunned before

The North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, Virginia. Non-carbon sources of energy, including nuclear, must be fully embraced if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, Grumet writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
The North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, Virginia. Non-carbon sources of energy, including nuclear, must be fully embraced if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, Grumet writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)

Two mainstay and false arguments of the climate debate — “It’s all a hoax” and “Renewable energy alone can save us” — are beginning to lose steam.

In place of the scientific, engineering and economic denial that has marred the last two decades of debate, a new coalition that acknowledges the growing risks of climate change and embraces a broader set of solutions is emerging. Whether the motivation here is the slow drip of evidence, the destabilizing effect of careening federal policy, or simply exhaustion, a new climate of realism is gaining adherents in industry, among advocates, and on Capitol Hill. For this movement to take hold, progressives and conservatives must both embrace ideas and partners they’ve doubted or shunned in the past.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have made remarkable strides in the last few decades. While some are drawn to the “Small is beautiful” allure of being off the grid, renewable power has become a major factor in reducing domestic emissions because it is now big business, led by big companies, that produces big power in massive industrial facilities. But even industrial-strength renewables can’t produce the volume of zero-carbon, around-the-clock power needed to support the global economy — despite anticipated improvements in energy efficiency and batteries to store renewable power for windless days and dark nights.

Nuclear power, carbon capture at coal and natural gas plants, technologies that remove carbon from the ambient air, and a more ambitious national research agenda must be fully embraced if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A critical foundation for this strategy is broadening advocacy for wind and solar energy to include all forms of non-carbon energy. In addition to offering a more viable ecological pathway, broadening the solution set to include the skills, scale and shareholders of the dominant global energy producers is essential to building a political center in the long-polarized climate debate.

Republicans are increasingly acknowledging that human activity is changing the climate in ways we must address. Ironically, the president’s sweeping dismissal of climate change has dimmed passions among science skeptics who drew energy from challenging the perceived elitism of the last administration.

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Promising signs

The building blocks of this new political alignment are visible in successful legislation focused on a suite of low-carbon technical innovations that will diversify domestic energy production. Consider these bipartisan initiatives:

A wide-ranging group in Congress, led by pragmatists such as Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has beaten back a series of administration proposals that would have severely cut, and in some cases eliminated, critical clean-energy R&D programs.

The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, whose chief sponsors include historic climate combatants Sens. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is designed to speed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ability to pursue advanced reactors.

The FUTURE Act, recently signed into law with broad bipartisan support, will expand tax credits for investments in “carbon-capture utilization and storage,” or CCUS — technologies that can safely capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas plants.

The USE IT Act, led by Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Shelley Moore-Capito, R-W.Va., and Whitehouse, among others, provides additional support for CCUS infrastructure (carbon pipelines) as well as for “direct-air capture” technologies that literally scrub carbon out of the air. While still in the research phase, one firm, Climeworks, has opened a commercial-scale facility in Switzerland.

Several states have adopted new bipartisan laws to increase non-carbon generation by providing funding to save nuclear plants from closing, while simultaneously increasing support for renewable power. Illinois, New York and New Jersey are at the vanguard of this approach, having taken important steps toward treating all forms of zero carbon power equally. While these subsidization policies are far from perfect, they provide a stopgap until more efficient market-based policies take hold.

These are all modest steps when compared with the scope of the challenge. However, their value is immeasurable if they create the foundation for a more honest, vigorous and productive debate about powering a vibrant economy while mitigating the risks of climate change.

Going forward

To seize this opportunity, climate advocates must fully embrace all non-carbon power options, including nuclear energy (which supplies more than 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free power).

While we must develop a national strategy for the permanent storage of nuclear waste, the environmental and public health risks associated with the existing storage regime barely register when stacked against the global ramifications of irreversible climate change. Despite progressive commitments to science and evidence, embracing nuclear power is not easy for climate advocates. Many environmental groups were founded on the political activism of the anti-nuclear movement, and membership-driven organizations have long histories of anti-nuclear advocacy. While there is growing support among philanthropic institutions for strategies that include the full suite of low-carbon technologies, acceptance of this inconvenient truth is not yet moving at a pace consistent with the scope and urgency of the climate challenge.

Fortunately, support for a broader solution set is mounting from incontrovertible sources on the left. Toward the end of the Obama administration, an Energy Department study made clear that meeting the climate challenge would require a renewables-plus strategy that included advanced-nuclear power and technologies that eliminate carbon from coal and natural gas. A soon-to-be-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will reinforce the need to move beyond emission reductions to substantial investments in adaptation and technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

If a partnership among climate and nuclear power advocates seems daunting, it pales in comparison with the work needed to forge effective partnership with the oil and gas sector. One of the most animated campaigns on the left today is the “Leave it in the ground” movement. While poetic in its retort to the “Drill, baby, drill” chants of a decade ago, a strategy that is predicated upon bankrupting the largest corporations in the world and undermining the global economy is not likely to build the broad coalition necessary for success.

The high-carbon industrial complex, meanwhile, faces its own challenges. Energy company CEOs are effective at ridiculing simplistic slogans in favor of serious sounding arguments about technology cycles, stranded assets, shareholder value, regressive economic impacts and the need for a realistic time frame. The glaring inadequacy in these somber arguments is the failure of industry leaders to clearly articulate specific strategies that meet their own reasonable criteria. Absent a far more aggressive effort to drive the low-carbon transition, corporate leaders should anticipate a continuation of the “tobacco-style” lawsuits, opposition to needed infrastructure, and all manner of tactics that are being employed by people desperate to protect the things they love.

While the ranks of climate realists are growing, this shift will not come without a fight. For too long, science denial and economic denial have fed a symbiosis of dysfunction to the benefit of leading culture warriors on the far left and right. Yet the cracks in this stalemate are beginning to show on both sides. We must leverage these fissures to build the common cause and political power that is needed for real progress.

Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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