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The Wrong Solutions

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The Wrong Solutions

Government officials overlook problems with their preferred remedies to climate change. February 1, 2022
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law
Infrastructure and energy

Advocates and public officials blame a growing number of seemingly unrelated phenomena, from tornadoes to medical problems, on climate change. As the list grows, they call for policies to tackle the putative crisis, while overlooking the flaws in their preferred solutions.

Consider, for example, the rush into electrification to leverage renewable energy as a green substitute for fossil fuels. Though the price of wind and solar power has declined in recent years, media coverage usually glosses over the hidden financial and natural-resource costs, as well as the challenges of intermittency. Hydropower, nuclear, and fossil-fuel plants—not to mention geothermal power, which, for now, remains small-scale—provide more reliable electrification without extensive energy storage requirements. Yet hydropower is limited by location and natural topography, and in extreme cases, by drought, while nuclear power remains grossly underused for misguided political reasons. (California governor Gavin Newsom is presiding over the decommissioning of California’s last nuclear power plant, while New York recently decommissioned its Indian Point plant.)

Fossil fuels or renewable sources coupled with energy storage thus remain viable options for reliable electrification. But shifting entirely to renewables would require dramatically increasing the use of utility-scale batteries for multiday backup; no other storage technology is yet practical. And the supply of critical minerals needed to manufacture batteries is anything but assured. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal illustrates the challenges of acquiring lithium, an essential ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that power everything from electric vehicles to smartphones. Many of the “rare earth” elements also required in battery production come from countries aligned with China or otherwise out of the U.S.’s reach, such as Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining creates pollution, and miners often work in primitive, unsafe conditions. Moreover, current manufacturing capacity for electric vehicle batteries is far short of what will be needed for widespread use. These details are well known but are seldom presented to the public.

Another example of willful ignorance is the obfuscation of global realities. Market forces and technological innovation, especially a shift in hydrocarbon use from petroleum toward natural gas, have helped reduce the United States’ emissions to near the level of 30 years ago—and the trend continues. While greenhouse-gas emission levels continue to rise rapidly in Africa and Asia, the U.S. share of emissions keeps falling.

But even if the U.S could attain zero emissions, it would not curb climate change on its own. And while the rate of growth of coal-power generation is abating, coal continues to expand: it is used by 80 countries, up from 66 two decades ago. Meantime, the U.S. and EU risk sacrificing efficiency for emissions reductions while our primary global competitors refuse to make such compromises. Promises of U.S.–China cooperation to reduce emissions aside, that strategic threat is real.

It’s hard for the public to react intelligently to the challenges of energy use and environmental concerns based on incomplete information. Unfortunately, public ignorance on these issues is widespread. Children are growing up in fear, even panic, while subsidies flow to those who offer unrealistic solutions to the problem. The rest of us pay the price.

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

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