National Academy of Sciences member Kerry Emanuel of MIT penned some personal thoughts over the weekend of July 25-26 to convey his views on nuclear power, renewable energy, and risk.
Introduction by Editor Bud Ward
Emanuel was motivated to respond to Michael Shellenberger’s promotional pieces for his new book, and by reactions to those and to the book itself. Emanuel wrote a “dust jacket blurb” endorsing the book, “Apocalypse Never.”
Since its release, the Shellenberger book has received positive reviews and publicity, some of it featuring Shellenberger, from groups having long opposed efforts to address climate change, such as the Heartland Institute, the “Watts Up with That” website, and some conservative outlets. An online column Shellenberger had posted on a Forbes website was deleted by the publisher, apparently over concerns it was self-congratulatory.
Emanuel says he has “no regrets about the endorsement,” and he credits the Shellenberger book for making what he, Emanuel, sees as “two essential points: Environmental extremism harms the cause of climate action”; and opposition to nuclear energy “has probably been more harmful in the long run than climate denial.”
“If I thought a dust jacket blurb implied an endorsement of every single thing in a book, I would never write them at all,” Emanuel wrote in an email. He said he has no problem with an author’s challenging the motives of groups (as opposed to individuals). Emanuel did not address Shellenberger’s ad hominem criticism of some un-named climate scientists, activists, and journalists as “lost souls seeking false gods – individuals in the grip of a religion without knowing it.”
Emanuel has long voiced his own skepticism that wind and solar alone can fully replace fossil fuels, and he said he agrees with Shellenberger’s rejection of activists’ “unwise, environmentally harmful, and financially unworkable call for 100% renewables.” But Emanuel disagrees also with what he says is Shellenberger’s “embrace of 100% nuclear.”
Emanuel said he wishes “that the book did not carry with it its own excesses and harmful baggage.” And he observes in his essay, below, that what he calls “climate change denier groups” have “appropriated” the Shellenberger book to support their view that “there is no serious risk, a contention that has no basis in fact.” (Some of course feel that Emanuel’s own seeming imprimatur on the book jacket lends itself to the “appropriation” he regrets.)
“It’s too bad that our cause is becoming polarized like everything else today,” Emanuel laments. “We need calm, rational solutions.”
What Emanuel calls his “half essay/half book review” follows in full.
by Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Every day, each of us deals with a variety of risks, from deciding whether and when to cross a busy highway to how much insurance to buy for a house or car. When analyzed, each of these decisions has three components: An assessment of the probability of something bad happening (e.g. being run down), the cost of that bad thing (being seriously injured or killed), and the cost of avoiding or reducing the risk (missing the bus by waiting until it is safe to cross the road). Attitudes toward risk range the gamut, from devil-may-care recklessness to extreme, obsessive caution, but most of us are rational about risk, most of the time.
We also have to confront risks as members of communities. Civic organizations, businesses, and political entities (towns, states, and nations) all have to deal with risk and in so doing handle the range of risk aversion among its members. A current example is our struggle to deal with COVID-19, weighing the risk of serious illness and death against the economic and social costs of reducing the risk. In our time, what might have been a rational discussion about how best to cope with the risk is drowned out by extremists, such as those who refuse to wear masks, whose voices are amplified by social media.
Lurking just off stage is climate change, the 6,000-pound gorilla of global risk. It is a monster of a risk problem because it is slow-moving, global, has large uncertainty, and would cost a great deal to avert. It is hardly surprising that it has engendered a vigorous debate, dominated, as many issues are, by noisy extremists. On the one hand we have apocalyptic statements to the effect that the world will end in 12 years if nothing is done, to the assertions by lackeys of the fossil fuel industry, for whom trillions of dollars are at stake, that there is nothing to worry about. The calm, reasoned voices of scientists are shunted aside in the raucous bid for Twitter acclaim, Facebook fame, and, of course, the almighty dollar.
The most recent entry into the fray is Michael Shellenberger, whose book “Apocalypse Never” is a take-down of the doomsday crowd, chiding both its pessimism and its embrace of unrealistic solutions. I wrote a blurb for the book’s dust jacket, criticizing environmentalists for their embrace of unworkable and environmentally deleterious solutions such as 100% renewable energy and their opposition to nuclear energy, which other nations have ramped up quickly and thereby greatly reduced carbon emissions.
Inevitably, Shellenberger’s critique of doomsday extremists has been appropriated by climate denier groups to bolster their contention that there is no serious risk, a contention that has no basis in fact. Sadly, this effort has been aided by promotional pieces penned by Shellenberger himself that have had the effect, intentionally or not, of greatly downplaying real climate risks. Shellenberger makes a number of statements whose effect is to lead the reader to believe there is no risk at all. For example, he claims that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse”. Indeed, the per capita death toll from natural disasters has been declining for 100 years, owing to large improvements in warning, evacuations, post-disaster medical care, and other advances. The most we can say about climate disasters is that they have not (yet) actually reversed this trend. Shellenberger’s nonsequitur is rather like saying that the Boeing 737 MAX did not make flying more dangerous, given the long-term decline in aviation deaths per passenger-mile. In point of fact, theory, models, and observations of weather events such as floods, heatwaves, and hurricanes leave little doubt that climate change is making extreme weather events more dangerous.
It is important for all of us to try to step out of the fray, however tempting and even addictive it may be to our tribal impulses, and take a cold, hard look at climate change risk. We climate scientists are doing our best, but there remains large uncertainty in estimates of climate change over this century. At the low end, we should be able to adapt to the change, for the most part. At the high end, we are taking risks that might prove existential to civilization. A rational society looks at the whole spectrum of risk and makes wise decisions that avert as much of the risk as possible without incurring unacceptable costs. As with the decision to cross a busy highway, we should be willing to spend a great deal to avert a fatal outcome, even if that has relatively low probability.
Fortunately, much of our climate risk may be averted by technical innovation. While 100% renewable energy is neither desirable nor financially viable at the moment, combining wind and solar power sources with more reliable energy sources, such as hydro power, nuclear, and gas with carbon sequestration makes a great deal of sense. And not just for averting climate risk but for reducing the staggering death toll from air pollution resulting from coal and oil combustion and for providing inexpensive, abundant energy for lifting many societies out of wrenching poverty.
But free markets are not driving this technical innovation fast enough to avert the worst climate risks. As we have done often and productively in the past, we need to accelerate innovation by funding research and development and by taxing the harmful side effects of the dominant industry (fossil fuels in this case). By this means, we can hope to catch up to Russia and China, who are competing with each other to capture the $7 trillion global energy market by producing and exporting renewable energy technology and nuclear power.
If we can only put aside our tribal squabbles, look at climate change rationally, and take advantage of new technologies for generating energy, we can avert much climate risk while at the same time making life better for ourselves and for the hundreds of millions of people who currently have no access to electricity. What are we waiting for?