Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has released his grand plan to fight climate change. Most people think it is silly. The progressives who’ve signed on to the “Green New Deal” complain O’Rourke’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Almost everyone else looks at it as a hot mess of unfunded spending (“Mobilize $5 trillion for climate change”) and unintelligible rhetoric (“Partnering with any city or county, state or tribal nation, business or NGO, any individual pursuing greater ambition”)
Climate change is complicated. Since most of the other candidates seem happy to duck the issue by indicating some vague support for the Green New Deal, we might wonder why O’Rourke decided to stick his neck out. There is, after all, some truth in the old maxim “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
Mocking O’Rourke on Twitter is great fun. He probably deserves it. But if you’re concerned about climate change, it doesn’t help. There are actually some bits and pieces in the O’Rourke proposal that can advance the conversation.
Start with the fact that the O’Rourke plan has a stated goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050. This is a big difference from the Green New Deal and climate militants who have talked about a deadline of 2030.
Achieving zero net emissions even by 2050 would require massive expenditures and political will. A group of Stanford engineers estimated that converting to an all-renewable energy system by 2050 would cost about $14 trillion. It would also require allocating millions of acres—almost 2.5 percent of U.S. land area—to wind farms, solar arrays and hydroelectric dams.
That all seems wildly optimistic. Think about the massive cost overruns that beset relatively straightforward projects (The “big dig” road project in Boston was about 200 percent over budget. The Sydney Opera House was 1,400 percent over budget.) And think about the endless delays when the government tries to take even a few acres for a road or a pipeline, let alone a massive reservoir.
But the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 has one redeeming virtue: while it seems incredibly difficult, it might—just maybe—be doable. This is especially true since a deadline of 30 years in the future allows for the possibility of technological progress in renewables. (Massive amounts are already being spent on research to develop new battery technology.) Those who advocate zero net emissions in 10 years are either woefully ignorant of basic engineering and economics or they’re shamelessly pandering to people who are. O’Rourke has separated himself from that crowd.
There’s one other thing about the 2050 deadline that’s kind of intriguing: the goal is stated as zero net emissions, not 100 percent renewables. There’s a big difference. We may be able to eliminate significant amounts of carbon emissions without spending money on expensive and yet unknown renewable technologies.
Right now, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is expensive and unreliable, but that might change. Remember that coal is by far the most plentiful and cheapest form of energy we have. But coal is also vile, nasty stuff with a huge carbon footprint. Strange as it seems to people who haven’t thought much about energy and the environment, if CCS becomes cheap and efficient, coal might become the most environmental friendly energy option we have. And while there’s no guarantee that CCS will work, O’Rourke’s plan allows for that possibility. A commitment only to renewables does not.
And while we’re thinking about cheap, carbon-free energy, let’s talk about nuclear power.
Here’s a conversation starter: in 2017 the average American produced three times as much CO2 as the average person living in France. Of course, we have bigger houses and cars and drive longer distances, but that doesn’t explain most of the difference. France emits so much less carbon because France generates over 70 percent of its electricity from zero-carbon nuclear power plants. We get less than 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear. Nuclear has its own costs but we’re being told that climate change is a kind of existential threat requiring a complete overhaul of our economy and way of life. If it really is that serious of a threat, then nuclear needs to at least be discussed as a serious option.
How well O’Rourke and his advisors really understand the complexities of climate change remains an open question. And to repeat: there is much pretentiously proclaimed nonsense in what is, after all, a campaign document. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t use it as a springboard for policy discussion rather than a platform for political attack.