How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Of the many reasons that a slim minority of voters chose to elect a bombastic reality television star to be president of the United States, climate change was surely not high on the list. Nonetheless, Donald Trump assumed the office last week openly hostile to the environmental movement. He has threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, gut the Barack Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and cut funding for climate science research. Should he follow through, two decades of work trying to translate a growing understanding of human-caused global warming into explicit treaties at the international level and emissions policies at the federal level will have reached their denouement. And that, in the long run, might be a good thing for the climate.
Since international efforts to limit carbon emissions began in earnest almost 30 years ago, there has been little evidence that either international agreements or national commitments to cap and reduce emissions have done much good. Analysis published late last year by our research outlet, the Breakthrough Institute, found that the carbon intensity of energy systems fell faster before climate policies were enacted in California, Germany, and around the world through the Kyoto Protocol. Modeling by the Yale economist William Nordhaus (the uncle of one of the authors) released last year reached a similar conclusion.
Emissions growth rates in various economies around the world have risen and fallen over recent decades, mostly owing to macroeconomic factors or technological developments. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the opening of China to the global economy and its subsequent entry into the World Trade Organization, and the Great Recession all had clear and demonstrable impacts upon emissions. So, too, did the shale revolution in the United States and France’s and Sweden’s decisions in the 1970s and 1980s to go nuclear. Carbon treaties, caps, regulations, and taxes, meanwhile, have not.
The trend will likely hold. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, to which nations committed in lieu of legally binding emissions reduction commitments in Paris, turned out to be mostly indistinguishable from business-as-usual decarbonization trends and policies that nations would have pursued for other reasons, such as energy independence or offshoring of industry. Recent MIT modeling concluded that, all told, the emissions reduction pledges made by nations at Paris would reduce the projected global temperature increase by late this century from 3.9 to 3.7 degrees Celsius.
With or without the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the long-term shift from coal to gas is likely to continue. Cheap gas, not a war on coal, has been the primary driver of coal’s decline, and the new administration has been clear that it intends to further promote shale production. There may be less than meets the eye to other controversial changes as well. U.S. Energy Secretary–designate Rick Perry may not have been able to remember that the Department of Energy (DOE) was one of the agencies he’d pledged to abolish while campaigning for president in 2012. But this vow, popular among U.S. conservatives since President Ronald Reagan, has never been realized. Both the DOE and the national laboratories it oversees have vocal bipartisan constituencies in Congress.
With or without the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the long-term shift from coal to gas is likely to continue.
Federal tax credits for renewable energy similarly maintain bipartisan support and are unlikely to be repealed by the new Congress. The Trump administration might even figure out how to do something to keep the nation’s embattled fleet of nuclear power plants online, a step that would keep U.S. emissions heading in the right direction even as the Trump administration reverses course on other initiatives.
The reality is that the trajectory of emissions is unlikely to differ significantly under a Trump administration from what it would have been under a Hillary Clinton administration. That, however, is not much comfort, given the not insignificant long-term risks posed by climate change and how unwilling the world seems to do anything to significantly mitigate those risks. The situation should prompt some reconsideration of what a plausible path forward might look like and how the politics of climate, energy, and the environment might be reconfigured in ways that could offer both more successful policy outcomes and a more robust and sustainable political consensus for action.
The necessary reset of U.S. climate policy and politics will need to start by properly valuing the low-carbon assets we have today. As long as production remains high and gas remains cheap, gas should continue to displace coal, with or without the Clean Power Plan, for the next several decades. With modest actions to prevent further closures of nuclear power plants, reforms to speed up the relicensing of hydroelectric dams, and continuing federal and state incentives for wind and solar deployment, we should be able to reduce emissions from the U.S. power sector by about 40 percent between now and 2040, a not insignificant achievement but still far from the scale reductions that would be necessary to reduce emissions to levels consistent with limiting the global temperature increase to three degrees Celsius in the twenty-first century (much less the international target of two).
Limiting temperatures further will require that the United States entirely decarbonize the power sector as well as other key parts of the economy such as transportation, industry, and agriculture that have proven much more difficult to decarbonize. The technological options for doing so at present are not good. Light transportation might be electrified, but heavy transportation, shipping, and aviation present more daunting challenges. There are similarly, at present, no viable low-carbon technologies for the production of steel, concrete, or fertilizer. Whether through electrification, fuel cells, or fuels manufactured without fossil inputs, economy-wide decarbonization will require full decarbonization of all of these sectors. Neither conventional nuclear nor wind and solar offer particularly plausible solutions to do so today.
Even in the power sector, the United States and most other developed countries have mostly stopped building nuclear power plants. Demand for nuclear power is growing slowly, public fears of nuclear accidents and radiation are vastly out of step with the actual risk, and liberalized electricity markets have undermined the kind of long-term planning that a cost-effective build-out of large conventional nuclear power plants requires. In contrast, wind and solar have been growing at a rapid rate from a tiny base over the last decade. But wind and solar installation around the world has reliably stalled as their share has approached about 20 percent of electrical grids. At that point, sometimes intermittent wind and solar will generate nearly all the grids electricity needs and sometimes none at all, so the costs of dealing with high penetrations of variable renewable energy sources start to become prohibitive.
In the face of such challenges, climate advocates have engaged in one version or another of magical thinking. There is hope that some combination of better climate science and mounting climate catastrophes will motivate public support for a World War II–style mobilization of wind and solar energy. There is faith that pumping subsidies into existing solar and wind technologies will result in incremental improvements that over time will accrue to the sorts of radical breakthroughs that would be necessary to scale those technologies to levels beyond what is today technically and economically feasible. There is also the belief, not much supported empirically, that a price on carbon or other regulatory mandates will spur private entrepreneurs to come up with the breakthroughs we will need to move human societies wholesale off of fossil fuels once and for all.
Given the scale of what would be necessary to have much impact on the global climate, some level of magical thinking may be unavoidable. One way or another, the world will need to develop and deploy technologies that don’t yet exist on a massive and unprecedented scale. But there is one other possibility that hasn’t much been on the table until relatively recently. In recent years, a new generation of nuclear engineers has launched a slew of advanced nuclear energy start-ups. The technologies aren’t anything like the nuclear reactors operating around the world today, nor are the companies anything like the midcentury goliaths that commercialized the current generation of nuclear reactors. The new designs are small, hyperefficient, and radically safe. They can’t melt down, are often a tenth or less the size of conventional light-water reactors, can be manufactured in factories just like wind turbines and solar panels, and can operate at sufficiently high temperatures to provide heat and power for steel, cement, hydrogen, and fertilizer production. Like wind and solar, these reactors produce energy with zero carbon dioxide. Unlike wind and solar, they produce it 24/7.
The new nuclear reactor designs are small, hyperefficient, and radically safe.
The United States is unlikely to embark upon the kind of state-led, top-down nuclear build-out that allowed France and Sweden to virtually entirely decarbonize their power sectors with nuclear power, but it might be able to embark on an entrepreneur- and venture-led effort to radically disrupt the nuclear sector. Doing so might allow the United States to once again lead the world in developing nuclear power on a planet that will soon enough have nine billion energy-hungry consumers. Reforming the Department of Energy, the national laboratories, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission so that this sort of radical innovation would be possible might be just the sort of thing that congressional Republicans and the new administration would be able to get behind. And a climate mitigation effort that featured an innovative, entrepreneurial nuclear sector competing for growing global energy markets might persuade many U.S. conservatives to take the climate challenge a lot more seriously.
In the meantime, the prospects for a coherent climate policy in a Trump administration are exceedingly dim. But one thing the Trump era ought to do is challenge climate advocates to grapple seriously with why their politics and policies have failed so consistently for the last several decades. More than anything that is likely to happen in the next Congress, such a reckoning might offer a more hopeful and optimistic path for climate advocacy in the years to come.