On March 31, 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report:Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The report is a product of a working group and, according to an IPCC press release, reflects the input of 1,729 expert and government reviewers. The report provides a wide variety of data on the “high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions,” as well as observed impacts attributed to climate change on agriculture, human health, ecosysytems, water supplies, and local economies. The IPCC report has been widely cited in the media as presenting the most dire information to date on climate-related risks.
We should acknowledge that no science, perhaps especially the science of long-term climate change, can ever be completely settled. Nutrition science is an example of another area of scientific inquiry wherein research and analysis continues, so that yesterday’s warnings are constantly revised and eclipsed by today’s new information. But as the IPCC recognizes, in public policy and government regulation, good decision-making should be based on the most up-to-date assessments of risks(including both the probability and potential consequences) of possible scenarios. The report focuses in the end on making choices to both mitigate and adapt to a changing environment (or, at least implicitly, making choices to do nothing to avoid the present, known costs and accept future less certain costs).
Which brings me to nuclear energy – one proven source of large-scale, zero-carbon electric generation. The economic viability of nuclear power in deregulated electricity markets, as the markets are currently structured, is a crucial issue connected to climate change policy. The early decommissioning of some operating nuclear plants in some markets has been much discussed, given the challenge of low-cost natural gas and subsidized renewables. Wise leaders will need to decide whether a short-term, market-based energy policy adequately serves broader goals that might include fuel diversification, grid reliability, job preservation, and. . . mitigating potential climate change. In this vein, a look at a recent assessment issued by Third Way may provide a data point of interest. Based on data from the Energy Information Agency, the research group concludes that shutting down a significant number of operating nuclear plants due to market conditions would significantly raise carbon emissions from the electric power sector and undercut seven years of progress toward carbon goals – an outcome the group characterizes as “bad news for environmentalists.”