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ART HOBSON: Last chance on global warming

Renewables, nuclear, carbon fee needed

Published in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opinion section

October 6, 2020


Conservatives and liberals alike must get serious about global warming. Conservatives tend to dismiss it. Our president considers it a hoax. In 2015, candidate Donald Trump said "Obama's talking about all of this global warming and ... of lot of it's a hoax. I mean, it's a money-making industry, OK? It's a hoax."

We're witnessing California's worst fire season ever recorded, an 18-year mega-drought (the worst in 800 years) in the Southwest, an Atlantic hurricane season on pace to be the worst ever recorded, an unparalleled six-month, 100-degree heat wave in "frozen" Siberia, Arctic ocean ice that vanishes every summer, not to mention 120 years of generally rising temperatures with 2010-2019 the hottest decade on record.

Undeterred, our president touts hoaxes, renounces the United Nations' Paris Agreement, dismantles the clean power plan, revokes limits on methane releases, and loosens car and truck emissions standards. With leadership like this, it's no wonder the planet is losing the global warming battle.

In 2018, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated we have one decade to get carbon emissions controlled before catastrophic impacts become unavoidable. Please read that sentence again. There is no planet B.

Liberals take this seriously, but not seriously enough. Green New Deal legislation has been proposed that would cut carbon emissions by "meeting 100 percent of the power demand ... through clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources." The bill upgrades energy efficiency in buildings and overhauls transportation systems. The emphasis on renewables and efficiency is excellent but it will not get us close to zero fossil fuels. We also need nuclear power and a price on carbon, but the Green New Deal mentions neither.

Consider Germany, France and Sweden. Germany's transition to renewables has been admirable. But Germany isn't meeting its carbon reduction commitments, while resistance to renewables grows. The problem is that solar and wind farms take several hundred times more land than nuclear plants. Because Germany has been strongly anti-nuclear, Chancellor Angela Merkel phased out 17 nuclear sites even while Germany failed to sufficiently reduce carbon emissions due to coal consumption. Thus, Germany has merely replaced nuclear with renewables, while making no progress against fossil fuels or carbon emissions.

France and Sweden, on the other hand, are seriously reducing emissions by switching to renewables and nuclear. France gets 71 percent of its electricity from nuclear, 18 percent from renewables, and only 11 percent from fossil fuel. Sweden, with abundant hydroelectric resources, gets 36 percent from nuclear, 58 percent from renewables, and just 6 percent from fossil fuels.

The consequences for carbon emissions: Germany emits an enormous annual 8.9 tons of carbon dioxide per person, France 4.6 tons, and Sweden 4.5 tons. For comparison, USA emits a super-enormous annual 16.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person while getting only 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear. Under the Green New Deal, as our aging nuclear plants retire, we are on track to follow Germany's path by replacing nuclear with renewables.

Thus the Green New Deal, as it stands, could be a disaster for Earth.

I'm no fan of nuclear power, primarily because it causes nuclear weapons proliferation. I've fretted for 50 years about this issue. But global warming is an existential near-term threat to civilization, more certain and even more dangerous than nuclear war, and the Green New Deal as it stands will not solve it. Liberals must face up honestly to this despite concerns about nuclear power.

The Green New Deal doesn't mention a price on carbon. James Hanson, leading climate expert, heroic global warming activist, nuclear power proponent and author of the 2009 book "Storms of My Grandchildren," was among the first to suggest the "carbon fee and dividend" proposal.

Under that proposal, extractors of fossil fuels would pay a fee at the coal mine, oil well or gas well. An initial fee of perhaps $20 per ton of carbon dioxide, escalating by $10 per ton every year until it reaching $200 per ton, would place an appropriate and predictably high price on carbon that represents at least some small fraction of the damage global warming is doing to all of us.

This would immediately reduce fossil investments, raise fossil price and reduce emissions. Proceeds from the fee would be returned to every American (minus management costs) as equal per-person checks amounting to several thousand dollars per year. A family of four gets four checks. It's being tried in Canada and other nations. To help, contact Citizens' Climate Lobby.

It's time to meet the challenge: Green New Deal plus nuclear power plus carbon fee and dividend.

Art Hobson is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Arkansas. Email him at

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