Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?

James E. Hansen,

Climate scientists have long warned of potential catastrophic effects of unchecked fossil fuel
use. Public awareness of the climate threat has increased. Yet growth of carbon dioxide (CO2)
in the air, the main driver of climate change, has accelerated inexorably, as nations use cheap
fossil fuels to power their economies.
Governments recognize the climate threat, universally endorsing the Framework Convention
on Climate Change1
, with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change. Yet governments
continue to encourage the fossil fuel industry to extract almost every fossil fuel that can be found,
including the most carbon-intensive and dirtiest fuels such as coal, tar sands and tar shale.
How can governments be so unresponsive to a public need? “It’s not dumbfounding,” you
may say. “The fossil fuel industry uses its enormous resources to influence public opinions and
government policies.” Certainly they do, but that is only part of the story, and that part of the
story has been reported reasonably well.
Here I present climate and energy data to help expose popular misconceptions about energy.
These misconceptions have a greater impact on prospects for stabilizing climate and preserving
the remarkable life on our planet than fossil fuel lobbyists and climate change deniers will ever
have. First I must present data for what I call the “carbon math” and the “energy math.”


Energy misconceptions
Why do governments do so little to halt the march toward global climate disasters? It may help
to analyze the actions people are requesting governments to take. Present popular demands seem
to be based in part on misconceptions about nuclear power and renewable energies.
Let me clarify that I am not arguing for any specific mix of energy efficiency, renewables
and nuclear power, or suggesting that any specific nation needs to employ nuclear power. I am
saying that the global energy discussion should be based on facts, not on myths.
Human lives. It is worth watching a 3-minute clip of an “anti-nuke” concert held in New
York City in 1979 after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. Participants
yearn for the warm glow of a wood fire, even coal, but insist that nuclear power be terminated.
Indoor wood, coal and biofuel fires kill more than 1,000,000 people per year. The Three
Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, which exposed nearby Pennsylvania residents to a
level of radiation less than the natural annual background level, will cause few if any deaths.
There have been two much more serious nuclear accidents, at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Deaths caused by Fukushima radiation will be few, but the radiation release was a catastrophe
for 300,000 people forced to leave their homes. Unfortunately the Japanese government forced
many more people to evacuate than necessary. Please check out the brief, readable, “Radiation:
The Facts” by Robert Hargraves. Start with the Radiation 101 side of the page.
Are those accidents sufficient reason to abandon nuclear power? We must compare the
alternatives. Aircraft provide a relevant analogy. Early airliners had many accidents that killed
hundreds of people, but we did not abandon the technology. Instead we improved both the
technology and the safety of operations via pilot training, aircraft control systems, and safety
protocols and culture. Airlines are now one of the safest modes of travel. Similarly, improved
nuclear technologies and operations have the potential to make nuclear power the safest of all
energy systems.

Summary 1: How Can China and the United States Cooperate?
Today is a point in history upon which the eyes of future generations will focus – not only
the eyes of historians, but the eyes of our children, and the eyes of their children. Today we
know that climate is beginning to change. We know why climate is changing. And we can
picture the consequences for our children and for their children.
China and the United States, working in earnest together, have the potential to change the
course that our planet is on. Together they have the strength to forge a path that transitions in an
economically efficient way to a world with abundant clean energies.


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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