When I talk to fellow economists about fossil fuels and climate change, they sound pretty reasonable. They know that high per-capita GDP is awesome. They know that high per-capita GDP requires a lot of energy. They know that we get almost all of our energy from fossil fuels. They know that solar and wind are currently a grossly inadequate substitute for fossil fuels. But they’re still deeply worried about carbon-fueled climate change, especially extreme tail risk.
What, then, is to be done?
The most common response is just to endorse a carbon tax. Standard environmental econ says that this will (a) induce energy users to factor in the environmental harm of their emissions, and (b) foster innovation in clean energy.
Yet more thoughtful economists usually deem this an inadequate response. Since solar and wind are a grossly inadequate substitute for fossil fuels, no politically feasible tax will noticeably reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, energy users will typically just pay the tax and continue on their merry carbon-emitting way. And since the politically feasible tax will be moderate, the incentive for massive breakthroughs in clean energy will be moderate as well.
What, then, is to be done?
The standard reaction: We need an alternative fuels moonshot. Left-leaning economists typically call for massive government funding for research on alternative fuels. Right-leaning economists often suggest a massive government prize for alternative fuels. Either way, though, they want government to spend hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars searching of cheap, safe, clean energy.
There’s just one little problem: Humanity already discovered such an “alternative fuel” about 80 years ago. It’s called nuclear power. From a purely technological standpoint, it’s incredibly cheap, extremely safe, and extraordinarily clean. Nuclear power emits no carbon. I submit that even a trillion-dollar alternative energy prize is highly unlikely to deliver any alternative energy that is remotely as good.
And guess what? Due to popular paranoia, rampant innumeracy, and green fanaticism, we barely use it. With rare exceptions, this sci-fi technology is sitting on the shelf.
To favor the alternative fuels moonshot, then, asks us to devote massive resources on a Hail Mary pass to discover a new energy source in the same league as nuclear power. And if that works, we still have to hope that popular paranoia, rampant innumeracy, and green fanaticism won’t strangle our amazing new technology in the cradle.
Good luck with that.
What, then, is to be done? Here’s what I propose:
Instead of searching for a magic new technology, we should massively multiply our effort to sell our magic old technology. We already have a cheap, safe, clean energy source; what we lack is the will to use it freely. Forget changing tech. Change minds instead.
Isn’t that hard? My honest answer is: We really don’t know, because we’ve barely tried. Climate activism has to be at least 1000x as large as pro-nuclear activism. Probably more like 10,000x. How is this possible? Because pro-nuclear activism barely exists. If the world contained even a thousand full-time crusaders for nuclear power, full of conviction, eager to win the public’s hearts and minds, perhaps they could batter down the walls of regulation that popular paranoia, rampant innumeracy, and green fanaticism have built.
Something’s going on at the tail end of the post here
Bryan, the folks at the Breakthrough Institute have started a Build Nuclear Now initiative along the lines of what you're suggesting. Check out/Sign up for their weekly newsletter if you don't already: