Holdren on Climate Change, Nuclear Energy, and Geoengineering

by Matthew C. Nisbet

Last week, John Holdren appeared for a 45-minute interview on NPR Science Friday with host Ira Flatow. Below the fold, I have pasted excerpts of his comments on climate change policy options and investment in nuclear energy. In the interview, Holdren also had the chance to elaborate on his past remarks on geoengineering. Here’s what he said:

FLATOW: Let’s talk about energy and global climate change. I know you’ve been in the press in the media a lot, talking about geoengineering as something that is – you were quoted as “something that was on the table.” You’re not the first one to speak about geoengineering. There’s been a lot of science agencies that have been talking about that for quite a while.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I didn’t talk about it like that was reported. I was taken out of context, and I did not say it was under consideration by this administration. I was asked whether I thought geoengineering needs to be considered in the context of the climate question, and I said, from the scientific standpoint, of course, it has to be looked at. We have to understand if there’s any potential there; we have to understand its costs and downsides.

But there are vast, different sets of possibilities for doing that. And then I said in the interview – although this part didn’t get reported in most of the stories – that the approaches to geoengineering that have been looked at so far mostly seemed very expensive, of limited effectiveness, and burdened by significant side effects.

That doesn’t mean we should keep looking at them, but they’re certainly not under consideration for use in this administration. This president is committed to an approach to global climate change that includes putting a cap on carbon pollution. It includes having a renewable electricity standard and several other measures. And we think those are going to do the job. Suppose they don’t do the job, and people become interested in geoengineering. In that case, it will be essential to have some scientific analyses that show whether there’s any potential worth pursuing. A couple of relatively simple approaches that fall under geoengineering could be valuable. One is turning black roofs into white roofs. If you just put white roofs on top of all your buildings instead of having a dark-colored roof, you reflect more of the incident sunlight into space and warm the area less than you otherwise would. Strictly speaking, that’s geoengineering, too, and probably a lot more reasonable than some of the far-out schemes discussed.

**More general comments on global warming.**

FLATOW: Let’s turn a little bit to something that you brought up before, and it is an 800-pound gorilla, and that is climate change, global warming. How big of a problem does this administration view that, and how much are the alarm bells going off in Washington?

Dr. HOLDREN: Again, the president has been very clear about this. He’s been evident throughout the campaign; he’s been clear in many speeches since he was inaugurated. He sees climate change as a significant challenge and, as with many challenges, an important opportunity.

It’s going to drive innovation. It’s going to lead to the development of new technologies and new businesses that can deliver the energy services that people want while reducing the carbon pollution that we produce, and we’re going to get it done.
He is on record repeatedly as saying in this country; we need a set of climate-change targets and mechanisms for getting there that will reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gasses by something like 14 percent before the 2005 levels by 2020 and that will reduce them by more than 80 percent by 2050.

That is a big task, but the ambitiousness of those goals underlines how the president sees the importance of this problem. For ourselves and as our contribution to the rest of the world, this is something that we need to get right while helping everybody else to get it right, too because this is a problem that the United States cannot solve by itself.

FLATOW: Are we talking about a carbon tax here? Are we talking about cap and trade? Are we talking about – just what? And what methods are we looking at in our…

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, again, there are many different ways to go at it, but economists will tell you that the most efficient ways – that is, the ways to reduce carbon pollution most – at the lowest possible cost, are likely to be found by putting economic incentives to do it out there and letting the private sector and ingenuity determine the most economical ways to proceed. Two approaches fall into that category. One is a tax, and the other is the so-called cap-and-trade system, putting a cap on carbon pollution and having tradable permits determining who gets to do the emissions and how much they pay for them.
In the U.S. political environment at the moment, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the approach to capping carbon pollution, rather than taxing it, will be the one that is embraced.

That’s the one that’s embodied in the bill currently being debated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. Congress. It’s the one the president advocated during his campaign. And again, he was very clear about that. He said he wanted to use the cap-and-trade approach. He wants to auction 100 percent of the permits, and there’s now the usually complicated process in the government. The House will produce a bill. We trust that eventually, the Senate will make a bill. There’ll be an attempt to get those bills reconciled and to come out ultimately with something that the president will be willing to sign. My hope, and the president’s hope, is that that happens sooner rather than later because this is a challenge we need to overcome.

Holdren was asked about nuclear energy before his answer above on global warming.

FLATOW: Do you also believe we should invest in nuclear power and build new nuclear-generating capacity?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I think, first of all, yes, we should be investing in nuclear energy. We should be investing in approaches to addressing the difficulties that have prevented us from expanding atomic energy to a greater extent until now. We should be doing research that is addressed, making nuclear power more cost-effective. We should be researching to address the problem of how we manage radioactive waste. We should be doing more research to reduce the linkages between nuclear energy and the proliferation of atomic weapons. If we could get an expanded contribution from nuclear power, it would be a tremendous help in addressing the climate-change challenge, which is almost without question the toughest part of the energy challenges we face.

In addition, going back to the previous point, if we did have plug-in hybrid vehicles, you could finally have nuclear energy and renewable forms of electricity generation, contributing to motor-vehicle energy consumption, which would be terrific.

FLATOW: If we don’t have – if we have not solved the waste-disposal problem, how can we move forward on building plants?

Dr. HOLDREN: The approach to waste disposal can take several different forms. Right now, what we’re doing is we’re storing the radioactive wastes at the reactors in fuel-storage pools and what’s called dry cask storage. We could, if we chose, build at a variety of places around the country, engineered interim nuclear-waste-storage facilities, basically steel-reinforced concrete facilities that would contain the radioactive waste safely for a century or more. At the same time, we explored what the best geologic options would be for the longer term.

So we’re not without options for dealing with our radioactive waste, but I think everybody will be more comfortable about expanding nuclear energy once we have chosen a particular path, and that is why the secretary of energy has announced the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to look again at the options that the country has for radioactive waste management going forward. There are, again, a variety of those options, and I trust that that blue-ribbon panel will help steer the country toward a choice that will enable us to proceed.

Original at: Scienceblogs.com