Having spent our adult lives involved with and supporting science and technology, it is frustrating and infuriating to endure uninformed politicians, pundits, and ideologues bloviating about the climate, to say nothing of the pointless dithering about whether we should be referring to climate change or to the climate crisis. But the genuine catastrophe-in-waiting is that the policies they advocate will irreparably damage the economy while leaving the climate essentially unaffected.
The United States's small global share of greenhouse gas emissions, which is about 15% and declining due to the increased use of natural gas, means that domestic improvements can have only a minimal effect. The underlying premise of the Biden administration's energy policy is that by the U.S. setting an example of enlightenment and probity, other nations, especially China and India, will elevate altruism above compelling self-interests and follow suit.
Thereby, the advocates of radical climate policies, whether President Joe Biden's or the more extreme Green New Deal progressives, are prepared to exact an enormous price from the public in pursuit of what amounts to quixotic virtue signaling, a case of tilting at windmills, so to speak.
Many aspects of the Left's climate policies are steeped in delusion and misleading propaganda. Advocates focus on largely discredited apocalyptic projections about the extent and impact of climate change and offer only favored options for a shift to renewable and clean energy that fly in the face of evidence.
Data from many sources show clearly that solar and wind, the green energy sources in vogue, have costs and disadvantages that are conveniently hidden, while the only readily available new source of clean energy, nuclear power, is demonized. We will summarize below our two lengthy analyses of these issues that appeared here and here.
Solar and wind power share four critical characteristics: a significant but unpublicized negative environmental impact from their construction, space inefficiency, enormous hidden costs and challenges from their intermittency, and little room for efficiency gains because of the limits of physics.
Wind towers require 200-plus tons of steel to be manufactured, and both technologies require significant quantities of rare earth elements, the mining of which consumes a huge amount of fossil fuels and produces considerable radioactive pollution.
The energy equivalent of a single natural gas turbine requires about 500 wind towers occupying over 75 acres or more than 2,000 acres of solar panels.
Then there is the problem of storing energy to cope with intermittency: There is no technology that is competitive with batteries, and it takes $300,000 worth of batteries to store the energy equivalent of a single barrel of oil. A rough calculation shows that the 11,000 windmills in West Texas would require more than $300 billion worth of batteries to provide reliable continuous power.
How can that possibly scale? The energy storage numbers for solar are similarly daunting.
Bottom line: There are significant cost and pollution problems associated with manufacturing such a vast number of batteries, which also require rare earth elements — all of which suggest severe limitations for wind and solar power replacing fossil fuels.
Despite three highly publicized crises at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, nuclear power remains the best option for adding clean, inexpensive energy. Technology has advanced considerably to improve safety and efficiency for large-scale generation, although it remains unexploited. And anti-nuclear propaganda and activism have hindered the development of advanced small-scale nuclear plants, which the U.S. Navy has operated on ships successfully for decades without any major mishaps. Long-term, the hope is that nuclear fusion can solve all of our woes, but that is far from imminent.
Finally, if the politicians and the activists prodding them are wrong about global altruism, as they almost certainly are, the long-term impact on the U.S. will be dire. China, India, Russia, and others will add more plentiful and cheaper, greenhouse gas-generating energy to develop their economies, while our consumers and industry will suffer.
Biden's version of a Green New Deal would impose astronomical costs to fund ineffective and inconsequential programs that transform our physical infrastructure, from energy production and distribution to transportation and building retrofits, and even to the military that provides our core security — all for minimal benefit.
A sober understanding of what is possible in the real world and accurate cost-benefit assessments are not synonymous with denying that the climate is changing and affected by human activity. But somehow, many people have been bamboozled into ignoring the scientific and economic facts of life. The time has come to rein in Biden's extreme, unattainable policies and seek realistic solutions.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. They were undergraduates together at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.