A very intelligent people created a great computer in Douglas Adamsâ€™ Hitchhikerâ€™s Guide to the Galaxy â€œto calculate the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.â€ After 7.5 million years, it produced the answer, 42. â€œForty-two!â€ someone yells.
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
I often find myself wondering what the question was when I read solutions, changes in technology and behavior that will solve our problems, I can follow the logic in the policy community. Their question is, how can we cut world GHG emissions some by 2015 (US by 10%? 30%?) and 60% or more by 2050 (US by 94%).* The problem they want to solve is preventing catastrophic climate change.
An example of a different sort of answer comes from one of the environmental organizations, from their climate change page. It included much better efficiency, renewables, and carbon capture and storage for coal power plants, which together, they estimate, will cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. So what is the question? Could it be, how do we cut GHG emissions in half just in the US (but not worldwide)? (But why ask that question?) Or what can we accomplish with these technologies alone before we figure out how much else we have to do? (But they vetoed other technologies as not being OK.)
Occasionally people produce even stricter answers, requiring all changes to be behavior changes, but again, I donâ€™t know the question. If all Americans give up cars, and make no other changes in behavior, such as taking the bus, American GHG emissions go down 27%. What was the question?
My sense is that many in the public â€“ and I count environmental groups â€“ are more interested in their solutions than in solving any particular problem.
Suppose some of these individuals and groups are right, that there really is a solution that doesnâ€™t require nuclear power. That is, we can prevent catastrophic climate change and we donâ€™t even need nuclear power. I have two questions: first, what if there is a glitch in the analysis? If worries about wind power turn out to be important, or improvements in solar power or efficiency donâ€™t come as rapidly as hoped? Secondly, why not prevent as much climate change as we can, not just catastrophic climate change?
Reconsidering opposition to nuclear power today can still alter the future. Regretting opposition to nuclear power after 2015, or even after 2010, may be too late.
*Assumptions: if the GHG emissions worldwide are 40% of todayâ€™s level, and population increases 40%, then per capita GHG emissions are 28% of todayâ€™s level. Since the US now emits about 5 times the world average, US emissions would be 6% of todayâ€™s level unless we continue to emit more than others.