There is a global consensus that the planet is warming due to the trillions of tons of greenhouse gasses we have dumped into the atmosphere over the last 150 years, and even fossil fuel companies don't deny this fact.
Ice is melting, seas are rising, and droughts, storms and deluges are becoming more extreme. Global strife is exacerbated; there is strong evidence that much of the Mideast turmoil is due to food shortages caused by unusually severe droughts. Our Department of Defense is developing plans to deal with global instability brought by climate change.
Carbon dioxide is by far the biggest contributor to warming because emissions are so high and it stays in the atmosphere on average 500 years. Burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the major sources. Methane, a natural gas, is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 but stays in the atmosphere on average just 12 years. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates methane contributes 14 percent of the total warming, of which only 4 percent is caused by the petroleum industry; the rest is mainly from farming, landfills and coal mining.
So, how do we avoid catastrophic warming and still maintain our civilization that requires prodigious amounts of power?
According to the Department of Energy, wind, solar and hydro combined provided only 5 percent of our power needs in 2014. We should expand them rapidly but understand their limits: Wind and solar produce highly variable outputs depending on wind speed and available sunlight. Our civilization requires a dependable supply in the amount needed and only when needed. This means storing power in massive amounts. Unfortunately, the technology does not exist. Hydroelectric is considered a reliable source, but we have already tapped most of the available hydro power on the planet.
Ironically, climate change threatens hydropower: Due to severe droughts, Hoover Dam is 25 percent below capacity, and Venezuela must cut off electricity for four hours every day because dams in the rainforest are running out of water.
Clearly, we need a bridging strategy to an emissions-free future. Natural gas and nuclear are our best choices.
Natural gas emits half the CO2 of coal or heating oil and can replace coal in power generation -- as was done at the Jack Watson plant in Gulfport last year. Britain plans to close all of its coal-fired plants by 2025. Other European nations are moving away from coal but have to rely on Russia for natural gas, which is seen as a security threat. The U.S. has huge supplies of natural gas. The first shipment of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. to Europe was made from Sabine Pass in Louisiana on April 15, 2016, by Cheniere Energy. The Port of Pascagoula has LNG capability and may participate in this new market.
The U.S. and E.U. combined have provided about 25 percent of their electricity for the last 50 years from nuclear power; there have been no deaths and only one injury due to radiation from commercial reactors. Three Mile Island was no disaster since no one was injured by radiation. The worst incident, by far, was Chernobyl. In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated fewer than 50 people died and no more than 4,000 may eventually die due to radiation exposure. This is far less than the anti-nuclear advocates' claim of up to 1,000,000 deaths. There have been no deaths from radiation from the Fukushima rupture, and long-term deaths due to radiation are estimated to be from zero to the low hundreds. Extremist environmental groups have unfortunately demonized the nuclear industry, while it actually has a better safety record than wind energy -- based on the number of deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours of power produced. China is rapidly expanding its nuclear capacity and plans to have 130 reactors in operation by 2030. Last year, President Obama agreed to sell nuclear fuel to India to reduce their need for more coal plants.
Many refuse to face the facts of global warming, and many others are trying to ban the best options to fix it. Every year we spend arguing is another 40 billion tons added to what is already up there. We all need to take a deep breath, meet in the middle and solve this problem.
Write Bill Curtis, a Biloxi native with a doctorate in chemistry and leader of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chapter of the Citizen's Climate Lobby, at firstname.lastname@example.org.