WE have met the enemy, and it is not us. It is not civilization. It is not energy production per se. It is carbon. It’s our excessive reliance on energy systems that dig ancient carbon — fossil fuels — out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
The science is clear: carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere at levels that disrupt the climate. This is not a theory. It’s simple physics, and its impacts are happening now.
The snowpack that anchors our power and water supplies is dwindling over time. Forest health is declining and wildfires are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Ocean acidification is eating away at the marine food chain. Around the world, extreme weather events are taking a growing toll on life and property.
A primary driver of these changes is the carbon that’s released when we burn fossil fuels. For the last 150 years of human development, economic progress has been linked to increasing fossil fuel consumption. Now, we must break that link, both for our own long-term prosperity, and for the billions of people around the world who need a pathway out of energy poverty.
The authors differ in our perspectives on energy technology and policy. One of us chairs the executive board of Washington’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The other is a longtime advocate for energy efficiency and new renewable energy sources. But on this we agree: We can and must rise to the challenge of decarbonizing our energy system. And we believe that the Pacific Northwest is the place to prove it can be done.
If the Northwest were applying for the position of “pioneer for a carbon-free future,” we’d bring an impressive resume to the interview. We have a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy, anchored by the Bonneville Power Administration and the region’s locally controlled public power systems. Our private utilities are among the nation’s most innovative, with deep experience in energy efficiency and with a growing portfolio of carbon-free energy assets. We’re blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played leadership roles in the aviation, software and Internet revolutions.
Perhaps better than any region on Earth, we are qualified to blaze the trail to a carbon-free future. But we can’t do it by resting on our laurels. We need to think forward and big: How can we scrub the carbon out of our power supplies, replacing aging coal plants with carbon-free resources? How can we squeeze more work out of existing supplies, making every unit of energy go further and deliver more economic value? How can we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system and drains money out of our local economies?
Here again, the authors would emphasize different practical answers to these questions. But we enthusiastically align together on the need for new policies that focus clearly on the carbon challenge. We don’t have to agree on whether solar or nuclear technology is better in order to support a firm public policy commitment to systematically reduce carbon pollution from energy production.
Such a policy commitment would align the laws of the land with the laws of physics — limiting carbon pollution to safe levels and letting energy markets respond to the true cost of carbon. It would allow nuclear, solar, wind and other carbon-free technologies to compete fairly with fossil fuels, without having to swim against the unfair economic tide of free and unlimited carbon dumping.
It would let the authors go back to slugging it out for their preferred energy strategies, with greater confidence that the winners would be those that deliver on the decarbonization imperative in the most economically and environmentally sound way.