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Opinion In tackling climate change, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good

Residents spray water at fire east of Athens on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
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“It was getting hotter.” So opens “The Ministry for the Future,” the disturbing novel by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. The opening chapter, set in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, depicts a heat wave that kills millions across the subcontinent and galvanizes people to radical action.

Such dire warnings may seem far-fetched today. But the heat waves we are now experiencing are going to get worse. That, of course, will have dire consequences. More likely than mass death is mass migration. As Bill Gates points out, the area around the equator could become too hot for people to work outdoors; that could mean a decline in farming, the most common occupation in low-income countries. Stressed by heat, lack of water and no jobs, millions of people could start moving from these areas to more temperate climates mostly in the north: Europe and the United States.

Many climate activists are often focused on pledges to get to net zero emissions by some distant date or insist that every new energy source must be entirely green.

But the reality is that we need to cut emissions now, not promise to do so by 2030. And the only way to do it now, and at scale, is to make some tough choices and trade-offs. We do not have green technology, like clean nuclear fusion and long-duration battery storage, that can fully replace fossil fuels today. We may get them — in 10 or 15 years, perhaps, if we are very lucky.

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But we don’t have them now, and hoping that we do is part of what has caused an energy crisis around the world. Investment in fossil fuels has plunged over the past decade, while green technology has not been able to fill the gap. Germany cut back on nuclear energy and ended up burning more coal. California is phasing out nuclear and discouraging natural gas but is now confronting a sharp increase in the number of wasteful diesel generators being used for backup power.

Let me suggest a few practical ways to make progress in the next five years with technologies we already have.

We could start by converting the most polluting coal-fired power plants to natural gas, which emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted. A study surveyed 29,000 power plants around the world and found that 5 percent generate 73 percent of all emissions in the electricity-generation sector. In other words, replacing around 1,500 coal-burning plants would make a huge dent in emissions, a giant cut on par with the boldest plans being discussed today.If the West wants to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, why not put together a coalition that would finance this effort across the planet?

Then there is the problem of methane leakage from natural gas extraction, agriculture and landfills. This can be solved technically and just needs smart, tough regulations.

We should extend the life of nuclear power plants and start building smaller and safer ones. Nuclear energy evokes grim images, but the facts speak for themselves. In the 21st century, just a handful of people have died from nuclear accidents around the world, while more than 1,500 people died in oil and gas extraction in the United States alone from 2008 to 2017. Far more people die each year from lung diseases caused by coal pollution, with some estimates running into the millions — and that’s without even factoring in the climate impacts. We should also keep working on developing new modular reactors that have much safer designs and are far less likely to have the same kind of meltdown problems that others have had in the past. And let me remind you, nuclear power plants produce nearly zero emissions.

Plant 1 trillion trees. The science is simple: Trees absorb carbon dioxide. We are all impressed by Greta Thunberg, but what about Felix Finkbeiner? He’s a young German environmentalist who, at the age of 9, proposed that every country commit to planting 1 million trees and then, at 13, upped the ante and suggested at the United Nations that we target 1 trillion by 2050. Let’s start by curbing deforestation and planting as many trees as we can, as fast as we can.

And yes, all of the solutions have their drawbacks. Planting trees may not do as much good as some scientists initially claimed. Nuclear power is expensive up front. Natural gas does emit some carbon. But the crucial point is that such measures would cut emissions a lot — and we can do them all now. We do not have to make a choice between half-measures now and full measures later when we have the technologies to do so. There are other proven technologies, ranging from weatherizing buildings to electric cars, and we should create incentives for them all.

As the saying goes, the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. That should be the motto of every environmental group that wants to see actual, positive change today.

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