We may soon be too late to prevent our own mass extinction
To the Expositor:
The letter ‘If renewables are cheap, why is electricity so expensive?’ (September 19) begs a better answer than the writer gives. He refers to figures from Michael Shellenberger of the American organization Environmental Progress. I never heard of them before, but their website says we are “cooking the planet” by burning fossil fuels and according to them cheap nuclear power is the answer.
Yes, we are “cooking the planet.” The massive amounts of greenhouse gases we produce threaten life as we know it. The Earth has undergone five extinction events since life began, the most famous being when the dinosaurs were wiped out. A sixth extinction is beginning and it is being caused not by cosmic forces like asteroids, but by human activities like burning enormous quantities of fossil fuels. The effects will be not just dead tropical coral reef ecosystems and the demise of the polar bear, but widespread destruction of species.
Mr. Shellenberger’s solution is where he parts ways with most environmentalists, who shun the nuclear option. But Mr. Desjardins in his letter contends that the information from Mr. Shellenberger “would seem to support the contention that renewables are also the cause of high electrical energy costs here in Ontario.”
So let’s look at Ontario. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance’s economist Jack Gibbons studies the costs of electricity here. Nuclear power production in 2018 costs 8.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to buying Quebec’s hydroelectricity at 5 cents. Wind and solar are currently more expensive. In the publication ‘Three Options to Reduce Ontario’s Electricity Costs’ the Clean Air Alliance concludes, “The most effective way to reduce electricity costs in Ontario is by continuing to invest in energy efficiency and importing low-cost water power from Quebec. Pursuing these options could result in real bill reductions given that they are 40 to 87 percent lower cost than the cost of continuing to run and rebuild aging nuclear reactors.” Ontarians are next door to a hydroelectric powerhouse with lots of electricity to sell.
If we examine more deeply how economists and accountants figure out costs, what is included and what is not, the argument for hydroelectric power from Quebec becomes even more compelling. For example, they arrive at the cost of nuclear power by adding up component costs like uranium fuel, heavy water, and capital and operating costs. They generally don’t include “external costs,” like pollution, or the risk of catastrophic failure, which in Ontario is assumed by the taxpayer. How do you measure the cost of pollution? How do you measure damage to wildlife? How do you measure the future cost of waste that will remain deadly for thousands of years? At this point mainstream economics fails us. If it can’t be measured in dollars, it doesn’t count? Really? This is the kind of thorny problem that economists like Jeff Rubin and Naomi Klein attempt to address.
With regard to fossil fuels, how do you cost the devastating effects of global warming such as increased fires and hurricanes, drought and floods, climate refugees and the prospect of sweeping extinctions around the globe? Generally, environmental impacts are ignored as “externalities” except where regulations require mitigation technologies. In my opinion it is fundamentally immoral to only consider costs we can count and disregard things like environmental degradation.
Make no mistake, there is an urgent need to cut greenhouse gas pollution, and that means reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. There is no debate among climatologists, but powerful oil lobbies (e.g. the Canadian Association of Oil Producers) still manage to sow doubt in the public mind, and push and reward politicians who promote pipelines and tar sands development. They have many allies, who for self-interest or other reasons deny that human activities are causing global warming. People wonder who to trust. Do you trust NASA? I suggest checking out their Global Climate Change site at www.climate.nasa.gov.
Far-right politicians like Donald Trump and Ontario’s Doug Ford make the problem of greenhouse gases more acute every day. This summer Doug Ford scrapped the previous government’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program and has even vowed to fight the federal government in court over greenhouse gas reduction! And instead of setting up long-term contracts with Quebec Hydro, the Ontario Energy Board just gave the green light to the nuclear industry to refurbish the aging reactors at Pickering.
Watching the rise of alt-right politicians is a dismal and frightening experience. With more governments hostile to measures that would curb greenhouse gases, at some point global warming will tip into uncontrollable, runaway global warming. Then it will be too late to prevent a sixth extinction.