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Climate change is perhaps the greatest environmental and economic challenge of the 21st century. Scientific debate about its reality is now over, even if skepticism continues in some quarters. Remaining questions largely concern the magnitude, timing and location of the effects of planetary warming, not whether it will occur.
The sources of climate change also are well established: use of fossil fuel energy sources for generating electricity and transportation, certain industrial processes, land use changes such as deforestation and agriculture. Most of the atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, is attributable to fossil-fuel combustion.
Given the serious environmental and public health risks associated with climate change, we should be doing everything we can to reduce them, particularly when the costs are low in relation to the benefits of slowing climate change. This is surely the case with energy conservation and efficiency, which are widely endorsed today.
It is also the case with relying more on solar and wind energy sources. They offer relatively benign electricity generation and help to curb our dependence on coal-burning power plants, one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Until we have reliable technology for capture of carbon dioxide from burning of coal, building more coal-fired power plants is far less attractive than the alternatives.
Investment in wind and solar power has boomed in recent years in the U.S. and around the world, and polls indicate very strong public support for government initiatives to promote these technologies. But the investment climate has been uncertain of late because of tight credit markets and varying governmental policies.
The cost of solar power continues to decline, but it is still quite high. Wind is more competitive in price.
Because of the high costs, it is unlikely individual home owners or businesses can justify the expense of solar panel installations without tax credits or other forms of economic subsidy. Yet every other mature energy source, from coal and oil to nuclear power, has been heavily subsidized by the federal government for decades. Why should we expect wind and solar to succeed without comparable government support?
Critics point to environmental impacts of solar and wind as a reason to limit their use. Particularly on commercial scales, both can consume a lot of acreage and do some harm to wildlife if not installed in acceptable locations and with adequate safeguards. Yet these are hardly insurmountable obstacles, and the effects are less damaging on the whole than continued reliance on fossil fuels.
A major investment in wind and solar does not, of course, prevent the U.S. or other nations from continuing research on other promising technologies, such as sustainable bio fuels and new batteries that would allow lower cost plug-in hybrid vehicles. We would be far better off with a diversified energy economy for the future, drawing from many different sources. Despite its high costs, even nuclear power merits consideration.
Public policy actions at local, state and federal levels increasingly have favored wind and solar, among other sustainable energy sources. Yet more can and should be done.
The Obama Administration economic stimulus package provided about $80 billion for various energy-policy initiatives, including subsidies for and research on solar and wind power. By most accounts, such actions help the economy recover by providing jobs and also work toward reducing U.S. dependency on fossil fuels.
Congress also is now debating major climate change policy proposals and in mid-May the president announced a broadly endorsed plan to substantially improve fuel efficiency of automobiles and light-duty trucks, and thus to reduce their release of greenhouse gases.
Both actions are supported across the political spectrum even as the nation continues to suffer from a severe recession. This experience shows how much can now be done to foster a more sustainable energy future.
Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.