Pick Your Peril


Published April 20, 2011, issue of April 29, 2011.
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Passover is best known as the festival of freedom, but it has a second name that resonates just as deeply: the festival of spring. The two are not unrelated. Spring, the season of renewal, brings its own promise of freedom. It brings warmth and new growth, freeing us from the hardships of winter.

More important, it reminds us of the most basic promise of all, the eternal renewal of the earth embodied in the cycle of the seasons. Autumn may be melancholy and winter harsh, but we know they are essential parts of the cycle of life and that spring will always follow. Leaves fall, old life passes, but new life always springs up in its place. We have this certainty to free us from life’s deepest dread and allow us to carry on, knowing that whatever else may come, the earth itself will abide.

That is, we used to have this certainty. Nowadays the cycle of life is not so certain. More and more we find ourselves beset by seasons that slip their moorings to arrive and depart when they should not, parching savannahs that should be rich with crops and washing away entire cities. Stormy seasons, a yearly inconvenience, turn increasingly disastrous. The earth betrays us.

We know why this is happening. The earth’s climate is changing, readjusting to the changes to the atmosphere, mostly from burning carbon. And we know what we have to do to stop or slow the changes: We have to burn less carbon. We have to find other ways to power our societies.

Some of us, it’s true, still do not believe the crisis is a crisis. They look outside and see nothing more than seasonally heavy rains. They chide the rest of us for having overactive imaginations or too little faith in the earth and its Creator. But their arguments are growing thinner with every new scientific study showing how temperatures are rising and glaciers are melting and hurricanes are gaining in intensity.

On at least one point, though, the skeptics are right. Environmental leaders are not being fully honest about the massive cost of changing our habits. The technologies of sunlight and wind are still years away from providing adequate replacements to the role carbon now plays in our lives. Developing those technologies will cost billions, and carbon use must be reduced far faster than new energy sources can be mobilized if the worst effects of climate change are to be forestalled. The bottom line is that standards of living will be lowered. We need some tough, honest conversations, and we’re not getting them from either side.

That’s not all the bad news. The one available energy source that could replace carbon on the scale needed right now is nuclear power. Until two months ago, it seemed a plausible answer to the looming crisis. But that was before the Japanese tsunami reminded us of the unsolved risks inherent in the nuclear option.

Ignoring the threat of carbon to the planet is not an option, whatever the skeptics tell us. Replacing carbon with nuclear power brings terrible threats of its own. Which peril to choose, nuclear fire or melting ice? Neither one is easy, but decisions are needed. We need to start talking honestly. We owe it to our great-grandchildren.

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