If there is one figure from American history who represents inventors, those tinkerers and dreamers like Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright and Alexander Graham Bell, who dreamed of a better, safer and more convenient world through technology, it is Benjamin Franklin, who created, besides the lightning rod and the stove that bears his name, bifocals, swim fins, a urinary catheter and a musical instrument, the glass armonica, which never did catch on.
On Aug. 27, 1783, Franklin was one of the spectators at the Champ de Mars, in France, when Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier went aloft in a hot-air balloon of his own design, astonishing Parisians. Someone in the crowd asked, What good is it? And Franklin, according to legend, replied, “What good is a newborn baby?”
It is ingenuity that got us into our climate predicament, that found and exploited fossil fuels, built engines and propelled the industrial revolution. It is who we are: We make, we do, hardly pausing to ask why. It was also capitalism that spurred all of that, heaping rewards on inventors and industry. Can the same cleverness and incentives that got us into this mess get us out?
After we sighed at another mention of the Green New Deal the other day, a true-blue colleague said, “At least you’re talking about it.”
We sigh because we think the resolution of a freshman New York representative in the U.S. House is taking up all the oxygen on the left when it comes to addressing climate change. It is a manifesto, not a dream. It eschews technology, insisting that all future energy generation must come from renewable sources such as wind and solar without bothering itself with how. It is an article of faith – in big government. It may be a pig in a poke.
But there are things that could be done. As we have noted before, one is state – that is, non-merchant – nuclear power, which might be the most practical path to a renewable future. Are the green socialists afraid of nuclear power? Of radiation? That is not unreasonable.
We read a post on Forbes.com the other day, “It Sounds Crazy, But Fukushima, Chernobyl, And Three Mile Island Show Why Nuclear Is Inherently Safe.” One of the fears with nuclear power generation is health risks associated with low-level radiation. But, says the author, “Support for the idea that radiation is harmless at low levels comes from the fact that people who live in places with higher background radiation, like Colorado, do not suffer elevated rates of cancer.” In fact, it says, “residents of Colorado, where radiation is higher because of high concentrations of uranium in the ground, enjoy some of the lowest cancer rates in the U.S.” – and it links to a recent Colorado Sun piece.
This is far from conclusive, but it is still stronger than the case for excluding nuclear from consideration in looking at how we are going to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
And then there is this: We read recently about a research initiative at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which announced that it had developed a way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it back into coal. Who knows at this point whether it can be cost-effectively scaled up and answer any of our needs, but just imagine: We could reverse the environmental legacy of the industrial revolution. It sounds crazy, but not as crazy as airplanes did to people several years after the Wrights showed they worked.