IPCC Report Underscores Why the United States Must Embrace Nuclear Power to Avoid a Climate Disaster

On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its assessment of the physical science of the changing climate. Among the findings: Global warming is happening so fast that we are now on track to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by as soon as 2030. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report’s conclusions “a code red for humanity.”

As climate and behavioral scientists, respectively, we evaluate the threat outlined by the IPCC in different ways, but one thing we both recognize is the pressing need to heed Guterres’ warning – the threat posed by the climate crisis is widespread, rapid and intensifying.

From a climate science perspective, the latest IPCC report spells out the fact that we can expect increasingly severe storms and noticeable changes to the weather in our own neighborhoods now and over the next few years. We saw this play out in real time when the remnants of Hurricane Ida recently barreled into the Northeast, where record rainfall triggered deadly flooding, killing many people as flash flood waters overwhelmed homes and cars and caused severe and widespread damage to property. This is the kind of climate-driven disaster we’re going to have to get used to if we don’t rapidly decarbonize and slow human-caused warming.

According to the IPCC report, warming from burning fossil fuels and other human activities is likely behind an increase in the number of high-intensity hurricanes in the past 40 years. And from a public health and behavioral science perspective, the IPCC report tells us that we simply are not doing enough to prevent climate-related diseases from proliferating and can expect worse health outcomes in the near future.

The good news is that there’s still hope. Strong and sustained reductions in carbon emissions can prevent some of the worst climate impacts, from roaring wildfires and devastating floods to the negative health outcomes associated with increased air pollution. Clearly, it is past time to begin a rapid shift to carbon-free power and utilize every carbon-free tool in our toolbox.

While the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer includes climate and environment measures, it doesn’t come close to providing the transformational changes that our power grid requires to fully decarbonize. However, a big step could be coming this fall via a clean electricity standard and robust clean energy tax incentives via budget reconciliation.

To decarbonize quickly, nuclear power must play an important role alongside renewables. Right now, one of the most important actions we can take is to ensure that our nuclear power plants can remain online long enough to achieve our clean energy goals, with a thoughtful, timely plan for eventual decommission. These plants currently generate about half of America’s carbon-free energy and save our atmosphere from 470 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Protecting our nation’s largest source of carbon-free energy also helps us utilize renewable technologies to replace dirty power, accelerating our clean energy transition.

Despite these clear benefits, energy markets still favor carbon-emitting fossil fuels over nuclear plants by undervaluing – or even ignoring – the benefits of carbon-free electricity generation, resulting in premature closures of nuclear plants across the country. If Congress doesn’t pass robust incentives for nuclear carbon-free energy generation, more plants will continue to close, contributing to an increased reliance on fossil generation and its many negative impacts ranging from human health outcomes to biodiversity loss.

There are a few specific policies that Congress can pass through budget reconciliation that would help preserve existing nuclear energy and incentivize advanced development. The first is the Clean Electricity Payment Program included in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s markup of the Build Back Better Act.

The CEPP is a budget-based alternative to a traditional CES that would provide federal investments to electric utilities to incentivize robust annual growth in their use of carbon-free energy. In a true “rising tide lifts all boats” fashion, a technology-neutral CEPP would effectively reward nuclear and all zero-carbon technologies, such as renewables and provide the foundation for a clean energy future.

In addition to a CEPP, we also need policies that help the existing fleet of nuclear plants avoid premature closures. Already included in the House Ways & Means Committee’s markup for new clean energy incentives in the budget reconciliation package, a nuclear energy production tax credit would level the playing field and help prevent unnecessary closures by making existing nuclear power plants eligible for the same amount of credit per kilowatt hour proposed for wind operators. Without a PTC, nuclear plants across the country may continue to face premature closures, marking yet another step backward in the fight against the climate crisis.

As thought leaders in our respective sciences, we’ve come to the consensus that maintaining the affordable, reliable and carbon-free power our nuclear fleet provides is critical to achieving U.S. clean energy goals and avoiding some of the worst climate impacts outlined by the recent IPCC report. Budget reconciliation may be our last chance to enact bold climate action and preserve our largest source of carbon-free energy – which is why Congress must pass the CEPP and a nuclear energy PTC in its final package. It’s truly now or never.


Dr. Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science and co-director of the Lorenz Center for advanced climate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Sweta Chakraborty is a behavioral scientist, author, commentator and head of the Top Tier Impact Policy Action Unit.

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