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August 24, 2023

Rethinking Maui

Would any lives had been saved if we’d been greener, sooner?

It happened again, this time on a scale not seen in a century. On the Hawaiian island of Maui, a wildfire fanned by hurricane-force winds incinerated the historic town of Lahaina and killed more than a hundred people. The death toll is still climbing.

The Maui scenario was not very different from those in recent California fire seasons or the wildfires in Canada that have raged all summer long. And they are conceptually similar to other severe weather events — hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. — that occur with worrisome frequency.

The consequences of such events are all too similar — devastation that will take decades to heal. The reaction from politicians and media is just as predictable: “There it is again, climate change, plain as day, getting worse all the time. We know the cause and we know how to fix it. Stop using fossil fuels, now!”

But hold on: Is there any reason to believe that even a single life would have been saved in Maui by more subsidies for electric vehicles, pricier climate change legislation, more global gallivanting by John Kerry, more windmills and solar panels, or any of the other green lobby’s insistent demands?

The answer is no. Our massively expensive green energy initiatives do nothing to clean up the earth’s atmosphere; at best they reduce the rate (and possibly, by not much) of future global warming ostensibly caused by mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

Critics of columns like this one continue to either misunderstand or misrepresent the fundamental, scientifically solid reality of climate change. Everyone knows that the earth’s climate has been changing, in many ways, for its entire lifetime. Our problem is that there’s not much we can do about it.

So, in view of the repeated, horrific consequences of extreme weather events (regardless of cause) like the Maui fire, maybe it’s time to rethink the problem. Should we not alter our priorities and place our primary emphasis on protecting people and property rather than pursuing potentially futile efforts to fix the climate?

The circumstances surrounding the Maui fire are already well understood. The fire probably started from high-voltage power lines; the fuel source was untended grasses that have replaced farmlands in high tourist areas; those grasses were tinder-dry and very inflammable due to the cyclic drought conditions common in Hawaii (and Canada and the western U.S.); high winds caused it to spread rapidly; and for reasons yet unknown, Maui’s public warning system was never activated.

Those factors are well understood; they can be mitigated with expenditures that are minuscule compared to the hundreds of billions spent or committed in U.S. climate control initiatives.

Step back and take in the big picture. Today’s taxpayers are spending fortunes to stave off a global warming crisis decades in the future, with little certainty that those expenditures will ever deliver tangible benefit; and at the same time we are counting on current processes and funding to prevent — or when needed to mitigate — environmental and human catastrophes such as the Maui fire.

That’s not working. Priorities matter, and ours need to change.

That change won’t happen under a Biden administration already far too invested in the religion of climate change and quite pleased with its initiatives; it advises proudly that in-place legislation (including the conveniently but inaccurately named Inflation Reduction Act) constitutes “the largest investment in clean energy and climate action ever.” The projected cost is $500 billion in the next decade, and the administration would like to go further.

Even if well intended, single-minded fixation on global warming is itself as harmful as the future problems we are trying to avoid. The unavoidable consequence of precipitous reduction in fossil fuel use is higher cost and decreased availability of electricity — which in turn causes reduced life expectancies and adverse health effects for billions in the lower economic strata worldwide.

That’s not an argument for indefinite reliance on fossil fuels. But it is an argument for careful, methodical, and cost-beneficial reduction of fossil fuels, augmented by a combination of renewables and a healthy new supply of nuclear energy.

The nuclear hill is a steep one to climb, primarily because we have let our nuclear design and construction capability atrophy for decades. The problem ahead — which, by bad planning, will collide with the government-dictated tenfold expansion of electric vehicles — is that the U.S. nuclear fleet is aging collectively, and many plants will retire from service when they are needed most. Our government has bet the house on fixing climate change, while treating nuclear energy — our most effective tool in combatting climate change — as an afterthought. It should be the centerpiece.

None of this is easy. Our nation’s energy and environmental policy must take into account the full range of societal, scientific, and economic factors, and find a way to balance both current and future needs — one more arena demanding open-minded, apolitical leadership.

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