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Source:2012 Journal Citation Reports® (Thomson Reuters, 2013)

Tom Wigley: Why nuclear power may be the only way to avoid geoengineering


In this interview, climate scientist Tom Wigley says that waiting to take significant action on climate change makes it more likely that geoengineering will be needed to address the problem. He advocates for research on a combination approach: climate engineering together with mitigation efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Wigley says that geoengineering may become necessary to stabilize global sea level rise, because sea level has much greater inertia than temperatures in the atmosphere. He argues that the climate problem cannot be solved with renewable energy alone, and that, without turning to geoengineering, consideration of the nuclear energy pathway—in particular, resuming the development of fast reactors—should be an essential component of attempts to address the climate crisis. Wigley claims that his colleagues in climate science are generally supportive of nuclear engineering and less fearful of it than they are of geoengineering.

Tom Wigley, a scientist at the University of Adelaide and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is one of the world’s top climate researchers. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which named him a fellow in 2003, cited “his major contributions to climate and carbon-cycle modeling and to climate data analysis.” Together with British climate researcher Sarah Raper, he introduced the widely used climate model MAGICC (Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change) more than two decades ago, and continues to contribute to its development.

Wigley was one of the first scientists to break the taboo on public discussion of climate engineering as a possible response to climate change. In a 2006 paper in the journal Science, he proposed a combined geoengineering–mitigation strategy that would address the problem of increasing ocean acidity, as well as the problem of climate change.

More recently, Wigley made headlines as the co-author—with three other prominent climate scientists—of an open letter addressed to “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” urging them “to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems.” Wigley and his three colleagues argued that renewable energy alone will not be sufficient to address the climate challenge, because it cannot be scaled up quickly and cheaply enough, and that opposition to nuclear power “threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Wigley trained and worked as a meteorologist in Australia, and has a doctorate in mathematical physics from the University of Adelaide. He joined the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in 1975 and was its director from 1979 to 1993. He was a senior scientist at NCAR from 1993 to 2006. He currently has honorary academic positions at NCAR and the University of East Anglia and is a professor at the University of Adelaide. He has published more than 250 research papers, many of which are highly cited. He talked with the Bulletin about his outspoken support for both nuclear energy and research into climate engineering.

BAS: Your 2006 Science paper laid out an approach that would combine geoengineering with emissions reductions. Is that the same approach that other proponents of geoengineering are taking?

Wigley: A lot of good science has been done, and is being done, to work out exactly what the climate implications of geoengineering might be. But most of these studies, if not all of them, have considered offsetting all of the effects of greenhouse gases with geoengineering. This is partly because such studies are much easier to set up and perform than a study that combines geoengineering with mitigation—that is, reducing the emissions of the gases that can cause climate change. My more realistic viewpoint is that if we’re going to do geoengineering at all, then obviously we can’t do geoengineering alone. Some people have suggested that, if geoengineering is cheap, we might forget about doing mitigation. I disagree with this view, and I don’t know any serious scientist who has suggested just doing geoengineering to offset the effects of increasing greenhouse gases.

BAS: How do you feel now about what you wrote in 2006? Is there anything that has changed substantially since then?

Wigley: We’re still in the same position, or maybe worse, because we’re not doing mitigation at anything like the level required. The longer we wait, the more likely it is that we’re going to have to do some form of geoengineering.

BAS: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published several reports that discuss geoengineering. Earlier IPCC assessments mentioned geoengineering, but is it a different level of attention this time around?

Wigley: Geoengineering is in the public consciousness now, but not in much more detail than previously. There’s a lot of new science that is too new to have even been described and cited in the latest IPCC reports. The very fact that IPCC is treating this as a serious option means that, at some point, the policy makers will have to consider the issue of combined geoengineering and mitigation. We should be considering these two things not as separate issues, but as some combination of issues that together are going to help us solve the climate problem.

BAS: Do you think of geoengineering as a last resort? Or as something that should be tried sooner rather than later?

Wigley: If it’s going to be a last resort, we really need to know what we’re doing. There are some people who think that we shouldn’t even be doing the science, but that’s just crazy. We shouldn’t be doing anything unless we understand, through appropriate model simulations, what the implications are likely to be. Unfortunately that’s what has happened with burning fossil fuels. We’re still trying to understand the implications of what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years or so.

BAS: You have focused on a strategy in which aerosols or their precursors would be injected into the stratosphere, effectively blocking some of the sun’s radiation from reaching Earth. Is that the best geoengineering idea out there?

Wigley: There is also a lot of interest in changing cloud albedo [reflectivity] by injecting droplets of seawater into the atmosphere. From a scientific point of view, we’ve got to understand both options, and we’re still on a learning curve. But, personally, I think that the technology of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere is pretty well developed. There are other types of aerosol that might require much smaller loadings in order to produce the same effects on the climate system; that’s one of the things that Edward Teller wrote about 20 years ago. Sulfate aerosol may not be the most effective aerosol to cause global cooling, but it’s certainly the one that we understand the most about; it’s probably the cheapest, and the most technologically mature type of aerosol that we could use. If we’re going to do geoengineering, that’s probably the way we would do it.

BAS: What about geoengineering methods that aim to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through carbon capture and storage, or ocean fertilization?

Wigley: We should be trying to better understand carbon dioxide removal, too. In one sense, that’s a preferred type of geoengineering because it solves both problems: reducing the acidification of the oceans, and reducing the amount of climate change. Injecting aerosols into the stratosphere only reduces climate change.

BAS: So why are you less excited about these carbon dioxide removal methods?

Wigley: If we’re going to do combined mitigation and geoengineering, then carbon dioxide removal becomes less important. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not an option that we should be investigating very seriously. Carbon dioxide removal could even be considered a form of mitigation. In general, however, when we talk about mitigation, we’re really talking about changing our energy structure—moving from energy based on fossil fuels to carbon-free energy systems. My concern is that, even with the best intentions, we might not be able to reduce emissions fast enough to get to a climate state that we’re happy with. The reductions required to stabilize global sea level are much greater than the reductions required to stabilize the climate system, and sea level rise is a serious concern in terms of impacts. Some form of geoengineering may be required because of the sea level issue, more than just the climate issue. What are the carbon-free options that we have on the table already, and might be able to develop at scale to solve the climate problem? I think the only way that we can do this is the nuclear energy pathway, although I do not discount the value and importance of developing renewable energy sources.

BAS: Along with three other prominent climate scientists—James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, and Kerry Emanuel—you recently wrote an open letter arguing in favor of nuclear power. You don’t believe that climate can be stabilized with renewable energy alone?

Wigley: Even the IPCC, in an earlier report, has suggested that we can get there with wind and solar and other forms of so-called renewable energy alone. We can, in theory, but whether we can do so practically and in a timely way is very debatable. My feeling is that people advocating for a renewables-only energy system are often (without stating so) antinuclear but probably not knowledgeable about present-day nuclear technology. I don’t think the people who have contributed to IPCC Working Group III—which deals with mitigation and the economics—are realistically considering nuclear energy. They are unrealistic in their view to solve the problem through renewable energy.

BAS: What prompted you and your three colleagues to write that letter?

Wigley: The possibility of writing it has been around for some time, and it’s people like Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus [of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, California] who kept me focused on that possibility. They said, “We need a bunch of credible climate guys out there saying that nuclear is something we should be considering seriously.” We were already planning to write a letter at some time, but a push from the Breakthrough Institute got this ball rolling. Of all the environmentally oriented groups out there, they’re the most credible.

BAS: It can take a long time to site and build nuclear power plants, given the complexity of the technology and the regulations involved. Doesn’t that make it difficult to scale up nuclear energy rapidly?

Wigley: Regulations do slow the process down, and especially when you have the option for other organizations or individuals to step in and slow down that authorization process. That’s particularly so in the United States. Obviously it’s not the case in China. They’re building 29 nuclear power stations right now, with many more planned. The prime example is France, where they built a whole bunch of nuclear power stations over a very short time period, so I don’t think the time factor is a serious issue.

BAS: Are you surprised that so many environmental groups remain vehemently opposed to nuclear power?

Wigley: “Saddened” would be a better word. Often the main concern of those groups is proliferation—the use or theft of nuclear material to make weapons. I think that that is a misrepresented issue as well. One of the saddest things was when the Clinton administration shut down the program on fast reactors.1 Clinton, [Al] Gore, and John Kerry are to blame there. If that program had not been shut down, and fast reactors had continued to develop, within maybe three years we could have started building Integral Fast Reactor systems with the whole nuclear cycle on one site—reprocessing waste materials onsite and having very little residual waste to deal with. If that had happened, I don’t think we would have a global warming problem now at all. We could have started on a pathway of rapid introduction of fourth-generation nuclear technology, and we would have gained 20 years in solving the climate problem.

BAS: Your letter talked about developing and deploying “safer” nuclear energy systems, but you didn’t say what you meant by that.

Wigley: We’re certainly talking about fast reactors, on a longer time scale. Fast reactors more or less totally remove the proliferation issue, because we burn up all the waste material that people wrongly think might be weapons-capable. We don’t yet have fast reactor technology at scale, but we do have passively safe third-generation reactors that are being built right now. They have none of the safety problems associated with second-generation reactors.

BAS: Some critics say Jim Hansen is not a nuclear expert, so he shouldn’t be talking about nuclear power. Have the four of you really looked into this deeply enough to be certain that you understand all the potential consequences?

Wigley: Yes, we’re actually quite smart scientists. We can understand science that is not directly within our particular disciplines. I did my PhD in plasma physics, and I worked for a brief period with the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Authority. Fusion theory is not the same as nuclear theory, of course, but anybody with a background in physics can understand a lot of the issues that are involved. And my colleagues and I don’t live in a vacuum; we talk to other people who are experts. Their detailed knowledge is far beyond our own, but we can understand what they’re talking about, and we can make judgments about the credibility of the things that they say. I’m in touch with many of the people in that nuclear engineering sphere. The sad thing is that they’re all my age. We’re losing that knowledge base. In Australia, however, the University of New South Wales is resurrecting its nuclear engineering school. It’s very prescient of them to be doing this, because Australia has legislation that forbids anybody to build a nuclear reactor. In spite of that, the University of New South Wales sees training people as important, because there’s a growing market worldwide for people with that engineering background.

BAS: Do you see both nuclear energy and climate engineering as technologies that may be necessary but need some research to make sure they can be done safely?

Wigley: There are certainly a greater fraction of people in my sphere who are nervous about geoengineering than are nervous about nuclear energy, and that was quite surprising to me. It is actually very reassuring because it does mean that if people like Jim [Hansen] and I keep pushing nuclear energy, then we’ve got a lot of people at our backs who are going to be supportive—if not outspokenly supportive, at least supportive.

BAS: What do you see as the most important work going on in climate science today?

Wigley: We’re realizing that our knowledge is less than perfect and that there are still issues that need to be understood better, but that’s a rather slow-moving scientific process. I think we’ve got to the point where, as climate scientists, we need more seriously to consider what to do about climate change. Of course there are a lot of people who are considering these things, but as climate scientists there are surprisingly few people like Jim and Kerry and Ken and me who have really thought about what the options for reducing the climate problem might be.

BAS: Your writings and presentations emphasize a realistic approach to climate change. But if people currently are taking little action to reduce the burning of fossil fuels—despite strong scientific evidence that reductions are necessary and urgent—wouldn’t they be even less inclined to reduce their emissions if geoengineering is deployed?

Wigley: Another way to look at this is to say, “Look, if you don’t mitigate and you believe that climate change is a serious problem, then we’re going to do geoengineering.” And then people say, “Hey, that’s really scary! We don’t know what the implications might be. We shouldn’t be tampering deliberately with our environmental system.” That might motivate people to get on the mitigation bandwagon. Humans are heavily influenced by their preconceptions, which in turn are often based on misinformation or partial information. So we really need to educate people. I hope there are politicians at the cutting edge who are willing to listen, but it’s very hard to get their ear.

BAS: What research needs to be done before we can be fairly sure that geoengineering on a planetary scale would be safe?

Wigley: The most important thing, and this is something that we’ve been planning here at NCAR ever since I wrote that paper, is to do some combined geoengineering–mitigation runs with the most sophisticated coupled ocean-atmospheric models that we have at our disposal. The only way to understand things like the implications for precipitation, or changes in the monsoon, is to actually do these model experiments. Unfortunately, there are limited computing resources, even though we’ve got some huge computers here at NCAR, and there are other priorities.

BAS: At what stage would you see this progressing from computer modeling to actually doing a pilot project?

Wigley: You’ve got to do an experiment of a sufficient scale that the signal will be identifiable above the noise of natural variability. And of course, once that happens, then people are going to say, “You’re doing something that has a measurable consequence, and you shouldn’t be doing those sorts of experiments at all.” So we’re in a catch-22. We’ve got to do an experiment that’s big enough to have an effect that we can identify statistically, but as soon as we do that, people are going to say it’s too big.

BAS: And there’s no way to do the experiment on a localized scale or in a laboratory?

Wigley: Not really. I imagine that you could plan an experiment where there was an increasing injection over a period of a decade or so, and then carefully monitor what’s happening. If things happen that are unexpected or detrimental, then one can stop the experiment. If not, one can simply keep going.

BAS: If the models show that geoengineering would work and would be relatively safe, are there any political champions for going ahead with this?

Wigley: We haven’t reached the point where it’s clear that we’re not going to solve the problem by mitigation alone. And with mitigation, we have the same signal-to-noise issue as with geoengineering: We have to do a certain amount of mitigation before the consequences are detectable above the noise of natural climate variability. That’s difficult, because we’re comparing the real world, where there is some measure of mitigation, against some theoretical world where we didn’t do mitigation. So we really need another universe in which to do these two experiments, and then compare them. The same issues apply to geoengineering.

BAS: Would the benefits of geoengineering be uniformly distributed over the planet? Or would some nations benefit more than others?

Wigley: If some country or individual decides to do large-scale geoengineering to reduce the magnitude of climate change, there will be winners and losers. One of the ideas that my colleagues and I have been talking about by e-mail recently is that the winners could pay the country that did the geoengineering, and that money could be used to compensate the losers.

BAS: What if a rogue nation decides unilaterally to do geoengineering without any agreement with the international community?

Wigley: Even Bill Gates could do it by himself. It’s that cheap.

BAS: Are you trying to build political support for geoengineering?

Wigley: When I talk to people from any walk of life, I do talk about geoengineering. But I mostly push nuclear. Because I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering.

Article Notes

  • 1 The US Energy Department funded development of an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) system at Argonne National Laboratory from 1984 until 1994, when Congress canceled the project under pressure from President Bill Clinton, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, and Senator John Kerry. In a “fast” reactor, neutrons with high energy sustain the chain reaction. The IFR system was designed to be a closed system in which spent fuel would be reprocessed and prepared for waste disposal onsite.

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  1. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 0096340214531174

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