What Orville Wright can teach us about solving our clean energy problem

William Budinger in Democracy:

Thinking about the risk-reward of air travel can help us think about how to solve the most perplexing problem of our time—the clean energy dilemma. All the known solutions to producing clean power have risks. So how do we evaluate the risk/reward of each possibility? How do we decide which ones to pursue? Being human, our evaluation of risk is hampered by our tendency to focus on the sensational single event instead of the broader picture. When looking at accidents or “disasters,” we also tend to ignore the reward we were getting from whatever it was that failed. For example, if one were to focus only on crashes, deaths, and disasters, we would quickly conclude that air travel is deadly and must be seriously curtailed. Yet in spite of the danger, people clearly think the reward of air travel is worth taking the risk. Moreover, if one steps back, looks at the full picture, and evaluates the danger of air travel compared to other methods, it becomes clear that putting a halt to air travel would result in more, not fewer, deaths. The relative risk of air travel is lower than other travel options.

The various options available to clean up our energy emissions must be similarly evaluated. In terms of risk, any and all of the commonly available options for generating clean electricity are much less dangerous than the climate disaster we’ll face if we fail to reverse global warming. To effectively tackle climate change, all serious experts agree that we must get as close to zero carbon as possible, and do so as quickly as possible. So our selection standard should be which technologies, when considered in view of their rewards, will get us there fastest with no more risk than is manageable. The good news is that all of the available low-carbon options—all of them—have risk levels much lower than those we tolerate daily with our existing fossil plants, chemical plants, refineries, and even airplanes.

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