DN: Two things that are frequently advocated, I think partly because they feel familiar as well as because they are pushed by vested interests, are clean coal and nuclear power. In your book, you address both of those, and are skeptical about both, albeit for different reasons.
AG: They're very different, but I came out at a similar point in my analysis of both. Both of them work, both of them can be used, but both, at least in their current form, carry a burden of implausibility that will probably limit the extent to which they're used.
In both cases, one of the main burdens is cost. In the case of carbon capture and sequestration, the owner of a coal plant that uses CCS will have to use one-third of the electricity that a utility now sells just to power the CCS operation. Well, no matter the price of coal or energy, over time that's not going to work so well. And the sheer volume is so enormous, that finding and characterizing and using the underground storage reservoirs in so many places at those huge volumes is probably not going to happen. Now, I think that it will be used in some places. And I think there's a chance that with enough R&D, enough money thrown at it, they will discover cheaper, easier and more effective ways to capture the CO2. So I do favor demonstration projects. Let's push the limits of the technology, if it did work at an acceptable cost, then we ought to use it.
In the case of nuclear, there is also a cost issue. The present generation of nuclear reactors has been increasing in construction costs 15 percent a year over the last 30 years. That means it doubles every few years, and a $400 million reactor is now a $4 billion reactor; it's gone up ten-fold. It's not competitive. If governments throw enough subsidies in that direction, then more nuclear plants will eventually be built. I don't think it's a silver bullet, and I don't think it's going to be the dominant solution by any means, not least because there's a second problem with nuclear power, which limits its scaleability on a global scale. The new technology for enriching nuclear materials shortens the distance between reactor fuel and weapons grade material. Now they have these cheap, highly efficient centrifuges that can be hidden underground. That's what Iran's doing, that's what North Korea is doing, that's what Syria is nibbling around trying to do. In the eight years I worked in the White House, every single nuclear weapons proliferation problem we had was connected to a reactor program. So we can't put tens of thousands of these things all over the surface of the planet. It's not going to happen.
DN: You talk in the book about some of the steps that government will have to take to affect the economics of carbon. You discuss in particular three things: a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, and then direct government regulation. Yesterday [December 7], the Environmental Protection Agency made the announcement that it would classify CO2 as a dangerous pollutant. Is your sense that this is primarily a very strong message to Congress of the need to pass climate legislation, or else this will have to be the route to take?
AG: I think it is a very powerful message to Congress, and to industry lobbies, that if legislation is not passed, it's going to be regulated by the EPA. Now the history of this is that environmental groups brought a lawsuit during the Bush-Cheney years, and the Supreme Court ruled, the year before Barack Obama became president, that, under the meaning of the Clear Air Act, CO2 should be regulated. The EPA refused to act, but the new EPA under President Obama did. The announcement that you read yesterday is the result of this nearly year-long process since he took office.
That'll happen if there's no legislation passed. But it's a blunt instrument, and it's not as wieldy as a legislative solution. But it's a backstop.
Now, a CO2 tax: I've long favored a CO2 tax, with the money either given back in rebates or with other taxes reduced by an equal amount. Economically, the case is very, very strong. Politically, the degree of difficulty far exceeds the difficulty of passing cap-and-trade. We need both. And we'll wind up using both. Sweden already uses both. But to those who say, "I'm against cap-and-trade because I think CO2 taxes are better," that's a prescription for another decade of delay.
Hey, I could be wrong about that. If we could pass a CO2 tax tomorrow, and have it take effect worldwide, sign me up. But I've spent enough time in the political system to have some feelings about what's likely and what's not. But even if it were likely, I would still favor using both a CO2 tax and a cap-and-trade mechanism.
DN: We have 192 countries or thereabouts gathered in Copenhagen. You anticipate in your book some of the reactions there are going to be from those who, for example so strongly oppose cap-and-trade as a primary instrument that they are going to be disappointed in Copenhagen's results. You anticipate that in the book and I notice how you present Copenhagen as, not so much 1969 when we land on the Moon but more 1961 when JFK says we're going to land on the Moon. Notwithstanding the race against time, are you at this present moment feeling relatively comfortable that these two weeks are going to take us forward? Are you optimistic?
AG: I choose to be. I think that President Obama's announcement that he's going to attend on the last day rather than during the first week is an indication that he's optimistic that there will be a result worthy of 70 heads of state gathering there. It will be in the eye of the beholder to some extent because it won't be a fully completed treaty. Therefore, expectations have long been lowered a little bit for Copenhagen. But I do think it could be the key turning point.
When I was at Kyoto 12 years ago, virtually no heads of state were there. Now, most of them will be. The European Union has already implemented a plan. Japan has implemented a plan. China has put out targets for reductions. So has India. So has Brazil. It's a new day. It's not dawn yet, but you can see the glimmers – I don't want to torture the metaphor, but you can see the glimmers on the horizon. Depending on what they do over these next days, there's an excellent chance that we will look back from some future time and see it as a turning point.
DN: In the conclusion to your book, you imagine that future generations will either look back and despise us for inactivity, or they will say, "What took you so long? But at least you got it done ..."
AG: And how did you find the courage to shake off the lethargy and focus on what was at stake? It's hard for us, because the kinds of threats that we respond to viscerally and automatically are different from the kinds of threats we encounter here. The odds of us encountering a leopard on Park Avenue as we exit this building are vanishingly small. But if we did, we'd respond quickly. We're hardwired to do so. This is a threat that requires us to use our reasoning capacity, and form long-term goals based on our deepest values. We also have that capacity. It's not a visceral capacity, it's not automatic or semi-automatic. It requires a choice, it requires reflection, it requires communication. All of which we're capable of. But in a world of distraction and complexity, it does require a conscious choice. But I think the world is now at a point where that's beginning to be possible.
DN: Mister Vice President, thank you very much.
AG: Thank you.
(Discovery News would like to give special thanks to Kalee Kreider for arranging the interview).
Photographs by Lori Cuthbert