Our Voice: World should move to halt warming while it still can

We've long advocated increased use of nuclear energy to combat global warming, and we're not alone in that regard.

Even so, it was encouraging this month to learn that four top environmental scientists released an open letter calling on world leaders to support development of safer nuclear power systems.

James Hansen, a former top NASA scientist; Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution; Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide in Australia, released their open letter Nov. 3, touting nuclear power as the best hope for reversing the looming threat of climate change.

"Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires," the letter stated.

"In the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power."

Nuclear power has a lot of detractors. The Oregon and Washington chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility formed an official joint Nuclear Power Task Force with the goal of closing the Columbia Generating Station north of Richland.

It issued a report questioning the economic viability of the reactor and another raising questions about the plant's ability to withstand an earthquake. Both strike us as attempts to justify the group's stated goal rather than to enlighten.

The open letter from leading climate scientists acknowledges that nuclear power comes with risks. Disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island come to mind in any discussion about expanding the use of nuclear energy.

But the combined effects of every nuclear mishap would hardly register a blip compared to the devastation that's expected from failing to reverse global warming.

According to a leaked copy of report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is scheduled to release in March, poverty, starvation flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease are all likely to worsen worldwide as the planet warms from manmade climate change.

The report says scientists have high confidence in these effects from global warming caused in part by greenhouse gasses from human activity:

w People dying from warming- and sea rise-related flooding.

w Famine because of temperature and rain changes.

w Farmers going broke because of lack of water.

w Infrastructure failures because of extreme weather.

w Dangerous and deadly heat waves worsening.

w Certain land and marine ecosystems failing.

In their letter, the scientists wrote: "Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases."

Here's a fact to keep in mind: the world's demand for energy is increasing.

Scientists in the CNN documentary Pandora's Promise claim energy consumption globally could double by 2050 -- and perhaps triple or quadruple by 2100 -- as growing nations like China, India and Brazil start to want more energy.

And no wonder, because energy equals prosperity. That's true for about any measure of wealth you care to make -- income levels, productivity, amount of leisure time, infant mortality rates, life expectancy and more.

The joint letter says, "The time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems" as part of efforts to build a new global energy supply.

True enough, but time is running out. The time to act is now.