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Our Energy Future

In May’s cover story, Charles C. Mann asked, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” His discussion of methane hydrates and their potential effect on the environment and geopolitics prompted many responses on TheAtlantic.com and in the magazine’s inbox. It also generated an online discussion among several experts, including Amory Lovins, the chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute; Michael A. Levi, of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Mann himself. You can read the whole discussion at theatlantic.com/debates/fossil-fuel.

Charles Mann points out that the changeover to renewable energy “has to occur now, faster than any change before,” if we are to respond intelligently to climate change. He is dumbfounded to hear left and right alike bemoaning the “reality” that society can’t change.

Plenty of studies show that a rapid shift is possible. A U.S. Department of Energy study says: “Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050.”

Our grandparents stopped producing cars and shifted the full weight of American manufacturing to defeating Hitler. Our parents risked their lives and demanded political action to advance civil rights. Now, when the very livability of the planet is at stake, is a poor time to become fatalistic.

Katie Davis
Goleta, Calif.

Charles C. Mann left out the use of nuclear power as a source of electricity. Nuclear power is safe. Nobody has died of radiation from nuclear power plants in the U.S. or western Europe. And although 19,000 people drowned in the March 2011 tsunami, the Fukushima disaster hasn’t killed anybody. The Chernobyl meltdown was deadly, but no sane institution would build a similar plant today.

Nuclear power does not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases. And if the world had the wit to massively adopt it, nuclear power would gradually raise the cost of uranium, now cheap, to such heights as to economically compel the conversion of weapons into reactor fuel. Think of it: no air pollution, no global warming, no nuclear weapons.

Kevin Cahill
Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, N.M.

Charles C. Mann replies:

I agree with Katie Davis that now is a poor time to be fatalistic. But in some ways I think the dice have been cast. Nuclear power is one of those cases. As Kevin Cahill says, I entirely left out the use of nuclear power. It seems to me that the world has chosen, for better or worse, not to use nuclear power. Germany is shutting down its nuclear plants. Several are under construction in the United States—the first new nuclear plants in more than three decades—but all are already delayed, over budget, or both. For nuclear power to play a major role in resolving climate change, the pace of introduction would have to be much, much faster than anything now envisioned.

ANALYZING KISSINGER

Response to Robert D. Kaplan’s defense of Henry Kissinger (“The Statesman,” May) ranged from appreciative to incredulous to angry. Henry Flood, a reader from Aventura, Florida, said the examination of the secretary of state’s legacy was “long overdue.” Isaac Chotiner, meanwhile, writing for The New Republic, said Kaplan was in “full-on apologetics mode,” and was propounding an “absurd,” “confusing” argument with an “inherent logical flaw.”

This is powerful stuff, a direct challenge to much of the thinking that passes for conventional wisdom these days, particularly on the left. Kaplan’s article is primarily about Kissinger and his place in history, which the writer believes will generate ever-greater respect with the march of time and the added perspective that time engenders. But it is also very much about fundamental foreign-policy principles—how great nations such as the United States navigate through the shoals of an angry world. “Realism,” writes Kaplan, “is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.” That was the Kissingerian perspective, seen through countless actions and decisions over eight tumultuous and ultimately successful years in American global policy making.

Robert W. Merry
Excerpt from a National Interest blog post

For Kissinger’s critics, the heart of the matter will always be Vietnam, where his policies produced the highest body count and violated his own realist principles. Kaplan, between British history lessons and Jimmy Carter–bashing, alternately defends Kissinger’s Vietnam policy as coldly realist and, using Kissinger’s own words, secretly idealist.

Kaplan’s whole defense relies on a tough endorsement of cold realpolitik, but he favorably highlights Kissinger’s sentimental idealism whenever it pops up—particularly regarding Vietnam, where Communist atrocities and a missionary zeal for liberal democracy are, for Kissinger and Kaplan, acceptable justifications for aggression.

But by 1968, it was clear to even some hardened realists that the war was damaging U.S. foreign policy, that it was not strengthening our position in the Cold War, and that the cost in human life was disproportionate to our aims (a factor Kaplan considers when discussing Chile, where far fewer died).

Kaplan is correct that Kissinger and President Nixon inherited the war, and that their painfully slow withdrawal of U.S. troops may well have been less damaging to U.S. interests in Asia than a hasty withdrawal would have been (although the bombing campaigns and civilian deaths that accompanied our gradual withdrawal undercut America’s moral credibility throughout the world—not a purely idealistic consideration). But dragging the war into the 1970s substantially weakened the Nixon administration’s credibility within the U.S., a consideration Kissinger obviously did not factor into his realist calculations. His belief that “a collapse of presidential authority” was unforeseeable after the 1972 electoral landslide demonstrates the limits of his domestic analysis, a dangerous blind spot in a nation where domestic and foreign policy are often inseparable.

Seth Studer
Brookings, S.D.

Among Robert Kaplan’s outrageous assertions, one stands out most odiously: that the U.S. was drawn into the Vietnam conflict out of a “sense of mission” coming from “the same well of idealism that helped us fight World War II.”

No reasonable comparison can be made between the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which spurred the U.S. troop buildup and which even Robert McNamara admitted never happened, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Public support remained steady for the war against Germany and Japan, but Kaplan understates how it ebbed as the Vietnam conflict dragged on. What’s tragic, though, is American policy makers’ habit of superimposing Hitler’s face on the foreign dictators they want us to hate.

Ralph Goldstein
Altadena, Calif.

I have great respect for Robert Kaplan as a journalist, but as a historian, not so much. The problem with trying to portray Henry Kissinger as some kind of moral exemplar is that there are too many of us still alive who saw the man in action in the 1960s and ’70s. If revisionist historians 100 years from now want to reevaluate Kissinger’s legacy, I will be gone and unable to set the record straight, but right now I’m here, so I stand with the innocent victims in Cambodia, Chile, and East Timor in demanding to see Kissinger tried as a war criminal.

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