Advocates of nuclear energy, coal gasification, and other hold-your-nose-and-take-your-medicine energy alternatives frequently bully opponents by saying that there’s no other way to fight global warming.

If you really cared about global warming, the rhetoric goes, you’d put your effete, nitpicky objections aside for the greater good. After all, global warming is an urgent problem, and these are the only solutions we have!

This is more or less the pro-nuke line taken by James Lovelock and Stewart Brand, and the pro-gasification line taken by Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. There are plenty of other examples.

Problem is, it’s not true.

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There is another vision of our energy future, one that does not require the embrace of capital-intensive, insecure, mega-industrial-scale technologies. It combines a price on carbon (a carbon tax, market, or cap-and-trade system) with efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy.

It has no official name. Amory Lovins calls it the "soft path to energy." In this paper, David Fleming calls it "lean energy" and summarizes it this way:

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  1. A transformation in standards of energy conservation and efficiency;
  2. structural change to build local economic and energy systems; and
  3. renewable energy; all within
  4. a framework, such as emissions permits or tradable energy quotas (TEQs).

This vision has several advantages over our current system, which is a brittle network of massive, centralized energy producers connected up by a dumb grid. (Nuclear and gasification preserve that basic paradigm.) It is more flexible, safer, more able to degrade gracefully, and arguably more democratic.

Of course, like all alternative-energy visions, it is largely speculative. It’s open to dispute whether it, or any other alternative, is realistic or sustainable.

But it exists. Never let it be said that environmentalists only say no on energy and climate change. This is our yes.