A man with a plan

Local Steve Nelson takes on global warming



Global warming isn’t the kind of problem that keeps most Missoulians up at night. Comfortably amorphous and abstract, it’s an issue that’s lucky to evoke small tributes like sporadic bike trips and energy-efficient light bulbs.

But 51-year-old Steve Nelson isn’t most Missoulians. The retired high-school chemistry teacher has volunteered the last year and a half of his life to carefully researching and calculating what it would take to shift U.S. energy policy from its current fossil-fuel-dependent state to broad reliance on renewable resources in hopes of cutting U.S. global warming emissions by 80 percent in 15 years. His plan, contained in a draft paper titled “Rosy Revisited: An American Energy Vision” and revealed exclusively to the Independent, comprehensively accounts for the resources, technologies and costs required for such a midstream horse-swapping. In accordance with scientists’ warnings about the issue’s urgency, Nelson’s vision calls for greater emission reductions than those proposed in other currently circulating plans, like California U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman’s recently introduced Safe Climate Act, which would cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. Two of the nation’s top-level energy experts have reviewed Nelson’s plan favorably, and Nelson and Missoula nonprofit plans to go public with the proposal July 11.

Four years ago, Nelson knew just enough about global warming to teach a short global warming lesson to his chemistry students at Loyola-Sacred Heart High School. Then he met David Merrill, director of, a local group devoted to the issue, and borrowed some books on the phenomenon. What happened next involved a synchronicity of sorts: Nelson’s self-described 15-year attention span for careers was running out at the same time his interest in global warming—couched in personal investments like a fierce love of winter weather and an innate desire that his two children inherit a stable environment—was ramping up.

“I think it caught me because it seems like an overarching problem that affects the very place we live,” Nelson says. “I’ve sat and contemplated what the odds are that we could live in such a beautiful, amazing place, and here we are, just pissing on it.”

That perception, combined with Nelson’s “high tolerance for strange numerical data” and the relentless, can-do attitude of a former carpenter and longtime workaholic, led to a personal quest to determine whether the United States holds sufficient resources to replace the bulk of the country’s fossil fuel usage. The project quickly ballooned when Nelson realized the entire nation needed an answer to that question, and a step-by-step plan to bring it about. What he discovered is that such a transformation is technically feasible, but that American citizens and their government lack the political will to enact it.

Too many people, he says, are hung up on twin pillars of denial, believing either that global warming doesn’t exist, or that even if it does we can’t do anything about it.

“Somewhere in between there lies the optimism and the hope that we can do something,” Nelson says.

His plan launches from the recognition that the United States, harboring a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, devours a full 25 percent of the world’s energy, much of it derived from fossil fuels. The vast majority of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the world’s leading greenhouse gas, is produced by burning fossil fuels.

In 2004, the United States used a total of 100 quadrillion British thermal units of energy; 85 percent of that came from fossil fuels, 11 percent from nuclear or hydroelectric sources, 3 percent from biomass, and 1 percent from geothermal, solar and wind power combined. Nelson’s plan would reorganize the nation’s energy portfolio by 2020 to include a much wider array of renewable energy resources: 35 percent wind, 18 percent fossil fuel, 11 percent nuclear and hydroelectric, 10 percent solar photovoltaic, 10 percent biomass, 8 percent solar thermal and 3 percent geothermal. The remaining 5 percent of the newly configured portfolio would be accounted for by savings realized through lifestyle changes, like driving less, which Nelson recognizes as a likely lightning rod for public disgruntlement.

Nelson’s plan breaks out each renewable energy source individually, examining its potential, current utilization and rough capital costs. There’s no way around the plan’s costs: Nelson estimates the transition would cost $260 billion a year, or $4 trillion over 15 years, about 2.5 percent of gross domestic product annually. On the plus side of the ledger, Nelson estimates the same transformation would generate between one and three million jobs over 15 years. For perspective, the Department of Defense’s proposed 2007 budget is $439 billion.

While global warming skeptics, with President Bush at their fore, point to staggering costs and potential job loss as reasons the United States couldn’t and shouldn’t make substantial changes to its energy policy, Nelson maintains that the costs of continued reliance on an unstable resource that contributes to dangerous global climate change is, if incalculable, insufferably high.

State University of New York distinguished professor and systems ecologist Charles Hall, Ph.D., who recently reviewed Nelson’s plan at’s request, says he was impressed with it.

“I thought it was rather unique, to tell you the truth, in its comprehensiveness,” Hall says. “Is it technically feasible? I think so. Is it economically feasible? That depends on how you define it—how much does it cost to leave a world your grandchildren can live in?”

In discussing how his plan might be enacted, Nelson invokes the memory of World War II-era America, with its unified citizenry willing to change their lives and industries for the country’s larger good. It’s clear that the historical example—whose iconic symbol, Rosy the Riveter, is evoked in the plan’s title—provides Nelson with substantial hope and moral fortification in the face of an unresponsive government.

“If I can do this, where the hell are [our leaders]?” Nelson asks. “Why is it a high-school chemistry teacher in Missoula, Montana, can come up with something that could be plausible but our leaders are so uncreative that all they can think of is more nuclear and coal?”

He believes people are ready for change and hopes his “potential vision” will spur not just debate, but a civic and political response.

“I think this is a very tough task in front of us, but that’s all the more reason to roll up our sleeves and do it,” he says. presents “A Real Solution: How We Can Address Global Warming” on Sunday, July 11, at 7 p.m. in the UC Theater.

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