When James Hansen, the newly-retired NASA scientist talks, people who care deeply about energy and climate change pay attention.
For example, when Hansen says “game over” for the climate if Canada’s oil sands get developed, people take to the streets. When he publishes a study that says global warming has caused recent heat waves and droughts, it’s big news.
So what are we to make of the marginal notice paid this week to the results of an eye-popping paper just published by Hansen and a co-author in the journal Environmental Science & Technology? Read More
Everybody knows the global politics of climate change are leading nowhere. If the futile UN-sponsored talks illustrates one thing, it is that no country is willing to make economic sacrifices to reduce its carbon emissions. Roger Pielke Jr. calls this the iron law of climate policy. It’s proving ironclad.
That essentially leaves us with one option: Getting off fossil fuels altogether. Right now, such a prospect is not looking good. We seem to be flush with oil and gas these days–and the foreseeable future. That puts us on a collision course with climate disaster. So what do we do?
There are two camps that claim to have the answer. One of them believes that nuclear power is the only viable substitute for coal, which remains cheap, plentiful and the primary greenhouse gas responsible for cooking the planet. The other camp believes that renewable energy puts us on a true path to a sustainable planet. Which of these camps offers the best way to kick our carbon addiction?
That’s the subject of a new piece I have up at Slate.
George Monbiot is throwing a twitter fit, claiming that I’ve used a quote of his out of context in my current Slate piece. He’s asserting that I’ve conflated his repudiation of anti-nuclear greens with a repudiation of anti-GMO greens. I disagree and have told him so. He also seems to think that I’ve done this in bad faith–that I’m somehow deliberately misrepresenting him.
Now, as I’ve just said, I don’t agree. If you read the full paragraph where his quote appears, it is in the context of a larger argument I make–of the environmental movement exaggerating legitimate environmental concerns. That is the argument Monbiot has repeatedly, forcefully, and accurately made– with respect to nuclear power. I’m just using it as one example, to make a larger argument about green fear-mongering.
However, to prove to Monbiot that there was nothing nefarious intended about my use of him, here is the original graph of mine, before it got cut back in the final edit. As I’ve already said in an email to my editor, I agree with her edit that shortened the graph. I don’t take issue with that. I’m merely laying out the original graph here for Monbiot to see. So what follows is the set-up graph (which appears as is in the piece), and then my original graph, before it got shortened in the final version):
Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for. Pollan thinks that Prop 37 is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.” But capitalizing on irrational fear isn’t a good long-term political strategy. People eventually tune out or start to question your credibility, which is what has happened to the environmental movement. Decades of catastrophic predictions about even legitimate ecological threats has cost greens environmentalists much of the political capital they accrued in the 1960s and 1970s and lost them the support of one-time enthusiasts.
A case study in how not to overplay the fear card is green opposition to nuclear power. In recent years, George Monbiot, one of the UK’s most prominent environmental writers, recently has written a series of columns castigating greens for exaggerating the risks of nuclear power and inflating the toll wrought by the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Overall, the claims of anti-nuclear campaigners “are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong,” he wrote in one piece. In another, he accused greens of spreading “as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers.” (I made a similar argument in Slate with respect to the GMO issue.) With climate change bearing down on humanity and nuclear power (which burns no fossil fuels) effectively demonized by greens, Monbiot has concluded that “the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”
One could argue that this original graph above establishes definitively that Monbiot is talking about the unscientific, green hysteria on nuclear power. But I still think that the shortened, final version reflects this in the context of my larger argument, especially if you follow the link to the one quote of his that survived.
There is, however, another reference in the piece that Monbiot is objecting to, which I think is legitimate. It is in my final graph:
Like Monbiot, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists. Let’s hope others wake up to the cynical tactics of Prop 37′s champions before they squander the food movement’s political potential.
In retrospect, I wish I would have worded this more clearly to read (change is bolded): Like Monbiot on nuclear power, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists.”
I have already suggested to my Slate editor that this change be made. But on his larger contention, I believe Monbiot is off base.
I know the environmental movement will have truly matured when the leader of a big mainstream green group can say something like this:
We won’t meet the carbon targets if nuclear [power] is taken off the table.
That’s from Jeff Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Here’s the opening to the Guardian story:
Combating climate change will require an expansion of nuclear power, respected economist Jeffrey Sachs said on Thursday, in remarks that are likely to dismay some sections of the environmental movement.
Prof Sachs said atomic energy was needed because it provided a low-carbon source of power, while renewable energy was not making up enough of the world’s energy mix and new technologies such as carbon capture and storage were not progressing fast enough.
Incidentally, it appears that the headline in the Guardian article is incorrect (as was pointed out by Jesse Jenkins on Twitter), since nothing in the piece supports Sachs suggesting nuclear power is “the only solution to climate change.” Anyway, should be interesting to see what the reaction to Sachs is from various enviro/climate quarters.
At Grist, there is a box with a rotating set of five images that highlights content from the site. When I went over there recently, my eye gravitated to the colorful pictures in the box, including one with this subheadline for a blog post:
Germany aims to trade nukes for a fully renewable power system. Sane countries should follow suit.
What makes this especially insane is that it comes from a person who writes frequently about climate change as the biggest threat facing humanity.
In the actual world we live in, when a country scraps nuclear power, renewables aren’t an equal substitute. The real tradeoff is higher CO2 emissions. That will remain the case for decades, while Germany’s grand experiment is underway. The Grist writer who worries deeply about climate change surely knows this. Yet he suggests that “sane countries” should follow Germany’s example.
Even Joe Romm, who is no fan of nuclear power, advises:
Given the need to keep climate forcings as low as possible, I wouldn’t shutter existing nukes until the clean energy replacements are online, and would prefer to spend big bucks to make them safer.
Anti-nuclear greens who are concerned most about global warming might want to think about something four leading UK environmentalists recently stated:
As writers and thinkers who are interested in and concerned with environmental issues, our job is to assess the technological and policy options on climate change as objectively as possible. Independently of each other, we have all reached the conclusion in recent years that the gravity of the climate crisis necessitates a re-examination of deeply-held objections still shared by many in the green movement towards nuclear power, including, until recently some of our own number.
On a related note, I’ll point out another highlighted image rotating at the Grist carousel. It’s also rather odd placement for an ad.
Like the nuclear/renewable swap, this is for people living in fantasyland.
UPDATE: Be sure to read this piece by Spencer Weart at Yale Environment 360, entitled “Shunning nuclear power will lead to a warmer world.” It went up the same day as my post.
Greens who care most about global warming are in a tough spot. One of the biggest climate killers is coal, a 19th century fuel that may bake the planet well into the 21st century. As Jeff Goodell notes in Rolling Stone,
We still burn nearly a billion tons of it a year in America, almost all of it to generate electricity.
Even still, Goodell argues that
coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it’s being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry ““ the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.
This has to cheer greens, who haven’t had much to cheer about on the climate change front. Then again, maybe not. For as Goodell notes:
The real dagger in coal’s heart is natural gas ““ more accurately, cheap natural gas from “unconventional” sources like shale and other porous rocks. Thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, we are suddenly awash in gas, and prices are lower than they’ve been in decade. Drilling and fracking is its own kind of nightmare, but for better or worse, one incontestable consequence of cheap gas is that it has driven many electricity generators to turn off the coal plants and fire up the natural gas generators instead.
Meanwhile, the natural gas revolution is stunting the growth potential of a climate-friendly source of energy: Nuclear power. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
The U.S. nuclear industry seemed to be staging a comeback several years ago, with 15 power companies proposing as many as 29 new reactors. Today, only two projects are moving off the drawing board.
What killed the revival wasn’t last year’s nuclear accident in Japan, nor was it a soft economy that dented demand for electricity. Rather, a shale-gas boom flooded the U.S. market with cheap natural gas, offering utilities a cheaper, less risky alternative to nuclear technology.
“It’s killed off new coal and now it’s killing off new nuclear,” says David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc., a power-generation company based in Princeton, NJ. “Gas has come along at just the right time to upset everything.”
Across the country, utilities are turning to natural gas to generate electricity, with 258 plants expected to be built from 2011 through 2015, federal statistics indicate.
Anyway, one thing’s for sure: The natural gas revolution has arrived, and it’s upending the energy/climate debate.
Despite the immense human tragedy of the earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan one year ago, many media stories in the West this past week have focused on the Fukushima meltdown, which led Mark Lynas to tweet:
I find the total silence about the 20,000 victims killed by the tsunami a year ago horrifying, current nuclear angst out of all proportion.
On a related note, because nuclear power is part of the energy/climate debate, George Monbiot recently tweeted:
How come climate change ceases to be an issue as soon as someone needs to make the case for abandoning nuclear?
That is a curious thing, isn’t it? Which leads me to this essay by Michael Lemonick, titled, “No Nukes? Only if you believe in magic.” It is a wry, concisely argued deconstruction of all the proffered “magic” solutions that keep the climate change debate stuck in the realm of fantasy. After reading that, waltz on over to Dot Earth for some historical perspective by Spencer Weart on why “nuclear fear feeds back on itself” in society.
Then there are the regulatory and cost issues that still bedevil nuclear power. The Economist, in an introduction to a new special report, writes:
In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany’s nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world’s largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.
While not giving up on nuclear power, the piece argues that the much anticipated “promise of a global [nuclear] transformation is gone.”
So where does all this leave us? If you don’t believe in magic, and you’re not waiting anymore for a nuclear renaissance, what’s the quickest (and most realistic) path to a low-carbon energy economy?
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, anti-nuclear sentiment rose to a crescendo in the early to mid-1980s, just as the Shoreham nuclear power plant on the Island’s eastern end was nearing completion. If you know your history, you know what happened around this time. As Wikipedia explains:
The [Shoreham] plant faced considerable public opposition after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. There were large protests and two dozen local groups opposed the plant. In 1981, 43 percent of Long Islanders opposed the plant; by 1986, that number had risen to 74 percent.
In 1989, the utility that built Shoreham conceded to the politics of the day and agreed not to open the plant. But the deal LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company) made with New York State also called for much of Shoreham’s $6 billion construction cost to be passed down to Long Island residents. (Long Islanders are still paying this debt off.) In 1992, the Shoreham plant was dismantled.
Twenty years later, New York is embroiled in another heated nuclear power debate, this one involving the future of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all of Boston and Baltimore, with juice to spare. The facility sits along the Hudson River, 28 miles north of New York City. As with Shoreham, similar concerns about safety and emergency evacuation have animated a campaign calling for Indian Point’s closure. Post 9/11, the specter of terrorism has been added to the mix. Throw in the Fukushima disaster and you can imagine the potency of the anti-Indian Point message.
There is, however, a strong argument to be made in favor of keeping Indian Point in operation.
The two sides of the debate came together last night at Columbia University’s law school. The panel discussion, which I attended, was represented by two anti-Indian Point environmentalists and two pro-Indian Point advocates. Each side made forceful, compelling cases for their respective positions. I felt that the anti-Indian Point team was least convincing on the economic and energy issues (as in, where will NYC get the 20 percent of electricity that comes from Indian Point, and at what cost to the consumer?). I felt the pro-Indian Point team was least convincing on the safety issue (they played down concerns about terrorism, fuel containment, and orderly mass evacuation).
We don’t live in a world with no [energy] impacts; we don’t live in a world of free and cheap energy. We know there are tradeoffs. We have to make tough decisions. What risk do we want to take? That’s the challenge.
On the other side of the podium, Arthur Kremer, a former New State Assemblyman and currently the Chairman of the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, said emotion and fear shaped the public discourse on nuclear power. On Indian Point, he asserted:
The debate has been short on facts and honesty.
The media, it goes without saying, plays an important role in the public’s understanding of nuclear power and related safety and risk issues. Alas, the public’s mind is most concentrated in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when perspective narrows and the coverage is often breathless. (As for those economic and environmental tradeoffs, it would nice if there was more discussion of them, especially now that countries like Germany are providing a real-world case study.) Anniversaries of nuclear disasters are also a time when press coverage spikes and the public tunes in. We are entering such a moment now and the signs (for level-headed coverage) are not encouraging, assert Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the California-based Breakthrough Institute, at Slate:
With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.
“Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis,” screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, “Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to argue that the Times story credulously peddles the nuclear doomsday was narrowly averted slant of the Japanese NGO’s post-disaster report. Journalists at other esteemed outlets are viewing Fukushima through a similar lens. At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes:
Good fortune is not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about Fukushima these days. But it is, in fact, one of the clearest””and most troubling””lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima story: plain old luck, along with a colossal dose of heroism and quick-thinking, prevented the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns from wounding Japan even more thoroughly than they did.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger question that take. In their Slate piece, they note:
The same day the New York Times published its story, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary about the Fukushima meltdown that invites a somewhat different interpretation. In an interview conducted for that program, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan suggests that the fear of cascading plant failures was nothing more than panicked speculation among some of his advisers. “I asked many associates to make forecasts,” Kan explained to PBS, “and one such forecast was a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was just something that was possible, it didn’t mean that it seemed likely to happen.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest that the media’s emphasis on the potentially worst outcomes of Fukushima skewers the reporting and inflates the risk associated with nuclear power. Indeed, this is a criticism that journalists are already acquainted with, says Osnos in his New Yorker article:
When the [ Fukushima] anniversary arrives in two weeks, reporters and analysts will note correctly that nobody has died so far from the Fukushima meltdowns (this, of course, does not refer to the tsunami). One of the questions will be whether the media overplayed the dangers””whether it scared people away from nuclear power.
In light of what happened on Long Island two decades ago and the debate that is now playing out over the Indian Point power plant, that is not an unreasonable question to ask.
UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time has a related piece I didn’t see until after I posted. Taking stock of the one-year Fukushima anniversary stories starting to come out, he says that,
nearly a year after the event, the question still remains: was the Fukushima meltdown that dangerous?
You may have heard, as Scientific American reports, that the “U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to allow construction of two new nuclear reactors” in Georgia. It’s a pretty big deal, since Jimmy Carter was President the last time a commercial reactor was approved.
As the LA Times notes, the new Georgia plant
is supposed to have all of the technology and safeguards to avoid a meltdown like the one that occurred at Fukushima, which was hit by a tsunami after a massive earthquake and lost electrical power to keep its reactor cool. The Westinghouse system is supposed to be able to endure a complete blackout and safely shut down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.
Of course, for those who are opposed to nuclear power based on safety concerns, what happened at Fukushima remains frightful proof of the dangers. But as George Monbiot argued in a series of columns last year, the disaster could also serve as an argument for the technology’s relative safety.
Over at my latest Yale Forum post, Nullius in Verba makes a similar case. I often don’t see eye to eye with Nullius, but in this comment he shows the skewed risk perception many have of nuclear power:
Fukushima was actually an excellent demonstration of just how safe nuclear energy actually is.
Let’s compare it to something concrete: is your house “safe”? When you sit in home, are you nervous about having tons of brick and concrete suspended a few feet above your head? You would probably say “yes, of course it’s safe”, but let’s judge it by the same standard we judge nuclear power.
You claim your house is “safe”, but if you hit it with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and then shortly after smash a 30 foot high wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour into it, will it still be standing? Or will the whole thing collapse on top of you?
In Japan, something like 10,000 people sat in their “safe” houses died. And left a landscape strewn with rubble which is going to cost billions to clean up. And a tsunami leaves the land tainted with salt, and no crops will grow until it is gone.
So is a nuclear power station that was still standing and killed less than a handful more dangerous than houses which collapsed and killed thousands? Or, if you want to look at it that way, more dangerous than building thousands of houses on an island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis?
The thinking appears to be that it is, because within a few days of the disaster, none of the news reports mentioned the tens of thousands left homeless or burying their dead, it was all about the nuclear reactor. The tiniest trace of radioactivity anywhere was picked up and breathlessly reported around the world, although the fact that raw sewage was floating down the streets was not. Sewage is more dangerous, it kills more people, but they’re more scared of the radioactivity.
So that’s why I say “relatively safe”. It’s safe, relative to all the other risky things that we consider safe. It’s not absolutely safe ““ nothing is ““ but the risks are far lower than for many other dangers that we consider it acceptable to take.
It would be interesting to know where the anti-nuclear denial of science comes from, political elites, or perhaps the coal mining industry? How should science communicators talk about nuclear energy to overcome this block? Or should we sit back and do nothing, and wait for energy prices to skyrocket before offering it again?
It’s an interesting comparison, isn’t it?
It’s really a shame that the U.S. environmental community doesn’t have anyone with the chops or reputation of George Monbiot, the popular British columnist. Monbiot, who has a high profile perch at the Guardian, combines essential talents for a communicator: He is lucid, engaging, and smart. He is also not afraid to call out his own constituency.
For example, Monbiot this year has shredded European greens for their anti-science position on nuclear power, and laid out the implications of this for climate change. (I wrote about his methodical takedowns here.) He’s at it again in his latest column, with a damning indictment that begins:
It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.
As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medievel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.
The U.S. green movement isn’t infected with the same strain of anti-nuclear hysteria (at least not anymore) as its European cousins. But it’s still surprising to see baseless nuclear fear-mongering from self-professed champions of science who counsel urgent action on climate change. When it comes to peddling disinformation on risks and harms associated with nuclear power, the anti-nuclear crowd, as Monbiot says in his column, is second to none:
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.
Remember, this is coming from a card-carrying environmentalist, who worries as deeply as anyone about the health of the planet and the threats posed to it by climate change.
Were there only more like him, speaking truth to green woo.