Discussions about science and technology are often colored by opinion, world views, and political alliances. Though everyone is entitled to their opinion but not their own facts, it is nearly impossible to remove bias, even in a technical discussion, because everyone has a tendency to pick which facts they prefer to introduce into an argument.
In the past couple of days, I have been involved in a number of different conversations in which people who believe strongly that nuclear fission technology is beneficial also strongly counsel against the idea that nuclear energy advocates should emphasize that it is a wonderful tool to use in an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They choose a number of facts and pick at well known issues associated with climate models. They also point to the political and financial interests that stand to gain from carbon trading schemes or massive efforts to shift to “renewable” energy like wind and solar.
Since I did a recent show with Ben Heard about his Zero Carbon Options report, there have been several similar comments here. I have even attracted a new commenter who has provided several lengthy comments about why he thinks that climate change is either a hoax or nothing to worry about. His advice is to keep working on nuclear fission technology until it can be competitive in price with fossil fuels and then the world will adopt it.
I responded to him in the comment thread, but it is easy for thoughts to get buried there, so I decided to elevate my response to the front page. Since this is a blog and I am a writer, not a journalist, I am not going to do the same to
In your self-described effort to follow climate science obsessively, did you begin with an existing position that environmentalism is bad and burning ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels is good?
I will freely admit that my preexisting lens may have provided me with a bias, but I started my reading in this topic with the position that nuclear energy is an incredibly powerful gift, that we should be good stewards of the land, water and air, and that remaining addicted to fossil fuels was a terribly unfair and destabilizing way to operate a global economy.
With those initial thoughts, I have come to the view that there is a real basis for concern about the growing rate at which we are dumping CO2 and other noxious waste products into our shared environment. I also believe that some far sighted and scientifically astute people like Alvin Weinberg and Hyman G. Rickover recognized the danger many decades ago. However, their proposed response of a shift from fossil fuel to emission-free nuclear energy – which is still the best available technology – tramped on the toes of the world’s most wealthy and politically powerful people.
The fossil fuel industry financed an effective campaign against nuclear energy starting in the 1960s by proxies who claimed to be concerned about “The Environment”. That was before very many others had awakened to the climate issue. The hydrocarbon marketers thought they had won a nearly complete victory in the US and Europe by the early 1990s.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the world experienced a growing recognition of climate change risks that was led by scientists who were not quite as far-sighted as Weinberg, but were still able to determine reality and trends. At that point, the petroleum branch of the fossil fuel industry saw worries about climate change as beneficial to their bottom line. It was a wonderful way to market methane (natural gas) which is, in many measures, inferior to liquid or solid fuel. It may be the cleanest fossil fuel, but it is also the most difficult (expensive) to store or transport from one place to another.
Throughout the 1990s the message was that we should worry about climate, but the response should be a profitable shift from coal to natural gas – with a growing LNG fleet to move it from massive “stranded” resource locations like Qatar or Australia to build upon the core competencies of the multinational fossil fuel industry. People in finance, media and politics that were already enamored with the fossil fuel industry thought of all kinds of new ways to profit from emphasizing real worries about CO2 (spreading panic), including carbon trading schemes and “renewable” energy subsidies.
That marketing campaign was so successful that the world economy bumped into physical limitations on the rate at which gas can be extracted and moved to market, driving the price so high that investors started to think again about nuclear energy. Nuclear technologists quietly told the world that if climate change is really the big worry, we have a tool that is a lot better than cutting coal emissions in half. (Way too many nukes have been indoctrinated in the marketing techniques of the silent service.)
Of course, nuclear energy still steps on the toes of that same wealthy and powerful group, but after years of high fossil fuel prices, they have even more resources with which to battle reality. Since about 2005 or so, we have been treated to an enormous onslaught of reality-denying ads and think-tank sponsored doubt campaigns, accompanied by continued efforts to market natural gas as a bridge to an unachievable, “renewable” utopia.
While you can find numerous individuals and groups that spread fear about both climate change and nuclear energy, my assumption is that they are either witting or unwitting fronts for the petroleum industry. Their real mission is selling natural gas and other hydrocarbons.
Even if they deny that and say they want a world powered by wind and solar, I maintain that is still code for saying that they want to sell natural gas. Anyone with any facility with numbers knows it is impossible to power much of the world economy with wind and solar. At best, a huge renewable effort would result in 5-30% of our electricity from solar and wind – leaving 70-95% of a very large market available for high priced (but “clean”) gas for as long as people can be sold the notion that nuclear is too hard, too expensive or too scary to use.
In discussions about energy supplies, climate change and ocean acidification, I count the following people as being on “my side”: Jim Hansen, Barry Brook, Stewart Brand, Patrick Moore, Rip Anderson, Ben Heard, Tom Blees, Gwyneth Cravens, Chris Uhlik, George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Robert Stone, Per Peterson, Bill Gates, Andrea Jenneta, Steve Aplin, Meredith Angwin, Suzy Hobbs-Baker, Kirk Sorensen, Charles Barton, and tens of thousands of others who are concerned about the long term effects of continuing to dump CO2 at an increasing rate AND who recognize that we have a terrific, but disruptive, tool with which to attack the problem.
In a similar discussion on a private email thread, there are several people who strongly assert that it is a bad idea for nuclear advocates to side with environmentalists and the IPCC and point out that nuclear energy is a powerful tool for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. The skeptics make the case that polls show that the public no longer cares and that the concerned side is losing. They say we should not align ourselves with the scientific consensus that there is something to worry about.
They claim that if we push our technology using zero CO2 as one of its marketing points, the public will turn against nuclear technology. In their opinion, the public is “tired” of hearing about the topic. These skeptics believe that nuclear fission has sufficient benefits to justify its use without pointing out that it is a zero emission power source.
My response to that line of discussion was more concise:
Puzzle me this – why do you think the petroleum industry uses concerns about climate change to market natural gas as “the cleanest fossil fuel” and as an effective way to reduce emissions?
On one private email list that is populated by pro nuclear advocates who want to learn more about using modern technology to better communicate about nuclear energy, the climate change/carbon dioxide topic became so toxic that it had to be banned from the list. As I have pointed out many times here, the nuclear industry has always included a large number of people who are agnostic about energy sources – they move easily between fossil fuel and nuclear technology.
Many of them have long standing grudges against “Environmentalists” and resist any suggestion that they should work together with people who honestly want to work towards clean water, clean air and unspoiled vistas. Many are diehard political conservatives who resist any notion that they should work with liberals – if Al Gore says anything, their natural tendency is to believe the opposite. Others have a fundamental belief that government is inherently bad and should be as small as possible.
I fully understand the view that burning hydrocarbons has been an enormous benefit to the development of modern human society and that burning fossil fuels is far superior to not having sufficient supplies of reliable power.
I hope that people understand that my own position is nuanced and conflicted; I have always burned a lot of fossil fuel. I have no intention of working to reduce my total energy consumption and no desire to tell anyone else that they should cut back. There is little motivation to sacrifice mobility, convenience or comfort. It goes against human nature; though many humans seem to love to tell other people that they should be sacrificing. I understand that there is a huge demand for power and that supplying that demand is a worthwhile endeavor.
However, I also recognize that there is a better way to provide reliable energy without many of the negative side effects of continuing to depend on hydrocarbons. Avoiding CO2 emissions is a good reason to work hard to deploy more nuclear reactors, but so it assuring plentiful energy, providing good jobs, enabling human creativity, pursing global prosperity and reducing the probability of resource wars. My bottom line is that I refuse to avoid using effective tools.