The recently published commentary from Naomi Oreskes, in which she criticises the pro-nuclear position of Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen and Tom Wigley,  bears the hallmarks of classic denialist writing. While some on the right deny the reality of climate change, Oreskes has cherry picked an outlier first-world example to obscure the sobering truth of the trajectory of global electricity demand. Rather than acknowledging the urgency of our predicament, the response proposes further delay on action. We need commentators with the courage and the smarts to accommodate the entirety of the truth of our predicament, no matter how overwhelming, and lead us from there to real solutions. 

In a response published to the New York Times (We need a new Manhattan Project November 14, 2013), science historian and author Naomi Oreskes dismisses the call from leading climate scientists Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen and Tom Wigley for the environmental movement to support the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy. Inferring these scientists failed to do their homework in forming this position, the response carries the stylistic hallmarks of blind ideology and structural blueprint of denialist writing. Coming from the author of Merchants of Doubt it’s a deeply disappointing irony.

The author reveals an ideological position by opening the response with a play straight out of the anti-nuclear handbook: take your nation and, on the back of ill-founded generalisations, draw lines all over it to show where nuclear power plants can’t be placed. In little more than a paragraph, most the landmass of the lower 48 states of the US has been ruled ill-suited to nuclear power.

That conclusion is open to question. The United States already has 100 operational reactors running at 90% capacity factor in all the areas Oreskes rules out. By the reasoning given, none of these plants should be there. This would deprive the US of around 800 TWh of clean electricity, 19% of total US consumption. It is unfathomable that this line of argument could originate from someone presuming to speak with sincerity to the notion of climate change as an urgent problem.

One hundred operating reactors say you're wrong
One hundred operating reactors say you’re wrong

Yet Oreskes also dismisses a key foundational truth of the scientists’ letter, being the substantial growth to come in global energy demand. Instead the response informs readers “per capita electricity use in California has been nearly flat since the 1970s, so economic growth does not have to be tied to energy growth”.

Anyone should think twice before applying the per capita electricity use of California as some evidential benchmark against the presumption of broader growth in electricity demand. This demands scrutiny beyond the simplistic.

The truth and not the whole truth about electricity in California
The truth and not the whole truth about electricity in California. Source: Data as shown, from the California Energy Almanac


Among today’s 7.1 billion people electricity consumption averages about 3,000 kWh per person, though over one and a half billion people use none at all. California’s per capita electricity consumption moves around 7,000 kWh per year, less than the USA overall, Australia or Canada. It’s around the level of Western Europe and much higher than the UK. It’s over twice as high as China, 11 times higher than India, and 51 times greater than Nigeria with its 170 million people and 7% per annum economic growth. There can be no serious contention that California’s 7,000 kWh per person, steady or not, is an example of how global electricity use will not grow.  The constraint of per capita electricity consumption may provide a useful example to other economies at the very top end of the consumption ladder. Otherwise it provides insight into just how massive we might expect global electricity consumption to one day become.

Comparitive per capita consumption
Source: Google Public Data. Click on the image to go to the tool and play around

If everyone somehow met around the middle at 4,000 kWh per person by 2050 (a 30-fold improvement for the average Nigerian), what would we have? Aside from an unprecedented feat of conservation, development, and global equity we would have a doubling in global electricity consumption from 2012 levels. If everyone met at Californian consumption levels, which I expect would please the global poor and Californians alike, we would need three-and-a-half times the electricity being provided today.

Even in California we see growing total consumption, with forecasts of further growth. This growth is not even modest, it’s pronounced. Total consumption will shortly have doubled since 1980.

Electricity consumption in California is growing. Click on the image to read the report
Electricity consumption in California is growing. Click on the image to read the report

Then consider that greenhouse gas emissions from Californian electricity recently took a step change for the worse on the back of declining hydroelectric output and most importantly, the early closure the 2,200 MW San Onofre nuclear plant. This is just the type of experience that underpins the argument put forward by the climate scientists when they say “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”. It is doubtful Oreskes was intending to argue for growing total consumption and dirtier electricity. Had she dug a little further, that’s what she would have found.

The reality of the loss of nuclear generating capacity
The reality of the loss of nuclear generating capacity

This commentary demonstrates uncritical selection of an outlying regional example, deprived of essential context, being applied to contest the consensus findings of the relevant experts examining a global issue. If that’s all starting to sound eerily familiar, that’s because in climate change circles we call it denial. Oreskes should know. She wrote the book. As Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus recently said:

This is the basic math of the global climate and energy situation, and is the reason that James Hansen and his colleagues, who have long been closely aligned with the environmental movement, felt the need to call out their erstwhile allies for practicing their own peculiar brand of climate denial.

So the suggestion that the scientists are minimising the social aspects of nuclear power acceptance with arguments “built on the presumption that emotions are an illegitimate basis for decision-making” is just galling. The scientists are not ignoring these realities. They are calling for the environmental movement to make the challenge easier through public acknowledgement of the scale of the energy challenge and the essential role of advanced nuclear. To be fighting uphill against complacent, lazy, outdated and out rightly vexatious misinformation from nuclear opponents, in the guise of environmentalism, is unacceptable. Visionary talk from Oreskes of needing a “new Manhattan Project” is little more than a rhetorical salve for those who prefer continued delay until the specific solutions they favour are good and ready.  Whether that has any realistic relationship with climate change seems not to matter. That type of thinking is not good enough and will drive us to climate ruin.

Our time is running short. We must challenge this right to deny wherever we find it, be it cherry picking short-term temperature trends to dismiss the IPCC or cherry picking regional per capita electricity trends dismiss the IEA. Both organisations have a sobering reality to impart. We need commentators with the courage and the smarts to accommodate the entirety of the truth of our predicament, no matter how overwhelming, and lead us from there to real solutions. For this, the climate scientist authors of the letter are to be congratulated.

A first step to winning broader trust and consensus for tough action on climate change should be obvious. Be better than the other folks. Don’t impersonate them.


After reading this piece, Tom Blees (author of the now seminal Prescription for the Planet and bona fide Californiansent me the following article. It makes fascinating further reading and illustrates , as an extension to the above article, how simplistic platitudes about local phenomenon make exceedingly poor argument for climate and energy policy. Here is a passage:

A dirty secret about California’s energy economy is that it imports lots of energy from neighboring states to make up for the shortfall caused by having too few power plants. Up to 20 percent of the state’s power comes from coal-burning plants in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Montana, and another significant portion comes from large-scale hydropower in Oregon, Washington State, and the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. “California practices a sort of energy colonialism,” says James Lucier of Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington, D.C.–area investment group. “They rely on western states to supply them with power generation they are unwilling to build for themselves”—and leave those states to deal with the resulting pollution.

Another secret: California’s proud claim to have kept per-capita energy consumption flat while growing its economy is less impressive than it seems. The state has some of the highest energy prices in the country—nearly twice the national average, a 2002 Milken Institute study found—largely because of regulations and government mandates to use expensive renewable sources of power. As a result, heavy manufacturing and other energy-intensive industries have been fleeing the Golden State in droves for lower-cost locales. Twenty years ago or so, you could count eight automobile factories in California; today, there’s just one, and it’s the same story with other industries, from chemicals to aerospace. Yet Californians still enjoy the fruits of those manufacturing industries—driving cars built in the Midwest and the South, importing chemicals and resins and paints and plastics produced elsewhere, and flying on jumbo jets manufactured in places like Everett, Washington. California can pretend to have controlled energy consumption, but it has just displaced it.

Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options

Naomi Oreskes delivers an admirable smackdown of Australian Senator Nick Minchin


  1. Oreskes has a SA connection with the geology of Olympic Dam. See the first two ‘selected papers’ in the publications list in

    When things go bad the knives will be out for nuclear obstructionists. They think they are on a moral high horse not grasping they are part of the problem not part of the solution. The danger when scientists from a particular field say ill considered things about human energy issues they can undermine the credibility of their other work. Steven Hawking says we should all move to Mars with the moral judgement omitted. That’s more like it.

    1. “The danger when scientists from a particular field say ill considered things about human energy issues they can undermine the credibility of their other work.”

      That’s why I included that great video at the end. I really admire what she achieved with Merchants of Doubt. I hope she has the fortitude to take this on the chin and come back with a more considered position. It would have been nice to just pass this through privately, however those days are gone. The climate scientists have been doing that for a while now with no result. It’s time to genuinely sort those with the courage from the crowd. I don’t know anyone who changed their mind on nuclear who did not experience a great deal of discomfort from the process.

  2. > “bears the hallmarks of classic denialist writing.”

    Oreskes is professional and civil. Like a typical pro-nuker you offer insults. This is typical behavior of pro-nukers because at some level they know their arguments do not stand up on their own.

    But no matter how many insults the nuke fan boys throw around in blog posts at anyone who offers cogent arguments against the technology, the fact remains that nukes are in global decline due to failed economics. Denial of this fact is the true blind, ideological position in this debate.

    The longer the pro-nukers ignore and deny reality the more irrational and desperate they look. In fact, the nuke fan club now looks more like a religious cult than a rational position on energy decarbonization.

    1. Well actually I half agree. In more private markets the economics of nuclear absolutely suck. Of course it’s the same but worse when you try to do renewables at anything like that scale. I am very pleased to see this getting more attention as a serious area of discussion now that most of stupid arguments have been pretty much dealt with.

      In many other parts of the world of course nuclear is doing very well, where the long term value is recognized above the short term economic hump.

      The UK seems to have found a formula to attract investment in new nuclear, and one that will apply right across renewable technologies too. I’m watching that with interest.

      I’m supportive of renewables and scathing of those maintaining the fantasy that they will be enough.

    2. I don’t think I insulted Naomi. I think her piece was awful, I think she deployed several of the tactics used by climate deniers and I pointed this out, and I’m deeply disappointed. I like(d?) and respect(ed?) her a great deal, her book sits proud on my shelf and I just love that video of her with Nick Minchin. That’s why I jumped to read her piece in the first place and that’s why I’m so shocked with what I found. My critique is sound.

    3. >”the fact remains that nukes are in global decline”

      “Luis Echavarri, director general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, told the World Energy Congress that a survey by the intergovernmental organisation of industrialised nations found that 25 of its 34 member nations planned to build more nuclear power plants.”

      Nuclear is not going away because there is nothing else that has the same functionality with the intrinsic attribute of capability to scale.

  3. > “drive us to climate ruin.”

    Another example of the clueless hypocrisy of the average nuke fan. One moment they are smearing the anti-nuke argument as “scare-mongering!!!”, the next they are claiming certain disaster if they aren’t allowed to have their nukes.

    But none of these nasty pro-nuke tactics are doing anything to change the simple reality that nukes cannot compete in an open economic market, whereas clean energy is growing every day at a massive rate as costs continue to fall.

    Anyone genuinely concerned about climate change mitigation needs to get behind the winners and not a failed, 20th century technology.

    1. So, that’s twice. This is basically an issue of economics for you? Ok, good.

      As to climate ruin, yes. I am very, very concerned. It’s a real threat. Why else would the scientists write that letter? I don’t regard it as fearmongering if it’s true! 4+ degrees by end of century is catastrophic.

    2. Hey, looks like you also “offer insults” just like the “typical pro-nuker” you go out of your way to denounce. What does that make you?

      You should try to work out what your logical fallacy is, I’m not going to bother helping you there. It might allow you to start contributing with calm, supportable arguments in the future.

  4. I expect the rapid growth of wind and solar to level out as subsidy fatigue sets in and prime sites near transmission are used up. For PV the payback period is now quite long with feed-in tariffs dropping to wholesale levels, For wind power over 100 MW new sites require difficult transmission such as underwater cables. Then in the period 2020-2030 many baseload power stations will need replacing. As gas will be expensive it’s either coal or nukes.

    The fact remains in most countries (soon including Australia) coal can dump its waste products for free and renewables get guaranteed market share. That means an alternative technology (say hamsters on treadmills) gets crowded out. Hardly seems fair.

  5. About the Californian example of energy conservation compared to the rest of the US, I think it is interesting to read this from Vox-eu:
    The author conludes that there is no californian exceptionnalism. Instead, the difference with the rest of the US is explained by more mundane factors, such as the climate of other parts of the country, population moves, size of the households, etc. The fact that the rest of the US has adopted energy efficiency standards too also explains why California is not so exceptional.

    The call for more research and innovation is also often made as an alternative to action, but you are right to insist that given the time needed for a new technology to spread in the energy sector, we should start with what is available now, if we want to have a good chance to limit the damage to the climate.

  6. I think we need to see through green tragics who wear their heart on their sleeve and instead pay attention to green pragmatists who offer practical solutions. The former group not only includes Oreskes but some of the sincere folks at the Warsaw climate conference. I see they are promoting questionable carbon offsets which I believe are a scam, either misconceived or fraudulent. Ben gave an example some time ago

    I think green tragics should re-examine their beliefs or risk becoming irrelevant.

  7. Calls for “a new Manhattan Project” have grown so repetitive as to become meaningless. The analogy fails on many fronts, not least of which is the fact that most such misuses of the analogy—as in Oreskes’ case—call for a government commitment for R&D on a vast array of disparate technologies. The Manhattan Project was, to the contrary, a focused effort on one single technology. The fact that so many anti-nuclear folks call upon the analogy is truly ironic, since nuclear fission is what the project was all about, and it led ultimately to the birth of nuclear power as a civilian energy source that could easily provide all the energy that humanity desires, even by itself. In other words, we already did the Manhattan Project and it led to a solution, just one that anti-nuclear ideologues find unacceptable.

    Of course it’s often argued that fission isn’t capable of providing all the energy humanity wants because we’ll run out of fuel. While that is unsupported by the facts, it is certainly unsupportable when one considers the very real prospect of using fast reactors that could provide all that energy for hundreds of years with fuel already out of the ground. No Manhattan Project needed, thank you very much.

    Pouring vast amounts of public funds into unfocused R&D rather than deploying what we already know will work is a recipe for continued delay and wastes both money and time. And time is the thing that we’re actually running out of, not uranium.

  8. As a former SA person I have plenty of opinions, the key one being that the place needs a kick start in a new direction. Young relatives tell me they are leaving Adelaide for jobs interstate. It looks like car manufacturing is doomed while defence contracts will run out in a couple of years. It’s a bit of worry that the gas price is set to double with 45% of SA electricity generated by gas. Meanwhile sideshows continue such as the Pt Augusta solar thermal boost for coal or the taxpayer funded Rolling Stones concert.

    In my opinion that change of direction could be something like a SMR/desal on the SA west coast. The customers would include Olympic Dam mine and many other fledgling projects as well as freeing up summer power for Adelaide. Where I live now in Tassie the fact 87% of electricity is low carbon will only last until the next El Nino when we’ll import power from the mainland. If would be better if that power had more nuclear and less coal in the mix.

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