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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Californian) sent 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.
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