In 2004, when I was working at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I had an interesting email exchange with my fellow countryman and ardent climate change columnist, George Monbiot.
This was before he went to the dark side and became a nuclear power apologist. We were discussing climate skeptics and, as we did so, I began to think about their similarity to Holocaust deniers. I suggested to Monbiot that climate “denier” was a more apt term than “skeptic.” Monbiot ran with it. Today it’s in the lexicon.
But it’s time for a change. Because, as the revelations surrounding Exxon clearly illustrate, these “deniers” actually know better. Even Donald Trump, for all his repulsive policies and personality traits, is not necessarily stupid. He probably gets climate change. It’s just vaguely possible that even Ted Cruz and Ben Carson do, too. Which means none of them are really Climate Deniers. They, like Exxon, are Climate Liars.
This makes them worse than genuine skeptics because they are deliberately sabotaging the long-term survival of our planet for short-term gain. Some are doing this to win election to, or retain, public office. Others are simply lining their pockets, eager for the lavish handouts the fossil fuel industry is willing to make to stay alive and perpetuate the myth that it is relevant.
Whether lying or denying, dismissing climate change is a winning formula because the public has been fed a steady diet of misinformation about the urgency of global warming. More disturbingly, we are bombarded daily with news about truly inconsequential, often celebrity-driven gossip, or quotidian stories that are sensationalized into national dramas. These obliterate the opportunity to impart information of genuine significance. Instead, click bait and trivia have created an addiction to soft, rather than hard, news.
Meanwhile, the empirical facts languish like leftovers, of no interest to a fast-food consumer who prefers an easily digestible sound bite, even if it isn’t true. Politicians know this and latch onto the messaging that will serve their ends, regardless of the veracity factor.
Mired in this melange of myths is nuclear energy. Its spokespeople include a handful of misguided climate scientists like James Hansen who should know better but are pushing nuclear anyway as a climate change solution. Just before the recent violent events in Paris, Hansen was promoting a press conference he planned to hold there during the upcoming COP 21 (Conference of Parties) climate talks. Although COP is still going ahead, it’s not yet clear how many, if any, of the side events will.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the ravages of climate change are now a present crisis rather than a distant threat, the Hansen crowd will be unrelenting in their promotion of nuclear energy. This has historically stifled progress on climate change, and will continue to do so.
Are Hansen and his followers nuclear deniers, or actually nuclear liars? It’s hard to know. Hansen has refused to debate us or answer the obvious flaws in his thesis — such as the fact that nuclear energy cannot possibly come on line in time or in sufficient capacity to address climate change.
Hansen’s press releases and public statements tend toward rhetorical over-reaching and even insults. This has become a favorite pastime of the nuclear power panderers, catering once more to the easy sell and quick snicker at the opposition’s expense. Thus, Hansen, with all his lofty NASA credentials, has stooped to calling on donors to pull funds from green groups that oppose nuclear energy. He even mocks solicitation requests that are “doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear.” Such cheap shots seem unworthy of a man who professes to represent serious science and uses his august curriculum vitae as a door-opening calling card.
Rectifying this problem is no easy task. For one thing, blasting people with the truth about nuclear power doesn’t always work. It is too technical, too complicated, too wonky and too grim. Try telling someone about the dangerous state of a nuclear reactor drywell liner. It’s a problem that could lead to disaster, cost people their lives and livelihoods, and force permanent evacuation. But as a piece of messaging, it is dead on arrival compared to the “safe, clean and reliable” misleading mantra adopted by the pro-nuclear cronies.
The dialogue has to change, and obviously, though fun and even effective, name calling, like “climate liars,” isn’t the answer either. Or at least, it isn’t an answer. What we must do is stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. taxpayer dollars funding further, futile attempts to build a better nuclear mousetrap.
Like the billions spent on bombing raids that create more terror rather than eradicating terrorism, the never-ending flow of dollars toward the illusory phantom of a so-called “next generation” nuclear reactor is a failed strategy. Such nuclear reactors have been “in progress” for decades and will likely never arrive in time for climate change, if at all. They have demonstrated no strong likelihood that they will even work or ever be safe and will simply swallow up precious dollars and time that we cannot afford to waste.
For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a “next generation” favorite, the Small Modular Reactor (SMR), since the 1990s. Today, there are still no SMRs in operation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a single license application.
Climate disruption is adding to the terrible strife in our world. Another nuclear disaster would destabilize the globe even more. Things could not be more urgent. Like terrorism, nuclear energy delivers fear and tragedy. From leukemia clusters to meltdowns; the environmental racism of uranium mining to the exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima; we live in the perpetual shadow of disaster as long as nuclear power continues.
As everyone from Hansen to Huckabee doubtless knows, there are other ways forward. They need look no further than the empirical evidence found in the 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, where we see nuclear energy continuing to stagnate and even decline while wind and solar energy soar globally. It’s time to follow the example of Germany and take nuclear power out of the energy equation. Continued nuclear irresponsibility will have only one, tragic outcome; allowing the climate crisis to slip beyond the point of no return.