Where do environmentalists get their analyses?

Two people separately sent me this from an interview with Frances Beinecke, incoming head of Natural Resources Defense Council:

You didn’t mention nuclear. There have been calls by some in the environmental movement to rethink opposition to nuclear power, in light of the greater threat posed by greenhouse gases. Do you agree?

We’ve looked at nuclear, but we continue to think it has serious problems. One is economic. If nuclear power could compete in the marketplace without major subsidies from Congress, it would be an interesting thing to look at. But that’s not what the industry is proposing. And the waste problem is not solved. We haven’t figured out what to do with the waste. Until they do that and can compete economically, we don’t think it’s a major part of the equation.

But you’re not suggesting that we hold, say, solar power to the same standard of competing economically without subsidies, are you?

Solar power is a new source. We think subsidies or assistance from the federal government should go to the new technologies that need to come to the market. Nuclear has been around for a long time. When you and I were in college, it was going to be the key to the future, but it hasn’t turned out that way.

While I look at what environmental groups say primarily to see how well public understanding tracks scientific understanding, many consider environmental groups to be a good source of information.

There seem to me to be three ways NRDC and other groups get information: find out what those with the best understanding are saying, misunderstand the same, or make up ideas out of thin air. To those who read environmental groups for your information, how do you distinguish among these possibilities?

My own particular rule, based on years of reading environmentalists, is that environmental groups are much better at addressing our behavior and the result of our behavior, than at addressing what “they” do. Attacking what “they” do yields big bucks, and failure to attack what “they” do will probably lose subscribers. If NRDC were to look into nuclear power in more detail and decide that they are wasting everyone’s time in attacking it, enthusiasts will contribute more money next year to competitor organizations.

I’m a numbers person, and I notice that Beinecke doesn’t compare the numbers she expects to die from the “unsolved problem” of nuclear waste with the numbers who might die from the unsolved problems of fossil-fuel waste. Since about two million Americans have died since Three Mile Island from fossil-fuel waste (just the particulates, not counting carbon, NOx, sulfates, ozone, mercury and other heavy metals) according to NRDC’s own figures, that’s a pretty large omission.

Beinecke, and pretty much everyone, follows claims that nuclear power is non-competitive with calls for solar, but it is possible that solar power will never be able to compete economically against coal sans subsidies or carbon or pollution taxes. Coal’s high costs (and that of oil) should be internalized, we pay enormously in terms of agriculture, health, and the lives of many humans and species. Internalizing the high costs of fossil fuels will make less-polluting and lower carbon energy sources, including both nuclear and solar, more attractive. No one in energy policy recommends that solar should ever need to hold it’s economic own against coal plants allowed to belch carbon and pollutants into the atmosphere, and it’s bad for the health of people and the Earth to insist that nuclear should. That said, the subsidies offered nuclear power are meant to protect the first three nuclear power plants against potentially high costs of Nuclear Regulatory Commission adding regulations during or after construction. Once NRC has finalized its rules, nuclear power plants are expected to compete without subsidies.

Perhaps a quarter of the public, particularly people who remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, is attached to opposing nuclear power. This attachment is neither healthy for us nor the Earth. First, it allows us to put ourselves into the “good guys” camp without actually doing anything good. Secondly, people have died from our focus on nuclear power. Something like a hundred or more coal power plants are being planned in the US, and public opposition to nuclear power and Yucca Mountain is part of the reason. People have died, and will continue to die, from coal power. Entire species, great numbers of species, are expected to go extinct in the next few decades due to climate change.

Environmental groups make their biggest contributions when they find ways to get us to examine our individual behavior, when they find ways to communicate the science. Pretty much everyone I’ve sent to the IPCC Summaries for Policymakers tells me these are too difficult to understand, and so simpler explanations are helpful. But environmental groups are part of the problem when they oppose the conclusions of the people who have studied the issues. They oppose nuclear power without explanations (nuclear waste is not an explanation), and reinforce the do-nothing attitude of Americans.

If we are to limit atmospheric carbon to 400 ppm (pdf), as is recommended by the International Climate Change Taskforce, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 70%, to the amount the oceans absorb, over a period of 20 years or so (if we start today). In the US, the reduction needs to be 90% or even more, over the next 20 years, as population and per capita consumption increase.

Focusing on nuclear power distracts us from the work we need to do.

One Response to “Where do environmentalists get their analyses?”

  1. Rebekah says:

    I wanted to clarify that I do not find IPCC intellectually challenging to read but that it is in some form of dry lawyer speak. It is tedious to bog through.