NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

Book Review: We can still make “A Bright Future” with nuclear energy

I’m writ­ing on a day when SeaT­ac had a high tem­per­a­ture ten degrees hot­ter than the pre­vi­ous record.

Smoky Seattle summer

North Seat­tle, sum­mer 2018 | David A John­son

Sum­mer — our brief respite of full, sun­ny days and clear-crys­tal weath­er for which we endure our nigh-year pur­ga­to­ry of ever-driz­zle and after­noon sun­sets — had still not offi­cial­ly arrived at the time this review was writ­ten.

We can hope this sea­son will squeeze in some few nice days pre­cious amid the ash-gray haze of Pacif­ic North­west for­est fires that turns the high-sky sun into a cigarette’s cher­ry. We’re told this is the new nor­mal, but it could be worse. And it will be.

It is, I promise, worse than you think.”

The New York Mag­a­zine piece “The Unin­hab­it­able Earth” by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist David Wal­lace-Wells from 2017 goes on:

If your anx­i­ety about glob­al warm­ing is dom­i­nat­ed by fears of sea-lev­el rise, you are bare­ly scratch­ing the sur­face of what ter­rors are pos­si­ble, even with­in the life­time of a teenag­er today.

Wal­lace-Wells details what heat­ing the whole world by degrees real­ly means, the sort of cat­a­stro­phe a rise of four degrees Cel­sius caus­es every­where and how ten degrees makes vast por­tions utter­ly unliv­able from the direct heat — let alone crop fail­ure, flood­ing, and extreme events that will become com­mon enough just to be called “weath­er”.

The UN Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) deter­mined in its Fifth Assess­ment Report that:

lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reach­ing” tran­si­tions in land, ener­gy, indus­try, build­ings, trans­port, and cities. Glob­al net human-caused emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per­cent from 2010 lev­els by 2030, reach­ing ‘net zero’ around 2050.

This means that any remain­ing emis­sions would need to be bal­anced by remov­ing CO2 from the air.

Glob­al ener­gy con­sump­tion con­tin­ues to grow, and though renew­able sources are grow­ing quick­ly by per­cent­age, they rep­re­sent lit­tle over­all.

In BP’s Sta­tis­ti­cal Review of World Ener­gy 2018 (pdf), they deter­mined:

Oil remains the world’s dom­i­nant fuel, mak­ing up just over a third of all ener­gy con­sumed. In 2017 oil’s mar­ket share declined slight­ly, fol­low­ing two years of growth. Coal’s mar­ket share fell to 27.6%, the low­est lev­el since 2004. Nat­ur­al gas account­ed for a record 23.4% of glob­al pri­ma­ry ener­gy con­sump­tion, while renew­able pow­er hit a new high of 3.6%.

The mass extinc­tion we are now liv­ing through has only just begun; so much more dying is com­ing,” Wal­lace-Wells writes.

Amer­i­can poet Roy Scran­ton in 2013 wrote “Learn­ing How to Die in the Anthro­pocene”, to the pur­pose of get­ting peo­ple ready for that:

The biggest prob­lem we face is a philo­soph­i­cal one: under­stand­ing that this civ­i­liza­tion is already dead. The soon­er we con­front this prob­lem, and the soon­er we real­ize there’s noth­ing we can do to save our­selves, the soon­er we can get down to the hard work of adapt­ing, with mor­tal humil­i­ty, to our new real­i­ty.

But Scran­ton is an opti­mist. He thinks we’re all going to die. I think that is rosy. I think bil­lion­aires are work­ing very hard to ensure they can get off the plan­et or into New Zealand bunkers quick­ly. I think the peo­ple most respon­si­ble for the extinc­tion of charis­mat­ic life and rec­og­niz­able human cul­ture have a fair chance at suc­ceed­ing in their attempt to sur­vive it and tell their descen­dants that our deaths were a sac­ri­fice that was nec­es­sary.

Anthro­po­mor­phic mass extinc­tion was good, actu­al­ly.”

Anatom­i­cal­ly mod­ern humans may not be able to sur­vive a future 7 or 10 degrees hot­ter, but who says future humans will be anatom­i­cal­ly mod­ern? The first peo­ple to have access to CRISPR, and the first to have access to every fur­ther refine­ment of it, will be the very wealth­i­est. I don’t think ratio­nal self-inter­est will moti­vate those dri­ving the cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe to stop and save any of the rest of us.

Scran­ton says we need to take deep breaths and pre­pare to die. I think that’s putting on the oxy­gen masks for the impend­ing crash while the drunk pilots para­chute out to safe­ty.

If you think cli­mate change is a seri­ous prob­lem, we have bad news: it’s worse than you think.”

So, that’s the start, prop­er, to A Bright Future by pro­fes­sor Joshua S. Gold­stein and Swedish engi­neer Staffan A. Qvist.

They large­ly agree in premise with those arti­cles, but Gold­stein and Qvist argue the sin­gle most impor­tant thing we could do to mit­i­gate and give us a chance at avert­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is to first make nuclear pow­er our replace­ment for all fos­sil fuel around the world as it relates to elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, then uti­lize sustainable/renewable/clean tech­nol­o­gy to wean our­selves off nuclear after.

Sub­ti­tled “How Some Coun­tries Have Solved Cli­mate Change and the Rest Can Fol­low”, their book is an explic­it rebut­tal to the horse­shoe nihilism of the fur­thest tips on the left and the right. On the left, this nihilism tends to be exem­pli­fied by a sort of total­iz­ing, numb­ing depres­sion.

Why have chil­dren and bring a new life in a world like this? Why quit drink­ing? Why stop smok­ing cig­a­rettes? Why go on? It’s par­a­lyz­ing.

On the right, of course, it’s even dark­er.

When the com­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is admit­ted at all, the rem­e­dy is to say, “Well, the plan­et is already ruined. The impor­tant thing now is to mit­i­gate the effects.

And for them, that means plan­ning how to round up (and, ulti­mate­ly, to exter­mi­nate) the refugees who’ll be flee­ing coun­tries more affect­ed than our own.

One of the push fac­tors in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca right now seems to be how glob­al warm­ing is affect­ing agri­cul­tur­al yields there. So we’re already in the mid­dle of it, already on that path, and we have to get start­ed mak­ing our total emis­sions bet­ter rather than just less-worse, as is the cur­rent goal.

In the book, the authors first sneak their case for nuclear ener­gy in by com­par­ing Germany’s reliance on burn­ing coal to Sweden’s investi­ture in kärnkraft, which is framed as a proven cost-effec­tive ener­gy source that can pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty steadi­ly, day and night, gale or breeze­less.

Swe­den gets about 40 per­cent of its elec­tric­i­ty from this source.

[K]ärnkraft pro­vides one-fifth of all the elec­tric­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, and two-thirds of its “clean” car­bon-free elec­tric­i­ty. Like, in Swe­den, nobody has died… almost no car­bon has been emit­ted, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives have been saved com­pared with burn­ing coal…

But it comes from nuclear ener­gy, so it’s icky, and we’d rather try any­thing else or at least claim we’re will­ing to.

Look: I, too, watched the “Cher­nobyl” minis­eries. Radi­a­tion poi­son­ing is scary.

But so is black lung, and that killed between 19,000 and 35,600 peo­ple as recent­ly as 2013.

Coal kills the min­ers doing the work imme­di­ate­ly and from long-term expo­sure; it kills oth­ers from expo­sure to par­tic­u­lates in their lungs; and it’s killing the envi­ron­ment we and most of human­i­ty have adapt­ed to ever-so-grad­u­al­ly by rapid­ly releas­ing CO2 cred­it­ed to our plan­et dur­ing the Car­bonif­er­ous Peri­od, when noth­ing had yet evolved to eat the trees pulling car­bon out of the atmos­phere.

In West Texas, they just flare off enough nat­ur­al gas to pow­er every home in the state, burn­ing it to no pur­pose except to add to the ambi­ent air pol­lu­tion that kills a few mil­lion peo­ple glob­al­ly each year.

A gas flare burns bright on a production site northeast of Andrews, Texas.

A gas flare burns bright on a pro­duc­tion site north­east of Andrews, Texas. (Jerod Fos­ter for The Texas Tri­bune)

Even if you’re wor­ried about ruin­ing water sources, well, hydraulic frac­tur­ing is pret­ty good at that, and we’re doing a hell of a lot of frack­ing to get at and squeeze out pre­vi­ous­ly uneco­nom­ic oil deposits right now. I quot­ed British Petro­le­um up above: it would be nice if the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill in the Gulf of Mex­i­co had result­ed in any­where near the skit­tish­ness toward con­tin­ued oil pro­duc­tion that the next year’s Fukushi­ma Dai­ichi dis­as­ter in Japan had toward nuclear ener­gy pro­duc­tion.

For those on the right will­ing to acknowl­edge anthro­po­mor­phic glob­al warm­ing at all, the plan seems to be to avoid Actu­al Machine tech­nol­o­gy and kick the can down the road in the hopes some Fan­ci­ful Mag­ic tech­nol­o­gy actu­al­ly pans out, like block­ing out more of the sun in the upper atmos­phere, with­out cre­at­ing worse prob­lems, like block­ing out too much of the sun in the upper atmos­phere.

It’s cer­tain­ly true, though, that envi­ron­men­tal­ism is sus­cep­ti­ble to the same sort of FM prej­u­dices as oth­er areas influ­enced by tech­nol­o­gy (that is, all of them).

Goldstein’s and Qvist’s book per­haps places too much blame on Green­peace and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal groups for being respon­si­ble for the cur­rent cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe and con­tin­ued CO2 emis­sions. With the nar­row excep­tion of the Unit­ed States Green Party’s elec­toral strate­gies in 2000 and 2016, I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe that lev­el of poten­cy to the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly in com­par­i­son to the coal, oil, and methane indus­tries.

If Green­peace were capa­ble of get­ting any­thing the fos­sil fuel indus­try didn’t already want them to have, the world would look very dif­fer­ent indeed.

So it’s not that solar or wind ener­gy don’t have a place in the future but that they aren’t a panacea to the present and have seri­ous, intrin­sic short­com­ings.

Wind and solar can’t pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty con­sis­tent­ly or in response to demand, and we don’t yet have the bat­tery capac­i­ty to take advan­tage of their “too much” to store when we have “not enough”.

Qvist and Gold­stein also point out that, again, as Actu­al Machines, there are actu­al envi­ron­men­tal trade-offs involved in pro­duc­ing, main­tain­ing, and decom­mis­sion­ing wind tur­bines and solar pan­els. Those don’t make them net neg­a­tives, but it does mean they have to be eval­u­at­ed as cost-ben­e­fit rather than only ben­e­fit. Part of nuclear energy’s rel­a­tive cost­li­ness and unat­trac­tive­ness is that neg­a­tives like waste and secu­ri­ty are already priced in.

The anal­o­gy the authors make between the com­ing glob­al cli­mat­ic hor­rors and an approach­ing aster­oid is good enough to be worth adding to the pro­gres­sive lex­i­con. That is how earth-shat­ter­ing what’s up ahead will be.

To extend the anal­o­gy fur­ther than intend­ed, sup­pose we could cal­cu­late where the aster­oid would strike, exact­ly: Would that be a rea­son­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for those of us in oth­er places to ignore it?

Would it be rea­son­able and eco­nom­i­cal to plan how to turn away and oth­er­wise deal with the refugees that might try to flee their impend­ing deaths?

Would it be rea­son­able to dither over pos­si­ble envi­ron­men­tal dam­age our launch­es into space might one day cause?

(If the anal­o­gy were clos­er to true, of course, then Anglo-Amer­i­can Empires would have been the ones to fling the aster­oid into space in the first place.)

At present, we have a tech­nol­o­gy that is good enough to pro­vide the vast major­i­ty of our pow­er grid’s ener­gy.

If we con­tin­ue to shift to elec­tric and hybrid vehi­cles, the effect on our emis­sions can be even greater because it would impact trans­porta­tion.

But that still leaves the fifty-one per­cent of ener­gy, glob­al­ly, used in cool­ing and — more crit­i­cal­ly — heat­ing.

So, in my view (NPI does­n’t sup­port con­struct­ing new nuclear pow­er infra­struc­ture), we need to use nuclear ener­gy every place we cur­rent­ly can and build more to make sure our capac­i­ty to non-fos­sil fuel ener­gy is high­er.

Our plan­et isn’t dying, but some small num­ber of folks are killing the charis­mat­ic megafau­na on it at an alarm­ing rate. Humans are fair­ly charis­mat­ic.

I’d like to see us sur­vive. (And kit­tens and dol­phins and corvids, too.)

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