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Nuclear Energy, Climate Change, and the Fission of the Environmental Movement

What They Used to Say
What They're Saying Now
Not Every One is Saying It
References & Links

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Laura Bartolomei-Hill

What They're Saying Now

In the context of climate change, several influential environmental organizations are rethinking their long-held positions on nuclear energy. They come from a variety of positions, but their arguments all center on the viability of nuclear energy as a tool for achieving carbon neutrality. In this section, I will examine three prominent figures who represent three different arguments in favor of nuclear energy, all of which are centered around reframing the technology as a solution to climate change. Prominent environmental thinker (and proponent of the Gaia hypothesis) James Lovelock, former Greenpeace-USA Director Stephen Tindale, and President Barack Obama are just three figures that have publicly spoken on behalf of nuclear energy within the past decade. Each presents a slightly different argument, but their controversial views are directly in opposition with what environmental activists were arguing thirty years ago. Lovelock argues that nuclear is the only solution to climate change, the most serious threat the world is facing right now. Tindale believes that the threat of nuclear waste, which he once believed was dangerous now pales in comparison with climate change. Finally, President Obama has perhaps offered the most substantive support – he has pledged $545 billion to build nuclear reactors. Many believe it is because he is trying to garner support from moderate and conservative members of the Senate for the climate bill which is languishing in congress right now. All three enthusiastically support nuclear energy because they view it as the primary viable solution to climate change, not because they have invalidated their prior concerns. Perhaps what strikes me most all of their arguments is the degree to which they blame other environmental groups for stalling the nuclear energy, and thus for worsening climate change.

James Lovelock was one of the first prominent figures of the 1980s environmental movement to embrace nuclear energy. He is a prolific writer and his central contribution to environmental philosophy was the concept of “Gaia,” a hypothesis that envisions the world as a single living, breathing organism. He opens a 2004 opinion piece in the Independent with a graphic description of and summary of climate change. His work follows the usual environmental activist-journalistic methodology: remind us how terrible global warming will make the Earth, why our current energy system is failing, and then present the solution. He describes the usual stuff – melting icecaps, rising sea levels, and carbon dioxide. He closes his description with a desperate conclusion, “Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act.” After taking us through the horrifying realities that global warming will bring, Lovelock profiles the various types of energy including coal and natural gas. About natural gas, he says, “even a small leakage would neutralise the advantage of gas,” which is eerily similar to the anti-nuclear rhetoric. Finally, Lovelock emphasizes that major environmental players need to turn to nuclear energy as the solution. He believes that environmental groups are engaging in a Hollywood-style fear campaign that is irrational and counterproductive. Major environmental groups, he says, “should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth.” His arguments not only prey on fears of the consequences of climate change, but he blames environmental groups themselves for blockading industry efforts to fix the problem they made in the first place[1]. Lovelock not only proposes a more centralized approach to energy production, he also believes that only swift and top-down decision-making can effectively stymie the worst impacts of climate change. This year, Lovelock told the Guardian that "I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while." The centralization of technology, energy production, and investment that nuclear power represents would also bring a change in process, limiting the number of voices heard in this incredibly contentious debate.[2]

            Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace takes a similar stance, but he grounds his argument in personal revelation; he presents an argument that purports to sympathize with anti-nuclear environmentalists. He identifies himself as a reformed anti-nuclear activist, and personally reaches out to his former allies in his efforts to advance nuclear power. He takes another oft-used environmental device of making large systems personal. Tindale was an adamant nuclear opponent up until a few years ago. He challenged that notion that environmentalism is synonymous with being anti-nuclear anymore.  In a 2009 article in the Independent he is quoted as saying, “being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist for a long time but now that I’m talking to a number of environmentalists about this, it’s actually quite widespread this view that nuclear power is not ideal but it’s better than climate change.” The arguments for or against nuclear are no longer taking place between the environmental community, industry, and the government; rather the conversation is taking place primarily within environmental groups. Industry, probably smartly, has taken a step back and allowed environmental allies to frame the debate. The article is focused on a controversial decision by the British government to restart nuclear funding, in which senior environmental organizers clashes with large citizen protests. The journalist Steve Conner writes that the surprise support of these environmentalists “will be a welcome boost to the Government, which is expecting strong protests about the new generation of nuclear power stations at the planning stage.” Again, the disagreement is now occurring within the environmental community, causing divisions among the block of people most vocally advocating for federal and international climate change policy.

President Obama was once cautious about his support for nuclear energy, playing the careful politician not looking to alienate either environmental or conservative audiences. But in his State of the Union address this January and later more substantively, Obama is capitalizing on the lack of consensus among the environmental community to introduce massive subsidies for the nuclear energy. A climate bill which cut emissions was passed in the House of Representatives last summer, but the bill has languished in the Senate. As nuclear is no longer a rallying point for a unified environmental movement, Obama has used it to reach out to conservative Republicans to win over their support for the bill. The Associated Press and MSNBC quoted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), long an opponent of climate policy, lauding the President for his vocal support of nuclear power. "I see an evolving attitude on energy by the president," Sen. Alexander said after the State of the Union Address. "Up until now, the administration has been pursuing a national windmill policy instead of a national energy policy, which is the military equivalent of going to war in sailboats." The Democratic Party assumes the support of liberals and traditional environmentalists based on their advocacy around creating an emission standard. For the Democrats, nuclear has become an area in which the Party is willing to compromise.

             This sudden reversal by environmentalists and their traditionally allied Democratic politicians has created controversy and division among environmental groups, and this has provided industry and government to co-opt the language the environmental advocates are using. Environmentalists who have been opposed or challenged aspects of the nuclear industry are now wholeheartedly endorsing the industry and proclaiming it the primary solution to energy security and climate change. Not only are they endorsing it, they are specifically targeting their environmental opponents for standing in the way of developing viable technologies.

Figure 5:
Figure 6:


Figure 5: President Obama
 Figure 6: James Lovelock
James Lovelock


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