— Michael Shellenberger (@shellenberger) February 17, 2020
If They Are So Alarmed By Climate Change, Why Are They So Opposed To Solving It?
By Michael Shellenberger
Nobody appears to be more concerned about climate change than Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders, student activist Greta Thunberg, and the thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists who shut down London last year.
Last year, Sanders called climate change “an existential threat.” Extinction Rebellion said, “Billions will die.” And Thunberg said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful” about climate change, “I want you to panic.”
But if Sanders, Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion are so alarmed about carbon emissions, why are they fighting to halt the use of two technologies, fracking and nuclear, that are most responsible for reducing them?
Sanders says he would ban both natural gas and nuclear energy, Thunberg says she opposes nuclear energy, and Extinction Rebellion’s spokesperson said in a debate with me on BBC that she opposes natural gas.
And yet, emissions are declining thanks to the higher use of nuclear energy and natural gas. Carbon emissions have been declining in developed nations for the last decade. In Europe, emissions in 2018 were 23% below 1990 levels. In the U.S., emissions fell 15 percent from 2005 to 2016.
It’s true that industrial wind turbines and solar panels contributed to lower emissions. But their contribution was hugely outweighed by nuclear and natural gas.
Globally, nuclear energy produces nearly twice as much electricity at half the cost. And nuclear-heavy France pays little more than half as much for electricity that produces one-tenth of the carbon emissions as renewables-heavy, anti-nuclear Germany.
Natural gas reduced emissions 11 times more than solar energy and 50 percent more than wind energy in the U.S. And the unreliable nature of renewables means that they do not substitute for fossil power plants like nuclear plants do and instead must be backed up by natural gas or hydro-electric dams.
Can They Be Serious?
What gives? Why are the people who are most alarmist about climate change so opposed to the technologies that are solving it?
One possibility is that they truly believe nuclear and natural gas are as dangerous as climate change. This appears to be partly the case for nuclear energy, even though neither Sanders nor Thunberg offers anti-nuclear rhetoric anywhere nearly as apocalyptic as their rhetoric on climate change.
Before progressives were apocalyptic about climate change they were apocalyptic about nuclear energy. Then, after the Cold War ended, and the threat of nuclear war declined radically, they found a new vehicle for their secular apocalypse in the form of climate change.
Though nuclear energy has prevented the premature deaths of nearly two million people by reducing air pollution, and though nuclear weapons have contributed to the Long Peace since World War II, many people remain phobic of the technology.
In the case of natural gas, neither Sanders, Thunberg, or Extinction Rebellion claim it is more dangerous or worse than coal. They simply argue that we don’t need it, thanks to renewables and energy efficiency.
But Sanders learned the hard way that renewables can’t replace nuclear. Where Vermont promised to reduce emissions by 16% between 1990 and 2015, emissions instead rose 25%. Part of the reason was the closure of a nuclear plant, something Sanders advocated.
“You think we should eliminate nuclear power,” said Martha MacCallum in a Fox Town Hall meeting, “which I know they did in Vermont.”
“Sure,” said Sanders.
“But it ended up moving your emissions higher,” added MacCallum.
“Honestly, I don’t think that that’s correct,” said Sanders.
In fact, it is correct and has been confirmed by The Boston Globe, the plant’s former operator, a well-respected Vermont energy analyst, a think tank, and researchers with my organization, Environmental Progress.
As for renewables, it took Vermont nearly 10 years to build a single wind farm. At that rate, Vermont would make up for the electricity it lost from its nuclear plant 80 years from now.
It is impossible that Sanders, Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion missed the extensive news media coverage of rising emissions, pollution deaths, and electricity prices in Germany and Japan after they closed their nuclear plants and replaced them with fossil fuels
It is impossible for Extinction Rebellion activists not to know that natural gas has been the main driver of declining emissions in Great Britain, as it has been a major news story in that country for over a decade.
And it is impossible for Thunberg not to know that her home nation of Sweden near-completely decarbonized its power sector through the use of nuclear and large dams, and that Swedish lawmakers have been debating whether or not to close nuclear reactors, which many experts believe would increase emissions.
Why Alarmism Requires Opposing Technology
What’s happening with climate change is not the first time those who are most alarmist about an environmental problem have been most opposed to solving it.
In the early 1800s, the British economist Thomas Malthus opposed birth control, even as he raised the alarm over overpopulation and the threat of famines.
After World War II, scientists and environmentalists in Europe and the U.S. opposed fossil fuels and the provision of chemical fertilizers to poor nations even as they raised the alarm about soil erosion, overpopulation, and famine.
In every case, alarmists claim some moral basis for their opposition to technical fixes. Malthus argued that birth control was against God’s will. Malthusian scientists after World War II asserted that fertilizers, tractors, and fossil fuels worsened people’s lives. And opponents of hydro-electric dams and flood control claim those technologies were an “inappropriate” and expensive Western imposition.
And in every case, they claim their solutions are morally superior. Malthus argued for delaying marriage. Malthusians argued for small-scale renewables and labor-intensive farming. And opponents of dams and flood control argue for “ecosystem services” like wetlands and barrier islands.
Developing nations avoid flooding through the same dams, levees, embankments, culverts, gutters, dikes, levies, basins, storm drains, pump stations, and seawalls that rich nations have used to protect their citizens for hundreds of years.
While UN officials and rich-world journalists are smitten with the notion of poor countries “leapfrogging” from wood and dung to solar panels, such electricity is far too unreliable, even with batteries, and expensive, to power farms, factories, and cities.
Economic development requires as much energy today as it did 50 years ago, despite, and to some extent, because of, higher energy efficiency. There is no rich, low-energy nation and no poor, high-energy one.
The End of Civilization
Apocalyptic environmentalists like Sanders, Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion insist that if we don’t enact their agenda, industrial civilization will come to an end. But if they are so concerned with protecting industrial civilization, why do they advocate solutions that would end it?
The industrial revolution in England was only made possible through intensified agriculture and the use of coal for manufacturing, which delivered far more energy for far less labor. While the energy density of a lump of coal is twice that of a lump of wood, the “power density” of a coal mine is 25,000 times larger than that of forests, calculates energy analyst Vaclav Smil.
Today’s power-dense cities require power-dense fuels. Today’s cities take up just 0.5 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface. In the U.S., the energy system requires just 0.5 percent of national land. By contrast, achieving 100% renewables would require 25 to 50 percent of all land in the US, notes Smil.
The flip side of renewables’ low energy density is their low return on energy invested. Where nuclear and hydroelectric dams return about 75 and 35 times more, respectively, in energy than they require, solar and wind can end up returning just 1.6 and 4 times more. Today our high-energy civilization relies on fuels that on average deliver a return 30 times higher than the energy-invested.
While Sanders puts a high-tech gloss on his web page promoting a “Green New Deal,” the creators of the low-energy, renewables-only vision were unabashed in their desire to transform today’s high-energy industrial society to a low-energy agricultural one.
Do Sanders, Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and other apocalyptic greens really believe that, by raising the alarm about the end of the world, they will persuade societies to choose the low-energy path?
Perhaps. But they may also fear, consciously or unconsciously, that the outsized role played by natural gas and nuclear means that climate apocalypse can be averted without any of the radical societal transformations they demand. After all, if nations were to simply use natural gas to transition to nuclear, there would be little need to stop traffic in London, moralize about the virtues of foregoing meat, flying, and driving, or deploy renewables.