How our internal divisions set us back on addressing climate with carbon emission reductions, even after fossil fuels lost the battle to stymie action with climate skepticism

When can you get a certain portion of progressive Democrats to applaud locking in big increases in carbon emissions but Republicans to oppose that? When the clean energy that you are eliminating is nuclear power.

By Valerie Gardner, February 2, 2022

As 2022 begins, I am struck by two very key realizations. First, the long, drawn out campaign by the fossil industry to sow doubts to keep the public skeptical that climate change is really happening has finally been lost.  All of the major avenues of discourse that were activated to delay action on climate—denying that climate change is happening, denying that it is caused by our burning of fossil fuels, and denying that we can do anything to stop it—have failed. Climate change emerged as a central issue in the Democratic primaries in 2019, nearly all Democratic candidates expressed conviction that we needed action on climate and, in 2020, Joe Biden won the election having presented one of the strongest climate action plans of any candidate.

Not only has the scientific consensus around climate change been assured for a very long time, a hefty three-quarters of American voters are now convinced that climate change is happening.  Even more importantly, a very strong majority of the public are “extremely” or “very” sure that global warming is happening and prior to the Glasgow COP, a record 66% of registered voters wanted to see more climate action from political leaders.  This number now includes a majority of Republicans who have held out the longest as climate skeptics.

There is much to celebrate in this. Expansive efforts by what may still be the most entrenched lobbying group in Washington to stonewall climate action by hiring psuedo experts to undermine scientific findings and direct ad hominem attacks on scientists, loudly defunding conscientious political candidates who acknowledge climate change and boldly shifting political contributions to the buffoons willing to deride climate data—have all dramatically collapsed.  Former President Trump with his entirely ignorant scorn of not just climate science, but also medical science, data science and, well, science in general, was decisively defeated—yet that wasn’t even his greatest failing as a leader. The Democrats won majorities in both the House and the Senate and President Biden has set out to undo much of the damage done to environmental protections during the Trump Administration.

Unfortunately, even with this dramatic change in public sentiment in favor of action, we remain very far from consensus about what to do.  Even while we are very clear on needing to take urgent action on climate, we do not have agreement on what that is. A majority of those polled think we need to build more renewables. The reality is that some “renewables,” namely biofuels, biowaste and biomass (burning trees, for example), emit as much carbon as fossil fuels. Other “renewables” are terribly resource intensive and use a lot of mined and processed materials for the amount of intermittent and dilute energy they produce. Solar power, which lingers at less than 25% efficient, produces power on average between 10 and 20% of the time. Wind is slightly better, if less predictable, and produces power between 30 and 40% of the time on average—yet can go for days without producing anything.

In order to ensure adequate power even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, what happens is that we must crank up fossil fuels plants and burn coal (as in Germany) or natural gas here in the U.S.. Effectively this means that every time we add solar or wind systems, environmentalists applaud while the majority of the added power comes from dirty natural gas. Needing to have back-up fossil fuel generators ready to go at a moment’s notice often means that we are paying for redundant capacity and even keeping the fossil fuel plants warm, just to ensure grid reliability, while we humor ourselves that we are reducing emissions. In fact, the net effect for those regions like California and Germany which have added large percentages of renewables, is that power costs have increased, grid reliability has declined and emissions have barely moved.

The alternative viewpoint, held by a growing set of climate experts, is to deploy intermittent renewables alongside the broadest possible set of clean and firm energy sources, rather than rely on natural gas as backup. We can get firm, clean power from hydropower, geothermal and nuclear power.  In fact, of the world’s largest and most decarbonized electricity grids, all of them obtain a majority of their power from one or the other of these firm, clean sources and not wind or solar. 

Many areas do not have available hydropower or geothermal resources, which are geographically limited. Thus, for these grids to successfully decarbonize, they may need nuclear power. Experts recognize that any source of firm, clean power makes substantial decarbonization cheaper and more reliable. Having a diversity of energy resources, means that if one source fails (like no wind for weeks), another source (like nuclear) can potentially pick up the slack and help maintain the grid in its place. Thus, there have been a growing chorus of brave and voices calling for protection of existing nuclear power plants and even the construction of more nuclear power, especially as fourth generation nuclear power, expected to be smaller, modular, dispatchable and cheaper, emerges onto the scene.

Nuclear power already comprises 20% of US electricity and more than 50% of its clean electricity, produces no carbon emissions nor any of the toxic air pollution of coal or gas that causes smog and respiratory diseases. For the last six decades, nuclear has provided a cost-effective, high-capacity, low ecologic-impact source of clean energy that has been shown to save lives by having displaced toxin-emitting coal plants across the planet. Nevertheless, a surprising number of climate advocates reject carbon-free nuclear power and accept the use of natural gas, despite knowing that methane is harmful to health and the planet. As non-sensical as that is, dispelling the notion that we can solve climate change with a veneer of renewables combined with natural gas has been difficult. Fear of nuclear power runs deep. This controversy is the battleground that must be settled if we are to make progress against climate change.

Even before climate change became an issue, the fossil fuel industry recognized that nuclear was a serious threat to its viability. Very early on in the dawn of the nuclear age, the fossil fuel industry plotted a strategy to undermine the growth of nuclear power.  Given an opening with the Three Mile Island accident, which event caused zero injuries or deaths, yet caused a large public scare, the fossil fuel industry saw that their best weapon was to exaggerate the risks of nuclear power to keep the public afraid of it.  Like catastrophic plane crashes, a specific and frightening image can convince a large percentage of the population that that flying is too dangerous. They don’t understand the data, which show that driving is far more dangerous than flying by several magnitudes. So, despite nearly seven decades of safe commercial operation, nuclear’s three accidents—each of which made incredibly massive news headlines despite negligible injury or deaths—have convinced most of the public that nuclear is dangerous.  The fossil fuel industry—which is the most lethal industry on the planet—has found a competitive bonaza in playing to people’s fears and managed to halt the growth of nuclear power by the late ’80s and 90s, and, as a result, put the whole planet on a pathway to peril from climate change.

So, despite having lost the climate doubt-spewing campaign, the fossil fuel industry can expect to continue to stonewall 100% clean solutions and get people to accept a 20 to 40% clean solution on the growth of natural gas as a complement to renewables, since nuclear power is pretty much the only other option for firm power. We must now grapple with the reality that, after decades of misinformation and malignment of nuclear power—the battle lines for taking meaningful action to reduce emissions have been drawn within the climate movement itself.  The fight comes down to whether or not to include or exclude clean nuclear in our transition to 100% clean energy. Ironically, seriously climate-concerned progressives typically say no and opt for the fossil fuel and the slightly climate alarmed conservatives say yes. 

Those who want to exclude nuclear talk about getting to “100% Renewables” and emphasize how cheap renewables are.  Those who want to include nuclear talk about getting to 100% clean energy grids quicker and less expensively and the importance of maintaining grid reliability and resilience.  To an outsider, these positions might both sound good but buried within them are critical differences.  The outcome of this fight will determine both how a lot of dollars are invested and whether or not the world can transition directly away from fossil fuels and still have a reliable grid or continues to waffle about natural gas, thereby locking in many decades of additional emissions through the construction of new carbon-emitting gas plants.  There is no doubt that this issue will determine whether or not we succeed in reducing emissions in a timely way, or fail to do so and lose the climate fight.

We are now only eight years away from 2030. By then, the world needs to have halved its total emissions. At the end of 2020, after a year of pandemic-caused economic shut-downs, we saw a slight decline in global emissions. As of the end of 2021, with economies starting to recover, however, there was a full rebound of emissions, big increases in fuel prices and considerable evidence that global emissions continue to rise. Not stay flat. Not decline. But continue to grow. 

Energy policies, which has allowed the gas industry to become the largest provider of electricity around the world, surpassing coal, are clearly not working to help the climate. The prevalence of cheap natural gas closed quite a lot of coal plants, making it seem like emissions were declining. New data, however, reveals that while natural gas emissions calculations appear to be an improvement on coal, in fact, massive amounts of fugitive emissions across the industry allow far more methane to be released into the atmosphere than was previously understood.  Once the GHG impacts of these emissions are tabulated, we are likely to see that, in fact, global emissions have not declined but rather have increased considerably.

Many experts now fear that decarbonizing global energy by 2050 requires that we protect the existing installed base of nuclear power, extend the operating life of those plants, and build out additional nuclear power plants as quickly as possible.  The U.K., France, China, Poland and dozens of other nations are moving to build new nuclear power in order to both address climate change and keep their electric grids stable. The U.S., however, remains bogged down in controversy over nuclear, particularly on the progressive side, even as red states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Indiana and Montana have taken steps to enable them to build more nuclear power. At least 10 states still have prohibitions on new nuclear builds and the federal government remains stymied in its efforts to get a central federal repository for nuclear waste approved, as promised to the industry decades ago.

In this state of play, the fossil fuel industry needs to do very little to sustain opposition to nuclear power. Aged environmentalists—most of whom came of age as anti-war, anti-bomb activists in the 1960s and 1970s, remain the most vocal of opponents of nuclear power. They claim they want to help the environment—yet they are actively engaging in the fossil fuel industry’s prime strategy for staying relevant—deriding and opposing the use of nuclear power rather than natural gas. Whether these people are aware that they are helping natural gas grow, are oblivious to that or are, in fact, being funded by the fossil fuel industry, we may never know. But we do know that by continuing to argue against and even shut down our largest source of clean energy, these environmentalists are aiding the fossil fuel industry’s long-running campaign to suppress its only competitor, and prevent the world from moving in the direction we need to go to eliminate emissions.