"Cult Versus Cult" on Global Warming

The Whole Earth Catalog

William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy,  has a provocative posting in Nuclear Townhall: When it Comes to Nuclear and Global Warming, It's Cult vs Cult.  Basically, many nuclear supporters believe that global warming is not happening. Meanwhile, people who are eager to prevent global warming are often anti-nuclear.

To some extent, these attitudes show logical disconnects.

Nuclear is a low-carbon choice. If a person claims to be very concerned with global warming and is also against nuclear energy---that person is showing a logical disconnect, in my opinion.

Nuclear is preferable to fossil. Even without considering global warming, there are many reasons to prefer nuclear to fossil power. I moved into nuclear energy in the early 80s. (I had been working in renewables and fossil.) In those days, people were not concerned about global warming.  I still saw many advantages of nuclear over fossil fuels.

An Interview with an Environmentalist

Carbon Dioxide Chart

In the "Cult Versus Cult" article, Tucker quotes William McKibben, a well-known author and Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.  McKibben is very active in fighting global warming. He founded 350.org,  which describes itself as a "global movement to solve the climate crisis." (I am happy to note that the 350.org website doesn't bash nuclear.)

In the article, Tucker describes a scene at a solar festival.  McKibben had just addressed the group. Tucker notes that many of McKibben's followers are wearing "Close VY" buttons, and Tucker asks McKibben why he doesn't support nuclear power. Tucker wrote:

McKibben looked wistfully at the hillside filled with long-haired hippies.  "I understand what you're saying," he said.  "But supporting nuclear right now would split this movement in half."

UPDATE: Bill McKibben has emailed me to say that this quote does not reflect his opinions. He has also commented on the original post at Yes Vermont Yankee.  I include his entire comment below. 

This story about me isn't accurate. I've been opposed to Vermont Yankee for a long time--it's badly run, and its owners have repeatedly lied to people. I believe Vt. is completely capable of replacing (and far more) its power output with renewables, which is why my roof is covered with solar panels. 

Founding a Movement

With 350.org, McKibben founded a globalmovement to solve the climate crisis.  In the quote above, he says that supporting nuclear would hurt that movement.  To me, this implies that he is more interested in the growth of his movement than in carbon dioxide results for the planet.

But what about me?  There's an old saying that when you point a finger at someone else, look where the other fingers are pointing.

I just pointed at McKibben, and the other fingers are pointing back at me.  I'm trying to encourage people to support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee.  It's a smaller scale movement than "solving the climate crisis," but Howard Shaffer and I are growing a pro-nuclear, pro-Vermont Yankee movement.  What are we willing to do to support it? Well, among other things, in order to support the pro-Vermont Yankee movement, I rarely talk about global warming.

The Divide

I personally think the world-wide carbon dioxide increase is mostly man-made and causes some level of global warming. I think global warming is a threat to human life and health, but it is not the most over-arching threat we face.

In the past few years, many environmentalists have embraced nuclear power because of their concern with global warming. However, a significant portion of the people who support Vermont Yankee do not think global warming is a threat.

This divide is not just an issue for Vermont.  It's a bigger issue. Global warming divides people in many areas, and it divides the pro-nuclear community. For example, one pro-nuclear discussion board has banned discussion of global warming because people were getting too acrimonious.

For myself, I rarely talk about global warming in context of Vermont Yankee.  I know the discussion could get too acrimonious, and I could alienate some of the plant's supporters. Apparently, McKibben doesn't talk about nuclear power in his "solve climate change" movement. He probably has the same reasons: talking about nuclear power could get too acrimonious, and he could alienate some of his supporters.

Are McKibben and I birds of a feather? At one level, yes.  We are two people, dealing with the huge climate-change divide and trying to keep our supporters . At another level, our strategies are quite different.

Though McKibben and I seem to be good illustrations for the problem, I don't want to keep writing only about the two of us. "How people speak about global warming" is a more  general issue.

The Difference

Census map of Vermont

If a pro-nuclear speaker decided to talk about nuclear energy as helping to prevent global warming, that person would gain some supporters and lose some.  If an environmentalist admitted that nuclear energy could help prevent global warming, that person would also gain some supporters and lose some.  So far, the situations seem parallel.

However, these strategies are not actually parallel.

If the nuclear supporter decides not to talk about global warming, that person is choosing her rhetoric, not her technology. I can make several arguments in favor of nuclear power. Global warming is one pro-nuclear argument, but I rarely use it. In other words, I select my rhetoric: global warming is very controversial, and it pulls the discussion into directions which are not relevant to Vermont Yankee.

However, if an environmentalist decides not to talk about nuclear for fear of losing followers, that person is  selecting technologies based on what the followers will accept. That is more than a rhetorical choice. The choice of technologies will affect the results of climate change strategies.

Another Environmentalist (maybe) for Nuclear Power

Stewart Brand 

Some environmentalists have embraced nuclear energy, but others have not.  I am cheered by the ones (like Stewart BrandGeorge Monbiot and Gwyneth Cravens) who endorse nuclear power.  I hope that McKibben may someday bridge the great climate-change divide and join them.

Still, in the bottom line, this is not about McKibben, and it's not about me.  The problem is the great Climate Change Divide. It's almost impossible for anyone to have  a truthful conversation amidst so much acrimony and hatred.

I started this post with the Whole Earth Catalog cover from 1969.  Steward Brand was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. For this cover, Brand  initiated a public campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite photo of the sphere of Earth as seen from space, the first image of the "Whole Earth." He thought the image might be a powerful symbol, evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people. As mentioned above, Stewart Brand is a supporter of nuclear energy.