Why Environmentalists Pose a Bigger Obstacle to Effective Climate Policy than Denialists

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In the recent Netflix smash hit Don’t Look Up, scientists try to warn the world about a comet hurtling towards Earth that is going to wipe out human civilization and possibly life itself. Except, no-one wants to hear the bad news: the US president is too busy with the midterm elections and wants to silence the scientific Cassandras, a psychopathic tech mogul comes up with a cockamamie scheme to mine the precious minerals in the comet, and everyone else is just too distracted by the latest celebrity shenanigans to pay any attention to the impending disaster. When the despairing scientists urge people to “Just look up,” the defiant answer “Don’t look up!” becomes the rallying cry of the comet denialists, whipped up by the populist US presidential administration.

All of this, of course, is a rather obvious and heavy-handed allegory for our current climate predicament. Reviews of the movie have been mixed, although many critics have praised the film for being a “spot-on” indictment of our culture, an “on-the-nose assessment” of our dealings with the climate crisis, or even “so-sharp-it-hurts.” One climate scientist writing in the Guardian opined that the movie “captures the madness I see every day.” In the same newspaper, long-time climate activist George Monbiot wrote that the movie felt like “my whole life of campaigning flash before me.”

It would be silly to take apart a work of satire, but as these glowing reviews attest, Don’t Look Up offers an—admittedly grotesque—version of a narrative about climate change that has been promulgated seriously by many people. In this story, solving climate change is mostly a matter of facing reality, breaking the power of fossil-fuel interests, and mustering the political courage to do what needs to be done. We already have the technological solutions to climate change, writes Naomi Klein in her influential book This Changes Everything, but they are sabotaged by a ruthless “elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

By taking that very narrative to such ludicrous extremes, Don’t Look Up has also helped me realize what exactly is wrong with it: it is a self-serving myth told by well-off Western progressives that scapegoats easy villains, distracts from genuine solutions, and stands in the way of some long-overdue soul-searching.

Don’t get me wrong: fossil fuel companies deserve all the blame they can get for their decades-long campaign of truth-obfuscation and intentionally confusing the public about the reality of man-made climate change. In some countries, most notably the US, climate skepticism has significantly delayed the actions that are needed to tackle climate change. But outright denialism of the sort skewered in Don’t Look Up has been on the wane for some time. In the United States, nine out of 10 people now agree that the consequences of climate change will be felt by current and future generations. In a survey of 10 Western countries released just before the COP26 conference in Glasgow last year, 62 percent of participants agreed that climate change is the main environmental crisis the world is facing, ahead of concerns about pollution and new diseases. Even fossil fuel companies have now finally and grudgingly come to accept that their products are heating the planet.

If you buy into the Don’t Look Up narrative, however, it is easy to gloss over one inconvenient fact: fossil fuels have been fantastic engines of progress for humanity, by providing access to cheap, abundant, reliable, and (relatively) safe energy. They have freed us from back-breaking labor, tripled our life expectancy, and allowed one country after another to escape from miserable poverty. Fossil fuel companies have become so powerful precisely because, at their core, they offer an extremely desirable product from which all of us benefit, both in direct and visible forms (gasoline, diesel, natural gas) and in myriad indirect forms (cement, plastics, steel, glass). Indeed, if you look around your living room, you would be hard-pressed to find any object that did not somehow involve the use of fossil fuels (if only because it will almost certainly have been hauled to you by a diesel-powered machine).

Despite what many climate activists profess, we don’t yet have clean and affordable solutions for cement and steel production, fertilizer production for agriculture, or aviation. In the absence of such clean alternatives, forgoing the use of fossil fuels will inevitably entail painful sacrifices and difficult questions about how to share the burden of emission reductions.

To see why “denialism” and “manipulation by elites” fail as explanations of climate inaction, consider Germany, one of the richest and most environmentally conscious nations on the planet. German political leaders have been taking the climate crisis very seriously for more than three decades, and unlike in the US, climate denialists are marginal and have never wielded political power. Even in Germany, however, getting rid of fossil fuels has proven extremely difficult. Despite having spent 500 billion euros in its much-heralded Energiewende (energy transition), Germany is still burning massive amounts of lignite and coal, and is not even remotely on track to reach its climate targets. Even with the best of intentions and tons of political goodwill—and without denialists muddying the waters—climate progress has proven elusive. Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that the US, despite experiencing much more trouble from self-professed “climate skeptics,” has achieved similar emission reductions to Germany over the past two decades, mainly by switching from coal to gas and with some energy efficiency.

The disappointing outcome of Germany’s Energiewende, despite its laudable intentions, does not mean that we should abandon all hope. In fact, Germany could have performed much better than it did, and this is where the story becomes uncomfortable for the climate activists celebrating Don’t Look Up. Slashing emissions of greenhouse gases requires a range of different actions, but foremost among them are two things: first decarbonize electricity generation, then electrify everything. As it happens, there are a few industrialized countries that have already achieved an almost complete decarbonization of their electricity sector. If you exclude those with unique geographical advantages like Norway or Iceland (which benefit greatly from hydropower and geothermal, respectively), you will find that all of them did so by relying heavily on nuclear energy.

Consider Germany’s neighbor France, which pulled off this feat without even worrying about global warming. Back in the 1970s, when France decided to switch from fossil fuels to nuclear energy, the climate problem was not even on the agenda. And yet, within about 15 years France had almost fully decarbonized its electricity sector and had electrified a lot of other stuff (such as electrical heating and high-speed trains). Countries like France and Sweden have demonstrated in real life that it is possible to eliminate fossil fuels without sacrificing economic growth and prosperity. The reason why the carbon intensity of German electricity, even after two full decades of Energiewende, is still more than five times higher than that of nuclear France is not because of mass delusion and elite manipulation about the reality of man-made global warming. Quite the contrary. It is because anti-nuclear environmentalists—the very same people who express the highest level of anxiety about climate change—have more political clout in Germany than in France and have convinced their political leaders that it’s an excellent “climate policy” to abandon atomic energy and close down all of their remaining reactors.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the opposition to nuclear energy became the linchpin of the environmentalist movement, anxieties about nuclear energy were perhaps more understandable, not only because climate change had not appeared on the horizon yet, but also because less was known about the environmental impact of nuclear waste and accidents (now known to be rather small) and about the environmental and health impact of coal plants (now known to be absolutely huge).

In its entire history, nuclear energy has avoided around 74 billion tons of CO2 emissions, about twice the current global annual emissions. That could have been an order of magnitude higher, if the nuclear industry had continued its early rapid growth phase from the 1960s. Alas, in country after country, planned projects for nuclear power plants were canceled because of public opposition (more than 120 in the US alone), mostly led by the environmentalist movement. Excessive regulation, fueled by fear-mongering about the harms of low-level radiation, eventually led to a negative learning curve: every new reactor project was more expensive and time-consuming than the last one. And thus, the reign of King Coal was unthreatened.

Even today, with climate scientists sounding the alarm ever more desperately, most environmentalists have been unwilling to give up their old fight against nuclear energy. Throughout the Western world, the battle for the premature closure of nuclear plants is being led by Green parties and NGOs. Even young climate activists like Greta Thunberg have chided the European Commission for (finally) planning to include nuclear energy in its Green taxonomy. Even today, Germany could still avoid one billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2045 if only it decided to keep its remaining reactors in operation. But the very climate-conscious German political leaders would prefer to burn more coal and lignite, the dirtiest and most CO2-intensive of all fossil fuels, for years to come. In my own country, Belgium, the Green party wants to build and subsidize brand new fossil gas plants to replace perfectly fine nuclear power plants.

Because environmentalists were among the first to put the climate problem on the agenda (for which they deserve credit), they have also dominated the debate about climate solutions, wielding outsized political influence even today. For years traditional political parties in the Western world unthinkingly adopted the traditional “green” remedies, most notably renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. In the public imagination climate action became almost synonymous with the switch to “100 percent renewable energy.” Power companies in Western countries that claim to offer “green energy” always mean this to refer to renewable sources, not nuclear power. Even fossil fuel companies, cynically enough, went along with this narrative, flaunting shiny solar panels and wind turbines in their advertisements and marketing materials. Naturally, they didn’t mind environmentalists obstructing their only genuine competitor on the energy market, knowing full well that the world economy would never be powered by variable renewables, or at least not for another couple of decades. Time and again, we see that closing a nuclear plant means locking in fossil fuels, because you also need energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. The only technology that can replace a coal or gas plant one-for-one is a nuclear power plant, and that’s the very last thing climate activists want. #ExxonKnew indeed, and they didn’t care.

Here is the really “inconvenient truth” for the climate movement: the main obstacle to effective climate action for the past two decades has not been the climate denialists who refuse to face the reality of the problem, but the environmentalists who incessantly demonized and sabotaged our most important source of concentrated, weather-independent, dispatchable, zero-carbon energy (which also happens to be the safest and least polluting one).

The opposition to nuclear energy is not the only way in which mainstream environmentalists have, with the best of intentions, hurt the cause of climate action. Though anti-nuclearism is the most consequential mistake, a similar story can be told about GMO technology (which has a range of climate benefits), Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and market-based climate solutions like carbon pricing. By dismissing such solutions as “technofixes” and promoting “less is more” and “small is beautiful” solutions instead, environmentalists have ironically underestimated the true magnitude of our climate challenge.

More generally, the co-opting of climate science to launch attacks on capitalism, consumerist culture, neoliberalism, and a host of other left-wing bugbears having little or nothing to do with climate change, has fueled the ideological polarization around the issue. Though the science of climate change transcends all ideology, the same cannot be said of mainstream climate activism. Ironically, the claim that climate and capitalism (or climate and economic growth) are incompatible is one with which the denialists wholeheartedly agree: the only difference being that they want to ditch climate policy rather than capitalism. Such ideological hijacking made it easier for the right-wing denialists to dismiss the whole climate story as yet another excuse from the hippies to impose Big Government and take away their SUVs.

Luckily, there are hopeful signs that the tide is turning. Now that traditional Greens and progressives are losing their monopoly on the climate issue, and other parties with different ideologies have become involved, political interest in nuclear energy and other technological solutions is rapidly increasing. The NetherlandsFrance, the UK and a host of other Western countries have announced that they will be building new nuclear plants, because it has dawned on them that renewables alone will not save us from climate disaster. China plans to build 150 new nuclear reactors, which promises to collectively avert more CO2 emissions than half of the current total annual emissions of the European Union. Europe itself plans to include nuclear energy in its Green taxonomy, despite loud protest by Green NGOs and anti-nuclear countries like Germany and Austria. In Finland, even the Green party has come around to nuclear energy.

Environmentalists and climate activists deserve credit for raising awareness about global warming, but that does not exempt them from criticism. Precisely because they had the science on their side when it came to diagnosing the problem, environmentalists have been far too complacent about questioning their preferred solutions. It’s difficult to engage in counterfactual history but consider the following comparison. Suppose that the fossil fuel industry had never engaged in its disinformation campaign about the reality of man-made global warming, or even that the denialist movement had never existed and we had all collectively listened to climatologists right from the get-go. Would we have solved climate change by now? Not necessarily. We would basically still have been left with the same dilemma: given that fossil fuels bring so many benefits to humanity, it is extremely hard to get rid of them. But what if the anti-nuclear movement had never existed? What if environmentalists had embraced the atom 50 years ago and nuclear energy had indeed become the “energy of the future,” living up to its early promises? A good case can be made that we would have been much closer to a solution for climate change today.

(Quillette, 27/1/2022)