mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


The G-8: Climate and the Nuclear Option

The July 6-8 summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrial nations
comes as humanity is drifting toward unparalleled catastrophe. Climate
change, a prime focus of the summit, is on track to kill millions of
people in the twenty-first century.

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The victims will die not in the sudden bang of radioactive explosions but in
the gradual whimper of environmental collapse as soaring temperatures and
rising seas submerge cities, parch farmlands, crash ecosystems and spread
hunger, disease and chaos worldwide.

As summit host, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has lobbied the
heads of government gathering in Scotland to take much stronger action
against climate change, a problem his science adviser, Sir David King,
has called the greatest danger civilization has faced in 5,000 years.
Blair has been pointing out since 2002 that the Kyoto Protocol “is not
radical enough.”

The protocol demands 5 percent reductions in
greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by industrial countries
only. The United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change
says a 50 to 70 percent reduction by humanity as a whole is needed. To
bridge that ten-fold gap, Blair has urged the G-8 nations, which are
responsible for the majority of previous emissions, to endorse an
ambitious program of strict timelines and emissions cuts.

But Blair has been unwilling to admit the obvious: His dream of a
historic breakthrough on climate will come only if G-8 leaders are
willing to defy the Bush Administration and plot their own course.
George W. Bush has made it clear he’s not interested in doing anything
about climate change except study it.

For Bush and his right-wing
base, the non-existence of climate change is an article of faith, like
the non-existence of evolution, and it doesn’t matter what scientists
say. Nevertheless, Blair insists the United States must be part of any
climate accord, arguing, “if you simply exclude America from this
equation, we’ll never get it done.” The result is, Bush gets a veto
over the world’s progress.

To counter Bush’s objection that Kyoto excuses rising industrial
powers from emissions reductions, Blair invited China, India, Brazil,
South Africa and Mexico to Scotland to entice commitments from them as
well. Bush didn’t budge. Three weeks before the summit, leaked drafts
showed that US negotiators had demanded removal of all references to
the urgency of climate change from the summit’s final accord.

No
longer would the G-8 leaders endorse “ambitious targets and
timetables” for emissions reductions or fund alternative energy
development. They wouldn’t even acknowledge basic scientific findings
that climate change has already begun and is due largely to human
activity.

There is common ground between Bush and Blair, however, and it hints
at the kind of deal that, unfortunately, might emerge from this
summit. One year ago, Blair disclosed to a parliamentary committee
that Washington was pressing Britain to support a new generation of
nuclear reactors that were supposedly safer and cheaper.

According to
a report in The Guardian, Blair told the committee that “if you are
serious about the issue of climate change,” nuclear power must be part
of the solution. Unlike coal, oil and natural gas combustion, nuclear
fission produces no carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas.

Reviving nuclear power has been a priority for Bush since 2001, when
the energy plan devised by vice president Dick Cheney urged
construction of hundreds of nuclear plants. Bush’s 2006 budget
proposes reducing funding for the Energy Department by 2 percent even
as nuclear funding increases 5 percent.

Watch, then, for the following deal at the summit, especially if other
G-8 leaders are unwilling to challenge Bush’s intransigence. In their
final accord the G-8 leaders could agree to disagree about the
definition of the problem — Is climate change an urgent danger or
not? — but unite behind a shared solution: rapid development of
zero-carbon energy sources that produce no greenhouse gases.

The
choice of which alternatives to emphasize — solar, wind, efficiency
or nuclear — could be left up to each nation, though it’s worth
noting that the drafts U.S. negotiators altered specifically endorsed
nuclear.

Such a deal would allow Blair, Bush and other G-8 leaders to claim a
face-saving diplomatic victory. It would also probably be applauded
for its realism and flexibility by media outlets and corporate voices
on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, the argument will go, even
some environmentalists now accept that nuclear is part of the solution
to climate change, assuming that safety concerns are addressed.

But investing in nuclear power would actually make the climate
predicament worse. The reasons are economic: Nuclear is seven times
less cost-effective at displacing carbon than energy efficiency is,
according to studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

In other words,
a dollar invested in insulating a drafty house displaces seven times
more coal than a dollar invested in a nuclear power plant, mainly
because of nuclear’s immense capital costs. (Industry spokespeople
like to brag that nuclear is cheaper than wind power, but they count
only the cost of operating the plant, not of constructing it — a
trick that would make a Rolls Royce cheap to drive, since the gasoline
but not the purchase price would matter.)

In a world of limited
capital, investing in nuclear would take funding away from the
cheapest (and fastest) alternative — efficiency — thus slowing the
world’s withdrawal from carbon fuels.

Alas, most environmentalists have failed to argue this angle (with the
exception of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a tiny NGO
that has been bird-dogging the industry since the 1970s).

Environmentalists focus more on the safety problems that plague
nuclear power, starting with the lack of a solution, despite sixty
years of experience, to waste disposal. And while there have been no
catastrophic accidents at western nuclear plants since Three Mile
Island in 1979, a recent investigation by Time quotes many industry
insiders warning that terrorists could easily overwhelm the safeguards
at U.S. nuclear plants and trigger meltdowns that kill millions.

The idea that environmentalists are nonetheless warming up to nuclear
power was promoted by a front-page story in the May 15 New York
Times
.
But independent checking suggests that the article’s claims were
overstated.

Of four environmentalists cited, only Stewart Brand truly
supports nuclear, but Brand is a writer who speaks only for himself,
not the environmental movement. Gus Speth, a board member of the
Natural Resources Defense Council, and Jonathan Lasch, president of
the World Resources Institute, told me the Times had omitted crucial
context for their remarks; their actual position, in Lasch’s words, is
that “energy efficiency and renewables options will come long, long
before nukes.”

Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental
Defense Fund, did not reply to an interview request but was one of
thirteen leaders of major environmental organizations who wrote to
Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, reluctantly opposing their
Climate Stewardship Act because it subsidized nuclear energy.

Nevertheless, the myth of environmental support for nuclear is now
sufficiently entrenched to provide cover for Bush’s agenda, at least
in the United States.

For the G-8 to endorse Bush’s agenda, however, would be not only
wrongheaded but unnecessary. Blair is right that the United States, as
the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, must be part of the
response to climate change. His mistake is to equate the United States
with the Bush Administration. Despite the latter’s foot-dragging,
other major American institutions have begun taking meaningful action
on climate change.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors voted unanimously in
June to meet or exceed the Kyoto targets. New York and eight other
states are establishing a carbon-trading system to reduce emissions.
California has required cars to emit 30 percent less greenhouse gas (a
move copied by six other states) and is joining eight states in suing
electric utilities in a case that could become the greenhouse
equivalent of the tobacco industry litigation.

Institutions holding $3
trillion in investment assets have demanded that U.S. corporations
hoping to borrow from them first demonstrate how they are reducing
greenhouse emissions. Combined, these and other actions amount to real
movement against climate change by a global powerhouse; after all,

California alone ranks as the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Regardless of what Bush does, if the G-8 would make common cause with
these American states and institutions, together they could drive
global climate policy.

It’s too late to prevent climate change. But the G-8 leaders could
give humanity a better chance of surviving it if they have the courage
to do the right thing in Scotland: endorse binding emissions cuts and
early deadlines so corporate ingenuity and marketplace discipline can
accelerate progress; subsidize smart zero-carbon energy sources,
starting with efficiency, rather than waste money on the dead end of
nuclear energy; and don’t be afraid to leave Bush behind if he balks.

It will be hard enough for humanity to defuse climate change if we do
everything right; there’s no time to wait for Godot.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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