With George Monbiot on the debating warpath against Greenpeace and in support of nuclear power as a serious mechanism for tackling climate change, and Mark Lynas’ new book on planetary boundaries and techno-fixes, “The God Species“, now out (despite some weird problems on the launch day), it really is time for environmentalists to get serious about starting (and sustaining) a pro-nuclear movement. Not just arguments of logic, science and engineering and not just appeals for people to ‘do the numbers and figure it out’ (although these are still important) — no, we need a real ‘can do, must do‘ movement. What do I mean, and how do we achieve this? I’ll let my friend Ben Heard explain, in the brilliant guest post below (which is also up on DecarboniseSA.com).
p.S. I’m reading The God Species right now (it’s excellent) — will do a review in due course.
Guest Post by Ben Heard. Ben is Director of Adelaide-based advisory firm ThinkClimate Consulting, a Masters graduate of Monash University in Corporate Environmental Sustainability, and a member of the TIA Environmental and Sustainability Action Committee. After several years with major consulting firms, Ben founded ThinkClimate and has since assisted a range of government, private and not-for profit organisations to measure, manage and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and move towards more sustainable operations. Ben publishes regular articles aimed at challenging thinking and perceptions related to climate change and sustainable energy at decarbonisesa.com.
There is no point denying it. The anti-nuclear movement in Australia has been remarkably effective. Combined with abundant cheap coal, Australia’s anti –nuclear movement has kept us the only one of the world’s top 16 economies not to employ nuclear power. It made people like me grow up anti-nuclear without ever really being asked to think about it. The result is some of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world; in South Australia around 720g CO2-e/kWh (which is one of the lowest levels in the country I might add. NSW, Victoria and Queensland are all much higher), compared to a mere 90g CO2-e/kWh in nuclear dominated France.
Meanwhile, the pro-nuclear position has, to my observation, failed to ever really gain much traction, and has evidently failed to deliver change. This is said with all respect to the many smart and passionate people who have worked on the issue for much longer than I.
Why has the anti-nuclear movement succeeded? It is easy and tempting to write-off its success to dishonourable actions from the leadership of the movement which:
- Distorts information
- Grants itself the luxury of being single-issue, and ignores the rest of the world’s problems when they don’t suit them
- Uses fear-mongering freely and to great effect
- Never, ever feels obliged to correct the record when their fear-mongering is subsequently shown to be completely false
While these points and things like it are arguably true (I have certainly encountered all of the above myself), it grants the anti-nuclear movement all the power by taking the focus off the shortcomings of the pro-nuclear approach. It’s also clear that we can challenge these things when the opportunities arise, but we can’t change them. This makes it all largely beside the point.
We also should be honest and acknowledge the genuine shortcomings of nuclear power technology through its history, such as:
- The inarguable association with weapons development programs in the early days
- A period of escalating costs and increasing design complexity
- The catastrophe at Chernobyl; an absurd basis for decision making today, but something that has had profound influence on perceptions of the technology
- The intractable “problem” of high level nuclear waste
Well the essential weapons link is well and truly of a bygone era. Designs are now standardised, simplified, modular, factory made, and super safe. The “problem” of high level waste has always been something of a beat-up compared to the mountain of polluting toxins we routinely ingest from fossil fuel and myriad other industries. I don’t really regard it as a shortcoming that the industry needs to feel bad about. In fact, nuclear power distinguishes itself from fossil fuel by actually capturing and containing the pollution. How novel. But whatever the case, it is now becoming broadly known that in Generation IV designs, the technological answer to that problem is well and truly in the development pipeline.
Yet despite all this, plus the fact that the need for zero-carbon energy has never been greater, the pro-nuclear position is still way off the pace. So surely the better question is: What positive things helped the anti-nuclear movement succeed that we should replicate?
I believe the reason the anti-nuclear movement has basically succeeded in Australia where pro-nuclear has basically failed is simple. It’s staring you in the face, written into my text.
One is a movement. The other isn’t. Movements are incredibly effective things, and the anti-nuclear movement has been an incredibly effective example. The only way to compete is to turn pro-nuclear from a position and a shared interest into a movement. That, dear readers, is what Decarbonise SA is all about.
Here are a couple of three-point descriptions, with thanks to Seth Godin, that will help us know if we are creating a successful movement. Firstly, pro-nuclear will become more effective if we can do the following:
- Transform our shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change
- Provide tools to allow subscribers to tighten their communications and be more effective
- Leverage the movement to allow it to grown and gain more followers
I have highlighted first point above because that was the missing ingredient that made me start Decarbonise SA: the goal. Without a goal, we are just intelligent, passionate and opinionated. With the goal, we can become directed, targeted, effective. The anti-nuclear movement has always had a goal: “No Nuclear Power”. I realise how obvious that sounds, but do you realise how empowering it is? Those three words have brought people into the streets, had them give up their time, lobby their politicians, for a goal. Absent the goal, efforts are harder to coordinate, and members of a movement are harder to motivate. The movement inevitable downgrades to a shared interest.
Well, now we have goal; zero carbon electricity for South Australia as quickly as possible.
To reach that goal, we demand the simple, commonsense maturity from our government and fellow citizens to consider all zero-carbon generation options on a level playing field basis. That includes the one that has been delivering for over 50 years, currently provides 15% of global electricity across 30 nations, has an outstanding record of safety and environmental performance, and has a strong future of even better technology. As my friend Barry Brook often remarks, he doesn’t actually care what does the job, only that it is done, and done quickly. He just happens to know, based on his research, that nuclear will perform extremely well if only it is given the chance for a fair fight.
The other great thing is that when you have a goal, you can start envisaging it and bringing it to life. Most of you have read Part I and II of the Decarbonise SA Energy Plan. I am beginning to take that table with me to my conversations and presentations. You may not appreciate how amazingly empowering it has been for such a ridiculously simple exercise. For one thing, most South Australian’s have pretty much no idea how they get their electricity and from where. Nuts when you think about it, since we all use it every day. People really, really enjoy knowing. Secondly, it makes it clear that from a technological and investment point of view, decarbonising SA’s electricity is almost stupidly easy. A program of three major infrastructure investments that we need to make anyway and the job is 90% done. Suddenly, the goal is not pie in the sky: it is in fact an achievable outcome that is easy to name, describe and fight for. Soon, with a little more work, it will have a pathway to actual delivery. This will help our movement gain momentum.
Here’s the next three points on the elements that define a movement. These are also borrowed from Godin, who quotes US Senator Bill Bradley. A movement neeeds:
- A narrative that tells the story of who we are and the future we are trying to build
- A connection among those in the movement
- Something to do- the fewer limits, the better
I have once again highlighted what I regard as the main shortcoming of pro-nuclear that makes it a position and not a movement. What has ever been the narrative that binds those of a pro-nuclear disposition? What does is mean, in terms of shared values and life experience, to be a pro-nuclear environmentalist? The anti-nuclear movement has leveraged a long and “glorious” history of protesting against the establishment and of working in the interests of global peace, all to further that goal: no nuclear power. Pro-nuclear on the other hand… again, apologies to those upon whose shoulders Decarbonise SA stands, but there hasn’t really been a narrative at all. Nothing for people to relate to. No clear sense of values and ethics to entice newcomers to a common ground that they can feel good about. We have seen some discussion about this in a recent Decarbonise SA comments thread. When we ask people to become pro-nuclear, we are not asking them to change their minds, we are asking them to change their identities. For that to happen, they have to look at the other crowd and like what they see; they have to like the narrative and like the values it represents.
Again though, that is changing, and our narrative is forming, thanks largely to climate change. So who are we? I want to know what you think. Here’s what I think.
We are the people who hit the late 20th and early 21st century and fully accepted that the planet had a suite of urgent and interrelated problems. We are the ones who actually mean it when we use the expression “climate crisis”. We are the ones who have the courage to be open to all solutions in the face of seemingly intractable problems, and to recognise when fear rather than fact is driving the decision making. We are the ones who are prepared to stand against the Australian societal norm, including the friends we leave behind in Australia’s powerful mainstream environmental movement, and say “No, we have been mistaken”. We are the ones who value every human life equally; so logically we value saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year through re-stabilising the climate and cutting air pollution above saving no lives by protesting nuclear power. We are the ones who can see a path to dramatically less mining, pollution and pressure on our forests and wildlands, through bringing energy for development from the densest energy source on earth. We are not energy hedonists nor are we consumption junkies; but we acknowledge the benefits of the energy-rich modern world in the health, safety, security and prosperity it provides. We’re not trying to solve all the problems of the world… the top five or so will do. We are the true environmentalists for the 21st century. This is something to be very proud of.
We need to acknowledge and value our history and articulate our present; create our own narrative and make it known. This gives people who will consider making the change to pro-nuclear something to hang their identity from with pride.
The best part though is to write our own future. That means growing. Building our numbers. Planning. Acting. Making change. Winning the damn fight because we can’t afford to lose.
I can’t wait.