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.
Why pro-nuclear has failed when anti-nuclear has succeeded
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.
136 replies on “Why pro-nuclear environmentalism has failed when anti-nuclear has succeeded – and how to change this”
I am not sure I agree with the premise (pro-nuclear has failed). That might be true for Australia and Germany, but certainly not for the world.
But even so the question what can be learned from the other side is useful. And I especially like your idea of having some simple goals.
I for one will try this summer to speak to some people here in Japan about the idea of getting some balloons and airships up, with vital equipment unreachable for tsunami and earthquakes. And a lot of outside space for pro-nuclear messages as a side effect.
The goal for the pro-nuclear message as a whole is simple. No coal.
The nice thing about that is that even Greenpeace agrees to that in theory, even if their actions are coal’s best friend. All they need to learn is that getting rid of coal first is the right order of proceeding.
Part of the trick is to make the debate a choice not a referendum. As long as the question is simply a referendum then people will always “vote” no. In reality we are making a choice, it’s nuclear or it’s coal or shale gas. The anti nuclear movement have been effective in the past in making the debate a referendum. The other issue in Australia is we don’t have a Mark Lynas or George Monbiot, ie someone from the left or is a notable environmentalist who is outside the nuclear industry who is campaigning for nuclear. It’s not what is said but who says it.
Except me, but I’m not identifiably from the left (try to remain neutral on such matters) and I’m not a typical advocate. I’m also a scientist, and they don’t seem to be listened to much these days…
Barry is a “notable environmentalist” and “outside the nuclear industry”
and probably the most respected and listened to “nuclear advocate” in Australia.:)
Yes I recognize Barry’s contribution which is perhaps unique in Australia but I suppose I was thinking more of the “Convert” angle. And I agree with Barry, scientists don’t get listened to In this country unless it suits the antagonist.
@ “no coal ”
We must not be distracted by condemning coal, lest we become yet one more agent for gas. Don’t even use the word, instead say “carbon” when everyone around us is saying “coal”.
If we were to equivocate over gas at all, it would be to avoid obstructing the export trade. That is where the gigabucks are, the bucks that have already bought out our greenies, and the bucks that are adding significantly to our neighbours’ standard of living during these last few decades of friendly climate. They are more likely to accept arguments that like opium, it’s okay to export the stuff, as long as we don’t smoke it ourselves.
While we are being shouted down, if there is one single virtue for nuclear we should maintain, it is that it is “non-carbon”. It is a soundbite we want on the tips of the tongues of our leaders when they respond to increasingly frequent climatic disasters in the media.
Somehow I like that more than “Zero-carbon”, but can’t for the life of me understand why…
@ Roger Clifton:
See above: Fossil Fuels = Wastes.
Stop the waste.
I agree, though, that to focus on coal and not on fossil fuels in toto invites marginal change to gas and will not lead to wholesale reduction in CO2 output.
This delivers a positive message, a call to action, despite being fact-free. I believe that there is a lot of room for people to be persuaded to adopt an anti-fossil fuel or anti-carbon attitude, without needing to first try to make them into experts. Many people like to “belong” to causes that they agree with emotionally.
When anti-carbon opinions become socially acceptable or even social positives, people will seek to join, to belong, to mingle with like-minded souls, to help, to adopt this as a social anchor.
This must be supported by rational argument, but for many, the reason that they join a group or adopt an attitude starts with a feel-good attitude to the objective and is followed by understanding in depth.
Focus on the message first and the argument later? Sounds good to me. We aren’t all academics (Sorry, Barry).
STOP the waste. Say NO to fossil fuels.
Barry Brook, on 14 July 2011 at 3:43 PM said:
Eamon, good thoughts. It would take a lot of effort to set up a website like that, but could be worthwhile. Perhaps a community effort.
Yes, a community effort would be needed. I’d think that the ground work could be done through Open Threads on this blog, but I’m not au fait with blog logistics – so maybe not.
With regards to labels: whilst Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism is a pretty accurate term for the people who want to see nuclear power used full-on in the fight against climate change, Environmentalism has a lot of baggage, inherited in the main from Greenpeace. I think a different terminology is needed for any serious pro-nuclear push. Climate Realism might be one way of describing the motivations that seem to dive a lot of us, though I could grin and bear Environmental Realism too.
“Climate realism” is a trolling term used by the opponents of mitigation, and so that would be disastrous. I see no reason to surrender the term “environmentalism” to anyone else.
> Environmentalism has a lot of baggage
Agreed, wary of self-labeled ‘environmentalists’ clueless about biology
> Climate Realism
too much like the denial site climaterealists.com
Seems to me what’s really needed is not another movement, or blogsite, or slogan, but a way to reach people inside the nuclear industry, and those who blog for it or claim to speak for it.
What would the industry need to say and do to be convincing?
Eamon I attempted something like you’re suggesting with the BNC FAQ here It would be great to turn it into something more like this from sceptical science. I like the “Skeptic Argument vs What the Science Says” format much better than the Q & A approach. I think it, quite appropriately, helps to remove the validity of the oft repeated but scientifically baseless anti arguments by contrasting them with an answer which is well supported by the science.
Hmmm I don’t know what happened to the links. Here they are again:
The BNC FAQ https://bravenewclimate.com/2010/06/25/take-real-cc-action-p2/
The Skeptical Science link http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
New Clear Nuclear
I still like Promethean environmentalism, strictly, “boldly creative, defiantly original, life enhancing”, with the classical allusion to bringing fire from the gods to raise humanity from wretched subsistence, with a dash of martyrdom.
Brand used the term ‘eco-pragmatist’ which like ‘Promethean environmentalists’, captures the essence of our position quite well. But are either catchy enough? We need to talk to some marketing folks.
Well, you could always go something modern like:
SAFE (Sustainable Alternative Fission Energy)
Unfortunately I think “Promethean environmentalist”, although it says it all, would go over the heads of most of the general public, who are the very people we need to reach. I’ve got my thinking cap on but I can’t guarantee any results:)
We have a lot of blogs already, but is anyone aware of a pro-nuclear Wiki space for discussing
1) How to improve safety even more, so we get rid of remaining accidents once a generation
2) All the facts falsifying linear non-threshold radiation junk science (one such fact of course is enough for the purpose)
3) The real safety record in terms of deaths per TW/h
4) The opposition (fossil greens and fossil fuel interests)
5) Effective methods on getting word out on the above points.
If we contest the term environmentalist we help define/redefine the paradigm, rendering problematic the very things we contest — the rather vacuous appeal to what seems good and natural separated from what actually reduces the footprint of human activity on the non-built environment.
I agree… perhaps. Ever thought of being less loquacious?
For example: What exactly do you mean by a reduced “footprint of human activity on the non-built environment”? That humans may do whatever they like with the already stuffed up bits of the world? Adjectival clauses and compound sentences are a lot of fun in a novel, but they can tend to hide the message in something which is intended to be persuasive.
Yep, I know… I use far too many words. Pot…kettle…black. I’m trying to kick the habit.
Regularly, but I’ ve typically rejected it.
We make less of a mess of the biosphere?
I wasn’t proposing my text for the promotion. I merely pointed out that one test of envirnmentalism concerns the extent of the footprint than one’s preferred system entails. Having massive fields of mirrors, boiling salt, wind turbines and gas fed plants is a lot larger than a nuclear plant.
Well, again, think in terms of what industry has been promising all along, because their PR work has been outstandingly good. They found out what people wanted, they found the language that convinced people they were going to get what they wanted, and they advertised the hell out of the ideas for decades.
Yes, regrettably, it wasn’t true — whether it was lying bullshit or delusional overconfidence hardly matters in hindsight.
Industry PR _was_ accurately crafted to tell people what they wanted to hear.
So what do people want to hear?
“Too cheap to meter” (or at least manageable costs)
“Foolproof nuclear” or “bombproof nuclear” or “inherently safe”
What else do they increasingly want?
People want industry to fix its known mistakes rather than waiting out the lifetime of the old plants while hoping nothing goes wrong.
Fukushima Daiichi Unit One was, what, a month from shutdown?
Every beancounter they had would have told them not to waste money fixing up old problems on that plant.
What could go wrong?
That’s what new climate-change-smart nuclear needs to speak to — the real range of risk of _not _ using the new designs, and the fact that they are going to be saving enough money to pay for cleaning up the old bad designs still in operation.
Look at the smart-in-hindsight documentation, because it shows what people want to hear is being admitted and fixed.
This isn’t your grandchildren’s nuclear power:
But it was your grandparents’ nuclear power. And it wasn’t done well, in too many instances.
Don’t just dismiss the stories there. Most of them are well documented stupidity by builders and engineers and inspectors and beancounters.
They could have done a whole lot better at the time. As we could be doing a whole lot better right now, for the future’s sake, cutting carbon.
That’s what people want. Credible results.
So, shorter: my suggestion is:
climate-smart nuclear — your grandchildren’s future.
> falsifying linear non-threshold
That doesn’t exist; can’t exist for decades. With the numbers available, the statistics won’t support conclusions about effects in the low range. That’s beaten to death in prior threads here. Giving that arguing point up to show that people understand the limits of statistics would be a definite step toward credibility here and now. It’s a future-maybe-wish.
It is easy to make a movement out of emotions (fear, hate) not so much out of logic.
Also humans are not naturally equipped to consider the long term cause of their actions. For Anti-nukes it’s easy to come up with tons of one-liners that create negative images. As pro you can only argue logically and not emotionally. That’s why you will always lose. To sum it up, it’s pretty much the same as with religion because it is a movement, an idea. Of course a wrong one in both cases.
I talk a lot about this and people just do not get it. No nuclear-plants = more CO2 = more global warming = probably end of current culture
Environmental problems have always been the cause of collapse. Egyptians, Roman, Mayan, Easter Island culture,…OK I’m pessimistic but fact it, the worst cause scenarios are even much worse and they are not that unrealistic.
Too true, Global Warming… so long as pro-nukers don’t start believing that they have a monopoly on logic. Any tribe can develop religious zeal, even hard headed scientists.
The BZE folk (for instance) may have their sums wrong, but their plan for the future is based on economics and physics. I don’t have great confidence in their preferred ‘solution’, but nor would I accuse their plan as being based on emotion.
Pro-nukers naturally feel as frustrated as all hell – especially following the Fukushima episode – but there again I meet many people in the hard science community who profess an earnest belief in the capabilities of renewable technologies. I wouldn’t describe those folk as flunky emotional types.
There is paranoia out there, and fear too, but not a good idea to label all and sundry. This discussion thread juxtaposes two environmental camps: pro and anti-nuclear as if pitted against each other. I don’t think either camp has succeeded. They just have a different focus. They both feel that the capabilities of their preferred technology is misunderstood. None more so than the hot rocks crowd.
Now that there is to be a carbon price (in one year’s time), both camps will get a boost in the market place. Around the world low carbon technologies (both nuclear and non-nuclear) will grow in leaps and bounds. They can grow together or they can each fight to the death to dominate the other.
If you believe in your product, stay positive.
“UPDATE: The Ultra–Low-Level Radiation study is now under way”
Hat tip to:
Also from the same page at
Jared Diamond, biologist, conservationist, and author of Collapse (2004), had read Holdren’s report closely, so when he was asked by an audience member at a San Francisco talk if he “agreed with Stewart Brand in supporting the revival of nuclear,” he surprised the audience and me by saying yes: “To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power.”
James Howard Kunstler, fervent opponent of suburbs, wrote a book in 2004 titled The Long Emergency. I’m persuaded by neither his expectation of how peak oil plays out nor his views on the fragility of big cities, but many environmentalists are, and they should note that he ends his “Beyond Oil” chapter with the words, “Nuclear power may be all that stands between what we identify as civilization and its alternative.”
There is a category of prominent environmentalist that I predict will increase in coming years—the reluctant tolerators. When they express support of nuclear, they are careful to use sentences too complex to be quote-worthy. Al Gore is one such; he told a Congressional hearing what he usually avoids saying in public, that he is not opposed to nuclear power and expects it will grow somewhat. My old teacher Paul Ehrlich says that climate issues have made him more supportive of nuclear. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, penned a friendly review of Gwyneth Cravens’s Power to Save the World in the environmentalist publication OnEarth. “Environmentalists need to understand that times and circumstances change,” he wrote, “and they need to rethink priorities.…”
> the reluctant tolerators. When they express support of nuclear ….
Regrettably, in the same section, SB cites only one source on hormesis — a claim in an article in a ‘journal’ that Medline doesn’t index based on old science long since superseded and not hard to find.
Neither SB nor the author he relied on cites studies being done on the health of the people who have lived in the buildings in Taiwan. It’s a challenge because early papers were published without sufficiently good statistics, and those keep being referred to while the later and better-supported studies don’t get mentioned.
Here’s how to find the studies, for anyone who wants to read up on the area (your search will bet you whatever’s current when you run it; new work continues to be done citing the earlier studies searched here):
This is how to convince people who read — who may be convinced.
Point them to all the information coming in, and be clear about how much we do know, what we may know later, and what we need to do to find out the answers.
Calculus helps; statistics helps; failing that, follow the cites and footnotes and don’t stop when you find the answer you were looking for — keep looking, in case there are more answers coming in.
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