Jonathan Chait recently
argued that the only time conservatives suspend their skepticism about global warming is when they want to promote nuclear energy as the solution. They do this cynically, however: “Nuclear plants may be a small part of the answer, but you couldn’t build enough to make a major dent.” So why do conservatives promote it? Only because they “know that lefties hate nuclear power.”
Infuriating the cultural studies department is fun, but there are stronger reasons to support nuclear power. It won’t do to say nukes are a small part of the answer; if Al Gore is right about global warming, the problem is so immense that every possible solution is only a small part of the answer. Fareed Zakaria points out that a 60% cut in global carbon-dioxide emissions would be necessary to keep greenhouse gases at their current level. The economic effects of that drastic change would “make the Great Depression look very small.” Even if every American drove a hybrid, the effect on global greenhouse gases wouldn’t be much more than a rounding error at a time when China and India are building 650 coal-burning power plants.
Chait doesn’t give conservatives enough credit – we’re more cynical than he thinks. Promoting nuclear power doesn’t just agitate the Greens. It calls them on their own cynicism. You say global warming calls for hard choices? Here’s your chance to make one, Lefty – swallow hard and admit the obvious: more nuclear power means fewer carbon-dioxide emissions. The cynical conservatives who bring you the message that the world would be better off if we increased the nuclear portion of America’s total kilowatts from its current level, 20%, must be in league with the right-wingers running Sweden and France, where nukes generate 47% and 78%, respectively, of all electricity.
The environmentalists who refuse to make even this concession are, cynically, denying or hiding the consequences of solving global warming on their terms. They know that popular enthusiasm for “doing something” about global warming will melt like an iceberg in tropical Greenland if the “something” turns out to involve telling rich nations they’ve been rich long enough, or poor ones that they should stay poor, since they’ve got the hang of it. If a wave of new technologies that reconcile economic growth with cutting greenhouse emissions doesn’t conveniently present itself, electorates around the world are unlikely to share the Sierra Club’s fastidiousness about nuclear power.
This cynicism was on display in Chait’s own magazine, The New Republic. It recently took the interesting editorial position that global warming is so cataclysmically urgent that it is imperative for Democrats to . . . do nothing about it until after the 2008 elections. “There won’t be many chances to get [climate change] right, and Democrats will need to wait until they can go for broke.” The prospect of another Republican in the White House is worse, apparently, than the prospect of alligators in the streets of Anchorage. The New Republic isn’t running for election, however, and even if it advises Democrats to maintain radio silence rather than advertise what they’ll do about global warming, there’s no reason for Chait and his colleagues not to say what they’re for. No reason but cynicism, that is.