Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Instructions in Cynicism

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.

Discussions - 13 Comments

Welcome to No Left Turns, Dr. Voegeli. If this is the sort of post we can expect from you, I suspect I’ll very much enjoy having you around. A word of caution, however--whatever you do don’t mention Abraham You-Know-Who. It makes some people very upset.

I did some calculations on this, and if we had the same proportion of our electricity generated from nuclear as France (78%), global greenhouse gas emissions--global, I said--would be about 10 percent lower. Not a bad start. If France can do it, why can’t we?? By the way, I hope our liberal friends of NLT will duly take note of the fact that Bill V. and I are holding up France as an example for the U.S. to emulate, at least in this area. How often does that happen?

The one serious science paper I wrote as an undergrad was on the new generation of smaller, often water-immersed, and thus almost infinitely more safer, reactors being used in Europe, France and Scandanavia particularly. The science is there, or rather, it was there over twenty years ago. We don’t have to build more Three Mile Islands or San Enofres, and we don’t have to fight huge-stakes NIMBY battles to get a lot of nuclear power. My impression, could be wrong, is that it just hasn’t been economical in the U.S. due to the expenses caused by anti-nuclear sentiment creating endless litigation, regulations national and local, etc. This is a case where our more local and more democratic approaches to governance have let anti-science ignorance/prejudice of the most flat-earth vareity win out. The quacks, with a little help from bad decisions and "just trust us" attitudes in the past, have skeered our citizens silly about nuclear power. Unlike in France, our citizens have multiple avenues for opposing it.

I’m not sure how the economics of the smaller nuclear plants in the current US environment play out for power companies, but everyone, left and right, should be trying to get the public to consider the real science on this. The risks of another Three Mile Island simply aren’t there, and the actual harm to environment and humans done by that accident pales in comparison to what happens in similar scale accidents at oil refineries, etc. Beyond economic/local governance considerations, the ONLY problems with doing it are a) you need to store the waste somewhere safe, and b) with lots of plants, there’s lots of materials and technologies being distributed transported that could be used for dirty bombs or worse. For the US, b) is not a problem, but it’s why we should not promote nuke plants as solutions for potentially unstable or untrustworthy nations. As for a) the federal government should find a way to get Nevada (or is it Utah?) to let us use those salt mines they’ve been debating about forever. And if they remain stubborn, safe but not super-duper safe-for-10,000-years alternatives can be dug. Our nation owns a lot of desert land, which Abraham Lincoln, the greatest statesman we ever had, knew quite well.

Steve, we’d have to standardize plant design to follow France’s lead. Of course, that calls for a major governmental role...would conservatives tolerate that much interference in "the market?"

Well done! Welcome aboard.

Great work ...and that’s coming from the most cynical conservative on the planet (well, maybe second only to MK).

Always nice to see a new blogger added to mix . . .


The Cynical Liberal

My concern about nuclear power is not the fact that we can build them, but more about who would oversee them, who would regulate them and who would insure they are safe.

If it’s the same quality of government official we’ve been subjected to since 2001, and the type who organized and launched the Iraq war, I’ll take a pass on nuclear.

These plants could not be run like the Iraq war, our foreign diplomacy, the clean up of Hurrican Katrina and the running of our Justice Department. It’s not something you start then walk away and let it fall to pieces. That’s a level of incompetence we cannot afford.

So global warming is a crisis of Biblical proportions, but we can’t do anything about it unless our government is run by Democrats, presumably in perpetuity.

Whenever I think Republicans are stupid, and I do so frequently, all it takes is a little exposure to somebody from the left and suddenly I’m a rabid right winger again.

lefty, whose interest is it in to build unsafe nuclear reactors? It is not in the interest of those companies that build the plants, certainly. Neither management nor investors would benefit. Why wouldn�t those companies seek to be careful in the building? It doesn�t take government oversight to make a safe nuclear reactor.

Be careful, Kate. Did you ever see Silkwood? Kerr-McGee was very negligent in that uranium-rod facility. Sometimes companies cut corners and engage in unsafe practices...even in this litigious country. I think we’d want all power plants built on a standard plan, and we’d want both a private and a public inspection regime (+ mucho security, if we go the small facility route).

dain, you refer me to a movie on this topic?

Wouldn�t a standard plan be an unwanted limit on innovation and improvement? Mr. Voegeli writes again, and I�ll go play at the new post.

I just thought you were more likely to have seen the movie than to have read those news’s pretty old stuff. As for "innovation," France has a standard plant blueprint, which holds down costs, allows them to have spare parts (and expertise) in great supply, and makes inspection far more routine (and sure). I think that beats innovation when you are dealing with an environmental poison that is so potent. Don’t think so? Here’s another movie/documentary for you: Chernobyl Heart. Nasty after-effects.

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