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If They Are So Alarmed By Climate Change, Why Are They So Opposed To Solving It?

Michael Shellenberger, Forbes

Nobody appears to be more concerned about climate change than Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders, student activist Greta Thunberg, and the thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists who shut down London last year. 

Last year, Sanders called climate change “an existential threat.” Extinction Rebellion said, “Billions will die.” And Thunberg said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful” about climate change, “I want you to panic.”

But if Sanders, Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion are so alarmed about carbon emissions, why are they fighting to halt the use of two technologies, fracking and nuclear, that are most responsible for reducing them? 

Sanders says he would ban both natural gas and nuclear energy, Thunberg says she opposes nuclear energy, and Extinction Rebellion’s spokesperson said in a debate with me on BBC that she opposes natural gas. 

And yet, emissions are declining thanks to the higher use of nuclear energy and natural gas. Carbon emissions have been declining in developed nations for the last decade. In Europe, emissions in 2018 were 23% below 1990 levels. In the U.S., emissions fell 15 percent from 2005 to 2016. 

It’s true that industrial wind turbines and solar panels contributed to lower emissions. But their contribution was hugely outweighed by nuclear and natural gas. 

Globally, nuclear energy produces nearly twice as much electricity at half the cost. And nuclear-heavy France pays little more than half as much for electricity that produces one-tenth of the carbon emissions as renewables-heavy, anti-nuclear Germany. 

Natural gas reduced emissions 11 times more than solar energy and 50 percent more than wind energy in the U.S. And the unreliable nature of renewables means that they do not substitute for fossil power plants like nuclear plants do and instead must be backed up by natural gas or hydro-electric dams. 

Can They Be Serious?

What gives? Why are the people who are most alarmist about climate change so opposed to the technologies that are solving it?

One possibility is that they truly believe nuclear and natural gas are as dangerous as climate change. This appears to be partly the case for nuclear energy, even though neither Sanders nor Thunberg offers anti-nuclear rhetoric anywhere nearly as apocalyptic as their rhetoric on climate change. 

Before progressives were apocalyptic about climate change they were apocalyptic about nuclear energy. Then, after the Cold War ended, and the threat of nuclear war declined radically, they found a new vehicle for their secular apocalypse in the form of climate change. 

Though nuclear energy has prevented the premature deaths of nearly two million people by reducing air pollution, and though nuclear weapons have contributed to the Long Peace since World War II, many people remain phobicof the technology.

In the case of natural gas, neither Sanders, Thunberg, or Extinction Rebellion claim it is more dangerous or worse than coal. They simply argue that we don’t need it, thanks to renewables and energy efficiency.

But Sanders learned the hard way that renewables can’t replace nuclear. Where Vermont promised to reduce emissions by 16% between 1990 and 2015, emissions instead rose 25%. Part of the reason was the closure of a nuclear plant, something Sanders advocated.

“You think we should eliminate nuclear power,” said Martha MacCallum in a Fox Town Hall meeting, “which I know they did in Vermont.”

“Sure,” said Sanders.

“But it ended up moving your emissions higher,” added MacCallum.

“Honestly, I don’t think that that’s correct,” said Sanders.

In fact, it is correct and has been confirmed by The Boston Globe, the plant’s former operator, a well-respected Vermont energy analysta think tank, and researchers with my organization, Environmental Progress.

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