Guest essay by Eric Worrall
VOX author David Roberts worries the Sierra Club are not being practical, with their opposition to any low carbon power generation technology other than solar or wind.
Reckoning with climate change will demand ugly tradeoffs from environmentalists — and everyone else
Being a climate hawk is not easy for anyone.
By David Roberts@firstname.lastname@example.org Jan 27, 2018, 8:30am EST
Climate change is a crisis. Serious damages are already underway, there’s enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to ensure more damages to come, and if carbon emissions continue unchecked, species-threatening damages become a non-trivial risk.
Lots of people acknowledge this. But it’s one think to acknowledge it and another to really take it on board, to follow all the implications wherever they lead. Very few people have let the reality of the situation sink in deep enough that it reshapes their values and priorities. Being a consistent climate hawk, it turns out, is extremely difficult.
Let’s take a look at an example of what I’m talking about, and then pull back to ponder the broader problem.
Zero-carbon energy vs. environmentalists in New England
The operators of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, the only remaining nuclear plant in Massachusetts, recently announced that they would close the plant no later than June 2019. It has long been plagued with maintenance and safety issues, and nuclear is having a hard time competing in wholesale energy markets.
Pilgrim is a 690 megawatt plant that has been producing 5.12 terrawatt hours of energy per year — around 4.1 percent of the New England region’s energy. (These numbers are courtesy of Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst and MIT PhD candidate, whose tweet thread got me thinking.)
That represents an enormous amount of carbon-free energy about to vanish from the grid, which any climate hawk must surely view with alarm.
Take the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club (SCM). It proclaims that “climate change is an existential threat.” But it is not fighting to find new ownership or better safety procedures for the Pilgrim plant, or ways for the plant to be compensated for the lack of CO2 it produces (as in New York). It advocates that Pilgrim be closed immediately.
OK, well, Pilgrim is a pretty poor performer, safety-wise, so maybe it’s best to replace it as quickly as possible with clean energy.
So how about this idea? As part of an effort to clean the grid, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has proposed the Northern Pass transmission line, which would bring around 9.45 TWh/year of hydroelectric energy down from dams in Quebec. That would replace the lost Pilgrim energy and add more carbon-free energy to boot.
SCM … opposes that too. “Not only will we be contributing to ecological destruction on a massive scale,” it writes, “we will be furthering the exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada.”
This growing war between greens who believe in the climate emergency but want nuclear power, and radical groups like the Sierra Club, seems to be about whether we get to keep the conveniences of modern civilisation.
A new generation of greens is worried about climate change, but they don’t want to give up their cell phones, lattes, cheap power, convenient travel and warm homes in winter.
How do Sierra Club reconcile their concerns about the destruction of habitat which large scale hydro causes, with their advocacy of renewables? Replacing existing energy systems with renewables, if it could be done at all, would require clearing millions of acres of land.
The answer to this dilemma in my opinion is the Sierra Club have no intention of allowing the replacement of existing energy systems.
In my opinion radical greens like the Sierra Club leapt onto the climate bandwagon because they thought the climate cause would help them achieve the social changes they wanted – large scale abandonment of modern civilisation, a return to more natural ways of life. But Sierra Club’s precious climate cause is rapidly morphing into a demand for more nuclear power, which if successful will ultimately lead to a massive increase in global energy use, an expansion of the modern way of life which groups like Sierra Club appear to despise.