Climate options are available now. Nuclear power isn’t one of them
By Linda Pentz Gunter
In 2019 at the Davos World Economic Forum, youth climate leader, Greta Thunberg, then only 16, warned the audience in a quiet and measured voice that addressing the climate crisis involved a solution “so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
In closing, she said: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”
On March 12, 2023, the Biden administration announced that it had approved oil and gas drilling in Arctic Alaska, retaining the United States’s vaunted position, alongside China and India, as one of the world’s leading arsonists.
As the UK daily, The Guardian reported of that decision: “The ConocoPhillips Willow project will be one of the largest of its kind on US soil, involving drilling for oil and gas at three sites for multiple decades on the 23m-acre National Petroleum Reserve which is owned by the federal government and is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the US.”
The US government’s lame excuse for approving the drilling project was that it had few legal options, given Conoco-Phillips holds lease rites to the land dating back decades.
So sue. The house is on fire. Tying the project up in the law courts would have bought us time. Green-lighting new oil and gas drilling is tone deafness to a crisis that has gone beyond the tipping point.
This was confirmed, yet again, days later, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023, the final part of its mammoth Sixth Assessment Report. It came replete with even more dire warnings than in previous AR6 reports, which should already have been panic-inducing enough for the world to wake up and understand that we cannot drill for a single more drop of oil. Ever. Period.
This time, the scientists who co-authored the AR6 Synthesis Report called it their “final warning.” However, in their press release announcing the report, the authors tried to take the high road, insisting that “There are multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now”.
None of those options includes nuclear power, according to the IPCC scientists, which never mentions ‘nuclear’ once in the report narrative. It appears only in a single graph (below) to illustrate its lack of applicability to addressing the climate crisis.
When addressing measures to reach low or zero-carbon, the authors wrote:
“Net zero CO2 energy systems entail: a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and use of Carbon Capture and Storage in the remaining fossil fuel systems; electricity systems that emit no net CO2; widespread electrification; alternative energy carriers in applications less amenable to electrification; energy conservation and efficiency; and greater integration across the energy system (high confidence). Large contributions to emissions reductions can come from options costing less than USD20 tCO2-eq–1, including solar and wind energy, energy efficiency improvements, and CH4 (methane) emissions reductions (from coal mining, oil and gas, and waste) (medium confidence). Many of these response options are technically viable and are supported by the public (high confidence).”
IPCC Chair, Hoesung Lee, said: “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
If we act now. Like we didn’t after Thunberg’s words of warning in 2019. Like the Biden administration didn’t last week. What’s left is the largely empty rhetoric of hope, but no signs of panic.
This lack of urgency is compounded by a failure in the media to put the climate emergency on the front page with regularity. The given reason is that it’s not what their readers are interested in, a complete abdication of responsibility to inform, educate, and in the case of the climate crisis, to inflame passion and a demand for action. And there is also, in the US at least, and as we wrote last week, a lamentable adherence to an outdated formula that relegates the voices of right and reason to the back of the quote queue.
This was no better (or should that be worse) exemplified than by the two days of coverage about the Alaskan Willow project in The Washington Post, which never once in either story quoted anyone from the Indigenous Alaskan population bitterly opposed to the drilling.
In contrast, The Guardian led its Willow story with condemnation from the environmental movement and gave its first quote to a climate action group and its second to Sonia Ahkivgak, social outreach coordinator at the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic group, who said: “The Biden administration’s approval makes it clear that its call for climate action and the protection of biodiversity is talk, not action.”
Opinions from environmental groups languished in the closing paragraphs of both days of the Washington Post coverage — in the second article it was the very last paragraph — at which readers arrived after wading through a narrative devoted to the views of officials from oil companies, government and academia.
As a result, we still aren’t seeing the outrage where it really matters. We are still confronting deniers. And our governments are not taking the climate crisis nearly seriously enough. Instead of rushing for the fire hoses, they are bringing buckets.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline photo by MSgt Christopher DeWitt/Wikimedia Commons.
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