Pragmatic, inclusive energy discussion works

Here’s one data point for the debate about communicating nuclear power: The approval rating of nuclear power in Finland has risen by a whopping seven percentage points in a year. In Pyhäjoki, where the Russian Rosatom is building its highly-contested reactor, the approval of nuclear power hovers around 75 percent despite all the media attention given to the very real problems with the project and the way it was handled.

At the same time, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society has been more and more active in calm, measured discussion about energy and climate issues and the positives of including nuclear power as one energy option among others. While it would be an overstatement to say that the work of Finnish ecomodernists is responsible for this increase in public approval, at the very least it shows that thoughtful, balanced approach does not prevent the increase in popularity of a contentious energy source.

For some years now, I’ve firmly believed that all maximalist energy plans are mistakes on both practical and political levels. While plans and ideas that call for 100% renewable or 100% nuclear energy to decarbonise the world may be physically possible, I don’t think they represent the most reliable, nor the fastest, nor the cheapest ways to required near-total decarbonisation. Furthermore, I don’t believe we can know with any certainty the details of the energy system of the 2050s; therefore, arguing that one route or the other is clearly superior seems to me a case of hubris.

Instead, I believe that we ought to encourage all approaches that have the potential to reduce emissions to the atmosphere, or draw down greenhouse gases that are already there. I also believe that at this juncture, we don’t have the luxury of opposing any major low-carbon energy projects, unless for very good and fairly specific reasons.

We need to remain critical of energy technologies and, in particular, energy projects. There are no unproblematic technologies, and despite the obvious need for vast amounts of low-carbon energy, no technology or project should go unchallenged. But there is a fine line between being a critic, and coming off as an arrogant, obsessed devotee. Coming off as a latter – even if one is technically speaking correct – is a surefire way of alienating people who might actually be otherwise open to a discussion. Being obnoxiously certain of the superiority of one’s chosen solutions is just another way of being a jerk. (Note that I don’t claim to be innocent here, but I do try to make amends.)

And since we also need a lot higher public approval for all low-carbon energy and climate mitigation projects, we all ought to focus on promoting what we like instead of bashing what we don’t like. By all means, be critical – just don’t overdo it. The Finnish example shows, in my mind, that thoughtful discussion goes a lot farther a lot faster than bashing the opposition.

(As an aside, we’ve benefited from having a previous example. Back in 1993, the Finnish Parliament voted for a permit for the fifth nuclear reactor in Finland. The permit was denied, and latter post mortems noted that a major (though not the only) reason was the smug, alienating approached used by the promoters of the fifth nuclear reactor. They came off as arrogant, technocratic know-it-alls who disparaged every other idea and solution, called the opposition unscientific and irrational, and managed to alienate even some dyed-in-the-wool nuclear supporters. In contrast, the 2003 decision was lobbied very differently, with an approach that envisioned nuclear power as one solution among others and was by far more courteous to the critics. Since I read those post-mortems, I’ve done my best to cultivate similar approach in my advocacy.)

Thanks to Rauli Partanen for the idea for this post, and particularly for his hard work in energy advocacy. You should follow Rauli in Twitter, @kaikenhuippu, and check out our book, Climate Gamble.


About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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5 Responses to Pragmatic, inclusive energy discussion works

  1. Note, too, other details like how Finnish _Green Party_ members are actually proposing things like examining the uses of small modular reactors in district heating.

    I seriously believe this wouldn’t be possible if the debate continued to paint the pro-renewable and pro-nuclear sides as irrational or out of touch with reality.

    Now, what works here in Finland may not work everywhere, and I’d love to hear from other parts of the world – what’s your take?

  2. mjangwin says:

    I think that the nuclear field was dominated in the past by men who had learned about nuclear in the military. They are an asset to the field and to power plants, but when they are the only people speaking in favor of nuclear energy, the discussion doesn’t feel very welcoming. The dialog has expanded with the addition of supporters like Mothers for Nuclear (several of whom started out in renewables), myself (my first work was in renewables) and others like Lynas, Cravens, etc. Inclusiveness increases inclusiveness. You are completelly correct.

    • Alex Cannara says:

      And men, like our 100+ on mail lists who were not in the industry but who were/are scientists/engineers/teachers/preachers… or just envitonmetally-concerned citizens willing to think.

  3. A wonderful description of the very real phenomena where panicked climate advocates, who clearly have their hearts in the right place, seem to think that they can ignore the concept of respect and social relationships in bringing others around to their point of view. Such tactics turn off more people than they convert. Thank you for a great articulation of the issue!

  4. Thanks for the reminders. In California, most of our skeptics come in the form of all-renewables advocates, so it’s easy to get into a pattern of explaining why they won’t work, and from there, what’s bad about renewables. But you are right, we must show how every possible solution has a part of the total.

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