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.

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About J. M. Korhonen

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6 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.
    -heather

  5. Norman Normal says:

    To address a broader point about rhetoric. I would argue that rhetoric in energy debates is almost never consciously deployed except by the professional participants, which is to say PR people, pro campaigners and so forth. More professionalized movements brainwash their activist cadres a bit more effectively with correct “messaging” protocols but pro nukes are thankfully not (yet) such a group. Therefore there is a deviation from basically conciliatory canards about the need for renewables, which is all too often code for the need to respect the other point of view. The salient point is that nuclear and renewables are pretty much in a de facto zero sum competition. Both are competing for a finite political capital. ( Relegating nuclear to the margins and to what are, currently, virtual hypotheticals like heating applications is really just a stalling tactic.). We fight because political reality demands it.

    And many of us are both angry and convinced that it may be wise to express it. To understand the colour of language used in energy debates I think we have to look deeper into the underlying value conflicts. In the case of nuclear and its “cult of the warrior”. I think the key thing to recognize is that nuclear advocates, ie. those attempting to reform environmentalism on this point, *are a reactionary movement*, attacking idealism from a pragmatic standpoint. We sound reactionary because we are. And we need to own it. Be proud of it.

    We are also part of a far broader wave of reaction in Western politics. But without it being acknowledged we are the most crucial vanguard of it. Shellenberger and Nordhaus in The Death of Environmentalism rightly pointed out that contemporary environmentalism is a twin of the New Left. Its power rose like so-called postmodern identity politics from the 60s generation’s “long march through the institutions”. I would say this is part of a long term polarizing dynamic across the whole political spectrum. One which has been very useful to capitalist elites. Divide and conquer.

    Can we admit to ourselves that rejecting the Standard Model of environmentalism (which has really been the same from the 60s down to Klein et al) implies an unapologetic break with an idealism we often formerly held, our friends held and hold, for an insistence on realism? Can those of us on the left supporting nukes admit to ourselves that we share in a current of reaction which is broadly left-critical at least for a corrective historical moment *before* it is antagonistic to the right?

    The self doubt is: is our reaction *against* polarization or part and parcel with it? “Reaction” in its positive sense can take the form of subjecting specious ideals to logic and pragmatism.If we are thoroughly pragmatic we cannot be guilty of going to the opposite extreme. But pragmatism is still an affront to traditional greens, and there is no point in not presenting it as such. We cannot barring some techno miracles in renewables — which it would be unpragmatic to expect — drop our fundamental demand for reform on nuclear.

    What I am driving at is that there is no real wisdom in concealing a clash of values beneath PR speak. And the camouflage of PR speak is inherent to environmentalism’s ability to maintain its basis in spurious idealism. Setting ourselves apart from this can only be a strength in the long term.

    The incumbents of the nuclear industry are of course horrified at this sort of talk. From Three Mile Island onwards they learned to fear mobs — which is to say politicized people — perhaps most of all friendly mobs, who threaten to break down the Chinese containment wall between themselves and political discourse. Like gen 3 reactor designs, they have become a sort of giant pressurized silo. And there’s nothing in error about this — from their commercial point of view. But obviously, that is not a perspective informed by decarbonization, or any other absolute public good..

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