In 2018, a radical new environmental group emerged in the United Kingdom. The loose-knit organization called itself Extinction Rebellion, or “XR,” and aimed to raise awareness of climate change through disruptive protests. XR activists staged dramatic “die-ins” and shut down London bridges and metro stations. The group’s leaders warned that climate change could “kill six billion people this century” and called for Britain to halt the use of fossil fuels virtually overnight. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement that inspired it, XR disdains detailed policy prescriptions. But its members generally scorn our modern, energy-intensive lifestyles, while also rejecting nuclear power and other high-tech approaches to reducing emissions. To save the planet, many believe, capitalism itself needs to be overthrown.
One of the group’s most charismatic spokespeople was Zion Lights. The daughter of Indian immigrants and a mother of two, Lights was a longtime environmental advocate. (The Telegraph once dubbed her “Britain’s greenest mum.”) But she found herself hard-pressed to defend XR’s more extreme claims. Hoping to understand the issues better, Lights returned to college, where she studied the debates surrounding nuclear power and related themes. “I started to realize that almost everything I had believed was wrong,” she told me, when I interviewed her recently for a podcast. When Lights tried to discuss her new perspective with her XR colleagues, she said, “I found there was this immense, immense resistance.”
Ultimately, Lights had to ask herself a painful question: “What if you’d dedicated most of your life to trying to save the planet,” she wrote in Quillette last year, “but then you realized that you may have actually—potentially—made things worse?” It’s a question that more environmentalists should grapple with today. Over the past half-century, their movement has scored world-changing victories in reducing air and water pollution, preserving wilderness, and protecting wildlife. But when it comes to fighting global warming, the issue that most environmentalists now see as the planet’s paramount threat, the green-policy elite has arguably done more harm than good.
That claim certainly sounds counterintuitive, but evidence shows that some of the activists’ favored policies—especially the single-minded focus on wind and solar facilities for making electricity—have been marginally effective, at best. Other policies, such as replacing gasoline and diesel fuel with biofuels made from plants, actually increase emissions. One of the environmental movement’s biggest self-described victories has been its long-running war against nuclear power, the only technology that demonstrates the capability to reduce dramatically a nation’s carbon footprint. Today, some green activists are fighting against the next generation of climate-friendly technologies, including advanced nuclear reactors and systems to capture and store the carbon in fossil fuels, or even scrub it from the atmosphere. Call it the green war on clean energy.
Extremists like Extinction Rebellion aren’t the only ones with misguided ideas about how best to reduce emissions. Last November, heads of state and representatives from global NGOs, financial firms, and energy companies gathered in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations climate summit. Speakers unleashed their most impassioned language. “We are digging our own graves,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. British prime minister Boris Johnson compared the planet to James Bond, “strapped to a doomsday device” that threatens to “end human life as we know it.” Despite the catastrophism, conference attendees mostly stuck to a well-worn playbook. Governments promised to boost spending on renewable energy and restrict use of oil and gas. Financial organizations agreed to international guidelines that penalize fossil-fuel investments and favor green-energy projects.
While some countries promised to set even stricter targets for future emissions, China, the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, resisted demands to curtail its heavy coal consumption and pledged only to start reducing emissions sometime in the indefinite future. As the Associated Press noted, “the high aspirations and apocalyptic imagery at the start of the summit were soon met with a cold dose of reality.”
Nonetheless, global emissions do appear to be peaking. The more apocalyptic scenarios that some activists forecasted are unlikely to happen. In fact, most developed nations are slowly reducing their carbon footprints, though not at the aggressive rates they’ve promised. Ironically, these reductions in emissions often occur not because of the policies advocated at climate conferences but despite them.
Ted Nordhaus, founder of the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute, is skeptical of the “global climate-industrial complex” on display at COP26. “A climate movement less in thrall to fever dreams of apocalypse would focus more on balancing long-term emissions reductions with growth, development, and adaptation in the here and now,” he writes. The extremists of Extinction Rebellion and similar groups demand “system change,” by which they mean dismantling free markets, creating alternatives to existing democratic institutions, and deliberately reducing living standards through a process they call “degrowth.” The COP26 technocrats don’t advocate anything that radical, but they, too, envision a more centralized, less growth-oriented model for society. Under the COP26 paradigm, entire sectors of the economy—energy, transportation, manufacturing, housing—would undergo wrenching transformations.
According to this vision, markets are not adequate to manage the necessary transitions. Instead, change must be driven through government regulation, supranational agreements between industry and NGOs, financial controls, and other top-down measures. Certain technologies—electric vehicles, say, or rooftop solar panels—must be heavily subsidized, while others—internal combustion engines, gas stoves—should be penalized or even banned. The use of fossil fuels should be curtailed by any means necessary, including pushing up prices by restricting drilling and pipeline construction. All policies must be geared to achieve “net-zero emissions” by 2050.
This is a staggeringly difficult goal, which would touch every aspect of modern life. Yet net-zero advocates too often reject or neglect the very policies most likely to help the world achieve it. As Nordhaus recently wrote in The Economist, the activist community “insists upon re-engineering the global economy without many of the technologies that most technical analyses conclude would be necessary, including nuclear energy, carbon capture and carbon removal.” In other words, green elites want to upend the lives of billions but show surprisingly little interest in whether their programs work. In some parts of the world, the climate lobby has already managed to enact policies that raise prices, hinder growth, and promote political instability—all while achieving only marginal reductions in emissions.
The problem starts with the movement’s blanket opposition to fossil fuels. For example, most environmentalists viscerally oppose fracking and natural-gas pipelines. The Biden administration moved to curtail U.S. gas drilling within days of taking office (one reason U.S. gas prices have roughly tripled since Biden became president). But in fact, since natural gas emits nearly 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, it is one of our best tools to bring down emissions in the short term, while also benefiting the economy. Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, writes: “The U.S. fracking boom of 2008 onward tempered inflation, created hundreds of thousands of jobs during the worst recession in a century, and, yes, reduced carbon emissions by displacing much dirtier coal-fired power.”
Eco-pragmatists like Trembath see natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that can ease the transition to lower-carbon energy sources. (Soon, carbon capture and storage [CCS] technology could make it feasible to harness the energy in gas while putting much less carbon into the atmosphere.) But most environmental activists argue that we must phase out natural gas as rapidly as possible, replacing it almost exclusively with wind and solar power. Wind and solar power can help reduce carbon emissions, as long as they are part of a mix of energy sources. But renewable-energy champions tend to gloss over the huge challenges of trying to power the grid primarily with such on-again, off-again energy sources.
People understand, of course, that wind and solar facilities make power only when the wind blows or the sun shines. But even experts sometimes underestimate what a complex challenge this “intermittency” presents to grid operators. Since most wind and solar facilities sit idle most of the time, renewable-power producers have to overbuild production capacity massively. Renewable power also requires a whole new network of transmission lines in order to shuttle power from, say, sunny areas to cloudy ones. Renewable backers promise that imminent breakthroughs in battery technology will make intermittency a minor problem. In reality, while batteries can help grid operators manage short peaks in demand, they remain far too expensive to serve as a long-term backup. All these challenges mean that, while the “all-renewable” power-grid activists’ demand isn’t technically impossible, it would cost far more—and take far longer to build—than more balanced approaches.
Despite those obstacles, most green activists regard wind and solar power as something close to a climate panacea. So one would assume that environmental groups are lobbying hard to get these projects approved and built. Yet environmental activists often lead the way in opposing the construction of renewable-energy projects—especially when they’re slated to be built in their own backyards. In the U.S., environmental groups are currently fighting solar installations in Massachusetts, California, Nevada, Florida, and many other states. Wind-turbine farms face even more opposition: since 2015, more than 300 U.S. communities have rejected or restricted wind projects, according to a database maintained by energy author Robert Bryce.
It’s no wonder many environmentalists are conflicted: the zero-carbon energy sources they demand can take a terrible toll on the wildlife and open spaces they love. California’s iconic Altamont Pass wind farm, for example, kills thousands of birds yearly, including an estimated 75 to 110 golden eagles. Solar farms threaten endangered desert tortoises and other wildlife. Because of their low energy density, wind and solar developments require enormous tracts of land, compared with other energy sources. New York’s now-shuttered Indian Point nuclear power plant sits on just 240 acres. Replacing its power entirely with wind power would require more than 500 square miles of turbines. That’s a massive amount of land and habitat lost to energy production.
The biggest roadblock that the green movement has thrown in front of cutting emissions is its long-standing opposition to nuclear energy. Leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the League of Conservation Voters, have been fighting nuclear power since the 1970s. “When you are in the environmental movement, you are just automatically anti certain things,” Zion Lights told me. “And nuclear power is the biggest bogeyman.”
Even after decades of research into alternative energy, nuclear power remains the only proven means to produce electricity that is at once reliable, emissions-free, and capable of being scaled up to meet growing demand. But decades of antinuclear activism have eroded public support. After the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, the U.S. and other countries imposed regulatory burdens that go far beyond legitimate safety needs. In most Western nations, nuclear-plant construction has largely ground to a halt.
But what if nuclear research and plant construction had continued to advance at the pace seen in the 1970s? One Australian researcher concluded: “Had the early rates continued, nuclear power could now be around 10 percent of its current cost.” That cheap, clean power would have made the use of coal—and, in many cases, even natural gas—unnecessary for power generation. In turn, this hypothetical nuclear revolution would have eliminated roughly five years’ worth of global emissions from fossil fuels and prevented more than 9 million deaths caused by air pollution. Most green activists today would see such numbers as nothing short of a miracle. Yet it was environmentalists who led the campaign to halt the rollout of the cleanest, and greenest, of all power sources.
When Lights studied the debates around energy and climate, she came to the same conclusions that other open-minded environmentalists have reached: that fears of nuclear accidents and waste are wildly overblown; that the advantages of renewable energy have been oversold; and that policies limiting the supply of energy inflict heavy costs on the poor. In 2021, Lights decided to split with her radical green allies, launching Emergency Reactor, a group that advocates for nuclear power and takes a more positive stance toward energy in general. “Wealthy countries need reliable, non-carbon energy, and poorer countries need clean energy to develop,” she writes on the group’s website.
Lights isn’t alone. As I have written in these pages, a growing number of pragmatic environmentalists now embrace nuclear power. (See “The Nuclear Option,” Winter 2019.) Tech gurus, including Bill Gates, are investing in next-generation nuclear startups. Some environmental groups have softened their opposition to the technology. And some political leaders—notably, France’s Emmanuel Macron and President Biden—have embraced nuclear energy. As part of its $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the Biden administration is rolling out a $6 billion program to help save endangered U.S. nuclear plants. The new Inflation Reduction Act also includes more support for nuclear power (although those benefits are dwarfed by the hundreds of billions allocated to wind and solar). After years of discouraging investments in nuclear power, the European Union recently moved to include nuclear in its “Green Taxonomy” of technologies that it considers compatible with net-zero goals. Recently, the global energy crunch caused by the war in Ukraine gave nuclear supporters another boost.
Nuclear advocates still face an uphill battle. Though opposition is declining, the Capital Research Center estimates that American nonprofits campaigning against nuclear power “spent at least $1.1 billion in 2018.” And official support for nuclear often comes with strings attached. The EU’s inclusion of nuclear in its Green Taxonomy, for example, includes tight time limits and other restrictions calculated to scare off investors.
So despite hints of progress, the nuclear industry remains in a vise: on one side, nuclear plants face pressure from activists and politicians; on the other, they are financially squeezed by renewable energy, which receives comparatively massive subsidies. Not surprisingly, U.S. nuclear facilities are closing at a rate of roughly one per year, with several plants likely to shut down over the next five years. And groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, have begun lobbying against regulatory approval for the next generation of designs, including small modular reactors and other concepts. Despite ample evidence that these advanced reactors will be dramatically safer than today’s (already quite safe) nuclear plants, UCS opposes them—partly because their small size and low risk “could facilitate placement of new reactors in BIPOC [black, indigenous, people of color] communities.” The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently pleased these critics when it rejected an application from Oklo Power—one of the most promising nuclear startups—to build a test version of the company’s groundbreaking micro-reactor.
What makes nuclear power such a lightning rod for environmentalists? Climate economist Gernot Wagner notes that the modern environmental movement “came of age against the backdrop of the global threat of all-out nuclear war.” He writes: “Take this anti-war base, add to it a hefty dose of anti-corporatism, a helping of anti-capitalism, and a pinch or two of ‘small is beautiful,’ and most environmentalists’ attitude toward nuclear power becomes a fait accompli.” As Wagner says, green hostility toward nuclear power harmonizes with broader progressive political views. Some activists clearly state that their real enemy isn’t carbon but the market economy. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Canadian writer Naomi Klein calls climate change “the best argument there has ever been for changing . . . the rules of capitalism.”
Even moderate environmentalists often express similar, if less explicit, sentiments. These include the suspicion that technology is somehow antithetical to nature, a fear that markets are fatally corrupted by greed, and a vague yearning for a more natural way of life. This faintly Rousseauian worldview leads to certain policy preferences: organic farms are better than “industrial agriculture”; collectivist solutions are superior to money-grubbing markets; growing biofuels is preferable to drilling for oil and gas; and so on. In this mind-set, wind and solar power (despite requiring plenty of exotic materials and technologies) intuitively seems like the antithesis of scary, high-tech nuclear energy. What could be more natural than harvesting the wind and the sun? Not all climate advocates embrace this kind of fuzzy thinking, of course. But an alarming number of lawmakers, NGOs, and even heads of state continue to favor utopian sentiments over economic and engineering reality.
Europe offers a vivid example of this phenomenon. In 2000, Germany announced its ambition to become the world leader in developing renewable energy, while renouncing fossil fuels and nuclear power. As noted environmental scientist Vaclav Smil writes, this Energiewende policy “is rooted in Germany’s naturalistic and romantic tradition.” It reflects the socialist influence of the Green Party as well as the German public’s antipathy to all things nuclear. Two decades later, Germany has spent well more than 500 billion euros on wind and solar infrastructure, biofuels, and other initiatives. Even so, Energiewende is an environmental, economic, and geopolitical train wreck. By 2019, Smil notes, the country’s total share of energy produced by fossil fuels had fallen from—wait for it—84 percent to 78 percent. Despite its huge commitment to renewable energy, Germany hasn’t managed to reduce its carbon emissions any faster than the U.S. has. The country still mines and imports mountains of dirty coal. Even before the Ukraine crisis, German consumers were paying the highest electricity rates in Europe. And shortfalls in domestic energy production have made Germany desperately dependent on coal—and on natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Faced with that cascade of undesirable outcomes, you might think that Germany’s leaders would reassess. But no. In January 2022—as energy anxieties mounted, and Putin amassed his troops—Germany closed three of its last six remaining nuclear plants. The rest were scheduled to shut down by the end of the year. At that point, Germany would have eliminated in a single year 12 percent of its total electrical generating capacity—all safe, reliable, and carbon-free. The action was “applauded by environmentalists,” wrote the New York Times. After Russia’s Ukraine invasion, the German government still rejected calls to keep the plants open. But after Putin began throttling gas supplies, the country’s leaders finally realized they are facing “a wave of poverty.” In July, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his government would “have a look at” the possibility of keeping the plants operating.
In the U.S., California has followed a similar route. In 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a mandate to create “an entirely carbon-free energy grid” by 2045. The plan isn’t going well. Replacing the reliable baseload electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear plants with fluctuating wind and solar power has made the state’s power grid notoriously unreliable. To avoid blackouts, California has had to allow gas plants to exceed normal emissions limits, import coal-generated electricity from other states, and even permit the use of diesel generators for grid power. Not surprisingly, California consumers now pay about 80 percent more for electricity than most Americans. But the state’s carbon emissions have fallen only about 5 percent since 2000, roughly on par with the national average.
Nonetheless, for years, California leaders remained committed to retiring Diablo Canyon, the state’s last operating nuclear power plant, in 2025. Fortunately, Governor Gavin Newsom has had a road-to-Damascus conversion on the issue. In a dramatic turnaround, Newsom recently proposed having the state offer the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, a forgivable $1.4 billion loan to keep the plant open through 2035. Free-market advocates might bristle at using taxpayer money to prop up a business in this fashion. But, given the billions California has already lavished on wind and solar projects, $1.4 billion to keep the state’s largest and most dependable power source running will likely turn out to be a bargain.
Such pragmatism is encouraging. Still, political leaders and environmental groups too often remain biased against policies that might bring down energy prices or help the economy. In New York’s Hudson Valley, the environmental nonprofit Riverkeeper has an impressive history of protecting the Hudson River habitat. But it also spearheaded the campaign to close Indian Point, the nuclear plant that provided 25 percent of the electricity in the New York City region. Advocates for closing the plant promised that renewable energy would easily replace the power lost. In addition to new wind and solar projects, they pointed to a planned underground transmission line that would carry renewable hydro power from Quebec to the metro region. Then-governor Andrew Cuomo promised that the closure would result in “no new carbon emissions.”
But when Indian Point shut down for good in April 2021, all the wind and solar facilities in New York State combined were producing less than a third of the power churned out by that single plant. So, just as in other regions where nuclear plants have closed, grid operators turned to natural gas to fill the gap. Statewide grid-related CO2 emissions shot up by 15 percent. Analysts warned of potential blackouts. Electricity prices rose, too, jumping 50 percent for New York City residents. Then Riverkeeper executed a brazen maneuver: with Indian Point now closed, the organization began lobbying New York’s Public Service Commission against the proposed power line from Canada that it had previously supported. The group announced that it had “the courage to take a second hard look at this project.” Many clean-energy advocates were outraged. Jesse Jenkins, a respected energy analyst at Princeton, took to Twitter to say that he found it “incredibly frustrating to see environmental groups who allegedly see climate change as a ‘crisis’ regularly and actively opposing solutions.”
Riverkeeper’s about-face reveals a troubling contradiction at the heart of the climate movement. Green technocrats say that we must “electrify everything,” shifting cars and trucks, home heating, industrial processes, and more to electric power instead of fossil fuels. In a world of ample, cheap electricity, that process might be feasible, even desirable. But while activists support renewable energy in theory, they consistently oppose the infrastructure needed—not just to produce that energy but to deliver it to consumers. For example, a mostly renewable-power grid would require hundreds of thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. But environmental groups have filed lawsuits against a proposed line designed to carry wind power from New Mexico to Arizona and a similar transmission corridor linking Iowa and Wisconsin. Following a Sierra Club campaign against the project, Maine voters recently rejected a planned power line designed to deliver Canadian hydropower to New England.
As part of his deal to support Biden’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin demanded that Congress agree to reform current rules governing the permitting of infrastructure projects. While states might still set their own restrictions, Manchin’s measure could streamline federal rules that hamper infrastructure construction. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, typically adds years to the approval process for power lines, pipelines, and other projects. It is important to review potential environmental impacts, but the process shouldn’t take half a decade or more. The details remain fuzzy, but Manchin’s deal could help get energy projects built more quickly at lower costs. Of course, a full rollback of environmental obstructionism is probably too much to hope for.
The green economy that activists envision would also entail a massive network of high-speed rail lines to help replace air travel. But NIMBY activists are fighting every mile of California’s planned high-speed rail system. That project’s estimated costs have ballooned to $100 billion, with no reasonable expectation that it will ever be completed. Electric vehicle batteries and components for wind and solar facilities will require millions of tons of minerals: lithium, cobalt, rare-earth metals, and more. Maine has one of the world’s richest deposits of lithium, but a 2017 law makes mining in that state virtually impossible. Activists are fighting other proposed mines in Nevada, North Carolina, and other states. In Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, habitués of the Burning Man festival are suing to stop a proposed geothermal energy project. Greenpeace and other groups oppose research into technologies that can capture and store the carbon in fossil fuels, or even strip CO2 from the atmosphere. Critics worry that CCS technologies could “prolong demand for fossil fuels,” according to Inside Climate News.
The list goes on. Time and again, climate visionaries propose sweeping transformations of our way of life in the name of reducing emissions. But then they fail to build—or even actively oppose—the infrastructure necessary to make that dream a reality.
Environmental radicals like the members of Extinction Rebellion might say that this is a good thing: our society is too rich, too energy-hungry; we must be taught a lesson in austerity. Even supposed moderates sometimes echo that message. Conservatives never forgot Obama energy secretary Steven Chu’s 2008 comment that “we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Even as he tries to reassure Americans about today’s stratospheric gas prices, President Biden optimistically describes the price surge as part of the “incredible transition” away from fossil fuels.
“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” Warren Buffet once said. Russia’s Ukraine invasion slashed Europe’s energy supplies and exposed the risks of relying too heavily on wind and solar power. Some experts warn of blackouts, gas shutoffs, and economic chaos. Now European leaders are scrambling to get their hands on any type of fossil fuel they can. Germany is reopening coal mines and has asked the EU to roll back plans to limit investments in overseas fossil fuel projects. Germany is also fast-tracking two liquified natural gas terminals to enable imports from the U.S. and, as noted above, is now looking into keeping its remaining nuclear reactors in service. Belgium is also exploring a plan to keep open two reactors that had been scheduled for early retirement.
Other countries are taking a broader approach. France’s Macron had already announced a program to build up to 14 new nuclear reactors. The Netherlands is making plans to build two new nuclear power stations. Several other countries are exploring partnerships with U.S. companies to build small modular reactors. In Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wants to accelerate the reopening of nuclear plants that the country mothballed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Energy pragmatism is in the air.
Today’s economic and geopolitical crises may be an opportunity for climate activists to dial down the catastrophism and focus on policies that actually reduce carbon—without destroying our standard of living. For decades, radicals and even mainstream environmentalists have spoken the language of deprivation. Zion Lights and her eco-pragmatist allies prefer to argue for abundance. We don’t need to punish the public to save the planet, she says. The key is simply to “build a lot of clean energy.” In contrast to the angry, anarchic protests launched by Extinction Rebellion, her group Emergency Reactor recently held a series of small, cheerful demonstrations around London. Their aim: to educate the public about nuclear power. “People are keen to engage, get involved, and have thanked us for focusing on solutions instead of the negative aspects of climate change,” she said. When a former green radical becomes an optimistic environmental pragmatist, that’s a sign of progress.
Top Photo: Activists from Extinction Rebellion demonstrate at Munich Re’s headquarters, demanding the end of fossil fuels. (SVEN HOPPE/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES)