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Obama Goes Nuclear in a Tough Winter for Enviros

4 years ago
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It hasn't been a good winter for enviros. No, I'm not referring to the Washington, D.C., blizzards used by climate change denialists to poke fun at Al Gore and challenge the global warming consensus. Only know-nothings can make that argument, for climate change causes severe shifts in climate and weather patterns, not a uniform rise in temperatures at every spot on the globe. But there has been bad news for greenies in recent weeks.

When President Obama took office a year ago, environmental advocates tended to be joyous. Here was a guy who voiced a commitment to their cause, who vowed to lead an international response to climate change. And he has indeed taken significant green steps. His stimulus plan included $80 billion for clean energy projects. His administration boosted-fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. His EPA declared global warming gases a health hazard that must be regulated. Yet recent developments have not been as encouraging.

In December, Obama forged a muddy and non-binding deal at the Copenhagen climate change summit that fell short of what most scientists say is necessary. (Environmental groups split over whether Obama had saved the summit by crafting a better-than-nothing accord that included the major emerging emitters, such as China and India, or whether he had helped undermine an international process that could produce a global treaty setting firm and significant deadlines for emissions reductions.) Then this week, Obama went nuclear.

On Tuesday, the White House announced -- make that, proudly announced -- that the administration would be granting the first federal loan guarantees in years for the construction of new nuclear plants. While a handful of enviros have pushed nuclear energy as an emissions-free process that can help prevent climate change, most are opposed to more nuclear power plants -- especially when there is no solution to the perennial problem of what to do about nuclear waste. (The administration remains opposed to dumping it at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.) And some conservative budget-watchers oppose nuclear subsidies, asking why the government should finance controversial and risky energy projects that cannot survive on their own within the market. (The Congressional Budget Office in 2003 noted that there's a 50 percent chance of default for nuclear power plant loans. Yet on a call with reporters on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he was unaware of this report.)

At an event yesterday in Maryland, where Obama unveiled the initial $8.3 billion loan guarantee, which will go toward building two new nuclear reactors at an existing plant in Burke, Ga., he reiterated his support for a climate change legislation that would enact a cap-and-trade system. But in recent weeks -- such as during his State of the Union address -- Obama has come across as more enthusiastic about reviving nuclear power than forestalling climate change. That's not surprising, given that the climate change bill (which was passed by the House last year) has hit a major stall in the Senate. It might be dead -- or nearly so. Meanwhile, Obama does seem more focused on jobs and financial reform. In promoting the nuclear plant loan guarantees, the White House has repeatedly emphasized that building these reactors in Georgia will create 3,500 construction jobs and about 800 permanent jobs.

With Obama backing off the climate change charge -- at least, in terms of priorities -- enviros have also had to contend with controversies regarding the science of global warming. Most recently, a few factual errors have been discovered in the 2007 U.N. report embodying the international scientific consensus regarding climate change, and the denialists have exploited these mistakes to call for a halt in any action to redress climate change. (The report, for instance, overstated how much of the Netherlands rests below sea level.)

It's certainly silly to expect a report covering hundreds of pages that was written and reviewed by thousands of scientists to be free of all typos and errors. The scientific consensus remains: climate change is human-induced and will lead to severe consequences if far-reaching reductions in emissions are not implemented soon. Yet the small opposition has used these mistakes to make it seem as if there is indeed a legitimate debate over climate change. And the scientists in charge of that U.N. report have not acquitted themselves well. They've been slow to respond to this new round of criticism -- as well as to the recent episode in which pilfered e-mails showed that some climate scientists had tried to block the publication of work they opposed. And their political detractors have gone to town, claiming, irresponsibly, that these few mistakes totally undermine the procedure that produced the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change. Unfortunately, this has not created a better atmosphere for passage of the Senate climate bill.

So nuclear power is hot, while climate change appears to be on the back burner. In the winter of 2010, it's not easy being green.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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