The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Nuclear Opinions

I’ve been thinking.

I’ve just watched a documentary from last month in which Miles O’Brian explored nuclear power. It was an interesting show, full of detailed but easy-to-understand descriptions of various types of reactors. The basic thrust of the piece was that resistance to nuclear power is wrong-headed in light of the threat of climate change and the existence of new, much safer, reactor designs.

My immediate impulse is to be suspicious of such claims. Like many people, I have a very negative association with anything nuclear–which may be deserved, but is knee-jerk nonetheless. I am suspicious of the jerking of knees. You’re never too smart to be dumb, as Jimmy Buffet says, and I doubt my emotional impulses are any wiser and more reliable than anyone else’s.

What I have heard is that the potential harm of a nuclear accident is so great that even a small chance of that accident happening is too great. That even a properly functioning nuclear power plant produces large amounts of radioactive waste that nobody knows what to do with. That although a nuclear power plant is free of carbon emissions in the sense that it has no smoke stack, huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to build the plant, to mine and mill the fuel, to transport it, and to decommission the plant afterwards. So nuclear power is actually carbon-intensive.

But I have heard all these things from people who are already opposed to nuclear power.

I am not a nuclear physicist. Neither am I an engineer. I do not understand the operation of nuclear power plants unless someone explains it to me in very simple terms, and I am not equipped to differentiate the accurate descriptions from the inaccurate ones. I am reduced, therefor, to deciding whether to accept the message based on whether I trust the messenger. I have friends whom I trust who are anti-nuclear activists. They aren’t physicists, either, but they are highly educated in other fields and seem to know what they’re talking about. Therefore, I am anti-nuclear as well. When I hear Miles O’Brian on television implying that nuclear power might be a good idea, my impulse is to distrust him, to wonder if perhaps he is on the take somehow (despite the fact that I generally admire his work).

Pay attention to how this works:

  1. I do not understand a topic, but I feel the need to have an opinion.
  2. I therefore adopt the opinion held by people I like and trust, even though my trust in them has nothing whatever to do with their expertise in the relevant topic
  3. Because I am now emotionally invested in my adopted opinion, the mere fact that someone disagrees with me is enough to make me question their competence and their professional ethics.
  4. Miles O’Brian is not a physicist, but he is a professional science journalist who has obviously spent several years intensively researching the nuclear energy field, including talking to a lot of physicists–and yet my impulse is to assume he is deliberately lying because he contradicts people who, so far as I know, have no more real expertise in the matter than I do. Thus have I made myself impervious to learning on an important topic.

This is exactly the same psychological process that causes some people to doubt the reality of climate change.

Now, the fact that I’ve apparently taken leave of my senses is not proof, all by itself, that I’m wrong about nuclear power being bad news. As they say, just because you’re paranoid is no proof they’re not out to get ya. But the jerking of my knee is a good indication that I need to open my mind back up, even if I have to do it with a crow bar.

Offhand, the new reactor designs do sound promising. Whereas the water-cooled reactors build in the 1960’s and ’70’s more or less have failure as a default mode, other designs exist that simply turn themselves off if anything goes wrong. For example, some use liquid fuel that expands if it gets too hot. In an expanded state, the uranium atoms are too far apart to sustain nuclear fusion, and the reactor cools back down again. Sounds perfect.

Except I don’t know what happens to the spent fuel afterwards or what the environmental cost of uranium mining and processing is. So maybe not so perfect. But it’s worth noting that the environmental cost of fossil fuel mining and processing is truly awful, so it might come out even.

I should do some research on this, but have not yet done so. My point is not to argue in favor of nuclear in this post. I can imagine that I might do so in the future, depending on what else I learn–while I doubt nuclear power can ever be rendered truly safe, the small risk of local or regional disaster might be better than the absolute certainty of global disaster we face otherwise. But I’m writing this post today because I’ve had an even more unsettling thought.

I’ve long maintained that we don’t need nuclear power and its various risks and costs, nor do we need new technological advances in renewable energy and alternative fuels. All of those approaches make saving the planet conditional on our getting “enough” energy by other means, but we’re never going to get enough because the human capacity for consumption has no lid. Some of us use tens or hundreds of times the energy our fore-bearers did, and, given the opportunity, I’m sure we could find some use for tens or hundreds of times more than what we use now.

Rather than committing ourselves to filling our hunger for energy and then engaging our ingenuity to find ways to live sustainably anyway, we should commit to living sustainably and then engage our ingenuity to fin ways to keep our luxuries and gadgets anyway. We should just turn the polluting machines off. Today.

But of course, I know we’re not going to. Hell, the United States of America doesn’t seem capable at the moment of electing people who think climate change is real, let alone mounting a grass-roots movement to radically re-shape our way of life. Ideal solutions are important to hold on to for perspective and as a useful starting point for brain-storming, but I’m in no way suggesting that we reject partial and imperfect solutions when they come along. We must cope with political reality just as we must cope with physics.

And herein lies the disconcerting thought.

Are we in a position where nuclear power, whatever its costs and hang-ups and difficulties, may be the best we can get?


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“What Are You Obedient to?”

This is going to get to global warming at some people. Please bear with me.

My sister once asked me what I am obedient to. Her question needs to be understood in context, because “obedience” has something of a negative connotation for many people. I’m not fond of the word myself, because it makes me think of having to do what somewhat else tells me to, even though I don’t want to.

But my sister did not ask me whom I am obedient to, but what. She wanted to know what principle I placed higher than my own druthers and impulses–we’d been arguing, and she was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from. It was a good question, though not one I had a ready answer for. I told her I would obey science, although I could not explain how that had anything to do with our discussion of the moment and we let the matter drop.

I’ve thought of that unresolved conversation, off and on, over the years since, and I think I can explain myself better now.

There are several ways to understand the idea that drove my sister’s question in the first place. The simplest to explain starts with an informal Zen Buddhist retreat I stumbled into, more or less by accident, as a teenager. The lay practitioner leading the retreat told a story about passing a deli on her morning jogging route and seeing a sign: FRESH WARM COOKIES. And oh, how she wanted those cookies. But stopping for cookies would completely derail her exercise routine. She realized that stopping for cookies would be giving over her power to that enticing sign. She asked herself “who is the master? Me, or those cookies?” Later, while we were sitting in meditation, if somebody scratched an itch she would say, loudly, “who is the master, you or the itch?”

So, that’s the simplest way to understand what I’m talking about–there is me and there are my various itches. “What am I obedient to?” is another way of asking what is more important that my itches? Or am I only obedient to my itches?

I don’t mean to draw a clear dichotomy between reason and impulse. While there do seem to be multiple brain processes in play–the ancient intuition that each of us is actually multiple, sometimes conflicting selves is at least partially correct, reason cannot actually function alone. People who, through brain damage, lose the capacity to have emotions also lose the ability to make decisions, even decisions that seem emotionally neutral, such as whether to use the blue pen or the black one. And a huge part of our every-day activities are more or less on automatic pilot, directed by impulses outside of conscious control or even, sometimes, awareness. We call these habits and get irritated when we can’t break bad ones, but if we had no automatic pilot and had to think over every little thing we’d never get anything done. I only mean that, by whatever mechanism, there is what we do and feel and think because it’s easy or pleasant, and there are other things.What calls a person to the other things is not necessarily reason–it could be emotional devotion to a person or a cause, some overriding craving (FRESH WARM COOKIES), or literal obedience to a person or a set of rules.

My sister wanted to know what my thing was. I said science.

So, how does science differ from reason, which is the answer my sister would have given? At the time I could not say and the distinction I was making puzzled me. The solution to the puzzle lay in a tomato.

I’m serious, I had an argument the other day with someone over tomatoes. It was one of those tiffs that erupts without warning, where an apparently innocent comment triggers an underlying fault-line between the continental plates of two personalities. I asserted that birds are dinosaurs and he said that was as ridiculous as saying tomatoes are fruit. I pointed out that botanically tomatoes are fruit, something he knows perfectly well, and he proceeded to get really seriously offended by the idea that botanical concepts might have any place anywhere besides the narrow confines of botany. He wanted to stick to “normal ideas that actually relate to how people live.”

Now, I could argue the point about birds, but I won’t because it is both irrelevant and legitimately controversial, but tomatoes are fruit. A fruit is a particular type of botanical structure, the plant equivalent of an egg, and tomatoes fit the definition unambiguously. It may seem strange to think of tomatoes that way, but if you compare a tomato to a watermelon and to a stalk of celery by any standard other than what to put in minestrone soup, the tomato groups more naturally with the watermelon. If you want to grow them, if you want to understand what they mean to the plants that make them, if you want to figure out when they are ready to eat, watermelons are a better guide to tomatoes than celery is–you don’t have to wait for celery to get ripe.

Most of us are most familiar with tomatoes as a taste, we’re not used to thinking of fruits as savory. It’s a bit mind-bending to consider that not only are tomatoes actually fruits, but so are beans, squash, and ears of corn. But here’s the thing–that mind-bending sensation? It’s a good thing. Because there’s more to this world than how to make minestrone. And taking botany seriously is one way to find that out.

In the sense my sister intended, obedience means conceding one has lost an argument even if one really didn’t want to lose. Obedience in this case has an almost physical force. Last night, I walked into a door frame by accident, instead of into the bathroom as intended, because it was dark and I was disoriented. It hurt. I really would have preferred to walk into the bathroom rather than, nose first, into the door fram, but I was obedient to the reality of physical objects and so the collision occurred. In a similar way, even if I wanted to insist that tomatoes are not fruit, I would collide with the inevitable fact of their anatomical resemblance to watermelons, because I am obedient to science. And whatever necessary rearrangement of my opinions of the world would follow from there.

I do not mean I am obedient to scientists or to a list of “truths” that scientists currently espouse. Science is not a collection of truths, but rather a process and a certain type of reasoning. This is why science is reliable even though what scientists say changes over time–it is the way scientific understanding changes, and not the thing that is changing, that constitutes science.

And the heart of the matter, the core of the process, is not just reason, but the insistence that a line of reasoning always begin with observable phenomena that anyone can go check out for themselves. I can say I know a thing to be true if I have observed it myself, if I have reliable documentation that someone else observed it, or if I can construct a logical argument that connects my idea to something I, or someone else observed. If I can’t do that, then I simply don’t know yet. Here is a joke:

Two scientists are driving together to a conference along an isolated, rural road, when their way is impeded by a large flock of sheep. The sheep, collectively, take a very long time to cross the road. While they are waiting, one scientist says to the other “those sheep have been sheared recently.” “Well, at least on this side they have,” concedes the other.

This principled insistence on ignorance is at odds with how most of us usually think–we normally blythely assume that whatever seems like it ought to be true automatically is. Nobody shears a whole flock of sheep on just one side only, chewing gum takes seven years to digest, if you sneeze with your eyes open your eyeballs will pop out, and there is no way human activity could change the climate.

See? I told you I’d get there.

Most people, I’d guess, have heard by now that the vast majority of scientists insist that climate change is real, being caused by humans, and a serious problem. Whether they believe it is another question. Curiously, more education about the facts of the issue does not sway many of the people who disbelieve–it may actually strengthen their denial. Science literacy isn’t the problem. The problem may be, at least in part, that these people are obedient to something other than science.

I mean no disrespect in saying that. The thing that wins the argument for these people may well be something noble or even quite rational, since there are forms of reason that do not begin with empirical evidence. Indeed, there are important questions for which science is no good whatever. You cannot, for example, scientifically verify whether my husband is really as loveable as I say he is–by its nature, that question is not amenable to objective research.

I’m not even convinced that everyone should be obedient to science, even on those questions where science can confidently speak. Certainly, I will not waste time spewing facts act figures at someone who places more stock in some other way of demonstrating an idea. It’s true that at least part of the reason why I am obedient to science is that, from early childhood to graduate school, the people who have taught me about science have always been people I’ve liked and trusted. If that were not true, I might well look at the matter very differently. As per climate change, we have no time to waste on secular evangelism, and if arguing for climate action through religious, cultural, emotional, or economic channels¬† works, then so be it.

But I’m also going to keep talking about the science, for those who want to listen, because I like science. Frankly, I recommend it. I know of no better way to escape bias and preconceived ideas (which all of us have) than to say “I will construct my understanding of the world from lines of reasoning that begin in the observable world as it actually is, not as I think it should be, even if that reasoning takes me someplace surprising.”