It’s OK to Support Nuclear Power and Still Enjoy a Movie Now and Then

Source: Figure 1, Statement for Policymakers, Working Group !!!, IPCC

What's the best way to change this graphic, which shows relative contributions to climate pollution from the major greenhouse gases. Yellow shows CO2 from fossil-fuel burning and industry; red, from forestry and land use; lightest blue from methane; sky blue from nitrous oxide, and dark blue from fluorinated gases. Total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions (GtCO2eq/yr) by groups of gases 1970-2010. Close

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Source: Figure 1, Statement for Policymakers, Working Group !!!, IPCC

What's the best way to change this graphic, which shows relative contributions to climate pollution from the major greenhouse gases. Yellow shows CO2 from fossil-fuel burning and industry; red, from forestry and land use; lightest blue from methane; sky blue from nitrous oxide, and dark blue from fluorinated gases. Total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions (GtCO2eq/yr) by groups of gases 1970-2010.

The nuclear power industry received a springtime Christmas present this week.

The world’s authoritative climate science group Sunday threw its arms around nuclear energy, among others, as a future source for powering economies. The industry’s share of global electricity generation has been falling since 1993.

The report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emboldens proponents of nuclear energy, who tend to talk it up no matter what the issue is at hand.

Take the op-ed in last week’s New York Times, "Global Warming Scare Tactics," by the founders of the energy and environment research group, the Breakthrough Institute. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger dress up a pro-nuclear argument as criticism of a new, nine-part documentary series about climate change.

The piece reads as if, say, when someone sneezes, the authors say gesundheit and then make the case for nuclear power.

The Years of Living Dangerously, which debuted Sunday on Showtime, follows celebrity reporters and celebrities-turned-reporters around the world as they interview climate scientists and people living through drought, wildfire, war and other plagues. The project provides Americans a tour of climate change's effects, and shows tools we have to address it.

Put off by the trailers, the op-ed authors don't see it. The first episode “suggests that climate change is responsible for the closing of a meatpacking factory in Texas and the civil war in Syria and there is not the slightest hint of a solution in sight,” Nordhaus wrote to me in an email.

Actually, solutions are on their way, said Joe Romm, one of two chief scientific advisors who worked on the project. Romm is founding editor of the influential blog, ClimateProgress.org. Upcoming episodes will show advances being made across a broad spectrum of topics -- carbon policy, renewable energy, deforestation, climate adaptation, the decline of U.S. coal, and big business, where young people are working with companies to increase clean energy and energy efficiency.

Related: Titanic Climate Documentary Makes Reporters out of Hollywood Elite

For Nordhaus and Shellenberger, it's counterproductive to tell people about the potentially bad news without offering up a way of doing something about it. “By one of the producer's own acknowledgment (go to about the last 10 minutes of the discussion), the show won’t do a lot on solutions because it doesn’t make for good television,” Nordhaus said, about a recent discussion about the film at the Center for American Progress, in Washington.

They offer up ideas test-driven at the Breakthrough Institute and elsewhere. (The Institute accepts contributions only from people and charities without a direct stake in the outcome of research.)

Explaining problems without immediately proffering solutions is a "scare tactic," according to the op-ed headline, anyway. The pair cites research showing that linking extreme weather and disasters to climate change doesn’t help environmentalists make their policy case. Reporting those facts, without a ready remedy, can backfire on them and (who's using the scare tactics here?) "inspire denial, fatalism and polarization."

Not everyone is an alarmist because they talk about things that are alarming. And not everything is irresponsible because it’s good television.

Perhaps there are categories between peer-reviewed article and scare tactics that are useful to consider here. One category might be television journalism, reported and fact-checked productions that weave together scientific findings and storytelling.

There should be room in U.S. political culture for both nuclear power and responsible narrative about climate change. The problem on the right isn’t that climate science movies turn off conservatives; it’s that U.S. conservative leadership allows its constituency to live in climate irreality (see commenters below). The problem on the left isn’t that some environmentalists oppose nuclear; it’s that they oppose nuclear, coal, oil and gas without explaining how all the refrigerators and air conditioning will still work (see blogs where environmentalists talk to themselves).

The neat thing about climate change is you really have to grapple with how much you trust a whole lotta scientific findings, how much you want to go to the mat for our conventional energy choices, and how much risk you want to push off on the kids.

Bill Chameides has a sensible approach. He’s dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He says that the risks are real but that our tools probably can’t provide the resolution we want about the scale of change ahead. “We’re really flying blind,” he said about the deep future of climate change, when we spoke several weeks ago (not about the documentary). “We have these models that are somewhat instructive.” The future could turn out to be better than projections. It could turn out to be worse, he said. “We need to prepare for the future with that in mind.”

Once in a while, good to program television with that in mind, too.

This article has been updated with comments from Joe Romm, chief science advisor to The Years of Living Dangerously.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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