The way I ran across the very important article discussed in this column exemplifies how ideas disseminate in the age of social media. The article is a technical think piece by the very reputable Mark Z. Jacobson, the director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, on the website of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which supports projects that address climate change and clean up the environment. The admirable and usually bullseye-accurate feminist writer Rebecca Solnit put it on her Facebook page, which my wife views on a regular basis. My wife downloaded a hard copy and gave it to me.
At first blush, the amazing thing is the series of interchanges that got the article from the author to me. In the past, one media outlet typically served as a conduit, although sometimes two or three were involved; for example, an article would first appear in a scholarly or industry journal, where a reporter for a major media outlet like the Washington Post, Economist, Week or New York Times would see it and decide to conduct an interview of the author, which then appeared in your local newspaper. Instead, Jacobson’s article went straight from the think tank to an influential consumer to the consumers she influences, all via social media, with no participation of traditional news media.
We should also note that celebrity culture is implicated in many of the steps that brought the article to me. The DiCaprio Foundation deserves many kudos for its work, but it wouldn’t exist without the celebrity status of Leonardo. Solnit is not exactly a celebrity, which I define as someone who is known for one of the following reasons: being rich, spending garish sums of money on conspicuous consumption, being an entertainer, athlete or aristocrat, or just for being famous. Solnit has done something of substance that doesn’t involve vamping for the camera. On the other hand, her role in getting the article to me follows a process built primarily by interactions between celebrities and their fans. I hold nothing against either DiCaprio, a good guy, or Solnit, a seminal thinker in American culture. They are playing by the current rules as best they can and they work on the side of the angels.
But what does alarm me is the elephant not in the room: the mass media. Even in today’s shrunken pages, national media outlets should have found room for Jacobson’s ideas. For decades, the news media have been ignoring research that disproves their cherished myths. Research that proves unionized work forces leads to higher wages for all workers. Research showing that wind energy could generate all the world’s electrical needs. Research substantiating that lowering taxes on the wealthy does not stimulate the economy or create jobs. Research demonstrating that students in public schools learn more and perform better than their peers in private schools. Or sometimes the news media pulls out the wrong findings from research. One example: a few years ago the major media ignored that a study showed most women live in a romantic relationship outside of marriage sometime in their life, instead blasting out headlines that couples who live together first are slightly more likely to be apart 10 years after marriage than those who just get married.
When the media publishes a bogus study, it’s likely to support right-wing notions, as when they went gaga over a George Mason University finding a few years back that 50% of TV weather personalities don’t believe in global warming. The deception in the survey hinges on the fact that only about half of those who deliver the weather forecast are meteorologists and none are climatologists. In other words, they have no standing or expertise, except to the unknowing consumer or those addled by celebrity culture, since Weather personalities are often local celebrities, available to appear at 10K runs and charity auctions.
Technology optimists will celebrate that this article might never have reached me before the age of the internet and social media. The more cynical, however, will realize that the information is staying within the relatively small left-wing, pro-government intervention, pro-diversity, internationalist silo that comprises the social media networks of Jacobson, Solnit, myself and whoever else links or clicks to it. The centrists and social conservatives need to hear what Jacobson is saying, and unless his article somehow goes viral, they never will. Moreover, as little as the news media has traditionally covered scientific research that contradicts public myths, they do so less today than ever before, primarily because there are fewer media doing original reporting than in the day before the internet and social media. So while social media has given thinkers and analysts like Jacobson and Solnit (and myself) a new conduit to preach to the choir, it has severely obstructed the traditional channel to a larger audience.
The article, ”The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change,” is straight-forward and very easy for the non-engineer to read. In it, Professor Jacobson refutes the growing number of scientists and environmentalists who believe that nuclear power represents our best short-term substitute for the fossil fuels with which we are rapidly destroying the Earth’s biosphere.
For each of the seven reasons why nuclear-powered energy will not solve our environmental problems, Jacobson does the math and cites important research or pertinent facts. Each of the seven is a good reason not to pursue nuclear but to go to wind and solar immediately. Cumulatively, they demonstrate what a disaster ubiquitous nuclear power would be:
1. There is a long lead time between planning and operations, from 10-19 years, which seems like a dawdling waste of time considering how critical the global warming crisis is and the continued rapid rate of development of solar and wind energy.
2. The cost is prohibitive, especially when you consider that after the plant closes, as all electrical generating plants eventually must, the owners will have to spend money for waste storage for hundreds of thousands of years after the plant’s revenue stream has ended.
3. The risk of weapons proliferation, which has happened in several countries that started first with nuclear generation of electricity.
4. The risk of meltdown. To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants have melted down to some degree. That disaster rate would be unacceptable for automobiles, airplanes, ovens, lawn mowers, assembly lines or any other product or production process.
5. The risk of lung cancer from uranium mining.
6. The carbon and other noxious emissions caused by mining and refining uranium and yes, operating power plants. Whereas nuclear power increases heat vapor flues into the air, solar panels and wind turbines reduce heat. Jacobson estimates that pursuing nuclear instead of straight wind and solar resulted in an additional 69,000 deaths from air pollution in China in 2016 alone!
7. The risk of pernicious levels of radioactivity escaping from waste storage, which to my mind is a deal-breaker all by itself. We need to develop storage for hazardous wastes that will outlast the danger of the radioactivity, or at least 200,000 years, roughly 20 times the span of recorded history. Only a handful of people alive today can read the first surviving handwriting of our ancestors. How can we expect to be able to warn people 180,000 years from now not to open a thick steel vault buried in a mountain cavern—that is if earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and other changes to the earth haven’t ripped it apart first.
In sum, nuclear energy costs from 2.3 to 7.4 times as much as onshore wind power, depending on the location and other factors. A nuclear plant takes 5 to 17 years longer to build than a wind farm. On average, nuclear powered electricity will generate from 9 to 37 times more carbon and emissions as renewables. All this bad stuff, and we don’t know how to safely store the waste!
The public needs to know this information, but paradoxically, while it is easier than ever to get it if you are seeking it or are part of the right social network, the likelihood of it distributing it into the more general public marketplace of ideas is lower than ever.