By Dr. Nicolas Waddy;
Recently, the American people have witnessed a rash of lawsuits targeting energy companies for their alleged role in causing climate change. As the National Association of Manufacturers has revealed, as part of its “Manufacturers’ Accountability Project,” these lawsuits are fueled (as it were) by massive lawyers’ fees. Democratic-led cities, counties, and state governments are suing these energy companies to make them pay for what they claim are the anticipated ill-effects of climate change, which would not exist, they say, if these evil corporations were not selling energy based on fossil fuels…
The weaknesses of this argument, legally and logically, are apparent. Why would companies that sell energy be held liable for climate change, when consumers are not? Why are these “blue” municipalities and states only suing American companies, when, say, Russian, or Saudi, or Chinese carbon is just as, well, carbonized? Why aren’t these municipalities suing themselves, given that they emit plenty of carbon on their own? Most importantly, how can one assess how much adverse weather is the fault of man-made “climate change,” and how much would be occurring naturally?
The idea that one can assign legal liability in such cases is frankly laughable, and fortunately no court has yet ruled in favor of such claims. The purpose of these lawsuits, however, may not be to win giant cash settlements. It may be instead to shame and intimidate energy companies. In other words, these lawsuits are mostly PR, but unfortunately that does not make them any less dangerous to our economy and our way of life.
But, for the sake of argument, let us descend down the rabbit hole of climate change liability a little further. As you will see, responsibility for climate change may arguably be shouldered by the very people who are now hectoring America about “protecting the planet”.
Let us return to the heady days of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when various “space age” technological advances seemed to hold great promise. Among the most exciting of these developments was the use of nuclear power to create electricity. While there were concerns about nuclear waste and potential accidents, governments around the world were giddy with the prospect for creating an endless, cheap, flexible new source of power. President John F. Kennedy was on hand in 1963 at one plant opening, heralding our country’s role as a leader in the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy, and looking forward to a time when nuclear plants would provide half of the electricity that Americans used. As a result, in the ensuing years, nuclear plants were built at a breakneck pace, and nuclear energy began to blossom, offering serious competition to fossil fuels.
And then came the environmentalists. Citing concerns about the toxicity and long half-life of nuclear waste, and about the possibility of “meltdowns”, the rising environmental movement made opposition to nuclear power a litmus test for being “earth-friendly”. In 1979, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, which harmed neither the environment nor any human being, was spun by environmentalists into a harbinger of nuclear-fueled catastrophe. (Despite subsequent and more serious nuclear accidents in the Soviet Union and Japan, nuclear power is still less dangerous to human health than other forms of energy production, and it is estimated that, by reducing pollution and other hazards, nuclear power has already saved millions of lives.)
A massive propaganda campaign against nuclear energy ensued, in which Jane Fonda’s film The China Syndrome figured prominently, which led in turn to a flood of lawsuits as well as political pressure to suspend the construction of new nuclear plants. Plant construction duly ground to a halt, and, from the late 1970s to today, no new nuclear facilities have been approved in the United States.
In other countries, though, the love affair with nuclear energy had more staying power. Today, France relies on nuclear plants for 75% its electricity. As a result, it enjoys cheap power and is able to export electricity to neighboring countries. Moreover, its nuclear facilities have an unparalleled record for safety and efficiency. Properly managed, therefore, nuclear power plants are, despite the hysteria engendered by environmentalists, a superb way to boost energy production safely, cleanly, and cost-effectively. (Counter-intuitively, coal-fired plants actually release more radiation than nuclear plants.)
For our purposes, though, the bigger point is this: nuclear power does not create carbon emissions of any kind. Instead, it produces small quantities of nuclear waste, which are relatively easy to store. In torpedoing the nuclear energy industry, therefore, liberals and environmentalists destroyed the most viable alternative to our civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy production. Solar and wind power, despite their attractions, are not sufficiently reliable and scalable, based on demand, to be practical substitutes for fossil fuels. Nuclear power, though, is all of these things and more. It was, in addition, expanding exponentially in the 1960s and 70s, and, but for the environmental movement’s activism, might easily have become the predominant power source in the 21st century. Again, what the world missed out on because of environmentalist fear-mongering is evidenced by France: there, per capita carbon emissions are a small fraction of what they are in the United States, due in large measure to their greater reliance on nuclear power.
What does all this mean? First, it means that the environmental movement is not wholly based on “reason” and “science,” as it claims. It can also be based on group think, NIMBYism, and raw emotion. This blinkered outlook can cause environmentalists to support causes that, in the end, prove to be counterproductive to their own ends. This is no doubt partly because “the environment” is, in truth, a more complex thing than the green movement cares to admit.
Second, we can conclude that, if one wishes to assign blame for the problem of climate change, there is plenty of blame to go around. One could assign blame only to energy producers, yes, and this would be convenient for liberals, who hate energy companies with a passion. The truth, however, is that there are equally valid reasons to blame environmentalists and liberals for demonizing nuclear power, which was, I repeat, the only viable alternative in the second half of the twentieth century to the use of fossil fuels.
Ergo, I would respectfully suggest that Democratic municipalities and states suing energy companies for causing climate change might wish to revise their strategy. Instead of targeting ExxonMobil, or Chevron, or Shell, why not target the real “climate criminals” – to wit, Jane Fonda, Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Greenpeace, etc.?
The answer: because environmentalists are, ipso facto, the good guys, or so we’re told. One thing is for sure: the environmental movement never lets facts get in the way of its own self-righteousness.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: