Former XR Spokesperson: The Sad Truth About Traditional Environmentalism
What if you’d dedicated most of your life to trying to save the planet, but then you realized that you may have actually—potentially—made things worse?
Over the last few years, this has become one of my main concerns. I’ve been active in various green groups for over a decade, from setting up the first green society at my university and getting them to switch to renewable energy 15 years ago, to being one of the leading spokespeople for Extinction Rebellion as recently as last year.
Through writing, public speaking, and taking direct action (I was arrested multiple times for climate action in the early 2000s), I have done everything in my power to fight to bring down global greenhouse gas emissions.
And I have come to the stark realization that nothing I have done has worked. Worse, emissions have continued to rise despite public concern for the environment (in the UK at least) being as high as it has ever been. …snip…
The focus, therefore, needs to be on ensuring that our growing energy needs are met with clean and reliable sources, and without unnecessary additional costs to the individual that might deepen social inequality.
We need cheap, clean energy at scale and we need it now. Here’s another blunt fact: almost three-quarters of our emissions come from energy use.
To talk about climate change without mentioning emissions is like talking about baking a cake without mentioning flour. Yet many mainstream environmental groups are doing this, and have been doing this since the advent of cake-baking.
These groups regularly point to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when calling for climate action. But the same groups ignore the key section of the IPCC report on mitigation—the chapter on energy, by Working Group Three.
All of the decarbonization pathways in this section outline a combination of renewables, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage to quench our greenhouse gas emissions. This is not speculation or opinion, but data in its simplest form: arithmetic.
The element of nuclear energy however has long been rejected by most of the major green groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth globally, the RSPB in the UK (which allowed a gas plant on one of their reserves but is protesting a nuclear plant on another), and the Sierra Club in the USA.
Some individual scientists and activists have joined them in calling for 100 percent renewable grids without nuclear power despite the fact that it is not feasible—in fact, only five countries with large electrical grids have low carbon emissions and they rely on constant large-scale hydropower and nuclear energy, with a little intermittent solar and wind power on top.
The fact that wind and solar technology require backup is not lost on all of us, as you can see from the comments on the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s recent tweet where they celebrate their victory in recently closing down a nuclear power plant in the US, Indian Point.
It’s been an honor for NRDC to work with our tireless partners and advocates who have fought long and hard to close #IndianPoint, to push back on fossil fuels, and to move New York forward on #CleanEnergy. 🎊 https://t.co/R4v28WbIc5
— NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC) April 30, 2021
The response from almost everyone in the comments is that phasing out nuclear power during a climate emergency is bad news for the environment, as the consequence of this will be continued reliance on fossil fuels.
The NRDC is eerily silent in the comments section, standing by their victory and anti-nuclear ideology.
This scenario has played out again and again on social media, on Greenpeace posts as well, and it represents the divide between ordinary concerned citizens and out-of-touch NGOs.
Historically, whenever nuclear power plants are shut down, they are replaced by fossil fuels. The stark example of this is Germany, which decided to phase out nuclear power altogether due to an overreaction and sore misunderstanding of the facts about what happened at Fukushima.
Germany now has the dirtiest energy mix in Europe, as the closed nuclear plants have been replaced with imported coal.
Herein lies the rub. The very same groups that claim to fight for the wellbeing of our planet—the NRDC dubs itself “Earth’s best defense”—are pushing for and achieving policies that are actually the opposite of effective climate action.
And because they are well established as “green” groups, they get a pass. They don’t get criticized. They get funded. It’s business as usual, for them.
What they are calling for—wishful thinking with renewable technology that requires baseload power that almost always ends up being fossil fuels—does not get called “greenwashing” even though that’s exactly what it is.
No one wants to be the bad guy who takes on the groups that have long positioned themselves as the good guys. But the closure of Indian Point, for example, is not good news.
It means the loss of clean, firm power to over a million homes, and the loss of over a thousand jobs. I see no reason to celebrate.
I do understand the NRDC’s stance—since I once fell for scaremongering and conspiracy theories regarding nuclear power myself. I even protested against it.
I believed that nuclear waste is unmanageable and poses a threat to life and that radiation warrants the closure of nuclear power stations. All of these beliefs were wrong.
For many years I had criticized anti-vaxxers for taking a position that goes against scientific consensus, but I had been anti-nuclear myself which also goes against the scientific consensus.
I shudder to think of the damage this may have done to our planet. Misinformed beliefs have consequences.
France did things differently back in the 1970s when they decarbonized in under 12 years through building nuclear power plants, which means that they have one of the cleanest energy mixes in Europe.
Yet the ideology that worships renewables and only renewables pervades. It has become the latest green god: sun-like, literally.
A once-leading boomer environmentalist in the UK recently wrote the headline in a national newspaper: “Don’t believe hydrogen and nuclear hype—they can’t get us to net zero carbon by 2050. Big industry players pushing techno-fixes are ignoring the only realistic solution to the climate crisis: renewables.”
See what he did there? Apparently, nuclear and hydrogen are classed as technology, but renewables are not. As if they are constructed with magic—by the solar gods. …snip…
It’s not an easy thing to stand for something that a large and powerful “tribe” is against. You will likely be attacked, mocked, and disregarded. You may lose friends.
If you change your mind and go against the status quo, funding is harder too. You may be canceled, censored, and publicly critiqued. But knowing that you’re doing the right thing makes it worth it. …snip…
The problems with nuclear power are not technological, but political, and for too long the old-school environmentalist tribe that I once belonged to has dominated the narrative on what constitutes clean energy, what gets subsidized and built, and what doesn’t. They’ve had the stage for decades, and we’ve watched emissions rise. It’s time for someone else to have a turn.
This is why I’ve founded Emergency Reactor, a new green campaign for evidence-based environmentalism. In the battle against misinformation, every small act can make a difference.
We need to react now to the issues the world faces—air pollution, poverty, climate change—but we also need to react rationally.
For too long traditional environmentalism has led the way with unscientific beliefs and ideologies, attacking anyone who holds opposing opinions, while demanding that the world’s largest cake be baked without flour.
This ideology has held us back, and this gatekeeping over environmentalism needs to end because in too many cases, these groups are doing more harm than good to the planet they claim to defend.
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