The Real Reason Biden’s Climate Agenda Is Failing Is Because It’s Anti-Nuclear

Malthusian progressives downsized the Democrats' climate ambitions

Yesterday, President Joe Biden appeared to have scored an important climate policy victory in announcing a deal with Republicans to spend hundreds of billions in new infrastructure, including $73 billion for new solar and wind farms and $15 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure and electric buses.

But the total for climate over five years ends up being just $88 billion, which is less than the “clean tech” portion of the 2009 Obama-Biden stimulus, and a far cry from the trillions that progressive Democrats and climate advocates had demanded as part of a Green New Deal. The total for electric cars is less than one-tenth of the $177 billion the administration had requested. And there is no Clean Electricity Standard.

Defenders of the deal say there will be another chance to spend more money on climate change in the budget reconciliation process later this year. White House aides call this a “two-step dance.” As such, Biden told reporters at a second press conference, after the first press conference announcing the deal with Republican, that he would not sign the infrastructure legislation unless it were connected with a separate bill to pay for other infrastructure items. 

But Biden’s maneuverings angered Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who went on Fox News to denounce the two-step dance, and it is not clear if Democrats have enough support to pass additional infrastructure legislation, with or without Republican support. Already one Republican senator has said he won’t support the bipartisan infrastructure deal without assurances that nothing additional is done in reconciliation. And nobody thinks we will see a return of the Clean Electricity Standard, or much more money for electric cars. 

“The easiest way to understand today's infrastructure carousel,” noted New York Times economics correspondent Jim Tankersly, “is that President Biden is trying to have it both ways — progressive and bipartisan — at the risk of getting neither if it all falls apart.”

In truth, it looks like the Biden administration hadn’t completely thought through its strategy. “There appears to be some ... deliberate uncertainty ... about the sequencing for the two bills Biden wants,” writes Tankersly. “He says they need to move in tandem. He also says that he wants them both to move as quickly as possible to his desk. So what happens if the bipartisan deal arrives first?”

Whatever happens, it’s clear that the $88 billion in the infrastructure bill is the high point, not low point, of the Biden Administration’s efforts on climate change. After Obama won $90 billion in clean tech stimulus in 2009, Democrats still had the expectation they would pass sweeping, economy-wide “cap and trade” legislation. There is no such expectation today.

All of that despite four years of massive climate change protests in the U.S. and around the world, demanding radical change. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to give apocalyptic speeches, cut ribbons, and attack Republicans as climate deniers. They might get some more money in the budget reconciliation. But there is no global treaty to negotiate, no clean energy breakthrough anticipated, and no sweeping proposal to reorganize the electricity or energy system. 

Thus, the real question is not what’s next for climate change over the next three years but rather what’s next over the next thirty?

It Was the Progressives’ Fault

Progressive Democrats are angry at how tiny Biden’s climate mitigation investments are, but it’s their own fault. Biden attempted to dial-up support for nuclear energy in the legislation but Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and environmental justice experts within the Biden White House successfully nixed even a modest lifeline for existing nuclear plants on the brink of closing down due to heavy federal and state subsidies for renewables.

The underlying reason for the failure of Biden’s ambitious climate plans is that progressives remain dogmatically pro-renewables and anti-nuclear. After I and a handful of others spent much of 2019 criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her anti-nuclear Green New Deal, she said in May of that year that she would “keep the door open” on nuclear power. But in October she advocated the closure of New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant. When the plant closed earlier this year, natural gas use and carbon emissions increased, as my colleagues and I had long predicted.  

Had Biden advocated the increase of nuclear power from today’s 19 percent to 50 percent of America’s electricity by 2050, he would have won Republican support, and America would be on a path to significantly reduced emissions. The climate infrastructure compromise legislation Biden announced yesterday does so little that it will be impossible to measure any impact on the energy mix, much less overall emissions. And U.S. emissions will rise this year, thanks to the closure of Indian Point, and a booming post-COVID economy.

That’s in stark contrast to the fracking revolution, which is the source of America’s energy independence, and the main reason our pollution declined more over the last 20 years than any nation’s emissions have ever declined in recorded history. US emissions declined 22% since 2005, which is five percentage points more than President Obama had promised to under his Clean Power Plan proposal. 

The public interest case for nuclear power is obvious. Building nuclear power plants that can last 80 or 100 years is much more similar to building roads and bridges than it is to importing from China solar panels that last just 10 or 20. And taking responsibility for the peaceful use of our most dangerous technology, the only one that truly poses an apocalyptic threat to human civilization, rather than let China and Russia control it, is obviously in America’s national security interests. 

From an environmental point of view, safely managing and eventually re-using used nuclear fuel rods at the site of production is much closer to the “circular economy” vision of permanent recycling than to the reality of solar waste disposal, which turns out to involve either dumping flimsy used solar panels on poor Africans or paying four times more for solar electricity than progressives had claimed. 

Progressive support for nuclear has grown quickly. Two progressive and socialist science writers, Will Boisvert and Leigh Phillips, spoke out forcefully and insightfully in support of nuclear, in 2013 and 2016. This year, two socialists, Emmet Penney and Bhaskar Sunkara, made the economic and climate case for nuclear power.

Unfortunately, most mainstream news reporters remain hostile to nuclear energy and they reach many more people. They repeat the same false claims that there is something so terribly complicated about nuclear plants that we can’t build them, even as they are built all over the world.

But all infrastructure projects are over-budget, and everybody in construction knows this. Even people who have renovated a kitchen know this. The UK-France tunnel under the English Channel was $3.6 billion over budget. The International Space Station program is tens of billions of dollars over budget. And the Sochi Winter Olympics were $39 billion over budget.

While I mentioned the latter stat in Britain, while making the case for public investment in nuclear energy, one reporter quipped, “But that’s more a feature than a bug in Russia.” There’s truth in that, and it’s a funny joke. But it’s also the case that Russia builds nuclear plants closer to their projected budget than other nations, and certainly much closer to budget than their Olympics, because Russia offers a standardized design, and the same people build its nuclear plants over and over again.   

In the end, the collapse of Biden’s big climate plans discredits the progressive agenda on climate, as promoted by Greta Thunberg, AOC, and the progressive caucus. The 100% renewable, anti-nuclear agenda reveals that the loudest climate activists care more about renewables as a path to harmony with nature through degrowth than about reducing emissions and toxic waste.

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Progressives Created the California Crises

The biggest opportunity for moderate Democrats and Republicans lies not in Washington, D.C., but on the Left Coast. Progressives Democrats in California have created three simultaneous crises: electricity, forest fires, and homelessness.

Earlier this week National Public Radio reported that Newsom had “misrepresented his accomplishments and even disinvested in wildfire prevention." He did so at the very moment that he was attacking Republicans as climate deniers for having correctly pointed out that the primary cause of the state’s high-intensity fires was and remains forest mismanagement, not higher temperatures.

In 2020, California actually saw its fuel reduction output decline by half, a very large amount, particularly given the widespread alarm among those in California government, the news media, and voters. Covid may have been partly to blame for the decline of fuel reduction output in 2020. But much of the forest clearing work, including clearing vegetation to build fire breaks, and small fires to burn away woody debris, was compatible with safety measures like social distancing and masks.

A bigger issue was that in 2019 Newsom cut the state’s forest fire prevention budget by $150 million. Neither Newsom nor Cal-Fire has said why, and nobody I interviewed who was close to the story had a particularly good explanation. If I had to speculate, I would guess that Newsom didn’t realize the budget was being cut, and that he won’t discuss it now because it shows he wasn’t focused on the issue. 

This year has been nearly as bad as last year. “This year,” reported NPR, “data show that through Memorial Day, the annual number of acres worked remained low, despite a fire season that threatens to be even more dangerous. The data show Gavin Newsom has done just 13% of the job he’s touted on his highest priority projects.”

Meanwhile, Newsom is making electricity scarce, expensive, and unreliable. California’s electricity prices rose another 7.5% in 2020, the largest price increase of any state in the country last year, notes journalist Robert Bryce. Both California and Texas demonstrated dramatically that diverting money from reliable energy sources to weather-dependent renewables results in blackouts. 

“Even though the state’s tattered electric grid can barely meet existing demand,” Bryce writes, “California continues to pile bad policy on top of bad policy. The state has banned the future sale of cars powered by internal combustion engines which will result in dramatic increases in electricity demand... Bans on natural gas will further increase electricity demand.”

When looking at Governor Newsom’s record of worsening forest fires, electricity reliability, and homelessness, it is hard to disentangle his distractibility from the distraction of progressive concerns. The reason high-intensity fires and homelessness grew worse is because they are hard problems to solve. The reason the electricity grid is failing is because it is relatively easy, in a state so rich that the budget surplus this year alone is $78 billion, to subsidize solar panels.

Affluence breeds arrogance. California is so rich that we thought we could just increase the price of electricity seven times faster than in the rest of the U.S. with no consequences if those price rises went to purchasing renewable energy. But one of the consequences of spending on new renewables was that we did not spend enough money on clearing the vegetation from around electrical lines or on natural gas plants.

Affluence also breeds dogmatic romantic idealism. Newsom is pursuing a dangerous effort to shut down the state’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, which provides electricity to three million Californians, at a time of blackouts. Why? Because he is in the grip of the Malthusianism of the NRDC, Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund, who insist it can, should, and must be done.

It’s not a coincidence that progressive environmentalists who for decades have said there are too many people on earth, that Americans are too rich, and that human civilization is doomed, are also creating electricity shortages in California. They aren’t consciously deciding to create blackouts. But blackouts are the predictable result of an obsession with solar panels and lithium batteries that causes California regulators to ascribe to them quasi-magical properties.  

“For many years we have pointed out that there was inadequate supply of electricity after solar had left its peak,” said the exasperated CEO of California’s grid manager, CAISO, last August during the blackouts. “We told regulators over and over that more should be contracted for. That was rebuffed. And here we are.”

The progressive agenda nationally is a carbon copy of what California has done, and the Biden Administration’s agenda is not much different from it. The only thing distinguishing the Biden approach from the progressive approach is its smaller size and the inclusion of nuclear and carbon capture and storage demonstration projects. 

But with the deal with the Biden administration, Republicans too show they have no in the way of a substantive alternative proposal to the Democratic agenda. They went along with $73 billion in additional spending for transmission for solar and wind projects that voters across the U.S., including in the battleground states of the midwest, are organizing against. And Republicans have done nothing of significance in terms of proposing a national build-out of nuclear plants.

Go Nuclear Now

The opportunity now for moderate Democrats and Republicans is to go big on nuclear. The U.S. is at this moment letting China deliver Saudi Arabia’s uranium enrichment and nuclear power program, something neither Democrats nor Republicans believe is good for American security. The only way for the U.S. to guarantee its national security, protect its allies, and protect liberal democracy around the world, is through an organized and well-resourced nuclear power plant construction program. 

No nation will buy nuclear plants from the U.S. if we aren’t building them at home. And no nation will buy nuclear plants from the U.S. if we continue to deny nations their right under international law to enrich uranium and reprocess used fuel. As Saudi Arabia shows, if the U.S. won’t do this, then China will.

A pro-nuclear climate agenda, whether proposed by Democrats or Republicans, would be the muscular, pro-American alternative to made-in-China, and financed-by-BlackRock climate agenda of progressive Democrats. They will either be forced to oppose it or be exposed for favoring China-made solar panels over American nuclear workers. Policymakers squeamish about using public financing can instead create legislation that would attract financing from private funds including giant pension funds like CalPERS, as the British government may do, to build new nuclear plants.

But both parties are moving rapidly away from the neoliberal, bankers-first, globalization model that has dominated Left and Right for over 30 years. Growing America’s nuclear capacity from 20 to 50 percent of America's electricity, and building nuclear plants abroad, is precisely the agenda that can appeal to rock-ribbed Republican voters, moderate voters seeking direction, and progressive Millennials and Zoomers who don’t have the psychological hang-ups of their Baby Boomer and Gen X parents.

The fracking revolution resulted from the all-American marriage of the oil and gas industry, the Department of Energy, Congress, and multiple presidents, from Nixon to Clinton, as I documented a decade ago. The fracking revolution resulted from a decades-long bipartisan consensus. As such, building a bipartisan consensus should be the highest priority of anybody who cares both about climate change and about our most important energy technology.

If such a consensus takes hold, and policymakers pursue a nuclear expansion, we might in 2050 look back on 2020 as the beginning of the end of progressive Democratic hegemony on climate change. Today, few realize that the problems facing renewables are fundamental, not temporary. But over the next few months and years, a growing number of people will come to understand that the reason that Biden’s climate agenda failed wasn’t because it wasn’t ambitious enough. The real reason it failed is because it was anti-nuclear.