Why Environmentalists Cause Climate Change

Carbon Emissions Spiked 35% in New York After NRDC Forced Indian Point Nuclear Plant to Close, a New Environmental Progress Analysis Finds

For decades environmental groups led by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have argued that we can and should power the U.S. on 100 percent renewables without need for nuclear power plants or natural gas. In New York, NRDC, which is the most influential environmental organization among Democrats, successfully lobbied Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to close Indian Point nuclear plant. NRDC claimed Indian Point could be replaced entirely by renewables.

But a new analysis by Environmental Progress finds that, in its first full month without Indian Point, New York's carbon emissions from in-state electricity generation rose 35 percent over the state’s pre-covid shutdown levels. Meanwhile, the carbon intensity of New York’s electricity, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity, rose 46 percent. And the share of electricity from renewables, including hydroelectric dams, actually declined between 2019 and 2021. 

The analysis raises serious questions about the objectivity and credibility of NRDC, which has tens of millions of dollars invested in natural gas and renewables through massive asset manager Blackrock, whose former senior executive Brian Deese today heads President Joe Biden’s National Economic Council. 

For 50 years, NRDC has been one of the most influential organizations among Democratic policymakers, mainstream newspapers, and environmental activists. In a Yale University debate, I recently confronted NRDC for its role in shutting down nuclear plants and its conflicts-of-interest. (You can watch three, 2-minute clips herehere, and here, and a 32-minute version here.) Today, NRDC is actively trying to shut down nuclear plants in the rest of the U.S., including in California.

It’s true that carbon emissions can still decline even as nuclear power plants close. For example, over the last 20 years, the U.S. reduced carbon emissions more than any other nation in history, even as the share of electricity from nuclear power plants declined. The U.S. reduced its carbon emissions by an astonishing 22 percent below 2005 levels, significantly more than the 17 percent President Barack Obama promised the U.S. would as part of the Paris climate agreement.

But at the state level, closing nuclear plants spikes emissions, as both New York and California prove, and New York and if half of America's nuclear plants close over the next decade, as they are predicted to do, they will be replaced mostly by natural gas. As for the national declines in emissions in the past, they were due mostly to the replacement of coal by cheaper natural gas.

And there are limits to the emissions reductions that can be gained from replacing coal plants with natural gas. California, over the last ten years, was only able to reduce carbon emissions, despite having shut down the San Onofre nuclear plant, because so much out-of-state coal was being replaced by natural gas. California’s in-state emissions from electricity generation actually rose from 33 to 41 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions between 2011 and 2019.

Why is it that NRDC and other environmental groups, which claim to believe that climate change is an apocalyptic threat, keep shutting down nuclear plants, increasing emissions, and causing climate change? Part of the reason is clearly financial. NRDC has a minimum of $66 million invested in fossil fuels and renewables. Part of the reason is because NRDC leaders believe, irrationally, that closing nuclear plants somehow gets us closer to a world without nuclear weapons. But there is something else, too: the existence of nuclear power means we don’t need renewables.

Nuclear’s Real Threat

After World War II, conservationists influenced by the ideas of British economist Thomas Malthus argued that the world was running out of resources and energy. In 1948, a conservationist named William Vogt warned of rampant breeding in poor nations, particularly India. Vogt attacked the medical profession’s “duty to keep alive as many people as possible.” Vogt felt he had a solution. “International control of resources exploitation, in order to protect technologically retarded nations, is indispensable.” 

In 1965, the journal Science published an article which claimed environmental collapse was inevitable due to uncontrolled breeding and that the only way to avoid the tragedy was “mutual coercion.” Three years later, Sierra Club executive director David Brower conceived and edited a book, The Popula­tion Bomb, by Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, which claimed the world was on the brink of mass starvation. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

But they had a problem: nuclear power. Policymakers, journalists, conservationists and other educated elites in the fifties and sixties knew that nuclear was unlimited energy, and that unlimited energy meant unlimited food and water. We could use desalination to convert ocean water into freshwater. We could create fertilizer without fossil fuels. And we could create transportation fuels without fossil fuels by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to make an artificial hydrocarbon or by using water to make pure hydrogen gas.

The problem posed by the existence of nuclear energy was that it proved we didn’t need to radically reorganize society to solve environmental problems, and that poor nations didn’t need to remain poor. We just needed to build nuclear plants instead of coal- and gas-burning ones, and to eventually transition from gasoline-powered internal combustion engines to hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. Nuclear energy thus created a serious problem for anyone who wanted to argue that the world was on the brink of ecological collapse and resource scarcity. 

And so Malthusian attacked nuclear energy as somehow bad for the environment. They didn’t have a lot to draw on, but they worked with what they had. They made a fuss about the slightly warm — and clean — water that comes out of nuclear plants. They led the public to believe nuclear waste was liquid, green and dangerous, when in reality it is solid, metallic, and never hurts anyone. 

Anti-nuclear activists stressed the threat posed by the fact that nuclear makes abundant and cheap energy. “Even if nuclear power were clean, safe, economic, assured of ample fuel, and socially benign,” said influential anti-nuclear leader Amory Lovins  in 1977, “it would still be unattractive because of the political implications of the kind of energy economy it would lock us into.” 

Explained Lovins, who created the anti-nuclear, renewables-only agenda for Sierra Club, NRDC, and others, “If you ask me, it'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it.” 

The head of the Sierra Club made the same argument against California’s nuclear plant. “If a doubling of the state’s population in the next twenty years is encouraged by providing the power resources for this growth,” wrote the Sierra Club’s executive director, opposing the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, “[California’s] scenic character will be destroyed.”

Lovins married the demand for energy scarcity to a romantic vision of a “soft [renewable] energy” future that rejected the infrastructure of the rich world. In 1976, Foreign Affairs published a thirteen-thousand-word essay by Lovins making the case for small-scale energy production instead of large- scale power plants.

The Malthusians significantly modified Malthus. Where Malthus warned that overpopulation would result in a scarcity of food, Malthusians in the 1960s and 1970s warned that energy abundance would result in overpopulation, environmental destruction, and societal collapse.

But most of all, Malthusian environmentalists tapped latent fears of nuclear weapons. They called the growing population in developing nations a “population explosion.” The title of the Sierra Club book, by Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, conflated fears of nuclear with fears of overpopulation. And, as would become routine in U.N. reports, including those published by the IPCC for the next three decades, the United Nations’s 1987 report “Our Common Future” attacked nuclear energy as unsafe and strongly recommended against its expansion. 

There was a pattern. Malthusians raise the alarm about resource or environmental problems and then attack the obvious technical solutions. Thomas Malthus had to attack birth control as immoral in order to warn of overpopulation. In the 1960s, Malthusian environmentalists had to claim fossil fuels were scarce to oppose the extension of fertilizers and industrial agriculture to poor nations under the cover of raising the alarm about famine. And today, climate activists like NRDC have to attack natural gas and nuclear energy, the main drivers of lower carbon emissions, in order to warn of a climate apocalypse. 

The Real Reason They Hate Nuclear

Today, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress are seeking billions for renewables as part of their proposed budget and climate infrastructure legislation, which would plow hundreds of billions into retrofitting buildings, expanding power grids, and subsidizing renewables. 

But Biden’s renewable energy agenda is unnecessary for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. could simply expand nuclear power instead. Just look at France and Germany. Thanks to its transition from nuclear to renewables, Germany has seen a 50 percent increase in its electricity prices even while it produces 10 times more carbon emissions per unit of electricity as France. France generates 70 percent of its energy from nuclear power and has some of the cleanest and cheapest electricity in Europe.

Environmentalists know what they are doing. Climate activist Bill McKibben and Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders advocated the closure of a Vermont nuclear plant, resulting in higher emissions. European Greens advocate the closure of nuclear plants while accepting funding from natural gas interests. And Democratic leaders happily accept funding from Tom Steyer, who tried to shut down America’s largest nuclear plant, even though he remains invested in fossil fuels

Abundant and clean energy from nuclear means we don’t need to return to a low-energy, agrarian, and renewable-powered world. Nuclear means we don’t need billions for transmission lines, expensive retrofits, and solar panels made in China. All nuclear energy does is grow societal wealth, increase wages, and decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. No wonder NRDC is trying to kill it off.