The Tribune Editorial Board’s Aug. 7 editorial, advocating the full conversion from fossil fuels to electricity, had a stunning omission: It did not mention nuclear power, even once. Where to start with unpacking this abdication?
The board is correct that climate change is a gigantic, imminent threat, and the rapid migration to electricity is mandatory. But the board’s column was full of happy talk that omitted and glossed over hard truths. The board’s omissions only serve to undermine the credibility of the column.
Among the omitted hard truths: The public will only go so far in absorbing pain in dealing with climate change. The Biden administration almost certainly aligns with the board and myself in terms of accepting the seriousness of climate change.
Yet we saw the pathetic spectacle of the president and his administration going hat-in-hand to Saudi Arabia and other global oil producers to jump production so as to not inconvenience the voters in the U.S. with higher energy prices. Apparently generating more carbon overseas is not so bad. Hint to the Biden administration: higher fossil fuels prices are a good thing in terms of mitigating climate change.
Biden would argue that he can’t impact climate if he’s voted out of office. That simply reaffirms my earlier point: People care about climate change, kind of. But, for most people, climate concern ends when they are faced with the prospect of high gasoline prices and/or high heating/cooling bills.
Electrification without a major contribution from nuclear energy will be slower and more expensive, and thus far less popular with the semi-ambivalent, semi-denying public. The pain for the public will be much less if we use all of the competitively priced sources of non-carbon energy to replace fossil fuels.
Another omitted hard truth: Solar and wind energy need back-up electricity production, because sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Storing power in batteries has made progress, but the state-of-the-art technology in batteries is still a long way from enabling entire countries to rely solely on wind and sun for power.
Germany has moved a great distance in developing wind and solar power. But Germany needs a back-up for its renewables, and Germany has foolishly decommissioned most of its nuclear power. And what are Germany’s back-ups for its solar and wind power plants? Almost unbelievably, it’s coal-fired electricity. Returning to the public’s limited appetite for climate change-reducing pain, the public would never accept a situation where wind and solar might not always provide all of the power needed. How does the board propose that we back-up renewables?
Another omitted hard truth: The undeniable major risks from nuclear power are far less than the planet-wide catastrophes that await us from climate change. I haven’t seen the Editorial Board’s list of horrible risks from nuclear power, but I suspect I would agree with all of them. This is emphatically a lesser-of-evils issue.
Many people, including greens and progressives, are grudgingly (and “grudgingly,” by the way, is the understandable and appropriate adjective) coming to the conclusion that nuclear power is the lesser evil, but not nearly enough have done so. Obviously, among the hold-outs are those on the board.
This brings us to the last omitted hard truth: Newspapers have seen advertising revenue nearly eviscerated and are now all the much more dependent on subscriber revenue and donors. This leads all newspapers today to cater to their oh-so-important subscribers (this applies equally to The Tribune, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal). In short, ruffling the feathers of the “base” (of subscribers) is risky for any newspaper. It’s my hunch that a lot of important Tribune donors and subscribers (which include lots of greens and progressives) would take a dim view of the board advocating for nuclear power. It’s safer to tell them what they want to hear (happy talk) and what they already believe (wind, solar and geothermal alone can solve everything).
The Tribune Editorial Board needs to embrace a much more realistic assessment of the situation.
Eric Rumple lives in Sandy. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago and is the author of the novel “Forgive Our Debts.”