Calling climate change an existential threat to humanity, congressional Democrats have proposed a policy package called the Green New Deal. It would mandate that 100 percent of U.S. energy production come from "clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources" like wind and solar by the year 2050.
But some environmentalists say Green New Dealers are neglecting one obvious source of abundant clean energy already available: nuclear power, which the Green New Deal FAQ wants to phase out along with such fossil fuels as oil, gas, and coal.
"It's when the conservationists became environmentalists that everything went bad," says Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Environmental Progress, a pro-nuclear research and advocacy nonprofit based in Berkeley, California. "It stopped being about the environment. It became about controlling society."
Shellenberger started his career in energy advocating for more government subsidies to wind and solar. He pushed for a new Apollo Project of $300 billion in federal research and development funding to make renewable energy sources cheaper than coal within a decade.
From 2009 to 2015, the Obama administration took up that call and put billions of dollars into renewable energy subsidies. That, Shellenberger says, opened his eyes to the fact that no amount of government funding can overcome the inherent drawbacks of renewables.
When California invested heavily in wind and solar, Shellenberger says it led to energy price increases at a rate about six times faster than the national average, despite the falling cost of solar panels.
Shellenberger says that the allure of nuclear power is its "energy density"—he estimates that the energy consumption of the average human being from birth to death can be provided by a single 12-ounce soda can's worth of uranium. He believes a nuclear renaissance could unlock a world of clean energy abundance, an idea he explores further in a document he co-authored, titled "An Ecomodernist Manifesto."
He contrasts his pro-growth, urbanist "ecomodernism" with the Malthusian, neo-primitivist "dark green" environmentalism that he thinks motivates many proponents of the Green New Deal.
"If you want to save the natural environment, you just use nuclear. You grow more food on less land, and people live in cities. It's not rocket science," says Shellenberger. "The idea that people need to stay poor…that's just a reactionary social philosophy that they then dress up as a kind of environmentalism."
Watch the above video to learn more about the history of nuclear energy and to hear more from Shellenberger about his case for nuclear power, as well as his response to concerns about radiation, nuclear weapons, and nuclear's economic viability. The video also features solar energy advocate Ed Smeloff, who served on the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District board during the shutdown of California's Rancho Seco nuclear plant. Smeloff argues that nuclear power simply can't compete in the marketplace.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alexis Garcia and Weissmueller.
This video falls under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
"Granular Orchestra" by VP Productions is licensed under a Standard License through Artisound.io.
German environmentalists photo credit: Stefan Boness/Ipon/SIPA/Newscom
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez photo credit: Alex Edelman/Zuma Press/Newscom
Elon Musk photo credit: Yang Lei Xinhua News Agency/Newscom
Michael Shellenberger photo credit: James Arthur Photography/James Arthur/Newscom ID 113779354 © Vaclav Volrab | Dreamstime.com
Smokestacks photo credit: Shaun Van Steyn Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom