In October 2019, the British climate activist group Extinction Rebellion carried out two weeks of civil disobedience in London and other cities around the world. Six thousand activists blocked the five main bridges that cross the River Thames, which flows through London, preventing people from getting to work or home.
An Extinction Rebellion spokesperson went on national television and made a series of alarming claims. “Billions of people are going to die.” “Life on Earth is dying.” And, “Governments aren’t addressing it.”
Some journalists pushed back. The BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed a visibly uncomfortable Extinction Rebellion spokesperson in her mid-30s named Zion Lights. “One of your founders, Roger Hallam, said in April, ‘Our children are going to die in the next 10 to 20 years,’” said Neil. “What’s the scientific basis for these claims?”
“These claims have been disputed, admittedly,” Lights said. “There are some scientists who are agreeing and some who are saying that they’re simply not true. But the overall issue is that these deaths are going to happen.”
“But most scientists don’t agree with this,” said Neil. “I looked through [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports] and see no reference to billions of people going to die, or children going to die in under 20 years… How would they die?”
Responded Lights, “Mass migration around the world is already taking place due to prolonged drought in countries, particularly in South Asia. There are wildfires in Indonesia, the Amazon rainforest, also Siberia, the Arctic.”
“These are really important problems,” Neil said, “and they can cause fatalities. But they don’t cause billions of deaths. They don’t mean that our young people will all be dead in 20 years.”
“Perhaps not in 20 years,” acknowledged Lights.
“I’ve seen young girls on television, part of your demonstration… crying because they think they’re going to die in five or six years’ time, crying because they don’t think they’ll ever see adulthood,” said Neil. “And yet there’s no scientific basis for the claims that your organization is making.”
“I’m not saying that because I’m alarming children,” replied Lights. “They’re learning about the consequences.”
Apocalyptic climate claims have had a major impact. In September 2019, a survey of 30,000 people around the world found that 48 percent believed climate change would make humanity extinct. In January of this year, a survey found that one in five British children were having nightmares about climate change.
For the last decade I have been obsessed with a question: Why are the people who are the most alarmist about environmental issues also opposed to all of the obvious solutions?
Those who raise the alarm about food shortages oppose expanding the use of chemical fertilizers, tractors, and GMOs. Those who raise the alarm about Amazon deforestation promote policies that fragment the forest. And those who raise the alarm about climate change oppose nuclear energy, the largest source of zero-emissions energy in developed nations. Why is that?
It is not an academic question for me. I have been a climate activist for 20 years and an energy expert for 10 of them. I was adamantly against nuclear energy until about a decade ago when it became clear renewables couldn’t replace fossil fuels. After educating myself about the facts, I came to support the technology.
Over the last five years, I have campaigned, as founder and president of my small and independent nonprofit research organization, Environmental Progress, to expand the use of nuclear energy. During that time our main opponents have not been climate skeptics or even the fossil fuel industry but rather other climate activists.
This is the case around the world. It is climate alarmist Democrats and Greens who are seeking to shut down nuclear plants in the US and Europe. Greta Thunberg last year condemned the technology as “extremely dangerous, expensive, & time-consuming,” which is false. And Green New Deal architect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has advocated closing the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, which is now being replaced with natural gas.
In nearly every situation around the world, support for nuclear energy from climate activists like Thunberg and AOC would make the difference between nuclear plants staying open or closing, and being built or not being built. Had Thunberg spoken out in defense of nuclear power she likely could have prevented two reactors in her home nation of Sweden from being closed. Had AOC advocated for Indian Point rather than condemned it as dangerous, it could likely keep operating, for at least 40 years longer.
That’s because the main problem facing nuclear energy is that it’s unpopular—and far more among progressives than conservatives, and far more among women than men. There are no good technical or economic reasons that nations from the US and Japan to Sweden and Germany are closing their nuclear plants. Center-left governments are closing them early in response to the demands of progressives and Greens—the very same people who are claiming climate change will kill billions of people.
Trying to understand why that is set me off on the journey that led me to write my new book, Apocalypse Never, which HarperCollins will release next week. I had originally envisioned the book as focused narrowly on nuclear. But after Thunberg, AOC, and Extinction Rebellion activists made their widely-publicized claims of climate armageddon, I decided to expand my book’s focus to go through the evidence and separate science fiction from scientific facts.
In December, I interviewed Lights, by phone. A lifelong environmentalist, Lights is the author of the 2015 book, The Guide to Green Parenting, which has been praised by climate activist Bill McKibben and former British Green Party leader Natalie Bennet.
Shortly after she told me her history, we started to argue.
“Let’s talk about the claims,” I said. “Billions are going to die?”
“I didn’t say that,” Lights said. “Roger [Hallam] said it.”
“But he’s the Extinction Rebellion’s founder!” I protested.
“It doesn’t matter!” she said. “They have as much power as I do. So it’s not fair to say he represents us.”
Lights explained that Extinction Rebellion is not an organization in the normal sense. It is officially leaderless.
“I’m not going to say it’s not an issue,” Lights acknowledged after I pressed her on this point. “But we don’t have an official line. I never said the billions thing and never would.”
I wouldn’t let it go. “[Extinction Rebellion spokesperson] Sarah [Lunnon] gave repeated interviews saying ‘billions will die’ and ‘life on Earth is dying,’” I said. “There is growing evidence that children are being affected. We know anxiety and depression are rising across the developed world. I think it’s irresponsible.”
“I agree with you!” said Lights. “I completely agree with you. I went back to XR after the Neil interview and complained about Roger. Then he said what he said about the Holocaust! He said he would step back from XR but he hasn’t. I had a conversation with [another Extinction Rebellion activist] Rupert [Read] saying, ‘Don’t be alarmist.’”
“I’m still in XR because they changed the dialogue and someone needs to help them not be inaccurate,” she said, “and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“But the ‘extinction’ in the name Extinction Rebellion’ implies human extinction!” I said.
“It’s supposed to refer to animal extinction, not human extinction,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Lights then said something that caught my attention. “I’m like you,” she said. “I think we need nuclear.”
Lights said she had quit the Green Party 10 years earlier over its opposition to nuclear. “I was in Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and got sucked into this idea of nuclear not being safe,” she explained.
Lights told me she changed her mind after a scientist told her nuclear energy was, in fact, safer than other energy sources. “I said, ‘That’s not what I’ve been told.’ And he said, ‘Don’t just listen to what people tell you.’ And so I looked it up and he was right. The data shows it is safe. And I realized solar panels and batteries are not going to meet demand. The more I read the more I realized, ‘Oh no! These things I believed aren’t true!’”
“I then—perhaps somewhat naively—went to people thinking they’d want to know the truth, and then realizing that they don’t. And that’s always difficult. I really struggled to get Greenpeace to listen to the evidence. At times, they have made things up, disingenuously, and they don’t care! It was like dealing with anti-vaxxers,” she said with a rueful laugh. “I couldn’t deal with it. It was like identity politics. I got fed up.”
Lights said she pushed back against other Extinction Rebellion activists who wanted to promote renewables and criticize nuclear. “When they’re pushing solar, or battery storage, and I say to them ‘I heard that 10 years ago! We have nuclear! We have an option! And what we’ve done is descale all of that and shut it down and look at Germany when they did that! Their emissions went up!’”
The active participation or at least consent by leading climate activists including Thunberg, AOC, and many Extinction Rebellion activists to the closure of nuclear plants, and opposition to new ones, threatens to undermine the public’s trust in their sincerity.
The public has good reason to distrust many climate activists. In my research for Apocalypse Never I discovered that many anti-nuclear environmental groups, including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and 350.org either take money from or are invested directly in, natural gas and renewable energy interests that stand to gain enormously by shutting down nuclear plants.
A single nuclear plant like Indian Point can provide electricity for over three million people, and thus replacing even one nuclear plant is a lucrative business for competitor fossil fuel and renewable energy companies. During a 10-year period, Indian Point’s owner could bring in $8 billion in revenue. Over 40 years revenues could easily reach $32 billion. If Indian Point plant closes as scheduled—one reactor closed earlier this year, and another is set to close next year—those billions will flow directly to natural gas and renewables companies.
Sierra Club, NRDC, and EDF have worked to shut down nuclear plants and replace them with fossil fuels and a smattering of renewables since the 1970s. They have created detailed reports for policymakers, journalists, and the public purporting to show that neither nuclear plants nor fossil fuels are needed to meet electricity demand, thanks to energy efficiency and renewables. And yet, as we have seen, almost everywhere nuclear plants are closed, or not built, fossil fuels are burned instead.
But it’s not just about money. It’s also about ideology. Anti-nuclear groups have long had a deeply ideological motivation to kill off nuclear energy.
Policymakers, journalists, conservationists, and other educated elites in the ’50s and ’60s 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, by harvesting nitrogen from the air, and hydrogen from water, and combining them. We could create transportation fuels without fossil fuels, by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to make artificial hydrocarbons, or by splitting water to make pure hydrogen gas.
Nuclear energy thus created a serious problem for Malthusians—followers of widely-debunked 18th-century economist, Thomas Robert Malthus—who argued that the world was on the brink of ecological collapse and resource scarcity. Nuclear energy not only meant infinite fertilizer, freshwater, and food but also zero pollution and a radically reduced environmental footprint.
In reaction, Malthusians attacked nuclear energy as dangerous, mostly by suggesting that it would lead to nuclear war, but also by spreading misinformation about nuclear “waste”—the tiny quantity of used fuel rods—and the rapidly decaying radiation that escapes from nuclear plants during their worst accidents.
There is a pattern: Malthusians raise the alarm about resource depletion or environmental problems and then attack the obvious technical solutions. In the late 1700s, Thomas Malthus had to reject birth control to predict overpopulation. In the 1960s, Malthusians had to claim fossil fuels were scarce to oppose the extension of fertilizers and industrial agriculture to poor nations and to raise the alarm over famine. And today, climate activists reject nuclear energy in order to declare a coming climate apocalypse.
The United Kingdom is a particularly important nation for nuclear energy right now. The UK is currently on track to lose 14 out of 15 of its operating nuclear reactors, by 2030. If that happens, they will be replaced by natural gas, and emissions will increase.
If, however, the government authorizes the construction of four large new reactors, identical to its two reactors currently under construction, the UK will replace all of the nuclear energy being lost and expand total nuclear energy by 50 percent over today.
Aside from the climate benefits, the benefits to the natural environment would be enormous. Nuclear plants in the UK require 450 times less land than solar or wind farms. And unlike solar and wind farms, nuclear plants operate reliably, day and night, rain and shine, wind or no wind.
I visited London last October when Extinction Rebellion activists were gluing their hands to police barricades in Trafalgar Square, forcibly closing Westminster. I was there to advocate for those nuclear plants. While in town I met with then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with representatives of Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street, and with environmentalists opposed to nuclear.
A few weeks later, the Labour Party announced tentative support for building new nuclear plants. Now, the Johnson government is deciding whether to support two of the four new proposed reactors.
The UK has only grown in importance to the future of nuclear energy in the West over the last nine months.
Nuclear plants are at risk of being prematurely closed and replaced by fossil fuels and renewables around the world. Governments in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Belgium, Spain, and the United States are all taking action to close nuclear plants prematurely. If that happens, they will be replaced by fossil fuels and carbon emissions will rise significantly.
Anti-nuclear forces are successfully forcing the premature closure of a perfectly good nuclear power plant, Fessenheim, in order to make way for more industrial wind turbines and natural gas.
In the meantime, renewables are reaching their environmental and political limits around the world. The expansion of industrial wind energy in Germany has nearly ground to a halt due to citizen opposition to new transmission lines and forest loss. Ohio regulators have effectively blocked industrial wind turbines from being built in Lake Erie because they would kill and threaten the viability of several species of migratory birds. And a federal judge recently halted plans to build a massive new transmission line for industrial wind turbines that would have bisected the Sand Hills nature preserve of Nebraska, citing threats to endangered species including whooping cranes.
It is increasingly obvious to climate and energy experts that “deep decarbonization” of energy—not just electricity but also the energy required for heating, cooking, and transportation that comprise roughly two-thirds of our energy consumption—requires nuclear, due to the high cost and unreliability of renewables.
But with experienced reactor builders Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and the US all but abandoning their nuclear building expertise, the Western alliance is left with a single major nuclear power plant builder, France.
Unfortunately, France has no plans to build in Europe—not even in France. As such, if the UK commits to building six French nuclear reactors, belief in nuclear within European governments and among global investors will grow. History shows that each new reactor will get built faster and cheaper. As a result, the viability of the technology in the West would be greatly revived.
Two weeks ago, I emailed Zion Lights to see if she would do a video call with me. I had remembered that she was pro-nuclear and thought there might be an outside chance that she would add her name to supporters of an open letter, advocating that the plants be built. We arranged to talk after she had put her two young children to bed.
Though we had argued back in December, I had left our conversation impressed by her intelligence, passion, and courage in standing up for what she believed in. Zion hadn’t defended the obviously unscientific claims her colleagues had made. And she had prevented her Extinction Rebellion activists from attacking nuclear energy in the ways Greta Thunberg and AOC have.
After I explained the situation to her, Zion immediately said she would be happy to add her name to such an effort. Could she help me reach out to other environmentalists in Britain to make the case for nuclear? I asked her. I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified and capable of doing so. She said she could.
In the end, we got along so well, that I offered Zion the position of UK Director for Environmental Progress, and she accepted. Today, the British newspaper City A.M. has published her op-ed about why she changed her mind about nuclear and has decided to campaign in favor of the technology.
Already, many influential British environmentalists including Gaia theory inventor James Lovelock, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, and science journalist Mark Lynas advocate nuclear energy. One of the world’s leading experts on the impact of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents on health, Dr. Gerry Thomas of Imperial College London, is pro-nuclear.
Zion feels that there may even be more pro-nuclear support to find within Extinction Rebellion and the Green Party, but isn’t naive. “I talk about nuclear a lot but get a lot of flack about it from ordinary people,” she told me last year, “not just Greens but ordinary people have a real fear. And journalists often get it wrong. And then the politicians get it wrong. They don’t mean to. They just don’t understand what the science is saying.”
There are a lot of pro-nuclear people in the West who have largely given up hope for the technology, pointing to stubborn resistance from the public, particularly the Left. Britain shows why we shouldn’t do so. A consensus has grown in the UK among Conservatives and much of Labour that it needs nuclear not just for climate change but also to reduce its dependence on imported natural gas. And now nuclear has Zion Lights on its side.
Over time, I believe, the contradiction between preaching climate apocalypse and opposing nuclear energy will become increasingly untenable. The claim that renewables can substitute for fossil fuels in high-energy societies has been repeatedly falsified for more than a half-century. Thunberg, AOC, and Extinction Rebellion leaders will eventually need to admit that we need nuclear, or face a loss of credibility and relevance.
Zion is hopeful that they will ultimately opt for relevance. “You and I didn’t get it right when we were anti-nuclear,” she added. “We’re all on the same side at the end of the day. We all want what’s best for our kids. Let’s try to get it right.”
Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. He is the author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.