Climate change was ignored for all but the last week of the American presidential election. Then, a hurricane hit and it mobilized voters who were otherwise disappointed that neither party cared about science or the climate.
Yet it's hard to have a real talk about climate change when activist groups are so anti-science about energy and energy produces a lot of emissions. While Hurricane Sandy may have been the 'October surprise' that re-elected a president (1) but it may also have done something that even an earthquake in Japan could not do; force a real, adult conversation about nuclear power.
There are a few things that we have to accept about a nuclear power discussion and the president can do that, because he no longer has anything to run for - he is legacy-building and given the polarized nature of the election, he has no coattails for anyone to ride...yet. The first thing we have to accept about an adult discussion of nuclear power is that environmental activists can be no part of it. They are anti-science about food, they are anti-science about energy and that is not going to change. Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists and all the rest only exist to block science that disagrees with their world view, not be trusted guides for the public on complex topics, and the 21st century is a complex science century. Especially energy science.
President Obama can do it because he is unfettered, he never needs to run for office again. And since he is unfettered, I predict he will be a lot more pro-science in his second term.
Now, some will argue he was pro-science in his first term. Categorically untrue. Itemizing the list of anti-science, politicization of science and scientization of politics positions his administration caused and perpetuated would take a whole chapter in a book but it may be that he was not trying to be anti-science, he was just having to face down a hostile Congress and even a hostile Democratic party and all their constituents and in juggling all those things, science took a back seat.
Yet for all his anti-science flaws, catering to the anti-vaccine crowd, editing science reports, token gestures on biology research that did little to open the doors for the NIH, he really is a pro-science guy. And every president has had the expedient need to pick and choose their science beliefs à la carte. It looked bad in November of 2008. I mean, his transition team had a guy who believes girls can't do math, an anti-vaccine crackpot and a whole bunch of UFO believers. Things are much more solid this term, because he doesn't have to reward anyone for getting him elected. Maybe we will even get a Science Czar who is not a 1970s-era doomsday prophet in 2013.
The Keystone XL project in 2011 showed that the February 2009 pro-science Obama was still in there somewhere. He was ready to approve it - Americans needed jobs, and it was a lot of them, and it meant less imported oil and no environmental risk and a whole lot of happy union employees. Opposing it were only some environmentalists but they oppose everything; 400 extra miles of pipeline on the Ogallala aquifer in addition to the existing 20,000 were hardly an environmental concern, according to every scientific report. And, as Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer phrased it, “Ninety per cent of these jackasses that are complaining about the Keystone pipeline in Washington, D.C., one year ago wouldn't have even known where the Keystone was."
Obama decided that he couldn't risk enraging environmentalists going into an election year. Yet we saw glimmers of hope in other areas. He reined in Lisa Jackson at the EPA, who regards her group as an anti-business fourth branch of government, and delayed even more crushing regulations and laws by the FDA until after the election.
Now he gets a chance to build a pro-science legacy. No one remembers the President Clinton from 1993 or his impeachment, they remember he had a budget surplus and he did it by brokering deals. His advantage over Obama? Clinton had no mandate. He won in 1992 with 43% of the vote and only got 49% in 1996. Republicans took control of the House in 1994 because he didn't recognize he had no mandate and was arrogant - he cost Democrats control of the House for the first time in 40 years due to hubris, and he learned from it.
President Obama now gets to rehabilitate his presidency the same way. But he has to forget worrying about Democrats in 2016 and instead be that guy we saw in his victory speech November 6th. Nothing will secure his legacy like making inroads on climate change.
Now, we have made inroads on climate change, he just can't take credit for it. His $72 billion wasted on corporate alternative energy did not help much in lowering emissions, but the bad economy did. We went back to 1995 levels of emissions primarily due to no industry and high unemployment in every sector except government. And the energy sector he was trying to replace with government-funded projects reduced their emissions too. Despite having more people than ever, American CO2 emissions from energy are back at early 1990s levels and coal is at early 1980s levels.
But he can be a part of the solution now by endorsing nuclear power. He will, if he is really a pro-science president. The fact is, America produces great technology but letting energy be hijacked by anti-science progressives has meant decades of no improvements in nuclear energy. It's been bad for climate change and bad for the world. If American ingenuity had been turned toward making nuclear power safer and better we wouldn't have had to rely on coal all these years and the resulting upward spike in emissions - environmental activists caused climate change, not people driving to work.
So Hurricane Sandy gives him the opportunity to make the issue personal for Americans in a way the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan could not; when Sandy hit, the aging nuclear plants on the east coast were placed on high alert. And rightly so. Those reactors, for example, have zirconium cladding tubes that contain the fuel and that cladding is in contact with hot water that can lead to corrosion. They are not unsafe but imagine what we could have done in the last few decades if American ingenuity had not been hijacked by people who hate science. We could have clean energy that is also 'disaster-proof'.
Professor Steve Donnelly of the University of Huddersfield designed the Microscope and Ion Accelerators for Materials Investigation (MIAMI) facility and starting in January will be using it to simulate the effects of radiation damage on new coatings developed under a $13 million US Department of Energy project to improve cladding design and materials. MIAMI uses ion beams to simulate what happens to test materials during neutron bombardment.
The project takes three years. If the simulations work, the coating will get tested with neutrons in the US. $13 million. A drop in the bucket. The alternative energy boondoggle wasted enough rnoney to fund an actual science project 5,500 times.
Just this project takes three years. Obviously, if we're going to have a realistic conversation about climate change, and if we want it to have a meaningful difference any time soon, we need to focus on a bridge to cleaner energy that is available now and not count on magic rocks that will spring forth if we just throw enough money at companies.
No more magic rocks, embrace nuclear power. He can do it and secure his place as the pro-science president, not the president of progressive special interests.
(1) According to MSNBC's Chris Matthews anyway. He got a thrill running up his leg over it, saying "I'm so glad we had that storm last week because I think the storm was one of those things. No, politically I should say. Not in terms of hurting people. The storm brought in possibilities for good politics."
To Matthews, 111 dead people and about $50 billion in damage was a chance for his candidate to engage in 'good politics'. It's a good thing no one watches MSNBC or they might have been offended.
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