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The Kernel

The Risk of Wallowing in Climate Guilt

It’s normal to feel guilty about climate change. The important thing is to get things right from now on.

Extinction Rebellion calling for truth. Will we find it? (Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash).

We’re right to feel guilty about climate change. For years we had the evidence it was taking place but did nothing. When you look at the scale of what we need to do to reduce our carbon emissions, we’re effectively still doing nothing. We are not moving anywhere near fast enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming.

Energy reality: fossil fuels remain king. (BP Statisitical Review of World Energy 2018)
Coal still dominates the electrical power sector.

Throughout the 1990’s and the 2000’s, traditional environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth pushed hard to raise awareness about climate change.

They told us the planet was warming, and that burning fossil fuels was the problem. They told us that rising temperatures would devastate the planet’s ecosystems and increase the frequency of extreme weather events. They told us the cost of failing to act on climate change would greatly outweigh the costs required to prevent it. Greenpeace were right. Friends of the Earth were right. They were right, and we ignored them.

Greenpeace were right. Friends of the Earth were right. They were right, and we ignored them.

Our politicians weren’t listening. The CEOs of our corporations weren’t listening. The media just didn’t get it, with climate coverage appearing in science columns rather than under front-page headlines. How did this happen?

We built a Wall.

The Wall was inside our minds.

The Wall safely contained concerns about climate catastrophe and prevented them from affecting the way we ran our society. The Wall divided those crying “climate emergency” from those muttering “climate alarmism…” The Wall protected us from uncomfortable truths and a scary future.

We labelled climate activists as unwanted outsiders, as disrupters looking to mess up a system that had made a lot of people rich.

Walls keep things out, but they also hide what’s on the other side. Inside our Wall, society didn’t bother to find scalable ways to curb carbon emissions. Why would we, when the current system worked so well?

Walls keep things out, but they also hide what’s on the other side (Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash).

Meanwhile, outside the Wall, traditional green groups like Greenpeace were making good use of their time in exile. Energy being the main source of carbon emissions, they crafted an energy vision for the future: use less energy, ditch fossil fuels and grow low-carbon sources.

But the vision didn’t end there. Bundled in were other ideas, none of which are linked to climate change. These ideas would prove not only to be a distraction, but would eventually come to completely undermine society’s ability to take real action on climate change.

The politics of climate change

During their exile, traditional environmental groups came to believe that all our energy could be harvested from only wind, wave, tidal and solar energy. Nuclear power, which was confused with nuclear weapons, was excluded from the start.

Against all evidence, traditional greens continue to vilify nuclear power, despite the prospect of catastrophic climate change (Photo by Ra Dragon on Unsplash).

Energy harvested from the air, sun and water was believed to be better than fossil fuels or nuclear because it is “natural” and “renewable”, with alternatives portrayed as “artificial” and “chemical”. It didn’t matter that nuclear power comes from a naturally-occurring rock; something that burns without a flame attracted deep suspicion, even when this lack of a flame is why nuclear doesn’t pollute.

Right about climate change, wrong about other science issues like genetic engineering and nuclear power (“GM Protest in Montpellier” by Peter Curbishley is licensed under CC BY 2.0).

The vision said we should move from centralized, large electricity generating plants to decentralized, renewable micro-generation. As well as being decentralized, the vision said the grid should become an internet-connected “smartgrid”. This was sold as a clever way to manage peak demand but is also a vital means of compensating for intermittent renewable generation.

Climate change was to be linked to ideas of social justice. Many of these ideas are noble but, like it or not, are usually linked to the political left. The first major climate documentary was made by Al Gore, a leading US Democratic politician. We took a scientific and environmental issue and inadvertently turned it into a political one. In doing so we alienated many potential supporters on the political right.

Finally, there was deep suspicion of the role of capitalism and economic growth in general. It didn’t matter that it is likely only economics that can drive the switch to green energy. Or that capitalism has lifted literally billions of people out of extreme poverty, providing those people with access to cleaner fuels that should help reduce the 7 million deaths from air pollution world wide each year.

Cooking with dirty fuels is a killer. Women and children suffer most.

From now on, relying on the markets was out. Instead of looking how to decouple growth from carbon emissions, growth should be wholesale abandoned as an objective, it was said.

The Wall begins to crumble

Whilst these ideas remained on the fringes of society, no one bothered to challenge them. Things started changing around the time of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Not only were people angry at the reckless and greedy behaviour of the banks, but the evidence for human-driven global warming seemed to have become overwhelming. The Wall inside our minds began to crumble.

Nature abhors a vacuum

When society accepted climate change was real — when our mental wall came down — policy makers were caught sleeping. No plans had been laid for how to achieve a deeply decarbonized economy. Government policy had a huge climate change-shaped hole in it, and there was a scramble to find policies to fill it.

Nature abhors a vacuum

- Aristotle

Into the vacuum stepped the traditional greens with their energy vision. They arrived well-prepared and spoiling for a fight. Although some called for evidence-based policies, the traditional greens were loud and had a powerful weapon against policy-makers: guilt.

The traditional greens had been proved right on climate change and, my god, did society feel guilty about it. Now there was a way to redress that guilt: by implementing policies that the traditional greens had been proposing all along.

In government energy departments and in boardroom meetings around the world, their ideas were applauded and recommendations taken on board. All around the developed world, the traditional green energy vision became policy reality. The transformation in some countries, such as Germany, was dramatic. Nuclear power was to be phased out. Hundreds of billions of euros were to be spent on wind and solar.

Our climate guilt was so overwhelming that almost no one stopped to ask if any of this made sense:

  • We weren’t shown convincing evidence for why nuclear plants had to be shut down.
  • We weren’t told why having renewable energy was more important than reducing carbon emissions.
  • No one explained why a decentralized grid was necessarily better than a centralized one.
  • We weren’t shown how we would manage frequency and voltage without the massive of inertia of huge turbines in nuclear and conventional power stations.
  • No one pointed out that a drive towards all things “natural”, to harmonize with nature, would place even more pressure on our fragile land.
  • Was it really morally right to tell poorer countries they shouldn’t use cheap, dirty energy, when that was exactly had brought the West out of poverty?

Our climate guilt was so overwhelming that almost no one stopped to ask if any of this made sense.

Driven by guilt, society didn’t question the traditional green narrative. We didn’t stop to ask: “Is there another way?” Action on climate change was presented as a false dichotomy: “do nothing” or “do green”.

Our climate guilt has become problematic. We should be ruthlessly searching how to best reduce carbon while keeping in mind the right to modern energy for the world’s poor. Instead, our guilt has unwittingly driven us to blindly accept whatever the traditional greens say.

We shut down nuclear plants in Germany, France, the US and elsewhere, with deadly consequences. In Europe, we ban genetically engineered crops that might have reduced food’s carbon footprint and provided plant-based substitutes for meat. We try to tell sub-Saharan Africa and India all they need is off-grid solar, when smart people like Bill Gates know this won’t be enough to power the economic development these places need.

Right when we most need to “listen to the scientists”, we ignore them (or rather, we pick the science that fits our own narrative).

It’s happening as we speak. If traditional green activists have their way, the two-unit Indian Point nuclear plant will be gone by the summer of 2021. Over 2GW of clean energy — around 80% of Downstate NY’s clean electricity generation— will be prematurely retired. Pro-science advocates fight to stop the madness (and you can help by signing this letter), but the so-called environmentalists are already celebrating:

Those who have pushed for Indian Point to close say that we don’t need nuclear plants to keep the lights on. This is true. What they get wrong is that they say we don’t need gas either:

Analysis shows that Indian Point will be almost completely replaced by new natural gas plants planned for NY. Renewables will grow, but not by enough. The “Brighter Future 2021” chart below shows how it’s much smarter to use new renewables to displace gas, not nuclear.

Anti-nuclear activists and NY Governor Cuomo want to close Indian Point nuclear plant, which will send NY’s carbon emissions up. If you think that’s crazy, sign this letter to Cuomo!

When we’re told we can keep the lights on in NY today in 2020 using just solar and wind, it’s simply not true. At times like this, it’s best to defer to Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Guilt is a normal and healthy response when we’ve done something wrong. It gets unhealthy when it dominates our thinking and our actions no longer make sense. lays out a few steps to help get through guilt — how might we apply them to our situation?

Overwhelming guilt can be blinding; it impairs our decision-making (Photo by Jacqueline Day on Unsplash).
  1. Is this guilt appropriate and, if so, what is its purpose?

We’re right to feel guilty about inaction on climate change. We’ve spewed billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The guilt’s purpose then is to make sure we stop doing that from now on.

2. Makes changes, instead of wallowing in guilt.

Guilt becomes unhealthy when it weighs us down and impairs our decision-making. We’re really good at beating ourselves up about climate change, when really this a global problem that is no one person’s fault. Let’s focus on what we can change in the future.

3. Accept that you did something wrong, but then move on.

We know that we’ve hurt the planet with polluting carbon. What’s done is done. When we feel guilty, we seek to excessively make up for our wrongdoings, even where this becomes irrational. On climate, we’re excessively trying to make up for ignoring the climate warnings from the traditional greens by now implementing all aspects of their energy vision — even where this means doing questionable things like excluding key low-carbon technologies and denying modern energy to the world’s poor.

It’s good to realise when you’ve done something wrong, but focus on making the right choices in the future (Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash).

4. Learn from mistakes.

This is our chance. We know that relying so much on fossil fuels was a bad idea. We now have an opportunity to develop other sources of energy that don’t emit carbon. That task should be our focus. We feel guilty, but the key is to learn from our mistakes: what are our options for reducing carbon emissions? Can we afford to exclude any available, ethical solution? Are we sure we have all the answers, or should we look again at the beliefs we hold?

5. Recognize that no one is perfect.

We all try to do our bit: cycling to work, taking the train, going on less holidays, eating less meat. But don’t beat yourself up. In the end, it won’t be individual actions that fix the climate. Effective solutions will be ideas that can scale, like plant-based meats and synthetic fuels.

Focus on actions that impact more than your own carbon footprint, like contacting your local political representative to demand science-based policies on climate change. If you’re in the US, Canada or Australia, check out Generation Atomic’s one-click politics actions:

The way forward?

It’s hard to say whether society will learn to deal with its climate guilt. If we succeed, then we might still have time to correct our course on climate change. If we fail, it will be guilt that drives us, not science. And where that will take us is anyone’s guess.



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David de Caires Watson

David de Caires Watson

Nuclear futurist, chartered physicist, safety engineer, amateur birder and pedal power enthusiast. Writer for The Kernel mag. Founder of Atomic Trends.