August 17, 2019

Republicans and Democrats Unite to Save the Planet, and No One Notices

Bill Gates; Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Media companies have become so driven by ratings and clickbait that they’re having a hard time covering political news that doesn’t involve partisan food fights — even when that news involves saving our planet.

Take, for example, the news last week that a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced legislation to support a potential breakthrough against global warming. Who noticed? I couldn’t find anything in The New York Times or on CNN, but I did see a tweet from someone who cares deeply about the sustainability of our planet, Bill Gates.

On Thursday, Gates tweeted:

“Yesterday, a bipartisan group of leaders in the U.S. Senate introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which establishes an ambitious plan to accelerate the development of advanced nuclear reactor technologies. I can’t overstate how important this is.”

Gates was referring to a bill that would promote next-generation nuclear power, which he feels so strongly about that he promised lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money in the initiative. Gates has already put his money where his mouth is by investing in startups like TerraPower, which is working on traveling-wave reactor technology.

The legislation was introduced on March 27 by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

“Year after year, the conversation around climate change has been dominated by partisan acrimony. And yet, if there’s one issue that ought to transcend politics, it is the health of our planet.”

Why is this big news? Because year after year, the conversation around climate change has been dominated by partisan acrimony. And yet, if there’s one issue that ought to transcend politics, it is the health of our planet. Now that Republicans and Democrats have found common ground on this issue, it’s certainly worth taking notice.

It’s also worth noting why they have united around nuclear power. As far back as 2013, Scientific American was hailing nuclear power as “one of the few technologies that can quickly combat climate change.”

The magazine reported that “the low-carbon electricity produced by such [nuclear] reactors provides 20 percent of the nation’s power and, by the estimates of climate scientist James Hansen of Columbia University, avoided 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. They also avoided spewing soot and other air pollution like coal-fired power plants do and thus have saved some 1.8 million lives.”

Hansen and many others, the magazine reported, think that “nuclear power is a key energy technology to fend off catastrophic climate change.” Because coal represents almost half of global emissions, Hansen explained, “If you replace these power plants with modern, safe nuclear reactors you could do a lot of [pollution reduction] quickly.”

Speed is key. The urgency of climate change has been well covered by the media. The problem is that too many potential “solutions”  are too speculative, slow or exorbitant, which may explain why they haven’t attracted much bipartisan support.

Clean and safe nuclear power, on the other hand, offers more practical hope for the future. To avoid “dangerous” climate change, according to Hansen and other experts, the world needs to drop its global warming pollution by 6 percent annually. “On a global scale, it’s hard to see how we could conceivably accomplish this without nuclear,” writes economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“One of the biggest obstacles to this initiative is one of perception — the word “nuclear” comes with a lot of baggage.”

One of the biggest obstacles to this initiative is one of perception — the word “nuclear” comes with a lot of baggage. From the horror of the atom bomb to the meltdown of nuclear reactors, it’s always been a challenge to argue for the safety of anything nuclear. But this is a key purpose of the next-generation research: to make nuclear power ultra safe.

As is to be expected, not all scientists agree on the nuclear direction in confronting global warming. The debate and arguments will continue as the research progresses. But if the research leads to breakthroughs in nuclear energy innovation, it could have a significant impact on the future health of our planet. 

As Sen. Murkowski tweeted when the bill was introduced, “There has been a lot of discussion about climate change, & I have emphasized the need for practical, bipartisan solutions. As we seek to maintain electric reliability, keep energy affordable, & address climate change, #nuclear power stands out as one of our very best options.”

In an era of bitter partisanship, we should applaud the senators who have put their political differences aside to sponsor a concrete initiative to help save our planet. Now it’s the media’s turn to take a break from partisan food fights and cover this story.