Drawing down on irony, or, the proper way of campaigning for clean air: comparing two books on how to make our air cleaner

There is no irony in mainstream media coverage of global warming, climate change, carbon reductions. I think that is because there is no real understanding in medialand and much punditland of the size and nature of the problem mankind has caused, and compounds every minute of every day, by engaging in activities like the one on subtle display in Charlie Rose’s interview a week ago with Paul Hawken and Gisele Bündchen.

By “activity” I mean the chemical reaction that is just barely visible in the background behind Hawken’s right shoulder, and reflected in the window over Bündchen’s left.

Talk about irony. That’s a gas fire. Gas, or methane (CH4) is a fossil fuel that when reacted with oxygen, i.e. burned, turns into carbon dioxide (CO2), the main man-made greenhouse gas whose large-scale emission reduction is the subject of the interview.

I cannot help wondering, in the context of the quiet but huge-scale, vicious, and escalating war currently raging in New York and other U.S. state electric utilities over how to provide clean, abundant, and affordable electrical power for the coming decades, if that gas fire is not subtle advertising for the far-better-funded side in that war. i.e., for the gas lobby. I mean, the fire does look comforting and cheerful, doesn’t it.

Why do I say this? Because through the nearly 30 minute interview, not a single mention was made of the carbon-reduction technology that represents natural gas’s only true competition in the New York utilities war: nuclear.

Plenty mention was made of solar energy, which is laughable. The interviewer appears to believe solar will be a major part of the electricity supply mix in the future.

Come on, Charlie. Do you really think solar is the solution to anything? Can solar power your studio? Can it warm or cool the building your studio is in? Can it even power one single lousy LED lightbulb after the sun goes down?

Hawken claims, in a new book he is promoting alongside former supermodel and current Tom Brady spouse Bündchen, to have been led by data to the realization that there are 100 activities mankind can do to reduce CO2.

I have an easy test that determines whether a carbon reduction plan is worth anything. That test is, does the plan put nuclear power as the absolute Number One weapon in the fight on carbon? If it does not, it’s not a serious plan.

Hawken’s book, or at least his statement to Charlie Rose about his book (because I have not read it and likely won’t), does not put nuclear power as the number one weapon in the fight on carbon. Rather, he puts wind power.

Wind power in New York, for those who actually respect that highly touted and ballyhooed stuff called data, was, at the time I started writing this article (eleven a.m. Tuesday May 23), contributing 82,000 kilowatts to the New York State electrical grid. That figure might sound large, but it’s not. It actually represents:

  1. Three-fifths of one percent of the state’s supply of electricity, and
  2. About 4.8 percent of New York’s wind fleet capacity.

The day I wrote this post, I might remind you, was a Tuesday, a normal working week day.

Mouseover or tap the wind segment in the pie chart: that displays wind output in the bar chart. As you can see, Hawken’s Number One thing to reduce our horrendous carbon footprint was close to being perfectly useless on that day. Wind started low, and as the day progressed got lower and lower. At around seven-thirty p.m. it was producing one-fifth of one percent of the state’s electric power.

(Mouseover or tap on the bars to see the fuel mix in each five-minute period.)

The reason New Yorkers did not suffer through a major blackout last Tuesday is because New York is not so stupid as to take seriously what Paul Hawken says or thinks should be the Number One thing to reduce carbon.

Contrast wind’s lamentable performance on that working Tuesday with that of the state nuclear fleet. Nuclear generators in New York began the day Tuesday collectively generating 5.38 million kilowatts. They ended Tuesday generating 5.39. In every single five minute increment in between those times, they generated between 5.38 and 5.4 million kW.

Now, mouseover or tap the nuclear segment in the pie chart, and watch what happens in the bar chart. The nuclear bars are all the same height, throughout the entire day. That means nuclear is reliable. It promises, and delivers, not just raw electrical power but enormous carbon abatement. You can take the promise to the bank.

Had Hawken bothered to actually look at data, instead of talking about how he looked at data, he might note that the situation in New York at eleven a.m. on this past working Tuesday is typical for wind.

On this basis, how can I possibly recommend Drawdown to my readers? There is nothing new in it. It appears rife with the same old preposterous nonsense that has characterized mainstream green thinking for the past five decades. If we make the mistake of following its advice we will stay addicted to oil.

I can however recommend, very strongly, another book on the same subject: Meredith Angwin’s Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy. Like Drawdown it is a how-to for those concerned about climate change. Unlike Drawdown, Campaigning for Clean Air is a true how-to manual by a pioneer in participatory democracy, who has actually done what she advises and who is doing it now.

Meredith Angwin is a Vermonter who for years campaigned relentlessly—on the television and radio airwaves, in cyberspace, in letters and opinion pieces in countless newspapers, and most important, on the ground in front of big and small crowds and in one-on-one discussion—to keep Vermont’s only nuclear reactor running. She is a thoughtful, intelligent chemist who was one of the first female research project managers in the male-dominated Electric Power Research Institute, where she led a team looking into geothermal energy.

In her retirement years she got involved in nuclear advocacy, and has the scars to prove it: during her campaign she has been publicly shouted down, insulted, intimidated, and otherwise treated with casual rudeness by people on the anti-nuclear side who are half her age, and who possess less than a quarter of her intelligence and knowledge, and none of her geniality and grace. At least one of these rude individuals is a loud, aggressive male who is twice her size.

Full disclosure: I know Meredith, and consider her a friend. She and I travelled through France together in 2010, on an Areva-sponsored nuclear tour of the country, along with other notable pro-nukes like Gwyneth Cravens (a former Shoreham opponent and author of Power to Save the World, another outstanding book that I recommend), Rod Adams (Forbes writer and publisher of the excellent Atomic Insights), Jack Gamble (a nuclear plant worker and formidable front-line advocate), and Jarret Adams (our host and tour guide, no relation to Rod). I have followed and enjoyed and learned from her remarkable blog Yes Vermont Yankee, shared her deep disappointment when Yankee shut down at the end of 2014, and think I may have some small understanding of the level of emotional investment she and her fellow pro-Yankee colleagues in Vermont and elsewhere in New England put into the effort to keep it open.

You could almost think of Campaigning for Clean Air as perhaps a pro-nuclear advocacy equivalent of Carville and Begala’s Buck Up, Suck Up which they, a pair of Democrat strategists, wrote from the wilderness in 2003, during George W. Bush’s ascendancy, with the Republicans controlling the executive branch and both houses of the federal congress.

Buck Up was the response of two political trench veterans who had suffered only a setback. It offers numerous personal anecdotes of great value to anybody fighting a political campaign, regardless of stripe. Campaigning for Clean Air is, I think, a similarly personal response to a similarly bitter setback. Only its subject matter is even more urgently important: it deals with climate change, the paramount issue of our day. Meredith Angwin not only explains why anybody who is really worried about climate change and clean air should support nuclear energy, she tells how they should go about their own personal campaign. She is as relentless as Carville and Begala in laying out the importance of pursuing multiple venues of advocacy and never, ever, giving up.

Crucially, and unlike Carville and Begala, Angwin offers an example of someone who at first glance might come off as an “everywoman.” She is not politically prominent. Her name (outside of pro-nuclear circles) is not universally recognized. She is not (though this is changing) a frequent talking head in media land.

But that’s not the point. Campaigning for Clean Air is a manual on participatory democracy. Its point is precisely that if you are intelligent and determined and you plan and prepare and you don’t give up and don’t give in to cynicism over your opponents’ despicable tactics, you can be influential in a cause that concerns you.

And Campaigning for Clean Aircovers every aspect of not just nuclear advocacy but all advocacy. Successful advocacy demands a specialized and wide ranging skill set. Imagine you are interested in nuclear energy. You know a few things about it, but nothing about advocacy. Somebody calls you and asks if you would like to argue the “pro” side in a public debate about nuclear energy. Without thinking, you say yes. And as Richard Ben Cramer put it in his account in What It Takes of Joe Biden’s campaign against the Bork nomination—BANGO!! You have bought yourself a fight.

The day approaches, and you realize that while you may know something about nuclear energy, you know so little about advocacy you barely know where to begin. This is a public issue. It involves billions of dollars. You want those dollars to go into nuclear energy. Other people want those dollars for their pet technology. Those other people are organized, and determined just like you. Meanwhile, you don’t know how to quickly and concisely present a main idea, let alone how to debate or how to speak in public or how to talk to reporters or how to tailor a presentation to an audience. You don’t even know how you should introduce yourself.

This is the book you should read to fix all that. Meredith wrote it out of her own experience. As she explains in the Introduction, she was the person who answered yes when somebody asked her to take the “pro” side in a public debate about nuclear energy. She didn’t just live to tell the tale, she wrote a brilliant book showing how you can do it too.

And nuclear advocacy is hard. I know, because I am an advocate myself. I have also had discussions with people who glare at you and call you a corporate shill and accuse you of supporting the Hiroshima bombing. It is a multi-dimensional undertaking in which you go for months hearing only negative feedback. It is nearly impossible to overcome the tendency toward partisanship in this game: there are long-established political parties that support nuclear energy, and there are parties that oppose it. Trying to get people who favour the party that opposes nuclear energy to support it seems like an exercise in futility: you might as well ask them to support the other party. In many cases, in effect, it seems like you are asking them to support the other party.

It takes not just conventional but emotional intelligence to successfully negotiate your way though this.

Meredith has both in spades, plus she is a really superb writer. Buy her book, read it, take her advice. Our planet needs more nuclear power. It needs more nuclear advocates.

3 comments for “Drawing down on irony, or, the proper way of campaigning for clean air: comparing two books on how to make our air cleaner

  1. Howard Shaffer
    May 26, 2017 at 12:41

    Thanks for the great article. Meredith and I attended the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Nuclear Advisory Panel in Brattleboro, VT last night. The NRC had representatives there.

    The local antis were well represented as usual. Same story. Afraid of radiation. Want it to go away. Oppose everything. Want perfection, paid for by somebody else.

  2. May 29, 2017 at 12:59

    the following was written by M. Brown, whose workplace IT rules disallow commenting on blogs. He granted me permission to post a comment on his behalf.

    “I’ve tracked Ontario’s industrial wind production since the first data was released by the IESO (then IEMO) in 2006. Sometimes in those early days, the fleet production (i.e., all plants) dipped to 0 or 1 MW because there was only about 200 MW installed, conditions were calm over the relatively small area in southern Ontario where the turbines were located, and the turbines were still being commissioned.

    Even with the current 4,211 MW of wind turbines installed over a vast area (where the highest winds are expected), the total Ontario wind fleet production sometimes dips very low, to a few tens of MW. However, I was very surprised to see that in the 10th hour of Sat May 27 2017, Ontario’s total wind generation was only 1 MW! The capacity factor for the entire day was 1.84% (i.e., an average of 77 MW). Ontario’s wind plants stretch from Thunder Bay to Kingston to Windsor, an enormous area, so you might think that the wind must have been blowing somewhere. Evidently not.

    I’m not against wind generation, but it has to be understood that it has severe limitations. Doubling Ontario’s installed capacity might have doubled its output to 2 MW on Saturday morning, but not necessarily. It was a good job other electricity sources were available between 9 and 10 am on Saturday, especially nuclear reactors (9,728 MW) and hydro dams (4,648 MW).”

  3. June 4, 2017 at 17:55

    Steve, first of all, thank you for this post!

    Second, thank you for the recommendation for the “Buck Up, Suck Up” book by Carville and Begala. The examples in that book are totally clear and completely outrageous. I am having great fun reading it! Though I see what you mean…most of the people in that book are senators or presidents. Even though “Buck Up” is clear and well-written, sometimes the ideas seem a little hard to apply to an ordinary person’s life.

    I am proud to have my book compared to their book. I am honored. Thank you.

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