The heart of the problem

No one is more surprised than I to see something worthwhile reading in The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad magazine. You might even be forgiven for suspecting an April Fool. But there it is. It’s an editorial by Shikha Dalmia, a senior policy analyst at frequently misnamed Reason Foundation, exploring the fundamental problem with nuclear power. Dalmia’s indictment goes far beyond the nuclear industry, though. Intended or not, it strikes at the heart of the economic philosophy that dominates pretty much the entire planet To wit:

The liability cap effectively privatizes the profits of nuclear and socializes the risk.

Liability caps are just one of many tools that serve to privatize profits and shift risk onto the public. Without the protection afforded the industry by governments everywhere, it is doubtful a single private-sector nuclear reactor would be splitting atoms anywhere. But the nuclear industry is nothing special.

Only in the past few years have a few jurisdictions cottoned on to the reality that the combustion of fossil fuels does exactly the same thing. The owners of coal-, gas- and oil-fired power plants reaps the profits, but the rest of the planet must deal with the consequences and risks — the millions of people that end up in hospital and graves from the pollution and myriad other species that suffer untold fates from habitat destruction and toxification. Putting a price on carbon emissions is a small step in the right direction, one that has yet to be taken at the federal level in North America or China, which collectively are responsible for half of world’s total emissions.

There are many reasons why we have refused to recognize the necessity of taking this step. One of them is almost certainly the intransigence of the system Dalmia is talking about. My first reaction when I read the sentence excerpted above was to recall an NPR story aired earlier this week about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the home-mortgage giants that served primarily to privatize profits from their industry while ensuring all of the risk is taken by the taxpayers. That (and similar distribution of wealth and risk elsewhere in the financial sector) led to the collapse of the housing market, a credit crunch, and crippling unemployment. How is this fundamentally from what’s going on over on the other side of the Pacific?

There, the operators of the four Fukushima reactors that are giving us so much grief banked tens of billions in revenues but are on the hook for just $1.2 billion in costs. Each reactor would probably cost $5 billion to $10 billion to replace, in addition to the unknown costs associated with the long-term contamination of a good piece of Japan, the foregone income from other industries that no longer have access to enough electricity, and so on.

We have made no serious efforts at reform to prevent another financial crisis. What are the chances of making substantial reforms to the nuclear industry? Or the fossil-fuel industry? The fact is, if we did redistribute profit and risk everywhere it is out of whack, the face of capitalism would be unrecognizable. That face wouldn’t allow the concentration of capital in so few hands because they wouldn’t have the strength to carry the risk.

This is why so many people deny the facts of climatology and the need to change our ways. Not because the science is uncertain. (Uncertainty is the hallmark of good science) Not because climatologists are all in on some New World Order socialist conspiracy. (Scientists prosper by undermining their colleague’s theories, not participating in group-think. And besides, how do you explain Republican climatolgists?) Not because Al Gore is a hypocrite (What would that have to do with anything?) Not because the world was warmer 1000 years ago. (It wasn’t). Not because the sun is to blame. (It isn’t). Because reversing the inexorable rise in global average temperatures will require a new way of organizing our economies, one that scares the captains of industry far more than the spectre of rising sea levels, desertification, and ocean acidification scare the rest of us.

And that’s no April Fool.

8 Replies to “The heart of the problem”

  1. It is also a matter of script/role/self-image selection.

    Asserting belief in climate change involves accepting a role as careless cause of a dynamic that was pretty well understood fifty years ago. It means accepting some of the blame and admitting to some degree of pigheadedness. Getting to this point took a century of hard work and willful ignorance. It involves admitting blame and painfully changing behaviors.

    Denial is, by comparison, a trip down the desert table. It involves no accepting blame, responsibility, or any need to make painful changes. The people arguing against you may have multiple high degrees and scads of research that took years of hard work to obtain. But as a denialists you can assert the higher wisdom of common sense and foolishness of ‘book learning’ because you are sure you are right. You may have dropped out of high school but you can assert that you know more than those book-smart ignoramuses. Payback for all those people who called you dumb.

    As a denialist you can also claim to have seen through a grand conspiracy and world-wide deception. You are a rebel fighting the good fight against the MSM and elitist machine. You are an insider who has secret knowledge and uncommon understanding. You are an insurgent sneaking into the belly of the beast to plant your witty barbs and biting criticism that kneecaps their arguments. That they seldom understand that heir arguments are hollow in the face of your insight just shows how lumbering and dense they are.

    As a denialist you are also a messiah rescuing the plodding, confused masses from the brainwashing of the media. You are a teacher informing the ignorant, a healer binding the wounds caused by a cruel science, a wise man and coach teaching sheep to think like wolves.

    Believing in global warming means swallowing hard, accepting your own failure and role in a disaster, and making gut-wrenching changes. Denying global warning is to play a series of interlocking roles that reward the actor for their pig-ignorance and disciplined inattention with flattery and status as intuitive genius, noble rebel, and heroic nonconformist.

    Science is hard. Denial is easy, and it feels good.

  2. The sentiment that is at the root of the Japan problem, the problem with the BP oil spill disaster, the problem with AGW, the problem with the levy in Katrina, the Iraq war disaster, the financial crisis, the US deficit, essentially every problem that we face.

    The problem is the deference to the “authority” in the social power hierarchy even when that authority doesn’t know what they are doing. After the disaster the “leaders” always say “no one could have predicted this disaster”, when people did predict it, but the “leaders” refused to listen.

    Leaders become leaders due to their social skills, not their skills in understanding and solving technical problems.

  3. And yet here we all are enjoying the conveniences of the electricity/mortgages/automobiles etc. provided by those wh are milking us for their profits and passing the risk on to us while we decry their rapaciousness. I don’t even disagree with the necessity of pricing externalities and risk but we have, as a people, decided that we want all those things. We want them immediately, reliably, and cheaply. So there ya go then.

  4. “Because reversing the inexorable rise in global average temperatures will require a new way of organizing our economies, one that scares the captains of industry far more than the spectre of rising sea levels, desertification, and ocean acidification scare the rest of us.”

    Indeed, but saying as much achieves very little unless it comes along with a vision of what that new way of organizing economies would be, and a workable plan for bringing it about.

    Although it was not inspired by the specter of climate change, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a vision of a new sort of economic order, and there was a plan about how to achieve it, that was put at lest partially into effect. It was called Communism, and it provided not only a vision of a better world that was alluring enough to inspire many people to devote their lives to it, and to die to bring it about, but also what looked very much like a realistic, workable plan for bringing it about. Of course, nearly everybody now agrees that it was all a disastrous failure, but unless someone has a vision and a plan that is at least as coherent and apparently realistic as the one that Marxist theory supplied for communism, talk of the need for a new economic order is nothing more than vain hot air.

    Where are the masses who will man the barricades and risk their lives for the revolution you are asking for? Do you expect to inspire them by whingeing about how the world will be a noticeably nastier place to live in a few decades from now?

  5. Great article, James. Thanks.

    I just discovered your blog a few days ago and have really appreciated your commentary on The Nuclear Issue. If only everyone was so lucid and rational [cough George Monbiot cough].

    P.S. Talking of George, here he is in 2006:

    * Thanks, But We Still Don’t Need It – “To start building a new generation of nuclear power stations before we know what to do with the waste produced by existing plants is grotesquely irresponsible. … If, as a result of slow leakage into the groundwater, radioactive materials from a burial site kill an average of only one person a year for one million years, those who made the decision to bury them will – through their infinitesimal and unrecorded impacts – be responsible for the deaths of a million people.”

    So, Monbiot is now cheerleading the death of a million people – according to Monbiot.

  6. Sun remains a main sequence star, continually growing warmer and brighter by 10% every 1 billion years

    the problems the article lists may be minor problems,,, the major problem is over breeding,,, infestation,,,

    in·fest (n-fst)
    tr.v. in·fest·ed, in·fest·ing, in·fests
    1. To inhabit or overrun in numbers or quantities large enough to be harmful, threatening, or obnoxious

  7. I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.
    Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)

  8. “and there was a plan about how to achieve it, that was put at lest partially into effect. It was called Communism”

    Nope, that isn’t the achievement. The achievement is Utopia.

    Start: Capitalism. Power put in the hands of a few private individuals. Corruption and economic failure results (PS have a quick look at the plight of the poor to middle classes of the USA).

    Action: Remove the power from the self interested who have proven themselves unable to wield it.

    Communism. Power put in the hands of a few people in government. Corruption and economic failure results.

    Action: Remove the accumulation of power altogether, since the problem was the accumulation in a few people that was the base cause.


    Captialism has been tried and found wanting. Pity it has lots of people smitten like a lover insisting she’s perfect in every way…

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