Whitman Strategy Group

The Climate Is Changing. Republicans Need to Open Their Eyes Before It’s Too Late.

by Christine Todd Whitman, Politico on 05-14-2014


Atomic power is gaining currency in the global energy market, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman told CNBC this week, arguing that nuclear should be considered part of the arsenal in the fight against global warming.
"It's not a silver bullet that will solve our energy problems … but if you care about clean air and heavy dependence on fossil fuels … nuclear should be part of the overall consideration," said the two-term governor, who now co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), an advocacy group funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute. 
Nearly three years after a tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi station, nuclear's proponents are trying to exorcise the demons that have haunted the sector. With the U.S. ramping up oil and gas production, though, nuclear energy has dropped off the radar.
Whitman, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, said it would be a mistake to push nuclear power out of the picture. Despite the large investment costs and the risks associated with storage and contamination, it should remain part of the energy conversation, she told CNBC in an interview.
Since Fukushima in March 2011, former opponents—including a few in the environmental movement—are more willing to discuss nuclear power, according to Whitman.
"There is some movement, but it's not what it needs to be if you're going to keep nuclear at 19 percent" of U.S. electricity generation, she added.
With fracking leading to explosive fossil fuels production, Whitman insisted that nuclear power is a useful counterpoint to push back against dirtier energy sources such as coal and natural gas.
"A lot of the environmental groups are never going to embrace nuclear, but they aren't fighting it as they once were," Whitman said. "They care about climate change" and don't want to see natural gas dominate the U.S. energy mix.
The U.S. has 65 nuclear power plants with 104 operating reactors, according to the Energy Information Administration. They generate nearly 800 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electric power. At least four smaller reactors are under construction, and about a dozen more are being considered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Still, high capital costs and security risks are cited as barriers to widespread adoption. A 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—which calls nuclear power "inherently hazardous"—found that costs for new plants had risen from between $2 billion and $4 billion per plant, to $9 billion.
"A major expansion of nuclear power in the United States is not feasible in the near term," the UCS said on its website, adding that "new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions" for at least 20 years.
"Until long-standing problems regarding the security of nuclear plants … are fixed, the potential of nuclear power to play a significant role in addressing global warming will be held hostage to the industry's worst performers," the group said.
Whitman doesn't dispute the expense of building plants but insisted that initial costs are eventually recouped via the cheap power provided. Environmental and security concerns are often overstated and are partly the result of unfair portrayals in media.
"What [people] know about nuclear, either through 'The Simpsons' or Fukushima and Three Mile Island … none of them are representative of nuclear energy," Whitman said, adding that used nuclear fuel can be stored safely underground.
Atomic energy "is not going to be something for every area," she said, "but helping us address issues of air quality and greenhouse gases—and we need safe, reliable, affordable power."

This week, two teams of scientists announced that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun collapsing, beginning what they call an “unstoppable” process that could raise sea levels by as much as 15 feet over time. “This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, one of the researchers, told the New York Times. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”

The timing was especially unfortunate for Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator and 2016 hopeful, who had just cast doubt on the phenomenon of human-induced climate change, telling ABC News, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Rubio has expressed more reasonable positions on the topic in the past—and he quickly sought to clarify his remarks—but I do not entirely blame him for his rhetorical shift. In an annual Pew poll, only 14 percent of Republicans cited climate change as a top policy priority. That’s down from 23 percent in 2007, the first year Pew included climate change in its priority list. The party has clearly changed in those seven years, and Rubio knows where his voting base for 2016 is on the issue.

This is not simply a problem in the Republican Party, though. The American public routinely ranks addressing climate change low on its list of priorities for Washington. This year it ranked 19th among 20 issues tested by Pew, just behind “dealing with moral breakdown” and “improving roads, bridges, public transit.”

The climate issue is politically challenging not only because it’s at the bottom of people’s priority lists, but also because of overreach on both sides of the debate. Humans aren’t the sole “cause” of climate change, and environmentalists have done a disservice in making that claim too assertively. Our activities are exacerbating natural phenomena, making us part of the problem, but the Earth and its climate has been changing since it was formed. Because of human activity, things are changing faster than nature or humans can adapt, and the sooner we start taking steps to slow things, the better off we will be.

The modern environmental movement arguably began with Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president who established the national park system. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress created much of our landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Republicans have gotten away from those values in recent years. The only way to return the GOP to its roots and, in turn, make headway on climate change is by ensuring that Republicans—and all Americans—recognize the very real economic costs of not protecting our environment.

Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group.



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