We’ve known for decades that a climate refugee crisis was coming. Now it’s here, and we aren’t ready.

About a decade ago, I was part of a Quaker climate action group that was trying to get New England Quakers to take a leadership position – both in political activism and in direct action – to deal with the problems of climate change. We started with putting together a presentation that we’d do at various Quaker Meetings around the region. I don’t remember the exact format, but the basic approach was to simultaneously try to drive home the scale of the horrors we face, and then follow that shock up with discussion of constructive action that could be taken at the community level. We showed a video, and then the 3-5 of us there (it was a small group) would give our own presentations/perspectives on the issue. Mine centered around a discussion of the iguanas I got to help study in college, the dangers presented to them by sea level rise, for example. The video we used, called Wake up, Freak out, then Get a Grip, and I think it’s still worth watching now. The animations are well done, and I expect most of you will be able to see where we’re at in the series of events they forecast:

I think we have passed that point of no return. We can slow the warming, and maybe we can reverse it, but even if we do manage to end fossil fuel use by 2030, I think the temperature is going to keep rising, absent any new actions by humanity. In fact, as we stop using fossil fuels, the corresponding drop in particles in the atmosphere is going to cause a brief increase in temperature, as less sunlight will be reflected back into space before it can heat up the planet. There are proposals to deliberately increase particulate pollution to cool the planet, but they are likely to have bad side effects, and will really only kick the can down the road.

As I’ve said, we’re at a point where we need to work out how to live on this hostile new planet, while we work to make its conditions more hospitable to us and the ecosystems of which we are a part. That means infrastructure that’s either extremely resilient, or that’s designed to be very, very easy to relocate.

It also means finding new homes for billions of people, because where they currently live is fast becoming uninhabitable.

Apparently this hasn’t been clear to all of my readers, so I’ll say it outright – my goal is for humanity to thrive. That obviously requires survival, but more than that it requires that we keep fighting for a more equitable, democratic system. There’s little chance that this struggle will be over at any point in the next couple centuries, and if people try to set aside any issues of social, environmental, or economic justice “until we get climate change dealt with”, then not only will that mean billions will die never seeing justice – even if they all die of old age, which they won’t – it will also undermine or even destroy our efforts to deal with climate change. People who are oppressed will always fight their oppression. The more that work has to be done to deal with immediate survival, then less we will be able to pull together for the good of the species. Likewise, we need to take care of the ecosystems around us, and take action to reduce the scale of the mass extinction we’re currently causing.

As with slavery and genocide, simply ceasing is not enough. Reparations are needed.

And as with those other issues, reparations are not – and never have been – about punishing people for doing bad things. One can argue whether or not there’s a place for that, but it’s a separate issue. The point of reparations is not to harm the perpetrator, but to heal the victim. Material harm has been done, and that requires a material response. Simply apologizing for stabbing someone will not solve the problem – the wound must be cleaned, the damage repaired, and the attacker must be prevented from harming others. There are a whole host of actions that need to be taken before anything can be considered “resolved”.

For the rest of our lives, the fastest growing human crisis is going to be that of those killed by climate change, and those fleeing lethal conditions. To stick with the earlier metaphor, the wounds caused over the centuries by colonialism and capitalism never received treatment, and are now badly infected.

The way we have dealt with refugees historically is not acceptable. It has never been acceptable, and on a rapidly heating planet, incompetent and inhumane management will turn into outright extermination.

If you’ve paid attention to the current fascist movement in the United States, you will have gotten a taste of this already. Refugees are fleeing north from Central America. They’ve been forced out of their ancestral homes by colonialism and the neoliberal atrocities it birthed, but also by the changing climate. The response by American fascists has been not just a closed border, but an impenetrable wall (or the fantasy of one), with proposals to electrify the wall, shoot people who approach it, or even lay down landmines. In reality, all of that “active” violence is secondary and in service to the “passive” violence of an impenetrable border wall.

The goal is a desert full of the bones of those who reached the wall and died unable to cross it.

That’s also why they’ve been caught destroying supply drops meant to help refugees survive the already brutal conditions; in keeping with the long history of governments using the elements as a tool of mass murder, and the tradition of treating refugees as undeserving of life, they want anyone trying to flee to the US to die in the effort.

Even if we ended fossil fuel use tomorrow, that problem would not go away. No approach to this problem will succeed without simultaneously working to keep as much of the world habitable as possible, through the use of technology and through land management, but also to ensure refuge for those living in areas that are no longer habitable.

And more than refuge, we need to ensure that they have a say in decisions that affect their lives. The top-down approach has been a consistent failure, and in this new world, things like refugee camps, concentration camps, and “detention facilities” will all become death camps. Refugees need to be able to control their own lives, same as anyone else, especially because it’s a virtual guarantee that anyone in the position of being classified as a “refugee” was not responsible either for the warming climate, or for the decades of misinformation and obstruction that brought us to this point.

Those who are responsible should be held accountable, stripped of all power to harm others, and their resources should be used to help humanity, but that is a secondary concern to ensuring that their victims are made whole to the greatest degree possible. If we are fighting for a better world for humanity, then we must also be fighting for better a better world for those in it right now, not just for those in the future. That’s not to say that no sacrifices will be made. I don’t think that the ruling class will give up their power willingly, and cutting off access to vital resources has always been a favorite weapon of theirs.

I agree that we absolutely need immigration and refugee policies that value human life, but I’m pessimistic about our chances of getting that from the political systems we currently have, not just in the United States, but in many other places around the world. We need to take matters into our own hands, and work to aid and empower people all around the world. The one silver lining is that there’s so much work to be done, that there’s guaranteed to be a role that’s well-suited for just about everyone.


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Privatization of food, water, shelter, and power kills people. We need to take back the world.

I sometimes feel like a bit of a broken record when it comes to climate change and capitalism. It’s clear to me that dealing with climate change in a way that tries to reduce suffering and needless death will be impossible under a capitalist system. Everything about the way our economy is designed pushes the rich to keep accumulating wealth, and to keep hurting other people to do it. With the ubiquity of the internet in our everyday lives, the ways in which capitalists (or any other rulers for that matter) can directly interfere in our lives are ever-growing. I’ve posted recently about the dangers of heat, and I think it’s clear to most people that some form of artificial cooling is becoming as necessary as heat is in the winter. Under those circumstances, a privatized power grid can turn into a sci-fi nightmare:

Apparently this is a shocking statement in some circles, but I do not believe anyone should have the power to play with people’s lives like that. This is a big reason why I favor solar and wind power – they can be decentralized and integrated throughout the areas -in which humans use power, which makes it more difficult for anyone to control access to electricity.

It’s important to understand that this is not limited to electricity, or even technology in general. It has been done with the housing market for ages, creating and maintaining a large homeless population. Homeless people have always been killed by exposure to the elements, but by now it should be clear to you that those numbers are going to start climbing rapidly. People are already willing to accept worsening labor conditions and debt in an effort to keep a roof over their heads. How much more will we put up with in a world where being denied shelter almost guarantees death?

Corporations (most famously Nestle, but there are others) are also in the process of creating a similar circumstance with access to water around the world. As with the question of shelter, access to potable water is going to become increasingly important as exposure to higher temperatures puts both people and crops at risk of dehydration and overheating. I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but if your access to water depends on being able to pay, then you do not have a right to stay alive in any functional sense.

In a similar vein, it should alarm you that Bill Gates, who has killed a lot of people for money by insisting on corporate control over vaccines, has been buying up vast amounts of farmland.

There is a very real, very immediate danger posed to humanity, not just by climate change, but by the combination of climate change and capitalist hegemony. I don’t know whether it’s malice or pathology, but it seems pretty clear that the capitalists of the world are happy to consume all of humanity, and they should no more be allowed to do that than a serial killer should be allowed to murder at will.

We need to organize, protect and empower each other, and take all power away from those whose “leadership” has brought us to this point.


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“Wet-bulb temperature” is a concept you need to know as the planet warms

As previously discussed, we’re the point at which going outside without a cooling suit can be lethal in growing regions of the planet, for growing parts of the year. Wet-bulb temperatures are the condition under which that’s happening currently, and as the video says, they’re becoming more frequent. Keep an eye on the humidity as well as the temperature, because it’s literally a matter of life and death.

Rethinking society: How can we redesign our lives and infrastructure to survive the rising heat?

From time to time, politicians are accused of taking the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” approach, and while crises are often exploited by disaster capitalists and demagogues, they can also be exploited by people who want to make the world a better place for everyone. In that vein, I want to take advantage of the current crisis (or the current tiny part of the larger climate crisis), to ask you to imagine a different world.

Summer has arrived in North America with infernal temperatures, and the wildfires seem to be getting worse every year. Between the heat and the smoke, going outside is increasingly dangerous in growing parts of the continent, at least for part of the year. It appears that the bleak reality of climate change is setting in for more people every year now, and I think that makes this a good time to really think about the dangers facing us in a warmer climate, and how our infrastructure, lifestyles, and even clothing may need to change.

These changes have already been underway, at a reactive level. The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a global increase in mask usage, but the areas affected by the growing wildfire problem have had masks on the list of recommended household safety gear for a while now, because of the problems caused by smoke inhalation. As temperatures rise, many chemical reactions will become more common. Air pollution in general is going to keep getting more dangerous, and wildfires make that problem worse not just by having more smoke in the air, but by burning human structures, waste, vehicles, and so on and releasing those chemicals into the air as well. We’re expected to have more pandemics in the near future, simply because of habitat destruction and climate chaos bringing humans into contact with new animal populations, but we’re also going to want to have masks around because hotter air is more likely to be poisonous.

It’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to believe that life as we’ve known it is ever going to return. We’re gazing into the unknown, and it’s natural for our minds to conjure images – to make spontaneous guesses for what might actually be out in the darkness. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the shape of what follows has yet to be determined.

Let’s continue thinking about masks, for example. I’ve been wearing one in public spaces for 16 months now, and I generally dislike them. I don’t like the close, muffled feel or the way the masks press against my beard. They’re uncomfortable, but also necessary. I think that as the temperature rises, and the necessity for masks increases, I’m going to want to make a re-usable mask that fits more comfortably, and that’s not going to make me feel like I’m suffocating if I have to wear it during a heat wave. I’ve toyed with the notion of a mask with a rigid skeleton, washable filters, and maybe even a battery powered air pump or fan for circulation. If we’re gonna have to deal with a dystopian hellscape of climate chaos and late-stage capitalism, we might as well get a cool cyberpunk aesthetic to go with it, right? Guess I’d better add some infrared LEDs to mess with surveillance equipment while I’m at it.

Aesthetics aside, with the temperatures we’re starting to see, I honestly think we’re approaching a point where going outside is going to require a full-body cooling suit on some days. Liquid-based thermal suits have been around for a while – they’re most famously used by astronauts for the under-suit worn inside a space suit. The basic principle is that the clothing holds a tube against the skin, through which water or some other fluid is pumped, drawing heat away from the body. According to Wikipedia, garments like this are designed to

…remove body heat from the wearer in environments where evaporative cooling from sweating and convection cooling does not work, or the wearer has a biological problem that hinders self-regulation of body temperature.

For the rest of our lives, a growing portion of humanity is going to live in those conditions for at least part of the year. Hopefully the fact that parts of Canada are approaching those conditions has disabused most people of the notion that anywhere on the planet is going to be guaranteed to avoid those conditions. People are going to need to have reliable shelter from the heat, and are going to need protective gear for going outdoors, especially for things like emergency services. What remains to be seen is how easy it’s going to be to build and maintain such garments as the heat continues to rise.

Even if it turns out we can make temperature-controlled clothing easily and safely, we can’t simply exist in full body suits for our entire lives – we’re going to need places where we can just exist, without protective gear, which means not just air conditioning of one form or another, but also common spaces that can be accessed without going outside, or without spending more than a couple minutes between buildings. I think there are a lot of forms this could take, but probably the most familiar would be dormitories, apartment blocks, and “co-housing” setups like this Norwegian project: 

In Vindmøllebakken, the units are arranged around a central core of communal

Vindmøllebakken Cohousing Project by Helen & Hard Architects interior courtyard

Sindre Ellingsen

spaces, which are equally and jointly owned by residents. The main entrance is through a lofty, light-filled courtyard space with an amphitheater, all built with spruce timber and insulated with hemp, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for residents to sit or to chat.

For those who want to skip this area of socializing, there is a more direct path from the street to residences that is available as well.

Adjacent to the courtyard, we have a communal kitchen and communal open-plan dining area, providing a space for residents to cook and eat together if they so choose. There is also a lounge and guest rooms. Further up, we have open walkways leading to a library, greenhouse, and workshop.

The architects say that: “The sequence of rooms is designed to create visual connections between spaces and people and to provide freedom to how much and when to engage in communal life.”

Another thing that is already the norm in some areas is to have grocery stores build into apartment buildings. The AirB&B we stayed at in Frankfurt on our move across the Atlantic had a full grocery store in the basement. I’m sure the residents of that building aren’t the only ones who shop there, but if they’re ever faced with conditions that require them to stay indoors as much as possible – like a killer heatwave – they’ll be able to get necessities without ever setting foot outside. Add in things like the monstrous floating cities used by the cruise industry, and subway stations built into the lower basements of skyscrapers, and it’s clear that we have all the pieces we need for cities that can function pretty well with a majority of people never needing to expose themselves to lethal outdoor conditions.

At the same time, the conditions we’ll be trying to avoid are likely to cause problems for both agriculture and freight, all of which brings us back to my long-standing belief that we’re going to need to invest heavily in indoor food production. That can be hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, algae or bacteria farming, insect farming, or even giant, artificially lit underground fields for all I care, but our food crops can’t survive these heat waves and fires any better than anything else can, and the cost of irrigating them is going to start rising exponentially as groundwater continues being depleted and temperatures continue to rise.

It may not be everywhere, and it should not be how we spend all of our time if it can be avoided (I think we need to maintain a broad personal connection between the state of the climate and the general population), but it will be necessary for survival in most parts of the globe at least some of the time. As we look into things like high speed rail networks, I think we might want to consider spending the extra resources to build those underground to protect our transit network from the rising climate chaos. The current above-ground arrangements for mass transit are currently melting, warping, or buckling.

But all of this is just what’s going on in my head, and I think we need as many people thinking about this as possible. How can we adapt ourselves and our society to the way climate change is affecting your region? What would be needed for that change?

What are the obstacles, and how might they be overcome?

What changes could we make at the same time to foster community building and organizing, and to improve everyday life, particularly for those at the bottom? How could we rebuild society to increase everybody’s free time?

We are in uncharted territory in a number of ways. The people in charge know the harm they’re doing, but they’re lying when they say they know what’s best for humanity – they don’t, and they never have. It’s up to us to figure out what needs to be done, and to make that happen.

Anyway, I’m curious what thoughts other people have on how we might change things to survive what looks to be a very tough time.

The image shows a portion of what looks to be a round, multi-story room. On the bottom story, and closer to the foreground, are shelves of plants growing under artificial lighting. The level above has cafe-style chairs and tables overlooking what appears to be a garden with a small tree or a shrub in the middle of it. It looks like both a pleasant bit of greenery, and a small source of food.


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Update: Lytton has burned.

On June 28th, I mentioned the incredible heat record in Lytton, BC. Two days later, and the entire town was on fire.

One day after it set Canada’s all-time heat record, a British Columbia village was devoured by flames.

A fast-moving wildfire roared over the village of Lytton on Wednesday evening, which shocked climate scientists when temperature there surged to 121 degrees on Tuesday, breaking Canada’s national heat record for a third straight day.

The blaze was a sobering symbol of a hellscape in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, where hundreds have died and wildfires are erupting as temperatures climb to astonishing heights. One location in Canada’s Northwest Territories, hit 103 degrees Wednesday, the highest temperature observed so far north.

‘Our poor little town of Lytton is gone’: Village at center of Canada’s heat wave devastated by ‘catastrophic’ fires

The Lytton blaze prompted a mandatory evacuation order at 6 p.m. local time for the village of 250 people about 150 miles northeast of Vancouver.

“The fire, it took maybe 15 minutes to engulf the whole town,” Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman told NEWS 1130, a news radio station in Vancouver. “People, basically they just grabbed their keys, and ran out the door. That’s how quick the fire happened.”

Canada’s Global News reported that several buildings were destroyed and that an “unknown number of injured residents” were taken out of the village by ambulance.

“The town is about a kilometre [0.6 miles] long and there were flames from one end of town to the other,” Polderman told NEWS11. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

Lytton burned as more than a dozen wildfires erupted in British Columbia amid the most extreme heat wave recorded in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada.

This is what global warming looks like, and it is just the beginning. The areas that burn every summer are going to keep growing. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s likely that areas that were historically too wet for fires like this are going to burn as well. As always, there’s a long list of things we could be doing as a society to respond to this emergency, but we’re not going to for as long as the current system remains in place.

They’re welcome to prove me wrong by using their wealth and power to solve the problem, but rather than hoping they’re going to do that, we should be working taking away their power.

How corporations go about the business of causing death for profit

As I hope you are all aware by now, the United States has a bad habit of pretending that any problem that existed in the past is no longer a problem. White supremacy, misogyny, abuses of power, genocide, colonialism, and the list goes on. All of these things are treated at various times, by various people, as being “in the past”, in the same way that Ancient Greece is in the past. It’s facts we might learn about, but we shouldn’t let it interfere with working on the future!

It’s all bullshit. It always was. The “former” colonies are all still being plundered and oppressed, it’s just that the tools and tactics have changed. Misogyny still exists at a systemic level. White supremacy still holds power at a global level, and causes countless deaths every day. The feudal dynasties whose abuses led their apparent loss of power are mostly still wealthy and powerful. Slavery continues. The same goes for corporate abuses within capitalism. There’s a long and bloody history of both the lethal working conditions imposed by capitalists, and the literal battles fought for workers’ rights. There’s also the horrific record of industrial pollution, and the ways in which it has killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed people all around the world. These things happened in the past, but they are not of the past. They never went away, they just made some cosmetic changes, and spent a lot of money repeatedly telling people that all that is in the past.

The same is true for the crimes of the fossil fuel industry. The fortunes they spent misleading the public and buying politicians are how we got to the point we’re at today, but they’re also why we continue to see a total absence of any real urgency in government. You could barely even call it a conspiracy – it’s almost completely in the open. At the same time, it can be a bit jarring to actually see and hear what actually happens as these people work hard to ensure that more people die, so they can keep getting richer:

These problems will continue to plague us, and continue to drive us closer to extinction for as long as anyone is allowed to hold that kind of power. For the survival of humanity, we need to eliminate the power of the ruling class, and not replace it with new rulers. It won’t be pleasant or easy, but it needs to be done.

John Oliver: Prison Heat

This is the second of what’s looking to be a series of posts on heat. Very often, when we talk about climate change, there’s a lot of focus on things like sea level rise, big storms, crop failure, and so on. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s less focus on the simple fact that larger and larger portions of the planet will start having regular heat waves that exceed what humans can survive. There’s a time, possibly not too distant from now, when being caught without artificial cooling for too long will lethal to anyone. Maybe it’s just too grim to bear thinking about for very long. Regardless, we’re at the point where we’ve got to think about it, and take action.

If you care about justice, and recognize the problems with the American justice system (or those of other countries with which I’m less familiar), then the relentless rise in global temperature is creating a horrific human rights crisis as we speak:

It’s going to get worse, and we need to prepare.

India Walton: “This is organizing”

India Walton just won the Democratic Party primary for the mayoral race in Buffalo, NY. She’s a socialist, and has centered the working class in her campaign thus far. It’s also likely that, given the voting record of her city, Walton will win her election in November, though obviously nothing is guaranteed.

The line from the speech that I quoted in this post’s title is one I want to dwell on for a moment.

“This is organizing.”

Organizing is key to any of the changes we want. Any progress towards justice, equality, or even a future for humanity goes against the systems that gave our ruling class their power. Not only will they pour their billions into opposing candidates like Walton during elections, they will also do everything they can to corrupt, co-opt, and disempower such politicians once in office. Organizing is our best tool for fighting back against that – specifically organizing that’s focused on the results we want, not on any particular individual.

Organization that outlasts electoral campaigns is how we can hold leaders of all sorts accountable. It’s how the working class (which includes the “middle class”, by the way) can keep their power ready to use. Organization is the most important maintenance of any system with a pretense at democracy. It’s equivalent to ensuring the brakes work on your car – they’re no good if you don’t think about function and maintenance until you’re in a crisis and need to stop fast.

There will never be a time when we will be safe from people seeking to accumulate power over others. Organization is our best tool to prevent that, or to take that power away. It’s not just about knocking on doors to get votes, it’s about knocking on doors during a power outage to make sure those in your community are OK. It’s about making sure nobody in your community is going to starve if they go on strike. It’s about working together to ensure our would-be rulers cannot achieve their ends by threatening our lives through starvation, exposure, lack of medicine, or any other means. It’s how we defend ourselves, and how we replace leaders when the need arises.

It’s also our best bet at surviving climate change.

The more work we do to organize now, the more likely we are to be prepared for the future, no matter what it throws at us. Collective action is humanity’s greatest strength, and always has been. It’s how we can achieve things that are laughably impossible for any one person alone.

It’s also how the concentrated power of the ruling class can be dismantled – because the left, at its best, is all about using humanity’s greatest strengths for the benefit of all humanity.

A look at Venice’s flood barrier system

This video provides a good look at a flood barrier system Venice recently completed. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering and yet, as the video says, it’s likely to be insufficient to protect against the sea level rise we’re expecting over the next century or so. The video also provides a good overview of the problems in construction, and of the kinds of ecological damage that could face Venice and other coastal cities from relying on barriers like this to protect them from sea level rise.

The presupposition of scarcity and competition should not dictate how we end fossil fuel use

I’ve noticed a frustrating tendency among some climate activists to cling to a mode of thought that works to uphold the justifications for capitalism, and the bleak view of life perpetuated by capitalist and fascist propagandists. It’s the notion of endless competition as a driving force in society. It’s Spencer’s pseudo-scientific notion of “survival of the fittest”, supported by the lie that resources will always be less than what would meet the basic needs of humanity. The notion of false scarcity was probably made most famous by the diamond industry, which boosted the price of its product by strictly controlling the supply, and limiting the rate at which new diamonds entered the market. Similar shady practices also drive up housing prices, and a related line of justification is used not to increase the price of food – though that has happened a bit – but rather to justify the hunger of those who are prevented from eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Diamonds are actually pretty common, there are more empty homes than homeless people, and there is more food than we need to feed everyone. We are not, in reality, stuck in endless competition with each other. We live in a world and in a time when nobody needs to worry about their basic necessities.

We’re just forced to, in order to force us to use our bodies and our time for the enrichment of someone else.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we’re going to find a way out of this mess, we will have to train ourselves not to see the world that way, and I think that includes our sources of power. Maybe this is also partly because we’ve found that certain sources – fossil fuels – cannot be used safely, so we see a need to get a “better” energy source, and that can lead to viewing things like solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on as being in competition with each other. As Le Guin said, we live in capitalism, and its power seems inescapable. For an example, take this recent study from the University of Sussex:

If countries want to lower emissions as substantially, rapidly and cost-effectively as possible, they should prioritize support for renewables, rather than nuclear power.

That’s the finding of new analysis of 123 countries over 25 years by the University of Sussex Business School and the ISM International School of Management which reveals that nuclear energy programmes around the world tend not to deliver sufficient carbon emission reductions and so should not be considered an effective low carbon energy source.

Researchers found that unlike renewables, countries around the world with larger scale national nuclear attachments do not tend to show significantly lower carbon emissions — and in poorer countries nuclear programmes actually tend to associate with relatively higher emissions.

Published today in Nature Energy, the study reveals that nuclear and renewable energy programmes do not tend to co-exist well together in national low-carbon energy systems but instead crowd each other out and limit effectiveness.

Benjmin K Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon emissions abatement strategies, and coupled with its tendency not to co-exist well with its renewable alternative, this raises serious doubts about the wisdom of prioritising investment in nuclear over renewable energy. Countries planning large-scale investments in new nuclear power are risking suppression of greater climate benefits from alternative renewable energy investments.”

This is where I start to worry about the analysis of these researchers, and the conclusions they draw. From what I can tell, they’re basing their conclusions on the notion that we’ll be swapping out power sources, but leaving much of the rest of how things work as is. We have the resources, as a species, to do a large-scale rollout of renewable power sources, and also to build new nuclear power plants. The obstacle isn’t one of resources for investment, it’s one of political and social obstacles. Likewise, for countries that currently have well-established nuclear power, it’s not like that’s the only factor affecting CO2 emissions, and many of the power plants in question are decades old, which means they’re worse on pretty much every metric than newer reactor and plant designs.

I have my reservations about nuclear power, but they largely stem back to the same root as my problem with this sort of analysis. It’s likely that without changing the power and incentive structures of our society, no power source will be either sufficient or safe. There are too many problems, even if we only focus on the environment, that are caused by pursuit of profit over all else, and that cannot be solved because doing so isn’t  “profitable”. I think it’s highly unlikely that we will be able to avoid total collapse under the political and economic conditions these authors assume will continue to be the norm.

The researchers, using World Bank and International Energy Agency data covering 1990-2014, found that nuclear and renewables tend to exhibit lock-ins and path dependencies that crowd each other out, identifying a number of ways in which a combined nuclear and renewable energy mix is incompatible.

These include the configuration of electricity transmission and distribution systems where a grid structure optimized for larger scale centralized power production such as conventional nuclear, will make it more challenging, time-consuming and costly to introduce small-scale distributed renewable power.

Similarly, finance markets, regulatory institutions and employment practices structured around large-scale, base-load, long-lead time construction projects for centralized thermal generating plant are not well designed to also facilitate a multiplicity of much smaller short-term distributed initiatives.

Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “This paper exposes the irrationality of arguing for nuclear investment based on a ‘do everything’ argument. Our findings show not only that nuclear investments around the world tend on balance to be less effective than renewable investments at carbon emissions mitigation, but that tensions between these two strategies can further erode the effectiveness of averting climate disruption.”

The study found that in countries with a high GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production does associate with a small drop in CO2 emissions. But in comparative terms, this drop is smaller than that associated with investments in renewable energy.

And in countries with a low GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production clearly associates with CO2 emissions that tend to be higher.

Patrick Schmid, from the ISM International School of Management München, said: “While it is important to acknowledge the correlative nature of our data analysis, it is astonishing how clear and consistent the results are across different time frames and country sets. In certain large country samples the relationship between renewable electricity and CO2-emissions is up to seven times stronger than the corresponding relationship for nuclear.”

Ironically, my objection to this analysis is similar to an objection I’ve raised to more avid nuclear advocates – we can’t base our plans for the future on how things have been historically, because we are in a historically unprecedented time. If we continue to assign value and importance within the constraints of a capitalist rule set, we’re never going to see an end to overproduction. If a grid designed for distributed power generation can’t handle the output of a nuclear plant, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to put the technology to use. If your reactor is adequately protected from sea level rise (high elevation or placement on a floating structure), a nuclear plant could be an excellent way to power large-scale desalination, hydrolysis, or both. It could also be used to power industrial activity – factories, waste processing, shipping, or even indoor farming.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best path to both sustainable population size and sustainable energy usage is to equalize at a decent standard of living, and to stop centering things around consumption and growth:

However, not only do the findings show that the energy required to provide a decent living could likely be met entirely by clean sources, but it also offers a firm rebuttal to reactive claims that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a ‘return to the dark ages’.

The authors’ tongue in cheek response to the critique that sweeping energy reform would require us all to become ‘cave dwellers’ was: “Yes, perhaps, but these are rather luxurious caves with highly-efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; comfortable temperatures maintained throughout the year, computer networks — among other things — not to mention the larger caves providing universal healthcare and education to all 5-19 year olds.”

That said, providing growing conditions that can feed humanity, ensuring access to water, maintaining pleasant indoor temperature and air quality, and manufacturing durable goods in a sustainable manner are all likely to consume a lot of power. I generally favor distributed power generation through “renewable” energy sources, for the flexibility and resilience that provides, but it would be very foolish, in my opinion, to just dismiss nuclear power, or to stop working on ways to improve on it.

There’s also another factor to consider. Ideally, we’re going to do more than just deal with our impact on the climate and reduce the production of new waste. We also need to deal with the waste we’ve already produced, both in terms of disposed products, and in terms of things like mine waste, industrial byproducts, and new kinds of toxic waste like the concentrated brine from desalination plants.

We need to make an industry out of cleaning up and rendering harmless a vast array of substances, including radioactive waste that has nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear power.

Unfortunately, the speed at which the planet is heating means that the amount of energy we’re going to have to consume to both survive and end fossil fuel use is going to be massive. Even as we take steps to increase energy efficiency and reduce consumption, we’re going to have other growing demands for energy. I think it’s entirely likely that in some situations, a nuclear reactor is going to be the best option. The focus should be on what conditions must be met. I think most modern reactor designs are very, very safe, if they’re operated by people whose primary incentive is their safe and reliable operation, without consideration for things like profit. Any community within the exclusion zone of a reactor should have a role in oversight of that reactor, as well as a responsibility to educate themselves in defense against misinformation.

If we manage to actually gain the power to start reshaping society, one of our first problems is going to be cleaning up after the last century or so. It only seems responsible to keep nuclear power as an option, for when we do need a massive concentration of energy in one location.

I also think that we’d do well, insofar as we have the power to influence any of this, to encourage as non-fossil energy production is possible, and rather than focusing on storing excess for later, use the excess as it’s generated, and arrange things so that at the grid’s lowest ebb, we have enough for the minimum requirements of day to day life.

As I mentioned at the outset, a lot of the world’s power comes from control over access to vital resources – food, water, shelter, healthcare, and in the modern era, electricity. One of the reasons that mutual aid networks can serve as a foundation for organized, working class power, is that they make it harder to use the subtler forms of coercion that government and capital typically use to keep people in line. If you can ensure supply lines of food, water, and so on, then people actually have firm ground on which to make a stand. A strike is far more sustainable when those involved know that their families will still have their needs met, even if they lose their wages.

We can use abundance as a weapon against economic coercion.

Now, as we’ve seen recently, they’re willing to be overt, if that’s what it takes to keep people working, but strike-breaking, or openly manipulating things like access to unemployment insurance in order to force people to work for poverty wages, tend to help turn people against the ruling class.

As this century continues, I think it would be wise to adopt a similar strategy for energy production. We need to combine increased efficiency with increased zero-carbon power generation to create a state of abundance, where excess can be used for essential work, and it’s much harder for a government or corporation to wield power over people by controlling their electricity access.

We should continue to invest in distributed power generation, especially at the community level, where possible, but I honestly think we’d be foolish cease all investment in nuclear power.


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