interesting times

A Radically Moderate Answer to Climate Change

The answer is right under our noses. Photo: Carol Highsmith/Getty Images

I can’t believe I did this, but last Monday I actually chose to attend a conference on moderation. Yes, moderation. In what might seem like self-parody or a fevered dream, it started with a speech by David Brooks and ended with a discussion with Tony Blair. Held by the Niskanen Center, a think tank founded in 2014 dedicated to saving what’s left of liberal democracy, it was not designed, like CPAC now is, as some kind of madcap, post-everything entertainment — and in this respect, it certainly delivered.

The one point I attempted to contribute on a panel was a simple Wildean one: Everything in moderation, including moderation. There are times, it seems to me, that the task of rebalancing a society, of keeping it on an even keel, requires the opposite of what might we reflexively think of as “moderation.” One of the more interesting metaphors for this idea of balance was first coined in the 17th century by the Englishman George Savile, Earl of Halifax. He celebrated in a famous tract what he called the art of the political “trimmer,” governed by a simple rule: “If men are together in a boat, and one part of the company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary.” Otherwise, the boat might capsize.

At first blush, this seems utterly banal — always attempting to meet in the middle of two competing forces. Call it “both sides-ism,” “zombie centrism,” or whatever. I share the general contempt for that kind of “splitting the difference” moderation. There may be times when it works, in an attempt to close a political deal, but it’s mindless if it doesn’t take into account external reality. So to return to the metaphor of a boat, it’s no good being equally balanced if a gale-force wind is pushing the boat in one direction. You may need to get everyone on one side of the ship to keep it upright. You trim your sails not according to ideology, or a compass, but according to the winds and the waves. There’s no easy formula for this; it requires prudential judgment. It requires leaders who have a sense of the exigencies and passions of their time and respond to them empirically.

So FDR was in many ways an extremist in the context of American history; but his extremism was a form of moderation given the dire economic crisis he had to handle. I’d say the same thing about Thatcher: a radical remaker of an economy and society, but in the context of previous economic stagnation, social breakdown, and a stifling collectivism, something of a moderate.

What would that kind of revolutionary moderation look like today? That depends on your take on the world we are living in. My own view is that this period is unique in human history because it is the first time our species is on the verge of wiping out most life as it now exists on this planet. It’s the mother of all emergencies. In this context, moderation is radicalism. Splitting the difference right now between the GOP and the Democrats on this subject is to guarantee eco-suicide. And since it is an emergency, gradualism is not, shall we say, optimal. That’s why the Green New Deal has appeal. Its vast ambition is actually well-suited to the humongous scale of the challenge. When AOC’s critics say her idea is preposterously expensive and unnecessarily socialist (as it is), she is perfectly right to ask: So what’s your alternative?

Here’s a suggestion: Focus on a non-carbon energy source that is already proven to be technologically feasible, can be quickly scaled up, and can potentially meet all our energy demands. What we need, given how little time we have, is a massive nuclear energy program. Sure, we can keep innovating and investing in renewables, and use as much as we can. But they are not going to save us or the planet in time. We know nuclear works and does so quickly. As argued in Scientific American:

The speediest drop in greenhouse gas pollution on record occurred in France in the 1970s and ‘80s, when that country transitioned from burning fossil fuels to nuclear fission for electricity, lowering its greenhouse emissions by roughly 2 percent per year. The world needs to drop its global warming pollution by 6 percent annually to avoid “dangerous” climate change in the estimation of [respected climate scientist James] Hansen and his co-authors in a recent paper in PLoS One.

What’s the catch? It’s superexpensive. While the price of renewables keeps falling, nuclear remains very costly. The plants take a long time to build, and they’re difficult to site. One estimate is that it would cost $7 trillion to build a thousand nuclear plants, which would allow us to get a quarter of our energy from this non-carbon source. For the U.S. to get half its energy from nuclear would cost around $14 trillion. But if we committed to a huge nuclear investment, and the innovation that comes with it, that cost would come down. Compared with one estimate of $93 trillion for the Green New Deal, it’s a bargain. And remember most of the cost of nuclear power is up-front. On the back end:

A build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario.

The point is that this is achievable with current technology. And renewables are not cost-free. Switching entirely to them, without nuclear, can actually decelerate decarbonization:

Germany’s carbon emissions have been flat since 2009, despite an investment of $580 billion by 2025 in a renewables-heavy electrical grid, and a 50 percent rise in electricity cost.

Meanwhile, France produces one-tenth the carbon emissions per unit of electricity as Germany and pays little more than half for its electricity. How? Through nuclear power.

Then, under pressure from Germany, France spent $33 billion on renewables, over the last decade. What was the result? A rise in the carbon intensity of its electricity supply, and higher electricity prices, too.

Renewables require huge amounts of land mass, require costly transfers of energy across long distances, are not without their own environmental damage, and are dependent on wind and sun that wax and wane independently of human needs. The problem of what’s called “the duck curve” — matching energy supply and demand throughout the day and night — remains. Nuclear power, in contrast, can be concentrated, consistent, and relied upon, rain or shine, windy or calm. Safety? We’ve had three major crises — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima (caused by a tsunami). But that’s out of over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries. Much of the damage in those cases to the environment was contained — and the human impact has been trivial compared with the massive damage caused by carbon-based fuels.

At the very least, we should not be prematurely closing nuclear power stations. One recent study found that “nearly 35 percent of the country’s nuclear power plants, representing 22 percent of U.S. nuclear capacity, are at risk of early closure or slated to retire.” If that happens, “natural gas and coal will fill the void. Closing unprofitable and marginal at-risk plants early could result in a 4 to 6 percent increase in U.S. power sector emissions.” We need to start there — but a much more ambitious nuclear program is critical to decarbonization at the speed we desperately need.

It seems to me that this would be part of a conservative plan to end carbon emissions, if the U.S. had a functioning right-of-center party as opposed to a delusional, fundamentalist personality cult. But it’s also perfectly compatible with a liberal agenda on climate change — which is why it was staggering to me that nuclear power was left out entirely in the GND. But just imagine if we had used the $16 trillion we’ve borrowed over the last two decades to construct the beginning of a carbon-free future, instead of funneling money to the superrich and attempting to turn the Middle East into suburbia. And also imagine the innovation in nuclear energy we might have fostered with that kind of investment. Sometimes moderation isn’t just the mushy middle between two extremes; it’s a form of pragmatic and even radical imagination.

Choosing Not to See

I said last week that I’d be fascinated to see how Frédéric Martel’s new book on the hypocrisy and homosexuality in the Vatican would be received among Catholic critics. I haven’t been disappointed. The more ludicrous reviews (almost all on the right) just pick and choose which parts of the book they decide are true and which are not.

Here’s LifeSiteNews: “First, a caveat: many of Martel’s claims about conservative cardinals’ supposed homosexuality are so outrageous and ill-founded that all he writes is not necessarily true. But his statements regarding Pope Francis are so grave from a doctrinal point of view that they need to be known and, hopefully, officially denied.” I actually LOL’d at that one. Or this from the British Spectator: “According to the Pope’s own entourage, Francis knew about the sins of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick years ago and chose to do nothing. That is really the only story in this book. It’s true that Martel confirms that the Vatican is full of gossipy queens, most of whom stare at waiters’ bottoms and some of whom have sex with young men. But I think we knew that already.”

We did? Well it’s good to have a leading conservative Catholic put that on the record. But the book of course is not just a description of the super-gay climate at the center of the church. It’s a catalogue of corruption, crime, abuse, and cover-up — all facilitated by the closet. This difficult and complicated truth — one that neither side really wants to grapple with — goes remarkably unmentioned in most reviews. But one of the shallower critiques, it seems to me, is that the book is mere “salacious” gossip, innuendo, rumor, fiction, unsubstantiated bitchiness, and provides no proof of its claims. Ross Douthat: “Too many of its attempted outings rely on the supposed infallibility of Martel’s gaydar.” Rod Dreher: “Never read a book w/such serious subject matter, but credibility utterly undone by the journalistic unprofessionalism of its author.” The Catholic World Report: “Martel targets [Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo] because, he says, he was an anti-gay lobbyist though he was a practicing homosexual. He offers neither proof, nor the possibility of defense.”

But what Martel found was based on far more than “gaydar” and his journalistic method seems robust. (Last week, I discussed in detail his sources for his brutal exposure of the late Cardinal Trujillo.) Take the shocking tales of Vatican officials hiring male prostitutes. What proof does Martel provide? Well, he spends many evenings in the area the sex workers pick up their johns, gets to know many of them, wins their trust and and also finds sources in the police force. Specifically: “The association Polis Aperta, a group of about a hundred LGBT soldiers, carabinieri and policemen. Several of its members in Rome, Castel Gandolfo, Milan, Naples, Turin, Padua and Bologna, and in particular a lieutenant colonel of the carabinieri, have given me accounts of the prostitution at Roma Termini and, more broadly, the commercial sex lives of ecclesiastics.”

One of the sex workers contacted by Martel has a detailed list of all his clients, including many in the Vatican:

This unique database has been enriched over the years with photographs, videos and, most importantly, by the identity of the people in questions … In 2018 [the sex worker] made public the sex lives of 34 priests in a 1,200-page document that included the names of the clerics concerned, their photographs, audio recordings and screen shots of his sexual exchanges with them, from WhatsApp or Telegram. I was able to consult the ‘dossier’ called Preti gay; it reveals dozens of priests celebrating mass in their cassocks and then, stark naked, celebrating other kinds of frolic via webcam. The photographs, alternating homilies and intimate pictures, are quite extraordinary.

Is this journalistic unprofessionalism? He outs no one specifically in this case. He diligently pursues sources across the planet. And yes, many are anonymous. But how could they not be, given the explosive nature of the subject — the closet — which is itself about anonymity and deception? I couldn’t have written my recent essay on gay priests without most of the sources being anonymous. And when Martel writes that “a cardinal” tells him something, I don’t believe he’s lying. If you read a reported piece in the New York Times that explains that it is based on interviews with 20 individuals with direct experience of the matter being reported, but that their names are not given because they’d lose their jobs otherwise, would you dismiss it as mere “gossip”?

Yes, there are some excesses. Martel cannot resist some rather louche portrayals of grand old queens. He delights at times in the sheer insanity of the contradictions. He sees things in ways a straight reporter wouldn’t. And his style is florid — and gripping. Of all the reviews I’ve read, theology professor Brian Flanagan is the fairest: “The book is part Bob Woodward getting the dirt from his inside sources, part Alexis de Tocqueville wandering in a strange new world, and part Page Six of the New York Post.” And it’s Flanagan who simply notes: “One can, and journalists and researchers should, further investigate particular details, particular charges and insinuations, and particular places where Martel’s interlocutors have misled him or where he himself has undermined his credibility through insinuation and speculation. But the overall portrait seems vero. E troppo vero.”

And as with all uncomfortable and inconvenient truths, what’s remarkable is how enterprising human beings are at avoiding it.

The Personal Politics of Late-Term Abortions

Here’s a true story. Back when I was in graduate school, I was good friends with one of the younger Kennedys, RFK’s son, Max, and every now and again, he’d suggest we get in a car and take a trip to the Cape. Max actually introduced me to a part of the world now embedded in my soul and summers. But of course, the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port is not exactly just the Cape, and it took a while to adjust. One Sunday morning, I asked Max where the nearest church was for Mass. And he said: “Next door. My grandma has a priest say it. Why don’t you go to that one?”

And so I ventured into the next building, to find Rose Kennedy, still barely alive, in a wheelchair, attended by a rather robust nun, and a classic Irish priest. The Mass had just started. I figured it would be what we used to call a “quick and dirty,” a swift, 20-minute Irish sprint to the consecration, and then done. But no! The priest, perhaps encouraged by a new congregant, gave a homily … on the evils of abortion. As I sat there, listening, I couldn’t help but note that he hadn’t picked exactly a relevant audience for his particular topic. Here was a woman in her 90s, a nun, and a young homo.

And so I’m a little reticent on the subject; but if I were forced to offer the view I’ve come to take, it would be this awkward mess. I believe both that abortion is the taking of a human life, and that in a free society, rooted in property rights, an individual has complete autonomy over her body — autonomy which the state cannot violate. And so I used to believe that late-term abortion was particularly awful, as close to infanticide as one can get. One day, on my blog, I said as much, and then a flood of emails came in.

As this topic has come up again, I just want to add that, after reading and listening to the women who had had such abortions, whose testimonies are grueling and mind-expanding, I came to the conclusion that late-term abortions are actually the least objectionable. No woman waits till late in her third trimester to arbitrarily end her child’s life. Almost all of them were cases in which the child was desperately wanted, and in which some awful abnormality had emerged late in the pregnancy that essentially guaranteed that the child would be stillborn, or born and live only a short amount of time. For all the women involved, this was unimaginably painful. I urge you to take a second and read some of the accounts we posted at the Dish. They tore at my heart and soul and revealed just how abstract truths can become tangible agonies, once you see what is really at stake.

There is nothing to celebrate about such horrible choices, which is why I found lighting up One World Trade Center in pink to commemorate their full legalization under the Reproductive Health Act in New York State deeply inappropriate. But no one — no one — should have any say in that moment but the mother and her physician. Every case is unique. Every case is heartrending. And although I find much of the rhetoric on the far left on this subject too insouciant and glib about the profound moral dimensions of abortion, the slick and easy accusations from the right about “child killing” are simply inexcusable. I used to think that way. The women who actually went through such experiences changed my mind. They’ll change yours too.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: A Radically Moderate Climate Solution