Clean Energy Mind Games

The world needs clean energy. Clean, as in doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide, that can drive climate change. And we need plenty of it within the next couple of decades, nearly 50% more energy by 2040 than is currently produced, as billions of people rise out of poverty and expect the same resources the developed world already enjoys.

So it is encouraging that governments around the world are adopting policies that encourage clean energy production and large corporations are converting to low-carbon-emission energy supplies. But these steps, although meaningful, are not nearly enough, because government policies overwhelmingly favor some clean energy sources—renewables such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels—over other clean energy sources, particular nuclear power. Yet most energy experts agree that renewables can’t supply as much power as we need, as quickly as we need it. It’s therefore worth trying to understand why government policies favor some forms of low-carbon energy over others, because the battle over what sort of clean energy counts as clean leaves us fighting climate change with one hand tied behind our back.

In the United States, 29 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards requiring that a percentage of the electricity a utility sells must come from wind, solar, hydro, and in some cases biofuels, all of which need economic support from government policy because they can’t compete against cheaper fossil fuels, especially natural gas. But whereas renewables receive significant direct economic support, nuclear energy receives far less. Only two states—New York and Illinois—provide financial assistance that helps nuclear compete economically, and in both cases the support was adopted less as a clean air measure and more to preserve high-paying jobs that would be lost if nuclear plants in those states closed. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Ohio are also considering economic support for nuclear, but the overall picture remains clear. State government subsidies for clean energy overwhelmingly favor renewables.

At the federal level, in 2016 renewable sources of energy received 114 times more support in preferential taxes than nuclear power per terawatt of power generated, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Between state and federal programs, the case is overwhelmingly clear; some forms of clean energy get vastly more support to help them compete in the energy marketplace than others. And nuclear, which could supply huge amounts of zero emission energy that could help the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, is being significantly disadvantaged by government policy. Selective policies to support some forms of clean energy more than others are dramatically limiting the nation’s ability to address the problem that clean energy is supposed to help solve.

Clean machines?

Why this inequality? It can’t be economics. Nuclear power is so expensive that it can’t compete with fossil fuels, but neither can renewables once you factor in the necessary cost of backup power to compensate for the periods when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. It can’t be that nuclear isn’t needed because renewables can provide all the energy we need as urgently as we need it. The leading program in the world trying to replace nuclear with renewables, the massive Energiewende program in Germany, has made great progress, but not enough. Renewables haven’t been able to replace all the energy lost due to the shutdown of nuclear power in Germany, so new coal plants are being built, energy-intensive sectors of the economy have been exempted from the program, and the nation is not even close to being on track to meet its greenhouse-gas-emissions goals.

Preferential government support for renewables over nuclear has more to do with a selectively applied interpretation of what “clean” means. Nuclear is held to a different standard than renewables. All sources of electricity have environmental and human health costs, considered across their full life cycle. But as a senior legislative researcher in Massachusetts told me as he was helping write the state’s new energy law, which favored renewables but not nuclear, “Nuclear may not emit greenhouse gases, but it’s got other problems …. Radiation is dangerous. Nuclear is a political non-starter. People are afraid of it.”

What is behind such fear? In a practical sense, the fear can be traced back to the shadow of the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing Cold War testing of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the first global protest movement, Ban the Bomb, focused on the threat of cancer from radioactive fallout produced by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This fear of radiation, in turn, gave rise to the modern environmental movement itself and remains a cornerstone of what it means to be an environmentalist. This has remained the case even as many of the early “facts” about the hazards of nuclear radiation have proven unfounded.

So why have the fears persisted? Several areas of psychological research offer insights. Research on risk perception conducted by Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, Sarah Lichtenstein, and others has found that our fears sometimes don’t match the facts because, as Slovic has written, “risk is a feeling,” not a dispassionate analysis of the facts alone. Their work has identified more than a dozen specific psychological qualities that magnify fear of some threats and minimize fear of others. Several of these characteristics intensify our fear of nuclear power:

  • We generally worry more about human-made threats than about natural ones. Renewables also rely on human-made technology, of course, but the wind and the sun and water seem more natural than what has to happen to turn uranium into electricity. The word “renewables” almost by definition suggests something that feels natural.
  • We worry more about risks from things we can’t detect with our senses, such as invisible, odorless ionizing radiation. Not knowing what we need to know to protect ourselves—uncertainty—leaves us feeling powerless, vulnerable.
  • We worry more about things that are hard to understand, which is the case with the complex science of nuclear fission and radiation (whereas the conversion of sunlight or wind to electricity seems intuitive), adding to the unsettling sense of uncertainty.
  • We worry more about dreadful threats (those perceived to cause greater suffering) such as cancer, several forms of which are caused by ionizing radiation.
  • We worry more about threats that are easily “available” to our consciousness, either because they jump into our minds more quickly and thus have greater emotional impact, as our memories of atomic bombs and nuclear power accidents do, or because those threats are in the news, as stories about the danger of radiation frequently are.

In addition, how the human brain works plays a role. Research on cognition by Daniel Kahneman and others has found that the brain often relies on heuristics and biases—mental shortcuts—to make quick judgments, rather than taking the time to gather more information and carefully think things through. We jump to less-than-fully-informed conclusions. And once we’ve made up our minds about something—a threat or anything else—our brains tend to stick with what we believe rather than making the additional mental effort of keeping an open mind and constantly analyzing things from new perspectives. We tend to stick with the conclusions to which we’ve jumped.

Culture clubs

Then there is the matter of how humans respond to group influences, as reflected in the psychological phenomenon called cultural cognition. Research by Dan Kahan of Yale University and others, based on anthropological theories developed by the late Mary Douglas, has found that we shape our views so they agree with the views of the group or groups with which we most closely identify. Agreeing with and promoting our group’s views demonstrates loyalty, which earns us status as a member in good standing, worthy of our group’s support. This is vital for nothing less than our sense of safety, since as social animals we instinctively depend on our group—our tribe—for protection.

No wonder, then, that the debate about what kind of energy should receive government support produces such heated and visceral arguments. They aren’t disagreements about the facts alone. They are tests of—challenges to—tribal identities that we instinctively protect because they are critical to how safe we feel. As Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has noted, “If you protested Seabrook or Shoreham or Indian Point, being asked to take a second look at nuclear is hard.” Views that conflict with your group’s basic beliefs, Hamburg says, pose “an existential threat to the world and yourself.

Cultural cognition—interpreting the facts so we can support our group’s beliefs—also helps explain why opponents of nuclear power deny the robust evidence that nuclear radiation is nowhere near as dangerous as most people believe. A major study of atomic bomb survivors, called the Life Span Study, has found that of the nearly 90,000 people who were within 10 kilometers of the hypocenter of those blasts—thousands of whom received frighteningly high initial doses of radiation and continued exposure for months because of contaminated food, water, and air—the lifetime cancer death toll rose by only 0.3% compared with the cancer mortality among 20,000 non-exposed Japanese who have been followed as a control group. (The study was conducted initially by the US Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in cooperation with the Japanese National Institute of Health, and it continues under the Radiation Effects Research Foundation.) The study has also found that contrary to public belief (and a swarm of sci-fi mutant movies), exposure to even high doses of ionizing radiation has caused no multigenerational genetic damage passed down from the atomic bomb survivors to their children.

Based on this robust evidence—the Life Span Study has been going on for nearly 70 years—experts say that the radiation released by the nuclear accidents in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Fukushima, Japan, will do relatively minimal damage to human or environmental health. In the case of Fukushima, in fact, the World Health Organization predicts that because the doses were so low, there will be no increase in the rate of any radiation-related diseases beyond the normal rates in the general population.

But nuclear opponents steadfastly deny these findings. They consistently portray nuclear accidents as doing much more harm than neutral experts have found. They consistently overstate the health risk from even the tiniest problems at any nuclear power facility. This is not unlike the science denial of people who reject the evidence of anthropogenic climate change. The phenomenon is the same. It is cultural cognition working to produce a view of the evidence that, though honestly held, simply conflicts with the current state of established scientific knowledge.

Emotional rescue

These psychological realities paint a dark view for clean energy policy making. Opposition to nuclear energy is instinctive, important to the sense of safety and identity for many opponents, and therefore difficult to overcome. As persistent opposition to nuclear power by many environmental groups demonstrates, not even an appeal to concern about the global environmental threat of climate change is enough to reverse deeply held beliefs. The fear of being disloyal to the tribe and then being ostracized is a visceral, personal, and powerful barrier to revisiting the sources of one’s opposition to nuclear energy.

The fear of being disloyal to the tribe and getting kicked out and losing the sense of safety that belonging to a group provides is a visceral, personal, and powerful barrier to revisiting the sources of one’s opposition to nuclear energy.

Nonetheless, there are at least some signs of possible change. A few environmental advocates and organizations are starting to accept that nuclear should play a part in mitigating climate change, and some government bodies are increasing support for nuclear as a source of clean energy. New technologies that offer smaller and safer reactors are on the horizon, and a proposed Massachusetts policy to meet the requirements of the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, for example, includes economic incentives for them. Yet this policy would not extend to existing plants. One such facility in Massachusetts is about to close, with the likely result that the state’s reliance on energy generated from fossil fuels will rise, as has occurred in Vermont following closure of a nuclear plant there that was producing a third of all the electricity used in the state.

But given current conditions, such change is likely to be gradual at best. A shift to new nuclear technologies will take time, decades for most of them. Yet we may not have time. Demand for energy is rising rapidly. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world will need a staggering 78,000 terawatt-hours more power in 20 years, three times the amount consumed in the United States in a year. Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising, too. The impact that humans are having on the climate system increases daily, and the radiative forcing effects of emissions released today will persist for hundreds of years. We need massive amounts of clean energy, and we need it soon. Delay causes real harm.

We need to honestly recognize the danger we face because our instinctive cognitive system limits our ability to consider as thoroughly and openly as possible which choices will afford the greatest protection.

The values-based conflict over what kind of clean energy should count as clean contributes to those delays. And that fight is the result of the inherently emotional nature of human cognition. It is pointless to label this as right or wrong, smart or dumb, rational or irrational. It’s just who we are, how our brains work.

But recognizing that the inherently affective nature of how we think sometimes puts us at risk might challenge us to think more carefully. We need to honestly recognize the danger we face because our instinctive cognitive system limits our ability to consider as thoroughly and openly as possible which choices will afford the greatest protection. Sometimes the choices we make, though they may feel right, don’t do us the most good. If energy policy makers can recognize that, and understand just how our cognitive systems produce views that don’t always align with our most urgent priorities, they might be inspired to look for ways to overcome these limitations and do more critical thinking in search of policies to combat climate change that will have the greatest impact.

David Ropeik, an instructor in the Environmental Management Program of the Harvard Extension School, is the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts (McGraw Hill, 2012).

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Cite this Article

Ropeik, David. “Clean Energy Mind Games.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (Summer 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer 2017