Clean switch

It is possible to switch from an anti- to a pro-nuclear position, argues Kirsty Gogan, and some influential commentators are making the transition

20 May 2014

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Attributed to John Maynard Keynes

In the past few weeks we have seen two significant conversion stories emerge from the US. Firstly, a seismic shift in thinking on nuclear energy from the entire editorial board at the New York Times:

“The dangers of nuclear power are real, but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil. The latest dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should leave no doubt that reducing carbon emissions must be an urgent priority and that nuclear energy must be part of the mix.”

Secondly, Carol Browner, former head of the EPA under President Clinton, and climate and energy policy lead for President Obama, put forward a similar argument. “I used to be anti-nuclear,” she wrote in an op-ed inForbes magazine. “But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”

As my Twitter community will confirm, I’ve already changed my mind about nuclear energy. It was easy enough for me since I’m not a high profile political figure or an opinion forming global media outlet. Still, it was deeply ingrained in me, as an environmentalist, to be, by default, anti-nuclear. It took a long time for the facts to replace the fear.

Carl Sagan said: “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken’, and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

It is hard for those in the public eye to change their minds, and to challenge the received wisdom of the tribe. Hats off to those who have the courage to court such controversy. Doing so can prompt slanderous attacks, alienation, or even bizarre episodes such as the £100 reward being offered to people attempting a citizen’s arrest of George Monbiot, on the grounds that he “must face justice for his criminal irresponsibility in promoting nuclear power”.

Generally though, public figures that change their minds in light of evidence demonstrate leadership, and command respect. Robert Stone’s recent environmentalist documentary Pandora’s Promise has transformed the debate on climate and energy by telling such conversion stories and showing that it is possible to re-evaluate and accept the technology without compromising on core values.

The roster of thoughtful individuals who have changed their minds about nuclear is growing longer. They have shown that it’s not only OK to change their minds, but is more compelling since this hard decision flows from their commitment to a safer climate for the future. As john Maynard Keynes is purported to have said, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Published on Business Green