How To Turn The GOP Green
We need both parties to prevent environmental catastrophe. Here's how we do it.
Politics is downstream of culture. Change the culture and (sooner or later) you change the politics. But some political issues have such hefty cultural baggage, it’s incredibly hard to shift the politics.
The most obvious recent example is what’s happened in the debate over psychedelic drugs. Their emergence in the 1960s as a sign of hippie culture stigmatized them in the mainstream for generations. That cultural stigma effectively banned serious research into the science for decades. It was only when trained chemists and psychiatrists finally gained permission to test these drugs for their psychological impact, and discovered staggeringly effective possibilities for treating mental health, that the culture shifted — and gave permission to skeptics on the right to shift their stance.
There was a very similar game-changer when some localities and a few states began to allow cannabis solely for medical use. By turning the image of weed from Cheech and Chong giggling to helping cancer patients endure chemotherapy more successfully, the whole debate changed. If weed helped some people medically, it couldn’t be all bad, could it? And as the cannabis closet crumbled, the middle-class banality of pot won the culture war. And swiftly, we moved past medical weed to recreational.
As I came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, the gay question was just as trapped in a purely leftist silo. For many people, the term homosexuality instantly evoked images of anal sex, leather bars, lewd parades, and ACT-UP shock tactics. And although this didn’t hurt much in a few cities where gays were political organized, and had its virtues, it inherently rendered any big, broader political change much more difficult. It culturally deterred conservatives and moderates from being more politically supportive. But when we re-framed the debate by embracing conservative institutions like civil marriage and military service, we gave permission to people on the right to support us. In my view, it was that cultural re-framing, along with the AIDS crisis, that gave us the real political breakthrough.
The same cultural problem, it seems to me, applies to climate change. Like psychedelics, or cannabis, or homosexuality in the past, the subject has become a leftist cultural signifier. For large numbers of right-leaning people, environmentalism has long just felt socialist, big-government, hippie, “soy-boy,” and lame. For a country built on the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of a whole continent, it felt un-American to talk about the limits of growth, or conserving energy use, or imposing regulations that could inhibit industry and business and growth.
Trump represented this culture’s id with his instinctual businessman’s loathing of regulations, and he took it one step further by actually celebrating carbon energy, especially the dirtiest forms like coal, as a kind of male working-class signifier. On climate change in general, he had the psychological capacity simply to deny reality, ignore counter-arguments, and make shit up. He treated climate change like Covid: it was a hoax, it was un-American to worry about it, it would go away, and it was China’s fault anyway. It was also clearly deeply boring to him, and attracted the character-types — wordy, numerate, smug, college-educated and condescending — that repelled him (and those who bonded with him).
So how do we turn this around? Climate is simply too important to be sacrificed to cultural prejudices. We must, I think, reframe the debate again, to give Republicans cultural permission to save the world. Which means, in part, not saying we are going to “save the world,” and keeping Al Gore and Prince Charles out of it. They’re heroes in a way. But they’re not going to help convert the GOP.
I propose the following triad for reframing: nuclear power, economic nationalism, and owning the libs.
Nuclear is the key. Lefties hate it. They really do. And it is completely irrational to both hate nuclear power and believe that climate change is an urgent, existential threat. The most persuasive voice on this belongs to Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuke environmentalist, who is now on Substack.
He makes a simple case. When you hear that humans just need to find a reliable, plentiful energy source that doesn’t blacken our lungs and burn the planet to a crisp, remember that we have already found one. In America, in the mid-20th century — and just in time! Once again, our American technological ingenuity saved our asses. Nuclear power provides energy as effectively as fossil fuels but does not add anything to carbon emissions. It provides consistent energy in a very compact space, especially compared with wind and solar. It is not dependent on the weather.
But for some reason, in the early-21st century, we decided to back away from nuclear. Worse: leaders like Angela Merkel actually vowed to completely close down nuclear power — massively increasing Germany’s energy costs, giving Putin huge leverage, and now helping to cause a huge spike in electricity across the continent.
Compare Germany’s energy plight with France’s, whose energy supplies are more than 70 percent nuclear. France spends about half of what Germany does on electricity — and produces just one tenth of the carbon emissions. That’s why Macron is busy re-booting nuclear power; why Boris’ Tories are rushing to entrench the UK’s relatively low-carbon economy with more nuclear plants; and why several EU states are now petitioning the EU to designate nuclear a sustainable source of energy. For good measure, the new Japanese prime minister just announced, “It’s crucial that we re-start nuclear power plants.”
And yet the United States, the country that invented this technology, is racing in the opposite direction. In one projection from late 2016, “the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas has estimated that up to 40 percent of all U.S. nuclear capacity could be closed over the next decade or so.” New York shuttered a major plant this year — and fossil fuel emissions immediately jumped. California is following the path of Germany toward abolition with just one plant left. Only two new reactors have been activated nationwide in the past quarter-century. Biden’s BBB plan has half a trillion in it for moving away from carbon. But try to find any funding for new nuclear.
That’s a policy that will make climate change much much worse. It’s a policy that is already causing an uptick in carbon emissions. But the environmental movement and the Green New Dealers back it.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine if the Democrats had unveiled a big new building program for nuclear plants alongside investing in renewables. It would have immediately transformed the debate. There’s already GOP support. Money quote from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine: “If we are worried about carbon emissions, as we should be, you cannot get any type of attainment without using nuclear energy. You take away nuclear energy in the state of Ohio, we’re never going to reach any ability to have clean air.” Nuclear counts for 52 percent of our non-carbon energy. And we want to reverse it? Are we nuts?
What we are now seeing in soaring energy prices as we transition away from carbon is also a political risk for environmentalism. People notice unaffordable energy bills and gas prices very quickly. If they attribute that to the inconstancy of renewables — and in Europe, a sharp drop in winds was indeed one factor — then a populist backlash can happen. Keeping and expanding nuclear stabilizes the grid, easing the transition to non-carbon energy with … non-carbon energy! What’s not to like?
Restarting America’s nuclear program would also stop China from being the key global player in the industry — a big boon to national security. It would create jobs. It is easy to explain and the GOP could sell it as a pragmatic rebuke to utopian greens. It would be a global industry for American companies. Would it alienate the Democratic base? Sure. But according to Vox, polling shows that “expanding the definition of clean energy [to include nuclear] nets a bigger total majority [for non-carbon energy], losing about 5 percent of Dems while picking up about 10 percent of Republicans.” The bipartisan nature of a climate policy would be a huge advantage as we go forward.
What of the risks? We need to get rational about them. Our fear of nuclear is similar to our fear of sharks, and was seared into the boomer psyche in the same way — by hugely popular and emotional movies in the 1970s — “Jaws” and “The China Syndrome.”
Nuclear waste is a problem, of course — but, as Shellenberger points out, not insoluble: “safely managing and eventually re-using used nuclear fuel rods at the site of production is much closer to the ‘circular economy’ vision of permanent recycling than to the reality of solar waste disposal, which turns out to involve either dumping flimsy used solar panels on poor Africans or paying four times more for solar electricity than progressives had claimed.” Accidents? The deaths occasioned by nuclear are dwarfed by those in mining, fracking, hydroelectric, wind turbines, and rooftop solar. Environmental damage? Nuclear plants take up much, much less physical space than wind or solar, which have their own considerable collateral damage to wildlife. And compared with the mass extinction of species and untold human deaths from the pollution caused by our reliance on fossil fuels? Trivial.
Yes, nuclear plants do have big upfront costs, and constructing them quickly is difficult, and there are concerns about coolant requirements in the long term. But this is a climate emergency, and these technical challenges are very workable. We also shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of nuclear fusion, which just achieved a big breakthrough.
I’m by no means opposed to renewables. There is something karmic about humankind shifting to sustainable natural energy. But we shouldn’t fetishize it. Nuclear is carbon-free. Unlike renewables, which rely on natural gas when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing, nuclear produces enough energy to end all fossil fuel usage for our electricity. It brings Republicans into the carbon-free coalition and allows them to “own the libs” by pointing out their inconsistency and irrationality on this. It would have been a brilliant move for Biden to adopt this centrist, all-of-the-above strategy instead of caving, as he has on most things, to the left of the left. And it’s a real opportunity for the GOP — to move from denial to action, from ignorance to science, from the fringe to the center of the debate.
Please, please, Republicans. Look at how right-of-center parties across the West have adopted this policy — and now brag of it. Take the initiative on climate change from the left. Remember Teddy Roosevelt. Combine him with FDR. And build back nuclear. You have nothing to lose but history’s contempt.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my pod convo with the intimidatingly smart Steven Pinker; a number of sharp dissents from readers on trans activism and the gay ol’ times; an outstanding dispatch from a Dem mother in Virginia driven to vote GOP; four notable quotes from the week; ten excellent pieces from other substackers; a hilarious absurd interview for a Hathos Alert; a Mental Health Break for all your cinephiles; a vertigo view of Madison and a foliage-filled one from Boulder; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge from a graveyard, just in time for Halloween. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A subscriber writes:
I have to say, I love your dish. Best $50 I spent this year. Between you and Bill Maher, it’s all I need. (I pretty much cannot read the Times anymore, and I was a long-time subscriber.) Thank you for being out there.
Another quick note from a happy subscriber:
I’ll just say this: watching the Dave Chappelle special made me more sympathetic to trans folks. His story about Daphne — particularly when she yells at him “I’m having a human experience!” — made me reflect more on what it must be like to live as a trans person. Thanks for all the good Dish lately. The Woodward/Costa episode was epic.
New On The Dishcast: Steven Pinker
Pinker has a new book out, Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points. For two clips of our conversation — on what he believes is the biggest delusion in society today, and what we should do about truths that hurt people — head over to our YouTube page. Below is one of the clips in living color, from the Dishcast studio (with a poster you might recognize):
Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a few smart reader emails on our episode with John McWhorter about the woke religion, as well as continued discussion over anti-vaxxers and Covid, plus a long-time reader who unsubscribed because of “constant defense of those who would do violence against trans people.” I respond.
I joined hottie Brendan O’Neill on his Spiked podcast to discuss how the rebels became the censors when you compare the gay rights movement to the alphabet people of today.
Dissent Of The Week: Debating Our Gay Inheritance
A reader writes:
As a long-time reader of your blog, I must confess I have been reading your work less and less, and this one statement from your latest column is part of the reason why: “Anti-gay forces, hegemonic for centuries, were just like these trans activists. They were just as intent on suppressing and stigmatizing magazines, shows, and movies they believed were harmful.”
The operative word here is “were.” Your assessment that conservative resentment of gay progress is all in the past tense is quite simply wrong.
Read the rest of that reader’s dissent, as well as my response, here. For two more dissents on this subject, head to our pod page. Have a dissent related to my new column on nuclear power? Let me have it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Of The Week
It’s a real tour de force from Virginia, on the eve of the election:
I’m a middle-aged white woman living in the well-off suburbs of northern Virginia. I live in a multicultural, multigenerational, bilingual house with my Latino husband, mother-in-law, and young son. My husband and I are both well-educated professionals and have consistently voted for Democrats. We hate Trump and despise the Republican faction he commands. We always vote, and we vote together as a bonding activity. We donate to campaigns and have, in the past, volunteered for political campaigns. We are, in essence, exactly the kind of people McAuliffe and Democrats count on for support.
But this time we voted for Youngkin. And if the Democrats continue on their current path and the Republicans put forth a sane moderate (NOT Trump), we will likely vote Republican in the next presidential election.
Her reasons why? Read the rest of her passionate case here, as well as my response.
In The ‘Stacks
If you’re new to the Dish, this is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter that spotlights about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as Child Protective Services, South Korea’s cultural power, and three cancel campaigns. Here’s a sample:
Fauci’s Beagle-gate is ghastly. I was unaware that “47 percent of NIH grants involve animal testing.”
Substack has rolled out a cool new feature: a blogroll of sorts, showing all the substacks that Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis. So far, it’s up to 82 — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out.
If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. The latest contest was so difficult that even “A. Dishhead” — the pseudonym for one the most talented sleuths — couldn’t find it. He is also incredibly creative, by making postcards every week to convey his answer to the puzzle. Below is this week’s creation (which we’re sharing because it doesn’t give away the window’s location):
A spooky postcard just in time for Halloween. And by “rhymes w/Kenny,” A. Dishhead means “Chini” … it’s a VFYW thing. To get the contest every week and all its inside jokes, subscribe here.
See you next Friday.