MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 18

International Socialist Review, June–July 2001

Sherry Wolf

Climate Chaos: Can Global Warming be Stopped?


From International Socialist Review, Issue 18, June–July 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


THE EARTH’S climate is changing drastically. In the 20,000 years since the last ice age, temperatures have risen between 5 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists now estimate that temperatures are likely to rise from 3 to more than 10 degrees over the next 100 years alone. [1] Such an unprecedented climatic event would lead to the spread of diseases such as malaria to previously uninfected regions, to droughts and insect infestations leading to crop failures, and to flooding on a massive scale.

The consequences of such a rapid temperature increase could be grave for human health. For instance, the hotter it gets in northern climates, the more contact people will have with bacteria, fungi, and viruses that thrive in warmer climates. Though human genes have adapted to a wide variation in climate over thousands of years, the rate of warming taking place is simply too rapid for human genes to catch up. [2]

Scientists may debate the causes, but one thing is for sure: Global warming is happening now. The year 1998 is estimated to have been the warmest in 20,000 years. In that one year, according to a Harvard Medical School survey, 32,000 people died, 300 million were displaced, and $89 billion was lost due to weather-related incidents. Already, dengue fever, also known as “breakbone fever” for its pain and the injuries it causes, spread to Texas through pockets of heat and humidity from Latin America. The monsoons that whipped through Bangladesh over a monthlong period killed thousands and left 21 million without homes. [3] If scientists are correct, this is only a glimpse of what is to come if governments do not act soon.

In 1988, the United Nations gathered together more than 2,500 scientists from 80 countries to form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is an independent body of climate scientists, economists, and risk analysis experts – including more than 100 Nobel Laureates – who have been studying and debating the phenomenon of global warming and issuing detailed reports. Its recent findings have jolted even the most mainstream newspapers to sound alarm bells. It even forced the administration of George W. Bush away from its staunch position of denial.

But President Bush has shown no interest in solving the problem. In mid-March, Bush reversed his campaign promise to cap emissions of carbon dioxide, which is a major contributor to global warming. Apparently, it was payback time for Bush’s chums in the oil and energy industries – responsible for much of the emissions – who donated $12.6 million to get him elected. Bush’s election was, in fact, a polluter’s bonanza. He filled most of the senior environment-related posts with, to quote the New York Times, “pro-business advocates who have worked on behalf of various industries in battles with the federal government.” [4] His choice for the number two post at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a former lobbyist for the chemical company Monsanto. His choice for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget is John D. Graham, a Harvard professor who believes that the costs of most environmental regulations outweigh their benefits. A mining industry lobbyist is slated for the number two spot at the Department of the Interior.

”They are lawyers and lobbyists who built their careers by helping industry get out of environmental regulations,” commented Maria Weidner, policy advocate for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “Now, assuming they’re confirmed, they will be doing the same thing, only the taxpayers will be paying for it.” [5]

Ignoring pleas from the world’s leading experts on climate, the Bush administration has turned its back on international efforts to reduce the emissions of gases responsible for trapping heat in the earth’s environment. The 1997 international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed by 100 countries including the United States, though Congress has yet to ratify it. Bush has now declared it dead. The French daily newspaper Le Monde called Bush’s decision “a brutal form of unilateralism.” And London’s Independent newspaper wrote, “[H]istory will not judge George Bush kindly.” [6] Here at home, the response by ordinary people was no friendlier. A recent Time magazine/CNN poll found that 75 percent of Americans consider global warming to be a “very” or “fairly” serious problem. More than two-thirds of those surveyed want Bush to develop a plan to reduce the emissions of gases that contribute to global warming, and 69 percent said that the government gives in to big business when it comes to the environment. [7]

Americans are responding to mounting evidence that proves the experts are correct. The rapidly receding ice from Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, is the most dramatic evidence yet that the global warming trend is accelerating and exceeding all previous expectations. In 15 years, the glacier made world famous by Ernest Hemingway’s novel will be gone.

But this is not a call for panic. Recent reports often read like warnings of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: plague, war, famine, and death. Solutions that apply current scientific knowledge and existing resources could solve this global emergency. The fact that the movement against corporate globalization has risen up to protest outrageous inequality and injustices throughout the world provides a start for pressuring corporations and governments. Those forces and their political strategies need to broaden and develop even further. The insane drive for profit that underlies capitalist production methods and the politicians who defend it can be beaten.

Canaries in the coal mine

The natural phenomenon that enables human beings, animals, and plants to survive and flourish is called the greenhouse effect. The sun’s energy warms the earth and its atmosphere. As in a human-made greenhouse, energy is reflected back into space as heat – but in our atmosphere, a portion of it is trapped by a delicate balance of gases, carbon dioxide and methane among them, that creates an insulating layer. If too large a quantity of these gases is emitted into the atmosphere, then too much heat is trapped and the temperature of the earth’s surface and atmosphere rises. Global warming refers to the rise in the earth’s temperature resulting from a rapid increase of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Until recently, warming has taken place at an imperceptibly slow rate. Just as drops of rain that initially amount to little more than a puddle could gather force and become a mighty flood, even a seemingly small quantitative increase of these gases could lead to qualitative changes that are catastrophic.

Though human beings can thrive in a wide variety of climatic zones, disturbances in natural processes can create havoc with food supplies and water resources. Thawing ice caps like the one on Kilimanjaro provide a stark example. Glacial ice caps feed the rivers that supply water to hundreds of millions of people. Since the glacier atop Kilimanjaro was first mapped in 1912, 82 percent of it has been lost. Each year in the tropics, as temperatures rise only a fraction of a degree, the elevation at which water freezes rises by 15 feet. Add that up over the years, and eventually there are no more tropical glaciers. While glaciers are melting more rapidly than in the past, flooding drowns crops and displaces people. Once glaciers have melted down, droughts occur. [8]

High-altitude glaciers in the tropics are merely the first signs of trouble. “These glaciers are very much like the canaries once used in coal mines,” explains Lonnie Thompson, a professor of geological sciences. [9] Scientists studying glacial erosion store cylinders of ice four feet thick in a deep frozen archive at Ohio State University. “The sad fact,” Thompson says, “is that in a matter of years, anyone wanting to study the glaciers of Africa or Peru will probably have to go to Columbus, Ohio.” [10]

The IPCC’s latest report concludes, “The effects of climate change are expected to be greatest in the developing countries in terms of loss of life and relative effects on investment and the economy.” [11] Estimates predict that Africa, already suffering the effects of postcolonial economic and social problems, would be the most vulnerable. As sea levels rise, coastal cities would be inundated and some could take centuries to recover. Forest fires could become more frequent, and warmer climates could increase the spread of infectious diseases. Tropical forests such as the Amazon in South America – already receding at an alarming rate – could vanish, transforming the land into arid savanna.

Already, the destruction of rain forests has resulted from corporate clear-cutting, which has escalated in the past 30 years. These forests, “lungs of the world,” consume excess carbon dioxide and are an unparalleled source of food and pharmaceutical products like cortisone and quinine. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest state, only 3 percent of the Amazon forest remains. Major landholding companies cleared the rest for soybean plantations and pastureland. [12]

Soil quality in Europe, especially in southern countries, might be threatened by heavier rains that wash topsoil away. Thawing permafrost in the Arctic – land that is permanently frozen – is releasing trapped methane gas, a process whose effects scientists can’t yet predict.

In a way, global warming is somewhat of a misnomer since a variety of climatic changes are afoot. Paradoxically, some scientists argue that a new ice age is possible, as greenhouse gases that induce warming in the tropics could leave arctic poles under a cloud cover that creates more snow and ice. The last ice age, scientists believe, was preceded by a drastic shift in temperatures over a period as brief as 20 years. [13]

Junk science?

Though average temperatures on earth have varied over millions of years due to natural fluctuations, evidence is mounting that the primary cause for the rapid rate of global warming is human activity. Aside from the natural emissions of greenhouse gases from trees and plants, the primary human-made sources are the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil in cars and trucks, as well as emissions from manufacturing, coal mining, and oil and gas production.

Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for example, are 30 percent higher now than in pre-industrial times. Global temperature has increased up to 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century, and the oceans have risen by almost a foot. Over the same period, atmospheric methane has risen by 145 percent due mostly to agricultural production and the raising of cattle. Though virtually every independent scientific study confirms that industrial pollutants are causing the alarming rate of warming, corporate-backed studies continue to insist that climate changes are due to natural causes.

The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) is an organization of some of the world’s largest oil and gas producing companies and dozens of other fossil fuel producing manufacturers. The GCC argues that the IPCC’s claims are exaggerated. This corporate flat-earth society claims that the idea that global warming is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases, is, in the words of George Bush (senior), “junk science.” They claim that natural occurrences, such as the El NiÒo weather phenomenon in which a Europe-sized warm water mass created huge storms in 1997–98, have nothing to do with industrial pollution. Any warming that may be occurring now is simply part of the earth’s natural cycle of temperature fluctuation – if warming can be proved at all. [14] But scientists argue that even these natural climatic events have been altered by human actions, creating a qualitative leap in temperatures. El NiÒo storm patterns used to appear every 20 years or more, but they are now occurring more frequently and with greater ferocity. The previous El Niño was in 1983–84.

Though the earth’s temperature fluctuated over millions of years prior to the evolution of humans and would continue to do so whether humans lived on earth or not, human activity cannot be ignored as a major cause of global warming or its qualitative acceleration. It is irrefutable that massive greenhouse gas emissions – which are unarguably by-products of modern human activity – do trap heat that raises temperatures and alters climate patterns.

Jeremy Leggett trained prospective oil explorers at the Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College of Science in Britain until his conscience got the better of him in the late 1980s. After reading early accounts of global warming in 1988, he took a job with the environmental activist group Greenpeace to give technical advice to environmental campaigners. According to Leggett and other experts, the top 122 corporations that emit carbon are responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. [15]

The United States has only 4 percent of the world’s population, but produces almost 25 percent of all greenhouse gases. [16] This is neither an accident, nor the result of selfishness on the part of ordinary people. After all, working-class people are not the ones making decisions about the nation’s car-reliant infrastructure or the design of greenhouse-gas belching factories.

Carbon dioxide emissions account for 63 percent of greenhouse gases. Worldwide, 500 million cars emit 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year – 20 percent of the total quantity emitted by human activity. [17] The obscene lack of any comprehensive and accessible mass transit system in several major American cities has not only unnecessarily complicated millions of working-class people’s lives, but it threatens the environment. Even with Vice President Al Gore, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, in office, the U.S. government subsidized the fossil fuel burning industries to the tune of $18 billion each year. For every dollar that the government spends on public transportation, it spends seven dollars on automobile transit. [18]

Hot air from Washington to The Hague

The new Bush administration has gone from outright denial to grudging acceptance of the reality of global warming. “There’s no question but that global warming is a real phenomenon, that it is occurring” [19], announced EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman. For Whitman, this admission was a step forward. During her Senate confirmation hearings in January 2001, she confused the hole in the ozone layer with global warming. Though a completely understandable error for those outside the scientific community, it is hardly what one expects of the individual with the greatest responsibility for carrying out environmental standards in the United States. (The 11-million square mile ozone hole above Antarctica that exposes human beings to doses of potentially deadly ultraviolet radiation is only related to global warming by the fact that it is caused by the emission of chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs], which also contribute to warming. In response to protests by scientists and environmentalists, the EPA restricted CFCs in the 1980s. [20])

After a decade of refuting incontrovertible evidence that the earth’s climate is shifting at an alarming rate, Republican Party hacks are finally willing to own up to the fact that temperatures are rising. However, they do not agree that industrial pollution is a major contributor or that much should be done to cut emissions. No wonder. George W. Bush is a former oilman himself, and Vice President Dick Cheney left the former Bush administration to work for Halliburton, the world’s largest oil services company, where he became CEO in 1995. Cheney made $39 million in salary and stock options for using his Pentagon connections to haul in $1.8 billion in contracts during his five years there. [21]

Even before the current Bush administration’s open courting of the oil industry, the Democrats’ eight-year stint at the White House was no boon to environmental interests. Bill Clinton made much of his administration’s commitment to combating global warming. Vice President Al Gore authored the pro-environment bookEarth in the Balance, showing that he was fluent in the language of environmental concerns. The administration’s practice, however, didn’t match the rhetoric. “Clinton-Gore have been all talk and no action,” explained Anna Aurilio of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an organization that works for progressive causes. [22]

Pushing for regulations on fossil fuel emissions was a low priority for the Clinton administration. It did nothing to close a loophole in car emissions standards that might have forced Detroit to alter the engineering of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. In 1991, Gore lambasted the first President Bush, saying, “When the history of this period is written, I believe this may be seen as the single worst abdication of leadership ever.” [23] But the Clinton-Gore administration undermined all of the international treaties that would have cut emissions.

In response to initial reports from the IPCC, representatives from more than 150 countries came together in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to discuss ways to cut emissions. The Rio Earth Summit treaty called upon the three dozen most industrialized countries to peg their carbon dioxide levels worldwide to 1990 levels by 2000. This rather conservative attempt didn’t even call for cuts, only stabilization at previous levels. By the 1997 Kyoto Summit conference, U.S. levels had increased by 11 percent and were set to rise even further by 2000. European countries had also exceeded their targets. Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries agreed to collectively reduce emissions worldwide to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. [24] All of this unraveled at The Hague conference in the Netherlands in December 2000. During two weeks of rancorous negotiations, American officials and their British lackeys balked at the idea that only the world’s most developed economies should carry the burden of emissions cuts. Yet Africa’s share of the global population is 14 percent, but it is responsible for only 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. [25] Why should the poor pay for the crimes of the rich?

The “compromise” plan that American officials tried to push through at The Hague was both greedy and just plain goofy. In a late-night phone call, Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair hatched a formula that involved carbon “sinks” and emissions trading. [26] Carbon sinks refer to natural means of absorbing greenhouse gases with trees and soil. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide through the natural process of photosynthesis, politicians wanted America’s forests to count toward their share of the emissions cuts – a sort of “get out of jail free” card, as some European delegates put it.

By far the most scandalous idea is emissions trading. It creates a market in greenhouse gases whereby companies buy and sell pollution credits. Already, dot-com entrepreneurs have created sites like CO2e.com, where companies can buy credits to emit carbon dioxide and other gases by the ton. But as the Village Voice rightly points out, “Trading the right to pollute online is not the same as trading limited edition Barbies on eBay ... The commodity here is public property – public health, the ozone layer, climatic stability.” [27]

A megabucks market in greenhouse gases, though not yet legally approved, has evoked disgust from most environmental activists. But some groups, such as Environmental Defense in New York, champion the fledgling business and encourage student groups to participate in pollution credit raffles. Tragically, the collapse of international negotiations has disoriented many who fear that little can be done – especially with Bush in the White House.

What can be done?

Bush’s buddies in the corporate-backed GCC put forward a doomsday scenario of economic collapse and mass unemployment if companies try to impose cuts on emissions. They produce charts showing drastic increases in gas and energy prices. But their predictions of price hikes are a bit behind the times. For months, Californians have been paying more than double their previous energy costs as a result of a statewide deregulation mess. In several states, drivers pay more than two dollars a gallon for gas – all for the benefit of those same corporate hogs.

In fact, the estimated cost of reducing greenhouse gases could exceed two percent of gross world product (GWP), but the annual losses of allowing global warming to spiral out of control could amount to between 12 and 130 percent of GWP by 2050. (This is according to one economist who had been skeptical of the science of the economics of global warming until he did his own calculations.) [28]

The GCC, dominated by America’s “Big Three” automakers, also claims that between one and five million jobs would be lost if the U.S. were to shift away from oil and coal. What hypocrisy. GCC company executives laid off 84,000 workers over the four years preceding the Kyoto Summit. [29] Unfortunately, officials of the AFL-CIO have bought into this myth, denouncing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 as a job killer. But leading economists disagree. Some estimate that more than 800,000 new jobs would be created if industry began exploring wind and solar power resources more seriously. [30] New homes and office buildings that utilize solar and wind power would require engineers, builders, and maintenance workers for the newest technology that emits no heat-trapping gases. States could even subsidize the insulation of office buildings and homes that would drastically reduce fuel bills and conserve an estimated one-third of energy use, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

If the government eliminated subsidies that encourage the use of coal and oil by making them artificially cheap, the billions saved could go toward genuine mass transit systems in American cities where they either do not exist or are woefully inadequate. Most people would benefit from jobs in transit construction and services, in addition to the environmental benefits from fewer cars on the roads.

Fuel-cell vehicles that emit 70 percent less carbon dioxide and 99 percent less smog could replace most cars, buses, and trucks. Even current fuel-cell technology (which is vastly underfunded) has developed cars and trucks that travel almost 100 miles on each charge. This would allow more than 80 percent of households who travel less than 50 miles per day to drive fuel cell-powered cars. [31] According to members of the UCS, even fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles that use as little gas and emit as much carbon dioxide as compact cars have been developed. A report by Britain’s Royal Commission on Climate Change stated, “Technologies for recovering carbon dioxide are well developed and could be incorporated in new combustion plants or retro-fitted to existing plants.” But these already existing technologies haven’t been mass marketed because they would cut into the profits of big business. As Henry Ford II explained the industry’s preference for large, gas-guzzling cars, “Minicars make miniprofits.” [32]

Slashing profits is precisely what those who want to save the environment must demand. Increasing taxes on huge corporations that have reeled in unimaginable wealth over the last decade could pay for all of these changes and much more. Huge corporations, and entire countries, have received hundreds of billions in bailouts to save their profits. The money always seems to be available for projects the ruling class wants, but not for those that help to meet human need.

But activists must confront the fact that the brutal logic of capitalism defies the implementation of any far-reaching solution to the crisis of global warming. The multibillion-dollar oil companies have too much to lose from efforts to cut emissions, and even more from developing alternative energy resources. In the last century, millions of people have been displaced from their homes and hundreds of thousands have died in wars to defend the profits of fossil fuel producing industries.

The capitalist system thrives on cutthroat competition and the drive for profits at any cost – no matter how seemingly illogical to the rest of us. The Cold War’s dangerously absurd arms race, which brought humanity to the brink of destruction many times, has taught us this lesson. Though capitalism can accommodate itself to some changes, the world’s ruling classes are locked in a competitive drive for profit that prevents them from agreeing on and taking the steps necessary to reduce greenhouse gases. Capitalists can agree that there is a problem. Scientists can hold meetings that not only indicate the scale of the problem, but the measures necessary to solve it. Yet, the social relations of production prevent such solutions from being implemented – much in the same way that military competition prevents states from disarming. Rampant disregard for human life and the environment are revealed as necessary conditions of successful competition under capitalism.

If we are to clean up this global mess that corporate greed has created, corporate titans and governments who protect their interests must not simply be humbled – they must be toppled. The only force strong enough to do that exists among the people who pump the oil out of the ground and sea, transport it, wire homes and businesses, and keep the whole colossal network running every day: the working class.

Most people are disgusted with the filthy and unhealthy condition this planet is in. Terrifying people with the gloomy statistics alone won’t jar people into action, and it could paralyze some into passivity. Activists must remember the fact that cars don’t build themselves and carbon-based energy doesn’t appear without the expenditure of human energy first. As Marx once said, history never raises a problem without the corresponding possibilities of its own solution. Global warming is no exception.

Sherry Wolf is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review

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1. Robert Evans, World disasters seen as global warming outcome, Reuters, February 19, 2001, available on the Environmental News Network Web site at www.enn.com.

2. Global warming and human health, The Global Warming International Center USA, available on their Web site at www.globalwarming.net.

3. Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1999), pp. 82–83, 97–98.

4. Katharine Q. Seelye, Bush picks industry insiders to fill environmental posts, New York Times, May 12, 2001.

5. Quoted in Seelye, Bush picks industry insiders.

6. Edmund L. Andrews, Bush angers Europe by eroding pact on warming, New York Times, April 1, 2001.

7. Cited in Jeffrey Kluger, A climate of despair, Time, April 9, 2001.

8. Andrew C. Revkin, A difference of degrees, New York Times, Week in Review, February 25, 2001.

9. Margot Higgins, Global warming thaws tropical ice caps, Environmental News Network, February 22, 2001.

10. Andrew C. Revkin, A message in eroding ice: Humans are turning up the heat, New York Times, February 19, 2001.

11. Bob Herbert, Rising tides, New York Times, February 22, 2001.

12. Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset, World Hunger (New York: Grove Press, 1998), p. 46.

13. Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, p. 202.

14. See the GCC’s Web site at www.globalclimate.org.

15. Jeremy Leggett, The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 326.

16. Frequently asked questions about global warming, Union of Concerned Scientists, available on their Web site at www.ucsusa.org.

17. Greenpeace sample letter, Tell the EPA to regulate automobile CO2 emissions campaign, April 2001, available on the Greenpeace USA Web site at www.greenpeaceusa.org.

18. Simon Retallack, How US politics is letting the world down, The Ecologist, March–April 1999, pp. 111–18.

19. Associated Press, February 28, 2001.

20. Dawn MacKeen, Living under the hole in the sky, Salon, November 3, 2000, available at www.salon.com.

21. Alan Maass, Bush’s Cabinet: Fat cats, bigots and war criminals, International Socialist Review, February–March 2001, pp. 10–16.

22. Arthur Allen, Gore or Bush? Who cares? Not environmentalists, Salon, October 23, 2000.

23. Leggett, The Carbon War, pp. 73–74.

24. Dawn MacKeen, U.S. clash on global warming, Salon, November 17, 2000.

25. Global warming may heap disasters on Africa, Reuters, January 24, 2001.

26. William Drozdiak, Global warming talks collapse: U.S., EU fail to resolve dispute over curbing emissions, Washington Post, November 26, 2000.

27. Claire Barliant and Mike Burger, Smokestack lightning: Online trade in greenhouse gases strikes environment, Village Voice, December 6–12, 2000.

28. Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, p. 214.

29. Global Climate Coalition voted top of the dirty dozen industry, Friends of the Earth, press release, December 4, 1997.

30. Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, p. 209.

31. Clean Vehicles, Union of Concerned Scientists, available at www.ucsusa.org.

32. John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), p. 124.

* * *

Is Nuclear Power an Option?

”IF YOU want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, then you ought to build nuclear power plants. They don’t emit any carbon dioxide. They don’t emit greenhouse gases,” Vice President Dick Cheney told MSNBC in March 2001. [1]

This remedy, however, would be worse than the illness. Nuclear power is unsafe and expensive. Moreover, it would do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “An accident at a U.S. nuclear power plant could kill more people than were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.” [2]

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in the former Soviet Union has left the area a ghost town of contaminated soil and water. The accident itself killed 32 people, but the combined government estimates for deaths in Russia and the Ukraine from acute exposure to radiation as a result of Chernobyl totals 10,000 people. [3] Toxic nuclear pollutants are not only responsible for some of the highest cancer rates in Europe, but have rendered Chernobyl uninhabitable for generations. The financial cost of the Chernobyl accident alone amounts to more than three times the economic benefits accrued by all plants in the Soviet Union between 1954 and 1990. [4]

An accident like Chernobyl can happen in the United States. The 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, came dangerously close to a total meltdown, which would have spread a giant cloud of deadly radioaøtive gas through the Midwest. In 1985, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified to Congress that the risk of a nuclear accident in the United States was 45 percent over the next 20 years. [5]

Accidents aside, nuclear power plants produce highly radioactive nuclear waste that cannot be disposed of safely. The Department of Energy (DOE), which manages 113 nuclear waste sites throughout the U.S., estimates that it will cost between $151 and $195 billion to clean up the sites. That is on top of the $51 billion already spent in the 1990s. The cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State, which contains 177 waste tanks buried underground, is one of the most expensive. The DOE spends $300 million per year just to try to prevent the corroding tanks from leaking their contents of cesium, strontium, and other dangerous radioactive substances into the nearby Columbia River. Thirty tanks are known to have leaked in the past. [6]

Even if government oversight were vastly improved to maintain and upgrade plants and decrease the probability of human error, nuclear power is not the answer. To provide America’s energy needs, an additional 3,520 new plants would be needed over the next 25 years. Given that it currently takes 10 years to design and build one plant, from 2010 on, the U.S. alone would have to build five plants every week. [7] This figure does not take into account that every existing nuclear reactor in the U.S. is slated to be shut down by 2035.

Moreover, the mining of uranium and the construction work required to build nuclear power plants would add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. [8]

The disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl almost completely halted construction of nuclear power plants in the United States. The last plant to be completed, the Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee, took 23 years to build and cost $8 billion. Now Dicg Cheney and his pro-business associates want to bring this deadly and expensive source of energy back.

* * *


1. Randall Mikkelsen, Cheney: Nuclear power will solve global warming, Reuters, March 21, 2001.

2. NRC relies on falsified safety studies, from Union of Concerned Scientists report, Nuclear plant risk studies: Failing the grade, available on their Web site at www.ucsusa.org.

3. The myth of nuclear reactor safety, from the Public Citizen nuclear safety Web page at www.citizen.org.

4. The myth of nuclear reactor safety, Public Citizen, www.citizen.org.

5. Nuclear power’s failed promise, Public Citizen, www.citizen.org.

6. Brian Hanson, DOE squandered billions on useless nuclear waste technologies, Environment News Service, November 13, 2000, at http://ens.lycos.com.

7. Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1999), p. 216.

8. Vice President’s views on nuclear power are misguided, Public Citizen, March 26, 2001.

Last updated on 28 July 2021