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Is a Green Energy Revolution on the Global Agenda?

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Posted on Nov 18, 2013
Nod Young (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

By all accounts, the decision to phase out nuclear power almost two decades early will have significant repercussions for the German economy.  Shutting down the reactors and replacing them with wind and solar energy will cost an estimated $735 billion and take several decades, producing soaring electricity bills and periodic energy shortages.  However, such is the strength of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany that Merkel felt she had no choice but to close the reactors anyway. 

The anti-nuclear protests in Japan occurred considerably later, but were no less momentous.  On July 16, 2012, 16 months after the Fukushima disaster, an estimated 170,000 people assembled in Tokyo to protest a government plan to restart the country’s nuclear reactors, idled after the disaster.  This was not only Japan’s largest antinuclear demonstration in many years, but the largest of any sort to occur in recent memory.

For the government, the July 16th action was particularly significant. Prior to Fukushima, most Japanese had embraced the country’s growing reliance on nuclear power, putting their trust in the government to ensure its safety.  After Fukushima and the disastrous attempts of the reactors’ owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to deal with the situation, public support for nuclear power plummeted.  As it became increasingly evident that the government had mishandled the crisis, people lost faith in its ability to exercise effective control over the nuclear industry.  Repeated promises that nuclear reactors could be made safe lost all credibility when it became known that government officials had long collaborated with TEPCO executives in covering up safety concerns at Fukushima and, once the meltdowns occurred, in concealing information about the true scale of the disaster and its medical implications.

The July 16th protest and others like it should be seen as a public vote against the government’s energy policy and oversight capabilities.  “Japanese have not spoken out against the national government,” said one protestor, a 29-year-old homemaker who brought her one-year-old son.  “Now, we have to speak out, or the government will endanger us all.”

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Skepticism about the government, rare for twenty-first-century Japan, has proved a major obstacle to its desire to restart the country’s 50 idled reactors.  While most Japanese oppose nuclear power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains determined to get the rectors running again in order to reduce Japan’s heavy reliance on imported energy and promote economic growth.  “I think it is impossible to promise zero [nuclear power plants] at this stage,” he declared this October.  “From the government’s standpoint, [nuclear plants] are extremely important for a stable energy supply and economic activities.”

Despite such sentiments, Abe is finding it extremely difficult to garner support for his plans, and it is doubtful that significant numbers of those reactors will be coming online anytime soon.

The Explosions Ahead

What these episodes tell us is that people around the world are becoming ever more concerned about energy policy as it affects their lives and are prepared—often on short notice—to engage in mass protests.  At the same time, governments globally, with rare exceptions, are deeply wedded to existing energy policies.  These almost invariably turn them into targets, no matter what the original spark for mass opposition.  As the results of climate change become ever more disruptive, government officials will find themselves repeatedly choosing between long-held energy plans and the possibility of losing their grip on power.

Because few governments are as yet prepared to launch the sorts of efforts that might even begin to effectively address the peril of climate change, they will increasingly be seen as obstacles to essential action and so as entities that need to be removed.  In short, climate rebellion—spontaneous protests that may at any moment evolve into unquenchable mass movements—is on the horizon.  Faced with such rebellions, recalcitrant governments will respond with some combination of accommodation to popular demands and harsh repression. 

Many governments will be at risk from such developments, but the Chinese leadership appears to be especially vulnerable.  The ruling party has staked its future viability on an endless carbon-fueled growth agenda that is steadily destroying the country’s environment.  It has already faced half-a-dozen environmental upheavals like the one in Ningbo, and has responded to them by agreeing to protestors’ demands or by employing brute force.  The question is: How long can this go on? 

Environmental conditions are bound to worsen, especially as China continues to rely on coal for home heating and electrical power, and yet there is no indication that the ruling Communist Party is prepared to take the radical steps required to significantly reduce domestic coal consumption.  This translates into the possibility of mass protests erupting at any time and on a potentially unprecedented scale.  And these, in turn, could bring the Party’s very survival into question—a scenario guaranteed to produce immense anxiety among the country’s top leaders.


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