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Tsunamis, Nukes, and Climate Change


(Part II in a Series Looking at Issues Raised by the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami)

When I think of a really bad tsunami hitting Santa Monica, I fear something more intense than just raised sea levels covering our beautiful beaches. I think of waves crashing into our low-lying residential neighborhoods and business districts, waves that hit the base of the 100 foot bluffs below Palisades Park and wrap around into Santa Monica Canyon, the McClure tunnel and up the I-10 freeway, and eat at the base of the northern part of our city.

Of course I hope this never happens. But if it did, people on top of the bluffs would probably be OK and hopefully the banks of the city there wouldn’t erode much. But what about parts of the Ocean Park neighborhood near sea level? That’s where I live. Official state of California maps suggest that only that the first block or two from the beach would be in the tsunami inundation zone. According to Paul Weinberg, Santa Monica’s Emergency Services Coordinator, this is based upon a worse case scenario of a 40-foot rise in sea level, where the height and impact of a wave would be mitigated somewhat by the large amount of sand it would have to travel across before reaching the neighborhood.

Santa Monica has exceptionally wide beaches, the widest in Southern California (along with those on Coronado Island in San Diego.) This is owing to the effects of a 700 meter long rubble breakwater built near to the Santa Monica Pier in 1934. Since then, the beach has naturally grown wider by approximately 200 meters and remains that way today. Therefore as the theory grows, a tsunami wave would break over the extra-wide beach and lose some of its potency before it reached the residential streets.Santa Monica Beach

This seems rational and probably covers 98 percent of the likely scenarios. But who could’ve predicted the Pacific Tsunami in Japan? I can’t get the images out of my head from that tsunami and the one in Indonesia in 2006 of powerful, rushing water rising through city streets and engulfing everything in its path. I’ve periodically thought about trying to run from oncoming water, but they say you can’t outrun a tsunami. I’ve also thought about being on the second floor of my house looking down on a flooded first, like so many did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Back in the late 1980s I read Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature in which he suggested that human, plant and animal adaptation to climate change would be very difficult given of the increased environmental instability that comes with it. Afterwards I had a nightmare of a storm with dark, choppy waves coming right to the corner where I live as a result of rising sea levels.

A few months after I was first elected to the Santa Monica City Council, the first policy initiative I introduced was on this issue. From the May 13th, 1997 Council minutes:

 14-A: GLOBAL WARMING: Presented was the request of Councilmember Feinstein to discuss the potential local effects of global warming and to give direction to staff relative to this matter.

“Motion by Councilmember Feinstein, seconded by Councilmember Genser, to direct the Environment and Public Works Management Department and the Environmental Task Force to explore the issue of the potential effects of global warming under consideration and return to Council with information as to how such information will be gathered, and begin networking with appropriate agencies and organizations around the United States and throughout the world to gather such information. The motion was unanimously approved by voice vote.”

This proposal drew a quick editorial response from Skip Rimer, editor of the Santa Monica Outlook, the city’s centrist daily paper. Ready to ridicule the Council’s action as typical trendy/liberal political distractions from the city’s regular important daily business, Rimer decided to pause and look into it. After reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first assessment that established broad global scientific affirmation of climate change, he shifted course and revised his editorial. Entitled “Warming up to idea of a pending disaster”, he noted “What if Feinstein is right, especially since Santa Monica is a coastal city?” Of course millions of people have been right about climate change for more than two decades. Why are most state and federal policy makers are so far behind?

Countering the nuclear sophists-apologists

While Santa Monica has been free thus far of major tsunami impact, the tsunami-related nuclear nightmare in Japan has the world horrified. When you read this, what may be happening there may be different from when I wrote it. So I’ll simply say these things to counter the spin of the nuclear sophists-apologists:

1) Dealing with climate change does not necessitate the use of nuclear power. Rather,committing to nuclear power actually worsens climate change, compared to devoting the same resources to more effective options, as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and so many others have demonstrated . If nuclear power plants made good economic sense, the nuclear industry also wouldn’t need massive public subsidies to build plants in the first place, nor would it need the Price-Anderson Act (first enacted by Congress in 1957 and reauthorized several times since then) toshield it from liability in the event of a nuclear accident to no more than pennies on the dollar.

But even without the threat of climate change, nuclear power would still be too dangerous, costly, inefficient and centralized to be any part of any rational, energy plan.Verdi

2) The answers to climate change and the creation of sustainable energy future are energy conservation and efficiency, combined with the widespread distributed generation of renewable energy like solar, wind and biomass (at least biomass that doesn’t take away from food production.) The answers to climate change are also land use and development patterns that promote walking, biking and the use of public transportation. They are the truly prudent use of what humans call ‘raw materials’ and ‘natural resources’ and that we the whole reduce/reuse/recycle/restore/regenerate/respect ethic as innate. And any meaningful approach to climate change must involve large numbers of people moving towards a mostly plant-based diet, as the United Nations has concluded in separate studies in 2006 and 2010, because of the massive amounts of energy and resources that an animal-based diet demands.

3) Rather than investing enormous sums to promote a risky industry like nuclear, that by its extreme centralization also makes it a high value terrorism target, our nation needs to focus on lower risk, more decentralized energy sources, all the way down to the community and individual level, with a primary focus on distributed generation of renewable energy. Here in Santa Monica, our Community Energy Independence Initiative is a visionary approach to pursuing a “zero net energy city” in which the community produces as much energy as it consumes. Solar Santa Monica aims to reduce the community’s carbon footprint by maximizing energy efficiency in every building and installing solar systems on every feasible rooftop. Locally-based distributed energy programs like Solar Santa Monica stimulate innovation, improve the value and performance of the building infrastructure, and ultimately create jobs. Since it’s launch in January 2007, solar capacity has quadrupled in Santa Monica with over 250 solar installations totaling over 2.5 megawatts. Total solar potential in Santa Monica is about 100 MW. This success can be repeated all over our state. It simply requires a commitment from the community to determine its own energy pathway.

4) Nuclear industry spokespeople and some politicians are trying to spin the nuclear nightmare in Japan by saying we’ll learn from it and create ‘safer’, future generations of nuclear power plants. But there is enormous inherent risk in producing nuclear power, by the very nature of nuclear fission. And even under the best conditions, we can’t plan for every perturbation of Mother Nature. The combination of earthquake and tsunami in Japan should have reminded us of that. As a result of climate change, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather has been on the rise for several decades – more storms, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, wild fires, rising sea levels and other imbalances and natural disasters, making for an increasingly less stable world in which to theoretically construct and operate nuclear power plants.

Shut San OnofreThat’s without even mentioning and the dangers to groundwater, air, land, plants and people that come from uranium mining (the fuel for nuclear power plants) — nor that there is still no answer to the storage of the radioactive waste that remains deadly for thousands of years. For all these reasons California should close the state’s nuclear power plants in San Onofre and Diablo Canyon and simultaneously invest in greater energy efficiency, conservation and distributed generation to make up their closure. Let’s call this a Green New Deal and boost the state’s economy while promoting increased public environmental health and safety.

5) Let’s also call the bluff of the free-marketers and compel all energy sources to compete on a truly level playing field. What would that entail? 

First, it would mean adopting a True Cost Pricing system where the full-cycle environmental costs of goods and services are internalized in their cost — from extraction of raw materials, to the production of goods and the performances of services, to the disposal of waste and by-products. Would nuclear power be able to compete with solar, wind and biomass if it had to pay the environmental and public health costs associated with uranium mining and the storage and disposal of deadly radioactive waste, as well as the cost of insuring against catastrophic nuclear accidents? Would big oil compete with solar, wind and biomass if it had to pay for the costs of air, water and land pollution, climate change and the global, multi-national military presence that invades countries and props up dictators to ensure oil’s flow?

Second it means eliminating the public subsidies and tax credits that go to nuclear and big oil. Why should Big Oil receives massive subsidies and tax credits while it makes billions in profits and in many cases, doesn’t even pay oil severance taxes? Why should privately owned nuclear utilities get public loans they can’t earn them in the private marketplace, and public protection from insurance liability in the event of a catastrophic accident, when we complain that unsubsidized solar and wind energy don’t compete?

Where is President Obama on all of this? Domestically he supports $36 billion in corporate welfare for the nuclear power industry, and offered this up to the Republicans unilaterally without getting anything in return. In a jobs poor economy, this would result in far fewer jobs compared to comparable investments in efficiency, conservation and renewable energy. Internationally, the administration pushes nuclear power expansion in India, a country with perhaps more solar power potential than any other.

Green Jobs Chart

President Obama also missed a historic opportunity to paint a comprehensive alternative energy vision in 2010 after the BP eco-catastrophe oil spill in the Gulf of México. Instead he brazenly continues to equate nuclear power with solar and wind power as equally valid renewable energy sources, a chilling, vile Orwellian performance that curdles my blood each time I hear it. Even after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, Obama has had the guile to continue promoting it. Could the more than $340,000 he received in campaign contributions for his congressional and presidential campaigns from nuclear industry employees and the $10 million loan offered to the 2012 Democratic National Convention by nuclear power company Duke Energy be clouding his vision?

Accountability and politics

Where is the accountability for this in our system? There is little, because people like Obama will always use the ‘lesser-of-two-evils argument’ against environmentalists and public health advocates,pressuring them to mute their criticism because ‘the opponent will always be worse.’ This structural extortion blunts real public sentiment on many key issues and combined with the influence of big money on elections, has helped lead to the overall rightward shift of accepted political debate. While it should be no surprise that always supporting the lesser of two evils eventually leads to ‘the evil of two lessers’, what we have to remember is that this dynamic is inherent to the logic of winner-take-all electoral system in which we operate.

One sensible reform is making elections for single-seat, executive offices more representative through the enactment of Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV). IRV is already in place in for municipal elections in OaklandSan FranciscoBerkeley, and San Leandro, as well as in many cities across the nation and in Australia and Ireland.

IRV allows voters to rank the candidates in the order of their preference. If their first choice doesn’t receive a majority, their vote goes to their second choice and thereafter, until one candidate receives a majority. This means a Green Party presidential candidate that opposes nuclear power and favors truly green renewable energy instead could receive the first ranking of millions of Americans in 2012, who might then rank Obama #2 and give him a majority to win. This would more accurately demonstrate to Obama and the nation where a significant part of the electorate stands on this issue, and would provide millions of voters with more political leverage on a variety of issues than exists today. This same dynamic could apply here in California if we adopted IRV for statewide constitutional offices like Governor and Secretary of State. 

Reform is also needed in how we elect our state and federal legislatures. To make legislative bodies more representative, we could adopt multi-seat districts with proportional representation, an electoral system in use in most of the world’s major democracies. If a party gets 10 percent of the vote, they get 10 percent of the seats. Legislatively this still results in majority rule, but with fuller representation to start with.

DIE GRUNENWhy would this matter in the nuclear debate? In Germany where they have proportional representation, the anti-nuclear Green Party has been in the national parliament for 24 of the last 28 years, giving electoral representation to anti-nuclear social movements and helping keep the issue high-profile there. 

When the German Greens were the junior partner in a national coalition government between 1998-2005 with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the two parties agreed upona plan to phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power plants by 2020. That phase out was subsequently delayed in 2010 by 14 years by the center-right, Christian Democratic Party (CDU) led government. 

But after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the CDU began backtracking and proposing their own accelerated nuclear phase out, out of fear of losing votes in impending state elections. By contrast, the center-left Democratic Party in the US is doing no such thing. Instead their state and federal elected officials mostly make noises about ‘learning from Japan’ and ‘ensuring the safety’ of domestic nukes, while parroting the ‘we need nukes to deal with climate change’ argument.

Since the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, there have been three state elections in Germany. The Green vote has surged in each, highlighted by a record 24.2 percent in the prosperous, conservative southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, a state with almost 11 million inhabitants that the CDU has governed for 58 years. The Greens there will now govern as the senior coalition partner with the SPD and for the first time in Germany (and the world), a Green will become the premier (governor) of a state government. (Under the German system the premier is not directly elected, but is chosen by the party or coalition of parties that makes up the parliamentary majority, and traditionally where the senior coalition party chooses when there is a coalition.) In the adjacent state of Rheinland-Pfalz, the Greens tripled their vote from 4.6% to 15.4% and will now form a coalition government as the junior partner with the SPD there.

Imagine if California had proportional representation. Under such a system, its likely that 5-20% of the state legislature would be Greens and that they would introduce legislation to close down the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants, combined with a phased in carbon tax on fossil fuel use in the state. This would be a form of True Cost Pricing, accounting for the negative environmental impact of burning carbon-based petroleum and coal for our state’s energy needs. Such a carbon tax would greatly incentive conservation, efficiency and the growth of solar, wind and biomass, rewarding environmentally-oriented businesses and incentivizing others to change. Many Greens also favor tying a carbon tax to a larger ‘green tax shift’ that increases taxes on carbon-based fuels while lowering them on labor, so that its easier to work and harder to pollute. The Greens and SPD actually did this on the federal level in Germany to positive effect for jobs and the environment.

Why aren’t the state’s center-left Democrats doing something similar? In part because the only constant pressure on them under our electoral system is from the right. That’s why California ended up with aninferior cap-and-trade plan as part of our state’s otherwise progressive Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) and why every Democrat in the legislature voted for the state’s disastrous 1996 deregulation of the electricity industry that led to manipulation of the state’s electricity market by Enron a few years later.

In Germany, the center-left SPD was not initially against nuclear power, but became so over the years, in part because of voters support for the Greens’ aggressive anti-nuclear position. Eventually the SPD joined the Greens in advocating a nuclear phase out combined with a green tax shift. Imagine if the US had a similarly-responsive system of proportional representation and voters put Greens in Sacramento and Washington. Might their presence give Democrats and even some Republicans some spine on the nuclear issue? Given the real possibility of nuclear catastrophe in our own country, combined with an insufficient response to climate change, it sure seems like it’s worth finding out.

Coming next: Part III: What about Venice Beach, as well as Finding One’s Place in times of Natural Disasters and Eco-Catastrophes. You can also read the first part of this series,” A Tsunami on My Block?.”

04/12/2011 – 12:00


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