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Saturday, September 3, 2016

David Roberts of Vox (formerly of Grist) -- Not "Pro-nuclear"

A little history from Grist:

Climate Hawk takes flight

"It is with great sadness but also no small degree of pride that I'm writing to share the news that David Roberts will be leaving Team Grist shortly to join Vox ...

...When he applied to be a news writer at Grist in 2003, he didn't know much about climate change or any issues we covered--I.e., he was a philosophy grad who used to write movie reviews for IMDb--but he definitively knew how to write, so we took a chance on him."

Although he wrote for an environmental website, David does not consider himself to be an environmentalist (whatever exactly that is):

From David's Twitter account:

Why is he compelled to point out that he isn't a doctor? Because, believe it or not, less astute readers out there fairly routinely think the dr in his Twitter moniker stands for doctor instead of David Roberts. There is a Dr David Roberts who writes for Foreign Affairs, so maybe that's part of the confusion but more than likely it's an artifact of a roughly bell-shaped IQ distribution.

Nature just isn't his thing. David's thing is climate change. I don't recall him ever writing about nature in the decade or so he was at Grist. A climate hawk does not "focus on things like land preservation or biodiversity." When put to a vote by Grist readers to pick a term that describes someone who wants to focus on climate change instead of, say, nature, the term Climate Hawk was chosen ...which is somewhat ironic considering that raptor deaths have always been and continue to be a major concern with improperly sited wind farms (not a problem if properly sited). The irony can be taken a step further considering that every self-proclaimed climate hawk I've ever encountered is also antinuclear energy--the second largest source of zero-emission energy on the planet.

Global Zero Emissions Sources of Electricity

No mortal human can write as many articles as David has without making a few missteps along the way. I was so appalled by one of his articles three years ago that I was compelled to save the link:

"The guy who invented Ethyl, the lead-based additive to gasoline, also invented chlorofluorocarbons, which just about destroyed the ozone layer. Mild-mannered chemist Thomas Midgley is basically history’s greatest monster. Luckily, he got polio, invented a wire-and-pulley system to get himself out of bed, and then ended up being strangled by it. Seriously!"

In his last few years at Grist he would often include photos of baby animals (kittens, puppies, ducklings, whatever) with his articles ...possibly as part of his anger management therapy (I'm kidding, I think).

Is Roberts pronuclear?

Which of the following quotes, all from different articles, are from David Roberts?

"Nuclear is the "least worst" option that everyone holds their nose to support. It feels wrong, because it is wrong, and a culture that remembered back when it used to have some fucking balls and ambition would throw itself behind what it knows is right ... . What we’re talking about is creating another huge, centralized, politically connected energy cartel forever seeking to increase its take from the public teat. We need more of those?"

"Each nuke plant is fantastically expensive, uninsurable, subsidized out the wazoo, vulnerable to terrorist attack or accident, and constantly generating waste that we still don't know what to do with. Nuclear is a market Frankenstein, kept alive with jolts of taxpayer cash and bully-pulpit support from political, military and business elites ..."

"That’s with one big caveat, of course: that the nuclear industry doesn’t default on loans, sticking taxpayers with the liability. That could never happen, right? Ha ha."

"I chatted with Sen. Sanders about the bill, the growth of solar, and his colleagues’ peculiar fixation on nuclear power."

"But the reason I and most people I know are not nuke boosters is just that: Nuke plants are hellishly expensive to finance, build, insure, and decommission. It’s one of the most expensive ways to reduce carbon emissions and it’s not getting any cheaper. If anything, nuclear has exhibited a negative learning curve."

"For the record, I'm not 'anti-nuclear.'"

They were all made by David and are in chronological order going back to 2006. They're also the tip of an iceberg. The last one was a Twitter response to a critique of one of his most intensely antinuclear articles.


  1. ...evasive, ambiguous language that is intended to deceive or confuse.
  2. ...language that can be understood in more than one way...
  3. ...doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.

The use of weasel words like clean, green, renewable, and alternative by climate hawks instead of the term "zero emission" to describe energy sources is a deception. If writers used the term "zero emissions" instead of the others, reader's might ask, "Wouldn't that include nuclear energy?" forcing the author to come clean, assuming the author would bother to engage, and assuming of course, there was a comment field to engage in.

You might think that David has had an epiphany, but you would be wrong. From that same scathing "this isn't a review" review of the 2013 pronuclear documentary Pandora's Promise that he never watched:

"The roster of enviros in this purportedly burgeoning movement [pronuclear environmentalists]: Stewart Brand, the Breakthrough Boys, and “Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore,” who has been a paid shill for industry for decades (it sounds like the Pandora folks were wise enough to leave him out). More recently George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have been added to the list. This handful of converts is always cited with the implication that it’s the leading edge of a vast shift, and yet …it’s always the same handful."

He's not pro-nuclear ...he's "not anti-nuclear." Hmmm ...

Also in that same "this isn't a review" review he stated:

"I’m not reading the comments on this post.
You couldn’t pay me enough."

At some level of consciousness it has to have registered on Roberts that the comment fields under antinuclear articles today are drawing dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of comments. The quantity of comment alone is very suggestive that change is afoot. The quality of comment is even more telling. It tends to be a one-sided battle. Not a fair fight at all. I'd stay out of the comment field too if I were David.

Vox has assembled some great writers. I was especially impressed by this piece by Brad Plumer: Nuclear power and renewables don’t have to be enemies. New York just showed how. But without a comment field, authors aren't going to know when they have screwed up, and nothing keeps an author more honest than the threat that they will be called out in the comment field. Comment fields are all important.

Roberts certainly isn't the first to use the "not anti-nuclear" gambit. The very antinuclear Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens (which has devolved into a version of Greenpeace but with a much jauntier title) pioneered the technique.

The Press Secretary for the Union of Concerned Scientists once left a comment under one of my articles stating:
"A lot of people think we're anti-nuclear power. We're not."
Riiiiight. Below is a screenshot of their new leader (a lawyer, not a scientist), who inadvertently let the cat out of the bag:

Everything published on their website about nuclear energy, is antinuclear.

David has become a bit of an antinuclear blogger in sheep's clothing. If you pay attention you can detect it in just about every energy article he writes. When he talks about "clean" energy you don't know if he's including nuclear (he isn't, but he should), and certainly, renewable enthusiasts assume he isn't including it. Read some of his more recent articles and see if you can spot the subtle antinuclear messages.

He writes endlessly about renewable energy. Yet, being "renewable" is irrelevant to fighting climate change  ...the irony continues. Our energy sources need two qualities:

1) Low /emission/
2) Affordable at scale

Note that the word renewable isn't in that list. Renewability is a sufficient but not necessary condition for reducing carbon emissions except in cases where renewable sources are not low carbon (some biofuels).

To summarize, Climate Hawks:

...are focused exclusively on renewable energy sources.
... have as a symbol, raptors, a major concern when siting wind farms.
...are against use of the second largest source of proven low carbon energy on the planet.

Might be the right group to drive home the message about climate change, maybe not the group we want designing our low carbon grids.

I wrote this article to kick off a series of posts that will critique what Roberts writes to take the place of the missing Vox comment field. Feel free to comment.

Antinuclear messaging has convinced the citizens of two of the largest economies on the planet to close their nuclear power stations, resulting in a surge of new emissions at a cost rapidly approaching the trillion dollar mark. This is the main reason we have climate skeptics. Their greatest fear, that ideologues will damage economies with nothing to show for it, has become a reality.

Update 9/15/2016:

At the bottom of this article is a Tweet from Christopher Willis who has mixed feelings about Roberts' real feelings about nuclear energy. I created a comment with the same content and decided to add it to the body of this post as an update.

Not sure I get the same antinuclear vibe from David, he throws nuclear a bone sometimes as well. Mixed feels

To deflect criticism from pronuclear elements he throws bones once in a while ...but with a wink to his friends in the antinuclear monkey troop. It's this subtlety that makes his antinuclear worse than others.Your mixed feels are by design. Like any politician worth his or her salt, David (a partisan politico by nature) has mastered the art of subtle messaging and doublespeak.

Read the above post again. Look at his history. Read the paragraph where he mocks the likes of George Monbiot and other leading environmentalists for concluding that nuclear energy is a key to fighting climate change. Dave has a lot of crow to eat if he ever really joins them, which I doubt will ever happen as is also the case with Bill Nye.

Parsing Bill Nye's Anti-Nuclear Energy Keynote Speech

Bill Nye the Science Guy Social Primate and Nuclear Energy

From his post about the nuclear gender divide:

What looked like a gender divide on nuclear power is in fact mostly a function of the "extreme risk skepticism" of "white hierarchical and individualistic" males.

...some heavy psychology from a philosophy major. What risk would that be, David, a triple core meltdown like that in Fukushima that harmed nobody, or are we talking about vaccines, or possibly GMOs?

A 2011 study found that "conservative white males are more likely than other Americans to report climate change denial"

Above, David subtly links pronuclear white males with white male climate skeptics, but don't worry, at the end of his essay he will use doublespeak to tell you that he didn't just do that.

The patterns in the data likely reflect social and economic forces, not biology or destiny. Social and economic forces can be interrogated and changed.

Did David just suggest that women can be made less susceptible to antinuclear fear mongering? No, that's not what he's saying.

The case for or against nuclear power is distinct from the case for or against climate change concern

...the case for nuclear is all about preventing climate change.

Just as an anecdotal matter, I have noticed that supporters of nuclear power [oops, he just let slip that he isn't one of them] have trouble letting go of the knowledge-deficit model (just as climate scientists and wonks often do). They react to gaps like these by wondering how the unduly frightened masses can be made more rational, i.e., can be made to see things how they see things.

If you are pronuclear, you have just been subtly mocked.

But white males ought to contemplate why almost all other groups are more sensitive to local risks than they are. Perhaps it's not as simple as everyone else being wrong.

...and subtly mocked again.

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