Bernie Sanders is not pro-science

The senator from Vermont and 2020 presidential candidate is enabling anti-scientific myths about energy.

Bernie Sanders, Rally at Pittsburgh University, Sunday April 14. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen.

Climate change is real and human activity is accelerating it.

The political ramifications of that statement were very different in the year 2000 compared to today. Yet, despite what some politicians may have had you believe, that sentence was true then and it is now.

While public opinion changed, the scientific facts did not. If we had top political leaders in 2000 willing to acknowledge the looming threat of climate change and enact policies then to combat it, transforming our energy economy today would be a less painful and daunting task.

We do not fondly look back at politicians in the year 2000 who were adamant climate change deniers. In 20 years from now, how will we look back at today’s political leaders? What policy positions will we wish they had taken?

Today, the majority of the world’s leading scientists want to build more nuclear power plants. The reasons are clear: most of the low-carbon energy in the United States comes from nuclear energy. It is an energy resource available now and not at risk when the sun goes down or the season changes. Next-generation power plants are safer and overcome the challenge of spent fuel, and scientists have found that extending current nuclear power plant lifetimes is one of the cheapest ways of slowing down carbon emissions. Don’t get me wrong: renewables like solar and wind are very important. Advancing nuclear energy and advancing renewables are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these technologies must go hand in hand. As research progresses and energy storage technologies improve, renewables will make up a higher fraction of the energy mix. Nuclear power is the low-carbon resource we use to provide electricity on-demand, and it is ready now.

This is not the full story. Talking heads and politicians often say that we are reaching a tipping point on climate. While that is true in a way, we have already tipped past the point of comfortable return. In other words, there is already too much carbon in the atmosphere. This means that we not only need to drastically reduce the rate of our carbon emissions, but we also need to remove some of the carbon that is already there. Scientists are trying to figure out how to do that, and these carbon capture and storage technologies will be important tools in the fight against climate change.

Politicians who claim to be pro-science should also support expanding nuclear energy in the United States and should advocate for increased research funding towards next generation power plants and carbon capture and storage technologies.

This week, Bernie Sanders released his energy agenda, which states:

“This plan will stop the building of new nuclear power plants and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem. It will also enact a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States to protect surrounding communities. We know that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit, especially in light of lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown and the Chernobyl disaster. To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.”

This statement taken without any scientific context sounds quite appealing, and apparently it’s good politics in 2019. In 2000, climate denial was good politics, too.

Sen. Sanders’ plan runs opposite to what most scientists believe is true. His beliefs are also not shared by many of the other candidates running for President, including Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker. Washington state governor Jay Inslee, whose bid for President was centered around combating climate change, also supports greater investments in nuclear energy.

Bernie Sanders would eliminate key technologies that we need to overcome climate change, potentially setting us very far back in a race we are already losing. That is not what a pro-science politician would do.

Anthony Tabet

Ph.D. Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology