I would never have guessed a panel discussion on energy could have been as intense as this one. I went from thinking I would not even be able to see it, to being lead to the room following the special Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guests, to witnessing impromptu political speeches, a choir of protesters, hearing many valid and rational arguments and quite a few less well-formulated ones, and getting to celebrate the fact that an evidence-based view on nuclear power had a seat at the table.
At five in the evening it was clear that something unusual was brewing at the Bonn Zone of the COP23 conference. The US panel on energy was not scheduled to start until one and a half hours later, but the complex was packed, and the entire wing of the conference area in front of the meeting room 10 was occupied by a queue. It was clear the entire existing queue at that point would probably not fit in the room.
We definitely did not want to miss the event, and were especially looking forward to hear the engineer Lenka Kollar from NuScale speak on the topic of nuclear energy. I had first met Lenka at the action we held earlier that day outside of the UNEP summit, (where they refused to give any present or future nuclear technology even a Seat at The Table, while car and coal power companies were very welcome – a piece on that in progress) and her friendliness and expertise had made a great impression.
So we decided to try. I held a place in the queue while Eric Meyer from Generation Atomic, and Célestin Piette, a Belgian nuclear engineer from Nuclear for Climate, tried to find out what was going on, and whether our friend, an Irish documentary film maker Frankie Fenton (see: It’s not yet dark), might get into the room among the press.
They did not get press status, but Eric did start talking with a camera team from Democracy Now, lead by Amy Goodman, and she ended up interviewing him. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of that, if anything – Democracy Now is not what one would describe ‘a nuclear-supportive’ news source.
Meanwhile, I was talking to people around the queue asking us what was happening, and I also exchanged a few words with the lady behind me. She told me she was from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). My mind boggled at this, for UCS, while supporting many mainstream scientific views, like that of anthropogenic climate change and vaccines, have also adopted many views strikingly in opposition to the scientific consensus (like their views on GE crops). I was just mulling over how I might start a discussion with her (or if I should at all, considering the charged atmosphere around us), when Eric basically galloped over with enthusiasm, sharing the news that Lenka Kollar had invited us in to the event as her guests.
We immediately left the queue and headed over to the opposite end of the wing, where we entered a guarded area of UNFCCC staff rooms. I learned that the organisers were expecting some kind of demonstration in connection to the panel, and the atmosphere in the meeting room with the US delegates was pretty tense. Out of Finnish politeness, I opted to wait outside of the meeting room with Frankie, while people went in and out – we were entertained by the bewildered look on Célestin’s face, seated at the midst of US energy sector leaders and Trump’s advisors, his round eyes silently beaming “how the €*#” did I end up here?” The situation did not slow Eric down, however – he was discussing regulation of the nuclear sector with two ladies from the EPA. They all agreed that it was the most strictly regulated industry in the US.
We were escorted out of the staff area, following the panelists:
- White House Special Assistant David Banks;
- Francis Brooke from the Office of the Vice President Pence;
- Barry Whorthington from the US Energy Association, walking very slowly with a cane;
- US diplomat and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, Amos Hochstein, from the natural gas company Tellurian;
- chemical engineer Holly Krutka from Peabody Energy, working on carbon capture;
- and our friend Lenka Kollar, a nuclear engineer from NuScale.
They led us to the meeting room via a back door through a fenced outdoor route – Eric, Frankie, Célestin (see the photo on the left), and me, accompanied by the EPA ladies, and a handful of the speakers’ other guests – we still didn’t quite process how this had all happened. We were shown to the front row with seats marked ‘reserved’. First it was just us, the press packed into two rows in the back, and a handful of other official-looking people in suits.
While the panelists waited behind the scenes, and the audience was just starting to slowly file in, two US politicians stood up right in front of the media – governors of Washington and Oregon. They seized their moment to make a statement for the press, condemning Trump and his denial of climate change, and voicing their support of the Paris climate agreement in the name of the US Climate Alliance. I appreciate their gesture, though delivered with a bit overly forceful political pathos for my taste.
Finally they sat back down, and the room began to fill. Before the speakers came, someone asked for ‘the two US mayors’ to be seated in remaining empty seats in the front row – mayor Lionel Richie Jr. from Louisiana right next to me. We ended up shaking hands and exchanging a few words. I told him I was a Finnish biologist and a Mother for Nuclear, here to support the crucial role nuclear power has in decarbonisation. He smiled amicably but made no comment on that.
Phase 1: Before the demonstration
The atmosphere expectant, rigid security guards posted at both sides of the walls, the panel began. Trump’s Assistant on Energy, David Banks, talked about using all energy forms, about the importance of access to energy, about energy poverty, and so on, making some valid points about the developing world’s need for energy in order to achieve better standards of living. How energy poverty related to internal US energy policy was left unclear. He repeated the Trump points I had heard over and over again – protecting US interests, intellectual rights, jobs, competitiveness, manufacturing, and so forth. Why those goals could only be achieved by relying heavily on fossil fuels instead of transitioning rapidly to nuclear and renewables, or even by moving away from oil and coal, he didn’t clarify. In fact, although he talked a lot about fossil fuels and renewables, and even climate mitigation (as Trump’s advisor, that’s always something!), he mentioned nuclear only in passing. Then Francis Brooke said a few words and introduced the other panelists.
Barry Worthington from US Energy Association took the floor. He didn’t speak long, however, before we began to hear a loud chorus of shouted slogans and yelling from the conference wing outside the meeting room – I couldn’t quite tell the words, but the tone and energy of the ruckus was clear, despite being separated from the event room by two walls and an entrance hall. Judging from the noise, I pictured at least twice the number of people as had been in the queue, yelling and railing at the doors. Mr Worthington tensed somewhat, but continued talking, and security guards from the room began shuffling out to check on the situation. Someone came in with a note to David Banks from the security at the door. Guards near left the room to secure the situation outside. Mr Worthington argued that we needed cleaner coal. It might have been around then that about half of the room behind us suddenly stood up and began to sing, drowning him out.
Intermission: Press conference becomes a concert
There are surprisingly many musical elements to my COP23 experience. There is something to be said for the way music appeals to us, and especially the act of singing together. You can find the text of the rather catching song the protesters sang in the photo on the right (I found the note dropped next to my chair after). They sang it again and again. And again. And again. Press spilled out from the back and circled around between us and the panelists to catch all angles. Security guards did not quite know whether to gently herd them back or not.
The song went on. I very much appreciated their sentiment of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and their singing was good. After closer to ten minutes, however, I started wondering if we would ever hear more from the panelists. After all, you don’t make rational decisions by shutting out discussion. You listen to the arguments so that you can assess the ones with merit and the ones without.
I am also not quite sure what to think about the first two lines – does it suggest that Americanness ≠ greed? Is greed only a problem for us other nationalities…? Keeping as much coal in the ground as possible, however, is right on. Now if the people singing would only let us use all the low-carbon technologies to actually achieve that goal!
Singing is no substitute for a real discussion
I and mayor Lionel Johnson Jr both agreed on the nice sentiment of the song and shared the wish that they would be able to both express that sentiment, and continue to listen to what the panelists had to say. Instead, after about ten minutes, the singers seemed to be satisfied with their stunt and marched out, leaving empty rows behind. They were greeted with huge cheers outside. That made me a bit sad. Yay for refusing to listen?
My wariness toward Amos Hochs, as a representative of natural gas, lifted a little when I heard his commentary on the protest when it was his turn to speak. You can view a clip of his initial comment below.
Yes, we do need to talk with people, even if we disagree with them. We can, and we must be able to listen to people who we disagree with, or we won’t get past the deepening trend of tribalization, and it will only get harder to look at the evidence instead of taking the easy way out and simply following the values of one’s tribe.
Phase 2: What the protesters didn’t stay to listen to
Barry Worthington concluded his talk, and Amos Hochstein took the floor – I will add the longer video of his presentation to my FB page soon. He made many points worth considering, talked at length about air pollution, and the situation of ‘low-cost natural gas’ or LNG. On many occasions he voiced his difference of opinion with his fellow panelists, particularly David Banks, Francis Brooke, and Barry Worthington.
Next up was Holly Krutka from Peabody Energy, who works in developing carbon capture for coal power plants. She made me see some things from her perspective, which is always a valuable step toward a more comprehensive understanding of a topic. As a PhD in chemical engineering, she saw the difference she could make by developing ways of markedly reducing the emissions from coal power plants.
The message delivered by the people who had sang and left the room, as I interpret it, suggests that they do not want to support any development in areas of fossil fuels – I imagine the idea may be that continued development of any kind would hinder the efforts to transition away from fossil fuels. There could well be something of substance in that worry. It would have been interesting to actually hear the people stay and voice their arguments about that, however.
Like many of the earlier panelists pointed out, it is hardly realistic or fair, especially toward the developing nations, to believe we could do away with all coal power plants tomorrow. To me, that only means that developed nations have all the more responsibility in leading the fast, actual large scale transition to low-carbon energy forms – this did not necessarily appear to be the position of most of the panelists who had spoken in the first phase of the event, seated on the left hand-side of the table.
On the other hand, I must give Holly Krutka due credit for the work she does – for while these technologies are still here, it would be irresponsible not to make an effort to minimize their environmental harm. If people like Ms Krutka can accomplish a reduction of carbon emissions from coal by a third, and people working on nuclear and renewables can replace another third of fossil fuels by extension of other energy forms, we’ll have achieved about 1.5 times as much as we would have by focusing on nuclear and renewables alone. Ms Krutka and people like her, on the employ of coal companies, must face quite forceful and hostile opposition, despite their work to reduce carbon emissions. Things are rarely quite as black and white as protests and antagonisation tends to make them appear.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that coal power is problematic not only because of its carbon emissions, but also because of the particulate pollution that kills millions every year. Threat of drastic environmental changes and the ongoing death toll of fossil fuels every year makes it distressingly clear that we need better large scale energy sources to replace them. How might we accomplish that?
Phase 3: Giving nuclear a seat at the table
To paraphrase the well chosen words of the next speaker, Lenka Kollar: IPCC recognises three low-carbon technology sectors: nuclear, renewables, and carbon capture. Great development and extension is needed in all three areas.
Her presentation can be found in its entirety below. It is also posted separately on my FB page. I was very impressed by the presentation, as well as the many interviews Lenka gave afterward – several camera teams kept talking to her even after all other panelists had already left the room.
Lenka’s company NuScale works on small modular nuclear reactors, so flexible that they can also provide carbon-free base-load support to accommodate variable input from renewable energy sources. Lenka’s concluding remarks bear repeating:
Nuclear energy needs to be a part of the conversation here at the climate talks in Bonn, at future climate talks, and at all of the forums we host throughout the year in which we are talking about large energy transitions. I appreciate the US for bringing us to this side event and I believe that everyone needs to have a seat at the table.
The burning question of withdrawal from the Paris agreement
The questions round that followed the conclusion of the presentations was quite charged. Especially when David Banks or Barry Worthington were talking, there were people who would yell things like “liar!” or “there’s no clean coal!”
A young Chinese reporter with a shirt with hundred psychedelic panda faces asked David Banks about Trump claiming the climate change to be a Chinese hoax, and how he expected them to cooperate on energy questions with that in between them. David Banks squirmed his words, trying to interpret Trump’s tweets as symbolical / nuanced pieces of creative expression. I put my forehead in my palm and groaned over that this could really be happening: having to discuss obnoxious tweets in a serious press conference (we shouldn’t have these obnoxious tweets sabotaging the discussion to begin with), nevertheless trying to find deeper meanings in them. It was just embarrassing.
The last question came from Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. She asked each person on the panel to answer yes or no: did they support Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement? Starting with Lenka. She told her that decarbonisation was at the core of their mission at NuScale, and she said she did not support Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement. I have a lot of respect for her for speaking her mind despite the political forces that might cause problems for her in response to her doing so.
Holly Krutka said that she could only present her company’s statement, which wasn’t a yes or no, simply a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in either case. Amos Hochstein, who also used to work the Obama administration boldly said he also did not support the withdrawal.
Barry Worthington argued that withdrawing from the Paris agreement did not change the fact that they needed to reduce emissions any way, and saying that he supported the withdrawal. I didn’t really see why other kinds of pressures to decarbonise would be a grounds for a withdrawal from one kind of commitment to do so, however, and it sounded a lot like avoidance.
David Banks and Francis Brooke blankly refused to even answer. “Clearly we represent the views of the current administration.” So… why did they not simply say ‘yes, we support the withdrawal’ in that case?
The future belongs to the low-carbon technologies
I almost felt sorry for Barry Worthington at a point during his presentation when he explained at length that they were under tremendous pressure from politicians, customers, and the new generation of engineers and other workforce to reduce emissions – that if they did not commit to those goals, the younger generation did not even want to work for them. It was heartening to hear, and it’s true, I don’t know many young educated people who would not accept, at least on some level, that using fossil fuels is a tremendous burden on the planet, and not a sustainable way forward. On the long term, companies and entire industry sectors need a considerable input of young educated people to continue to function.
The change is inevitable. I just wish it was faster, and we could do it in a focused, evidence-based way, without straying into the path of idealism that eschews science and impedes actual reduction of carbon emissions.
For more of my articles on climate and energy, and my experiences from Bonn, look here. Even better idea, however, is to read the short, evidence-dense book Climate Gamble or browse the graphs in their blog. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.