Hard choices for an uncertain future


Stepping onto the stage of the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, Colo., his biceps bulging after chopping vegetables six hours a day for 21 months while in prison, Tim DeChristopher got a standing ovation for an act of insurrection.

DeChristopher became the public face of climate-change activism in 2008 with an audacious act of principled defiance. At an auction in Salt Lake City overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, he successfully bid $1.8 million for mineral leases near Utah’s Arches National Park. But he never had any intention of paying; he simply meant his bidding to be an act of civil disobedience.

Edward Abbey, who worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches in the 1950s, coined a term for guerrilla tactics like this: monkey-wrenching. Like Abbey, DeChristopher grew up in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Southwest, where he worked as a backcountry guide between university studies in Arizona and Utah. Abbey’s fictional heroes, however, operated by stealth to save desert landscapes threatened by mining and dams.

DeChristopher, as portrayed in Bidder 70, a documentary film by Beth and George Gage, wanted everyone to know exactly what he was doing and why. He refused to plead guilty in exchange for a 30-day sentence, angling for the public stage of a federal court. There, he hoped to argue that his act of civil disobedience was a reasonable response to the threat of human-caused global climate change. The federal judge nixed that lesser-of-two-evils argument, and the jury convicted him. Now free for a little more than a month, DeChristopher told the gathering at Telluride’s Mountainfilm festival that he’ll soon attend the Harvard Divinity School.

His father, Jeff DeChristopher, who was in the audience at Telluride, said he’d urged his son to take the plea. “I felt he was throwing away his life. A felony is a lifetime thing. I remember saying something like, ‘Well, I hope somebody sends you a Christmas card.’ But this weekend, all of you, have really changed my mind on that.” Then the father, starting to choke up, stopped himself. On stage, his son wiped his eyes.

DeChristopher framed his sacrifice as a moral issue. But it’s also a complicated issue. He tried to block the development of natural gas to draw attention to the dangers of global climate change. Because of its reduced carbon footprint, however, natural gas is generally seen as the lesser of yet another evil -- coal.

Examining this teeter-totter of risk, filmmaker Robert Stone was on hand to nominate nuclear energy as his climatic hero. This was surprising, given that his anti-nuclear weapons documentary, Radio Bikini, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988. But his new film, Pandora’s Promise, he said that only by tapping nuclear energy could we hope to tamp down greenhouse-gas emissions while powering a world population growing briskly toward 9 to 10 billion. The risk of climate change, he said, is greater than the risk of nuclear energy, and he argued that France, which is 80 percent carbon-free because of its nuclear-based electrical grid, was the better model than Germany and Denmark, both cited for their renewables but still heavily reliant on coal.

That argument, however, ignores the long shadow of the Cold War. Uranium mining damaged human health to a still-unknown extent. Southwestern Colorado today has dozens of “uranium widows.”

Even so, there’s strong local support for renewed uranium processing 80 miles west of Telluride. A lovely but difficult movie called Uranium Drive-In, directed by Suzan Beraza, delivered a respectful platform for these voices. Sounding resourceful and self-reliant, residents said they were desperate for jobs, and they saw any environmental risks, which they disputed anyway, as secondary.

After the Uranium Drive-in showing, Don Colcord, a pharmacist in Nucla, one of the hardscrabble western Colorado towns that wants a uranium mill, made a surprising comment. He said that ultra-liberal Telluride and his conservative town of Nucla shared some common ground. It was certainly not the notorious news that Nucla recently became the first town in Colorado to require every household to own a gun. It was the likelihood that global warming will produce less snow for skiing, on which Telluride depends, as well as for farming, on which his community still relies to some extent. That understanding, he said, could lead to agreement about nuclear power.

Everybody, it seems, is arguing for the lesser of two evils. If only we could agree on what the greater evil is.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He publishes Mountain Town News (http://mountaintownnews.net).

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jun 18, 2013 01:37 PM
Lesser of evils? What happened to solar and wind?
Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Jun 18, 2013 02:24 PM
Solar and wind are both intermittent energy sources that cannot reliably meet 24-hour base load energy demands. They can only be used to supplement coal, gas, and nuclear plants.
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:48 PM
Cost of Energy vs cost to Mankind.

France cannot afford a 1 trillion nuclear accident, can anyone?
French Nuclear Disaster Scenario Was So Bad The Government Kept It Secret http://www.businessinsider.[…]so-high-its-a-secret-2013-3 via @bi_contributors
Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima No. 1 in 2011, are, were incessantly told, very rare, and their probability of occurring infinitesimal.
But when they do occur, they get costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with cost estimates for an accident in France, kept them secret.
But now the report was leaked to the French magazine, Le Journal de Dimanche. Turns out, the upper end of the cost spectrum of an accident at the nuclear power plant at Dampierre, in the Department of Loiret in north-central France, amounted to over three times the countrys GDP.
Hence, the need to keep it secret. The study was done in 2007 by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a government agency under joint authority of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Environment, Industry, Research, and Health.With over 1,700 employees, its Frances public service expert in nuclear and radiation risks. This isnt some overambitious, publicity-hungry think tank.
It evaluated a range of disaster scenarios that might occur at the Dampierre plant. In the best-case scenario, costs came to 760 billion more than a third of Frances GDP. At the other end of the spectrum: 5.8 trillion! Over three times Frances GDP. A devastating amount. So large that France could not possibly deal with it.
Yet, France gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. The entire nuclear sector is controlled by the state, which also owns 85% of EDF, the mega-utility that operates Frances 58 active nuclear reactors spread over 20 plants. So, three weeks ago, the Institute released a more politically correct report for public consumption. It pegged the cost of an accident at 430 billion.
There was no political smoothening, no pressure, claimed IRSN Director General Jacques Repussard, but he admitted, its difficult to publish these kinds of numbers. He said the original report with a price tag of 5.8 trillion was designed to counter the reports that EDF had fabricated, which very seriously underestimated the costs of the incidents.
Both reports were authored by IRSN economist Patrick Momal, who struggled to explain away the differences. The new number, 430 billion, was based on a median case of radioactive releases, as was the case in Fukushima, he told the JDD, while the calculations of 2007 were based more on what happened at Chernobyl. But then he added that even the low end of the original report, the 760 billion, when updated with the impact on tourism and exports, would jump to 1 trillion.
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:51 PM
Solar (of all flavors) can save mankind from itself

If the MAJOR countries of the World accepted the fact that unless we all work together we will continue to spiral toward chaos preceded by ever expanding conflict, because of Earth's dwindling resources and ever increasing population.

From the Web:
If they were true World Leaders, they would join together to Champion Solar from Space and then lead the World toward a safe new future; these books explain how:

The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill,
Colonies In Space by A. Heppenheim
The Third Industrial Revolution by G. Harry Stine
The Space Enterprise by Philip Robert Harris
Mining the Sky by John S. Lewis

or perhaps what we really need some all powerful alien to visit Earth (like in this great movie) and make US...
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:52 PM
Movie link for the above comment,
+ why is there no edit button here?
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:53 PM
A Most Important Article about why Solar is such a threat to all US Utilities and especially SCE. I think of it as a Fiscal/Energy War for market share:
Disruptive Challenges:
Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:54 PM
For all those that continue to spread disinformation about Solar not working:

The Germans are leading the world and here is what they say:

The Future of Nuclear and fossil fuels: Only for Back-up for renewables
The two largest electricity utilities in Germany – E.ON and RWE – have declared they will build no more fossil fuel generation plants because they are not needed, challenging a widespread belief that the phasing out of nuclear in Europe’s most industrialized economy will require more coal-fired generation to be built.

Both E.ON and RWE say the rapid expansion of renewable energy, particularly solar but also wind, would make up for the loss of capacity from nuclear. “We won’t be building any more gas and coal power generation plants in western Europe, because the market does not need them,” a spokesman for E.ON told reporters at a briefing at the group’s headquarters on Friday. RWE made a similar statement a week earlier. A third major operator, Vattenfall, agreed that the market in Western Europe is oversupplied but said some limited capacity may be needed in the southern part of Germany.
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:58 PM
To Jerry king
Your statement is not factual!
Germany is planning on being 100% renewable by 2050 and if they can do it so can the USA and most other countries...

We just need to start installing Solar (of all flavors) now and soon we will be only using traditional energy sources in rare periods of usage, relying instead on Solar (of all flavors), that is the future that all of us should be demanding our leaders push for!
Roger AAC
Roger AAC
Jun 18, 2013 03:09 PM
Okay, did I miss something here? Uranium mining at this point is about as dead as reactor renaissance that Pandora so desperately wanted to reverse. Let's see, 2,000 peoople watch the film last week nationwide. duh. Nobody cares give it up...

The response about intermittancy is also dead on arrival. Denmark will be hitting 50% of its grid with wind by the end of the decade. That issue goes away with a new grid or even a modicum storage technology, not to mention the coming revolution in nano-tubes that could even put solar, wind, nukes, coal and electricity as we know it completely on its head.

Of course they are also looking at efficiency, the cheapest of all to implement and the only real, and I mean totally real option that produces no CO2 gasses. The Brit's study in the 90's put nukes higher than all the renewables in terms of CO2 production.

With all but 1 coal plant out of 150 planned having died in the last 5 years, and wind and solar now the leading source of new development in the country, I'd say Cheney's own fracking strategy has killed his own love of nukes.

Better not put too much hope in uranium though, cause there are 4 other countries with far bigger uranium operations in full swing that will be able to outbid anything US producers do. Or wasn't that why the U-haulers went bankrupt in the first place back 1990, after failing to cleanup the potty mess they made all over the west. There are still thousands of mine wastes (MOAB) etc. that have yet to be done, with estimates at over $40 billion to cleanup. Great economic time to be having to cleanup. The nuke industry could actually drop its lobbying tactics to kill cleanup which would create a lot of jobs, but they are such a big bunch of losers, the last thing we are gonna see is them acknowledge their economic disaster and drop into oblivion.

I assuming the writer meant less snow or nukes? Sadly, the less snow fear tactic is hardly what's coming. What's coming is just a tad worse. Think mega natural disasters and far more of them. Aka Sandy the huge flooding currently in Europe being censored by the US media right now and those dreaded 500 year events happening every other year. Scare tactics, or just twilight zone come home to roost...

We were warned 20 years ago that we had until 2012 to deal with climate change issues by the world's Nobel Laureates. The last I heard the clock ran out. The destabilization just means the end of our wonderful civilization, while nukes means the end of biological stability of our gene pool just about everywhere the nuclear nightmare collapses. Dragging more of it out into a now rapidly failing human state of affairs will just do more damage. Coastal areas where the vast majority of humanity is living is gonna be in trouble, and of course is where most of the human economies also are. A couple of super volcanic eruptions, another Fukushima or two due to the growing age of nearly all of the reactors worldwide, and you have an honest take on what will come. One more major economic upheaval like 2008 and things will just be hunky dory. Even the ANS acknowledges that Fukushima will cost at least $500 billion, or worth more than all the nuclear energy it ever put out in Japan. Sorry, but Natural gas has killed the nuke industry. With the idiot Tea Pundits wanting to kill everything except the defense budget and Jesus, it will be a miracle if there will be a functioning government in place much longer!

Here's the bottom line in this mess. This country long ago turned over its energy policies to private companies that now have almost complete monopolies over what is done as well as the politicians they have in their pockets. Crying about this won't do any good since they now have everybody so trapped in bad energy policy, all hidden by every major media outlet that it doesn't really matter what happens until the next major hit here, like super grid collapse on the east coast or another Katrina/Sandy. People in this country have been intentionally blinded by what is needed simply because of the greed and power of the energy companies. You wanna make a difference. Take the cash and policy control away. Won't happen until you regain your democracy which means a remake of congress and who funds them. We are all sitting on a train with nobody at the driver seat, and the tracks coming to an end very very soon. Hey we just all got the word that the DOD has been given permission to intercede in US continental affairs so get ready.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Jun 18, 2013 03:43 PM
The least evil energy choice is using less & conserving more.

[I know, I know, consuming less of anything is un-American.]

"The only thing wrong with peace is, you can't make no money from it." - Gil Scott Heron
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Jun 18, 2013 03:44 PM
Robert Stone and Allen Best:

I live in Arizona, a prime solar location on the planet earth. What about Big Solar which like computers, chips and other high-tech developments is on Moore's Curve? My neighborhood is filling up with rooftop solar panels. A hundred miles away a solar farm is building out at ten square miles.
So why did you leave out Solar from the equation? Why not Both France for its nuclear and Germany for its increasing reliance on solar and how about the Desert Southwest, where I live, for its ideal location for huge arrays of solar panels? How about holding more than one idea in your mind at the same time?
Thank you,
John R. deCoville, (520) 825-1727
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Jun 18, 2013 04:18 PM
It seems to me that most discussions about energy devolve into the ones above -- either go big solar/wind, which has problems with availability and the grid, or go nuclear to avoid the climate impacts but generate intractable nuclear waste.

However, we could take an entirely new path, one that would address both the environmental costs of big energy and the inefficiencies of the grid that Jonathan Thompson wrote about here in HCN not long ago -- distributed production at each household in the form of fuel cells.

Google uses natural gas fuel cells to defray their electric demand and I can easily envision a rooftop solar system used primarily to produce hydrogen which could then be used in fuel cells (supplemented with natural gas when needed) to produce electricity when it was demanded in the house. But it's going to take a huge shift in how we expect to get electricity and the big energy probably isn't going to like it much unless they figure out how to make money on it.

The problem with big wind and big solar is they will still have big environmental costs which is still a little bit evil in the grand scheme of things. And the residual nuclear waste is a big evil which we haven't yet figured out despite some 60 years of trying.
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 04:36 PM
Lets review the basic FACTS, we now know:
1. Nuclear reactors can Meltdown.
2. Nature can destroy any land based nuclear reactor, anyplace anytime!
3. Solar (of all flavors) vs Nuclear Benefits:
  ✔ Less costly to build
  ✔ No Trillion Dollar Eco-Disasters
  ✔ Faster to construct
  ✔ CLEAN from start to finish.
  ✔ No radiation worries or leaks
  ✔ No foreign dependency
  ✔ Prices are dropping yearly
  ✔ Creates large number of green jobs
  ✔ No nuclear cleanup expenses
4. Nuclear reactors leak radioactivity
5. Nuclear reactors are VERY expensive to de-commission
6. Nuclear Fallout can spread quickly and last "forever"
7. America cannot afford a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster
8. Nuclear waste storage is an BIG Expensive problem
9. America has the land mass to go Solar (of all flavors)
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 04:38 PM
Wind and solar power are leaving nuclear in the dust: http://is.gd/CfpiUJ
Solar Power Could Produce >50% of Global Electricity: http://is.gd/PU3k2y
Estimating US Gov't, Subsidies http://is.gd/hwnsic
SOLAR Power Year in Review 2011: http://is.gd/8dlYIx
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 04:39 PM
How to increase Solar usage nation wide in the shortest amount of time:
What is holding America Back?

The Utilities want to maximize the profits for the shareholders and so they donate to Candidates to get them to support traditional Energy Production, which does not include anything but a token amount of Solar... We are being "forced" to accept their Energy "mix", instead of using our own and being fairly paid for the Energy we produce and push INTO the grid!!

  When The Energy Utilities pay each of us for the energy we put into the grid, at the same rate that the Utility charges for that same energy someone else uses at that exact time, then you will see Solar being installed Nation wide!

Because Solar is generated during the daytime, it is the most valuable since the Utilities charge the most for daytime usage (where they have SMART metering)! Everyone pays an additional amount to support the infrastructure (The Grid) so that when the Energy Utilities begin to pay the same as what they charge (no pun intended), then it will make adding Solar panels a no brainer, since the payback period will be much shorter. Another benefit for all of us is that during a power outage, all the small solar panel producers can help to keep power flowing which will be a huge benefit during such times as hurricane, tornadoes and flooding!
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 04:41 PM
How to increase Solar usage nation wide in the shortest amount of time:
What is holding America Back?

The Utilities want to maximize the profits for the shareholders and so they donate to Candidates to get them to support traditional Energy Production, which does not include anything but a token amount of Solar... We are being "forced" to accept their Energy "mix", instead of using our own and being fairly paid for the Energy we produce and push INTO the grid!!

  When The Energy Utilities pay each of us for the energy we put into the grid, at the same rate that the Utility charges for that same energy someone else uses at that exact time, then you will see Solar being installed Nation wide!

Because Solar is generated during the daytime, it is the most valuable since the Utilities charge the most for daytime usage (where they have SMART metering)! Everyone pays an additional amount to support the infrastructure (The Grid) so that when the Energy Utilities begin to pay the same as what they charge (no pun intended), then it will make adding Solar panels a no brainer, since the payback period will be much shorter. Another benefit for all of us is that during a power outage, all the small solar panel producers can help to keep power flowing which will be a huge benefit during such times as hurricane, tornadoes and flooding!
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 04:42 PM
Sorry for the duplicate post...
Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Jun 18, 2013 05:03 PM
Captain D--Go back and read the very article you cite. It states clearly that energy storage is key to Germany's plan (because of the intermittency of solar power) and is a huge challenge. Roger AAC--There is no currently available technology that is affordable and capable of storing the vast amounts of electrical energy that would be necessary for wind and solar to supplant gas, coal and nuclear base-load plants. This problem cannot be solved simply by re-engineering the grid. Even if base-load plants are phased out and replaced by output-flexible plants, a massive energy storage capacity still would be needed for wind and solar to provide most of our power. The political roadblocks to the development of renewables come not only from moneyed interests in Washington. There is plenty of grassroots opposition to the construction of wind farms and solar installations and the power lines necessary to bring their power to population centers, and the scale of current installations is nothing compared to what would be required for wind and solar to actually supply most of our energy. I don't think it is a stretch to posit that scaling wind and solar up that far is politically impossible. The proliferation of rooftop solar is great, but it would not be happening without generous tax credits. There would be extreme consumer resistance were ratepayers asked to pay the actual costs of massive wind and solar installations and the necessary ancillary energy storage systems. I won't be around to verify it, but I predict we will still be using non-renewable energy sources at the end of the 21st century.
Roger AAC
Roger AAC
Jun 18, 2013 10:11 PM
I like Tim's take on fuel cells. One of the biggest sources of inefficiency in this country is on the grid and just how much power is lost in transport.

Then there is the awesome news not long ago by Phillips, the largest producer of bulbs in the world that states, that they will have phased out all fluorescent bulbs within 10 years thanks to new LED designs. Folks, that more power than all nuclear reactors in the US currently produce.

Then much of the world, where there is no new or old grid at all are bypassing the immense costs, not to mention ability to get the increasingly short supply of copper, and going directly to solar and small wind.

Jerry, the intermittancy issue is mostly about a society that's addicted to the misuse of energy. Take a look at how cities, and nearly 30% of the public leave lights on all night long, for one thing causing immense environmental impacts to night animals.

I'm sorry, but an immense amount of electricity could be saved just by turning out the lights, something that is impossible to do if you have nukes, since they can't be shut down.

One of the most astonishing aspects of our addiction is the misuse of HVAC systems. You can go to places in Europe and the middle east that use natural convection currents to supplant any need for electrical cooling systems. But I think as I mentioned, we have a society completely run by private monopolies whose only incentive is to make more money, put motors on the bottom of refrigerators etc.

The idea that a lifestyle change might mean slowing down the abuse of the earth's finite resources, to think of the future, rather than a bunch of fat cat's would mean many things that for some reason seemed to work just fine for many generations prior to the current ensnarement of a society that can't seem to stop buying junk like fashion driven cars. Heck, the average piece of food travels over 1,500 miles, while most people don't even know how to plant a garden or taste fresh food from it.

The bottom line on this is that we've dumped most of our industrial output to cheaper labor and energy regions. Sorry, but we've become addicted to cheaply priced energy and never, but never truly paid the full hidden costs, the term is life cycle costs. Which are intentionally hidden by the privateers, but then picked up either by the public or worse by nobody, causing our wonderful climate change excuse being used by nuclear nodders.

There is more than adequate documentation especially with the last big crisis in 2001 that energy companies have no intention of breaking their monopoly, doing everything in their power to stop micro-power solutions. Even though, the same phenomena with computers led to a huge upswing in the US economy.

Personally, I just don't quite understand why people wouldn't be demanding that the whole rental strategy from large electric dinosaurs is even on the table, rather than owning your own power source. Sure early adapters are gonna pay more, but once its clear what the benefits are, it would be just a matter of time before nobody in their right mind would want to be caught up by companies that only want to shake the cash out of you forever.

And by the way, anyone that knows even a tiny bit of this country's electric power history would know that the big guys want everybody else to subsidize their own game. It would be just a matter of time before big electric guzzlers would be on their own to get their electricity, rather than stealing the benefits from home and small energy users. When Jerry doesn't know that any solar, wind or intermediate power source including Gas, could be hooked up to a fuel cell in your home to use it as a storage option has not done their home work, or worse wants to keep the cat in the bag... The answers are there. It will cost money, but it will also produce far more jobs than nuclear could ever do, which is one of the worse producers of jobs there is, right down there at the bottom with missile weapon systems.
Mary Olson
Mary Olson
Jun 19, 2013 12:37 PM
Colorado has a proud son Stewart Udall. This man did not serve perfectly, but he did so with heart and mind. He knew that nearly 100% of the Native uranium miners dying from cancer was not only tragic -- it was criminal. Please do not stand by, or worse yet invest in repeating the mistakes that Udall worked so hard to correct. You can see a line-up of his actions here:
http://www.udall.gov/[…]/69to94Accomplishments.aspx and I think this entry speaks for itself:

The Radiation Exposure Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The act apologized to the victims of uranium sickness and ordered payment of up to $100,000 for miners, ranchers and others exposed to radiation from mining or above-ground testing in the late 1940s through 1960s.

We do not apologize in federal law, or compensate people for things that are GOOD for them. Please do not repeat the mistakes of your fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts...grandparents.