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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2011

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Editorial - Focusing Events

The fortunes of the nuclear power industry have waxed and waned with a succession of disasters over the decades, including Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima, Japan. Fukushima has already become a classic example of a “focusing event”—a crisis that attracts massive media and public attention and that generates ripple effects well beyond the immediate scope of the disaster itself. For example, the meltdown and release of radioactive materials at the Fukushima plant directly impacted the air, water, soil, people, and biota in its immediate vicinity, but the ripple effects of the disaster cascaded through broader Japanese society, causing, among many other things, the prime minister to pledge the end of nuclear power in Japan. Further, the ripples, like the tsunami that triggered the crisis, ricocheted across the world, leading the German government to pledge the phase-out of nuclear power in its country, reviews of nuclear plant safety and preparedness in many other countries, and shifts in global public opinion about nuclear energy.

In this issue of Environment, authors Butler, Parkhill, and Pidgeon situate the Fukushima disaster within the findings of four major areas of social science research. First, in recent years, the political acceptability of nuclear power had grown around the world, due in part to the fading memory of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster but also to the growing global concerns about climate change and the re-branding of nuclear energy as an environmentally friendly energy source, i.e., non–carbon-polluting. At the same time, however, the financing of new nuclear power plants without government loans, guarantees, or direct support had become difficult, if not impossible. Fukushima has subsequently made the private financing of new nuclear power plants even more challenging and many governments even more risk-averse to using public funds to support the industry.

Second, Fukushima suddenly refocused the world on the environmental, health, political, financial, security, and reputational risks of this technology. The disaster reactivated public worries about nuclear power and led to greater public opposition in many countries. For example, in the United States, recent surveys found that public opposition to nuclear power increased from 47 percent in June 2010 to 53 percent in May 2011, with all of the increase happening among those strongly opposed. And while 47 percent of Americans continued to support building more nuclear power plants, only 33 percent said they support building a nuclear power plant in their own local area.1

Third, the disaster again raises fundamental questions about the environmental justice and ethics of nuclear power. On the one hand, nuclear power has recently been promoted as an ethical and alternative energy source that can help obviate the injustices of climate change, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels. On the other, transboundary nuclear contamination can have catastrophic consequences for innocent people, places, and species often far from the disaster site itself in both space and time. Thus, the costs of nuclear energy can be imposed upon those who received few if any of the benefits or who had little if any say in the decisions to build the plants. Finally, the authors explore the role of framing and the media in shaping the fallout of Fukushima in public discourse and debate. As the authors explain, Fukushima did not occur in a vacuum—rather, it served to reinforce or undercut a number of different claims about the value or dangers of nuclear power by a variety of interpreters, including journalists, politicians, business leaders, and environmentalists, each of whom used the event to justify their own prior and contradictory conclusions.

Fukushima suddenly refocused the world on the environmental, health, political, financial, security, and reputational risks of nuclear power technology

In “The Myth and Reality of Sustainable New Zealand: Mining in a Pristine Land,” we learn about another battle over public perception, this time over the image of an entire country. Authors Rudzitis and Bird argue that through an aggressive marketing campaign and the success of The Lord of the Rings and other blockbuster movies, New Zealand has successfully branded itself nationally and internationally as an environmental and sustainability leader, with unspoiled and pristine nature, strong environmental values, and ecoconscious lifestyles. The authors argue, however, that much of this image is “greenwash” and that in fact New Zealand has relatively weak environmental laws and institutions. They then examine a recent effort by the national government to open several national parks and other nationally protected public lands to gold, silver, and coal mining. The proposal sparked a national controversy and eventually the government was forced to back down, but the conflict between resource exploitation and environmental protection is certain to continue, even within this “greenest” of nations.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Obama administration is currently weighing the environmental, economic, and political trade-offs of the proposed 1,980-mile Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. As of this writing, hundreds of activists protesting the pipeline outside the White House have been arrested, including climate scientist James Hansen, Gus Speth, Bill McKibben, and Darryl Hannah, among many others, who argue that this pipeline will lock the United States into decades of dependence upon some of the dirtiest, most environmentally damaging and climate-damaging sources of energy on earth, make it impossible to stop global warming from surpassing dangerous limits, and delay the shift to clean sources of energy. Yet it appears that President Obama is likely to approve the pipeline anyway, as a means of improving the U.S. economy, securing access to oil from a friendly neighbor, and undercutting the ability of Republicans to portray him as weak on the economy before the 2012 election.

All three of these examples illustrate the challenges of reorienting the world toward long-term sustainability, made more difficult by the short-term demands of political cycles and an ongoing global economic recession.

One year from now, however, the world will gather again in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate, recommit, and extend the goals of the 1992 Earth Summit on Environment and Development. Bold ideas and initiatives are now needed more than ever to solve our collective problems of sustainability. Over the coming months, we hope that the pages of Environment can help articulate both the challenges and the solutions at hand as we look forward to Rio+20.

1. A. Leiserowitz, E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, & N. Smith, Climate Change in the American Mind: Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University (New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2011),

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