When the Senate changed the filibuster rules to allow judicial and executive appointments to proceed to the floor with 51 votes instead of the 60 the filibuster required, the process was called the nuclear option, a name given it (probably) by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) back in 2006. The association has always been with weaponry not energy, but the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg goes with energy – in a notably detailed metaphor – and in notably familiar language:
But global warming has changed the picture. Nuclear power isn’t the best way to reduce carbon emissions—that would be wind and solar. For the intermediate future, though, breezes and rays won’t be enough. As growing numbers of environmentalists and climate scientists have come to realize, nuclear power is much, much better than what remains the real-world alternative: fossil fuels like oil and, especially, coal. When it comes to energy, the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.
In Hertzberg’s view, exercising the nuclear option in politics or energy policy is the equivalent of doing the next best thing given the status quo.
There’s a larger point, too, to focus on the experiential nature of political or energy choices. One knows that a simple majority in the Senate might reduce the backlog of appointments. One knows that nuclear energy is carbon emission free and scalable. Hertzberg carries his metaphor no further than that - the quote above is all there is to it. He doesn’t really describe, for example, what the wind and solar energy options for filibuster reform would be – he seems in favor of fully ending the filibuster, even for legislation, so perhaps that’s it.
The way Hertzberg phrases his support is interesting, too. Take this bit from the open letter recently released by four prominent environmentalists:
Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.
We wrote much more about this important missive here and had an eye out for pickup in the press – we rounded up some of that here – but Hertzberg does not reference it. It’s just in the wind, being lit by the sun. Hertzberg has his mind on a different topic entirely, but I wonder whether his matter-of-fact endorsement was influenced by the letter.
As for the filibuster rule change, early days. For climate change, getting later every minute. And for the nuclear option? Thanks to Hertzberg, it has a much better metaphorical future.