The climate case against Ed Markey

As a senator, Markey has played a big role fighting the climate crisis. As one of the main congressional critics of nuclear power in the 1980s, he also played a big role creating it.

Emissions rise from the Big River Electric D.B. Wilson Station power plant, which burns coal mined by Murray Energy Holdings Co., in Centertown, Ky., in  2019.
Emissions rise from the Big River Electric D.B. Wilson Station power plant, which burns coal mined by Murray Energy Holdings Co., in Centertown, Ky., in 2019.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

When Ed Markey arrived in Congress, in 1976, American utility companies were in the early stages of a major transition, building the next generation of electric power plants. Decades before wind and solar became viable, and after the early ’70s oil crisis scared utilities and regulators away from oil-fired plants, most utilities had only two viable options: coal or nuclear power.

At around the same time, scientists began ramping up their warnings that coal had a downside — even beyond pollution that causes thousands of annual deaths. Burning coal also releases carbon dioxide that causes global warming.

“We may have to limit our burning of fossil fuel because of a possible C02 catastrophe,” Alvin Weinberg, former head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wrote in 1977, citing studies predicting a noticeable increase in world temperatures by 2025. “It may result in a complete destruction of the Arctic sea-ice,” said the first issue of Climate Change, published the same year.

Warnings about the “greenhouse effect” reached the broader public. “Eventually,” the Globe reported in 1979, “the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning coal and oil may produce unacceptable changes in world climate.” In an energy plan released in 1980, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas explicitly cited climate change as a reason to reject coal and turn to nuclear generation, which produces no carbon dioxide.


But here is how the man who would later coauthor the Green New Deal responded during a hearing the next month:

“The greenhouse effect has turned a lot of people off to coal. The American Medical Association endorses nuclear power because they are afraid coal is a much more dangerous long-term environmental problem,” noted Markey, then carving out a niche as a leading Democratic voice on energy, before coming to the coal industry’s defense later in the hearing. “A lot of people do not understand that dirty coal is ancient history and you can mine it safely and burn it cleanly.” In a 1982 book, he’d explicitly call for phasing out nuclear power, portraying the danger of “limited coal conversion” — which he acknowledged would partially replace shuttered reactors — as a lesser threat.


Forty years later, now-Senator Ed Markey is counting on environmentalists’ support to beat back a primary challenge from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. So strong is Markey’s base that Kennedy has barely tried to pry it away.

And yet, for everything Markey has undeniably done to fight the climate crisis, he also played a pivotal role creating it — at the very moment when more far-sighted leaders might have weighed the relative risks of coal and nuclear power more rationally, as Tsongas did.

By instead spending the early decades of his career scoffing at experts and using his clout in Congress to kill off the only carbon-free alternative capable of widespread deployment, Markey led his generation of environmentalists in locking the country and the world on its current path. Even today, most of the remaining US coal plants date to the 1970s and 1980s; Markey also supported tightened restrictions on civilian nuclear exports to countries like India, while suggesting to UPI in 1983 that the federal government should promote coal exports instead. (India went on to develop mostly with coal).


It’s not just groups like the American Medical Association Markey dismissed. In his writing at the time, Markey sneered at what he called the “establishment,” testing the anti-science playbook later embraced by the GOP.

“A gut feeling that nuclear power is dangerous can be easily overwhelmed by platoons of engineers with calculators and MIT degrees,” he wrote in his 1982 book. “The public, however, is not as ignorant about nuclear power and nuclear bombs as the establishment makes it out to be.”

That MIT establishment included people like nuclear engineer David Rose, who had said as far back as 1977 that “the CO2 problem is a real one” and put the relative dangers of coal and nuclear in perspective. “We would need something like a catastrophic accident to a large nuclear reactor somewhere every year in order to equal the misery caused by coal at the present. And that we don’t see,” he said. Indeed, while coal power continues to cause thousands of annual US deaths, the toll from civilian nuclear power operations has held steady at zero.

Did Markey’s words matter? The collapse of the US nuclear industry in the 1980s had many roots: bad publicity after the nonfatal Three Mile Island incident, efforts by activists to lump nuclear power in with nuclear weapons. But political leaders who listened to scientists — even the ones with MIT degrees — might have insisted on staying the course.

Indeed, that is what utility companies at the time wanted: In 1979, a representative of Boston Edison (now Eversource) told Congress the utility hoped to generate 68 percent of its electricity through nuclear power by the end of the 1980s. (By comparison, as I wrote this sentence Monday afternoon, the New England power grid got 69 percent of its power from fossil natural gas, according to grid operator ISO New England. Renewables provided 4 percent).


As the “establishment” predicted, the world is now in the grips of climate change, and faces almost unfathomable costs to limit the damage. Of all the what-ifs and could-have-beens, one of the greatest tragedies is that the technology existed to stop the crisis before it started, and New England and other parts of the world were even shifting in that direction — but, under pressure from leaders like Markey, chose to stop.

So why does Markey get such a pass? The reality is that many environmentalists made the same miscalculation he did — that the world could forgo nuclear power and still avoid catastrophe with renewables and energy conservation. Some of them even misled the public in the same way. At a separate 1980 hearing, for instance, a Union of Concerned Scientists witness testified that “the major barrier to the transition to coal which will take place is the perception that coal is a dirty fuel; if we move to more coal we are inevitably sacrificing our environment. This is not the case.”

Honestly reckoning with the legacy of the anti-nuclear movement would also complicate the crop of lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry, which revolve around the narrative that climate change is a fate oil companies tricked us into — rather than one that Americans, including environmentalists, chose. Doug Foy, who as the head of the Conservation Law Foundation led the effort to derail Boston Edison’s planned transition to a more decarbonized portfolio — on the basis of its cost, ironically — even claimed recently, “In the early ’80s climate change wasn’t on anyone’s radar.”


But that’s not true. As Markey himself said, by 1980 the greenhouse effect had “turned a lot of people off to coal.” Markey and his allies just weren’t yet among them. The world is living with the consequences.

Alan Wirzbick is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at alan.wirzbick@globe.com.