(Photo: a group of small plastic businessmen stand in discussion) Chart_1665 | Photo © gukodo \ Fotolia.com

Despite hoping to present itself as a monolithic entity in order to force change, the environmental movement is nevertheless divided on two key battlegrounds: intensification and nuclear power. These internal debates tend to take place with hushed voices and behind closed doors, as if demonstration of the slightest bit of disunity could bring the entire possibility of a greener future crashing down.

It’s really no wonder that the environmental community is a little skittish about bringing these debates into the open. Climate deniers continue to harp on the notion that “the science isn’t settled,” as if we aren’t all just discussing the degree to which climate change is going to suck.

And, since 97 percent of scientists and only 60 percent of the general public claim to believe in anthropogenic climate change, it’s not entirely wrong-headed to think that the manufactured debate campaign is working.

What is wrong is thinking that the presentation of a united front is either possible or likely to be effective. Change does not require public unanimity and in worrying about it, we’re missing an opportunity to really flesh out and improve our ideas. Better to have the debate openly.

Let’s lay these out quickly:

1. Intensification

Urban intensification leads to greater energy efficiency and sustainability, but can also conflict with another progressive favourite: livable communities.

One person’s high-density community is another person’s cramped housing. And if we’re building so densely, where will we find room for trees and green space? On the other hand, the closer we are to each other, the less energy we have to use. Such questions demand answers right across Canada.

                  RELATED: Building Better Cities

2. Nuclear Power

Cost overruns on nuclear power plants are both ubiquitous and generally in the range of billions of dollars. Plus, you know, there’s that radioactive waste issue. Cesium isotopes from the Fukushima disaster continue to drift nonchalantly across the ocean.

Still, the potential to reduce fossil fuel dependence has some environmentalists willing to overlook the risks. Intense nuclear power plant production could entirely offset fossil fuel use within 25 years, if we wanted to go down that road. With Ontario’s plants nearing the end of their useful life, the debate will only pick up from here.

                  RELATED: Nukes or Not? 

An Open Debate

There are layers of nuance to both of these deliberations. If we’re going to come to a consensus on either of them, you can bet it will have to be a nuanced consensus as well. But these whispered barbs – traded in the backseat where we think mom and dad can’t hear us – are not conducive to anything more than the most rudimentary of debates.

That’s partly why there is so much venom on both sides of the arguments, since stunted discourse is fertile ground for dogmatism and ad hominems to sprout.

Change, meanwhile, has never depended on public unanimity. Support for gay marriage in the US, for example, has risen to approximately 60 percent – not substantially higher than belief in anthropogenic climate change – and a wave of court rulings in favour of same-sex unions has been possible despite the lack of support from that other 40 percent.

Environmental progress does not hang in the balance between these competing goods. It’s a good thing too, because not in a million years are nuclear power proponents and critics going to decide that one of them has been wrong all along. Ditto urban density advocates and opponents. It is, however, possible to imagine a world in which nuclear and intensification can be entered into public dialogue without fear that the world will simply give up and go back to coal.

Air them out and we’ll all be better off for it.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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