Last night I went to see the Age of Stupid at the Watershed followed by a brief talk by author and activist Mark Lynas.
During the Q+A session I asked Mark to clarify why he has recently come out in support of nuclear power on his blog in a piece entitled Why Greens must Learn to love Nuclear Power and whether the ensuing response from Greenpeace had changed his opinion. This led to slightly flustered looking Lynas claiming that decentralised renewable energy sources could not take over from fossil fuels rapidly enough to avoid risking climate destabilisation (a global temperature rise of over 2 degrees centigrade from preindustrial times which threatens to unleash various positive feedback loops which will amplify the anthropogenic forcing from fossil fuel usage and deforestation), and that the case against nuclear power is based on ‘flimsy evidence.’ This second claim in particular was met by a loud chorus of bollocks from several members of the audience, re-creating the polarised debate seen on Lynas’s blog where nuclear power is equally fiercely championed and opposed by different groups who selectively support contradictory evidence to support their claims, although all the participants undoubtedly have genuine concern over climate change and other environmental and social policy motivating their postions.
I don’t profess to be a nuclear physicist, or to fully understand the (currently largely hypothetical) claims made by Lynas and others surrounding fourth generation nuclear technologies. As someone who believes in nuclear disarmament I am sceptical of nuclear technologies because of their far from flimsy ties with nuclear weapons, along with the historical baggage the nuclear industries carry with regards to cost, efficiency (which is highly disputed, and both sides selective usage of supporting evidence makes it very difficult to make an informed decision here as elsewhere in this debate), waste disposal and safety, all of which have to be long term concerns when considering the long half life of some of the radioactive material utilised in nuclear power generation. Additionally I am sceptical, as are many environmental campaigners, of the quick and easy technological fixes to climate change offered up by capitalist industry. Biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, nuclear power and other technologies have been trumpeted by sections of business (usually those with vested financial interests in the technologies) as the answer to climate change. Of course there is no single silver bullet which will suddenly make everything okay and allow overconsumption to become ethically acceptable again, however at the same time it is important to remember that our understanding of climate change largely arises from advances in technology, and that the many of the renewable technologies being developed are again viable only thanks to numerous advances in technology; while it may not provide us with the solution, technology does provide us with a range of useful measures with which to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
This doesn’t mean that I think we should exclude nuclear power tout court as a potential short term measure to aid a transition to renewable energy sources, if indeed it transpires as Lynas claims and we are faced with a short term option of fossil fuels or nuclear. However whether this really is the case ought to be the investigation of in depth and readily available analyses.
What I don’t think anyone in the room last night would have debated, much less hurled obscenities at, is the call for huge emission cuts to be generated through cutting consumption and massive investment in renewable technologies. Once we have calculated what we can collectively generate from renewable sources, including large scale international projects such as solar farming in deserts and vast offshore wind farms connected to a direct current grid which allows the long range transportation of electricity with minimal power loss
en route, then we can start to look at what other less appealing steps we need to take. Given a choice between consuming a bit less and not flying or building a new generation of nuclear power stations I would choose the former every time, but I don’t know if that truly is a realistic choice because there isn’t readily available data.
In the book Heat, George Monbiot’s thoughtful and honest analysis of the conflicting information available on nuclear power draws the conclusion that it’s impossible to get an entirely truthful or objective picture of nuclear’s possibilities, however the enduring risks regarding weapons proliferation, waste disposal, long term costs etc mean that nuclear should only be a last ditch resort to be used after all other avenues prove insufficient to provide humanity with power, and I would tend to agree there. However given the urgency of concerted action over climate change it may be that as Lynas, James Lovelock and others have argued, short term usage of nuclear power can be a large and valuable contributor to the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the way the debate over nuclear ought to be approached, and it is a debate which needs to be happening at the moment, should be to encourages consensus and diversity of voices wherever possible, rather than the manichaen pro/anti dogma seen last night and elsewhere. We should start off by looking at what all of us – Mark Lynas and Greenpeace included – can agree upon as useful and necessary steps towards combating climate change and after that we can debate how (if at all) we need to start implementing less than ideal decisions such as turning to nuclear power based on a pragmatic perspective of how best to prevent climate chaos.
This begs the question as to how we can try and create debates which are inclusive and based on direct democracy and consensus rather than simply having two opposing sides trading insults, and given the antagonistic and hyper-competitive society we inhabit I don’t feel it’s an easy question to answer. When a group of concerned and intelligent people resort to dogmatic, polarised positions in place of consensual and informed debate on important issues, it’s fair to say that we really are living in the Age of Stupid. So how do we get out?
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