It was not the best day to argue for nuclear energy.
However Philip Walton, emeritus prof of physics at NUIG¹ and son of Irish Nobel laureate Ernest Walton², appeared on national radio last Friday to do just that. News of Japan’s reactor emergency was just coming in at this point, but the appearance was part of a campaign that he and two other physicists had launched at NUIG on Wednesday, so cancelling was really out of the question.
It all seemed a little surreal.
We should not of course let circumstances carry the debate. There are strong arguments in favour of using nuclear fission to generate electricity. Walton is perfectly right to say that all other methods have their risks and their costs too.
The debate is really over how you quantify those costs, and one person’s convincing argument is another’s canard. Walton for instance says that more people are killed mining coal in China every year than in the whole history of the nuclear industry. This may be true – but should we really take greater risks here just because the Chinese have an appalling safety record?
The argument needs to be broken down further:
Does the world need nuclear to avert global warming and/or replace fossil fuels?
Assuming the answer is yes, do we need to have a nuclear generator here?
The first part is of course enormously controversial right now, and is going to get more so.
I will try to deal with it tomorrow.
The National University of Ireland, Galway. (My own alma mater, as it happens.)
After the breakneck pace of events yesterday, I think a change of topic is in order. Though not without noting in passing how Lenihan attempted to shift blame for the bankers’ bonuses onto Fine Gael and Labour this morning. Suddenly, taxing them is an idea he was all in favour of – but alas his hands are tied by the pesky opposition. There’s no shame in this game.
Going back to Sunday’s tirade against the Greens though: I think it’s probably necessary these days, with the rise of “climate scepticism”, to clarify that I am not on the anti-environmental fringe. I don’t know if I’d call myself an environmentalist. I try to avoid labels that end in “ist”, especially in “mentalist”. But I have friends who are Green Party members – well, until Sunday I had – and I agree with a lot of what they think.
There are extremes of environmentalism I find abhorrent; the “Humans are the worst animal ever and the planet would be better if we all died” lobby. There is a bizarre narcissism to that. How can we be worse than Nature? We’re not supernatural beings. What we are, what we do, is an expression of Nature. We do ugly things, as does Nature. The one difference: We know that they’re ugly.
But I think it is wise to try to upset the dynamics of the planet as little as we can. We should care about biological diversity and stability, we should care about the long-term effects of our activities. This seems the moral, responsible thing to do.
And so there is a movement to shirk off that responsibility. They call themselves sceptics, in much the same way that people who want to promote religion over science use the disingenuous label “intelligent design”. More normally, sceptics are people who point out how widely-held personal beliefs are not compatible with scientific knowledge. These people point out how widely-held scientific knowledge is not compatible with their personal beliefs.
The belief in this case seems to be a sort of libertarianism. To these people, climate change is a hoax perpetrated against them by lefty government, an attempt to force a collectivized tyranny onto freedom-loving individuals. The freedom they seem to particularly love is the one to use up oil like nobody’s business.
Last night the UK’s Horizon did an interesting documentary on the fact that professional science is losing the battle against amateur bollocks. The programme had its faults – it kinda forgot to mention that there might be rational grounds to reject GM crops, for one – but it made the point well that we now live in a world full of people who, when faced with the conclusions reached by thousands of dedicated professionals doing decades of gruelling, intricate research, will say “Yes but here’s what I think”.
So here’s what I think: I won’t disagree that there can be a certain irritating piety to “environmental awareness”. I won’t say that political solutions to these problems are never wrong. But the science on the issue is overwhelming. There is little debate about this in the relevant fields today because that debate has been had already. It was pretty much settled more than twenty years ago. The evidence points to human-driven climate change.
If there is any weak link in the argument, it’s where we extend it into the future and predict disaster. There are a lot of unknowns in the future. However, disaster still seems more likely than not.
So: Most people with actual expertise on the subject think it likely that if we keep behaving as we do it will profoundly change our climate, probably making it far less hospitable to humans, to other animals, and to food production.
We should do something about this perhaps.
It’s not comfortable knowledge. We could rest a lot easier if we were ignorant of the idea that the things we do on an everyday basis could be slowly but inexorably leading to extinctions and floods. Nobody wants that. I understand why some are driven to rebel, to deny that this could be true, even invent great conspiracies of people who have an interest in it being true.
But who has such an interest? If there really is such a thing as a “climate change industry”, it is microscopic when placed next to the other one – industry industry. Faking climate change would be in the interest of a few. Pretending climate change isn’t happening, that would be in the interests of a huge number of people – of very wealthy people.
An end to global warming? No. Climate is what happens over centuries, this is bad weather. At least people call it that – I happen to like the snow. The chief reason I like the snow is that it is not rain. If something cold must fall from the sky during the winter months, I prefer if it’s the one that brushes off.
And there’s the fact that it’s beautiful too, that helps. I know, a lot of people hate it for solid, practical reasons. It’s dangerous – well yes, but I bet deaths and injuries will be down compared to our usual Christmas carnage. Transport is buggered it is true. A friend of mine is trapped in Paris as we speak, another in San Francisco – I’d really like it if they could make it home for Christmas. Shops are going to be insane of course. If forecasters are to be believed and the snow won’t clear until Christmas Eve, all of Connacht is going to be in town for a last-minute shopping frenzy. I urge you who actually live here to get your shopping done before then, while there are still things left to get. Loved ones are puzzled and rarely pleased by a gift-wrapped supermarket shelf.
It has been inconvenient for me. I’m trying to learn to drive right now, and obviously you can’t really practise anything much in this weather. Apart from skid control. A lot of skid control. And as I was saying the other week, if I’m out of town it’s a mile walk on a Teflon pan to get to the bus. There still seems to be little sign of gritting from the County Council. I don’t say no sign – there is a light scattering of rock bits on the road just outside, at a density of maybe two gravicular particles per square footfall. Looks like they’re trying to make their precious dirt supplies last through the winter, but I’m not entirely sure what good so little actually does. I had to get outdoors early this morning to take delivery of a Christmas present – the house is so well hidden that you have to walk down to the road if you don’t want couriers to get lost. (Note to online retailers: I will buy from the one of you who clearly says “Will deliver by genuine actual post”.) He called for directions at 7.55. I had been asleep less than four hours at that point, so I wasn’t too clear at first about where he was – or indeed, where I was – but it transpired that he was just two miles away. He said he’d call back when he was close. He did. Half an hour later.
But wouldn’t it be good if this became our regular winter weather for a while? Yes I’m serious. It could be lovely – if we actually planned for it. If we could arrange not to need to fly the week before Christmas, if we actually could get our shopping done and supplies in. If the weather enforced on us that break from our hectic and ill-considered lives that we never seem to find time to take. We could have some, you know, Peace. On Earth.