Road to an Atomic Damascus or the Green Reformation?

Poor old Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet, who once thrust custard pies into the faces of people who dared to question environmental orthodoxies. He now finds himself on the receiving end of eco-dogma. Fancy that.

Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. […] The backlash to my first magazine article on the subject prompted my inbox to collapse, the blogs to drip with venom, the dirty looks to multiply.

In August, Lynas wrote an article for the New Statesman magazine, How nuclear power can save the planet. Citing eco-prophet Dr. James Hansen’s shrill and attention-seeking mission to persuade world leaders to give up coal (and defend vandals in courts), Lynas concluded that:

Deployed entirely in tandem with renewables, fourth-generation nuclear could offer a complete decarbonisation of the world’s electricity supply – and on the sort of timetable that Dr Hansen and his fellow climatologists demand.

Lynas’s conversion isn’t all that spectacular, nor even newsworthy. Author of the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock, has long been an advocate of atomic energy, as this interview with the Guardian in 2000 revealed:

This answer, Lovelock says, is ecologically clean and tidy and has a very bad press. It is nuclear power. “I can envisage somewhere about 2050, when the greenhouse really begins to bite, when people will start looking back and saying: whose fault was all this? And they will settle on the Greens and say: ‘if those damn people hadn’t stopped us building nuclear power stations we wouldn’t be in this mess’. […]

“I have told the BNFL, or whoever it was, that I would happily take the full output of one of their big power stations. I think the high-level waste is a stainless steel cube of about a metre in size and I would be very happy to have a concrete pit that they would dig – I wouldn’t dig it – that they would put it in.” He says he would use the waste for two purposes. “One would be home heating. You would get free home heat from it. And the other would be to sterilise the stuff from the supermarket, the chicken and whatnot, full of salmonella. Just drop it down through a hole. I’m not saying this tongue-in-cheek. I am quite serious…”

Although Lovelock’s attitude to atomic energy raised eyebrows and caused a bit of a debate, it didn’t seem to influence the environmental movement much. This is because science is only interesting to environmentalists when it is saying something is dangerous. When it says something is safe (or rather, it puts risks into some greater perspective), it is generally ignored. After all, Caroline Lucas, the new Leader of the UK’s Green Party is very much ‘for science’ when it appears to lend her ideas about Apocalypse some credibility. However, the rest of the time, she seems to be very much against it.

Take, for instance, her claims earlier this year that ‘Around 75 per cent of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, mainly chemicals…’, and that EU legislation designed to stop ‘chemicals’ was being undermined by a conspiracy between the major parties and industry.

Or, how about her efforts last year to ensure that ‘alternative’ ‘medicine’ was ‘recognised’ by European health agencies? ‘It wasn’t easy persuading the governments’ negotiators to accept […] the importance and relevance of alternative medicine – but we have managed it, which should serve as a tool towards a broader and indeed holistic approach to public health.’ So much for evidence-based medicine, then.

And on the subject of medicine, consider her attempts to ban animal research in the EU, on the basis that ‘Animal research is not only cruel, it also has significant scientific limitations which mean it can never be relied on to guarantee human health or safety.’ She neglects to tell us how ‘alternatives’ to medicine – such as staying ill, perhaps – guarantee human health and safety. Presumably, it’s better to be dead than unsafe. Whatever… clearly the decision to use animals in the development of therapies to cure and alleviate human suffering from conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, cancer, and the rest is not undertaken by scientists on the basis that there is no better alternative to the animal model, but because they are sadists, who enjoy using them.

‘What has Lucas got to do with any of this?’, we hear you ask. Well, first, we never like to miss an opportunity to point out what a total lunatic the new leader of the Green Party is. Second, Lucas was on BBC’s Radio 4’s Today program last week, arguing with Lynas about whether atomic power was really Green or not. A bun-fight between two of our favourite subjects. Here it is.

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Lynas’s discovery that ‘a lot of the environmentalist’s anti-nuclear case was based on myths’ seems to have taken him by surprise. We can only hope there is more to come. Lucas’s response is of course simply irrational. After claiming that inefficiencies in the current system could be effectively converted into supply, she then claimed that atomic energy is no solution because there simply isn’t time to install new nuclear power stations, because the time it takes to plan and build them. The risks of nuclear are too great and too expensive. She won’t entertain the prospect, no matter what the ‘science’ says is possible, because the risks are simply to great. Terrorism, accidents, nuclear proliferation… It’s all just too impossible.

And here lies the problem for Lucas… (we’ll return to Lynas in a moment)… She can’t consider the possibilities that abundant centralised energy – green or otherwise – might create because it would totally undermine her ethics and her political edge. It would turn all climate problems into engineering problems rather than moral ones. In her view, today’s troubled geopolitics is created principally by the capitalist system’s need for growth, and cheap fuel. This in turn creates the terrorists she seems to imagine have designs on our atomic energy infrastructure. (Never mind that power plants are designed to withstand such attacks). It creates also the very antagonism between countries that moves them to seek ways to establish their muscle on the world stage by acquiring nuclear weapons. There is a causal relationship, in her view, between the satisfaction of your dirty desire to eat burgers from McDonald’s, global warming, terrorism, the war on terror and Iraq, and nuclear proliferation. The only solution to this is the mitigation of climate change, through mediating material aspirations and desires. But if science can produce a clean and cheap form of power, then the relationship ends. The fuel of capitalist growth ceases to cause climate change. Geopolitics is no longer ‘all about oil’. And what’s worse, this engineering solution can be realised by either the politics of the Left, or the Right. Lucas therefore looses her political capital, even if the discussion of atomic energy is only hypothetical. Lucas needs nuclear to be necessarily a totally unworkable, implausible, terrifying technology. It needs to be worse than carbon. Because if it’s better than carbon, then it is a solution.

This is Green dogma. It defends itself in this way. Any deviation from its tenets results in Armageddon, apocalypse, catastrophe, damnation. Lynas has seen this in a rare moment of sanity, according to him on some kind of road to Damascus, but in truth this conversion bears less resemblence to the Story of St. Paul – Lynas was already a Believer – than it does to the Reformation, and it is founded on ideas just as sloppy as Lucas’.

Lynas’s change of mind came at the same time as another high priest of environmentalism was undergoing a similar epiphany. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian a couple of days before Lynas that, ‘…I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen…’.

We wrote at the time that the Green’s were ‘Split Over the Atom‘, a situation that was made all the more absurd by the presence of Arthur Scargill at the Climate Camp. This rift deepened, a few days later when Ewa Jasiewicz, a ‘writer, journalist, human rights activist and union organiser’ took issue with Monbiot’s pragmatism about the possibility of ‘solving climate change’ within the framework of conventional politics. ‘Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the “solution”, we need a revolution.’, She said, and called for something resembling an anarchist revolution.

In response, Monbiot misconceived identity politics as political identity, as though espousing a political philosophy – such as anarchism, in this case – was some kind of equivalent to being black, gay, female, physically disabled, or whatever. This form of politics, he said, was what had beset the radical movements of the 1990s in their attempts to change the world, forgetting, it seemed, that Monbiot’s own shrill protests in the 1990s, and well into the 2000s were very similar to Jasiewicz’s today.

As we also pointed out, Monbiot’s change of heart about the necessity of dismantling capitalism in order to achieve climate stability – or, as he put it, ‘Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim’ – reflected very closely Lynas’s own sentiments that ‘The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’.

The task of the saving of souls, it seems, must take precedence over the politics of soul-saving.

The logic of risk, precaution, necessity and pragmatism have seemingly been extended by Monbiot and Lynas, to undermine the foundations of environmental politics. The Green Party was established with the intention of being a new axis from which to challenge the Left and Right, to form a politics ‘as if nature mattered’, on the basis that it was the only way to save the human race from annihilating itself. But it seems that, now, even that axis is impeding the very job it was set up to achieve. Behind the Protestant Reformation lay political interests, as it was at least as much about politics as it was theology. The dominance of Rome (Club of Rome?) prevented European elites from expressing their power as they wished. Similarly, the establishment, whilst absorbing environmentalism to the extent that for them, ‘climate change is the defining issue of our time’ (Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the UK Government), cannot accommodate calls for social revolution. For example, while Conservatives such as Tory leader, David Cameron and his aristocratic, Etonite eco-chums are happy to agree that there is something wrong and environmentally destructive with capitalism, Jasiewicz’s anarcho-syndicalism just isn’t their cup of tea. And it’s certainly not cricket. The environmental movement has long shared the ambitions of the political establishment to dampen the masses’ expectations, but perhaps this unholy alliance of convenience between the establishment and the scruffy eco-warriors has served its purpose.

It is no surprise that Monbiot’s and Lynas’s conversions have happened as their relationship with the establishment has become more cosy. As we reported last year, former president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, favourably reviewed Monbiot’s book, Heat, in the TLS, and in the process reinvented his organisation’s motto, ‘nullius in verba’, from ‘on the words of no one’ to ‘respect the facts’. The Royal Socety’s creed, too, has undergone a transformation, it seems. Earlier this year, we reported that Lynas had won an award for science writing from the RS, now headed by Sir Martin Rees, who himself wrote Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? As we said at the time:

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

The fact that eco-theologans such as Lynas and Monbiot are breaking away from the orthodoxy of the environmental movement to create their own, establishment-friendly orthodoxy should not be seen as progressive. As with the protestant reformation, it made little difference to ordinary people in the C16th whether they worshiped a Catholic god, or a Protestant one – they had no choice. Similarly, environmental politics is estranged from human values, it’s not as if people have any choice about what the new theologians decide for them, and Monbiot and Lynas do not put humans and their interests any closer to the establishment’s agenda. It’s all about the polar bears.

The potential of atomic energy should not be discussed in environmental terms. The predominance of nonsense about ‘solving climate change’ causes people to lose sight of what the purpose of power stations actually is: to enable people to live more comfortable and more fulfilling lives. Once this has been forgotten, providing energy is reduced to a balancing act between administrating sheer necessity – keeping the lights on – against a fictional catastrophe – the end of the world. There should be more power stations, atomic, coal-fired, gas, oil, geothermal, renewable… It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the potential they create for people to determine their own lives, rather than have it determined by eco-zealots.

The Royal Society: From Science to Fiction

Eco-activist Mark Lynas, has won the Royal Society’s prize for popular science writing, for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

Except that it isn’t science, it’s fiction. Science fiction; it takes a vaguely plausible scientific possibility, extrapolates it, and makes it the situation in which some form of drama plays out. For every one degree rise in temperature, Lynas considers what might happen to life on Earth.

Professor Jonathan Ashmore, Chair of the Judges said: “Lynas gives us a compelling and gripping view of how climate change could affect our world. It presents a series of scientifically plausible, worst case scenarios without tipping into hysteria. Six degrees is not just a great read, written in an original way, but also provides a good overview of the latest science on this highly topical issue. This is a book that will stimulate debate and that will, Lynas hopes, move us to action in the hope that this is a disaster movie that never happens. Everyone should read this book.”

‘Without tipping into hysteria’? Here are two versions of the front cover of the book,

The image on the left, like all clichéd science fiction, helps us to suspend disbelief by showing us an iconic landmark – Big Ben – ravaged by whatever the threat is supposed to be.

This is exactly what happened in the other global warming fantasy, The Day After Tomorrow (left). On the Right, we can see the Whitehouse being smashed by aliens. This kind image is used to inform us that the threat is to the order of the world. Our values, laws, institutions, organisations, and security are all threatened by whatever it is the science-fictionalist is writing about.

Of course, we should never judge a book by its cover. It would be unfair to claim that Jonathan Ashmore is wrong to claim that Lynas’s book isn’t ‘hysteria’, just on the basis of the book cover. Though, having said that, the cover does quote the Sunday Times, who say “… I tell you now, is terrifying”. We haven’t the time to review the book here. So here’s a couple of clips from the book, made into a film, featuring Lynas himself, to tell us what he imagines us to be facing.

Is this still ‘not hysteria’? We believe that it is, because, although Lynas appears to have ‘researched’ the ‘scientific evidence’, botching factoids leached from single-studies and worse case scenarios is not ‘sound science’, it is terrifying, and it hasn’t been subjected to any kind of scrutiny. Worse case scenarios are themselves necessarily science fiction – they have value not to science, but to prurient imaginations and politics. Detaching our treatment of them from the caveat that they are both worst-case, hypothetical treatments of very new, untested, unchecked, and unsubstantiated science is nothing but hysteria. Ashmore is highly misleading and dishonest in this regard. Merely saying that it is not hysteria doesn’t make it not so. Would he welcome, we wonder, a book which gave a best-case scenario treatment of the science, where humanity not only survives a 6 degree rise in temperatures, but positively thrives. No, he would not. Would it win any awards? The green movement would throw their toys out of the pram at such a book being published, let alone it being given such an accolade. They would call for it to be banned, claiming that it was ‘politically-motivated’, and misleading. There would be claims that its production had been paid for by Exxonmobil, by a scientist who had prostituted his intelligence and position for profit.

But this is not the first venture into fiction for the Royal Society and its members. It’s current president, Martin Rees wrote in 2004, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (sold in the UK as Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?) This is a bleak, miserable, pointless story about how our chances of surviving the next 100 years are just 50-50.

Also not against making things up is the previous president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford. Last year, we caught him making things up about Martin Durkin, director of the Great Global Warming Swindle.

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May told an audience in Oxford – where he shared a platform with Mark Lynas, interestingly – that Durkin had produced a series of 3 films denying the link between HIV and AIDS, for which Channel 4 were forced to apologise. That is untrue. Earlier last year, following an article reviewing 6 (also alarmist) books on the environment including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Nicholas Stern’s report, and George Monbiot’s Heat, we discovered that, inconveniently, May had taken a few liberties with the facts himself, citing a single study, referenced in the Stern Report to make the claim that ’15–40 per cent of species‘ were vulnerable to extinction at just 2 degrees of warming, and that oil companies were responsible for a conspiracy to spread misinformation, and prevent action on climate change. This was a double irony, because in the same article, he had translated the Royal Society’s motto – Nullius in Verba – as ‘respect the facts’, rather than the traditional ‘on the word of no one’. Indeed, had May followed the Royal Society’s own advice, he wouldn’t have been taking Stern’s, Monbiot’s, and Gore’s words for it. But rather than being the incredulous scientist, and subjecting these fictions to the scrutiny we’d expect, May used the groundless alarmism found in these texts to arm ‘science’ – or rather, the Royal Society – with new authority.

As we said in a letter to the TLS,

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority…

It seems that, rather than basing knowledge about the material universe on experimental evidence, the Royal Society and its senior members instead seek authority in science fiction; the extrapolation of superficially plausible science, forward into the future, where a drama plays out.

Mark Lynas first drew significant attention to himself for his views on climate change in 2001, when he threw a custard-pie into the face of Bjorn Lomborg, during a book launch.

Pie-man Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change. “I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face,” said Lynas, “in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.”

Many countries in the Third World are also experiencing the effects of climate change. In Africa, Lake Chad is now a twentieth of the size it was in the 1950s, leaving millions potentially without water. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is planning the evacuation of its entire population as sea levels continue to rise.

“And yet despite all this evidence,” comments Lynas, “Lomborg somehow contrives to argue that it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels than to switch to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. This feeds right into the agenda of profiteering multinationals like
Esso.” He continued: “I don’t see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense.

Now, however, Lynas the one-time circus-activist stuntman, has his childish perspective on the world given respectability by the establishment’s accolades, and has expensive films made about his dark fantasy.

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

Mark Lynas (left), with Bob May (right) at the Oxford is My World lectures, organised by Oxford City Council, to persuade its population to cut their CO2 emissions

Six Degrees

Josie Appleton has written an excellent review of Mark Lynas’ book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

Appleton takes issue with many of Lynas’ claims and dismal prophecies, and lucidly argues that catastrophic narratives offered by environmentalists may owe more to anxieties about wider problems in society than scientific observations.

As a non-climatologist, it seems logical to me that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming in some form – but if global warming meltdown starts in eight years’ time, I will eat my copy of Six Degrees, appendices and all. That is a conviction founded not on an analysis of Geophysical Research Letters, but on a consideration of the circumstances in which such science is produced.

Eight years is not a long time in geology. But it is a long time in environmental politics. Just six years ago, Mark Lynas wasn’t saving the planet by writing books, but by throwing custard pies at Bjorn Lomborg, who dared to challenge claims made by environmentalists.

I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face […] in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.

Although Lynas seems to have moved on from such childish prose and circus antics, he still claims to speak on behalf of the world’s poor (who are lumped in with the animals). But as we have pointed out before, Lynas’s solidarity only extends so far – their struggles are of less importance than balancing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Appleton describes this degraded moral framework well, and suggests that environmentalism can only understand human society in terms of atmospheric science. ‘Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning’. This offers us an important insight into how the environmental movement depends on urgency and disaster to make its moral argument.