Ever been wrong about something? Ever had to backtrack? It’s hard, isn’t it? For many people backtracking on something you believe in just isn’t an option. We all know the worst-case scenarios, the fact that people can be molded to believe just about anything has given us everything from fascism to Mormonism. But being wrong, admitting it and learning from it is vital to growth. From startups to science, being wrong and starting over has never been more important. More than that, it teaches you humility. I, for example, have certainly been wrong about Israel. I let my anger get the better of me and set myself in a mindset where I could see ”everything wrong” with Israel because of what I had read about the conflict. It took coming here and speaking to people, including peace activists, to understand that you can decry the occupation and still marvel at the fact that Israeli democracy exists at all. I don’t blame myself though. Most people are wrong about Israel in some way, usually loving or hating it far too uncritically. You must hear a multitude of different and conflicting perspectives in the rich fabric of narratives to start understanding the country and its peoples.
”Follow the science” has been the rallying cry of the school strikes for climate movement. I couldn’t agree more. The science of climate change challenges us to work out how a society could work in its entirety within safe planetary boundaries. It also forces us to, like science itself, to constantly be up to date with whatever the science is saying. We must ”follow the science” wherever it takes us. However, the space that appears in the gap between new technology and the unknown seems to be a breeding ground for conspiracy theory and panic.
Anti-Vaxxers and 5G
The newest fear seems to come from 5G, the fact that the new high-speed internet could cause the novel Coronavirus is very odd, but it has gotten some kind of traction because Wuhan had both experimental 5G and, as we all know, it was the birthplace of Covid-19. This conspiracy theory is typical, if a bit silly, for how this kind of thing works. Let’s take two facts about Wuhan and mesh them with China’s usual secrecy and bang! We have a government conspiracy.
Of course, the whole thing fell apart as soon as the virus spread outside the areas with 5G, but no matter to the theorists, there are always other conspiracies to ”uncover”. Similarly, let us hope that the Coronavirus once and for all destroys the anti-vaccine movement. If you are against a vaccine for Corona you cannot really be prepared to be taken seriously about anything. Many fears for the present, like the Anti-Vaxxers, preys on peoples’ weaknesses, fears and gullibility. The connection between 5G, anti-vaxxers and environmentalism is pretty weak, but it does have a sort of cultural ”I care about nature” feel to it. Also, Anti-Vaxxers and 5G fearmongers are a relatively easy target since all of science, though sadly, not all of Dr Google, stands against them.
More difficult, it seems, are issues that very serious organizations have set their sights on. Greenpeace is against genetically modified crops or GMOs. Because of organizations like them, the whole of the EU has banned their use. Which in turn has made many African countries ban them out of feat that the EU would not import their farmed goods. However, apparently this honorable organization has been wrong here. After widespread use in the USA it seems that these kinds of crops have, on the contrary, lessened the use of pesticides and fertilizers whilst increasing crop yields for 20 years now. Pesticides are one of the drivers of mass extinction because they wipe out insect populations at the base of so many food chains. Fertilizer runoff is similarly destructive to waterways where they set off algae blooms and destroy sea life. Reducing both may be critical. In places like Africa with booming populations and with people and food corporations changing more and more natural ground into farmland, they could surely use systems that grow more crops on a smaller area of land. The main problem with GMOs is that they aren’t regulated properly, and agricultural giants can control the seed grain in ways which make farmers to buy their products. Another problem is that reducing pesticides and fertilizers has not always been the top priority of the companies that produce GMOs, which sometimes leads them to both supply GMOs and toxic pesticides. However, these problems have more to do with predatory capitalism and lax regulation than with the GMOs themselves. We should care about the whole process of how our food is produced, not reduce this to a simple slogan about GMOs. People like Bill Nye have changed their minds about them and now sees them as a solution to potentially reduce hunger in the third world. I believe environmentalists should follow suit.
Even more contentiously, I believe environmentalists have been wrong about nuclear power. This is kind of the big one. The environmental movement as a whole was in many ways built on the foundation of the anti-nuclear movement. The main focus of activists in the 1980’s was nuclear power. It is not hard to see why – the cold war threatened to turn into a hot one with life on earth in its entirety simply ending. The point is, it didn’t. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are very different things although they are related technologies. We should all worry about nuclear weapons being spread, but nuclear energy is not the same thing. The movement has morphed into so many things, from environmental organizations to green political parties to NGOs, all convinced that nuclear power is the enemy. The movement and its political parties are critically important on so many issues, above all on climate change. Now the time has come to kill one of its darlings, simply because they have been wrong.
Now nuclear energy seems to be an important alternative to fossil fuel use. In a previous column I spoke about how the physics of burning fossil fuels in comparison to burning organic material such as wood. Physics tell us that the energy stored in fossil fuel is vastly more powerful than the energy stored in wood. The real master of the battle of physics, however, is nuclear energy. The amount of material put into a nuclear reactor versus the energy you get out is thousands of times more powerful than coal. That is massive amounts of carbon free energy being used in the least material consuming way. No power source, not even solar panels, is completely carbon emission free if you take into account their entire lifetime and the building structures needed to house them. However, any way you count, nuclear power has extremely low carbon emissions.
A true hero of environmental journalism, George Monbiot, wrote about how he still supported nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster. But let’s take a look at that elephant in the historical record: Chernobyl. The masterfully made series made with this name by my countryman, the ex-rapper Johan Renk (you may know him as Stakka Bo), showed some of the most important problems with the Soviet system. Above all it showed the problem all authoritarian societies have when they are creating incentives to not tell your superiors that something is wrong because the people at the top only want to hear good news. As a guide to the disaster, however, it gets a lot of things wrong. Above all, it massively plays up the scale of the victims of the disaster and the Ukrainian government classifies a staggering 1.8 million people as victims of the disaster. This includes all the people that had to move out of the disaster zone and their offspring. Although there is a lot of uncertainty about how many people got cancer in the long run, some say as many as 100 000 people may have been affected in the last 34 years since the disaster, but this is far from certain.
Ukraine also has a perverse incentive about how to talk about the disaster. Foundational to Ukraine’s independence is how awful things looked in the Soviet system. Soviet awfulness is actually quite an easy thing to prove in itself, there is no need for Chernobyl to prove your point. But Chernobyl has become one of these playing cards where the more terrible the disaster, the more you can point at the terrible time before independence. Bearing this in mind perhaps it is better to look at the numbers coming from outside the Ukraine. The UN puts the amount of people dying directly because of the disaster at 51 people, and WHO puts people that died indirectly at 4000. Other researchers have come up with a higher figure because of the cancer rates, maybe 60 000 dead prematurely. There is a massive difference between 4000 and 60 000 dead which makes this all the more difficult to talk about, but even 4000 dead is sobering stuff.
Nobody is suggesting that we take these figures lightly. Let’s just put them in perspective. Air pollution alone kills 2.4 million people every year. Add to that all the dangerous work with getting the fossil fuels out of the ground. Just think of the toxic job of a coal miner. So – maybe 60 000 dead in Chernobyl, versus many millions definitely killed by fossil fuels. Pushker A. Kharecha, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, published a study in the Lancet looking into the numbers. If fossil fuels would have been used instead of nuclear power for the past 30 years, we would be looking at 1.8 million more deaths through air pollution. Now this figure is about air pollution, it doesn’t even take the climate crisis into account with all the problems of melting sea ice, ocean acidification, extreme weather and rising seas. Obviously, millions of tons more CO2 in the atmosphere would have made these problems worse.
The most frustrating fact for a renewable energy enthusiast like me is to look at Germany versus France. Germany has ploughed enormous amounts of resources into its energy transition. The idea was to build solar and wind power and to get rid of fossil fuels. It is amazing and transformative by any standard. The frustrating part is that, under pressure from the Green party, Angela Merkel decided to also get rid of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. Although they have been working on this transition for two decades, Germany still uses coal fired power plants! France in the meantime has less ambitious goals, but lots of nuclear power. The CO2 emissions from the energy sector in France is much lower than in Germany. Take a look at the map below to see Germany’s relative failure (and Israels miserable failure to make any transition at all). https://www.electricitymap.org/map
Green Industrial Revolution
So- is nuclear power an answer to all our woes? Of course not. A green industrial revolution that dwarfs any transition that we have seen so far is necessary with or without it being used. The pandemic can possibly speed up such a transition, coal is in steep decline, oil prices are finally spooking investors and some governments are moving in the right direction. Building new nuclear power plants is also very expensive and takes many years. Although innovations in smaller scale nuclear power are on their way, it is anybody’s guess if they will compete well in the markets of tomorrow. The point is that closing down existing nuclear power is folly, and the order that power plants should be shut down in is actually really simple: first coal, then gas.
When? Like, yesterday.
After all the coal and gas plants have been shut down, we can start talking about if we need nuclear with all the new lovely green electricity around. But by that point we could also talk about water power, damming rivers can also have a massive negative environmental impact on the bio-diversity downstream. People generally don’t think like scientists and it is our job as environmentalists to show what is really scary about the world around us and what is trumped up hyperbole. The skepticism about all these things, vaccinations, GMOs, nuclear power, even 5G, are all good instincts. They have to do with public safety. They should all be under strict regulations and only used in that context. We need all the tools we can get to build a better future, even if it is from scary things like GMOs and nuclear power. If GMOs lessen the amount of land needed for agriculture or nuclear power reduces the need for fossil fuels, we must use even these.
Instead of pouring energy into challenging settled science, let us instead focus on the things that are the true killers of our future. We need every activist we can get talking about climate change, plastic pollution, bio diversity loss, the mass extinction event that we are inflicting on the natural world. True killers are in plain sight, let’s not lose track of them.
George Monbiot on Nuclear Power
On ”Chernobyl” the HBO series