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Gaia Theorist James Lovelock Turns 95

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Saturday will be James Lovelock’s 95th birthday. Lovelock is an English scientist, a commentator on change in our ecosphere, and the originator of the Gaia theory, which holds that the Earth is a self-regulating organism.

Rather than struggle by myself to write a fitting tribute, I have pulled out a copy of one of his more recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009), to reprint a few choice quotes. If you haven’t read Lovelock yet, here’s a good start.

It was good to recognize the huge efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore with the Nobel Peace Prize. . . As we hold our meetings and talk of stewardship, Gaia still moves step by step towards the hot state. . . Perhaps we were celebrating because the once rather worrying voice of the IPCC now spoke comfortably of consensus. . . Do not suppose that conventional wisdom among scientists is similar to consensus among politicians or lawyers.  Science is about the truth and should be wholly indifferent to fairness or political expediency. . . It is said that truth is the first casualty of war and it seems that this is also true of climate change. . . the Kyoto Agreement was made more than ten years ago and we have done little more to halt climate change since then other than almost empty gestures. (pp. 4-8)

James Lovelock
James Lovelock.

In its way the green ideology that now seems to inspire Northern Europe and the USA may be in the end. . . damaging to the real environment. . . we will soon discover that nearly all of what remains of our countryside becomes the site for fields planted with biofuel crops, biogas generators and industrial-sized wind farms – all this when what land we have is wholly needed to grow food. Don’t feel guilty about opting out of this nonsense: closer examination reveals it as an elaborate scam in the interests of a few nations whose economies are enriched in the short term by the sale of wind turbines, biofuel plants and other green-sounding energy equipment. Don’t for a moment believe the sales talk that these will save the planet.  (p. 12)

Nuclear energy is by far the most effective way to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide. . . A wind farm of twenty 1 MW turbines requires over 10,000 tonnes of concrete. It would require 200 of these wind farms covering an area the size of Dartmoor to equal the constant power output of a single coal-fired or nuclear power station. Even more absurd, a full-sized nuclear or coal-fired power station would have to be built for each of these monster wind farms  to back up the turbines for the 75 per cent of time when the wind was either too high or too low. As if this were not enough to damn wind energy, the construction of a 1 GW wind farm would use a quantity of concrete, 2 million tons, sufficient to build a town for 100,000 people (and) release about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. . . Wind farms are hopelessly inadequate to the UK as a source of energy (and) costly and inefficient sources of energy. You will soon discover this when your electricity bills and taxes rise to pay for renewable energy we do not need. . . These bills are imposed upon us so that politicians can appear green and good. . . it does nothing for the Earth and will only add more stress. . . (pp. 16-18)

The plight of the British in 1940 [when Lovelock was 21] resembles the state of the civilized world now. At that time we had had nearly a decade of the well-intentioned, but quite wrong belief that peace was all that mattered. The followers of the peace lobbies of the 1930s resembled the green movements now; their intentions were more than good, but wholly inappropriate for the war that was about to start. (p. 20)

I think we fail to welcome nuclear energy as the one good and reliable power source because we have been grievously misled by a concatenation of lies. Falsehood has been built on falsehood and is mindlessly repeated by the media until belief in the essential evil of all things nuclear is part of an instinctive response. (p. 69)

What is remarkable about nuclear waste is that it fades away. In 600 years the high-level waste from a nuclear power station is no more radioactive or dangerous than the uranium ore from which it originated. Far more importantly, there is hardly any nuclear waste to worry about. The yearly output of waste from a 1000 MW nuclear power station is  enough to fill a London taxi. Now perhaps you see why I would welcome its burial at my home in Devon.  It would be a useful source of heat. . . The nuclear waste is a minor burial problem but the carbon dioxide waste will kill us all if we go on emitting it. (p. 70)

The Vanishing Face of Gaia
The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by James Lovelock.

My wife Sandy and I live in a remote part of England. . . our BlackBerry mobile telephone keeps us always in touch. What madness it would be for us to reject the chance to communicate because we feared cancer from the microwave radiation of mobile telephones. But this is what more than half of us do nationally by rejecting nuclear energy on the same insubstantial grounds. (p. 73)

The cash flow of nuclear industry is tiny compared with that of oil, gas or coal companies, and the money available for advertising the advantages of nuclear is proportionately less. . . If an engineer in a Japanese nuclear power station drops a wrench on his foot and needs first aid it is given headline exposure in our newspapers as a “Serious accident in Japanese nuclear power station.” The death of a hundred or more Chinese miners in an underground coal mine explosion rates not more than a small paragraph in the depths of the same paper. What I have just written is no exaggeration. (p. 76)

I applaud our present Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for having the strength and wisdom to start rebuilding nuclear energy. It must have taken guts to go against the political pressures from Europe and those members of his party still reliving the fun of marching to Aldermaston proclaiming the need to make Britain a nuclear-free zone. (p. 90)

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Prominent Environmentalists Embrace Nuclear

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

“I used to be anti-nuclear. But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”

– Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy

Carol Browner
Carol Browner

Before climate change topped the environmental agenda, environmentalists often stood on opposite sides of the nuclear debate.

Even today, many big-name environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, remain opposed to nuclear power.

However, a growing number of prominent environmentalists and scientists have converted to the pro-nuclear camp, including those who had vehemently opposed nuclear power.

The reason is simple: Climate change is the top issue, and countries cannot meet both their energy needs and greenhouse-gas reduction targets using renewable energy sources alone.

Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Look no further than Germany and Japan to see countries that closed nuclear power plants only to see a rise in their use of coal and gas.

“Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost,” environmentalist Mark Lynas wrote in a recent op-ed for The Guardian. “Even many greens now admit this in private moments.”

Lynas admits that he “grew up hating nuclear,” but converted to the pro-nuclear side after discovering the dangers had been exaggerated.

Another prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for the “Gaia hypothesis,” which proposes that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system, similar to a living organism.

James Lovelock
James Lovelock

“I think nearly all of the arguments against nuclear energy are just false and highly political,” Lovelock recently told the Globe and Mail.

“But it’s a question of how you compare: What’s the risk of powering your nation by nuclear power, compared with coal or oil? I think the case in favor of nuclear is enormously strong.”

Perhaps the most prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been credited for being one of first to warn politicians and policy makers about the dangers of climate change.

Hansen was one of four environmental scientists who wrote a 2013 open letter urging the green movement to give up its opposition to nuclear power.

James Hansen
James Hansen

“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power,” the letter said.

(Hansen is also the featured speaker at the 2015 Canadian Nuclear Association conference.)

Other prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists include Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace; author Gwyneth Cravens; and Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

Cravens, Lynas, writer Stewart Brand, and writer Michael Schellenberger were among the notable environmentalists once opposed to nuclear who were featured in the 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise. The film focused on the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear, even though it is a safe, low-carbon energy source needed to combat climate change.

Environment International Nuclear Policy

All may not be Lost on Global Heating

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

The UN’s 69th General Assembly opened today in New York. On the agenda is “stemming the existential threat of climate change,” along with a litany of other crises from Ebola to ISIS.

I commented six months ago that only a “Poland moment” – the arrival of real, widespread fear for our way of life – might get climate change recognized as an “existential threat.” Let alone get it “stemmed.” I doubt that we are there yet.

But as catastrophic as the outlook seems on carbon emissions, I am not completely pessimistic. Governments do face up to, and act to mitigate, grave threats, even at times when doing so is costly and defies electoral arithmetic. The record of improving air and water quality in developed areas of the globe since the 1960s attests to this. So do many other international efforts to improve human health and security.

While it takes time, our governments have shown they can act to address environmental challenges. Source: http://www.ec.gc.ca/air/default.asp?lang=En&n=8ABC14B4-1&offset=2&toc=show
While it takes time, our governments have shown they can act to address environmental challenges. Source: Environment Canada.

How hopeful can we dare to be that a child born today will not witness hundreds of millions of people being displaced by rising seas and desertification due to climate change? Or at least, that he or she will live to see a substantial turnaround of this process?

Here are what I see as the negatives that support a pessimistic view:

  • Lack of action by major national governments so far – except for grasping at fake “solutions” that are politically expedient (such as farm subsidies dressed up as “biofuels”), are subsidy-based and therefore inefficient and unsustainable (much wind and solar). All of which create new vested interests faster than they decarbonize our lifestyles. Slightly less bad is watching government jump into solutions that may work out, but are too far down the road to be useful in the near-term climate battle (such as technology development funds).
  • A global policymaking environment of crises upon crises – to take just a few examples: for Europeans, the Eurozone economic crisis followed by Ukraine; for Arabs, the Arab Spring followed by Egypt and Syria; for Americans, financial crisis followed by politico-fiscal paralysis, military withdrawals, and now a new war.
  • The long financial crisis and sluggish world economy – putting a continuing drag on governments’ fiscal capacity, and also slowing the rate at which infrastructure can be rebuilt on lower-carbon technologies.

On the other hand, here are some major positives, raising hope that something can be done:

  • Real concern at the top – the UN Secretary-General, the US President, and many other top political, business and intellectual leaders appear to recognize the threat posed by climate change.
  • Steps forward by smaller players – large companies, industry associations and sub-national governments have been willing to be early movers, and some of those moves seem to have worked well.
  • Leadership in the high-growth regions – while dense emerging markets like China and India may remain far behind the West in many aspects of environmental quality, their high rates of infrastructure investment give them once-in-a-century opportunities to build lower-carbon systems in electric power, transportation and urban design. In fits and starts, they are seizing it.

The ecosphere will benefit if high-growth countries make good choices (as China does when it invests in fifty or seventy nuclear power plants instead of coal-fired units), and stable economies such as ours continue to rely on nuclear.

Weighing the scales, my own view is that the odds that we can still act to mitigate climate change are better than bleak.