Science and the Greens

A couple of recent posts continued with the theme I have been writing about in my last few posts, the awkward relationship between environmentalism and science.

Adam Corner and Alice Bell, writing for the New Left Project pick up on the Genetic Engineering/Nuclear issues that have been highlighted so effectively by “Chernobyl-Death-deniers” Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, but appear to add little to the debate, making the usual abstract remarks about the power context in which science takes place, while apparently unaware of the power-context within which environmentalism has emerged.

They stray into dubious territory right from the start when claiming that the Greens have always had a strong affinity with science, and that Green activism is actually rooted in science, evoking Rachel Carson and Julian Huxley:

Like the biologist Julian Huxley’s role in the founding of the WWF the year before, Silent Spring is endemic of the way science’s ability to look carefully at the natural world alerts us to the negative impacts humans have had on  it. To borrow a phrase from sociologist Steven Yearley, there is “elective affinity” between science and the greens, though as Yearley himself would be keen to stress, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple relationship.

Although Carson was right about some things, and played an important role in raising awareness about environmental impacts of farming, she over-egged the pudding and exaggerated on many issues, going well beyond the evidence, and these exaggerations arguably were responsible for chemophobia and radiophobia and the legacy of general alarmism and disregard for the facts -the very subject under discussion.

Julian Huxely is also surely a very bad example, since he was a champion of the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics and set the tone for much environmental thinking since with his concern about over-population, a political stance that is traditionally associated with the Right, not the Left. (For reading on this, see Fred Pearce, PeopleQuake 2010.)

The article goes on to describe the stand-off between activists and geeks at the TakeBacktheFlour demonstration against GE wheat in Rothamsted last summer, concluding:

Although some might class the outcome as a success for science, with the anti-GMO protesters successfully marginalised, the whole event seemed to entrench the idea of being “for” or “against” science in rather unproductive ways. As Jack Stilgoe later argued, such tribalism creates false enemies and interrupts debate before it’s even started.

But who is to blame for this? The scientists at Rothamsted were just normal researchers doing their normal work to improve crop breeding,  just as you would expect to happen in a normal modern society. The “Green” activists were indeed motivated by a very well-funded propaganda campaign based on fear-mongering and lies, without even a basic understanding of how plants work or reproduce, let alone a grasp of the technical issues surrounding agronomy and feeding the world. The tribalism alluded to here is obviously created entirely by the misguided activists and their extremist retro-romantic beliefs: “Nature” is beneficent and abundant, we don’t need technology to feed ourselves etc etc.. The anti-GE movement has boxed itself into a corner right from the start with an absolutist stance on genetic engineering which can only lead to a lose-lose situation. No co-existence is countenanced and the technology is defined as bad bad bad, regardless of the political power context.

Bell and Corner are equally apologetic for the Green’s irrational stance on nuclear:

Serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data. A hard-headed weighing of the risks of a radioactive leak vs. the risks of unmitigated climate change might prompt an advocacy of nuclear power. But that is to frame the issue in a particular way, a political decision in itself. Removing the real-politik from decisions about energy policy means ignoring the critical relationship between large-scale, centralised energy technologies and the corporate powers that control them. Questioning the values underpinning the various visions of the future science and technology offers us is not necessarily a matter of disputing empirical findings, or being unwilling to accept data inconvenient to an ideological position – its just a matter of being aware of the politics at play.

– except that in practice this stance always and necessarily does indeed mean disputing empirical findings and rejecting inconvenient facts, because to accept the truth about the safety of nuclear power would tend to undermine the political stance of “corporate control” being the problem in the first place.

This political hand-flapping is really no different from the argument about science and technology we always seem to get from the Left, as I blogged about in a previous post here.

It works like this: start from the ideological position that capitalism and corporate power is the crux of our problems; ignore data to the contrary; lie and scare-monger about the environmental impacts and the data; when challenged on the facts, simply use the get-out-of-jail-free card: the scientists are in bed with the capitalists. Science in a capitalist society is always corrupt because everything is pressed into service of the capitalist system. We don’t need any actual evidence of this (although corruption in science is surely a problem) – it is an indisputable fact that follows inexorably from our first assumption about capitalism being the Root of All Evil.

(Except when talking about things that we like or find useful such as computers and coffee. Your computer is giving you cancer and could blow up at any minute. Oh the corporations say it is safe and wont do you any harm? Well Doh they would say that wouldn’t they!!)

The same thing happens when they go on to discuss climate science and skepticism: the skeptics are all funded by right-wing think-tanks and fossil-fuel interests; while those who call for “action on climate change” are all working faithfully from a position of “consensus science”. As I have argued in my last few posts, this is naive to say the least. Far from grappling successfully with the real issues of energy and climate, the Green alarmist position has focused on reactionary responses that are more anti-capitalist than anything and have no chance of working.

Bell and Corner are quite correct of course to point to the importance of political context that science operates in, but seem oblivious to the political power-context that environmentalism operates in: why should science want to learn anything from Green activists when they have taken an absolutist stance and routinely reject evidence? What has science got to learn from a movement which takes an uncritical view of alternative therapies and organic farming, both powerful vested interests with deep pockets and considerable political influence but no time for old-fashioned things like evidence? All they end up confirming is that anti-capitalism and a vague leftish concept of “power” is routinely used as an excuse for thumbing the Big Green nose at science. If there is a political case to be made against the adoption of GMOs or nuclear power, we are certainly not getting it from the Greens, who seem only too willing to lie about the evidence in order to promote their own ideology.

Keith Kloor on the other hand still has no doubts about the rejection of science by the Greens, and invites us to consider two statements produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one on climate science and one on genetic engineering.

Kloor feels that an anti-science, anti-GE movement is largely supported by progressives who are on his side on the climate change issue:

It is my assumption that this aforementioned group in the progressive camp would agree with the 2006 statement on climate change by AAAS, but disagree with its recent statement on genetically modified foods. Is this intellectually inconsistent on their part? I think so and made the case several weeks ago in a Slate article titled, “GMO opponents are the climate skeptics of the left.”

As I have said already in response to Keith’s earlier article, I think he is mis-reading the situation: the stance of the “progressives”he refers to is just as “anti-science” on climate change as it is on GE- on both issues, their approach is one of alarmism in order to further a political agenda. The agenda comes first, the evidence is picked to suit it. And the agenda is not in any case a progressive one, but rather a reactionary one that would drag us back to the Middle Ages.

What is interesting though is that as several comments below the line agreed, the more suspect of the AAAS statements is in fact the one on climate change, a) because it implies attribution of extreme weather which we have already seen or are seeing to climate change- something that is not supported by the science– (the real concern is about future warming) and b) because the last clause – “The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now”- is a rather abstract and hand-flappy injunction to a specific policy response. But which policy? Unlike the policy issues concerning genetic engineering- which really only can have a negative impact on a tiny minority of organic farmers who have shot themselves in the foot by taking a zero tolerance position- the implications for climate policy will have a profound effect on the whole economy. The implication seems to be, controlling greenhouse emissions involves carbon taxes in the west, and perhaps targets for renewables.

Many analysts who warn against the dangers of rapidly increasing CO2 levels do not agree that this is a useful approach. The reality is, the world does not have a CO2 problem, it has a Chinese coal problem. Any reductions in US CO2 will be swamped by China’s increase in coal burning, and as Richard Muller argues in Energy for Future Presidents, the developing world will never follow a lead it sees being taken in the west unless it can afford to.

The most feasible solution in the short- to medium- term is  the supplanting of coal with shale gas, as Dieter Helm argues, something which has already reduced US CO2 and could do the same for China. In the meantime, we need to invest more R&D into low-carbon alternatives, including nuclear, solar and even genetic engineering for higher-yielding energy crops, while avoiding the wish to pick winners now for an energy transition that will take more than a generation to achieve.

Are any of Kloor’s “progressives” campaigning vigorously (or at all) for such a rational energy and climate policy? Not that I am aware of. Maybe that is because their position has always been primarily ideological and political, and only calls on science and evidence when it suits.




16 thoughts on “Science and the Greens

  1. Carson was highly influenced by Wilhelm Hueper, who refused to accept that lung cancer was caused by smoking. He said the data “unmistakingly suggest that cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer” and “it would be most unwise at this time to base future preventive measures of lung-cancer hazards mainly on the cigarette theory.” Just as Hueper did, Carson saw the new synthetic chemicals as the culprit to cancer’s “rise,” and she used anecdotes rather than data and statistical sleight of hand to do prove her points.

  2. “…ignoring the critical relationship between large-scale, centralised energy technologies and the corporate powers that control them.” Back to the corporations are evil meme. They miss a key point that denser is greener. As much as I dislike AB ImBev as a corporation making watery and tasteless “beer,” I cannot deny that they are greener due to economies of scale and using fewer resources. Their hideous beer is more eco-friendly, more sustainable than my homebrew.

  3. “[The Greens] position has always been primarily ideological and political, and only calls on science and evidence when it suits.” And climate change (and their anti-GMO stance) suits their anti-corporation, ant-capitalism, “Small is Beautiful” bias.

  4. Good article. Shared on Facebook. It’s time to turn the corner on the sticking points with certain environmentalists who are primarily ideological. There are many sensible actions being taken such as lobbying to preserve fish populations like the Menhaden fish which support a whole raft of other marine species (see the Pew Trust on this one) but the dogma about nuclear energy and about GMO’s means that much energy is wasted that should be put to better use. It’s just SO immature.

  5. Re : Sılent Sprıng the clue to the accuracy ıs ın the tıtle … apparently due to chemıcals all the bırds would dıe and the Sprıng would be sılent … ıs ıt ?
    … Is the hallmark of envıromental reportıng over hype or accuracy ?
    (aswell as bırds .. ıt could be saıd Sprıng ıs fılled wıth the screams of 1mıllıon mothers cryıng for chıldren lost from malarıa)

  6. I was with you up until the very end, when you seemed to agree with the illogical position that it would be better for China to invest in building a shale gas production and distribution infrastructure than to continue what they are already doing – building a large number of nuclear power plant in a series production fashion.

    The Chinese central planners, many of whom have excellent engineering educations, have figured out that nuclear power plants produce cheaper power than coal plants and that they require fewer supporting resources because their fuel delivery infrastructure is far less intrusive than the one required for their current coal plants or the one that they would have to build to support a system based on low energy density methane from deep shale deposits.

    By building nuclear plants in large quantities in a series fashion, the Chinese are taking advantage of the economy of mass production. They can learn lessons from early units and apply those lessons to later units. They can streamline supply chains and build skilled work forces that do not have to relearn their jobs with every new plant.

    They have also figured out something else about nuclear energy in the west – we did not pay attention to cost reduction as a significant measure of effectiveness. In fact, our vendors accepted onerous regulations because they were building at a time when their customers were rate regulated monopoly utilities who could always pass additional costs on to captive customers.

    Chinese customers are captive, but the government has no reason to want to expend any more resources in energy production than is necessary.

    One more thing – those nuclear plants that China is building emit about 1/100th as much CO2 as an equivalent methane fired power system – even when you include the entire construction life-cycle.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    • Hi Rod thanks for the info- totally agree new modular nuke designs would be a game changer- lots of other promising new nuclear technology waiting also I think? So I havnt looked that deeply into cost comparisons; it does seem gas has so far proved cheaper than nuclear in the US, or am I wrong? In any case in China it could be a different story, and yes they will surely go for the most cost-effective option.

      • There are two reasons why gas is currently cheaper than nuclear:

        1. Nuclear energy is subject to onerous regulation by the NRC, which often shows an anti-nuclear bias due to the interference of corrupt politicians in the pocket of fossil fuel profiteers. In Europe, one major example of corruption of this kind was the nuclear phase-out policy of Germany, introduced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who is now paid big money by a Gazprom subsidiary).
        2. In North America at least, the big oil companies are using their vast profits from selling motor vehicle fuels to subsidize natural gas (in order to eliminate the nuclear threat to their profits as much as possible).

      • Gas isn’t cheaper than nuclear. There is also more than one way to look at the cost figures. Would you rather spend 700 million on a gas plant and then spend $4 billion more for the next 4-5 years fueling it, or spend $4-5 billion on a nuclear plant and about $100 million to fuel it for the next 5 years? Sure, gas is cheap now but it doesn’t match or best nuclear for operational cost per kWh by a longshot. I confirmed this by looking it up on the EIA website as well.

        Nuclear, unlike lower density fuels, has ample opportunity to improve for the amount of energy yield and lowered costs given the right support framework.

      • @skepteco

        The Chinese are building both the Westinghouse AP1000 and the Areva EPR (the design that has famously had some difficulty in Finland and at Flammanville in France). They are learning and working out the kinks that are associated with any new building project.

        I do not know the final figures yet, but my industry sources tell me that the capital cost per unit of electrical output capacity for the AP1000 should be less than $2,000 per kilowatt by the second or third unit. When you put that cost into traditional levelized cost models, electricity from a nuclear plant costs about as much as electricity from a highly efficient, low capital cost gas plant burning natural gas selling at about $2.00 per MMBTU – far below the natural gas market price, even here in North America.

        The excessive capital costs in the United States are partially a result of regulations enforced by people who do not think they have any responsibility to enable nuclear energy. They work on their own schedules, take as much time as they want, and charge the applicant $274 for every hour that they spend reviewing the application. Every day of delay adds to the cost – it is not cheap to keep hundreds to thousands of skilled engineers on staff waiting for permission to begin working and producing. However, if the companies did not keep us on staff, they would not be ready to go when they get permission.

        The construction progress at Vogtle and VC Summer is going reasonably well, but they have already experienced several lengthy delays where the regulators added additional overhead without returning any real value to the project

    • Rod has also left this comment on his own blog, with links to other responses he has to both Dieter Helm and Prof. Muller- definitely worth checking out. Needless to say, this is the kind of discussion we should be having- unfortunately I spend most of my time challenging Greens who will countenance neither of the two principle options for low-carbon energy.

  7. There is a huge difference between environmental professionals and environmentalists.
    The environmental professionals must look at the whole range of environmental impacts while environmentalists generally focus on a cause celeb.

    In the US since the middle 70s large projects have EIS because of NEPA and must show insignificant environmental impact and consider alternatives like doing nothing. Environmental professionals face serious federal penalties for not telling the truth while environmentalists can say just about whatever they want to support their agenda.

    I work in the nuclear end of power industry. Rod Adams is just wrong. All large power plants have onerous regulation. Nuke plants like all plants must show they protect workers, people who live around the plant, and the environment. China is building nuke plants to the same standards as the west. Nuke plants in China are just like those we are building in the US.

    Speaking of cause celeb, AGW is one of those. What happens when power is lost for a few days? One bad things is the release of untreated sewage and the lack of clean drinking water. To become a environmental professionals you spend a lot of time learning about pathogen bacteria.

    So what do people worry about when cholera is problem other countries worry about? They make up stuff. There is a theory that climate might change 2 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years. People who advocate legalizing recreational drugs worry about mercury making their children stupid. They worry about ppt pesticide traces in their overpriced ethanol beverages.

  8. I do not know why Kit P misread my statement and believes I said that Chinese plants are being built to anything less than western standards. They are building western designs to western standards. The difference is that their regulatory body is working hard to ensure that nuclear energy is both safe and available. Ours claims to be focused solely on safety with no responsibility for making it available or economical.

    Kit is also wrong about the need for Environmental Impact Statements. Those are only required for “major federal decisions” by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Since building a coal or natural gas fired power plant does not require any kind of federal license, neither of those qualifies as a major federal decision and neither one requires a federal environmental impact statement reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Their might be state laws that require an environmental impact assessment, but they are generally less expansive and less expensive than federal equivalents. They also have a much more streamlined public hearing schedule.

  9. There is a process for resolving complex scientific and engineering issues. The standard for protecting workers from coal dust explosions or fatal doses of radiation is the same. The standard for protecting the environment is lower than protecting human life and health but it is the same for every way of making power.

    I am used to being told I am wrong by those who avoiding science and engineering rather than embracing it with a passion. Rod is an example of English major with a minor in drama. Rod embraces junk science as readily as anti-nukes.

    Since the US has 104 operating nukes and 6 under construction, the key performance indicators show that the NRC is not a barrier to nuclear power.

  10. I have been an environmentalist, including a professional one for a key period, for 40+ years. I changed my mind, and became decidedly pro-nuclear in ~ 2007 after restudying all the issues, carefully, one by one, for about two years. I was motivated by climate change to at least *consider* this alternative. As a result of my study of facts, as developed by scientists, I learned I had been badly wrong, on balance, about nuclear energy. I also learned that the forward potential of this young technology (the first human-controlled nuclear reaction was just 70 years ago) is phenomenal. I also learned that nuclear is, unlike its alternatives, powerful enough to abate climate change within the time frame that most scientists indicate we must make real progress, i.e., soon.

    I, too, am confused by the assertion that natural gas is a reasonably useful environmental strategy with respect to climate. Methane, massively released from natural gas production fields, is a much more powerful heat trapping case than carbon dioxide. The fact that it does not last as long does not matter, given the tight time frame in which human beings have to meaningfully confront the problem, according to the consensus of scientists. Promoting natural gas also tends to increase the power of incumbent fossil fuel (gas and oil) companies. Committed concern about climate is anathema to their fiduciary duties to their enterprises and stockholders, not to mention their ongoing business plans and imperatives.

    Think. Change. Act.

    Nuclear. Now.

  11. “that most scientists indicate we must make real progress, i.e., soon. ”

    Since when is consensus part of the environmental process? The other thing about being a professional is keeping your yap shut outside of your field of expertise.

    “environmentalist, including a professional ”

    Many environmental managers are lawyers. There know law, which is a good thing for keeping me out jail, but they do not know much about actually protecting the environment.

    “Promoting natural gas also tends to increase the power of incumbent fossil fuel (gas and oil) companies. ”

    Frank has the same lack of understanding of the power industry that Rod has. The fossil fuel industry does not make decision for the power industry. The reason we are building new nuke plants is that it is the best choice for our customers in the long term in many cases. This mostly because we are doing a better job of running the plants. For many years, I made a living fixing problems at nuke plants on the NRC watch list and bleeding cash. Nuke plants that solved the root cause of the problems had few problems and low operating costs. The plants with the best safety records have the lowest cost. It took a lot of hard work but the nuclear industry turned itself around. Part of that is avoiding consensus or group think. When one person stands up as says there is a problem, the reaction should not be to take a vote to see what the consensus is.

    In my last post I talked about a process. I use that process for making important like buying a house and a car. It is amazing that people who are the most concerned AGW live in big houses and buy lots of gasoline then the justify it by claiming stuff about efficiencies and where their power comes from.

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