Beware The Magic Bullets of Climate Change
The debate on tackling climate change often becomes transfixed by magic bullet technologies
When Nasa's satellite dedicated to climate monitoring crashed last month after lift-off, even the most rational scientist must have worried it was a bad omen.
The same month brought confirmation of worse-than-expected upward trends in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and new research suggesting that the threat posed by even small rises in global mean temperature is greater than previously thought.
The writing also seems to be on the wall, or rather in the fast-vanishing ice, for Spain's glaciers.
Desperate times might seem to call for desperate measures. And there is a tendency is to make a grab for the first and apparently the easiest solution to come to hand.
In this context, magic-bullet technological fixes are enjoying a renaissance. From nuclear power to GM crops, once-unpopular technologies are struggling anew for public acceptance. Some commentators associated with the green movement who were previously sceptical have voiced support, delighting some special interest groups but causing wider consternation.
Because the timeframe for action on global warming is so short, the choices we make about where we put our efforts for action are vital. Take the wrong road and the risk is that there will not be a second chance. So, are those who remain sceptical dogmatic and ideological, while those whose positions shift, open minded and rational?
Look, for example, at the issue of feeding a growing population in a warming world. For this reason alone, we are told, GM crops should be embraced. Yet recently, one of the most comprehensive scientific assessments yet undertaken on the future of farming globally, was profoundly ambiguous about the role and potential of GM crops. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was initiated by a combination of the World Bank and various UN bodies to do farming, health, the environment and development. Their set-up was roughly analogous to the IPCC's assessments on climate change.
The GM industry itself was involved until the findings went against them and they withdrew. The assessment concluded that GM crops may sometimes have a role, but were in many cases unpromising and unproven. A separate UN report on farming in Africarecently found that, 'Simply applying the "industrial" agricultural models of the twentieth century into the twenty-first as a single, global solution will not serve us well.' It went on to say specifically that 'organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long-term.' [http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ditcted200715_en.pdf]
What about a rational case for nuclear power as an energy fix for global warming? One problem for the new found advocates is time scale. If begun today, over the next crucial eight years and possibly significantly longer, any newly commissioned nuclear generating capacity will make no contribution at all to emissions reductions. It could, however, inadvertently push emissions up by redirecting funds away from cheaper, more efficient and quicker to implement alternatives, such as energy efficiency, conservation and renewables.
In one of a number of similar studies, the UK Sustainable Development Commission found that, even in the face of climate change, the nation's energy needs could be met without recourse to nuclear power. In addition, it made the point that nuclear energy came with serious unsolved problems to do with long-term waste, cost, inflexibility and international security.
The British government's own original white paper on energy was similarly dismissive of nuclear power and enthusiastic about renewables. Several studies have highlighted the so-called "voodoo economics" of the nuclear industry.
Even nuclear's recent track record with the latest technology has been, at best, unimpressive. A Finnish nuclear plant, for example, that in 2002 was the first for a decade to be commissioned in Europe, was meant to be finished in 2009 at a cost of €3.2 billion. It's currently €2.2 billion over budget and at least three years behind schedule.
So there are clearly other reasons why the debate on tackling climate change so often becomes transfixed by magic bullet technologies. Partly it is the impact of highly effective special interest lobbying. But there is clearly something else, more psychological going on, that possibly has a parallel with party politics.
In reaction to its years of electoral isolation, the Labour party ended up fiercely embracing and internalising the neo-liberal economic agenda it once rejected. With whole economies collapsing, it was a conversion that turned-out rather badly. Now, in a broadly comparable dynamic, some environmentalists are ditching their former analysis for faith in technologies that shine the brightest and shout the loudest.
Where climate change is concerned, the absolute urgency of action makes it even more vital not that we just do anything, but that we do the right thing.
93 months and counting ...
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited 2009