George Monbiot is a terrific green Scrooge. Last week, the UK’s most popular and widely read environmental writer penned a cheery new column titled, “The Kiss of Death.” (The headline in the Guardian version is not quite so black.) In it, he rails against the culture of consumerism and advises people to stop buying (for their loved ones) the usual array of made-for-landfill Christmas toys and to instead:
Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
The sanctimony of some greens is truly a renewable source. It never seems to run out. I say that as somewhat of a Monbiot fan. He’s got his head screwed on straight when it comes to the nuclear power issue, but man is he a downer, too.
Earlier in the year, after Monbiot realized that Peak Oil was no longer just around the corner, he got himself worked up into a tizzy:
There is enough oil in the ground to deepfry the lot of us, and no obvious means by which we might prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground…Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.
George, I know what you can do to make yourself feel better: Bake a cake, write a poem, give your children a kiss, but for god’s sake, stop the preachy moralizing. All it shows is that you’re holier-than-thou.
It’s really a shame that the U.S. environmental community doesn’t have anyone with the chops or reputation of George Monbiot, the popular British columnist. Monbiot, who has a high profile perch at the Guardian, combines essential talents for a communicator: He is lucid, engaging, and smart. He is also not afraid to call out his own constituency.
For example, Monbiot this year has shredded European greens for their anti-science position on nuclear power, and laid out the implications of this for climate change. (I wrote about his methodical takedowns here.) He’s at it again in his latest column, with a damning indictment that begins:
It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.
As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medievel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.
The U.S. green movement isn’t infected with the same strain of anti-nuclear hysteria (at least not anymore) as its European cousins. But it’s still surprising to see baseless nuclear fear-mongering from self-professed champions of science who counsel urgent action on climate change. When it comes to peddling disinformation on risks and harms associated with nuclear power, the anti-nuclear crowd, as Monbiot says in his column, is second to none:
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.
Remember, this is coming from a card-carrying environmentalist, who worries as deeply as anyone about the health of the planet and the threats posed to it by climate change.
Were there only more like him, speaking truth to green woo.
We are living in strange times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative politician and until a few months ago, a longtime supporter of nuclear power, has vowed to shutter her nation’s 17 nuclear reactors and make renewable power, such as wind and solar, Germany’s dominant source of energy by 2030.
Meanwhile, staunch British environmentalist George Monbiot, the popular Guardian columnist and a former nuclear foe, has recently argued in a series of forceful columns that the nuclear risks are overstated and that ramping up nuclear power is the only way to meet the world’s rising energy needs and also reduce carbon emissions.
Let me acknowledge that they are not equal players. Merkel is a head of a state, who has the power to make government policy. Monbiot is a pundit, who has the power to influence public debate.
How did we get here?
Well, Merkel’s and Monbiot’s respective transformations were each set in motion by the recent tsunami in Japan and the resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, which still has not been resolved. They have viewed the accident through very different lenses, however.
To Monbiot, an “old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami.” And yet, for everything that’s gone wrong, “as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation,” he wrote in March. In that column, he concluded:
Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.
Merkel’s reaction was just the opposite, and it is startling, given that, as Christian SchwÃ¤gerl recounts in this Yale E360 article, “Only last year, she [Merkel] fought to extend the operation time of Germany’s reactors by 12 years on average, against fierce opposition from the left and environmental groups.” In his piece, SchwÃ¤gerl tries to deciper Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power:
In my view, the key to the chancellor’s radical turnaround lies deep in her past. In the 1980s, well before she became a politician, Merkel worked in the former East Germany as a researcher in quantum chemistry, examining the probability of events in the subatomic domain. Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics. Opponents of nuclear energy were “bad at assessing risks,” she told me in the 1990s.
Then came the March disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which made the chancellor realize that she had been terribly wrong about the probability of a nuclear catastrophe in a highly advanced nation. Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany “” not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act.
“It’s over,” she told one of her advisers immediately after watching on TV as the roof of a Fukushima reactor blew off. “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”
Meanwhile, back in England, Monbiot had launched himself on a fact-finding mission to reassess the risks of nuclear power. He came to a completely different conclusion than Merkel. In a column last month, Monbiot says he “made a deeply troubling discovery”:
The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.
Monbiot’s sudden embrace of nuclear power is largely driven by his concern over climate change. His is not the first high profile conversion. In recent years, Stewart Brand, an icon of the environmental movement and the founder of Whole Earth Catalog, has famously become a big booster of nuclear power. Climate change has also made a believer out of NASA climate scientist James Hansen. While I wouldn’t put him in the same boosterish category as Brand, Hansen is not shy about talking up the need for nuclear power.
In his recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen writes that, “it seems clear that efficiency and renewable energies will not be sufficient to allow phaseout of coal.” Like Monbiot, Hansen doesn’t believe that clean tech is ready for primetime–at least not at the global level.
But it’s also not ready to power England’s energy needs, according to a group of advisors to the UK government, known as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Earlier this week, the group issued a report that said the fastest way to a low-carbon future for England would be to include nuclear power. It projects that by 2030, about 40 percent of the UK’s energy needs could be met by nuclear, and 40 percent by renewables. As CCC’s chief executive David Kennedy told BBC News, “nuclear at the moment looks like the lowest cost low-carbon option.”
In contrast, Germany’s Merkel has put forward a plan that takes nuclear power out of the picture altogether. As SchwÃ¤ger writes in his article:
The numbers that circulate in Berlin’s government district at the moment are staggering. Merkel’s administration plans to shut down the nuclear reactors “” which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany’s huge needs as baseload electricity “” by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.
Is this realistic? “The new course is a huge challenge in terms of cost and feasibility,” SchwÃ¤ger concludes. He does the math and finds that “three quarters of Germany’s electricity sources will have to be replaced by green technology within just a few decades, if the nuclear phase-out and the CO2 goals are to be accomplished.”
It seems to me that Merkel, in removing nuclear power from the energy equation, is perhaps making her ambitious plan more challenging and less doable than it need be. The no nukes strategy also isn’t necessarily a path that some experts believe should be emulated on a global level. As MIT’s John Deutch said in 2009:
Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions.
In yesterday’s Financial Times, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute echo Deutch:
Put simply, there is no credible path to stabilising, much less reducing, global carbon emissions without more nuclear power. We are a planet of 6bn people, heading toward 9bn. Even with better energy efficiency, global energy demand will soon double, perhaps triple. Without nuclear power, the vast majority of that demand will be met by fossil energy.
If there is a middle ground “” one that includes nuclear and renewables, then it appears that Japan is vowing to stake it out. Despite the catastrophes it’s been hit with, Japan has signaled that it isn’t about to stop using nuclear power. But at the same time, Japan’s prime minister has just announced that renewables and conservation will become two new pillars of Japanese energy policy.
Time will tell which of these countries “” England, Germany, or Japan “” have charted the quickest path to a low carbon future that can meet all their energy needs.
At Climate Central, I take stock of Monbiot’s recent onslaught against the anti-nuclear movement. Check it out and chime in over there.
P.S.- The RSS feed for Frontier Earth is now fixed. Also, comments will be approved promptly (except when I’m asleep!).
George Monbiot is on quite a tear. His latest riposte begins:
Over the last fortnight I’ve made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.
Today’s unambiguous rebuke to the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental movement (coming on the heels of Monbiot’s recent string of pro-nuclear columns) represents a serious challenge to climate advocates who don’t support nuclear power as a bridge fuel until renewables can be scaled up to help meet the meet the world’s energy needs.
It’s a interesting double-bind for environmentalists, of course: if large scientific collaborations are corrupt (as is claimed about nuclear) that leaves large scientific collaborations on climate change (which have essentially identical governance and participating institutions) where, exactly? Conversely, if climate change is bolstered by “listen to the science!” then that leaves the nuclear science where, exactly? Watching a man struggle with cognitive dissonance is always amusing, but in this case strangely moving: the first paragraph has the decency to admit that when it came to wild scaremongering, George was in the front ranks.
Monbiot is in for another wild ride this week. This one is going to be interesting.
Well, George, I did warn you.
Here is Monbiot, sounding gobsmacked by the outcry to his recent pro-nuclear power column:
The accusations have been so lurid that I had to read my article again to reassure myself that I hadn’t written the things that so many of my correspondents say I wrote.
Not everyone is foaming at the mouth, though. One Monbiot fan tweets a great zinger:
It wasn’t that long ago that George Monbiot was accusing Stewart Brand of
running the most insidious and subtle exercise in corporate propaganda I have yet encountered.
I thought it was a tad hyperbolic. But that was then.
It turns out that both of these environmentalist icons share remarkably similar views on nuclear power, coal, and renewable energy.
For example, in a current interview with Foreign Policy, Brand says,
The main event, the century-size problem we’re looking at, is climate change. But frankly, if climate were not an issue by now, I would still be saying we need to go nuclear because it is the alternative to coal — and coal is all by itself such very large-scale, long-term bad news.
Here’s Monbiot in this week’s column for the Guardian:
the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.
Ah, the bonds that tie. Both Monbiot and Brand are now members of the Lonely Hearts nuclear fan club for greens.
Have you ever known someone too proud or pigheaded to admit he was wrong? Let’s say it was a particular claim this person made, that turned out to be false, but which the person couldn’t admit to getting wrong. Would this then lead you to think that the person’s stubbornness in this one instance masks a nefarious, hidden agenda?
George Monbiot thinks this is the case with Stewart Brand, the legendary (and, in recent years, controversial) techno-environmentalist. Last week, Monbiot wrote the second of two back-to-back columns on Brand, of which this was the subtitle:
The environmentalist is refusing to retract false claims that there was a worldwide ban on pesticide DDT. Does his obstinacy mask a hidden, pro-corporate agenda elsewhere?
Dear Stuart Brand: If we can’t trust your claims on DDT, why should we trust you on anything else?
Let’s go back to some recent history concerning Monbiot and “climategate,” of which a good number of people feel pretty strongly about. Funny thing, I wasn’t seeing any posts from Tim Lambert with headlines like this:
Dear George Monbiot: If we can’t trust your claims on “Climategate,” why should we trust you on anything else.”
he [Monbiot] still hasn’t apologised for condemning the CRU without reading the evidence…he still hasn’t acknowledged his part in the witch hunt that was called climategate.
I’m going to leave it up to Tim Lambert to tell me if this is true or not, since I didn’t see any response by him to that reader. (Come to think of it, were there any posts by Tim on Monbiot in the aftermath of “climategate” assessing Monbiot’s role?)
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s true (and anyone should feel free to weigh in on this)–that Monbiot has yet to admit or acknowledge “his part in the witch hunt that was called climategate.” Might the subtitle of that hypothetical Lambert post, taking Monbiot to task, read:
The environmentalist is refusing to retract false claims that were made about about the behavior of CRU scientists. Does his obstinacy mask a hidden, anti-scientist agenda elsewhere?
It’s coming up on a year since the email hack. Maybe Monbiot will devote his next column to a retrospective look back at his series of responses. Or maybe he’ll continue to make a mountain out of a semantic molehill and dazzle us with an email chain that is notable for his passive-aggressive tone and pretentiously polite salutations.
It’s pretty one-sided, with George Monbiot continuing to land all the punches. But in going for the knockout, Monbiot swings and misses hugely.
When I first came across your work, I took it at face value. As I read more, I began to wonder if you are not, as you claim, pioneering a new form of environmentalism, but a new form of corporate consultancy. You seem to be seeking to shape the environmental debate to suit the businesses you work for. Our correspondence does nothing to dispel this impression. Can you disabuse me of my suspicions?
You are more dangerous than the other corporate-sponsored adversaries of the green movement. You don’t deny that climate change is happening. You don’t get abusive, you remain polite and charming, you sound reasonable at all times. You are, as a result, a more effective operator than them: you have persuaded a lot of influential people that you are working for the good of the planet. I fear you are running the most insidious and subtle exercise in corporate propaganda I have yet encountered. As a result, no one, until now, has called you out on it. With this response, that changes.
Well, to my eyes, Monbiot is swinging wildly with the charge of Brand being little more than a corporate shill. It’s too bad, too, because Monbiot was clearly winning on points with all the tight jabs that did hit their mark in his latest post. I say Monbiot misses with the corporate shill roundhouse because 1) he relies on Sourcewatch, which as we’ve already learned, is not a neutral source of information and 2) that particular SourceWatch page on the Global Business Network hasn’t been updated in two years. (Look at the “history” at the top of the page).
Additionally, if Brand is undermining his own credibility with his refusal to admit error (on this score Monbiot is right), then Monbiot undermines his own takedown of Brand with his speculation of motive via guilt-by-association. Yet another case where a pundit can’t help himself from overreaching, even after he’s scored most of the points.
Moreover, Monbiot, with his guilt-by-association gambit, has forfeited the high ground and given Brand, should he choose to counter, an easy opening to turn the focus on the most fantastic (and least substantiated) charge against him.
UPDATE: In their continuing email exchange, Brand responds to Monbiot:
I’m amazed and intrigued by the fictional character you’ve attached my real name to””the sinister corporate pawn.