Not only would nuclear buy us some time, but it could knock the US off its perch.
John Stephenson is a politics student at Lancaster University
The economist John Broome compares climate change initiatives to the purchasing of a fire extinguisher; you don’t know if your home will catch alight, but the acquirement of such a commodity is wise to say the least.
Unfortunately however, the occurrence of global catastrophe resulting from climate change is a tad more likely than a simple house fire. Global warming entails the politics of uncertainty and it was only until recently that a ‘do nothing’ approach was employed by governments around the world.
However, perhaps the green movement itself is also guilty of failures; with inner-circle disputes preventing the lobbying of government departments and opening the door to external criticism.
I would argue that environmentalists face two distinct choices: either push on with a united front or give up and focus on preventative action in the face of disaster.
For one, there needs to be a consensus within the greens as to which course of action to take. Activists are more fractured than would typically be expected, with fundamental disagreements over renewable energy projects such as solar power and wind farms.
We only need to look as far as James Lovelock, one of the Green movement’s most prominent figures, for evidence of such discord. Earlier this year he denounced wind farms as potential “monuments of a failed civilisation”. He added that the original intentions of the movement had been twisted, stating
“We never intended a fundamentalist Green movement that rejected all energy sources other than renewable, nor did we expect the Greens to cast aside our priceless ecological heritage because of their failure to understand that the needs of the Earth are not separable from human needs.”
An inherently paradoxical situation persists in which campaigners protest against the dumping of nuclear waste while turning a blind eye to more immediate concerns. Yes, the waste from power stations such as Sizewell B may be radioactive in ten thousand years, but according to the British Geological Survey, the potential damage from noxious gases such as Methane Hydrate is likely to occur next century.
If such conflicts cannot be resolved, then mitigation may be the answer and the need for such a change of focus is accentuated by the bleak outlook for climate change policy. In light of the economic downturn, EU member states such as France and the UK have slashed renewable energy investment, and Germany looks set to halt government support for solar power by 2015.
The World Bank seems to have cottoned on to this reality, increasing its contributions to the developing world by $100 million and doubling the funding towards adaption.
The reasoning behind such decisions takes into account the greater impact developing countries will experience in comparison to countries north of the Brandt line. By 2020, up to 250 million people in Africa could be exposed to greater risk of water stress and the UNFCC predicts that the amount of international aid required by developing countries to adapt to global warming is between $28-67 billion – amounting to 0.2-0.8 of all global investment.
Assuming the head in the sand attitude of global governance continues, however, such investment looks unfeasible. Furthermore, as good as protests are at attracting attention, environmentalists cannot compete with corporate firms when it comes to legal challenges and mediation, as the disparity of wealth is immense.
Greenpeace’s 2012 budget of around 200 million, for instance, is miniscule when compared to that of an oil giant such as BP, which in 2010 spent 100 million on advertising alone. As defeatist as it seems, some greens actually push for a system which incorporates the very greed and self-interest that often blocks environmental protection.
Radical proposals such as ‘eco-capitalism’ and ‘free-market environmentalism’ are not unheard of, but these assume the willingness of national states to consider the use of ‘natural capital’.
If there is to be a compromise then I would suggest that nuclear energy is the way forward. Not only would it buy us some time, but it could knock the US off its perch. At present, the US holds around a third of the world’s coal and half its oil shale; and peak usage is likely to be reached within 200 years, seeing a significant increase in the price of fuel.
Yet our prospects needn’t be so bleak. According to the nuclear energy institute, worldwide nuclear energy avoids the emission of around 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year; the State’s own Department of Energy labelled it the ‘single most effective emission control strategy’.
It is obvious that a new plan of action is needed. Environmental debates are much like Obama’s confrontations with Congress. Although in this instance, while more long and drawn out, the consequences could be deadly.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.