Greens bury their heads in the sands of technology

My opinion piece from last week’s Research Fortnight:

Greens Bury their Heads in the Sands of Technology

Last month, the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory signed a memo- randum of understanding with the National Ignition Facility of the US in a bid to develop clean energy from nuclear fusion. Although the nuclear fusion idea has been around for decades, there appears to be a new sense of optimism and credibility around its potential as a real energy source. Announcing the agreement at the Institute of Physics, science minister David Willetts argued that nuclear fusion can no longer be dismissed as something on the far horizon.

Affordable, low-carbon energy has to be the dream environmental ticket. It would end the need to implore people to make difficult lifestyle changes or choose between the economy or the environment. It would end fuel poverty. And today’s conversations about carbon taxes and personal carbon allowances would become as arcane as slide-rules and pounds, shillings and pence.

Surprising, then, that environmental groups have said so little about the announcement—you might rea- sonably have expected to hear their loud calls for more investment and faster development.

But lack of enthusiasm from green groups for nucle- ar fusion is entirely consistent with their ambivalence towards almost every other emerging technology in the past few decades. From alternative aviation fuels to geoengineering—even as a last resort—their cry is always: “We have all the technologies we need”.

For most of us that statement doesn’t make sense— their position reveals how green groups’ attitudes to science and technology are being driven as much by a particular view about how people should live their lives as by a desire to safeguard the environment. Specifically, at the heart of their world view is the idea that that environmental problems are caused by human interference. Logically, the solutions that follow involve humans withdrawing and having a lighter touch on the environment.

The history of science and technology tells a different story, of humans intervening to solve difficult problems, often in a short space of time. Science has changed human immunodeficiency virus from a death sentence to a chronic illness, more people are surviving longer after cancer, and we’ve been to the moon—all the result of focusing human ingenuity and resources on a problem. Even the internal combustion engine, the source of our current environmental worries, has helped create lifestyles and opportunities that previous generations never dreamed of. Yes, there are sometimes unintend- ed side effects, but it is usually more, not less, science that eventually addresses these. Far from having all of the technologies we need, if problems such as climate change are seen as the consequence of a society lum- bered with outdated, inappropriate technologies, then we are in desperate need of new, transformative ones. Tackling climate change and finding a low-carbon energy source that really is too cheap—and clean—to-meter could be our generation’s moon-shot.

The prize would be huge. Apart from the financial benefits, clean, cheap energy might sustain the quality of people’s lives and economic growth as well as safe-guard the environment.

Whatever that source is, it will need investment on an unprecedented scale; US President Barack Obama has called for $150 billion to be spent on clean technol- ogy research as a ‘down payment’ on what will really be needed. More recently google.org’s clean-energy project calculated that while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target to reduce emissions by 80 per by 2050 was difficult, meeting it would require a much more ‘aggressive’ innovation policy than we have.

Furthermore, they argued that a mere five-year delay in starting this ‘aggressive’ investment in clean ener- gy research could cost the US economy an aggregate $2.3 trillion to $3.2tn in unrealised GDP gains, 1.2 mil- lion to 1.4m net jobs, and result in an increase of between 8 and 28 gigatons in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In other words, it might seem costly now, but the economic and environ- mental price we will pay in the future will be much higher.

If tackling climate change at any cost is the aim of environmental campaigners, then far from claiming we have all the technologies we need, they should be taking a hard look at these figures and mobilising their sup- porters to demand that this investment is found urgently.

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