Do not conflate environmentalism with technology advocacy: a response to the Ecologist

As ordinary citizens with long interest and concern for environmental issues, we were gratified to see our book, Climate Gamble, being noticed on the pages of the Ecologist (Nuclear lobbyists’ epic COP21 fail. Our next job? Keep their hands off climate funds, Jim Green, 16th Dec 2015). We believe it is high time these issues are mentioned in a magazine that claims to have been “setting the environmentalist agenda since 1970.”

This is because the world is changing and the established environmental agenda is no longer the only game in environmentalist town. We understand this upsets some members of the entrenched environmentalist elite, but feel that we have no choice in the matter. For close to half a century now, the traditional environmentalist movement has been trying to convert the world’s peoples to its vision of “sustainable” future. We are the first to acknowledge it has enjoyed considerable and most welcome successes here and there. But so far, everything that has been tried has failed even to stop the growth of CO2 emissions, let alone drive them down to sustainable levels.

We in the new ecomodernist movement believe this state of affairs will unfortunately continue as long as being an “environmental activist” implicitly means the acceptance of the strictures of this traditional movement. The party line of traditional environmentalism is dominated by Western-centric discourse of apocalypse and redemption, Leftist political thought, and extremely black and white views on specific technologies and of people. Technologies in particular tend to be seen either as wholly good or wholly bad, while strictest censure seems to be reserved not to people who oppose environmental action, but to people who agree with traditional environmentalism on many but not all issues: witness, for example, a related vicious attack calling James Hansen of all people a climate denier — simply because he’s afraid we do not have enough tools to stop dangerous climate change!

We believe that in order to have a chance against climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental problems, the environmental movement needs to break out from its traditional self-righteous, self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating niche. Me and Rauli, the writers of Climate Gamble, both agree with approximately nine tenths of what the traditional environmental movement is preaching: but we also recognise that there are many who, for various reasons, cannot see themselves supporting the creed of traditional environmentalism.

The irony is that many of these people are genuinely concerned about the environment and the future of our planet. There are obviously those who couldn’t care less, and others who benefit from environmental degradation; but among those who view traditional environmentalism with suspicion are also thoughtful and concerned people who can be mobilised for the environmental cause. However, to do so we need to provide them with alternative environmental movements.

In our case, we have been building the new ecomodernist movement to unite those who care deeply about the environmental and social justice but disagree with traditional environmentalist party line on some of the methods used to reach those goals. What Jim Green and the Ecologist got entirely wrong in their article is the idea that our goal is to split or divide the environmental movement. In fact, we have been among the founders of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland precisely because we wish to avoid such a split.

For years now, there has been a budding civil war between environmentalists who have come to question some of the tenets of traditional environmentalism — the unflinching opposition to nuclear power being one example — and the traditional environmental establishment. We, who feel the threat of climate change outweighs the disadvantages of nuclear power, have tried to influence traditional movements with facts and argument. However, we now realise this strategy has been predicated on a fundamental error. Certain cherished stances such as opposition to nuclear power tend to be deeply rooted questions of identity, and many individuals are unlikely to ever change their stance on the matter. There are good arguments against nuclear power, and undoubtedly there will be in the future.

We believe that trying to “split” the traditional environmental movement is futile. What’s worse, it’s counterproductive: at this hour, everyone concerned about the environment or the future of humanity needs to work together. Time spent on internecine attacks is time not spent on fighting the real enemy, the fossil fuel interests. Therefore, we are not even trying to split the environmental movement: we are trying to add to it. By providing a platform for people who care about the environment but for some reason or another do not care about the existing environmental organisations, we mobilise more people for the environmental cause. In a recent Facebook poll, nearly 60 percent of Finnish Ecomodernists (the most rapidly growing environmental movement in Finland, by the way) had never been active in any environmental movement whatsoever. Some of those marched for the environment for the first time in the 29th November Climate March in Helsinki. Is bringing more people to environmental activism really a bad thing?

Only by conflating environmentalism with anti-nuclear activism and uncritical renewable energy boosterism — which unfortunately seems to be fairly common — can one sustain the false belief that we aren’t environmentalists. We care about our common planet just as much and sometimes more than traditional environmentalists: for me, for example, one key reason to promote nuclear as well was the insufficient ambition of traditional environmental movement’s decarbonisation scenarios. Other reasons include concern about huge land areas that would be harnessed for human use in more ambitious renewable energy scenarios (WWF, for example, suggests using more acreage to energy farms alone than the world currently uses for wheat, its most important cereal crop), concerns about sustainability of large-scale biomass use, or worries about the impact of dams or vastly increased mining activity required to supply materials for the spread of the “windustrial complex.” We are deeply alarmed how the traditional environmental movement has become, in effect, an uncritical advocate for a very particular techno-political regime, one with potentially major environmental and social impacts.

In summary, we believe things are not as black and white as the traditional environmentalist establishment seems to want us to believe. We also believe in cooperation and in healthy debate and want to work harder in the future to avoid painting anyone as “enemy” — particularly not those who already agree with us on most things. This is no time for making enemies: there are already plenty enough among those who’d benefit from continued fossil fuel use.

We also believe in evidence-based policy making. As of now, evidence still suggests that even the best achievements of renewable energy, laudable as they are, have come nowhere close to achieving the carbon cuts now needed. In fact, as we make clear in Climate Gamble, the decarbonisation records are still held by countries who decarbonised by accident, with nuclear power.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.010

Best 10-year per capita decarbonisation rates achieved. From CDIAC data.

Furthermore, evidence also suggests that scenarios where world energy demand is to be met with renewables alone make heroic assumptions about reducing total energy demand, while simultaneously assuming even more heroic increases in build rates of new energy generation.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.006

Sustained energy efficiency increase and new energy build rates that are required for 100% RE and technology neutral climate mitigation. Based on Loftus et al. (2015), A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 6(1), 93-112.

Had Jim Green bothered to read our book or check the statistics himself, he would have learned that our assertion he ridicules is perfectly correct. Even the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 nuclear project in Finland turns out to be very fast way of adding low-carbon energy production, when this is compared in any meaningful way to any real-world combination of alternatives. In terms of kilowatt hours of generation added per capita (a comparison that actually downplays what nuclear energy has historically done: a GDP- or PPP-normalised comparison would have been even more relevant), Olkiluoto 3 turns out to be some 50% faster (or better, depending on your viewpoint) than the entire wind power project of Denmark, for example – and well over two times faster than the oft-lauded accomplishments of Germany in both wind and solar combined. Granted, we believe and earnestly hope that these renewable records will be broken in the future, but it is still clear that even badly managed nuclear projects can add substantial chunks of low-carbon energy generation reasonably rapidly. Nuclear is no silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool we shouldn’t dismiss lightly. What’s more, we believe we should work towards solving the problems of nuclear power, not just point them out: for example, developing new reactor types to deal with long-lived waste should be a priority for everyone concerned about nuclear waste.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.011

We are not as arrogant as to claim to know how exactly the world is powered in 2050, 35 years from now. Questions such as these are highly complex and there are no exact answers. We only believe that it is far too early to entirely foreclose some options for the entire planet. We also believe that the desire for some to do so has more to do with all too human tendencies for ex post rationalisation, confirmation bias and groupthink than with genuinely balanced appraisal of alternatives.

If we now oppose nuclear power yet fail to prevent dangerous climate change — a future that seems uncomfortably likely — future generations will continue to ask for as long as humanity survives: might the rising seas have been stopped in time and the deadly heat waves been avoided, or at least mitigated, if only nuclear power hadn’t been opposed so strenuously?

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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