Eco-warriors may think they're saving the planet, but are they actually harming it?by Dick Taverne / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
The green movement has done much to warn us about climate change. But now that global warming is widely accepted, do green campaigners do more to hinder than help us tackle it? They stress the likelihood of catastrophe if we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They urge governments to adopt demanding targets and they tell us what we must not do. Don’t fly, don’t drive unless you have to, don’t build new power stations, whether fired by coal, gas or oil—let alone by nuclear reactions. Apply the precautionary principle just in case technological developments might damage the environment. Their song is: “Accentuate the negative.”
But is this the best way to win support? The trouble with prohibitions and prophecies of doom is that they seldom motivate positive action. In their book Breakthrough (March 2009), Nordhaus and Shellenberger ask if Martin Luther King would have inspired the civil rights movement with the cry: “I have a nightmare.” If you are told armageddon is inevitable unless you give up the things you care for, fatalism is the likely response. Yet sensational scare stories—like about “Frankenfoods!”—are the stock in trade of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Scares recruit members.
Tirades against car use, for example, do not reduce car use, because most people depend on their car for shopping, taking children to school and other activities important to their lives. People also like cars because they increase choice. In fact it has been plausibly estimated that by 2050 there will be four times as many in the world as there are today, whatever we do. The best way to reduce carbon emissions from motorcars is therefore through technology: using a different source of power, like environmentally friendly biofuels or rechargable batteries.
Britain is faced with two problems: reduction of carbon emissions and security of power supply. Yet green campaigners tend to ignore the latter. Greenpeace’s demonstration against the King’s North coal-fired power station was, for them, a great success. (Plans for the plant have now been postponed or shelved, though the company blames a “lack of demand.”) But what if we build no new coal-fired stations? Old ones will have to be closed because they will not meet the EU’s environmental standards. Old nuclear power plants, which supply 16 per cent of our electricity, will soon be phased out too and new ones, bitterly opposed by greens, will only slowly come…