A load of greenwash

Eco-warriors may think they're saving the planet, but are they actually harming it?
October 21, 2009

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 into use. Imported oil offers no security and will probably become unaffordably expensive when the recession ends. And renewables, now a tiny proportion of our sources of electricity, cannot possibly fill the gap. In practice, renewables mean mainly wind power, which has to be backed by fossil-fuelled stations for the days when the wind does not blow. To stop the lights going out, then, we will have to depend on gas from Russia—that is, on Putin’s goodwill and the hope that Gazprom will undergo a miraculous conversion to efficiency. Its present incompetent management and lack of investment suggests that in time most of its production will be needed by Russia itself.

Both of these problems—carbon emissions and energy security—will therefore not be solved by calls for a change of lifestyle or by dramatic attacks on the towers of Kings North, but by science and technology. Of all the major current sources of electricity in the world, coal is likely to grow fastest, and so a massive investment to solve the technical problems of carbon capture and storage (see Damian Kayha’s account of this developing technology) is obviously what is needed.

Will an international deal at Copenhagen on binding targets for reducing emissions be the spur to such investment? Even if such agreement is reached, will targets be enforced and achieved? Kyoto is not a happy precedent. At the time we were told that those targets were essential to any hope of averting climate catastrophe. Ignoring the fact that important countries like US and China did not sign the treaty, those who did performed no better in limiting emissions than those who did not. Currently, in terms of carbon emissions per head, France and Sweden are among the best performers—France because 80 per cent of its electricity is generated by nuclear power, while Sweden relies heavily on hydroelectric power as well.

What matters more than targets, then, is progress with technology, and here the greens’ approach generally suffers from a fundamental weakness: a mistrust of science. The precautionary principle is either so obvious it is otiose—“If there is significant evidence of risk, be careful”—or so vague as to be are virtually meaningless, or positively harmful. It tells us that even when there is no significant scientific evidence of harm, no product should be licensed unless first proved safe. This is impossible because science cannot prove certainties. It also concentrates entirely on risk, without weighing risk against benefit.

If, as I believe, the application of science and technology is the best hope for mitigating or adapting to global warming, the obvious conclusion is that green campaigners, for all their good intentions, ultimately do more harm than good.