I remember being a young idealist on various environmental issues, in particular, climate change, energy, and food. Decidedly I would ride that green wave of renewables and organics into oblivion and back again. For me, back then there was no compromise, regardless of the information I was exposed to. Thankfully, with age, I have grown what I consider to be a little wiser, as so much of what I was exposed to that influenced my decisions was based on ideological and political motives.
By and large most climate scientists agree that a rise in global temperature in the near future is inevitable, by how much is another question. Mitigating the effects is becoming less of an option as time goes on adaptation is quickly becoming humanities remaining option. The next century will be a defining moment for the planet and all its inhabitants. We will either attempt to preserve what we currently cherish or walk blindfolded into unknown territory.
Although one must ask what is the meaning of adaptation? There are dozens of definitions, and quite often many differ in opinion. UNDP define adaptation as
“A process by which strategies to moderate, cope with and take advantage of the consequences of climatic events are enhanced, developed, or implemented.”
Whereas, the IPCC, in their most recent report, state that adaptation is, “The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effect.”
Regardless of how adaptation is framed, there remains an inherent issue, which is our ability of interpretation. As a consequence, it can suit any agenda, ideology, political identity, and goal. This is where both climate change and adaptation run into a wall and hinders our ability to deal with associated issues successfully.
Climate change is described as a ‘wicked problem,’ which is defined as being an issue so complex that it resists a solution, as there are so many interconnected systems and differing ideas that tend to evolve over time. 18th-century writer H.L. Mencken encapsulated this in one statement: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” And like the climate change issue, adaptation finds itself falling victim as being a wicked problem.
Humanities inaction and disagreement on climate change and adaptive options cover a broad demographic from informal discussion to scientific debate to political bickering. This has played a significant role in the all too evident inaction on the issues at hand, at least on a meaningful level.
Environment writer, Mark Lynas, argued in The Guardian that, “one’s position on global warming has become a badge of political identity in a debate driven by ideological and tribal conflicts.” Lynas’ concepts of ideological and tribal conflicts are rife throughout the climate change and adaptation debate. However, none quite compares to genetic engineering (GE) and nuclear energy.
GE and nuclear energy are two promising adaptive technologies for both adapting to a warmer world and mitigating carbon emissions. However, they also represent and highlight adaptations wicked problems. Ideology and political identity play significant roles in both areas and will be major barriers to climate change adaptation.
In Asia where vast numbers of poor people depend on agriculture, drought, flooding, and plant pathogens are a constant threat to their livelihoods. The IPCC states that the globe will experience increased extreme weather events and that the impact on agriculture will be significant. GE crops are being planted and experimented with across the continent, their traits are being specifically designed to drought tolerance, flood resistance, and are reducing the volume of pesticides and herbicides applied to crops. Another important factor is income gains for farmers, which is due to the lessening of external inputs. All of which can be argued as an adaptation to future climate change.
Despite these advances, green groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, fuelled by ideological and political agendas oppose GE, along with famous figures such as Vandana Shiva. They harbour a militaristic resolve against GE and regularly purvey notions of the apocalyptic nature of the technology citing risks to health, environmental disasters, and alleged crimes against humanity. This stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific consensusand on the ground reality on the safety and environmental, social, economical, and climate benefits of the adaptive technology.
Similar to GE, using nuclear energy to adapt our power hungry world falls into the same wicked problem category. Renewables are often mentioned as the way forward to replace fossil fuels, and it is theoretically possible. However, reality and time beg to differ. According to the IEA renewables, excluding hydro, constitute to 5% of global electricity generation. To overcome the 67.9% dominance of coal, oil, and natural gas with renewables on that scale would take decades, of which we do not have if warming is to be kept below two degrees Celsius. Not to mention the inefficiencies and intermittency issues of renewables.
Nuclear energy has long had the capacity to adapt our power hungry societies into zero-carbon industrialized societies. However, the events of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima tainted nuclear energy to be seen as ‘safe’. In comparison, coal is a major contributing factor to air pollution and the release of airborne heavy metals that results in millions of deaths per year worldwide. Direct causalities from nuclear are minuscule, and studies have shown the fear of radiation is far more dangerous and has caused deaths such as 1,600 Japanese people who died from the stress of evacuation.
However, various influential groups reject the nuclear option due to historically held ideologies and political identities. Scaremongering campaigns by organizations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Sierra Clubillustrate this with images of unrealistic mutations images based on no logical or rational evidence or peer-reviewed study. For them, nuclear energy is dead in the water. Arguably, part of the reluctance to adopt a base load of energy from nuclear power is attributed to groups such as those mentioned.
Germany is a prime example of illogical energy policy. Post Fukishima, Germany, after heavy green group lobbying and hysteria shut down several nuclear power plants and replaced the energy loss with coal. According to Germany’s Bureau of Statistics coal consumption is on the rise. However, despite this environmentally speaking backwards step, Germany is labelled as a champion of green energy, regardless of the fact that this move run counter to climate change adaptation and mitigation.
However, next-generation nuclear reactors are showing promise and will be a vital piece of the power puzzle of creating reliable and carbon-free base load power. Gen IV Integral Fast Reactors have the ability to close the nuclear fuel cycle, essentially creating little to no waste and can use all existing waste as a fuel source.
Furthermore, substituting uranium, currently the dominant nuclear fuel source, for thorium makes the case for nuclear stronger, as found in Richard Martin’s book ‘Super Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future’. Thorium is four times as abundant as uranium and is one of the most widely and cheaply available resources on earth. It can be found everywhere including in a handful of dirt from your local park. Thorium’s radioactivity is so low and essentially harmless, it can be considered stable and cannot be converted into nuclear weapons. Additionally, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs), in the past have proven to produce as much energy as they consume, leading to low levels of relatively benign environmental waste.
It is important to note that energy is essential to development and that no energy source is truly free from risk. Renewables such as solar and wind will play vital roles, in particular, settings and locales. However, nuclear energy offers the only pragmatic way forward for a new reliable base load energy supply that is carbon free. This is especially important for developing nations as their populations strive to move out of poverty and into more energy demanding lifestyles.
To paraphrase Rip Anderson, a nuclear risk assessment expert, in Gwyneth Cravens book ‘Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy’ generally speaking it is always the ones that know the most that fear the least. Nuclear energy is a shining example. The best-known climate scientists in the world, Ken Caldeira and James Hansen, have also called upon the globe to embrace nuclear energy as a key climate change adaptation. “In the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power,” stated Caldeira, Hansen, and others in a 2013 CNN article. In 2015, they went further and argued, in The Guardian, that, “Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”
Furthermore, recently 75 notable scientists from across the globe signed an open letter in support for nuclear energy, declaring that it will play a vital role in biological conservation.
As the effects of climate change are constantly creeping up on the planet, which range from rising sea levels to desertification, we are beginning to see what impacts are already and may have on natural systems and human societies. Time is of the essence but waits for no one.
Humanity, however, has the intelligence, ability, and technological capacity to mitigate and adapt to a changed climate. However, the most insidious barrier to success in this new world is old static ideologies and political identities, both of which have a habit of not basing their foundations on scientific inquiry. GE and nuclear energy clearly demonstrate this. Ultimately, adaptive measures and techniques will be weakened by the drive of these firmly held no compromise beliefs, which will achieve nothing except a further polarization of humanity and nations.
As groups, organizations, public figures, and all others that take a no compromise approach because of ideology and political identity that is not based on science, data, and pragmatism they are in effect delaying and undermining the development of potentially environmentally sound and beneficial adaptation technologies and methods. These barriers to relatively safe, proven, and pragmatic adaptation technologies are something that we cannot afford, especially in the case of developing nations.
In an interview with Professor Jane McAdam on climate change migration, she highlighted the importance of using a “toolkit” approach made up of various strategies. “We need to be proactive, rather than reactive in our strategy,” she said. This remains relevant, not just to climate change and migration, but also to many adaptive technologies such as nuclear and GE. Is this the current reality or are the ideological and political battles being waged for individual approaches more of a likely truth?
Time is quickly running short, and many adaptation technologies and methods are not reaching their full potential for a warmer world as ideology and politics are proving to be formidable barriers, as they always have. However, humanity cannot live by the slogan of “my way or the highway” for much longer, compromises must be made, and static ideologies and political identities must be discarded in favour of science, evidence, and pragmatism.
In relation to all of this, I can’t help but think of the quote by Max Born, a German physicist, as it resonates with the dangerous ideological and political battles occurring that hinder us in our most crucial hour. “It is satisfying to have had such clever and efficient pupils, but I wish they had shown less cleverness and more wisdom.”