Tuesday, September 12, 2006

James Lovelock and Nuclear Energy

Climate Scientist James Lovelock, who spoke here in Washington last Friday night, was interviewed by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times for today's edition of the newspaper. It's required reading:

Q. Can you explain why you think nuclear power is so vital?

A. The really bad thing we did way back when was starting to burn things in the atmosphere to get energy. We started with fire, just cooking food, and probably could have gotten away with that. But once we started burning forests to drive the animals out as a cheap way of hunting, then we started on our downward course. What we're doing now with fossil fuels is just as bad.

We live in a nuclear-powered universe. We're the oddballs by getting energy from burning carbon.

My justification of nuclear power is that we've reached a stage now where the dire things that threaten us are so great that even the results of an all-out nuclear war pale into insignificance as unimportant compared to what'’s going to happen.

Q. You seem to say we have to get over the idea that renewable energy sources --— wind, solar --— in the short run, are a useful way out of this.

A. I feel they're largely gestures. If it makes people feel good to shove up a windmill or put a solar panel on their roof, great, do it. It'll help a little bit, but it'’s no answer at all to the problem.
Something to think about, and a message that the public at large needs to hear about renewables. One more time: We like renewable sources of energy, and they can be part of a solution that will keep the lights on and constrain emissions of greenhouse gases. What bugs me is that so many activists get away with trying to con the public into thinking that wind and solar power are silver bullets.

It's not helpful when journalists simply reprint some claims without checking, something the Times reporter did in the following passage:
Opponents of nuclear power have started a counteroffensive to Dr. Lovelock's call for a new nuclear age, arguing that mining uranium and building nuclear plants releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide ...
However, as we know from research done by the International Energy Agency, the total lifecycle emissions of nuclear energy are comparable to hydropower.

UPDATE: Instapundit just noticed the Lovelock piece, as has Science and Law Blog. David Roberts of Gristmill, who we have tangled with elsewhere, is suffering from a clear case of cognitive dissonance.

ANOTHER UPDATE: In an introduction to the Lovelock interview, Sixteen Volts wrote the following:
The biggest crime of the Greens against humanity has been their opposition towards nuclear energy, recycling their tired scare tactics originally written by the same entities that financed the "Peace movement" that for some mysterious reason ever opposed Western military operations. For this reason, I actually hope that the global warming is real and will cause as much destruction as possible among Greens and their supporters and the nations that they admire the most, while I sit safe here in the Golden Horseshoe area. That would certainly be poetic justice.
I like to feel I'm a little more charitable, but let's just say I can understand the anger and the frustration.

Here's a line from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker that had me laughing:
He’s (Lovelock) an iconoclast and definitely cuts across the grain of usual political cant. Revkin conducts a sympathetic interview that might have been better had he challenged Lovelock hard enough to rile him up.
Challenged him "hard enough"? I'd love to see these same journalists challenge anti-nukes hard enough to get them riled up, perhaps over their claims on total lifecycle emissions for starters. Then again, I'm not holding my breath.

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9 comments:

don Kosloff said...

The New York Times has been crusading against nuclear power for decades. Thus a Times reporter cannot be expected to recognize the existance of a positive fact related to nuclear power. They cannot even understand the quote on "too cheap to meter" from their own pages.

bert said...

In May the New York Times ran an editorial (“The Greening of Nuclear Power”) that was favorable to nuclear power. In July, the New York Times Magazine featured a front page article that was, on the whole, favorable to nuclear power. In general, the New York Times employs competent journalists who do a reasonably good job covering the complex technical, environmental, and business issues surrounding nuclear and other energy sources.

In other words, Mr. Kosloff does not know what he is talking about.

The real problem, for Mr. Kosloff and his fellow nuclear zealots, is that the careful journalism of the New York Times stands in stark contrast to the extremist rhetoric that is popular on this site. For example, in the post under discussion, Mr. McErlain cited—with sympathy—Sixteen Volts, who hopes for “as much destruction as possible among Greens and their supporters and the nations that they admire the most” and who elsewhere has called for Greens to be put on trial for their opposition to nuclear power “the same way nazis and communists had to answer for their crimes”.

But notice: it is not Sixteen Volts with his violent fantasies that comes in for criticism on this site. Instead, it is the New York Times, which conducted and published a sympathetic interview with a leading proponent of nuclear power.

Wow man.

Eric McErlain said...

That's a rather distorted interpretation of what I wrote, isn't it Bert? All I wrote was that I understood some of his frustration with anti-nuke opponents, many of whom we know spew junk science in their efforts to discredit the industry.

As for our supposed extremism, does that mean you would include James Lovelock in that description? After all, if you'd bother to read The Revenge of Gaia, there isn't a sliver of daylight between his position and ours on the safety and efficacy of nuclear energy.

One last point: I'd have an easier time taking you seriously if you didn't appear here as an anonymous commenter. Say what you will about what I write, but at least I put my name to it and I'm ultimately accountable for it.

bert said...

Mr. McErlain,

No, I did not offer a distorted interpretation of what you wrote. I said you cited Sixteen Volts with sympathy and you did. You are the one who decided to highlight and link to the violent fantasies of Sixteen Volts. Your disclaimer (“I like to feel I’m a little more charitable, but let’s just say I can understand the anger and frustration”) was pretty weak stuff. It was obvious from your post that you were more exercised about (1) the New York Times statement that opponents of nuclear power have started a counteroffensive and (2) the Knight Science Journalism Tracker statement that the Lovelock interview could have been a little more aggressive—both of which statements were true.

Mr. Kosloff, the main target of my remarks, posted a comment making a criticism of the New York Times that was, as I pointed out, completely unfounded. I though it worthy of note that a commenter on this site was unfazed by extremist rhetoric but was instead criticizing the New York Times, which had published a pro-nuclear interview.

I can understand your frustration with the use of junk science in the efforts to discredit the industry, but you are a little too quick in linking to junk journalism and junk politics to promote the industry.

I did not mention James Lovelock in my post, nor am I familiar—other than in a very general way—with his position on the safety and efficacy of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, I will try to respond to your question.

James Lovelock is an eminent scientist, but I think he is given to making grand and sometimes extreme pronouncements. For example, in the fragment of the interview that you cited, he says:

“… the results of an all-out nuclear war pale into insignificance as unimportant compared to what’s going to happen [as a result of global warming].”

Now I don’t think this statement is the result of peer-reviewed climate science. Rather, it sounds like he is being overly dramatic in trying to get his point across. And yes, I consider this statement extreme.

Elsewhere in this same interview, he says:

“At six-going-on-eight-billion people the idea of any further development is almost obscene. We’ve got to learn how to retreat from the world we’re in.”

Now, normally, people who voice this kind of anti-growth sentiment are excoriated on this site. But because James Lovelock is a promoter of nuclear power, he is lionized. And yes, to me, the statement that “any further development is almost obscene” is extreme.

Lest you misunderstand the larger point, let me spell it out clearly. I think there is a strong case to be made for an expanded role for nuclear power and I think that the NEI site provides a great deal of useful and interesting information toward this end. However, I think that you (and others) spend too much time trolling through the dregs of the blogosphere, trying to buttress the case for nuclear power, and you sometimes end up linking to articles that are ridiculous. As a result, you can’t see the difference between someone like James Lovelock, who is using extreme language to alert others to the threat of global warming, and extremists like Sixteen Volts, who contemplate with glee the physical destruction of their political opponents. To you, they are both simply boosters to be enlisted in promoting nuclear power. Likewise, to you and some of your colleagues, Al Gore is just part of the ignorant, anti-nuclear environmentalist crowd and you can’t see that there isn’t a sliver of daylight between his position on nuclear power and that of most utility executives. The zealots on this site like to pretend that the problems of nuclear power can be laid at the feet of the anti-nukes, but I’m afraid that if the anti-nukes vanished tomorrow, the industry’s difficulties would remain.

One last point: You expressed a concern about anonymity and accountability. When I post to this site, I provide reasons—sometimes at length—to support the point I am making. If you want to use my anonymity as an excuse not to take me seriously, that is your business.

David Bradish said...

bert,

If you look in our archives you can find this link from us to the New York Times magazine discussing nuclear.

And here's another post we linked to about the 100 utility executives which you commented on published by the NYT.

I don't understand how one blogger's comments are taken to speak for the entire blog or industry. Mr. Kosloff might have missed these posts but we didn't.

Look what else I found.

bert said...

Mr. Bradish,

I don’t understand how one blogger’s comments are taken to speak for the entire blog or industry either, nor did I claim any such thing. I am aware that this site linked to the articles you identified. However, I should have mentioned that in my comments, and I would like to thank you for pointing this out, because it shows just how far off-base Mr. Kosloff’s criticism was. Of course, I don’t think the fact that somebody “might have missed these posts” is the real problem, as I have explained in follow-up remarks which Mr. McErlain has, apparently, opted not to post.

Eric McErlain said...

Bert,

A few more points, and then we'll just about be done with this string.

1) As you can see, your previous post has appeared. From time to time, I do take a vacation day and don't spend every last moment checking comment moderation. This isn't the first time you've accused me of malfeasance in the comment strings and turned out to be wrong.

2)I don't believe the comment from 16 Volts is any more apocalyptic than the message contained in An Inconvenient Truth. In both cases, an individual is making an argument that business as usual will eventually end in disaster.

We link to a lot of arguments here at NEI Nuclear Notes, and as we say right on the front page, linking does not imply endorsement. What we are trying to do is give folks a flavor of what people are talking about out there when it comes to nuclear energy. Sometimes that will mean peer-reviewed science, and sometimes that means just an ordinary voted with something to say.

Blogs are about conversation, and that means letting folks in who sometimes have things to say that don't always comport completely with your own.

3) No matter how well argued your posts are, their tone and length point to another inevitable conclusion: It's time for you to get your own blog. A blog where you'd be free to point to our mistakes by linking, and one where you could see your comments appear immediately without having to bother with comment moderation.

I've said before that your comments are pushing up against our guidelines for brevity -- something you wouldn't have to worry about if you had your own blog.

Give it a shot. I'm looking forward to it.

bert said...

Mr. McErlain,

I will try to keep this brief.

(1) I have not accused you of malfeasance. I merely thought (I did qualify my remark with “apparently”) that you had opted not to post my comment. I am happy to apologize to you for my error on this.

(2) We simply do not agree about the similarities between Sixteen Volts and Al Gore—no surprise—and that is that. I have no disagreement whatsoever with your other remarks about NEI Nuclear Notes and blogs.

(3) I am afraid I will respectfully decline your suggestion about starting a blog. Believe it or not, I do try to keep my comments to a reasonable length. It’s just that I think commenters ought to provide some justification for their assertions. Finally, I think comment moderation is a good thing—in this respect, as far as I can tell, you do a fine job at what must be a thankless task.

Brian Mays said...

Please, bert, do start your own blog. In that way, you can actually contribute something positive to these discussions. As it is, however, I am at a loss to find any positive contributions that you have made anywhere here. Sure, you spend much blog-space maligning Gregg Easterbrook, Robert Samuelson, Ben Stein, and Eric McErlain (for his choice of links), and you attack James Lovelock (whom you yourself admit that you know little about; however, I am semi-sympathetic with you -- Lovelock has some interesting theories, but he does use extreme rhetoric). But my question is this: what positive contributions have you made to these discussions?

Do you live solely to put other people down?