Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I go into hospital for a rather large surgical procedure today. It is however day surgery so I hope to be back home by the evening and blogging away as usual. If that proves too optimistic, however, this blog may not be updated for a day or so.


"The great game of the 21st century is being played out before our eyes, but few seem to notice. Last week, Tony Blair hinted that he was prepared to go ahead with a new generation of nuclear reactors at an as yet unknown cost. In Iraq, an American-inspired deal to hand over development of oil reserves, the third largest in the world, to US and British companies is being rushed through by the oil minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi before next month's election. In Russia, President Putin has ruthlessly constructed a monopoly of oil and gas production which controls some 90 per cent of the country's reserves. On the way, he imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, stripping his oil giant, Yukos, of its assets and, in a separate deal, paid off Khodorkovsky's fellow oligarch, Roman Abramovich, with US $13 billion for his stake in the oil producer Sibneft.

The link is the supply of energy to the high-consuming, wasteful Western democracies. With about 50 years of oil reserves left and maybe 85 years of gas, the struggle for control of the world's energy resources will increasingly dictate events. It will impact on each of us and there will be almost no area of domestic or foreign policy unaffected by this desperate scramble. Lest people think that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken to establish democracy and eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, rather than to secure Iraq's oil reserves, then last Monday's revelations about Chalabi's 30-year binding contracts should give them pause.

If you imagine that Tony Blair's musing on the nuclear option popped out of the blue, just remember Putin's visit to Britain in October and the conversation the two leaders had on the sidelines of the Russia-EU summit. Believe me, they were talking about gas, not chatting about democratic reform in Russia. Having consolidated Russia's state monopoly, Putin came to Europe with his power greatly enhanced. More than 25 per cent of Europe's natural gas is supplied by Russia: By 2020, that figure will be nudging 40 per cent. The former KGB officer has got his hand resting on Europe's throat and with rising gas prices, it cannot be anything but sensible for Blair to look at other options.

These events and the cold assessment of what lies ahead are way above an average individual's understanding or awareness. We are so used to having all the energy we require that we are barely conscious of our needs and do not trouble ourselves with realities of the world as it is and, more seriously, as it will be....

What we need is true enlightenment in the liberal classes, not the naivety that shudders at the idea of nuclear power, or places undue faith in renewables, or runs an SUV that uses four times the fuel of an ordinary car, or maintain homes haemorrhaging energy.

The other day, I flew into Britain on one of those cold, clear evenings when everything is pin-sharp. It's a spectacular sight if you forget that the carpet of light is one of the reasons why we're heading for such trouble. Half the people producing all that light below were probably against the war in 2002. The same proportion have doubts about nuclear power and fret about global warming. But all were spewing energy and carbon into the atmosphere, apparently unaware that these things are related. (I am far from guiltless in this respect. For one thing, I was on a transatlantic flight, typically calculated to release about one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger.)

Nuclear power appears to be a solution because it is held to occupy a position where the requirements for clean electricity and for independence from suppliers like Vladimir Putin overlap. I am tempted, but have yet to be convinced. No sensible debate has yet taken place and I am certain it would be disastrous if Tony Blair briskly commits us to this course without one. We need to know the costs and estimate the risks of nuclear power and see how they compare with other combinations of power generation, including renewables. More important, this debate has to take place in a context of a settlement between government and the people about the immediate need for energy conservation, which is why David Cameron's idea of cross-party group dedicated to the environment is a good one.

This is no longer a matter for party politics. The urgency is great. Those who read the scientific press or attend conferences on climate change know of the profound threat. Equally, they can see the disconnect between what society accepts intellectually and how people continue to behave. We have to understand that the crises of energy and global warming will intersect soon and that this will change the course of history in a most terrifying manner. Governments can do much to help - creating a dedicated ministry that links energy to the environment would be a start....

We can no longer expect the government to get fossil fuels for us to burn because, quite apart from anything else, they ain't going to be there for much longer".

More here

What happened to the positive case for nuclear power?

Once again the debate over nuclear power is heating up in the UK - but it hasn't yet reached a sufficient temperature to generate anything useful.

The greens are upset by reports that the case for nuclear is gaining ground in government. Jonathon Porritt, government-appointed chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, has warned that a revival of nuclear power would be 'foolish' and 'a very serious own goal'. Former environment minister Michael Meacher has talked of a 'conspiracy', led by chief scientific adviser Sir David King, to bring back nuclear.

Kate Hudson, chair of CND, is also worried. 'Government spin doctors and the nuclear industry myth-makers are working overtime to repackage nuclear power as the green solution to climate change', she said. Friends of the Earth has issued a press release headed 'Blair must not back new nuclear power plants'.

So what are these reports? Perhaps Blair has made a statement supportive of nuclear power? Well, not quite. Asked by the House of Commons Liaison Committee about nuclear power and climate change, he replied: 'With some of the issues to do with climate change - and you can see it with the debate about nuclear power - there are going to be difficult and controversial decisions government has got to take.' So no actual decisions about nuclear power, then. But Blair does understand a decision must be taken, which is nice to know. Indeed some people seem as worried at the prospect that Blair may have already 'made up his mind' as by the actual decision.

In fact, decisions have been deferred until after (yet another) review, due to report next year. Energy minister Malcom Wicks says: 'I happen to be nuclear-neutral and so is Alan Johnson [trade and industry secretary]. I think that's helpful.' The prime minister's official view remains that 'we need to look at all the options'. If there is an orchestrated campaign to make the case for nuclear energy, it looks well hidden.

One reason why the case for nuclear power is gaining ground is practical. Blair told MPs that new nuclear power stations must be considered a real option because 'the facts have changed over the last couple of years'. One key fact that is changing is that the proportion of electricity derived from nuclear power is falling. It now stands at 21 per cent, but is set to fall rapidly to four per cent as all but one of Britain's nuclear power stations close by 2023. Much non-nuclear electricity generation has also suffered from underinvestment - 52 per cent of non-nuclear capacity is more than 30 years old.

Faith in wind power, in which the government has more publicly invested its hopes, is a short-term perspective. If wind does expand at maximum capacity it may cover the growth of up to a few per cent per year in electricity demand, although after a few years of such growth the intermittency of wind will become an increasing problem. Wind cannot begin to replace older nuclear and coal capacity. As Downing Street tactfully put it, renewables are 'not 100 per cent effective'.

It should be an elementary point, but the argument made by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the GMB Union that the country needs an effective energy supply to function, must be taken seriously. With each passing year the prospect of an energy shortage becomes a little more plausible.

Instead, nuclear advocates have fixed upon the argument that because nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide it is an essential weapon against climate change. Indeed this point has become so firmly established (although it is contested by environmentalists) that we are in danger of forgetting why we build power stations in the first place. After all, if the aim was just to minimise waste and pollution the simplest solution would be not to build anything at all.

It may seem peculiar to suggest that anybody, aside from a few environmentalist extremists, seriously thinks that we should live without a modern energy supply. But in an age of uncertainty, when none of the old moral, political or religious truths seems to stand, few people confidently assert that the greens are wrong.

It is the sense of moral disorientation that environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot appeals to when he writes about the consequences of climate change: 'Everything we thought was good turns out also to be bad. It is an act of kindness to travel to your cousin's wedding. Now it is also an act of cruelty. It is a good thing to light the streets at night. Climate change tells us it kills more people than it saves. We are killing people by the most innocent means: turning on the lights, taking a bath, driving to work, going on holiday. Climate change demands a reversal of our moral compass, for which we are plainly unprepared.'

So, were the consequences of electrification good or bad? Did the spread of electrical consumer goods in the 1950s help to liberate women from housework, or did it fuel our addiction to consumption? Did the electrification of rural communities free them from the capricious tyranny of nature, or did it alienate them from the land? For many, these are not clear-cut questions. When all our past achievements are called into question it is important to remember that we have not just survived problems such as climate change and pollution, but that life has improved. Few people would really choose to live in the past.

It is our uncertainty that has turned climate change into an insuperable problem. The problem with putting climate change at the centre of decision-making is illustrated by the 2005 advertising campaign run by the Carbon Trust. 'I am become the destroyer of worlds', it ran. This is a quote from Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, on seeing the detonation of the first atomic bomb. He was quoting in turn from the Bhagavad Gita Hindu scripture, and the message was clear: technology has become a means of destruction.

In these terms, nuclear technology becomes a source of apocalypse. But in fact we have only just begun creatively to tap the possibilities of nuclear technologies, not just in power generation but in applications from space flight to medicine. By focusing on problems we narrow our horizons, missing out on the possibilities for future developments. If instead we ask about innovations that can satisfy new needs and desires, experience has shown that older problems become more manageable with our expanded capacities. This should govern our approach to the expansion of nuclear power.

The government clings to combating climate change as one of the few unquestioned moral absolutes today. But without a more positive motivation than staving off the effects of man's destructiveness, it seems unlikely that it can throw its weight behind a proper investment in nuclear power.

If this situation continues, we will all suffer the consequences of a decaying energy infrastructure - and will forgo as yet unimagined opportunities.


Nuclear power being examined in Australia too

Probably just talk, however. Australia has huge reserves of coal that are being cheaply dug up on a large scale by open-cut (open cast) mining

The Federal Government is building the case for a nuclear power industry in Australia, planning a high-level academic inquiry into its prospects. Science Minister Brendan Nelson and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane have put a proposal for the inquiry, costed at less than $1 million, to John Howard. The proposal responds to the Prime Minister's call earlier this year for a nuclear power debate.

In a television interview yesterday, Dr Nelson said the inquiry would involve the Academy of Science, together with the academies of social science and humanities. The Technical Science and Engineering Academy is also involved. "I think we owe it to our future to examine all of our options," he said. "We can't responsibly dig 30 per cent of the world's uranium out of the ground, export it overseas and allow some 450 reactors to operate and expand in other parts of the world and not seriously consider this as an option for ourselves." He said the inquiry would examine the geological, environmental, physical and social aspects of a nuclear power industry in Australia.

Although the academies often make submissions individually to Government inquiries, such as reviews of higher education, it is the first time a Government has gone to them with a proposal for a combined inquiry. "The Government certainly had strong support from the academies from the outset, " Academy of Social Science executive director John Beaton said yesterday. "The academies all welcome the opportunity to consider how issues of nuclear power and related topics will affect society," Dr Beaton said. "Nuclear power generation and waste management have come a very long way since Chernobyl and this debate needs to be had in the light of a much better understanding and newer technology, but it also must respond to concerns of the Australians."

The Government is still refining the terms of reference for the inquiry, which is expected to take a year to complete. The Government's objective is to have a set of facts that can be marshalled against opponents of nuclear power.

Although there has been discussion within the Labor Party about its policies on uranium and nuclear power, it remains opposed to an expansion of the industry. Labor spokeswoman for education and research Jenny Macklin said yesterday that no matter which organisations Dr Nelson got to do the study, it wouldn't address the concerns of Australians about nuclear power. "Australia is as far into the nuclear cycle as the Australian public wants to be. It's absurd that Brendan Nelson is running this issue of nuclear energy when he can't even get consensus or public support to locate a dump for existing low-level waste," Ms Macklin said.

Dr Nelson said the Government was determined to build a low and intermediate level nuclear waste repository for waste from medical and industrial uses in the Northern Territory. He noted there was already 16 cubic metres of nuclear waste stored at Darwin Hospital and at Mt Todd, 40km from Katherine. "We owe it to ourselves. I mean, every Australian will benefit from a nuclear-sourced medical procedure," he said. Dr Nelson said that "under no circumstances" would the proposed repository be used for storing high-level nuclear waste from any eventual nuclear power industry in Australia.


Further musings on Jared Diamond's Collapse

Review lifted from The Commons

Julian Morris and I recently co-edited an edition of the interdisciplinary journal Energy and Environment, in which we commissioned a series of reviews of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Several of these reviews have now been posted on the contributors' websites.

One broad problem with the book is that Diamond distinctly fails to discuss how institutions such as property rights have enabled (and continue to enable) individuals to address the 'tragedy of the commons'. Another problem is that the facts simply do not support many of his claims.

Julian Morris wrote an introduction to the series of papers - "Confuse: How Jared Diamond Fails to Convince" -- which highlights some of the specific problems with Diamond's analysis.

The institutional economist Wolfgang Kasper contributed a review which focused specifically on Diamond's lack of attention to how institutions (or their absence) underpin human decision-making - what Kasper calls the "software of economic development". Overview available here, PDF version available here

Social anthropologist Benny Peiser analysed Diamond's portrayal of Easter Island (PDF available here).

Australian biologist Jennifer Marohasy analysed Diamond's portrayal of modern Australia and found that his facts were generally lacking.

Jane Shaw writes about why Diamond has made such pessimistic claims about the future.

My own article analyzes Diamond's chapter about modern Montana. There were several blatant errors in this chapter - such as a claim that Montana has 20,000 abandoned mineral mines, which Diamond believes are contaminating Montana's water supply. By all accounts, this figure is a huge exaggeration. My article is available at the SSRN.


Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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