James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a self-regulating organism, recently wrote an article in the Independent which argued that we need to start thinking seriously about using nuclear power to combat global warming.
I have always been in two minds about the causes of global warming. It is usually said to be due to our use of fossil fuels producing carbon dioxide, CO2, which acts as a sort of blanket keeping heat in the atmosphere. While I have never doubted that there is such an effect (I first came across it in one of my mother’s school textbooks from the 1930s) I have doubted whether it is the main cause of the current warming. The planet has been hotter in the past than it is even now. It seems to have a naturally variable climate. Thus, it is possible that even if we stopped all production of CO2 and were able to remove the current excess from the atmosphere the Earth would continue to warm up.
I do think, however, that it would be prudent to greatly reduce our CO2 output just in case it really is one of the major causes of the warming. By the time we know for sure whether we are seriously affecting the climate it may well be too late. Contrast this with the head in the sand attitude of most governments and especially that of multi-national corporations such as Exxon-Mobil who, because it doesn’t suit their short and medium term interests, refuse to even properly consider it.
James Lovelock has been thinking about all this and come to the conclusion that all our investments in renewable energy are just tinkering around the edges: they will work given sufficient time but we haven’t got the time. Lovelock is saying that the situation is so dire that we must think very seriously about returning to the use of nuclear power, which produces no CO2, at least as an interim measure while we sort out renewables.
Unfortunately, Lovelock glosses over the serious concerns raised in the past about nuclear power. He doesn’t once mention the problem of nuclear waste nor the accidents at various nuclear power plants over the past 50 years. Nowhere does he mention the use of the products of nuclear power plants for producing nuclear weapons or the prime targets the plants present to terrorists. His omissions have led to outright rejections of his suggestion from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other Green lobby groups.
The Green lobby is now sticking its own head in the sand. Lovelock’s idea, although it has many, many problems, is certainly worth serious consideration. To reject it out of hand is irresponsible. Lovelock is right. The rush into renewables almost certainly is too little, too late. We have to find an alternative. And fast. Whether that alternative is nuclear power is open to doubt but Lovelock has done us a valuable service in drawing attention to the problem. He has shown that even in his mid-80s he is still capable of thinking out of the box.
Posted 30 May 2004, 13:43 BST