Patrick Moore talks biotech, nuclear and climate
Greenpeace Co-founder talks biotech, nuclear and climate
Why do they hate science, and why are they so miserable?
By Andrew Orlowski (email@example.com)
Posted in Environment, 8th February 2011
Interview Canadian environmentalist Patrick Moore describes himself as a treehugger. As a co-founder of Greenpeace, who was on board the Rainbow Warrior when it was blown up, he hardly has to prove his chops.
He’s now published a memoir-cum-manifesto, Confessions of A Greenpeace Dropout. He’s in favour of ground heat pumps – every new home should have one – synethetic biofuels and nuclear energy. And trees. Lots of trees, for generating hydrocarbons.
The memoir is a fascinating read, because Moore is better placed than anyone to describe how environmentalism started out with positive intentions, and developed such anti-science and human-hostile beliefs. I caught up with him in New York.
AO: What’s our energy outlook?
PM: Very positive. I am encouraged by the shale oil discoveries. The International Energy Agency has just said we have 250 years of gas from shale. India has thousands of square kilometers of ancient marine deposits, where the organic compounds are high from the rain of plankton from the waters. It’s also rich in uranium – the sea level has sank, and picked up heavy metals – attached to organic matter in solution.
There’s also a vast energy supply of uranium in those shale despoits. It was not worth mining because we have shallower and richer ores closer to the surface. But that’s another long-term fuel supply.
Haber Bosch is one of greatest breakthroughs in history; there was not enough nitrogen in the organic component of soil. Two-and-a-half billion people are alive now because of the Haber Bosch process.
In the shorter term we have got to stop using our own food as a fuel supply.
AO: On what basis are you optimistic?
PM: There’s our ability to modify genetically which may lead to an algae solution, there’s a combination of modifying genetics and our already existing knowledge of things like Fischer Tropsch processes, and the thermo-chemical ability to transform materials and compounds.
Fifteen per cent of our energy is already renewable; it’s wood and hydroelectric. Some of the biofuel companies are already burning waste wood – there’s so much of it, natural wood waste, compared to corn and sugar and starch. Then there’s wheat, straw, corn stalks.
I stress trees, because the leaves and needles of trees are the most efficient solar collectors. Trees are the largest biomass on earth. Algae grows fast, but then they die – but trees put on weight each year. If you look at the landscapes on earth, see how much of them are forested. It dwarves everything else.
The most important statistic is that plants convert more energy than humans consume – that’s purely by photosynthesis. Solar voltaics are so ridiculously expensive by comparison. They require huge installations. Putting solar panels over vast landscapes turns them into a deadzones, but putting forests over vast landscapes doesn’t. It means growing more trees and making more wood, but also for fuel. We don’t have to grow monocultures in rows – you could put two or three species in there.
AO: You do urge changes …
PM: The logical route to go here as oil stocks decline is battery power for light transport and biofuels for trucks buses and aircraft. We would have a problem substituting all fossil fuel with biofuels.
The move to make battery-operated cars is very important – then we can use nuclear or other sources. These don’t have to be personal vehicles. We can start with delivery vehicles making journeys into the city, bringing all of the food into the stores. These can be battery operated, as they’re on fixed routes, and regular schedules – so they can be charged. For personal transportation think Renault’s approach is the most practical. They have a swappable battery. You wait four hours … take battery out and … pay for the charge plus overtime the battery gets for biofuel.
AO: People aren’t used to thinking of oil as a renewable energy source just yet – biofuel is still associated with ethanol.
PM: Now Greenpeace and other groups have done a complete about-face on biofuels, and are now opposed to them. They’re spreading misinformation on Indonesian oil palms. But look at Britain. It was once almost 100 per cent forested. The British landscape is now beautiful – there’s not much forest compared to what it used to be. Yet the Indonesians are taken to task when they clear forest to grow fuel and for fibre. Well, there’s a reason countries such as Indonesia are called developing countries – it’s because they’re still developing.
Palm oil is the most efficient in terms of energy per hectare. It’s even more efficient than sugar cane in Brazil, it takes less land.
Greenpeace should promote it. But they’ve swung way over to the other side of that argument, now. The reason food prices have gone up is not because we’re turning food into biofuels, it’s because of oil prices. It’s one of the primary inputs into agriculture, every tractor has to buy more expensive oil and diesel. A bit better analysis from Greenpeace would be in order.
We do not have a problem growing enough food today. We have a distribution issue, and poverty – but if they could distribute it better there’d be no problem providing it. Then there are issues of corruption and civil disorder, wars, that prevent the food getting through sometimes. But it’s not a big problem to take some of that and use it for fuel. In Brazil 50 per cent of fuel once came from sugar cane – it’s still high today.
“We’re a special species. We have self-awareness and technology.”
AO: Having lived in California, I find the British response is very strange – such as the Transition Towns movement, and the delight in telling people not to do things. Do you think it’s a British trait to promote this asceticism and self-denial? No other nation’s environmentalists seem to enjoy being killjoys as much – don’t fly, reuse your teabags, shiver in the cold, and so on.
PM: Well, when I see the NGOs themselves in sackcloth and ashes, then I might put some truck by what they’re saying. I was in Cancun in December, and they were all staying in five star hotels at the highest end resort in Cancun, with beautiful restaurants and palm trees swaying. I was amazed at this. That was 12,000 NGOs – not counting the bureaucrats. There tens of thousands more bureaucrats. And there are four of five of these conferences a year. Yet here they are telling us we all must stop flying …
AO: I saw a report recently prepared for a group of MPs, the All Party Peak Oil Group. It recommended household energy rationing and trading. But it recommended that each household be rationed slightly below what it actually needs. This was so people would think more about energy.
PM: Well, why stop there – why not bring back the lash? [laughs]
Yes, it is particularly British. The Germans have a different flavour. They don’t think people should freeze to death, and not travel anywhere, and live in thatched houses, and live with their animals at night. I remember that farce “No Sex Please We’re British” – now it’s ” No Carbon Please, We’re British”.
AO: Isn’t there an element of self-loathing in it?
PM: Yes there is. It externalises our fears of the future – it’s the original sin idea revisited.
My friend James Lovelock is a classic example of that. I have a section in the book called ‘The Enigmatic Dr LoveLock’. I invited myself to his house and took the train out to the West Country. We walked through countryside, and had dinner. That was when he convinced me that nuclear energy was a silver bullet for the future; he’s a big proponent of nuclear energy. And I agree with that 100 per cent. I put it to him that if Earth was a self-regulating mechanism, we were part of it, and perhaps nuclear showed we were regulating our carbon emissions.
But he insisted that humans were a rogue species. Apparently, we’re the only one. We are “anti-Gaia”.
I said, “Jim, why can’t you think of humans as part of Gaia, and perhaps doing Gaia’s bidding, and and getting us out of this Ice Age we’ve been locked in?”
We’re in an interglacial, but we’re in a longer-term Ice Age. If we look at local temperatures, we’re still in an Ice Age. It’s 14.5°C , peak 12°C, but in the greenhouse period ice ages are short and sharp; Greenhouse Ages are long and steady and last 10 million or 100 million years. The Earth’s averaged 22°C in these periods. So when people say global temperature is going to go up 2°C, and we’re going to die, I just laugh. We’re a tropical species. We haven’t adapted to cold and ice, except we have fires.
“We’re a tropical species – we haven’t adapted to cold and ice. When people say temperature is going to go up 2°C and we’re going to die, I just laugh.”
People also say isn’t it only the UK that’s getting colder? No. New York, where I am now, is an icebox. We’re having the worst winters since the 1960s, but NASA and CRU say 2010 tied for warmest year in history. The record has exaggerated the Urban Heat Island effect when NOAA dropped thousands of climate stations.
They did same thing with polar ice. If you go to the Cryosphere Today website , you can see up-to-date figures for the ice extent. Look at Arctic Ice decline – then below they have Antarctic sea ice graph which shows a prominent increase in sea ice extent. We don’t really know the historical sea ice extent in the Arctic, because ice doesn’t leave a footprint. But the Arctic decline has been from 15 to 16 million km2 to 14.5 to 14 million km2. It’s not that large.
AO: You also touch on climate change in the book. Would you call yourself a skeptic?
PM: I do not believe we are capable of determining the extent to which our CO2 is part of a trend in climate change. In 12 years, temperature hasn’t increased – it’s leveled since 1998, which was the warmest year on record. So there’s no increase in global average temperature, all the while we’ve been spewing more CO2 every year over the previous year.
If you look at CRU record from 1860, you see a cooling period. There’s a global trend – this is Phil Jones’ data set – a warming trend to 2k or 1998. It’s a reasonably steep curve, a 0.4°C increase over a 25-year period. Now the IPCC statement is that MOST of the warming that has occurred since mid-last century “is most likely to human emissions”.
This is problematic for several reasons. The word “most” implies 50 to 100 per cent, a big range. But how do they know it’s not, say, 36?
Second, they use the phrase “very likely”, which is not technically definable. They define it as a 90 per cent probability. But where do they get 90 from? It’s not a calculation, it’s not a statistic – it’s a rhetorical construct that means “very likely 90 per cent” – but they’ve given number to all those terms. That is not science. That is pure made-up stuff.
But most “since the middle of the last century”. If you look at the temperature curve from 1910-1940 – there is an equal increase at same rate of change – the curve is at same steepness. But they’re not claiming we caused that warming – that wouldn’t be credible. So the question becomes what caused that warming? What caused the 1800s warming? All that puts lie to certainty that has arisen from the IPCC. There may be some human element to this, but in the IPCC view, none of those other factors matter, we’re the only agent of change.
AO: I am fascinated by this idea of apocalypse, or that systems are fundamentally unstable. That didn’t seem to be there with the first environmentalist campaigns against pollution or conservation in the 1960s. How did that come about?
PM: Apocalypse became central to environmentalism. For me, I was involved because of the arms race, and the prospect of nuclear war. That really would have been an apocalypse, at least for large regions of the planet. That was no foolin’ around.
Ever since then, that element has sought scenarios that allow an apocalyptic interpretation. The climate change narrative provides a perfect scenario for that. We’re going to heat up, if we keep living way we are, we’ll all fry. Yet the resilience of the Earth system, its ability to absorb vast amounts of everything, is incredible.
For example, the latest scare is ocean acidification – it’s totally made-up and ridiculous. Tomato growers inject CO2 to make the tomatoes grow; salt water aquarists inject CO2 to increase photosynthesis; and yet with coral we’re told the opposite is true. [Coral evolved in temperatures 10°C hotter than today. The bleaching claim has a dubious pedigree  – Ed.]
“Much of this is collective neurosis. We should celebrate life.”
So you hear tipping point phrases. You hear about “death spiral” or “toxic sludge”. These are end-is-nigh scenarios. You can always argue it’s always been there, in religions. Christianity has this idea of The End Times. If we don’t act, we’re doomed.
AO: But death was very close to us until our parents’ generation; everyone grew up with it, and we had to cope with it.
PM: Apocalyptic scenarios are just that – our fear of death. When you add self-loathing, and you have the apocalypse being externalised, this is what you get. We have to stop this self-defeating approach: that – “we’re going to die and we’re to blame”. That is enough to make you sick to your stomach. Much of this is collective neurosis. We should celebrate life.
I grew up in a small rural community, where the emphasis was on the practical, there was a can-do attitude to life: “Get it done”. Now whatever you did, say your house is in danger. I grew up on a floating home – stayed up all night fixing it. I grew up in boats, so I’m aware of how dangerous it is on the sea. At the same time I have a very positive attitude. I almost died at sea, capsized and drowning.
Now an old friend of mine from Greenpeace, Rex Wyler, is a catastrophist. Part of this idea is the ‘overshoot concept’ – the idea that we have gone so far beyond our ability to support civilisation, that we’re going to drop off the end of a cliff.
AO: That’s completely irrational, it’s medieval thinking.
PM: It is.
AO: So what does keep you awake at night – what are reasonable things to be concerned about?
PM: Avian flu is the most likely disaster – but that could be resolved by changing agricultural practice in Asia. We have to separate animals, and us, and get some sanitation going on over there. Here we’ve changed our practices, but on Asia farms there’s no antiseptic bath, no protocols, and just a barnyard of birds and animals that can pass germs. Viruses can mutate there.
AO: For the kind of environmental pessimism you describe to succeed, though, it requires we have an idea of a human that isn’t fully human – a human that isn’t adaptable, can’t study science or invent technologies, or organise. Which brings us down to the level of another species, just a very destructive species. I don’t think most people share this view, they look at what we’ve achieved, and know there’s something wrong with the “we’re evil and we’re all doomed” narrative.
PM: In response I say that, yes we are just another species, but we’re a special one. We have self-awareness and technology. I know other species are social, and have some kind of technology – ants build things too. We’re not separate from life, but we’re unique by evolution. I’m quite optimistic about the globalisation of world, too. When I was growing up the world was divided into two economies, before that it was divided into many. Now it’s one, and we depend on each other’s success.
I’m optimistic because we have these incredible information technologies, genetic technologies, and nuclear technologies. ®