Correspondence with David Bellamy

Letters following the publication of the article Goodbye, Kind World (filed under Climate Change)

From David Bellamy, published in the Guardian 14th August 2004.

An ill wind blows for turbines

As usual, an elegant article from George Monbiot, the first two-thirds of which I agree with (Goodbye, kind world, August 10). In the third section I find some problems. My argument in the Daily Mail was based on the past record of natural climatic change and questioned how a rise in the tiny amount of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere could have such a drastic effect when water vapour makes up some 96% of all the greenhouse gases.

Yes, we should stop burning fossil fuels. Yes, we should stop draining peat bogs, destroying soil and natural and semi-natural vegetation. Yes, we should stop overfishing and overgrazing the planet. That is why I am still working an 18-hour day helping groups which are trying to reverse this trend, as I have been doing for the past 40 years.

In my defence, may I ask George a single question? Why are the so-called greens backing a cartel of multinational companies which are hell bent on covering some of the best of our countryside with so-called wind farms, which can neither provide us with a sustainable source of future energy nor have any measurable effect reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere?

If he can disprove the latter – which is the mathematical truth – I will fall into line over global warming, even if, like Galileo, I have to say “but it moved”.
David Bellamy
The Conservation Foundation

Letter from George Monbiot to David Bellamy, 18th August 2004

Dear David,

In your letter to the Guardian on Saturday, you ask me “Why are the so-called greens backing a cartel of multinational companies which are hell bent on covering some of the best of our countryside with so-called wind farms, which can neither provide us with a sustainable source of future energy nor have any measurable effect reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere?”

Like you, I am sceptical of the idea that we can simply replace our carbon-based economy with other forms of energy. The main effort has to be massively to reduce consumption. But if I am to answer your question, you will have to explain it to me. What do you mean when you say that wind turbines can’t “provide us with a sustainable source of future energy”? Is wind about to run out?

You say that they will have no “measurable effect reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere”. Well of course building a wind turbine doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions. But if we produce energy from wind which would otherwise have been produced from coal or oil or gas, and unless the embodied energy in windfarm construction exceeds the total carbon emissions/watt from fossil fuel generators, then plainly the use of wind turbines will “reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere”.

You then go on to say: “If he can disprove the latter – which is the mathematical truth – I will fall into line over global warming”.

Mathematical truth, eh? I suppose a mathematical truth can be different from an evident truth, if, that is, you are engaging in quantum maths. Either way, this statement requires some explanation. But I struggle to understand what the performance of windfarms has to do with whether or not anthropogenic climate change is taking place. I would have hoped that your decision about whether to “fall into line over global warming” would have been based on an assessment of the science of global warming, not on my ability or otherwise to disprove a quantum mathematical construct about how windfarms might behave in a parallel universe.

And the science is now about as unequivocal as the science of a complex system can be. I checked every one of the statements you made in the Daily Mail with climatologists at Oxford University and the UK Climate Impacts Programme. Some are quite correct, for example, “It was round about the end of the last ice age, some 13,000 years ago, that a global warming process did undoubtedly begin”, but bear no relation to the argument you are seeking to make.

Others, I am sorry to say, reveal that you haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about. If you really believe that a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “would produce a rise in plant productivity”, I can only assume that you have not read a scientific paper on this topic over the past five years. If you really believe that carbon dioxide is not an important greenhouse gas, I can only assume that either you have not read the IPCC reports and any of the thousands of papers demonstrating the role CO2 plays, or you have read them and chosen for reasons of your own to ignore them. Your citation of the Oregon Institute petition, so long after it was so publicly and spectacularly demolished, suggests that you have simply given up reading.

And yet you feel qualified to write about this subject. Do you have any idea how much damage your articles and interviews have caused? Do you have any idea how your name is now being used by everyone from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to Exxon executives to suggest that “if even an environmentalist like David Bellamy says global warming isn’t happening, then it can’t be true”? Do you have any idea what the consequences of helping these people to deny climate change might be? Do you have any idea how you have destroyed your own good name among people who formerly respected you?

You claim that you are still an environmentalist, yet the harm you have done to environmentalism over the past few months is incalculable. May I respectfully suggest that you brush up on the science (and I mean all the science, not just a few selected studies of the kind you cite) and talk to some mainstream climatologists (not just the cranks whose work you champion) before writing any more on this topic?

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

Letter from David Bellamy to George Monbiot, 14th September 2004.

DEAR GEORGE MY APOLOGIES I WAS WAITING FOR A PUBLIC REPLY TO THE QUESTION I ASKED YOU IN THE TELEGRAPH. AS YOU DON’T SEEM TO HAVE UNDERSTOOD IT I WILL ELABORATE.

AT THE MOMENT BRITAIN HAS SOME 1100 WIND TURBINES DOING THEIR INTERMITTENT BEST PRODUCING MEANINGFUL AMOUNTS OF ELECTRICITY FOR ONLY 24.1 % OF THE YEAR. TOGETHER THEY PRODUCED LESS THAN FOUR ONE THOUSANDTH OF THE POWER USED IN THE UK AND SAVED LESS THAN ONE THOUSANDTH OF THE CARBON DIOXIDE PRODUCED BY OUR PROFLIGATE LIFESTYLES. IN 2003. PLEASE NOTE THOSE ARE MATHEMATICALLY PROVABLE FACTS FROM GOVERNMENT STATISTICS. PERHAPS YOU SHOULD ASK YOUR COLLEAGUES AT OXFORD TO DISPROVE THEM?

THERE IS ALSO THE FACT THAT HOWEVER MANY TURBINES ARE ERECTED THERE IS NEED FOR FOSSIL FUEL BACK UP THAT MUST BE KEPT IN REPAIR AND IN HOT SPINNING RESERVE (WHEN THEY WORK VERY INEFFICIENTLY) READY TO CUT IN WHEN THE WIND ISN’T BEHAVING ITSELF.

THE GERMANS HAVE SAID THAT NO POWER STATIONS WILL BE SHUT DOWN AS A RESULT OF WIND POWER, HOWEVER MANY TURBINES THEY ERECT. WHAT IS MORE THEY HAVE DECIDED TO REPLACE THEIR AGEING NUCLEAR FACILITIES WITH GAS FIRED STATIONS.

WHILE AT THE SAME TIME TONY BLAIR HAS NOW NAMED THREE P0SSIBLE LOCATIONS FOR THE SITING OF A NEW NUCLEAR POWER STATION, ALL IN SCOTLAND

AS FOR THE CARTEL HOW CAN THE SO CALLED GREENS SUPPORT WEI, (ONE OF THE WORLDS BIGGEST PROVIDERS OF ATOMIC POWER, WHO OWN GREENPEACE’S BELOVED JUICE/NPOWER), AMEC (WHO HAVE JUST STARTED TO FLOOD AN IMMENSELY IMPORTANT PART OF BELIZE ETC ETC ETC), Mc ALPINE, ( HAV’NT YOU RAILED AGAINST THEM IN THE PAST?). VESTA WHO HAVE HELPED DENMARK TO LEAD THE RUSH TO WIND. A COUNTRY THAT NOW PRODUCES MORE CARBON DIOXIDE THAN THEY DID BEFORE BUILDING THEIR FIRST TURBINE. I COULD GO ON BUT I HOPE YOU GET THE PICTURE

I WOULD BE VERY INTERESTED TO SEE ANY OF THE STATEMENTS REGARDING THE USE OF MY NAME BY THE SOCIETY OF MOTOR MANUFACTURERS ETC ETC TO EXONN. IT SEEMS VERY STRANGE THAT THESE SAME WORDS WERE USED AGAINST THE CONSERVATION FOUNDATION OVER 20 YEARS AGO WHEN WE LAUNCHED THE FORD CONSERVATION AWARDS YET WE WERE SHOWN NO EVIDENCE.

AND WHY ARE THEY DOING THAT WHEN MANY OIL COMPANIES ARE CASHING IN ON THE WIND RUSH AND MANY INDUSTRIES INCLUDING CATERPILLAR, BMW, RENAULT, DUBLIN AIRPORT ETC, ETC ARE LEADING THE WAY IN THE DRIVE FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND ARE FINDING IT SAVES THEM LOTS OF MONEY…

I MUST ALSO ASK IF OUR GOVERNMENT IS REALLY WORRIED ABOUT SO CALLED PEOPLE MADE GLOBAL WARMING WHY ARE THEY NOT TAXING AVIGAS, TAKING VAT OFF DIY INSULATION MATERIALS AND WHY ARE THEY CONTINUING TO FUND THE BUILDING OF COAL FIRED POWER STATIONS IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD NONE OF WHICH ARE FITTED WITH LEAN AND CLEAN BURN TECHNOLOGY TO WHICH WE HOLD THE PATENTS?

I APPEND A COPY OF A PAPER RECENTLY PUBLISHED THE M NEW SCIENTIST. I WOULD ASK YOUR COLLEAGUES IN OXFORD TO TAKE A LOOK AND SEE IF IT’S CONTENTS.SHAKE THEIR FAITH IN WHAT OU CALL GLOBAL WARMING IN ANY WAY.

ONE FINAL POINT I THINK YOU MUST BE EXPENDING YOUR ILL INFORMED VITRIOL AGAINST ME ON THE WRONG PEOPLE, FOR NONE OF THE MANY NGO’S I SUPPORT HAVE EVEN CONTACTED ME ON THE MATTER.

PLEASE LET ME REITERATE MY QUESTION ASKED IN THE NEWSPAPER

AT THE MOMENT Wind power in the United Kingdom contributes just four-thousandths of our electricity generation and displaces a much smaller fraction of carbon dioxide emission – about a thousandth – because power stations are by no means the only source.

Even with our target of 25 to 30 times as much wind electricity, the proportion of global carbon dioxide emission displaced will not be enough to measurably alter the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, let alone alter climate change. PLEASE GET YOUR COLLEAGUES TO DISPROVE THAT.

YOURS SINCERELY DAVID

Letter from George Monbiot to David Bellamy, 23rd September 2004

Dear David,

Thank you for taking the time to reply. I’m glad we are able to keep the channel open.

I have to say, though, that I am disappointed by your response. For the second time, I challenged you on climate change, and for the second time you have replied with a letter about wind power. Now I am sure there is a debate to be had on wind power, and I will pick up one or two of the points you made in a moment, but I had hoped I would not have to point out for a second time that climate change and wind power are not the same issue.

In my article I criticised the statements you made in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, for example:

- “The link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming is a myth.”

- Global warming is “a problem that actually doesn’t exist”

- “climate change is an entirely natural phenomenon, nothing to do with the burning of fossil fuels.”

- it “has been with us for 13,000 years and probably isn’t causing us any harm anyway”

- “Increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, double it even, and this would produce a rise in plant productivity.”

- “increases in temperature are responsible for increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, not the other way around.”

- “remove all the carbon dioxide and the temperature might fall by just 0.3 per cent.”

I tested such statements with climate scientists and they informed me that you hadn’t the faintest idea what you were talking about.

You replied, in your letter to the Guardian (you have not, as far as I can discover, raised this issue in the Telegraph) that if I could disprove your contention that wind power could “neither provide us with a sustainable source of future energy nor have any measurable effect reducing the amount of carbon dioxide”, you would “fall into line over global warming”.

In my letter to you, I told you that I could not understand what the performance of wind farms has to do with whether or not global warming is taking place. You have not, so far, attempted to explain this mystery. So I would like to ask you, in your next response, to put wind power aside for long enough to address the issue I raised: your contention that anthropogenic climate change is a myth.

You question the idea that your public statements dismissing climate change are being used by corporations with a financial interest in the consumption of fossil fuels. As it happens, I was prompted to challenge your position because, in the course of my research for an earlier article (War x 4, 6th July 2004), I spoke to Nigel Wonnacott, the press officer at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Wasn’t it grossly irresponsible, I asked him, for his members to be promoting sports utility vehicles when climate change threatened the lives of so many of the world’s people?

“I would question your idea that climate change is threatening people’s lives”, he replied.

“Are you saying that climate change isn’t happening?”

“Well as you know George, there’s a lot of doubt about the issue.”

“A lot of doubt? There’s an almost unanimous scientific consensus.”

“As you know, David Bellamy has said it’s not happening.”

“But he’s a botanist, not a climatologist.”

“He’s an environmentalist. A very prominent environmentalist.”

And of course, I didn’t know what to say to that. You ARE a very prominent environmentalist, and your name can be used, as a result, as a stick with which to beat the rest of us.

And why shouldn’t they use it? You’ve given them the richest gift they could ask for. Just as the corporate lobbyists trying to deny the science had pretty well given up, just as even Bjorn Lomborg had announced that those who deny that manmade climate change is happening are “fools”, just as, in other words, the corporations finally had to face up to their global responsibilities, you step in, in the nick of time, and offer them an escape route.

Indeed, it has to be asked why on earth you chose to publicise your views so widely if you did not expect them to influence the debate? You surely cannot write a major article for the Daily Mail, then deny that anyone might seek to make use of it.

I’m sorry to find that you see my correspondence as “ill-informed vitriol”. Whether or not it is ill-informed I’ll leave others to decide. But I was not prompted to challenge your position by any animus towards you. Far from it. Until you began your campaign to debunk the science of climate change, I had great respect for you. So did all the environmentalists I know. I am sorry to report that this is no longer the case. One of my hopes in continuing this correspondence is that you take the chance to seek to restore your reputation. Not by “falling into line” – no one is asking you to say anything you don’t believe to be true – but by undertaking to study the science before making any more pronouncements on it. And that means all the science, not just the highly selective studies which support your point of view.

You go on to write that “none of the many ngo’s i support have even contacted me on the matter.” Well, it’s about time they did. And if they don’t, it’s about time you got some advisers who stop flattering you and start questioning you.

Now onto wind power. I’m no expert on this subject, and don’t have particularly strong views about it, but I would like, if I may, to pass on some comments from some of the people who have read your letter and do have expertise.

1. Your statement: “AT THE MOMENT BRITAIN HAS SOME 1100 WIND TURBINES DOING THEIR INTERMITTENT BEST PRODUCING MEANINGFUL AMOUNTS OF ELECTRICITY FOR ONLY 24.1 % OF THE YEAR”

Response: “David has made this comment before – it is wrong, but it is an easy trap for people to fall into. Firstly, a capacity factor (the thing he refers to) of 24.1% has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of time the turbines are generating electricity – it is simply a measure of how much electricity they generated over the year compared to if they had been operating at full speed all year (a thing that they never do, so in a sense a little bit meaningless to compare to). Secondly, ALL generators have a capacity factor less than 100% – nuclear is 76%, gas is 60%, coal is 50% – however I doubt if David would argue that nuclear “only” produces electricity for 9 months of the year, or that coal “only” produces electricity for 6 months of the year. And a good thing too, because to argue such a thing would just be silly. Thirdly, the 24.1% figure is an anomolously low figure – taking an average of the last 6 years, the figure is around 28%, and this is without any meaningful capacity in higher wind areas such as offshore or northern Scotland. (reference: DUKES 2003, 2004)”

2. Your statement: “THEY PRODUCED LESS THAN FOUR ONE THOUSANDTH OF THE POWER USED IN THE UK”

Response: “The figure of “four one thousandth” is pretty meaningless when taken out of context – UK electricity demand in 2003 was 337TWh, of which wind supplied 1.3TWh. Of course what isn’t mentioned here is that UK conventional generating capacity is almost 79,000MW, while wind generating capacity is 740MW. Exactly how much electricity demand does David think wind will satisfy when it makes up around 0.9% of generating capacity in the country? (refernce: DUKES 2004)

3. Your statement: “HOWEVER MANY TURBINES ARE ERECTED THERE IS NEED FOR FOSSIL FUEL BACKUP”

Response 1: “Backup is a reality of every electricity generating system, with or without wind. Backup is needed because conventional generators experience breakdowns, systems go offline, the interconnector to France is interrupted, plant maintenance takes longer than expected, or simply because the estimate of future demand (around which plant is scheduled) is inaccurate. In short, the UK electricity system has NEVER operated without fossil fuel backup, and this situation is going to continue indefinitely. The only relevant question here is how much additional backup is required because of wind – there is plenty of peer review research on this, and it all says about the same thing…at current level nothing, at 10% it starts to be noticeable, by 20% and above the costs are becoming significant (cf Dale et al, 2003). This of course assumes that it is only wind that is providing renewable energy, but we’ll come to that below.”

Response 2: “This sentence is technically accurate but completely erroneous and deliberately misleading. Fluctuations in wind output is managed in exactly the same way as fluctuations in demand. This includes the use of spinning reserve – which is a less efficient mode of operation (hence the sentence is technically accurate) At current levels of wind capacity, the levels of spinning reserve are EXACTLY the same as would be used if there was no wind generation. At very high levels of wind capacity, then the amount of spinning reserve will increase but at low amounts. 26GW of wind will need an additional 0.5GW of spinning reserve. The small increase in CO2 emissions from the spinning reserve will be tiny compared to the CO2 savings of the wind generation.”

4. Your statement: “AT THE SAME TIME TONY BLAIR HAS NOW NAMED THREE P0SSIBLE LOCATIONS FOR THE SITING OF A NEW NUCLEAR POWER STATION, ALL IN SCOTLAND”

Response: “This is nonsense (and just shows how sloppy he is with his facts). Blair did little more than re-iterate current government policy, (ie keeping the option open) at the House of Commons Liaison Committee on 6th July.”

5. Your Statement: “Even with our target of 25 to 30 times as much wind electricity…”

Response: I know of no such target, but I think this comment is tied up in the usual way this debate runs in the UK: renewables = wind = intermittency : an ill-informed line of arguement. The Government’s target is 10% renewable electricity by 2010, and potentially 20% by 2020. Note that this is renewable energy, not wind power. Looking at the data (DUKES 2003), you’ll find that wind currently accounts for one fifth of renewable electricity production in the UK, with around 2% of total electricity demand is supplied by renewables other than wind. Wind is likely to become a bigger share of this sector, but to have wind as the sole supplier of renewable electricity…I don’t think so, and I wouldn’t support it. I think the more interesting question here is why some people pretend that wind only renewables is somehow inevitable, or government policy.”

6. Your statement: “… HELPED DENMARK TO LEAD THE RUSH TO WIND. A COUNTRY THAT NOW PRODUCES MORE CARBON DIOXIDE THAN THEY DID BEFORE BUILDING THEIR FIRST TURBINE.”

Response: “Here are the numbers for Denmark’s CO2 emission 2002 and 2003 from the latest Danish Energy Agency statistics:

Table 5. CO2 Emissions
Unit: Million tonnes 1990 1996 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003*
Observed Emissions 52,7 73,1 59,4 56,5 52,5 54,0 53,0 57,9
Adjusted Emissions *) 60,9 58,5 56,2 55,5 54,5 53,9 52,4 51,6
*) Adjusted for climate variations and net electricity exports
(from www.ens.dk, english version)

The observed CO2 emission was 9,2% higher in 2003 than in 2002 because of a net export of electricity to especially Norway and Sweden (that use respectively 4 times and 2.5 times as much electricity per capita than Denmark because of heavy use of electric heating – and had low water level in their hydro power dams (dry year)). As you can see from the adjusted figures (adjusted for electricity export and climate variations) the emission from “at home electricity use” was 1,5% LOWER in 2003 than in 2002.

The year 2003 was a rather bad wind year (15% of the Danish electricity use coming form wind) – in a normal wind year the Danish installed wind capacity would have produced around 20% of the Danish electricity use. See: http://www.windpower.dk/composite-108.htm.”

Now whether or not these responses serve to “disprove” your contention that “the proportion of global carbon dioxide emission displaced [by windpower] will not be enough to measurably alter the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, let alone alter climate change” you’ll have to judge for yourself. But surely the underlying point is this: that if climate change is happening, we have to find a means of doing something about it. On the one hand we must plainly reduce our consumption of energy; on the other we must find non-polluting means of producing the energy we do consume. I can see that it is convenient for you to contend that there is no problem, and therefore no need for a solution. But your contention relies on discounting the science of climatology. Those of us who believe that science is a more accurate guide to the world than supposition recognise that there is an urgent need for action, and that this action requires difficult choices, none of which are without cost. Your denial of climate change relieves you of the need to engage in these dilemmas. The rest of us cannot afford this luxury.

Finally, you say that you appended an article from New Scientist. This did not come through.

I hope very much you are able to respond to these points, and in particular to address the issue of climate change independently of the issue of wind power. I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely, George Monbiot

No further correspondence received.

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