The government’s chief scientist appears to have succumbed to politics
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th October 2005
I report this with sadness: Sir David King has lost his bottle. Until a few weeks ago, the chief scientific adviser looked to me like one of the few brave souls in the British government. In an article in Science at the beginning of last year, he argued that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today – more serious even than the threat of terrorism” and criticised the Bush administration for “failing to take up the challenge”(1). In response, he was viciously attacked by the Exxon-sponsored climate change denier Myron Ebell(2). Being viciously attacked by Myron Ebell is something to which all self-respecting scientists should aspire.
Last month he was attacked again, and this time he deserved it. At a meeting of climate change specialists, Sir David announced that a “reasonable” target for stabilising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 550 parts of the gas per million parts of air. It would be “politically unrealistic”, he said, to demand anything lower(3).
Simon Retallack, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, stood up and reminded Sir David what his job was. As chief scientist, his duty is not to represent political reality – there are plenty of advisers schooled in that art – but to represent scientific reality. Retallack’s own work, based on the latest science, shows that at 550 parts per million the chances of preventing more than two degrees of global warming are just 10-20%(4). To raise them to 80%, carbon concentrations will have to be stabilised at 400 parts. Two degrees is the point beyond which most climate scientists predict catastrophe: several key ecosystems are likely to flip into runaway feedback; the biosphere becomes a net source of carbon; global food production is clobbered and two billion people face the risk of drought. All very reasonable, I’m sure.
Sir David replied that if he recommended a lower limit, he would lose credibility with the government. As far as I was concerned, his credibility had just disappeared without trace. By shielding his masters from uncomfortable realities, he is failing in his duties as both scientist and adviser. Anyone who has studied the BSE crisis knows how dangerous the cowardice of scientific counsellors can be.
As if to prove that his nerve has gone, on Friday Sir David made his clearest statement yet that he sees nuclear power as the answer to climate change. With the right carbon taxes, he said, nuclear power would become cheaper than coal. “It’s important we do take the public with us on the environmental debate,” he said. “That is why I’m trying to sell it”(5).
Sir David may have political reasons for “trying to sell” new nuclear power stations – at the Labour Party conference Tony Blair said he wants to re-examine the nuclear option(6)- but he would, I suspect, have as much trouble identifying a scientific case as he had at the meeting last month. The figures leave him stranded.
Let us forget, for the moment, that nuclear power spreads radioactive pollution, presents a target for terrorists and leaves us with waste that no government wants to handle. Like Sir David I believe that while all these problems are grave, they are not as grave as climate change. Let us concentrate on the money.
It seems clear that new nuclear power stations will not be built unless the government supports them. A recent review by the economics consultancy Oxera shows that even if you exclude the cost of insurance and include the benefits of emissions trading (which attaches a price to carbon dioxide), “a programme of public assistance … would be needed to boost predicted [rates of return] to a level that is acceptable to private investors”. The consultants suggested that £1.6 billion of grants might be enough to tip the balance in favour of a new nuclear programme(7).
The first “even if” is a big one. Private insurers will not cover the risk. Three international conventions limit investors’ liability and oblige governments to pick up the bill on their behalf(8). According to a report commissioned by the European Parliament, the costs of a large-scale nuclear accident range from 83 billion euros to 5.5 trillion(9). They would have to be met by us.
But let us also forget the costs of insurance. If the public sector (or for that matter, given that funds are limited, the private sector) invests in nuclear power, is this the best use to which the money can be put? This is the question addressed in a new paper by the physicist Amory Lovins(10).
He begins by examining the terms of reference used by people like David King, who compare nuclear power “only with a central power plant burning coal or natural gas”. If the costs of construction come down and if the government offers big enough subsidies and makes carbon emissions sufficiently expensive, Lovins says, nuclear power might be able to compete with coal. “But those central thermal power plants are the wrong competitors. None of them can compete with windpower … let alone with two far cheaper resources: cogeneration of heat and power, and efficient use of electricity.”
Ten cents of investment, he shows, will buy either 1 kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity; 1.2-1.7 of windpower; 2.2-6.5 of small-scale cogeneration; or up to 10 of energy efficiency. “Its higher cost than competitors, per unit of net CO2 displaced, means that every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar.” And, because nuclear power stations take so long to build, it would be spent later. “Expanding nuclear power would both reduce and retard the desired decrease in CO2 emissions.”(11)
Already, the market is voting with its wallet. “In 2004 alone,” Lovins notes, “Spain and Germany each added as much wind capacity – two billion watts – as nuclear power is adding worldwide in each year of this decade.” Though the nuclear industry in the US has guzzled 33 times as much government money as wind (12)and has “enjoyed a regulatory system of its own design for a quarter-century”, it hasn’t fulfilled a single new order from the electricity companies since 1973(13). And, unlike nuclear power stations, wind, cogeneration and energy efficiency will all become much cheaper.
It’s certainly a good idea, as people like Sir David recommend, to have a “diversified energy portfolio”. But, as Lovins points out, “this does not mean … that every option merits a place in the portfolio purely for the sake of diversity, any more than a financial portfolio should include bad investments just because they’re on the market.” Building new nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom would be a political decision, not a scientific one.
So what has happened to the man who once bravely did battle with the new Inquisition? A memo sent by Tony Blair’s private secretary, Ivan Rogers, a month after Sir David’s article was published in Science, instructed him to stop criticising the Bush administration on the grounds that it “does not help us achieve our wider policy aims”(14). Mock interviews Sir David conducted with his political minders, which were found by a journalist on a disk dropped by his press secretary, show him learning to recite the government’s line(15). Could he have had his arm twisted over the nuclear issue too?
I hope not, and I hope he can produce some robust figures to support his contentions. But I fear that the government’s chief scientist is mutating into its chief spin doctor.
1. David King, 9th January 2004. Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore?. Science, Vol 303, Issue 5655.
2. Myron Ebell, 8th November 2004. The Today programme.
3. David King, 21st September 2005. Speech to the Decarbonising the UK conference, Church House, Westminster.
4. Simon Retallack, October 2004. Setting a Long Term Climate Objective. Institute for Public Policy Research.
5. David Adam, 21st October 2005. Chief scientist backs nuclear power revival. The Guardian.
6. Tony Blair, 27th September 2005. Speech to the Labour Party conference.
7. Oxera, 1st June 2005. Financing the nuclear option:
modelling the costs of new build. http://www.oxera.com
8. The 1960 Paris Convention, 1963 Vienna Convention and 1988 Joint Protocol.
9. Oosterhuis, F. (2001), Energy subsidies in the European Union. Final Report, European Parliament, July 2001, cited by the European Environment Agency, 2004. Energy subsidies in the European Union. http://reports.eea.eu.int/technical_report_2004_1/en/Energy_FINAL_web.pdf
10. Amory B. Lovins, 11th September 2005. Nuclear power: economics and climate-protection potential. The Rocky Mountain Institute.
12. Table 4: (Effective subsidy (USD/KWh)). European Environment Agency, 2004. Energy subsidies in the European Union. http://reports.eea.eu.int/technical_report_2004_1/en/Energy_FINAL_web.pdf
13. Amory B. Lovins, ibid.
14. Roger Highfield, 8th March 2004. Downing St ‘gags chief adviser on global warming’. The Telegraph.