Global warming, nuclear power, and genetically modified crops

This winter in London has been cold. Perhaps there are many more instances of extreme weather to come, because of climate change. Britons will then become the most talkative and friendly people on the planet, given the British obsession with the weather and its role as conversational ice-breakers.

So, is global warming taking place, despite the cold snap recently? There is an observable trend of the planet warming up: after all, the ice caps are still melting. The question is not so much whether there is a phenomenon called global warming, i.e. the average temperature is rising, but whether this is caused by human activity. I believe so, but I don’t know for sure. I am not a scientist, with the knowledge and capability to gather and assess the evidence to come to a position myself, therefore I believe what I read in journals and magazines, and I admit it is a leap of faith.

For me, it doesn’t matter if global warming is definitively caused by human activity or not to take actions to reduce carbon emission. I’m satisfied that there is a reasonable probability that it is caused by human activity, and therefore we should take every feasible action to reduce our burden on the planet. No scientist worth his or her salt would claim that global warming is caused by human activitiy without doubt, categorically, and absolutely. There are other potential explanations or unknown reasons that may account for the temperature going up. But the scientific evidence and opinions point to a likelihood of global warming caused by human activity.

Those who deny that global warming is caused by human activity fall largely into two groups. (1) Global warming is a consipiracy by [whatever institution is covertly trying to take over the world such as the EU / UN / Al-Qaeda ...] therefore it is not caused by human activity. (2) The evidence does not conclusively say that global warming is caused by human activity (and it cannot – see above), therefore it is definitely not caused by human activity. Hmm ... Very convincing.

In any case, I find it better to move forward towards renewable power and leave the carbon age. So far, then, I agree with the greens / environmentalists: where I disagree is the need for nuclear power and genetically modified crops. Sometimes I get the impression that the environmentalists are well-meaning version of Pol Pot, who want to roll back economic and material advances, and return to an idealistic world of simple peasantry, living in nature and following the nature’s rhythm. There is no doubt that their convictions are deeply felt and sincerely believed: I agree with most of what they say and ideals they hold, but perhaps I’ve become too much of a cynic to think it possible for their policies to be implemented.

In an ideal world, we would not have to confront this tricky question about nuclear power, but if we were to consider the matter seriously, then nuclear energy must be part of the solution. At the moment, it is not possible to shift from carbon to renewable source of energy in the short or medium term. True, there will be more efficient machines but it is unlikely to reduce our need for energy sufficiently. It is a question of feasibility. I doubt that there will be a popular acceptance of decline in living standard: many people would like to see policies that are good for the environment in principle but would baulk at the idea of having to lessen their personal (material) quality of life. Given the rising population and affluence (which may be in decline at this moment) as a whole, our total energy demands are probably going to remain at the same level or increase over the medium term. If we accept that we cannot deny others (developing countries) what we (economically advanced countries) already have, then we need to fill in the energy gap. Despite the risks of catastrophic accidents, nuclear energy has proved to be a source of reliable and environmentally friendly source of power over the past decades. In the end, I prefer to take that risk than burning carbon and keep people happy.

Similarly, and somewhat more cautiously, I think there is a need for introduction of genetically modifed crops. Again, if we can all turn into organic farming and feed the world population, then that would be my ideals too. However there are hard choices to make. I am very hesitant to be in support of genetically modified crops, since the consequences to the biosphere are enormous, if something goes wrong. However, if global warming leads to less land available for food cultivation, and if genetically modified crops were able to withstand more extreme conditions, then it seems a risk worth taking. After all, I’d rather see people being fed properly if there is a means to do so. Where possible, we will be eating locally produced food in sync with the seasons, but global warming may make this difficult and there may arise the need for more transport between parts of the planet.

These problems, or ‘challenges’ if you like, will decide our collective fate and we will need a continuous discussion on how to proceed. We must find a way that will satisfy our material needs with the burden we place on our planet. Individuals but also groups have to make decisions which are tough and difficult. I am faintly optimistic that we will be able to overcome differences and build a better future: at least, we should not be the generation that has squandered the inhertance. We owe it to our future generations.