Guest post by David Middleton
While I probably share some of the author’s views on nuclear power, I think we would have to start out by “talking honestly” about climate change…
Climate change is an energy problem, so let’s talk honestly about nuclear
David Robert Grimes
Of all the hazards facing humankind, climate change is the single greatest threat we have ever faced. In a few short decades, we have altered the climate more than we ever thought possible and now, in the midst of the greatest heatwave recorded in decades in the hottest year on record, we are finally beginning to countenance the scale of problem before us.
“Of all the hazards facing humankind, climate change is the single greatest threat we have ever faced.”
The sentence doesn’t even make sense.
- an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury, or damage
- one that threatens
- an indication of something impending: the sky held a threat of rain
Climate change doesn’t fit definitions 1 or 2 and it’s not really an “indication of something impending.” It’s an ongoing process. The greatest threats we have ever faced are in no particular order:
- Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany
- Attila the Hun
- Ghengis (jen-jis according to John Kerry) Khan
- Vladimir Lenin, Joe Stalin and the rest of the Soviet gang
These people literally did pose threats to humankind… At least to the humans who got in their way.
“Of all the hazards facing humankind”…
1: a game of chance like craps played with two dice
2: a source of danger hazards on the roadway
3a : the effect of unpredictable and unanalyzable forces in determining events : chance, risk the hazards involved in owning your own business
men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together — Charles Dickens
b : a chance event : accident
looked like a fugitive, who had escaped from something in clothes caught up at hazard — Willa Cather
4 obsolete : stake 3a
5: a golf-course obstacle (such as a bunker or a pond)
Is “climate change” at or even near the top of the list of hazards facing humankind? Definition 2 seems to be appropriate: “a source of danger.”
Sources of danger to humankind:
- Asteroid/comet impacts/bolides
- Supervolcano eruptions
- Flood basalt events
- Nuclear war
- Megaquakes & tsunamis
- Carrington events (coronal mass ejections)
- Gamma ray bursts
Does “climate change” really even make this list? When this interglacial stage comes to an end, climate change will be a genuine hazard, maybe even an existential threat.
However, today it’s really more of a risk management issue. Although “risk” implies that it can be clearly quantified. Dr. Judith Curry had a very thoughtful post on this issue back in January:
So what are the words that we should use to talk about the potential harm from human caused climate change? I think that the following phrases are appropriate:
- potential harm
- reasons for concern
- possible catastrophic impacts
I think that ‘threat’ is overly alarmist, since it implies imminent harm. ‘Risk’ is not overly alarmist, but it does imply that the harm is quantifiable and mitigable — which I have argued that it is not.
How do we deal with potential harm and possible catastrophic impacts? This puts us in the domain of decision making under deep uncertainty — a topic I have written about many times at CE.
Back to the Grauniad…
In a few short decades, we have altered the climate more than we ever thought possible…
Source: Kottek, M., J. Grieser, C. Beck, B. Rudolf, and F. Rubel, 2006: World Map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated. Meteorol. Z., 15, 259-263. DOI: 10.1127/0941-2948/2006/0130.
Back to the Grauniad:
I don’t think that Oxford is in Arizona, so I don’t get the heat wave connection.
Regarding “the hottest year on record” meme…
Globally, 2016 edged out 1998 by +0.02 C to become the warmest year in the 38-year satellite temperature record, according to Dr. John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. Because the margin of error is about 0.10 C, this would technically be a statistical tie, with a higher probability that 2016 was warmer than 1998. The main difference was the extra warmth in the Northern Hemisphere in 2016 compared to 1998.
“The question is, does 2016’s record warmth mean anything scientifically?” Christy said. “I suppose the answer is, not really. Both 1998 and 2016 are anomalies, outliers, and in both cases we have an easily identifiable cause for that anomaly: A powerful El Niño Pacific Ocean warming event. While El Niños are natural climatic events, they also are transient. In the study of climate, we are more concerned with accurately identifying long-term temperature trends than we are with short-term spikes and dips, especially when those spikes and dips have easily identified natural causes.
The warming observed in the instrumental temperature record doesn’t significantly deviate from the pre-existing Holocene pattern of climate change…
Over the past 2,000 years, the average temperature of the northern hemisphere has exceeded natural variability* (+/-2 std dev) 3 times: The Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age and the modern warming. Humans didn’t cause at least two of the three and the current one only exceeds natural variability only by about 0.2 °C. And this is a maximum, because the instrumental data have much higher resolution than the proxy data.
*Natural variability does not imply that excursions from it are unnatural.
Taking the climate back through the rest of the Holocene, we can see that “the hottest year on record” might not be so hot…
Now that we’ve actually “talked honestly” about climate change, we can talk honestly about nuclear power. And Dr. Grimes does talk honestly about nuclear power:
Fears about nuclear energy run deep: the 1986 Chernobyl disaster remains a towering linchpin in anti-nuclear narratives, presented as an irrefutable case that nuclear energy is inherently unsafe. These claims are so profoundly entrenched that it is almost accepted as common knowledge that the Chernobyl disaster killed thousands.
Yet, as I’ve written here before, these claims do not stand up to scrutiny and persist in the face of report after report to the contrary. Years of subsequent investigation place the death toll of the disaster at approximately 43 people, with deleterious health effects failing to materialise at any appreciable rate. That this information is surprising to many is indicative of quite how polarised the discussion on such a vital topic has been.
Much of the reason for this is ideological – Greenpeace is but one organisation that has been criticised for releasing misleading anti-nuclear information, claiming that up to 200,000 deaths are attributable to Chernobyl. This figure has been roundly debunked, but predictably strikes fear into the public conscience, encouraging panic in place of reason.
The more recent 2011 Fukushima disaster has been become a similar focus for nuclear panic, despite the fact that no one has died nor is ever likely to from this event. The spectre of the plant looms so large in the public consciousness that we have seemingly forgotten that the cause of the meltdown was a massive tsunami that claimed about 16,000 lives, itself potentially exacerbated by climate change. There is a dark irony then in the fact that the ensuing kneejerk reaction led to the closure of Germany’s nuclear plants and their replacement with heavily polluting coal plants.
Yet simply dismissing concerns about nuclear energy as unfounded is not productive, nor is it honest. Nuclear energy may be the most efficient and clean source we have, but it is complicated and like any energy source, it is not devoid of complications. Nuclear waste is one aspect of this – nuclear byproducts and legacy waste can remain radioactive for centuries, and have to be carefully stored and managed to avoid any potential contamination. And while the risk to human health is generally low to nonexistent, safely storing such materials is a challenging engineering problem and legitimate concern. These challenges are not insurmountable, but nor should they be glossed over.
It’s nice that we can find agreement on a solution, even when we disagree about the problem we need to solve. Reminds me of a scene from The Outlaw Josey Wales...
As a geologist/geophysicist with 36 years experience in oil & gas exploration, I have no vested interest in coal, nuclear or wind power (except as a utility customer), yet I support all three of those energy sources (well, I support wind where it works) because I like to know that the lights will come on when I flip a switch and I like to pay less than $0.12/kWh for electricity. I also support natural gas from both sides of the equation. Hydroelectric and geothermal are also great, where they work.