Monday, 16 March 2015

The Legacy problem

This post addresses a key challenge in climate discussions - what kind of future do we want for our descendants and whether we have to choose the lesser of two evils if we are to prosper.

That we are capable of incrementally changing the nature of our planet for the future should now be acknowledged as a given. That our current action pathways are destructive and will, unchecked, almost certainly result in great harm, suffering, damage and destruction to Nature and ecosystems, human societies and the social stability of our society and cultures should also be acknowledged, though even at this level there are divisions among people.

What is unquestionable is that by necessity, in living our lives, we effect the conditions of future lives by default. We are laying down a legacy for our descendants.

The central questions of climate change action relate to the nature and pace of the legacy and the extent to which this legacy can be altered, to decisions about what kind of legacy is preferable. 

Opinions about the nature of what we can or should do are strongly connected to opinions about what the risks are, what the timescales are, and what kind of human society is desirable.

What is generally accepted is that Energy is a key component of both the problems and the answers. So we have to have an idea about what to do about energy if we intend to plot any future scenario.

As things stand, our society is dependent on access to reliable energy, whether it is electricity, gas, full for transport or industrial production. Energy is a part of what we now are and much of what we do. We collectively use a vast amount of energy to support the ways in which live and this creates the first problem: the infrastructure of supply is necessarily vast, much, much bigger than most people realise or understand.

Even if our chosen pathway incorporates plans to reduce overall energy use, the reality is that, if we are to sustain a culture comparable to that of the present we need to produce large amounts of energy in the future. One set of questions arise from the choices we make about how we make use of that energy and how we reduce current levels of consumption. A second set of questions revolve around the extent to which we want to sustain that culture or whether it would be better to permit a degree of regression.

Another set of questions, my focus here, is the practicality of oil and coal divestment and usage, against the practicality of renewable energy and, third, the practicality of nuclear power.

Though there are other energy matters which could be included here, these three options form the basis of possible future energy production.

I work in renewable energy and believe strongly that any relatively cost-effective renewable energy should be encouraged and supported in the vast majority of cases. But I have to acknowledge that even with a vast uptake of renewables for the next thirty years there is still likely to be a shortfall between what can be supplied and what will be needed, however well we improve our energy efficiency.

In the absence of a magic bullet to suddenly solve these problems (all current solutions are partial and specific to certain preconditions), we have to make a difficult choice about how our needs are to be supplemented. That choice is between fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

The time may come in the next ten, twenty years that neither of these is necessary, but that time is not now. Given that we must choose to develop one or the other in the timescale from the present out 25 years, we need to decide which of these represents the better choice in terms of legacy.

Some of the risks associated with Fossil are relatively well understood. The timescales are in question, but the problems are potentially existential, intolerably painful and, in general, unacceptable. Other associated problems are less certain but even worse in their impact. 

For me, the problems with nuclear power are all about legacy. As things stand we have not satisfactorily resolved the problems of what to do to avoid harm completely - after all, in these processes we are creating highly toxic and damaging materials which need to be managed (potential) for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But I feel there is a fundamental difference: the legacy problems associated with fossil fuel use cannot be resolved - once they are in the system, we have no choice but to live with the consequences. In this sense, the legacy (including the uncertain elements) are bound in and unavoidable, unchangeable. What will be will be.

On the other hand, I think that the legacy problems and issues of nuclear energy can be resolved. Since the source of risk is physically constrained (a relatively small amount of highly damaging residue), there is at least the possibility of finding the means by which the legacy can be managed, since the solution is engineerable. Though dreadful in themselves, nuclear incidents are localised when compared to the harms stimulated by climate change from fossil fuel use. The side-effects (ecosystem failure, drought, famine, flooding) of the latter do not arise from the former.

Being a member of the Green Party, I tend towards the view that nuclear weapons have limited justification and the risks that they exist to manage are extremely uncertain. But there is a big difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

So, here is the legacy problem - which of the two energy options is the lesser of two 'evils' for the next twenty five years, and for our legacy? We must assume that our descendants will be living with changes, some of which will be negative, but we must also assume that the direction of our decisions will make a difference to the kinds of threats they will face and the opportunities they have to find solutions.

In the absence of other practical solutions, I am inclined to suggest that nuclear energy is the lesser evil.