A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Polly: please go and put the kettle on and have a calming pot of tea.....

This Wednesday, I fear, there is not much competition for 'Rant of the Day'. Polly Toynbee over at The Gloomiad outfisks even The Independent (and that is saying something): 'Capitulation to the nuclear lobby is a politics of despair' (Comment, The Guardian, May 25).

Journalistically, there is little to match Polly when she is on full wing. Just witness all that 1960's left-over angst and violent anger that the good folk of Britain, the bedint, just won't do what they are told (i.e., what Polly thinks they should). So we have a mighty temper tantrum about everybody, and everything, relating to energy, from Tony Blair to you frequent fliers - interestingly, this is quite a contrast to the latest comment from that 1960's-70's Thinking Man's icon, Joan Bakewell (see: The Guardian, May 13).

Let me deconstruct a fraction of Polly's diatribe:
(a) "Despair is the great peril in climate change policy. Nothing can be done, we're all doomed! Democratic politics reaches its nemesis here: who dares to stand for election on a consumption-cutting agenda? No one. What opposition will hold its tongue as a government takes tough measures? None. So who dare put unpalatable truths to voters?"

Quite, Polly. The "unpalatable truths" are that Britain is heading for a serious energy crisis. Wind farms and new nuclear stations are not genuine alternatives in confronting this crisis, which involves the demise of North Sea gas and the closure of our older coal and nuclear plants. Your beloved 'renewables' (some of which, by the way, are not 'renewable') supply but 4% of our energy; wind less than 0.4%. With the problem of intermittency, these 'renewables' will struggle to achieve a realistic 7%. Moreover, increases in energy efficiency will be absorbed by your friend Gordon Brown's much-touted economic growth. The key political question is thus how to generate the core 93% of Britain's energy needs. The answer - as any sensible person knows - has to be some flexible mix of clean coal, imported natural gas, and nuclear power. The rest is aeolian ephemerality.

Polly, it is you, and your head-in-the-sand, utopian ilk, who represent the true danger - not the nuclear lobby, not the anti-wind lobby, not the coal lobby, not the frequent fliers and the SUV drivers. You are the one who is unable to face up to the "unpalatable truths", and it is your ragged and ill-tempered rants that are making it difficult for a good Labour government to deal with this energy issue as quickly as is required. Do please put a windsock in it.
(b) "What would it take to cut carbon emissions enough to save the planet?"

One does, indeed, despair. Please do read my earlier blog on the detailed science of 'Long-term climate change' (May 22, below). Your talk of 'saving the planet' is codswallop. Even if we grounded every 'plane, crushed every car, closed down every power plant, and put 4 billion people out of work (and into abject poverty, I might add - very Left wing), climate would still change, and often dramatically. The earth doesn't need saving - it is a tough old boot that has survived asteroids, earthquakes, fires, floods, and moving continents from the beginning of its existence. The idea that wind farms, providing 10% of power in the UK, will 'save the world' is like trying to stop Niagara Falls with a child's sailing boat.
(c) "In this convenient climate of political despair, one easy solution steps in smartly. Let's all go nuclear, it's the only way. By pre-arranged plan as soon as the election was over, the nuclear lobby accelerated its campaign. Already nuclear is becoming the grown-up, bien pensant solution. With a sigh, the world-weary declare that renewables are trivial beside the nuclear option."

Polly, who says nuclear is an easy option? Nobody I know. But have I found a core cause for your vented spleen? Is Polly no longer the only bien pensant on the perch? Move over, Pol, there are some new Chicks in the pecking order. And, if we want to talk about the grown-up politics of energy, this is a most serious issue that will demand a complex energy mix involving many different forms of energy production. The childish whim is to look for a single silver bullet and to shoot down major options.
(d) "No, turbines are not taking over the country: only some 800 hectares are needed to reach the 10% target. No, they are not unpopular: 80% support them and 66% would like some in their area. No, the intermittent wind dropping is no problem, since the farms are spread far across the county and existing back-up is quite sufficient. (Eyesores? Britain had 90,000 windmills in the 17th century.)"

Where on earth did Polly come up with that figure of 800 hectares? To replace one 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant providing 1/65th of peak demand would require a wind farm with an ecological footprint of around 150,000 acres. I think I am correct in saying that 800 hectares = 1,977 acres. And those C17 windmills were small, wooden, and of their age, i.e. they helped to run a pre-industrial, rural economy. Even Kipling replaced his wooden water wheel when the industrial alternative came along.

And, talking of polls, Polly, did you see the last New Statesman poll - on nuclear power? This finally - it was taken down at noon today - stood as follows: 'Does nuclear power meet our future energy needs?' Yes = 73.8%; No = 26.1%.
(e) "But don't underestimate the immense power of the pro-nuclearists. They will begin with the reasonable claim that nuclear is just 'part of the mix'...."

But it is a reasonable claim. And nuclear will only ever comprise part of the complex, and I would add, changing mix. This is what is known as a flexible energy policy, but it is one that is vital for Britain to survive and to grow in the medium term. Forget all the conspiracy nonsense, for goodness sake. Every power generator over-sells and over-markets its own system. That is the nature of energy competition. It is also why totally independent souls are essential, because we try to take a dispassionate overview of the whole energy sector and of the totality of the country's future needs. In the medium term, Polly, I can assure you that we will require a mix of imported natural gas, of new clean coal, and of nuclear power. 'Renewables' can only assist at the fringe.
(f) "Everywhere there are green shoots of what might be done, if serious money and political attention were devoted to it now. Take micro-generation. You can buy a small windmill to stick in the garden or on the side of your house for just £900: it plugs into an ordinary 13 amp domestic plug, cuts electricity bills by a third and can feed into the grid. The former energy minister has one."

Micro-generation! Polly, we are talking about the energy required to power the 4th largest economy in the world. Please don't try to reduce the UK to Toy Town politics and engineering. Windy Miller was nice, but he won't do today.
(g)"It is curious that Tony Blair whirls around the world stirring up alarm about climate change yet throughout the election never had a word to say about it at home. While the Energy Savings Trust despairs of getting people to fill their cavity walls or turn off their lights, Blair prefers to talk about the vandalism done by boys in hoodies than about the lethal damage done by irresponsible home owners, big car drivers and frequent fliers. Meanwhile, it is the nuclear lobby that hopes to benefit from a very conservative despairing sense that nothing can ever change."

Polly, try filling the cavity wall of a pre-1930's house, of which there are millions in the UK, some, including red-brick terraces, architectural gems. Yet, sadly, in the end, your hard core venom pours forth, like lava from an exploding volcano. It is YOU LOT OUT THERE WOT ARE TO BLAME. You are full of false consciousness. You, the Bedint. Yes, here we witness the Cromwellian zeal and puritan ardour that fuel hatred of the modern world. And, Polly, isn't it the hoodies who tend to yearn for oily, dirty, large, noisy, old bangers?

Get real, Polly. This is the naive and bitter politics of class hatred, Ludditism, middle class arrogance, metro angst, and often sheer snobbery. You can do better than this.

And why, in the end, shouldn't the nuclear lobby embrace the gift horse-power that you and the other Savonarolas of our age have so generously presented them?

Thank you for helping to make nuclear a rational option once again. Personally, I could happily live with clean coal and gas (but drop most of the wind please. I like our last remaining wilderness).

Do feel free to let Polly know your opinion of her piece: polly.toynbee@guardian.co.uk

Philip, requiring a triple, wind-generated, espressi. "Don't bother with the tea, Polly. Thanks!" "And, Polly, should I power my patio heater with a little wind mill?" Boom! Boom!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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