23 March 2001

We're all doomed. That is, in essence the conclusion of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change).The scientists of this UN organisation have looked at the evidence, and concluded that global warming is an incontrovertible fact.

They estimate that the temperature of the Earth is set to rise by about 6ºC over the next 50-100 years, and that this rise is being caused by human activities, specifically the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The potential consequences of such a temperature rise are immense. Sea levels will rise significantly, resulting in major and regular flooding; low-lying land may easily become uninhabitable. The weather is likely to become more extreme, with droughts and hurricanes becoming standard, resulting in a major increase of disease-breeding conditions. One can paint a truly apocalyptic picture, and the IPCC study indicates that there is a good chance that it will come to pass, if no action is taken.

A couple of years ago, there was a major uproar about the possibility of the Earth being struck by an large asteroid. Despite the fact that the odds of this happening are on a par with my winning the national lottery every week for the next year, people took this threat seriously, and action plans to spot incoming asteroids and find a way of dealing with them were announced. Despite the tiny chance of the threat becoming more than a bad science fiction film, large sums of money were tossed into devising ways of overcoming the threat.

However, with the threat of global warming, rational debate becomes impossible. The debate as it currently is reminds me very strongly of the so-called scientific debate over the possible link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer; in that debate, tobacco companies denied any possible link until it was utterly proven, and then still continued to deny any possible link for a decade and more beyond that. The same situation applies with regard to global warming. The evidence is strong that greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in a significant rise in the global temperature, with the evidence indicating a link growing stronger with each experiment that is carried out.

So what happens? Do we see the best and brightest that humanity has to offer looking to see what can be done to make sure that the possible consequences are minimised? Do we see efforts being made to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, in case these are making the Earth uninhabitable? Of course not. We get the deeply depressing spectacle of the world leaders scurrying around pretending that there isn't a problem, that doing something about the problem would be far too expensive, that whatever happens, it is someone else who is to blame.

Do we see the two energy sources - nuclear and renewable energy - that can produce energy without significantly contributing to global warming undergoing a major renaissance? Of course not. Even the rather feeble efforts of Kyoto - more notable for getting an agreement than in what that agreement might achieve - have been basically ignored.

The latest sign that we have comes from the USA. During the election campaign, George Bush had pledged that if elected, he would ensure that Federal money would be made available to improve energy efficiency, and ensure that fossil-fired power plants could cut emission levels.

However, now that he has been elected, he has decided that these actions would threaten his promised tax cuts, and that he did not want a repeat of the California energy crisis. In particular, he said that a high cost of electricity was bad for the consumer, and was unacceptable. Or, to translate into more simple language: "Pour out as much pollution as you like guys, my term as president will be long past when people have to pay to clean-up." The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is looking for signs of intelligent life beyond the Earth. I'm not entirely convinced that there is intelligent life on Earth, at times.

So what should the nuclear industry be doing? One thing is clear; it should be making a lot more noise than it is about its ability to be able to provide a cost-effective energy supply that does not produce significant greenhouse gas emissions. We hear about the shortage of students coming into the nuclear industry; that should not be the case.

The nuclear industry provides a potential route by which the future of the Earth can be assured. Just don't expect any help from any government. Politicians only back winning solutions, and off the top of my head, I can not think of a single world leader that would take an unpopular decision that might cost them the next election in order to solve a problem that will become critical long after they're out of politics.

Or, to put it another way, the nuclear industry can't expect to get any favours in trying to save the world. You're on your own, guys.

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