Forlorn futility of faith-based climate action
One person’s demagogue is another person’s saviour, and, for many fans, the Elon R Musk credibility needle will have finally flicked from where it had been firmly stuck on f—to e.
For most students, in this age of social-media-supercharged celebrity, learning crap-detection is infinitely more important than the second r of reading, writing and arithmetic. Musk’s shameless self-promotion at Tham Luang Nang Non being exposed by the person most responsible for the rescue of 12 young footballers from the flooded labyrinth could not be more poetic, given that it was Trump-groupie Musk’s desperate, despicable and baseless “pedo” tweet that was his own undoing.
The late, great Professor Sir David MacKay, in his last-ever interview, called out the message that Musk peddles—that renewables can replace fossil fuels—as:
Before he became Chief Scientific Advisor to United Kingdom’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, physicist and mathematician David J C MacKay dedicated a significant slice of his all-too-short life explaining the arithmetic of why anthropogenic global warming wasn’t something to which a little well-intentioned, every-little-helps effort was going to make a blind bit of difference. Yet, the vast majority who dutifully send in submissions on the proposed zero-carbon bill by 5 pm Thursday will be worshipers at the alter of the Church of Photovoltaicology. Sadly, a person who believes that solar power, batteries and cars are the solution, doesn’t understand the problem.
To spell it out just a little, modern civilisation is built in two and a half centuries on the one-off, free, on average, 300-million-year and 200-million-year fossil-fuel legacy, for coal and oil respectively. The risible ~1% of global energy that comes from photovoltaic panels is not capable of scaling up to replace the 80% of global energy that comes from fossil fuels, without excavation on a scale that will make mountain-top mining look like an Appalachian school picnic, and without making energy so expensive that the 1 billion of the world’s 2.2 billion children who live in poverty—of which 22 000 die each day as a result—and who are most vulnerable to global warming, will be doomed to an increasingly miserable fate.
Nuclear fission’s desperate beginnings could have made or broke the allies’ noble war to save civilisation from German and Japanese imperialism. That its dreadful destructive power could have been demonstrated to Japan’s military masters more humanely is arguable, but what is not is that, beyond the immediate destruction, its health impact has been negligible compared to the 5 million who die annually from fossil fuel emissions, and the billions who will die in the future because of the failure to disseminate what has been learned about dna damage and repair since. Again, in short, lifeforms on Earth evolved over 3.5 to 3.8 billion years agosince the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), of all organisms now living on Earth to the present with significant radiation damage done to dna routinely repaired in all subsequent lifeforms along the way. Like a lot of things, this was not understood in the 1950s. Global warming was, ironically, and plate tectonics was just beginning to, but dna damage and repair wasn’t.
Aotearoa has played an out-sized role in the demonising of nuclear power that grew out of the ban-the-bomb response to the cold-war threat of nuclear annihilation. Conflating nuclear power with nuclear weapons was understandable, but an error of existential consequence. The one proven zero-carbon technology that could bring 3 billion people clean cooking energy, and prevent a population of up to 13 billion being condemned to an increasingly unsurvivable climate, is off limits, thanks to a near universal, persistent misconception.
If Aotearoa was to repurpose the subsidised Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, it could immediately embark on the intensive electrification-of-everything, but particularly of transport, required. This would buy enough time to not buy a nuclear power station until it could be the fourth-generation technology that Jeanette Fitzsimmons’ friend Dr James Hansen has consistently advocated for, for the very attractive reason that it is 10-times more efficient, and burns existing nuclear waste, including the plutonium from redundant weapon warheads.
Just as Aotearoa should long-since have learnt how to build houses in factories at scale, and be exporting them, so too will it buy, eventually, factory-built nuclear power plants—probably American technology, made in China. The remaining question is to whether sufficient New Zealanders, like Fitzsimmons, have finally found the courage to replace their shaky faith-based belief systems with support for evidence-based policy-making.