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Environmental groups should admit mistakes

By Max Rheese - posted Monday, 8 November 2010

The U.K. Telegraph reported on October 31st that "Leading environmental campaigners have performed a u-turn on two key technologies they have opposed for decades by openly calling for greater use of nuclear power and genetically modified crops to help the world tackle climate change".

Mark Lynas who currently writes for the Guardian newspaper highlighting the need to deal with the issue of man-made globe warming claiming "the climate denial crowd had been reduced to an embarrassing rump lurking in the darker corners of the internet" is described as "a campaigner who has been a member of action groups on GM foods and climate change". Mr Lynas said "the environmental lobby was losing the battle for public opinion on climate change because it had made too many apocalyptic prophecies and exaggerated claims". Really?

Another long time environmental campaigner who saw the error of his ways, Stewart Brand an American activist and former editor of Whole Earth Catalog, said: "I would like to see an environmental movement that says, it turns out our fears about genetically engineered food crops were exaggerated and we are glad about that. It is a humble and modest stance to take to the real world."


"Environmentalists did harm by being ignorant and ideological and unwilling to change their mind based on actual evidence. As a result we have done harm and I regret it."

The battle for acceptance of GM technology to improve the prospects of feeding the globe has raged around the developed world for decades, principally opposed in Australia by environmental campaigners and groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In defiance of mounting scientific evidence that GM crops reduce pesticide use, improve water efficiency and generally provide higher yields leading to better environmental outcomes than conventional crops, these environment groups continue their ideological opposition to the use of GM technology.

The Australian Environment Foundation from its inception supported GM technology on the basis that the science and evidence for adopting GM practices demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive environmental outcome. The AEF was derided by long established environment groups for its stance in supporting "Frankenstein food" and was the only environment group in Australia to go on the public record supporting the adoption of GM technology.

In 2006, when the moratorium on growing GM crops in Victoria and New South Wales was due to expire, the Commonwealth Chief Scientist, the Victorian Chief Scientist, the Victorian government and Opposition, the NSW government and Opposition all supported the introduction of GM crops, which occurred in those two states. Not long after Western Australia followed suit.

Now these long time campaigners in the U.K., to their credit have capitulated, with Mr Lynas, who along with other activists ripped up trial GM crops in the 1990s, saying that GM food had now been consumed by millions of people in the U.S. for more than 10 years without harm, and this had convinced him to change his views.


The other key technology these campaigners say should be adopted is nuclear energy and they are joined by Patrick Moore, one of the founding members of environmental campaign group Greenpeace, who added: "We were right that the nuclear industry had problems, but that didn't mean we should be against nuclear energy completely."

"We have caused extra gigatons of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere by being so precious about nuclear."

The holy grail of environmental activism for decades - opposition to the productive use of nuclear energy - is overturned in the bid to stop "dangerous global warming." One ideological principle conveniently cast aside in pursuit of another, with neither principle robustly supported by empirical evidence.

While we should all be pleased these campaigners have finally accepted the evidence of the benefits of global nuclear power generation over the last five decades, it has only come to pass because of the untenable position they had manoeuvred themselves into by vilifying coal and gas without any other practical available source of base-load power, other than nuclear.

There are multiple ironies in this turn of events for the Australian Environment Foundation, which has campaigned consistently for an informed debate on whether Australia should or should not consider adopting nuclear energy.

At AEF’s first conference in Brisbane in 2006, physicist Dr Tom Quirk presented a solid case for at least considering the benefits of nuclear energy. At the second AEF conference in Melbourne in 2007, Dr Ziggy Switkowski of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation gave a compelling presentation based on science and evidence for the adoption of nuclear energy.

The contribution to the debate in the public domain from the gaggle of Australian environment groups opposed to uranium mining and nuclear energy is based on fear and ideological opposition. An intellectually bereft contribution to public policy formulation.

Not only are we now witnessing such luminaries as Patrick Moore lamenting their ill-founded opposition to at least considering nuclear energy, we watch on as many environment groups squirm uncomfortably in the knowledge they have helped to drive discussion on global warming and the burning of fossil fuels to the point that clean, green nuclear power use is seen as the best form of base-load power generation available in many parts of the world.

Last week I was challenged during a Sydney radio interview for not being a "true environmentalist" because, amongst other things, AEF supported a debate on nuclear energy and the adoption of GM technology. At the same time, on the other side of the world, long time environmental campaigners were aligning themselves with a similar view to mine based on empirical evidence.

If adopting an ideological position that has no basis in fact means you are a true environmentalist, but you can change your mind decades later after your campaigning "has done harm and you regret it", then AEF members will forgo the title to hold to the values of science and evidence that produce good environmental outcomes.

As in much of the debate on environmental matters it is not the consensus view, or the populist narrative based on emotion and "feel good" options that matter, but what the outcomes will be, based on science and evidence.

Much of the environmental campaigning in Australia is a facile, distortion of reality directed at well meaning, but ill informed members of the public who succumb to well funded, slick media and internet campaigns, aided by mainstream media who are too lazy to ask pertinent questions and accept the unsubstantiated statements of environment groups as gospel.

To avoid a continuum of the last two decades of mainly ideological campaigning, as opposed to the real environmental gains made in the preceding two decades by the environment movement, it is incumbent on all of us to hold the environment movement and the self serving politicians that listen to them to account.

Of all issues to date, nowhere is it more important to hold those "true environmentalists" who make exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims to account, than in the debacle that passes for debate on global warming and the egregious plan to impose a tax on the natural trace element carbon dioxide to "stop" global warming.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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