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Climate change causes backflips

By Paul Gilding - posted Monday, 8 May 2006

Climate change is doing strange things to the weather, but it's beginning to do even stranger things to the worlds of environmentalism, politics and business. I suspect the process has just begun and we had all better hold on for what will be a very interesting and surprising ride.

World Wildlife Fund's Greg Bourne has acknowledged uranium mining and nuclear power will inevitably play a role in the future global energy mix. Although this is merely stating the obvious, his statement will create division and debate in the environmental community. This is because no environmentalist is supposed to take anything other than the "no, none, never" position on nuclear power. It's pretty much an article of faith. But the strangeness and the division are not restricted to the environmentalist movement.

A few weeks ago, some of Australia's largest companies, including Westpac, IAG, Visy, BP and Origin, called on the Federal Government to impose a price on carbon: yes, that's right, business, powerful business, arguing for increased costs. In doing so they brought to the fore what is known to be a deep split on climate change in the Australian big business community. And there are strange happenings in Canberra as well.


The Federal Government recently took a strong anti-development turn when it stopped a $200 million wind farm because of the alleged risk to the orange-bellied parrot. Normally pro-business conservatives don't pay much attention to the risk of killing a single endangered parrot every thousand years (the risk this project posed).

I suspect in this case the opportunity to take revenge on environmentalists by stopping a green development over a green issue proved too tempting to resist.

Last year, Prime Minister John Howard largely acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change for the first time. About the same time, no doubt coincidentally, he started his push to promote uranium exports on the grounds of addressing climate change. Self-interest is a wonderful thing.

So what is going on? Conservatives worrying about climate change and endangered parrots? Business arguing for increased costs? Environmentalists accepting nuclear power?

Is nothing sacred?

What's going on is simple. It's called climate change, and it changes a lot more than the weather. It's time we all woke up and reconsidered many of our old assumptions and heartfelt beliefs, because the change has just begun.


The biggest global threat to biodiversity, for example, is climate change. On our present emissions path, we face the risk of wiping out up to half of the species on the planet, including all coral reefs and the Amazon rainforest. That's a lot of parrots.

In the context of the threat posed by climate change and the speed with which we need to respond, nuclear power will simply not help very much. It is a marginal issue, a small part of the mix. As is well argued by many environmentalists and energy experts, nuclear power stations are incapable of having a substantial effect on rising emissions because they are too expensive, too slow to build and they account for too many greenhouse emissions during construction. Then add the inherent security threat posed by the technology, as we see with Iran and North Korea.

But as Bourne says, nuclear power is already part of the mix, with hundreds of stations in place, and it's not going to go away any time soon. So how we handle nuclear technology in the meantime is a very important question and one we need to discuss logically rather than religiously - but with effort commensurate to the threat it poses, weighing that against the huge threat posed by climate change.

For the record, as an environmentalist, I think nuclear power is a solidly illogical energy strategy and clearly unsustainable. It's expensive and it's inherently risky, creating dangerous waste and potent security challenges.

For these reasons I'm happy for technology to fight it out in the marketplace and in the court of public opinion along with other choices, including renewable wind and solar energy, so-called "clean coal technologies", gas and other emerging alternatives.

Nuclear will lose in a fair fight, so I reject the use of moral and emotional arguments in opposing it. Let the facts speak for themselves. Oh, and I can't wait to see how much attention is paid to parrot safety if anyone ever does try to build a nuclear plant in Australia.

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First published in The Australian on May 5, 2006.

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About the Author

Paul Gilding is an independent adviser and commentator on sustainability and climate change and a Special Advisor to KPMG. Former roles include executive director of Greenpeace International, founder of Ecos Corporation and CEO of Easy Being Green.

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