Environmentalists rule

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 1, 2003

To the chagrin of many conservatives, environmentalists as a group have more credibility than business executives, government officials, politicians, journalists and – apart from scientists – just about everyone else that public opinion pollsters compare them to.

This great confidence that the public shows in environmentalists, a confidence that spans more than a decade and covers all manner of environmental issues, stems overwhelmingly from one factor.

Environmentalists have generally been right in identifying serious environmental problems, often spectacularly so.

Nuclear power provides one of the clearest examples of environmentalists making clear-eyed analyses while everyone else was blinded by a business or a technological euphoria. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, and well into the 1970s, nuclear power had been virtually unquestioned as the fuel of the future. Then some environmentalists began questioning the government’s wild projections of growth in electricity demand – planners asserted the power system would need to double every decade, indefinitely. These environmentalists also questioned the industry’s claims that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” that nuclear accidents couldn’t occur, that radiation was benign and that there were no alternatives to nuclear power. Most people, however, weren’t alert to the looming disaster. Scientists, business executives, governments, journalists, even oil industry executives and the majority of environmentalists who didn’t work on nuclear issues, swallowed the industry’s outlandish claims. Nuclear power’s approval ratings remained well above 90%.

Today, only a minority – mostly among die-hard conservatives and nuclear industry employees – remains deluded. The environmental and economic wreckage of the nuclear industry – The Wall Street Journal, in the 1980s, called its financial collapse the biggest in corporate history – continues to be felt in every jurisdiction that foolishly embraced the atom.

In other energy debates, environmentalists were right, and almost everyone else was wrong, in recognizing that conservation and energy efficiency could quickly and cost-effectively counter the OPEC oil crises of the 1970s. Environmentalists were similarly ahead of almost everyone else in recognizing that big dams could no longer be economically built, but that co-generation and other small-scale power technologies, if allowed to compete, would replace not only nuclear power but many of the dirty coal and oil generating plants that the power monopolies favoured.

The extraordinary track record of environmentalists can also be seen in pitched battles in other fields. Cities that listened to environmentalists and cancelled expressways slated to destroy urban neighbourhoods now count their blessings, while those that struggle with the many unanticipated consequences of expressways count their costs. Cities that preserved their heritage buildings and older neighbourhoods were rewarded with properties that appreciated and contributed to their tax base; cities that converted built-up blocks into parking lots, expecting new developments to spring up, are still waiting.

Environmentalists correctly warned of the loss of the cod and other fisheries, while most blithely accepted rosy projections by government and industry experts. Environmentalists correctly criticize pollution from large-scale farming operations, and embarrass large-scale farmers for their dependence on subsidies, while conservatives pooh-pooh the costs of farm pollution to neighbours and are oblivious to the large-farm sector’s utter dependence on subsidies.

Environmentalists aren’t always right. Their record is spotty in condemning this or that chemical, and particular groups, or particular people, have remarkable losing streaks: the Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown on global famines, for example, or biologist Paul Ehrlich on the population explosion. Neither can the many environmental groups funded by governments and unions, such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association, be relied upon for independent thinking. Neither can groups capitalizing on environmental concerns to push separate agendas, such as nationalists like the Council of Canadians.

But Greenpeace, the new international network of Waterkeepers and other environmental groups that rely on small donations, unlike many of their corporate-funded conservative critics, tend to be on the right side of history. Because these environmental groups need public support for their very survival, they have become expert at tailoring their message to the public at large, helping them win the contest in the marketplace of ideas over narrowly funded critics. At a defining moment in the history of nuclear power – the day Margaret Thatcher privatized the electricity industry – Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth UK, and other broadly based UK environmental groups were clinking champagne glasses. They knew that Thatcher, by allowing competition and cutting the industry off from open-ended government support, had signed the industry’s death warrant.

The UK’s conservative think-tanks, expecting a liberated nuclear industry to flourish, also toasted Thatcher. When a privatized nuclear fleet, in the form of a company called British Energy, later offered stock to the public, they and their followers finally had the chance to invest in their darling. These true believers then lost their shirts when British Energy went bankrupt.

In contrast to environmentalists’ exemplary record at diagnosing environmental ills, their record in issuing prescriptions is abysmal. In the case of global warming, environmentalists are certainly correct in asserting that society generates economically and environmentally unjustifiable levels of emissions, and just as certainly incorrect in backing the central planning exercise that is Kyoto. Because Kyoto is so unworkable, saner approaches will be adopted, saving society from burning money along with fossil fuels. And adding another notch to the environmentalists’ string of successes.

Readers’ responses:

Letters to the Editor
National Post, Feb. 5, 2003
Lawrence Solomon is very good at describing the past. His predictions for the future are questionable. I was there with him in the 1970s questioning nuclear power – pointing to the unsustainable growth predictions for electricity and the incredible risks and costs that conservative businessmen were taking with taxpayer’s money. Unfortunately, we were right. Nuclear power has cost Ontarians $20-billion in debt. New Brunswick’s reactor cost $450-million. The federal government spent $17-billion and counting.

But as I said, his prediction for the future is wrong. Every realistic analysis of the Kyoto Protocol predicts at worst a negligible impact on Canada’s economy and there are plenty of reasons to question their bias toward the negative.

We were right in 1976 when we pasted a banner on the Bruce Reactor building that read, “Nuclear Power, Unsafe, Unnecessary and Uneconomic.” And we were right in 2002 when we said meeting the Kyoto targets will create jobs and improve air quality while protecting the climate from catastrophic change.

John Bennett, director
Atmosphere and Energy
Sierra Club of Canada, Ottawa


Mr. Solomon seems to be stuck in some kind of 1980s time warp. Let me clue him in on a few of the clearest examples of environmentalists making boo-boos in their energy forecasts.

In Sweden, which voted 23 years ago to phase out nuclear power if alternatives were available, a majority of Swedes now favour keeping nuclear power plants going, or even building new ones as electricity prices have hit record highs, according to a poll by independent pollster Sifo, published Jan. 20 of this year.

While its true that Belgium’s lower House of Parliament voted recently to close down the country’s nuclear power plants by 2025, the bill still faces a vote in the Belgian senate, expected in the coming months.

Belgium’s seven reactors provide the country with almost two-thirds of its electricity, and the move could cause an energy shortfall for decades, as no clear alternative has yet been found.

The closure will also make it impossible for Belgium to meet its commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas output under the Kyoto Protocol. A nuclear phase-out would add 20% to Belgium’s CO2 emissions, which already are on a trend higher than the ceiling foreseen under the Kyoto Protocol. In the European Union as a whole, the current use of nuclear energy avoids 312 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which is 7% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the EU or the equivalent of the CO2 emissions of some 75 million cars.

In June, Switzerland’s lower house of Parliament rejected proposals to phase out nuclear and to make new nuclear projects dependent on existence of a final high-level waste repository. Nuclear energy supplies almost 40% of the country’s electricity.

In France, the largest user of nuclear power after the United States, a report by the Economy Ministry has concluded that it sees no alternative for the time being to nuclear power as the country’s primary means of electricity production (which provides nearly 80% of the total). The report rules out replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels because it “would not allow France to meet its international commitments” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s no wonder, then, that EU Commissioner for International Market and Taxation Frits Bolkestein said on Nov. 6, 2002, in an address to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, that nuclear is “needed more than ever” for Europe.

So how about letting people here know a little bit about what’s really going on?

Jaro Franta, P.Eng., Montreal


When Malthus, more than 150 years ago, claimed that the world’s population would soon overrun its ability to feed itself, it was farm mechanization, new crop development, and better protection of food supply with chemicals and new methods of preservation that showed that he was wrong. Surprisingly, we have some extremists trying to make these population predictions come true, by reining in present-day food progress. In parts of Africa, politicians will not allow people to eat GM food we gave them, that we have been eating for years, because Greenpeace scathingly calls it Frankenfood, and implies that it is harmful. Better to force these millions to starve to death and make a point, than to allow them to eat it and thrive?

Dr. John Snow, in London in the 1850s, suggested that sewage-laden drinking water caused the regular and devastating outbreaks of cholera in London. When the water supply was changed, the disease was much reduced, to everyone’s benefit. Now we have some environmentalists who object to keeping the modern water supply free of pathogens through chlorination. Thousands died recently in Peru in a resurgence of cholera, when the politicians were temporarily influenced by Greenpeace’s misguided and ignorant attempts to ban chlorine.

We got where we are today despite the best efforts of many environmental extremists to stall us, especially over the last 40 years. Such activists do not feed nations; do not provide needed energy to society; do not provide health care or health services to anyone; but they excel at obstruction, emotional misinformation; and factual distortion. If they ever achieve their socially destructive goals we would all very soon find ourselves living in birds nests and rabbit holes, as President Reagan pointed out.

It is knowledge, openness to new ideas, wealth and technology that defeat the ignorance, superstition, fear-mongering, deception and dishonesty of environmental extremists, every time. Eventually.

Environmental issues are rarely if ever identified or even solved by environmentalists. Most do not even know that the biggest human and environmental problems are ignorance and poverty, just as always, or they would be out labouring in the Third World instead of pulling childishly pathetic stunts for the cameras while hiding behind masks. They strive to block the technology that can, and does solve most real problems, while they drain us of the wealth to continue such progress. And therein lies the even bigger tragedy. Only wealthy and advanced societies can afford to support the environmental movement or can afford to address valid social issues. Extremists sidetrack us with what they emotionally try to persuade us to believe are more important issues, and try to drain away our resources from other social programs.

John K. Sutherland, Fredericton

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