The Lib Dems can keep the lights on

Simon Hughes responds to Mark Lynas and defends his call for an independent inquiry into nuclear pow

Delusion is not a necessary consequence of becoming a Conservative supporter. Yet in Mark Lynas's case this seems to have been one of the results. Lynas's attack piece on Liberal Democrat energy policy was one of the most delusional pieces of writing I have read in a long time, and utterly lacking in foundation.

Lynas accuses me of ignoring the "science" and laments my comments on BBC Radio 4 on the health effects of nuclear power. According to him, there is no plausible scientific case for this.

I presume he refers to my call for an independent inquiry into the "justification" for nuclear power. "Justification" is the process of assessment of the health effects of nuclear power and is a legal requirement before any new nuclear plant can operate in the UK. One of the means by which it can be carried out is through a public inquiry.

The purpose of my call was precisely so that scientific evidence could be examined in the open, and that nuclear scientists, other experts and the public can participate in the decision-making process for new nuclear power in a meaningful way. This call was supported by roughly 80 leading research academics and nuclear scientists in the UK.

If Lynas is so convinced that the health detriments of nuclear are simply an urban myth as he claims, he too should have no problem with a public inquiry. He may however also know that the nuclear power lobby is worried that since the publication of the KiKK study by the German government in 2008 "justification" may not survive more detailed scrutiny.

The KiKK study found that there was a doubling of the incidence of childhood leukaemia within five kilometres of every single German nuclear power station. The study is considered to be one of the best and most complete scientific examinations carried out into the effects of nuclear reactors on public health. It clearly passes the plausibility test.

Perplexing preference

The Lynas article also makes the alarmist and unfounded claim that if Liberal Democrats are in government and nuclear power is dropped, the lights will go out. This is not just a difference of opinion; it is objectively untrue. With the best will in the world there will not be a new nuclear power station built in this country within seven years.

The power stations coming offline over the next decade meant that we need new power generation to come online to replace them before that. With the huge capital costs of nuclear (current estimates are that each reactor will cost not less than £5bn), and the investment this would take away from other sources, nuclear power could actually hinder our chances of bringing the necessary new sources of energy online.

Lynas commends Conservative energy policy and criticises Labour for dragging its feet. I find this perplexing. Lynas has been involved in and written about energy issues for many years now. He therefore must know that in 2006 David Cameron was criticising Labour's commitment to nuclear power as irresponsible. He must also know that as recently as six months ago Zac Goldsmith was saying that no new nuclear power stations would be built under a Tory administration.

If the industry is looking for political stability, it would do a lot better than to look to the Conservative Party.

Need for action

I could go on. I could talk about Lynas's use of the somewhat distasteful phrase "closer to normal mortality rates" to describe the many cancer victims recorded in the vicinity of Chernobyl, or the huge economic and safety concerns surrounding nuclear waste, or the fact that nuclear power is the least cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions.

But the real problem with his article is that polemics of this kind are exactly what has eroded public confidence in the need to combat climate change. I and others who are fully convinced of the necessity of action on climate change need to get out and about more, engage with the public and make the case.

We need to demonstrate that the decisions that we make are based on the strongest possible evidence and foundations of scientific inquiry. We are not helped by people like Lynas, who claim to be the guardians of "science" while making personal attacks on anyone who dares to disagree. In the end, the only people they discredit are themselves.

Simon Hughes is the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey. He is the Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change

UPDATE: Read Mark Lynas's response to Simon Hughes's article here.

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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