Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Interview with rational environmentalist Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas
'A new and improved environmentalism is in the making.' suggests Keith Kloor at Slate. One of those new environmentalists is Mark Lynas. About a year ago the Dutch translation of his latest book The God Species was published. Mark Lynas was a speaker at the event Green Biotech for Society in Ghent on the 6th of december 2012. A nice opportunity to interview him about his difficult relationship with the traditional environmental movement.

Stewart Brand wrote his ecopragmatist manifesto a few years ago. Others are talking about new environmentalism or green modernists. Do you have a preference?
“I call it rational environmentalism actually. But there's no point in having a label. The point is to just have an evidence based approach to diagnosing problems and thinking of solutions rather than starting from an ideological position and than seeking the facts that supposedly have to justify it.”

In addition to those 'facts' aren't there also scientists like Gilles-Eric Séralini who justify ideological positions?
“Scientists are all authority figures and we find environmental NGOs using exactly the same tactics as climate deniers in sponsoring and promoting their own very small minority of scientific pseudo-experts. Séralini would be a great example because he really does the poorest kind of pseudo-science that we could ever imagine and he's promoted by green groups and the whole organic lobby because of course he gives some plausibly factual basis for their ideological positions.”

Can we speak of a 'rational environmentalist' movement?
“I think it's just about having a kind of scientific skepticism type approach to conventional environmentalism actually. And in many ways conventional environmentalism is absolutely correct and on the money. On things like biodiversity loss and climate change. I don't have any problem with the diagnosis, it's the proposed solutions which I have a very different viewpoint on.”

"In many ways gmo's and nuclear are symbolic of all the ways the environmental movement has got it wrong"

Are your differences with the environmental movement only about gmo's and nuclear?
“In many ways gmo's and nuclear are symbolic of all the ways the environmental movement has got it wrong by essentially becoming obsessed with what I call the naturalistic fallacy, so the idea that everything natural is good and everything human made is bad. And you can more or less see the same debate in any area of contention. Geo-engineering is another one. It's natural for us to emit carbon all the time so that's not geo-engineering but it's geo-engineering for us to remove carbon. Because that's some kind of intentional human application. So it actually is completely irrational to have that as your basic decision making tool whether something is natural or unnatural. It doesn't make any difference to the fact. It probably even makes the environmental outcome worse.”

I don't see many rational environmentalists on the European mainland. Where are they?
“I think the debate on nuclear power is simply not tolerated in most mainland Europe. In Germany in particular you really cannot make a pro nuclear case without being shot down and attacked, so I think that just intimidates people. GM would be the same, particularly in France. That really is the epicenter of irrational fundamentalism. They have this sort of peasant-type national identity which of course is entirely fictitious and imaginary. But anything gmo, particularly if it's imported from America therefore has to be subject to total bans forever.”

"Ngo's are like churches in some ways in that the ideology
is bigger than the organisation and certainly bigger
than any of the people inside it.

Is it possible to change environmental ngo's (like for example the organic movement) from the inside?
“The problem with the organic movement is that the naturalistic fallacy is their entire guiding principle. So it's not a rational basis to make a decision about what kind of agriculture to use about whether it's natural or not. Essentially they are trying to freeze technological developments in about 1950 for no good reason. There's plenty of things that organic farming gets right and which are useful and beneficial but there's a lot more which is simply being ignored and which is actually environmentally harmful.
So how can you change the ideological heart and soul of an entire movement just because it happened to get everything wrong? Probably that's a major challenge. I think you can try to make these points internally but ultimately you get rejected and pushed out. Ngo's are like churches in some ways in that the ideology is bigger than the organisation and certainly bigger than any of the people inside it. In time they are always moving around and essentially are only temporary pawns in a much greater and wider what longer established ideological pattern, so changing that takes a very large amount of time and a lot of bravery from a lot of people.”

It strikes me that you formulate your criticisms very straightforward.
“My wife always tells me I've been too confrontational but I try to be nice sometimes, depending on who you are talking to but I do try to at least maintain friendly relations at the private level with people in Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other organizations because ultimately I've got to persuade them as much as possible that my concerns are worth taking seriously. So for instance I recently helped organize kind of a coalition between the wind industry and the nuclear industry and the ccs industry so they released a joint statement pushing the UK government to have a stronger decarbonisation target. To see the wind and the nuclear people work together leaves the antinuclear lobby out of the equation and forces the environmental ngo's to realize that they are both low carbon options and both of them need to be promoted and you can't say that your number one focus is climate change if your main approach is to oppose low carbon power generation.”

Do you still see the environmental movement as a force for good?
“I ask myself that question a lot. I don't think that you can quantify it meaningfully (laughs). There's a lot of good things that Greenpeace does on deforestation and overfishing. But obviously they have done a lot of damage in agriculture and gmo's in particular and they have done a lot of damage on energy and the fantasy of a purely renewable future of wind and solar is just that, it's a fantasy which has kept us on the fossil fuel treadmill for the last thirty years.”

"First and foremost I am not rejecting the largest scale of source of low carbon energy that human kind has ever invented, which is nuclear."

Mark Lynas on climate change

Did your views further evolve since the publication of The God Species?
“My views evolve all the time with new facts and figures that are coming to us, but I wouldn't say I have had any major conversion experiences since finishing the book though. If anything I'm more pro renewables than I was then. I have written a couple of pieces recently defending wind power from attacks by the anti wind lobby who claim it doesn't reduce emissions and that's really not supported by any of the data.”

What are your thoughts on the 'Energiewende' in Germany?
“What's happening in Germany is of great interest because obviously they are conducting an enormous experiment. They are reducing their base load low carbon energy generation through nuclear and are replacing it with intermittent low carbon energy generation from renewables while simultaneously building more fossil fuel plants. The environment minister recently opened a new lignite plant burning brown coal which is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel in Europe. Which is specifically configured to load-follow renewables and that's not a pragmatic or cost effective or even environmentally sustainable approach.”

So what should happen to keep climate change below two degrees?
"It's not possible for climate change to stay within two degrees according to the UNFCCC process. You need to peak global emissions by 2015 and there isn't even going to be a new treaty until 2020. Its going to be between 4 and 6 degrees according to the latest reports. We are on one of the very highest of the emissions paths which will take us into a 4 to 6 degree world, but we are only on a small part of the way up there so it can still go down again.”

So on what does it depend now?
“First and foremost I am not rejecting the largest scale of source of low carbon energy that human kind has ever invented, which is nuclear. And secondly on rapidly upscaling other low carbon technologies at the same time including wind, hydro, solar power where its cost effective and appropriate and also CCS, geothermal or whatever resources happen to be available.”

This is a short version of a longer interview in Dutch for the magazine Seizoenen (appears on 16 january 2013).

A recent speech by Mark Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conference received a lot of media attention. Watch it here:

  • My review of The God Species in Dutch can be downloaded here.

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