As part of the Guardian's series on greens and science, James Murray argues any tension between the two communities has been massively overblown
I'm not sure whether it is wise to start a science blog with a reference to The Big Bang Theory, what with its depiction of scientists as socially illiterate uber-nerds, but here goes. The debate on 'Science vs the Greens' that has played out over the past few days reminds me of the episode where Dr Sheldon Cooper tries to teach Penny a "little Physics", starting with the question "What is physics?" and proceeding through a "twenty-six-hundred-year journey from the ancient Greeks through Isaac Newton to Niels Bohr to Erwin Schrodinger to the Dutch researchers that Leonard is currently ripping off". To paraphrase Dr Cooper, if we are to debate science and the greens, first we have to ask ourselves what is 'science' and who or what are 'the greens'.
You could write a book on what constitutes 'science', but let's assume most people understand the term as referring to knowledge gained through observation, experimentation and systematic rational study. However, the term 'greens' is much more problematic. The majority of contributors to this series have clearly defined 'greens' narrowly as a deep green constituency embodied by the view of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party as well-meaning but naïve eco-warriors. This is understandable. There is still a tendency to regard the green movement as the preserve of a hippy idealists – I blame Swampy.
But if scientists occasionally resent the stereotype of comedic awkwardness embodied by The Big Bang crowd, then many greens similarly reject the suggestion their movement is ruled more by an anti-science utopian ideology than a scientifically credible pragmatism.
The implication that there is serious tension between the scientific and green communities is flawed on at least two grounds. First, as Alice Bell and Anne Chapman have noted, the opposition of some green groups to nuclear power and genetically modified crops is often based more on economic considerations than a misreading of the science. There have undoubtedly been some green campaigners guilty of using junk science to scaremonger on these issues, just as there are some people in all walks of public life who are similarly guilty of manipulating scientific evidence for their own purposes. But the vast majority of criticism aimed at these technologies by green NGOs is now based on concerns about the high cost of nuclear power and the extent to which GM innovations pose unknown risks and hand immense power to the corporations that control the technology.
You can argue, with some justification, that greens are unreasonably rigorous in their application of the precautionary principle when it comes to nuclear and GM. For example, it is entirely valid to suggest the benefits of nuclear power - much lower emissions and air pollution than coal - outweigh the high financial costs and potential safety concerns. But this debate is now as much about risk appetite and economic arguments as it is science. The vast majority of the green NGO community wants to work with the scientific community to fully understand the environmental risks we face and explore the sustainable solutions that might address those risks. There will be inevitable disagreements from time to time, but the two communities are not inherently set up in opposition to one another.
Second, even if the traditional green community was 'anti science' (and it's not), limiting the discussion of the movement's relationship with science to the deep greens locks out the expanding ranks of New Environmentalists, who are fully signed up to green principles even if they hold more flexible positions on touchstone issues such as nuclear and GM. The implication that the only greens are members of Greenpeace or the Green Party is like arguing you can only be a feminist if you write for Spare Rib. These traditional green groups are, in my opinion, vital organisations that are engaged in hugely important work, but they are not the sole representatives of the 'greens', nor would they want to be regarded as such.
Some questions: is the boss of Sainsbury's, Justin King, a green with his plan to invest £1bn in sustainability measures by 2020? What about IKEA top dog Mikael Ohlsson and his plan to ensure the company generates all its own energy by the end of the decade? Paul Polman at Unilever and Stuart Rose (and later Marc Bolland) at Marks & Spencer have pioneered work to slash the environmental impacts of iconic businesses – are they green? Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, David Cameron and Angela Merkel may be the subject of entirely deserved criticism from the green community, but they are all pursuing policies designed to build a greener economy – do they qualify? Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Larry Page may not have much in common with the director of Greenpeace, but they have mobilised billions of dollars in clean tech investment – are they part of the green community?
As a senior executive at a leading global consultancy told me recently: "I often tell graduates if they want to save trees they are better off working for us than chaining themselves to a bulldozer." It's a wilfully provocative line, but the company in question has worked on projects designed to ensure vast areas of the world's natural forests are worth more standing than felled –he has a point. Inevitably, these business and political leaders are not as consistent in their support for green progress as traditional greens (Branson's space tourism, anyone?), but they are deeply concerned about climate change and resource scarcity, and are committed to building a greener and more sustainable global economy.
More broadly, a recent Ipsos MORI poll of more than 2,400 people found 74 per cent are very or fairly concerned about climate change; 85 per cent want to see more solar power; 75 per cent are in favour of wind power; and 81 per cent want to curb their energy use – could they be classified as green? Perhaps not, but they share many of the goals and aspirations of traditional greens.
With the exception of those protecting the pollutocrat status quo, large numbers of people and businesses are, to varying degrees, New Environmentalists. We may not regard the environment as a top priority given the state of the economy, but we are concerned about environmental impacts and are keen to see environmental challenges addressed. In this regard at least, we're all greens now.
Clear majorities of people are concerned about climate change, not to mention worried about the rising food prices and security concerns that are already resulting from climate impacts. We tend to favour emerging clean technologies over the dirty incumbents, despite a well-orchestrated media and political campaign designed to undermine these technologies. Every single one of us wants to live in clean, healthy and sustainable communities. The only people who deny these realities are that small band of people that Dana Nuccitelli rightly describes as climate contrarians rather than climate sceptics. The increasingly desperate counter insurgency being waged in the media by those seeking to protect the carbon-intensive status quo is a function of how threatened they now feel.
Sadly, the greens may have won several important battles in securing public and political support for a greener economy, but they are a long way from winning the war – emissions are still rising. The clean technologies that will enable this greener economy are moving inexorably towards the mainstream, but their development and adoption needs to be rapidly accelerated if we are to see emissions fall.
It is this ongoing challenge that means there is little conflict between New Environmentalists and the scientific community, or at least no more or less tension than is found between scientists and any other part of society. The growing consensus across the green community, including significant numbers of those who would regard themselves as deep green, is that a technology-led response to climate change is the last and best hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic impacts in the second half of this century. For that we must work with scientists and engineers to more fully understand the risks we face and urgently develop the sources of clean energy, sustainable food and water supplies, and climate adaptation measures we will need. This is already happening in universities, laboratories and businesses across the world, but we need to expand these efforts at a rapid rate. As David King and Richard Layard argued last week in the FT, we need a new Apollo project focused on clean energy, and we need it now.
Perhaps the next series of The Big Bang Theory will see Dr Cooper and co turn their attention to the global need for low-cost solar power – many of their real-life counterparts are already doing so. And as they continue with this vital work the growing ranks of New Environmentalists wish them well.
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