Voyaging into the unknowable

Last week was a big moment in my life. I have long thought that no sane person could ever advocate for nuclear energy, given its undeniable connection to devastating weaponry, catastrophic operational failures and permanently toxic waste. Yet I did.

Fear is central to this story, including fear of all the above. Fear is what motivated people in big anti-nuclear protests last century: fear of nuclear war’s devastation, or the nuclear winter that would follow. Or the deadly fallout from a reactor accident – the 1986 Chernobyl explosion was all the evidence we needed of that. 

I still fear those things and believe nuclear energy proposals should be treated with utmost caution. But I fear even more – much more – something many times bigger than any nuclear issue, happening around us now. 

Evidence that Earth is heating up was at first hard to discern. It took effort to listen to earth-system scientists pleading for our attention. Their warnings were complex and nuanced, with degrees of uncertainty which were interpreted as an excuse not to act. 

But we missed the fact that this uncertainty works in two directions. The scientists had always warned that calculating timescales was tricky. We ignored the possibility that they were too cautious, and that their projections of devastating developments decades or centuries ahead might actually be upon us before we know it. 

Physicist James Hansen from New York’s Columbia University has long been concerned about this “scientific reticence”. In August he drew attention to “the precarious state of crucial global observations” – a dig at cost-savings by his former employer, NASA.

Hansen said in August that “the 12-month mean global temperature likely will pierce the 1.5C warming level before this time next year… We anticipate acceleration of the long-term global warming rate by at least 50 per cent.”

This is well supported by data on anomalies in surface temperature and Antarctic sea ice cover. Plots from years past – including the all-time hottest years of the past decade – fade into insignificance against this year’s shocking readings.

For many years it has been a foundational position of the UN, its member states and the global science community that any more than 1.5C of warming is too grave a risk to accept. Now it appears we’ll be there within 10 months, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We are in unknown, even unknowable, territory.

This year will be the hottest on record, but that record will soon be broken, probably next year. The UN estimates that climate extremes have caused over 21 million people to flee their homes since 2008. Expect to see that in the hundreds of millions in a decade or two as weather mayhem overtakes us. That will be the pattern for the rest of all our lives. 

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres is struggling to find words extreme enough to describe our awful mess. Two weeks ago he convened a one-day “Climate Ambition Summit” at which only countries considered to be first-movers on climate action got a speaking slot. Australia was not one of these; nor was the US or the UK.

Humanity, said Guterres, has opened the gates of hell. He blames fossil fuels for this year’s climate extremities, a view vigorously endorsed by multiple leaders at the summit. Said California governor Gavin Newsom, the climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis: “It’s not complicated.”

The Albanese government is putting billions into what climate and energy minister Chris Bowen calls “a keep-the-lights-on mechanism”. Everyone should support this worthwhile investment in renewable power and a whole new power transmission system. But we should also be aware of the scale of ambition involved. 

Right now, around 65 per cent of Australia’s electricity is still generated by coal or gas. What’s more, public-private investment in clean energy infrastructure is matched by the billions of dollars, private and public, still being poured into extracting, processing and supplying gas, oil and coal. 

There are two reasons for this. One is that very big fossil fuel interests are going all out to survive; the other is that government is hedging its bets on delivery of a power supply that can meet all demands at all times.

If uncertainty over renewables is well founded it’s reasonable to argue that carbon-free nuclear should stay in the mix. Unless, that is, our rapidly-evolving climate makes the whole question academic. 

Alternatively, we could opt for the Third World solution – less electricity, less shopping, less flying, less driving, less everything. But we don’t. We want to do what we’ve always done, come hell or high water. Which is exactly what we can expect.

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