Tuesday 25 June 2013

When wrong arguments are used for the right cause

The cost of cleaning up Britain’s nuclear power stations is rising and likely to exceed £100bn, reports the Guardian.

The high cost of decommissioning has always struck me as the strongest argument against nuclear power. As costs continue to soar, this argument becomes even stronger. It stands in stark contrast to the claims made in the 1950s when Britain’s nuclear power programme began, when it was said that the electricity would be so cheap to produce that it wouldn’t be worth charging customers for it.

But the main argument you hear against nuclear power is that it is dangerous. This was an understandable sentiment after the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and remains so following the more recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, sparked by an earthquake and tsunami.

However, Britain’s nuclear power stations are generally safe and certainly cause a lot less environmental damage than power stations using fossil fuels. Modern designs of nuclear power stations are becoming safer. But arguing that people will grow two heads has more emotional resonance than the crippling long-term cost, so environmental campaigners eager for a sensational headline will opt for the sexier argument. Unfortunately, once the armies of mutant humans fail to materialise, the environmentalist cause looks weaker and the case against nuclear power is compromised.

It’s the same with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Opposition has focused on the risks of ‘Frankenfoods’, when in fact no evidence has been found that GM foods are dangerous to eat. Still, fear of toxic food is a more emotionally resonant argument than the economic and political one, which was made the other day by David Boyle:
The real question is the monopoly power that GM crops gives to a handful of global megacorps carving up the world’s food production between them... and the income they extract from it, and from the poorest subsistence farmers every time they plant seeds which they used to be allowed to save until the following year.
Again, when people fail to drop dead from eating GM foods, they will gradually accept them and the case against is weakened.

Why do environmentalists indulge in this ultimately counter-productive form of campaigning? The answer is that it raises money. Scare the bejesus out of people and the donations come rolling in.

Environmentalists might argue that they are operating in a world where everything is just surface or in a Daily Mail world where everything is a potential risk, and that their sensationalist public relations tactics therefore represent some sort of realpolitik. In fact, weakening your case in the long term for a tabloid headline in the short term deserves a different word of German origin, Faustian.

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