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Scientists, this is a call to arms over energy policy

Climate change no longer attracts the headlines it once did, as the recent conference in Doha showed. Global media attention since its 2009 peak during the Copenhagen summit has fallen off a cliff – according…

Scientists let the climate change debate get by them. It’s not too late to own energy. David Reeves

Climate change no longer attracts the headlines it once did, as the recent conference in Doha showed. Global media attention since its 2009 peak during the Copenhagen summit has fallen off a cliff – according to the Daily Climate global database, coverage in the subsequent two years was down by 42%.

This is happening at a time when the consensus on the impacts of inaction is growing in the scientific community. But the scientists are not leading the debate. Political players dominate communications around climate change, particularly in the English-speaking media.

As a result we have polarised coverage transmitting a real sense of uncertainty. The politicisation of climate change has also been pivotal in its recent removal from the media agenda. President Obama barely mentioned climate change in his presidential campaign, and the lack of press attention is not simply coincidence.

Energy, on the other hand, is high on the global agenda. It was a key debating issue in the US election campaigns and, in the UK, discussions around the recent Energy Bill and internal fighting over the role of renewable energy as well as the cost to the public have put it on the front pages.

In other countries, calls for energy independence, reaction to the incident at the Fukushima power plant, and the opening up of resources all contribute to its strong presence in the media.

Over the last two years the Glasgow University Media Group has been working with leading UK think tank Chatham House on UKERC-funded research looking at the role of the media in the shaping of public attitudes on both energy security and climate change. Perhaps not surprisingly the findings show that climate change has not only fallen off the media and political agenda, but also the public agenda. The less people hear about it, the less they think about it.

The coverage across the years has also nurtured doubts about the causes of climate change and the best course of action. But the disengagement is also rooted in other contemporary issues - not only the general economic climate, which led some to see ethical behaviours as a bit of a luxury, but also a real lack of trust in the political figures who have to lead on action. As a consequence, people have a strong sense of powerlessness on the issue – a belief that the government are unlikely to act in their interests either way.

The energy security story is similar – the public need some belief in the government policies that aim to secure sustainable, reliable and affordable energy resources. Otherwise they won’t give their support.

We found that while people might not know the term energy security, the issue itself seems relatively clear cut – in comparison with climate change at least. Attitudes to renewable energies as a simple solution are largely positive. Even the government is trusted on energy at this point – largely because effective action seems obvious.

However, on further delving and from our longer-term research, we saw evidence of the way the issue is beginning to crystallise in people’s minds in response to the growing media coverage. Headlines about ongoing campaigns against wind farms, exploitative “green taxes” and lack of efficiency of renewables in the popular press are making their presence felt. The political polarisation of perspectives, and the visibility of competing interest groups, is beginning to shape the coverage – and public opinion.

Unlike with climate change, this is a relatively new phenomenon. People do not yet have established opinions on future energy solutions. But the processes by which uncertainty and disengagement evolve are beginning to set in.

That is why the time is right for scientists to take ownership of the debate on energy policy, before political squabbling and inconsistent coverage cause the public to switch off from this issue too.

Our research shows there is a good deal of public faith in scientists, and this offers a real opportunity. But there is a challenge too – the media will not consistently prioritise an issue without the commitment of the primary definers, the most powerful of whom are politicians. So the scientists must force these issues onto the political agenda, while visibly leading the debate.

They need to work directly with policymakers, journalists and ultimately the public to build trust, understanding and consensus. But crucially the evidence must come from the scientists, and they must be the ones who are seen to be propelling the arguments forward.

There might now be a mountain to climb in terms of public engagement with climate change, however it is early enough to stop the same thing happening with energy security. But it is becoming increasingly urgent that the scientists step up to the plate – before the damage becomes irreversible.

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  1. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    Carbon pricing can’t work in the real world – there is a better way

    Professor William Nordhaus is arguably the world authority on carbon tax. In a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ‘Economic aspects of global warming in a post-Copenhagen environment’, http://nordhaus.econ.yale.edu/documents/Nordhaus_Copenhagen_2010_text.pdf Nordhaus says:

    "The results of the present study suggest that several policies could limit our “dangerous interference” with the climate system…

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    1. Jeremy Tager

      Extispicist

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Nordhaus doesn't conclude that carbon pricing doesn't work. In fact Table 1 outlines what he sees as optimal prices for carbon.

      As for nuclear. No. If we didn't learn from Fukishima that nuclear isn't safe, isn't clean and that technology and humans, even in the most technologically advanced countries in the world, still fail, then we are incapable of learning.

      What are the costs of Fukishima? In lives lost, property destroyed, communities abandoned, oceans contaminated, food contaminated…

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter, how long will you continue to repeat the canard that Australia is leading the world with its carbon pricing policies? This is already a demonstrable PRATT (point refuted a thousand times).

      Misquoting Nordhaus won't make your argument any less incorrect.

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    3. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      "Climate change no longer attracts the headlines it once did, as the recent conference in Doha showed. Global media attention since its 2009 peak during the Copenhagen summit has fallen off a cliff – according to the Daily Climate global database, coverage in the subsequent two years was down by 42%."

      True. So, is it time to move on from analysing temperatures, and making projections? Should we transfer our focus to robust decision analysis that can inform policy development?

      Many economists…

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    4. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter you write:

      "The NRC is a massive constriction blocking progress on development and roll out of small modular nuclear power plants. No other industry has to get its designs approved by a government regulator."

      The NRC is in place and precautionary for good reason.

      There is no other industry that accumulates high-level radioactive waste that will still be dangerously radiocative well past the likely duration of human civilization and with no safe storage options yet realized. Nor is there any other industry where there is a potential for spectacular failures that can render areas the size of small countries unfit for human habitation for thousands of years. Finally no other industry could as readily be used to provide weapons grade radionucleides in a politically unstable world.

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    5. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Fred Pribac,

      "There is no other industry that accumulates high-level radioactive waste that will still be dangerously radiocative well past the likely duration of human civilization and with no safe storage options yet realized. Nor is there any other industry where there is a potential for spectacular failures that can render areas the size of small countries unfit for human habitation for thousands of years. Finally no other industry could as readily be used to provide weapons grade radionucleides in a politically unstable world."

      Wrong on all three points. You are either misinformed (haven't done any basic objective research) or you are suffering from nuclear phobia. I expect the latter is the case. Most people can get over this. Self education can address it. I've included some links which will get you started.

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    6. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Lang

      @ Peter Lang

      Good Grief! Just because uranium is called "yellow cake" doesn't mean you can eat it.

      Uranium, from mining, transport, processing and storage is a highly hazardous material - for centuries.

      Your claims of its safety are merely that; claims.

      "Environmental Impact

      There is no energy source that is 100 percent clean, but let's examine what nuclear power has going for it. Unlike fossil fuel plants, which spew tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, nuclear…

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    7. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter thank you for your kind offer to educate me but you are wrong on both your assumptions.

      "You are either misinformed (haven't done any basic objective research) or you are suffering from nuclear phobia. I expect the latter is the case. Most people can get over this. Self education can address it. I've included some links which will get you started."

      I have an MSC in Nuclear Physics (ANU 1984), and have taken the time to read reports such as the 2006 report to the Prime Minsiter on Uranium…

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    8. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Dianna Art,

      What does this mean
      "Uranium, from mining, transport, processing and storage is a highly hazardous material - for centuries"?
      Compared with what?
      How do you know?
      What is your authoritative sources?

      Your claims are merely that; claims.

      There is no point me answering this sort of rubbish. Do the homework. Or see a psychiatrist and get help with your irrational nuclear phobia.

      Nuclear power is the safest of all electricity generation technologies:
      http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/06/deaths-by-energy-source-in-forbes.html

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    9. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Fred Pribac,

      I am not impressed with what you say is where you have gained your information on nuclear power. The Conversation is hardly an impartial source of information on anything.

      You say: "Even so ... errors happen ... both more frequently, and more seriously, than we are promised and certainly enough to be an indication to me that a more relaxed regulatory environment is not a better option for the nuclear industry."

      Yes, accidents occur. They occur in all industries. Industrial accidents occur everywhere and will always occur. However the frequency of nuclear accidents is very low and the real impact - such as fatalities (immediate and latent) per unit of energy delivered - is exceedingly low and lower than from any other electricity generation technology. It's hard to avoid these facts. The rest is due to paranoia caused by 50 years of anti-nuclear scaremongering.

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    10. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter Lang: "... your irrational nuclear phobia." As distinct from your irrational renewables phobia?

      The nuclear industry sees profit in climate change. They're terrified that renewables will be recognised as the solution and the door will be shut on nuclear

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    11. In reply to Peter Lang

      Comment removed by moderator.

    12. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter I can see this is going to get me nowhere!

      "I am not impressed with what you say is where you have gained your information on nuclear power. The Conversation is hardly an impartial source of information on anything."

      My engagement with the Conversation was the least of the points I made. I was defending myself against your unsubstantiated claim that I was nuclear phobic and needed schooling in the basics. I made several other points you have chosen to ignore and I could make more points…

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    13. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter, the article raises some important points, I agree with the premise that the public does trust the views of relevant scientists. I do not think australia is leading the world. Norway is. We haven't reached any where near their commitment yet. We have just started. You have made some relevant points, but, where would you start putting these many nuclear plants, name some suburbs. I'm interested, because you are obviously not a scientist trained in this field. Which water would be used. One last thing, where do you get off suggesting that Dianna Art needs a psychiatrist. I presume you have no respect for the opinion of a female environmentalist? Do correct me.

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    14. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter

      This is a theme you have pushed in the past, and I have commented to you about it in the past. My view of Nuclear is:

      Yes, it is safer than Fossil Fuels - well Coal. Simple comparison - deaths from Nuclear power vs the 1000's of Chinese Coal miners killed every year. Deaths from air pollution related illnesses vs those CoalMiners again.

      However, if we compare Nuclear with the other end of the FF spectrum, Natural Gas, it's probably still safer, not sure. But certainly not by nearly…

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    15. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Glenn Tamblyn: "... why is Nuclear actually, or seemingly, so relatively safe?" Thanks Glenn, you've done what I'm too lazy to do.

      Like many who seek to deceive, nuclear industry shills select statistics that they can spin to support their case. The figures on deaths per unit of electricity generated may or may not be accurate. The inference that nuclear is low cost isn't.

      What is the cost of an accident? Ask former residents of areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima. In particular, ask those who suffer the health consequences of contamination. I reckon they'll tell you that there are worse things than dying.

      I hate to admit it, but private industry is the best indicator. Why won't the insurance industry cover the risks of nuclear?

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    16. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Glenn Tamblyn,

      "Now why is Nuclear actually, or seemingly, so relatively safe?"

      You really haven't the faintest idea what you are talking about. And you haven't bothered to try to learn. You haven't even looked at the links, have you?

      For the nth time, nuclear is about the safest of all electricity generation technologies. And here for the nth time is a link which provides a summary http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/06/deaths-by-energy-source-in-forbes.html. You can follow the links from there if you want to research the authoritative sites - not junk sites like SlepticalScience, Greenpeace, FoE etc.

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    17. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Peter

      "You really haven't the faintest idea what you are talking about. And you haven't bothered to try to learn. You haven't even looked at the links, have you? ..."

      Peter. Your not getting this. I am agreeing with you!!!

      All your links about the safety of Nuclear up to now - I accept them!!!

      What you aren't grasping is that past evidence of safety under one set of circumstances isn't evidence for what future safety will be in a different set of circumstances.

      I am not disagreeing…

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    18. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Glenn Tamblyn,

      "What you aren't grasping is that past evidence of safety under one set of circumstances isn't evidence for what future safety will be in a different set of circumstances."

      Sorry, that is just FUD. Its silly. We have 57 years of operation and 15,000 reactor years of operation. Nuclear is 700 times safer than coal, which is the alternative. The safety of coal is accepted by the community. It is the standard. Your argument is really silly. Bu continuing to argue against nuclear - which is what you ARE doing - you are preventing the people of the world getting a 700 times safer electricity generation technology. That is nuts. You are also blocking electricity generation becoming near zero emissions. There is no other practicable alternative. it's either fossil fuels or nuclear. Take your pick. Renewables are not a viable option. Come to grips with that.

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    In my opinion scientists detract from their credibility by supporting certain technologies but not others. That includes the IPCC and our own Climate Commission. Current policies may or may not have a positive effect but out emissions are about the same as they were 20 years ago while energy consumers are complaining loudly about cost. Those same scientists urge us to more of the same but the evidence suggests we should change tack.

    I'm also stunned by silence of these scientists on issues like…

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  3. David Boxall

    logged in via Facebook

    Peter Lang: "Nuclear power could be far cheaper than fossil fuels ...".
    John Newlands: "... we should gave a high percentage of nuclear ...".

    Happens every time. Mention energy and the nuclear boosters crawl out of the woodwork.

    For what it's worth, I reckon it'll happen. We'll refuse to do what's necessary until climate change becomes undeniable, then begin building nuclear plants in a rush. Being rushed, the inevitable accidents will be even more frequent.

    When climate change is undeniable, it will be too late. Nuclear folly will just add spice.

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    1. Ken Fabian

      Mr

      In reply to David Boxall

      The biggest impediment to nuclear has never been anti-nuclear activism by the green left, it's been climate science denial within the mainstream Right. As long as the political Right continues to tolerate, support and promote climate science denial it will never seriously support nuclear. It is a far bigger obstacle for nuclear than the most strident opponents of nuclear because, without serious mainstream political support - absolutely fundamental - it's going nowhere.

      I find it ironic that the…

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  4. Noel Peters

    Mr

    Carbon pricing is not working now and no one can say it will be working in 2050 either. An alternative is geoengineering.

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Noel Peters

      Noel

      To mitigate climate change, whether we implement renewables, or decide to play dice with the planet and proceed with nuclear and/or geoengineering, it all costs money.

      Just sayin'

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    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Noel Peters

      Dianna Art: "... it all costs money." To some, it seems, the issue is who _makes_ money out of it.

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  6. Comment removed by moderator.

  7. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to Peter Lang

      Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Geoff Henderson

    Graduate

    Catherine Happer's article has provoked something of a response from a number of contributors.
    But some of these contributors seem to have made it into a pissing contest, each trying to out-pee each other and blithely ignoring the nub of the article.

    The essence of the article was about the changing public perception of climate change, the role of media, the lack of success of policy and the need for a new column of public participation to drive solutions to the issue(s).

    Clearly there…

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    1. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Geoff Henderson

      Geoff Henderson,

      You say:

      “the lack of success of policy and the need for a new column of public participation to drive solutions to the issue(s).”

      The policies have failed because the policies being advocated are irrational. They cannot work and will not be accepted in the real world. But those who want those policies are unwilling to consider the alternatives that would work and be acceptable. Continuing to push these policies is the real cause of delay.

      I asked and have not received…

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  9. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    I am not entirely sure about what you are trying to say. The article is confusing. But the fact is that the Eurocentric driven debate about climate change is becoming increasingly irrelevant as China industrialises. It is about time we started to face up to the inevitable instead of pontificating about totally unachievable objectives.

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  10. Comment removed by moderator.

  11. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    @ Glen Tamblyn

    Awesome post. Reasonable to most people I'm sure and hopefully much food for thought to others.

    The following bears repeating:

    "4. The safety record of the Nuclear Power industry is totally and utterly a product of the Regulatory regime. Nuclear power is essentially very, very dangerous without the application of extreme engineering that then, to date, has rendered it pretty safe. Reduce the standards of the extreme engineering and safety declines by an unknown amount. And…

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  12. Comment removed by moderator.