Green VS. Green, Part 1

May 26, 2010 | Siddhartha Shome,

To read Part 2 click here.

By Breakthrough Senior Fellow Siddhartha Shome

Denmark Dispute Greens tout Denmark as a renewable mecca, but Sweden -- powered largely by hydro and nuclear -- has a far less carbon intense energy mix.

Here's a pop quiz. A, B, C, and D are four rich industrialized countries in Western Europe with similar living standards. Country A's carbon dioxide emissions stand at 9.24 tonnes per capita per year. The corresponding figures for countries B, C, and D are 5.81, 5.62, and 5.05 tonnes a year, respectively.

Can you guess which of these four countries has become the darling of the environmental movement, hailed as a model for a low carbon economy?

It is country A, Denmark -- even though its per capita CO2 emissions are almost twice as much as countries B (France), C (Switzerland), and D (Sweden).

In a piece entitled "The Copenhagen that Matters", New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaks for many environmentalists when he says,

Denmark is the most energy efficient country in the E.U.; due to carbon pricing, through energy taxes, carbon taxes, the 'cap and trade' system, strict building codes and energy labeling programs. Renewable resources currently supply almost 30 percent of Denmark's electricity. Wind power is the largest source of renewable electricity, followed by biomass...

My fellow Americans, the fact that the recent Copenhagen climate summit was a bust in terms of solving our energy/climate problems doesn't mean that we can ignore those problems -- or that we can ignore how individual countries, like Denmark, have effectively addressed them.

There is no doubt that Danes emit far less CO2 than Americans. But compared to some other Western European countries, Denmark's performance is distinctly modest.


Why then, do many greens hold up Denmark as the ideal low-carbon economy? Why not France, or Switzerland, or Sweden, which emit significantly less CO2 per capita?
The answer is that their preference for the Danish model has little to do with greenhouse gas emissions or with climate change, and more to do with the ideology and metaphysics of the Green movement.

In France, nuclear power accounts for about three quarters of all the electricity generated, while about 15 percent comes from hydro power. Switzerland gets about 55 percent of its electricity from hydro power and about 40 percent from nuclear. And in Sweden, about 45 percent comes from hydro power, while another 45 percent comes from nuclear power. Denmark, meanwhile, generates no nuclear power and very little hydro. A significant portion - some 30 percent - of Denmark's electricity is generated by wind power but still, much of the rest is generated by traditional coal power plants.

Among many environmentalists, nuclear energy and hydroelectricity are anathema even though they do not emit CO2. There tends to be particular hostility towards nuclear energy, even though the scientific and engineering evidence shows that modern nuclear power plants are safe, clean, and economical.

The green movement's antipathy towards nuclear power is part of a broader ideological distrust of scientific-technological fixes for solving our environmental problems. It is founded on a deep pessimism about human development, and scientific and technological progress.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

There can perhaps be no better example of ideological distrust of scientific-technological fixes than in the case of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Commonly known (somewhat misleadingly) as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), many greens abhor GE in agriculture with an intensity that matches or even exceeds their antipathy towards nuclear power.

No GMO for Krakow In Europe, protests against GE crops or GMOs, like this one in Krakow, are largely based on ideological distrust, not scientific evidence.

GE food crops have been largely banned in Europe due to the opposition of environmentalists, but have been widely grown and consumed in the United States since 1996. More than 60 percent of field corn, 85 percent of soybean, 75 percent of canola, and 80 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. comes from GE crops. In all these years, GE crops have not been found to be any more harmful to humans or the environment than non-GE crops. On the contrary, the environmental benefits of GE crops have been substantial.

Crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (e.g., roundup-ready corn, roundup-ready soybean) have enabled farmers to adopt no-till and reduced-till farming practices, allowing for the conservation of topsoil, preservation of more natural vegetation, and sequestration of much of the soil organic carbon.

Crops that have been genetically engineered to be pest resistant (e.g., Bt Cotton, Bt Corn) have brought about dramatic reductions in chemical pesticide usage. For example, the introduction of Bt Cotton in India has caused chemical pesticide usage in the cotton crop to fall by half even as output has doubled.

Such achievements, significant though they are, merely scratch the surface of agricultural biotech's immense potential for doing environmental good. A promising new technology is a rice plant genetically engineered to be more efficient in utilizing nitrogen than conventional rice, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed by half. According to Greenpeace estimates, greenhouse gas emissions from the worldwide production and use of nitrogen fertilizer is equivalent to the total CO2 emissions from all the power plants in the United States. Nitrogen efficient GE crops could thus be crucial to mitigating climate change.

Agriculture - of any kind - is, by definition, a human intervention in nature with ambiguous environmental consequences. Agricultural biotechnology, with its potential to greatly increase marketable yields of existing farmlands, can play a major role in resisting the pressure to cultivate virgin land to feed a global population estimated to grow from six billion people now to nine billion people by 2050.

A Paradox

To anybody following the debate over nuclear power and GE crops, it soon becomes clear that the Green position on science and technology is rather paradoxical. On one hand, many Greens eagerly invoke science to emphasize the severity of our environmental problems, especially global warming. On the other hand, they are quick to reject scientific-technological fixes for these same environmental problems.
In the Green climate change narrative, great importance is given to scientific data and reasoning. When climate change skeptics question the seriousness of human induced climate change, arguing that the scientific evidence is insufficient, environmentalists respond (rightly, in my opinion) that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that global warming is indeed a real and serious problem. When it come to GE crops, however, their position is reversed. Here, Greens reject the overwhelming scientific evidence that GE crops are no more dangerous than non-GE crops and claim that the scientific evidence is not sufficient to make a reasonable determination.
Interestingly, Green rejection of scientific-technological fixes for environmental problems is structurally very similar to the rejection of climate science by global warming skeptics.

Nod to Nuclear: Gore and many Greens categorically disregard nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, despite the scientific and engineering evidence that modern nuclear power plants are safe, clean, and economical.

The fact of the matter is that science is not in the business of absolute certainties -- that is the domain of religious revelations. Science can never establish with absolute certainty that climate change is human induced and will be devastating if left unchecked. Science is no more than a certain outlook and a certain technique ('the scientific method') that uses reason, observation, and experimentation to investigate phenomena and acquire or modify knowledge of the material world. It is a reasonable scientific inference, based on the available evidence, that human-induced climate change is real and serious. It is also a reasonable evidence-based scientific inference that GE crops are not inherently more harmful to humans or the environment than non-GE crops. Indeed, the level of scientific certainly regarding the safety of GE crops is far greater than any long-term prognosis regarding climate change, if only because it is so much easier to conduct controlled scientific experiments with GE crops than with the global climate.

This science/anti-science paradox is evident in Al Gore's celebrated documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." The entire movie takes the form of Gore delivering a science lecture, arguing that human induced climate change represents a clear and compelling danger. In criticizing climate change skeptics, Gore denounces ideological influences on science, comparing it with Soviet practices.

Gore recommends a solution proposed by scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala -- the only policy framework for global warming mitigation discussed in the movie. This approach calls for reducing CO2 emissions by using a using a combination of seven "stabilization wedges," or techniques, e.g. more efficient vehicles and carbon capture and storage. In the movie, Gore graphs how the wedges can reduce CO2 emissions but he makes one glaring omission: Socolow and Pacala's approach calls for seven wedges while Gore shows only six. The missing wedge? Nuclear power.

Paradoxically, even while emphasizing the scientific evidence for climate change, Gore deliberately ignores a scientific-technological fix that could help solve it.

To read Part 2 click here.


The point you make is a valid one, but your use of characterizing the environmentalist worldview as polarized completely discredits your argument. When people think of "will Change A solve Problem B," there are always entire sets of issues to look at in the middle. Policy is a huge problem with GE crops when it comes down to "patenting life" and who ends up with the cash in their pocket. If GE crops are supposed to prevent human suffering, there's going to need to be some major shifts in economic thinking in order for those crops to get the the people who need them in an affordable way. The insufficient amount of isolated field experiments prior to mass employment is also a problem. We know a lot, but nature's systems are tricky, which requires very very little room for human error. In regard to nuclear, it would be advised that you mention the issues surrounding the waste, which is a primary ecological concern, and what many consider long lasting proof of our hubris. And in reference to the previous comment, the "magic wand" question is completely ridiculous. If you believe that carbon emissions are the only thing we need to confront, you're living under a concrete block. It's definitely the most dramatic, and time-sensitive, but because of that, it's overshadowing other emergencies. What kind of world do you want to live in, and provide for your children? One where people are packed cheek to jowl in steel cities, all of our food now a creation of our intellect and absent any connection to where we had come from? One where there are no wolves, bears, eagles, whales...because they aren't essential to human survival? Humans are an amazing species with amazing potential, but it's time we start recognizing that potential, and as you advocate, actually apply our logic where we need it most.

By Jameson on 2010 05 31