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22 September 2021

Energy security: where are the grown-ups?


For the last eighteen months or so, we have all been bombarded by politicians, media, Twitter and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all with a demand that we should follow the science. Superficially, that seems a reasonable approach; but it’s not. “The Science” doesn’t exist. Science is a developing process, modifying as we - or those clever enough to be doing it - postulate theories, test them, incorporate those that are robust into our overall body of knowledge and reject those that are not. So, in simple terms; pre-Galileo, ‘the science’ told us that the sun revolved round the earth; pre-Newton, the apple just happened to drop when it fell, for no discernible reason; pre-quantum physics, Newtonian physics was an accurate picture of matter and the universe. But each time, somebody came along with a new theory, which, if it was experimentally shown to be more likely to be correct than the previous norm, would then be incorporated into our overall corpus of knowledge - always itself able to be challenged, enabling humanity to modify its behaviour as knowledge increases.

Thus we have to adjust our behaviour to the level of knowledge we have at any given time, but at the same time - importantly - remain open to understanding that what we know today may tomorrow need to be revisited or modified. 

So it is with global warming/climate change. Pace those who believe absolutely, it is not ‘settled science’; what we have are a series of best estimates of future development based on the level of knowledge that we currently have. Well, that should be OK. An old friend of mine from University days (who is a scientist, by the way) put it this way to me, when we discussed this subject many years ago.”OK, we don’t know for sure what is certain and will happen, but the intelligent thing to do is to adjust your behaviour anyway; after all, even in the unlikely event that greenhouse gases do not have the detrimental effect we currently expect, there is no obvious downside in reducing emissions. For example, our cities will be pleasanter places in which to live and work with less vehicle fumes - so logic says go with electric cars anyway.” That seemed a rational approach then to me as it still does now.

Sometimes, though, things have unintended (or I hope unintended) consequences. Currently in the UK, one of the extreme eco-freak groups is deliberately blocking the London Orbital highway, the M25, sitting in the road, or gluing themselves to it, to disrupt the traffic, as a protest against poorly insulated houses. Well, OK, but the result of that is ambulances unable to reach hospitals with patients, children unable to go to school, the general population struggling to get to work. At the same time, multi-hour queues on the motorway are happily belching completely unnecessary petrol and diesel engine fumes into the atmosphere. Does that help?

After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Angela Merkel, in a very precipitate fashion, closed down Germany’s nuclear power generating capacity, on the grounds that it was too high a risk. Mmm: where we are now is that six of the worst atmospheric polluters in Europe are German coal-fired power stations, brought back on line to replace the shuttered nukes - because, of course, just like Fukushima, the risk of earthquake damage in the Ruhr or the Harz was too awful to take…. 

The UK has made great strides in shutting down coal-fired units. Very good - but because genuine renewables (sun and wind) do need back-up, we now have biomass - wood chips broadly - imported on diesel-powered freighters from North America, instead of local coal. I’d hazard a guess that the net result of those two was in truth not terribly different. UK engineers have made great progress in the development of small-sized nukes, which look like a far better prospect than the massive cost and concentration of risk of things like Hinckley Point - but apparently, they’re not  to be considered suitable. A bit like fracked gas, I guess, the objections to which I’ve never understood, beyond prejudice and ignorance.

I’m no expert, and this is no scientifically accurate piece, but I come to a simple conclusion. Energy security is far too crucial an issue to be left to the politicians and the agitators; where are the grown-ups when we need them?  

    







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