New Science - New Danger

SGR Conference and AGM 1996

Mary Ward House, London WC1; 16 November 1996

Main presentation:
'Climate Change - The Inter/Intra-National Politics of Contraction and Convergence' by Aubrey Meyer, Global Commons Institute

Workshops: Toxic Legacy - Military Bases; Wings of Death - Low-Level Radiation; SGR Policy 2000

Summary by Dani Kaye and Alasdair Philips


Climate Change: The Inter/Intra-National Politics of Contraction and Convergence

Main presentation by Aubrey Meyer, Global Commons Institute

In a challenging and chilling present-ation on global warming, Aubrey Meyer called for the adoption of a policy of international equity and convergence between the industrialised and develop-ing countries, with respect to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He made it clear that the most pressing question of this era is, as Phil Webber describes it, "how we humans are to share our environmental space in the world, the last great common space of humanity, now threatened by pollution, rising sea levels and climate change".

"The debate concerning the reduction of greenhouse gases by the various states is not an environmentalist or scientific debate", Aubrey reminded us. "It is a political and social debate. In essence it revolves around the question of global equity".

Cost-Benefit Analysis - A Case of Absurd Logic

He rubbished the logic of economists, who insist that the value of human lives depends on their incomes; this idea of theirs involves the unacceptable abandonment of a notion of the intrinsic value of each human life. He presented a strategy with the potential for winning international acceptance, because it  would commit each country to cutting its greenhouse emissions according to its level of affluence.

In effect, this would allow less developed countries a certain amount of industrial expansion, while high-technology countries would be committed to more drastic cuts in their energy consumption. Such cuts would have to be accompanied by a change in the present cultural trends which promote high consumption and wastage.

The proposition "Climate change is a survival issue, equity is the price for survival" has been relentlessly pushed by the Global Commons Institute since 1994. Aubrey described GCI's activities at the 1992 Rio Summit, in pursuit of international equity, and its repeated attacks on the solutions proposed by economists, who insist that the answer to the problem of global warming can only be found through the application of cost-benefit analyses to produce an "ideal figure"  for greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately the economists' argument foundered on the soulless proposition that, in economic terms, 15 dead Chinamen are equivalent to one dead Englishman. GCI attacked their methodology for achieving this conclusion, and the premise was finally thrown out. However, Aubrey warned us, the economists are far from giving up these sums.

How can any efficiency-based solution to the problem of global warming hope to address the complex issues of individual value and rights? Such an approach is doomed to failure. Aubrey described in detail - often hilariously -  the various twists and turns in the arguments by proponents of the economic approach, and his counter-arguments to them. "Efficiency gains may be desirable", he said, "but they are a road to nowhere, because they are ultimately illogical, and only reinforce the fundamental tension in economics between equity and efficiency, a tension which must be resolved".

Expect a Shooting War in the Next 30 Years

Many politicians - notably Tom Burke, principal policy advisor to Mr Gummer - are expecting the whole debate to degenerate into a "shooting war" within the next 30 years; scientists observe the effects, but do not intrude further than to issue  warnings and hypotheses, something that Aubrey finds worrying. And economists claim to be doing the same thing, insisting that "this is the way the world works".

The GCI insists that all the above positions are not only inadequate but preposterous, because the question of individual value is left out whenever someone calculates the cost of doing nothing versus the cost of abatement.

Furthermore, because the auditors carrying out this calculation are themselves the polluters, the cost and inconvenience to "Western" industry of abatement are automatically exaggerated. This inevitably leads them to the conclusion "No action is most cost-effective", which, if accepted, must consign untold numbers of humans to death.

Equity is the Price for Survival - and Our Only Hope

Having demolished the economic efficiency approach, Aubrey went on to outline the basis of  his new proposition, starting with the statement that between 60 and 80 percent of CO2 production needs to be cut just to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels. Having presented this breathtaking figure as his starting point, he then told us that emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel burning are almost perfectly correlated with a nation's money supply, and that the global distribution of fossil fuel emissions is positively correlated with income. This leaves high-income societies with no sensible choice but to embrace the principles of convergence and equality, and to commit themselves to reducing emissions drastically, thereby enabling controlled economic growth to continue in the developing world.

As his chart showed, this would make it possible for the global community to reduce emissions progressively to an internationally pre-defined level, for instance to 40% of 1990 levels by the year 2100, while still allowing developing countries to reap many of the benefits enjoyed by the industrialised world.

Aubrey ended by warning us that, should the industrialised world refuse to grasp the nettle and accept the need to cut emissions at levels commensurate with their income, this would send a message to developing countries that they are considered expendable. The result would be total non-cooperation by these latter countries, and ecological disaster must inevitably follow.

The good news is that Labour MEPs appear to be committed to the idea of convergence as proposed by the GCI, and a number of countries are in favour of the principle, including India, which voiced its support at the 1995 Berlin conference.

New Science - New Danger?

During the lively debate which followed, the pros and cons of technology transfer solutions were explored, and the dangers of "quick-fix" thinking were highlighted. The case of the two experiments in iron fertilisation of the southern oceans was cited as an example of events which were quickly picked up in the common media as having potential for "solving" the world's greenhouse problem at a stroke. The overall effect of such events could easily be to turn industrial societies away from their critically important commitment to regulating their own activities. It was concluded that such "new science" carried the potential for great social and ecological danger, if unregulated and misinterpreted.


Toxic Legacy - Military Bases

Workshop led by Dr Philip Webber, Chair, SGR

The workshop heard a detailed account by Philip Webber of the Upper Heyford base work and how it was organised. He also gave an update on activities around the UK and elsewhere, on military bases and contamination from industrial sites. The issue of contamination from US bases is the subject of campaigns worldwide, and special interest groups in the UK such as CAAB (Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases). SGR now has a large dossier of information about various work going on.

Wendy McLeod Gilford gave a fascinating account of a campaign that she has waged, using the planning appeal system, against activities in the Harwell, Greenham Common area. It has another huge repository of information, occupying several filing cabinets!

What we agreed to do is probably most important. We agreed to collaborate on the Harwell and Lakenheath sites and to share information. The common threads are vested interests of various kinds. In the case of contaminated ex-military land, there is a strong motivation to develop sites for housing, because of enormous pressures for new housing and the high land values of such sites if they can be used this way. In the Harwell case, it seemed that several key people had migrated, from posts in the contaminating site, to those in the regulatory body overseeing decontamination and in the health authority.

The workshop agreed that it would be a good idea for any local SGR members, who lived relatively near ex-military sites and who had an interest in doing something about it, to contact Phil Webber about what might be usefully be done. A local member is a vital asset to see planning applications or local files in local authority or Environment Agency hands. If we know you are there, we can work with you to do something useful!  We can also provide a file of useful information to get you started.

As a follow up to the workshop, there has been further media interest. At present, a TV programme is wanting to do an interview for screening in Spring 1997. We also now have material for further SGR press releases.

Ultimately, we could try to combine members' known interest with known ex-US bases, but, bearing in mind our limited resources, it is probably most practical to move forward in areas where we are aware of a problem, where we know further work needs to be done, and where we have local members.

So, if you have been wondering about that site down the road, perhaps this will get you to pick up the phone and find out some more. There is now a new set of contaminated land legislation; this will continue to be a big issue which will not go away.

And, as if to prove it, we were presented with papers expressing concern about harmful environmental effects in the London Docklands area, linked to the print industry. It all comes down to a big demand for environmental appraisal, and a great mistrust by the general public of local Councils or other bodies that are supposed to be providing it. We need to know who in SGR has such skills, and perhaps to recruit some more members with this expertise.


Wings of Death - Low-Level Radiation

Workshop led by Dr Chris Busby

For most of the workshop, Chris Busby presented his hypothesis of second event radiation damage, in a fascinating talk with overhead projector slides. He offered his hypothesis as an explanation of why low-level radiation may be more damaging than generally thought. The discussion was partly about the difficulty of getting controversial ideas published in peer-reviewed journals. Chris eventually bypassed this difficulty by publishing his hypothesis in full in his book "Wings of Death", which was reviewed in the previous issue (No. 13, pp. 12-13) and enabled his ideas to be discussed around the world. The workshop encouraged Chris to make another attempt to have a formal paper published, by trying several other journals. It noted that "nuclear" science is more controlled by the "establishment" than many other areas of science. Chris was also advised to have samples from Alderney analysed, and have their results published.


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