The co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, left the prominent environmental organization in 1986 because it began “abandoning science and logic.” Now the director of Greenspirit, Moore speaks out for the nuclear industry, the forest industry and supports genetically engineered crops. Is he still an environmentalist?
Published in Iceland Review no 44.03. Interviewed by Edward Weinman.
Edward Weinman: What are the most serious environmental problems facing us today?
Patrick Moore: Poverty, deforestation in the tropics, micronutrient deficiency (malnutrition), urban sprawl, population growth and air pollution.
EW: You left Greenpeace in 1986. Why leave what was perhaps the first environmental organization with clout?
PM: I left because I saw my colleagues abandoning science and logic and adopting zero-tolerance policies that made no sense. In many ways, Greenpeace is now promoting policies that are environmentally negative. Genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use; nuclear energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions; sustainable forestry produces the most abundant renewable material; aquaculture produces healthy oils and protein, and takes pressure off the wild stocks.
EW: How do we reconcile global needs to exploit natural resources for food and energy with the need to protect the environment? Are these needs incompatible?
PM: There are many ways to reconcile human needs with environmental protection. Sustainability is about continuing to satisfy civilization’s need for food, energy, and materials while at the same time reducing negative environmental impact. This can be done through changes in behavior (e.g., energy conservation) and technological change (e.g., using nuclear energy and renewable energy instead of fossil fuel).
EW: The timber industry argues forests are a renewable resource. Environmentalists argue that reforestation doesn’t take into account the diversity of species, and that deforestation is one reason flooding is more prominent, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Does the truth exist somewhere in the middle?
PM: Sustainable forestry aims to preserve species diversity. Deforestation, the permanent loss of forest, is caused by farming and cities, not forestry. Forestry causes reforestation. The anti-forestry movement is wrong because they are accusing the wrong sector. We should be growing more trees and using more wood, not cutting fewer trees and using less wood.
EW: The earth is growing warmer. That’s a given. What do you think – are we responsible for climate change, or is it a natural phenomenon that ebbs and flows?
PM: It is a natural phenomenon and the earth has gone through many periods of cooling and warming. But we are definitely changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels and increasing the CO2 content of the air. Theoretically this should cause warming. So the present warming trend may be partly natural and partly caused by us. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the percentage due to each.
EW: You were quoted as saying that global warming and the melting of glaciers is positive because it “creates more arable land.” I can understand how more arable land could be a good thing, but aren’t those positives offset by the loss of fresh water and rising sea levels?
PM: The future balance of “positive” vs. “negative” impacts from climate change is both difficult to determine and depends on where one lives. Warming should result in increased rainfall overall. We don’t know the extent of sea level rise, I believe it is exaggerated. Nonetheless it would be prudent to reduce fossil fuel consumption for a number of reasons, including reducing the risk of serious negative consequences.
EW: What can individuals concerned about climate change do to protect the environment? Do the little things, like turning off the lights, add up, or is it like pouring a Dixie cup of water onto a forest fire?
PM: Individuals can drastically reduce their fossil fuel consumption by buying fuel-efficient, hybrid autos and by converting the gas furnaces and hot water heaters to ground-source heat pumps.
EW: Why you have begun speaking out in favor of nuclear energy?
PM: Nuclear energy is clean and safe and is the only large base load electrical source that can replace coal at a global level.
EW: Relying on nuclear energy brings with it a measure of permanence that many people are uncomfortable with. For example, the New York Times reported that rules for a proposed high-level waste repository in Nevada were thrown out after the former head of the EPA Christie Whitman left office because the rules only covered the first 10,000 years of waste storage at the plant, while “peak releases of radiation were expected after that time.” How can we predict how waste repository sites will age over such a time frame? And what if we’re wrong about those predictions?
PM: It is ridiculous to try to plan for 10,000 years. Now that the ban on recycling nuclear fuel has been lifted in the United States, it will be possible to get the 95% of the energy that is in used fuel and use it. At the same time the fission products that are separated out only require 300 years to become relatively harmless.
EW: Iran is trying to bolster its nuclear program, its leaders say, for domestic energy. The West is opposed. If the West builds more nuclear reactors for energy purposes, shouldn’t other countries have the same right? Should we worry about nuclear reactors sprouting up across the globe?
PM: The American proposal for an international partnership to control nuclear fuel would allow all nations to have nuclear power but would require that the uranium enrichment and used-fuel recycling be done by the existing nuclear powers. Russia appears to have accepted this approach.
EW: The default argument against nuclear power can be summed up in one word: Chernobyl. Could it happen again?
PM: The dangers are overstated. Chernobyl was the only accident that caused death and injury and that style of Soviet reactor should never have been built. Of course, there are risks with all technologies, but nuclear is one of the safest.
Many of the other Chernobyl-style reactors are still operating, after they were refit so that a Chernobyl type accident could not occur again. We learn from our mistakes.