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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Lesser of Two Evils
distributed 10/29/04 - ©2004

The presidential election in the US is 4 days away. (Vote. Vote! VOTE!) After all these months of campaigning, I am frustrated and embarrassed by the shallow and constrained discussion about critical issues, including -- and perhaps especially -- the environment.

This week's news from England brings a stunning example of the sorts of policy debates that we could, and should, be having in the US. An Anglican bishop has broken open a challenging moral discussion on climate change and energy policy. Hugh Montefiore, "the nearest thing Britain has to an eco-bishop," is calling for increased use of nuclear power as the only viable way to minimize global warming.

The bishop has been a trustee of Friends of the Earth for 20 years, and he chaired that leading environmental group from 1992 to 1998. This month, he was forced to resign from that board when he made his pro-nuclear statement. He wrote, "the future of the planet is more important than membership of Friends of the Earth."

The debate in the UK is not about the fact of global warming, or about whether significant steps should be taken to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses. Those questions -- which are not even being discussed in the US election -- are taken for granted there, and in most of the rest of the world.

Both sides in the British debate presume the need for dramatic action on climate change. The controversy between the bishop and Friends of the Earth (FoE) is over the means to achieve deep cuts in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses. FoE is holding onto the promise of renewable energy sources -- wind, biomass, wave power and nuclear fusion. (Fusion, the Holy Grail of energy research, turns hydrogen into helium, and has never been achieved on a viable scale.) Montefiore also wants to see wide-spread use of renewables, but he doesn't believe they can provide enough greenhouse reduction.

The bishop's advocacy for nuclear power is not a quick-fix, business-as-usual proposal. He envisions changes that go far beyond the limited first steps that will be mandated under the soon-to-be-ratified Kyoto Treaty. Along with the Royal Commission on Pollution and the International Panel on Climate Change, he knows that "a 60 per cent reduction of global warming gas emissions by 2050 has to be achieved if we are to keep the planet comfortable for life."

Whether there are more nuclear power plants or not, Montefiore expects a very different future. Looking to the situation in 2020, he writes, "presumably by then, there will be greater household and commercial economies, and long before then cheap air travel will surely be stopped by a tax imposed on aircraft fuel."

The bishop is not happy about nuclear power. For many years, he was an outspoken opponent of that technology. But in the face of climate change, he accepts it as the lesser of two evils. When weighing the problems of long-lived nuclear waste against the rapidly accelerating dangers of global warming, he has made his choice. He wrote:

The advantages far outweigh any objections, and I can see no practical way of meeting the world's needs without nuclear energy. The predictions of the world's scientists are dire and the consequences for the planet of global warming are catastrophic. This is why I believe we must now consider nuclear energy. The subject is so important that it should be a matter of informed public debate.

Thanks to Montefiore's public statement, and his forced resignation from the FoE board, the topic has become more public, and it is being debated. Hopefully that debate will continue, and will be informed and reasonable.

I don't know where I stand on this issue. I need to do much more research on the facts about the storage of nuclear waste. While I'm pretty well-versed on the emotional and political rhetoric, those highly-charged positions are not an adequate basis for the difficult decisions that have to be made.

I do know that I am grateful that the bishop has laid out the scale of the choices that we face. Even given substantial changes in our infrastructure and our technology, even given economic shocks like the end of cheap air travel, it appears likely that we still have to decide about the lesser of two evils. Which will it be: nuclear waste or global warming?

Putting the question into those stark and challenging terms underscores the urgency of the issue, and calls us to a serious examination of all of the options.

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It is interesting that the debate about nuclear power as a necessary part of the climate change response has emerged as an internal conflict within the environmental community. Even in Britain, where global warming is taken very seriously, these dramatic questions are not part of the public political agenda.

Here in the US, it is blindingly obvious that our political institutions are incapable of addressing such hard questions. On the campaign trail, the danger of offending a fickle and self-interested constituency overwhelms the virtue of speaking the truth. This year, the two major candidates have not even dealt with higher fuel efficiency standards for cars, SUVs and trucks -- the most basic of all steps to reduce our carbon dioxide output.

In England, a public fight between a prominent cleric and a leading environmental group is finally making clear that our choices will not be easy or perfect. As we move past the US elections, I pray that church leaders in this country can play a similar role in calling us to the difficult and urgent decisions that we must make.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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