And so then we come to the topic of nuclear power again

I’ve just read a piece that has been sitting in my browser for weeks: John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, with a piece about why we keep not doing anything about climate change. Because we don’t. We do nothing. Real nothing. Total nothing. Nothing that’s going to make any change.

As Lanchester writes,

I don’t think I can be the only person who finds in myself a strong degree of psychological resistance to the whole subject of climate change. I just don’t want to think about it. This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar sensation: someone my age is likely to have spent a couple of formative decades trying not to think too much about nuclear war, a subject which offered the same combination of individual impotence and prospective planetary catastrophe. Global warming is even harder to ignore, not so much because it is increasingly omnipresent in the media but because the evidence for it is starting to be manifest in daily life.

Through the piece (which checks in at 6,960 well-chosen words), he runs through the false dichotomy about whether climate change is “proven” (of course all science has uncertainty, but around the edges; it suits the oil companies, which like their profits today, to pretend the small uncertainty about detail is really Big Uncertainty about cause and effect); how George W Bush knows that the US is in a mess, and is pretty careful himself not to be caught out (his ranch in Texas uses geothermal heat pumps, and has a 25,000 gallon underground cistern to collect rainwater); how we just can’t look at climate change and its potential effects square in the face, because it’s simply too frightening:

ncreased melting in the Greenland and Antarctic is not included in these figures because there is not enough of a consensus to include its effects in the modelling. That isn’t reassuring. The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres – which would mean the end of, for instance, London, Miami, the Netherlands and Bangladesh…

What would happen if the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic’s ‘meridional overturning circulation’, as it is scientifically known) were to shut down suddenly – the Day after Tomorrow disaster scenario? The prediction is that Western Europe would become 8ºC cooler, about the temperature of Canada. But Canada produces enough food to feed 30 million people and enough grain to feed 60 million. Western Europe has a population of about 450 million. So what would they eat? Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of how quickly a meteorological event can destroy a city in the richest country in the world. We may be moving towards a future in which events like that come to seem commonplace. Anything in the paper today, darling? Not much – oh, all the Dutch drowned.

And then finally he comes to the question: how do you sort it out? I was surprised to find that he, like me, thinks that an accelerated (or at least urgent) programme of nuclear power stations is the right way forward. We’re both channeling James Lovelock, who points out that nuclear (fission) power

is a mature technology whose risks are understood, which would produce all the energy we need, and which is considered in the round the least worst solution to our urgent need for a carbon-free fuel source. It is not a prospect that brings much joy, and it is going to be of more than academic interest to see how the government gets round or forces its way past the inevitable local objections. We can all expect to hear a very great deal about how France gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read rubbish at – of all places! – The Register, where some clown (Steven Goddard? Who he?) who’d like to believe that climate change is all a fix has written an article about Nasa’s readjustment of various temperature settings.

So what is the probability of this effort consistently increasing recent temperatures and decreasing older temperatures? From a statistical viewpoint, data recalculation should cause each year to have a 50/50 probability of going either up or down – thus the odds of all 70 adjusted years working in concert to increase the slope of the graph (as seen in the combined version) are an astronomical 2 raised to the power of 70. That is one-thousand-billion-billion to one. This isn’t an exact representation of the odds because for some of the years (less than 15) the revisions went against the trend – but even a 55/15 split is about as likely as a room full of chimpanzees eventually typing Hamlet. That would be equivalent to flipping a penny 70 times and having it come up heads 55 times. It will never happen – one trillion to one odds (2 raised to the power 40.)

Wow, a whole set of wrong suppositions. Who put him in charge of a web page?

  1. who says it’s a 50-50 probability that the temperatures will be revised down or up? Perhaps they found the thermometers all had the wrong readings. Similar has happened – the ozone hole wasn’t detected because its detectors were set to ignore low levels. (Look, a Nasa page admitting mistakes.)
  2. yes, the odds are (if we allow the previous flawed assumption) 2^70. That’s not the same as chimps writing Hamlet, which will be many, many orders of magnitude larger – it’s 2160 lines at performance length; assume 6 words per line (underestimate); that’s 12,960 words, or (average) 77,760 letters; chances of that being typed randomly, 1/26 * 1/26 * 1/26… = 26^(-77,760) or 1 in .. my calculator can’t do it. Astronomically larger than 2^70.
  3. Flipping a coin 70 times and have it come up heads 55 times *will* happen. Not often – but you’ll get it before the monkeys finish. It’s absolutely *certain* to happen, some time.

And this is all before we ask why the joker writing this piece didn’t simply contact Nasa and *ask* them why the temperature readings changed. But no, that wouldn’t let him play up the conflict. He might have to find something out, rather than just questioning something that’s presented to him emptily. Kind of shocking for El Reg to let such rubbish through, to be honest.

Anyhow, that’s the second piece by John Lanchester I’ve read which has been fantastically informative and absorbing. (The other was about finance.) Must get subscription to LRB, I think.


  1. It’s worth knowing that LRB subscription prices are very odd. The prices can vary by 100% depending on where and when you are asking from, as well as for how long. It’s probably worth it even at the expensive end, but poking around the web site will reward you.

  2. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a great piece for the LA Times a couple of years ago titled “If only gay sex caused global warming…” – about exactly the psychological resistance Lanchester talks about.

  3. Charles

    Thursday 8 May 2008 at 12:19 pm

    @Adrian – ah, yes. Briefer, making much the same point (though you don’t learn about George Bush’s non-oil-fired house:)

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