Mark Lynas: 'More than half of greens agree with me on GM & nuclear'

Mark Lynas' views on GM and nuclear have provoked debate amongst greens
Mark Lynas, featured in Channel 4's recent and highly controversial documentary, 'What the green movement got wrong', tells Matilda Lee why he is not the pariah of the eco movement

Ecologist: you've stated your positions very publicly on the Channel 4 documentary and debate. What, in your view, is next for the green movement?

Mark Lynas: I think the green movement needs to take a step back and reassess what it is trying to achieve and how. I think this process needs to be scientifically informed, using the latest Earth System Science, so that we can try and identify what really matters at a planetary scale in terms of human impacts and then base our campaigning objectives on this.

My criticism at the moment is that we inherited campaigns from the past which no longer make sense in very different circumstances.

Ecologist: What should the green movement seek to achieve?

Mark: The green movement should try and reconcile human civilisation with planetary sustainability. That's always been its job and it remains its job today. We are in a situation where humanity has unprecedented power over the main components of the earth's system: from the carbon cycle to the circulation of fresh water. It's the scale of human domination that I think we need to recognise. Our challenge today is nothing less than intelligent planetary management. We now hold the main levers of control in many areas of the earth's system. We need to understand what we are doing and try and run this planet in a way which doesn't destroy its capacity to support life.

Ecologist: Environmental activists have been way ahead of everybody else in alerting people to what's gone wrong. Are you saying this role, for environmentalist activists, is outdated?

Mark: Not necessarily. I think a lot of the way that activism has gone, particularly on climate change, has been very good and positive. I absolutely assert that burning coal in power stations is public enemy number one. I'm delighted that activists have been focusing their energies on not only trying to assure there is no new coal build but that existing coal fired plants are phased out. Certainly for climate change that has to be our number one objective.

Ecologist: With the failure of Copenhagen, do you think there is any point trying to force international legislation on climate change. Should we focus, instead, on individual domestic legislation?

Mark: It's a combination of the two. We can't solve this problem without having a strong legally binding international regime to regulate and phase out carbon emissions. After Copenhagen, I know a lot of people have thrown up their hands and more or less given up on the international process but I don't think we can afford to do that. We still have the fact that Kyoto is the only legal treaty on climate change internationally. We need to press ahead with a way to not only get new commitments from the rich, industrialised countries, but also to try and bring in the big rapidly increasing emitters, like China, India and Brazil into the climate change regime. It is vital that we do that so that low-carbon technologies can be properly deployed across all of the countries where they need to be.

Secondly, I am working with developing countries at the moment, including the Maldives, to try to assist the process where low-carbon emitting countries can stay low carbon - so they never need to develop high carbon infrastructure to start with. They can go straight to a green and renewable development path. I think this is something that we need to bring up more at the international level, to try to show many different countries there are huge opportunities for them to become more prosperous and to tackle problems with poverty without having to burn billions of tonnes of coal.

Ecologist: There is a debate in the environmental movement on how best to galvanise people and get them to act. Do you think we need to change people's thinking in order to change their behaviour?

Mark: I think at a strategic level the environmental movement has been a bit guilty, on the one hand saying that climate change is this enormous problem and then saying that the solutions to it are going to be enormously difficult. That is not a very attractive reference for people. I think it was a strategic mistake to focus on aviation, for instance. It is probably the hardest thing to do anything about technically and it's one of the things people most value. That's alienated people, and, I think, contributed to the rise of climate change scepticism in the population as a whole. I think we can afford to say to people, actually the main business of solving climate change isn't going to mean that you have to live in a cold house or put up with austerity and discomfort indefinitely. It's something that we can deal with using existing technologies, which not only can accommodate your lifestyles but also accommodate your aspirations for the future as well. That way we might get somewhere.

Ecologist: You've gone from ripping up GM plants to going on TV rescinding your past anti-GM and anti-nuclear beliefs. Do you anticipate being approached by the GM or nuclear industries to work for them?

Mark: No, I haven't been and I doubt I ever will be. The association with industry is something that is used to de-legitimise somebody's point of view to say that they are saying something because they are paid to say it. Think about it: the only two people who were paid to say what they were saying in the Channel 4 debate were the two spokespeople from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who are paid fairly substantial salaries to do their work and to make their point of view known. I didn't receive any funding to be there on that day and I don't have any funding to make these points. I think we need a bit more of a level playing field when people make accusations of financial interests.

Ecologist: How do you feel about being the pariah of the green movement?

Mark: I'm actually not the pariah of the green movement. The overwhelming response to the programme and to the things I've said has been positive from greens across the country and abroad. I would guess that more than half the green movement agrees with me on GM and nuclear and those numbers are changing every day.

In addition, there are a lot of people out there who don't consider themselves greens but are concerned about these issues but are alienated from the green movement because it is so ideologically self marginalising. If we are ever to solve the planets' problems we need to have a much, much broader church. That is one of the things I want to see happen.

One of my big beefs with the green movement is that it's put itself in much too narrow an ideological, political box which is very left-wing, very much about redistribution and social justice and also very anti-capitalist. I don't think that kind of political programme is actually necessary to achieve green agendas. By all means be anti-capitalist but don't tell me that it's necessary to solve climate change.

When I'm advising the president of the Maldives, I can't really say to him "Our first job is to confront power and smash corporate control". I have to say to him, "OK, let's look at getting this amount of solar power on these buildings, this amount of wind on the grid in the capital city, let's work on this kind of building code for energy efficiency". When it comes down to doing something practical, most of the solutions are actually technical. You need an engineeer's approach rather than a propagandist.

Ecologist: Except for the fact that there are so many entrenched interests. If you look at the scale of the subsidies for fossil fuels, for example, compared to anything else, it is mind boggling.

Mark: No one disputes that. I think fossil fuel subsidies should be eliminated tomorrow. As does the International Energy Agency and pretty much everyone else who is concerned about this issue. But simply complaining that vested interests are stopping you from being successful is a self defeating strategy. There is a lot we can do with existing technologies and there is a lot of money out there that we can do it with. I think we need to be more positive and more progressive about this, and a little bit less conspiratorial.

Ecologist: Do you feel campaigners need to work more closely with business?

Mark: It's not saying that we should look to business for the solutions. Business needs to be hauled kicking and screaming in the right direction. Confrontational direct action is part of the spectrum of activity which is needed from greens. I am not holding out for multinationals to save the planet. Far from it.


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