Nuclear vs climate change: the clash of the alarmists

Germany’s hysterical decision to shut down all its nuclear power plants exposes the dangers of competitive fearmongering.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Germany’s announcement that it will shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022 shows that the values of precaution and risk-aversion, which underpin the culture of fear, continue to dominate public life. However, it also reveals that the politicisation of fear has become a conflictual zone, with various different groups making competing claims about which thing the public should be most scared of in the twenty-first century.

Last autumn, when the German government said it would extend the life of some of its old nuclear reactors, it fell back on fear of climate change to justify maintaining this ‘clean’ form of energy. This argument resonated with many people whose concern over planetary destruction at the hands of climate change outweighs their opposition to nuclear energy. And yet, competitive scaremongers rarely win a permanent or unalterable victory. And when faced with the question, ‘Which calamity scares you the most?’, the prospect of being fried by nuclear radiation in the here and now has a greater capacity to overwhelm the mind than the more unspecific harms that will apparently be inflicted on future generations as a result of global warming.

After the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in tsunami-hit Japan, fear appeals based on the alleged threat from nuclear reactors successfully – at least for now – trumped the climate alarmists’ predictions of planetary apocalypse. The German shift shows that even in the midst of a titanic clash of competing calamities, scaremongering can be surprisingly pragmatic.

Historic experience tells us that the success or otherwise of competitive scaremongering has little to with the actual intensity of the alleged threat. Rather its success usually depends on the ability of the scaremonger to resonate with contemporary cultural values. So a couple of weeks ago, when the American evangelist preacher Harold Camping predicted the imminent arrival of Judgment Day, not many people took him seriously. In previous times, however, millennial apprehensions about End Times could unleash major panics. When religious fanatics prophesied that the world would come to an end, followed by the Last Judgment, it really had a major impact on everyday life. The flames of terror impacted on the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people who waited for the coming Apocalypse (1).

This time around, many people joked about Camping’s ‘Rapture’ and carried on with life as normal. Yet some of the same people who made fun of the Rapture had been caught up, only a few months earlier, in a wave of panic-buying of stocks of potassium iodine, which is used to protect the body from the effects of nuclear fallout. In the US, stocks completely sold out following the crippling of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan. Many Americans believed that radioactive particles from Japan posed a threat to their health. Yet on balance, the threat to Americans from the fallout in Japan was about as significant as Camping’s fantasy Rapture. As the German government has subsequently discovered, scaremongering about radiation is likely to frighten people far more than old-fashioned warnings about Judgment Day.

Scaremongering about scaremongering

As I have argued in my book Culture of Fear, the massive growth of fearmongering campaigns and crusades over the past quarter of a century has been unprecedented. Fear-fuelled grandstanding becomes most extravagant in relation to the very big catastrophic hazards that apparently threaten the survival of the planet itself. The list of potential planetary disasters is growing all the time. International terrorism, climate change, influenza-type pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, overpopulation, obesity, disastrous technological accidents – these are only some of the many mega-hazards that are said to confront humanity today.

Scaremongering also has a powerful impact in the arena of individual health. Health scares targeting women and children in particular have become a flourishing enterprise in recent years. Health scares are often linked to anxieties about food or the alleged side effects of drugs, pollution and new technologies. Personal security is another important area for fearmongering. Anxieties about crime, immigration and anti-social behaviour are regularly promoted by law-and-order groups. The environment, of course, is now treated as a potentially huge problem in it own right. Anything that has an impact on nature is said to store up big disasters for the future.

With so much to fear, it’s not surprising that there is now an intense level of competition to grab the attention of the public. Scaremongering has become a highly competitive enterprise; contemporary public debate often takes the form of countering one hysterical plea with another. Take the example of the scaremongering that surrounds GM foods. The stigmatisation of genetically modified food as ‘Frankenstein food’ successfully marginalised and discredited this technology in the 1990s. In particular, a press-orchestrated panic in 1999 created a climate of suspicion and alarm around GM. However, it is striking that the attempts to counter anti-GM propaganda have often assumed a shrill fearmongering tone, too. So the editor of Country Life magazine has warned that unless we embrace GM foods, people will ‘starve’. He added that the long-term future of the world ‘looks far from bright’, pointing to the potential for ‘wars, desertification and starvation’ and battles ‘over water’ if we fail to push forward GM technology. ‘GM technology has the potential to alleviate some of the dangers’, he argued, claiming that ‘future generations will think us crazy, or criminal, not to embrace it’ (2).

Debates on security also consist of a clash of various fear appeals. These days, terrorism has become the benchmark for such appeals; people claim that their own pet insecurity is an even bigger problem than radical jihadism. So Sir Malcolm Pitt, who headed a panel of experts looking into the threat of floods in Britain, stated that ‘we should be putting [flooding] on a par with the risk of terrorism or an influenza pandemic, where we already have national frameworks in place’. Both the World Bank and the Pentagon have claimed that climate change is now a greater threat than terrorism. A report published by the Oxford Research Group in Britain also argued that climate change is more threatening than terrorism: ‘International terrorism is actually a relatively minor threat when compared to other more serious global trends.’ (3) Others accept these doom-laden accounts about climate change but raise the stakes further by claiming that actually it is overpopulation that poses the true, principal threat to the planet.

Scaremongering is not simply the act of mischievous or greedy individuals. Rather, in a very real way, scaremongering has become a cultural resource, which various people and interest groups draw from in order to gain recognition for their campaigns or a hearing for their arguments. Consequently, acts of scaremongering are frequently countered by a competing scare. The tendency towards comparative scaremongering can clearly be seen in the response to the hysterical anti-sunbathing campaign in Britain. Just this week, British experts warned that ‘millions of Britons are putting themselves at risk of sunburn and skin cancer’ by not putting on enough sun lotion. And some critics have responded to these attempts to frighten people into the shade by issuing health warnings about the grave consequences for our health if we don’t get enough sunlight. One well-argued report by the Health Research Forum could not resist the temptation to counteract official scares about the sun with its own alternative ones. ‘Continuing with these government recommendations can only increase vitamin D deficiency in the population and so lead to an increase in ill-health and premature death’, it claimed. The effect of competitive scaremongering can be disorientating for the public. Instead of having an opportunity to weigh up the evidence and options carefully, people are forced to choose between risking skin cancer by sitting in the sun and risking premature death through vitamin D deficiency if they sit in the shade.

Competitive scaremongering is encouraged by a cultural imagination that is far more open to appeals based on fear than on faith in people and the future. That is why even sensible attempts to counteract scaremongering can sometimes get sidetracked by the temptation to respond in kind, with an alternative form of alarmism. This regrettable tendency is strikingly illustrated in the response of some experts to the anti-MMR crusade. The health scare and panic about a bogus association between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism shows that scaremongering can fundamentally alter the way we live our lives. Hundreds of thousands of parents have become needlessly worried about allowing their children to be vaccinated by what is a very safe vaccine. Immunisation rates have sharply declined, with potentially dangerous consequences for children who do not get the vaccine. With so much at stake, it is understandable why some opponents of the anti-MMR crusaders have responded with their own fear appeals, claiming that a measles epidemic could threaten the future health of children across the West.

Invisible and hidden dangers

Scaremongering has always thrived in times of uncertainty. During the late Middle Ages, professional demonologists successfully promoted a Europe-wide panic about witchcraft. Their demonology, which associated misfortune with the devil and malevolent witches, was widely believed by the public. In such times, when people are desperately trying to make sense of their lives, scaremongers can come into their own. For many, it can prove difficult to ignore the scaremongers’ message that ‘the worst is yet to come’. Throughout history, scaremongers have succeeded in terrorising people with their stories about the perils posed by omnipotent demonic and invisible forces.

There are many reasons why nuclear power and technology cause so much dread and panic. It is a very powerful technology that has been shown to have the capacity to destroy life. After Hiroshima, nuclear technology could never escape its association with destruction. Many psychologists and sociologists argue that so-called ‘manufactured risks’, with their manmade, unnatural dangers, have become a significant cause of consternation today. Others claim that exposure to invisible contaminants is especially feared by the public in the twenty-first century. There is little doubt that some of these factors have helped intensify the anxiety towards nuclear energy.

However, the contemporary culture of fear is very selective in its attitude towards invisible contaminants. Official reports suggest that around 10,000 people may have died from cancer as a consequence of the world’s gravest nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. But that’s a relatively small number compared with the thousands of deaths caused by coal-mining and its associated pollution. Although contaminants released by both technologies have caused death, coal-mining rarely provokes the kind of hysteria that nuclear energy does.

The reason nuclear technology has become a significant source of scaremongering is because of society’s loss of confidence in its capacity to use very powerful technology safely, responsibly and rationally. In a world where scientific innovation invariably comes with a health warning, there is a mood of suspicion towards the human aspiration to control our destiny. Nuclear power comes as close as anything to the nineteenth-century nightmares about Frankenstein. Why? Because although it has the potential to destroy, we also recognise that nuclear technology may well help us to live and survive. With its seemingly limitless capacity to provide energy, it can be easily conceptualised as a lifeforce. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, the language of optimism and hope provided a vocabulary for discussing radiation; but today, when we don’t trust ourselves to handle such a powerful force, we adopt the vocabulary of pessimism and fear.

To renew a positive vision of human possibilities, we must extricate discussions of science and technology from the depressing cycle of competitive scaremongering. Confidence in one scientific achievement cannot be consolidated by stigmatising another. As the experience of the German government has shown, the argument for nuclear power cannot be won through claiming that it is the only solution to catastrophic climate change. Rather, the challenge is to overcome the temptation to play the fear card, and promote the positive and transformative potential of nuclear and other important technologies.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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