What defending science means when you're an environmentalist
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Mark Lynas, one of the driving forces behind RePlanet, kicked off our conference in Warsaw, Poland, A New Hope: The RePlanet Sessions 2022, by explaining how science has guided his beliefs about how to save nature. Here's the transcript of his talk:
During my lifetime, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have climbed from 325 to nearly 420 parts per million. The temperature of the planet has increased by half a degree. Sea levels have risen by over five centimetres.
And I’m not even that old.
I was born in Viti Levu in Fiji in April 1973, which at the time was a lush island surrounded by vibrant tropical coral reefs. The island is still green, but the storms are stronger and the droughts longer, and Fiji’s Coral Coast no longer seems to host any coral.
I grew up partly in Peru, where my father worked as a geologist in the high Andes. Many of the glaciers that he marvelled at, that fringed the icy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, have gone too, like the Fijian corals. The streams that these glaciers fed have begun to dry up, and ominous meltwater lakes have begun to fill in many of the high valleys.
When I began my career as a climate writer, these kinds of things were so new that they were hardly believed. Now they are so old that they are barely news at all. Floods, droughts, wildfires, whatever... The climate emergency has become a daily reality which is almost mundane.
Meanwhile, the natural world has been decimated. Areas of Peru that were jungle when I lived there are now open farmland. In neighbouring Brazil it’s even worse.
Since the year of my birth, more than 400 million hectares of tropical forest has been lost worldwide – that’s more than the entire land mass of India. Across the globe, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have lost two-thirds of their wild populations since 1970.
The climate emergency has become a daily reality which is almost mundane.
My lifetime parallels the rise of the modern environmental movement. E.F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful in the year of my birth, 1973. Friends of the Earth was formed just a few years earlier, and Greenpeace was founded in 1971. As I grew up, the work of these organisations gave me hope.
Even as a child I was a committed environmentalist. I worried about acid rain, pesticides and the pollution of our local river in the English midlands. In 1987 I did a high school project on what was then still known as the greenhouse effect.
At university I founded an environment page on the student newspaper, and when I left in 1995 I joined EarthFirst! in the treetops and in the tunnels of the British countryside to stop roads, resorts and airport runways that were destroying what remained of our forests.
Then in the late 1990s I heard about genetic engineering, and helped to steer the direct action movement to stop GMOs by direct means: we destroyed them wherever we could, in the labs and in the fields. I co-organised the first action against Monsanto in England, getting busloads of activists into their HQ and taking it over. We wore underwear outside our trousers and were called SuperHeroes Against Genetics, or SHAG for short.
Although I took history and politics at university I always had an unrequited passion for science, and when I started work on my first climate book I plunged happily into the process of reading hundreds of peer-reviewed papers in obscure academic journals. In those days they weren’t online; I had to go along dimly-lit shelves in the basement of Oxford University’s Radcliffe Science Library and find bound copies of each journal article.
We wore underwear outside our trousers and were called SuperHeroes Against Genetics, or SHAG for short.
When my writing was published, I also found myself defending science from climate deniers. If I went on TV or the radio I would have to always respond to attacks from people saying the climate wasn’t changing, it was just natural cycles or whatever other bullshit excuse came into their heads.
And this was where the science came in. Yes, it might be snowing today, I told them, but the plural of anecdote is not data.
Peer review matters.
Scientific consensus matters.
Yes, the fact that every major scientific organisation in the world signs up to this 99% consensus on climate warming, matters.
And so when the day came that I realised I was on the wrong side of scientific consensus, this time on the issue of GMOs, I was uniquely vulnerable. I thought I was on Team Science – now I was like: ‘Nooooo, what do you mean it’s a bad idea to smash up labs and destroy field experiments?’
It was a bit like that Mitchell and Webb sketch where they’re two SS officers, and they look around and they’re like: ‘Wait a minute, our caps have got skulls on them ... are we the baddies?’
Of course, in retrospect it was an obvious contradiction. I couldn’t go on TV and say with a straight face: ‘You should listen to the scientific consensus on climate change but you should ignore the equivalent scientific consensus on GMOs’. But that’s what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and it seemed like the entire environmental movement that I had always admired and identified with, was doing.
And it wasn’t just GMOs. I’d been in the climate activist scene for more than a decade before anyone made the point to me that nuclear power produced serious amounts of carbon-free electricity, and that this might not be such a bad thing. And yet when I tried to talk about these issues, I was shut down. No discussion was allowed. It was completely taboo.
It took a few years for me to pluck up the courage to go public, and when I did, with a speech on GMOs at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013, the response was immediate.
Now I was a Monsanto shill, photoshopped onto a thousand Facebook memes. Friends and colleagues I had worked with for years actually signed statements of denunciation. It was like Maoist China. In the street in Oxford people wouldn’t look at me, or would even literally cross the road.
But at the same time, emails came in from scientists from around the world, even the head of the US Association for the Advancement of Science, saying thank you, and they shared with me their own despair at an environmental movement that seemed to have lost touch with science, and was consumed by romantic fantasies bearing no relation to the modern world.
I tried to persuade other greens, but no-one was listening. I felt very alone. I know many of you in this room have had similar experiences. It really upends your worldview, because you’re being asked to believe something that makes literally no sense.
Why could I not be both pro-climate and pro-nuclear?
Why not pro-GMO and pro-biodiversity?
Why were these people on different sides of the argument, and equally stuck in their trenches?
Scientists shared with me their own despair at an environmental movement that seemed to have lost touch with science.
We’ve each got our own story of how this happened, but for me this was when I realised there was a need to rebuild the environmental movement from the ground up. And over the years, I met many of you in this room, as I went around doing talks, attending events and so on, and I saw that the elements of this movement were already out there, that I wasn’t alone, and that what we desperately needed to do was to bring people together who were both pro-science and pro-environment.
I travelled round Africa and saw at first-hand how subsistence farmers, whose kids were clearly malnourished, were desperate to be allowed access to the new drought-tolerant crops. Yet the anti-GMO groups, egged on by Western NGOs steeped in organic ideology and with plenty of money, spread myths about cancer, infertility, and even, get this, that these new GMO crops would turn your kids gay. And I began to be ashamed that these people spreading homophobic anti-science myths in Africa called themselves environmentalists, and had once even been my allies.
I saw the same in Bangladesh, where the anti-GMO groups were going around to farmers who were cultivating insect-resistant Bt brinjal and telling them it would cause paralysis. Instead, these environmentalists were telling the farmers to keep using powerful pesticides, which actually are carcinogens, because otherwise they would get no crop.
And I was saying to myself, these people are anti-GMO and pro-pesticide, while surely a science-led environmental movement should be pro-GMO and anti-pesticide. Why isn’t that happening?
I also visited Chernobyl and Fukushima, and saw the legacy of decades of anti-nuclear hysteria, in the lives torn apart by fear of radiation. I saw Greenpeace and the Greens in Germany using the tragic deaths of 18,000 people killed in a tsunami as a way to shut down our largest source of 24/7 zero-carbon baseload power.
I began to be ashamed that these people spreading anti-science myths in Africa called themselves environmentalists, and had once been my allies.
I saw Germany marching inexorably towards the tragedy of today, shutting down nuclear plants in order to deliver the country’s energy future into the eager hands of Vladimir Putin. And I thought: why can’t I be pro-renewables, pro-nuclear and anti-Putin at the same time? Why set one against the other?
And yet the wind and solar people all hated nuclear, and were prepared to put up with Russian gas in preference, and the nuclear people all hated wind and solar, but liked Russian reactors. The whole climate emergency thing seemed like an afterthought.
To adapt the title of a book by Naomi Klein, climate changes everything, except our minds.
Science, it seemed, was always overlooked, or invoked only as a way to justify existing predetermined ideological positions. Yet I’d learned the hard way that science should be more than a list of citations conveniently cherrypicked to buttress an argument. True science represented the process of producing hypotheses and subjecting them to critical examination using robust and objective evidence in a replicable manner.
To see so many environmentalists not just being selective with science, but rejecting it altogether as some kind of postcolonial leftover, made me realise that something much greater was at stake.
For if we can’t use science to identify problems, let alone solve them, we are left with nothing – an amorphous post-truth miasma of competing ideologies, a morass of misinformation with arguments won by those who shout the loudest, make the most extreme claims and win the most converts. It would be like a Russell Brand YouTube video that goes on forever.
And science is not just for the Global North, science is for everyone. Science is the drought-tolerant seeds the farmers I met in Tanzania wanted to plant. Science is the climate models that give us an incredible ability to reliably forecast our hotter future. Science is our ability to sequence the genetic material of an emergent virus and design an mRNA vaccine in a matter of days to save the world from a pandemic.
An environmental movement that selectively rejected science would not only be unable to solve real environmental challenges, it would pose a serious threat of making things worse. For example, an unscientific overestimation of the dangers of radiation has in my view locked in a substantial part of today’s global temperature increase, because of the hundreds of planned reactors that were cancelled after the anti-nuclear movement began, only to be replaced by coal.
An environmental movement that rejects science would be unable to solve real environmental challenges, and pose a serious threat of making things worse.
Now I could whinge about this forever, but at the same time many of us in this new pro-science movement were realising that we needed to say something positive. It’s easy to just complain, to troll and to criticise.
We needed a vision, something which could inspire, a manifesto for an environmental movement that would be technology-friendly, science-based, progressive, and even, you might say, modern.
We called it ecomodernism, which was a good name for what was distinctive about the philosophy, but it wasn’t quite right, because for me it seemed like there was a lot of modernism and not much eco.
So when we came together in 2021 for a meeting in Antwerp, back in the time of Covid, I think many of us were ready to try something different.
And this was RePlanet. Not just a disparate movement but a professionally organised network of activists in multiple countries, dedicated to overtaking mainstream green thinking, not just in science but in ambition.
For example, if we have a moonshot programme for renewables and SMRs combined, why not have an earlier net zero date, like 2040?
If we want to harness modern molecular biology, why not use it in precision fermentation and other microbial approaches to deliver animal-type proteins and fats without the appalling suffering and environmental destructiveness of industrial animal agriculture?
When Putin invaded Ukraine, it became obvious to everyone but the German Green Party why closing nuclear had been a calamitous mistake. As public opinion in Europe and elsewhere swung dramatically in favour of nuclear power, we emphasised that solidarity with Ukraine meant switching off Putin – not in three years, but immediately, and that keeping the lights on would mean stopping the nuclear shutdowns, and taking drastic energy-saving and energy-sharing measures across Europe.
We scored a big victory in the EU taxonomy debate, which now considers nuclear energy appropriate for green financing.
We saw the Green Party in Finland taking a pro-nuclear stance, joined by members of Fridays for Future in Poland.
In our campaigns, we tried to showcase and highlight our positive vision. Our movement in Sweden has sent truckloads of aid to Ukraine.
We have campaigned to protect old-growth forests here in Poland, to protect wolves in Scandinavia, and to promote rewilding everywhere.
We have opposed fossil fuels, and some have even spent time in prison for taking these beliefs to the street. I salute their bravery and their courage, for that is what RePlanet should stand for.
We have fought to give genes a chance in making European agriculture more sustainable, and we have campaigned for animal-free and farm-free foods instead.
We have opposed the absurd situation where trees are clearcut in North America, imported into Europe and burned in power stations to be counted towards renewable energy targets.
That is what RePlanet does.
We follow the science, and will change our minds again when science demands it.
We love wild nature, but we hate poverty. We believe in democracy, in freedom, and in progress. We follow the science, and will change our minds again when science demands it. We are animal-lovers, geeks and empiricists, we are vegans and queers, we are everyone who believes we can have a better future and wants to help build it.
That is RePlanet.
So I for one no longer feel lonely. I no longer feel I have to choose between science and environmentalism. I now feel part of something bigger, something of historical significance, something that you are all part of too.
And that is RePlanet.
Mark Lynas is a UK-based author of several books on the environment, including Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency, who works with the 55-member Climate Vulnerable Forum, and is a co-founder of RePlanet.