To show that climate change isn't something that's going to happen but is already here, he visited many parts of the world already affected, reporting it in the book High Tide: Notes From A Warming World.
As the global temperature is likely to rise up to six degrees this century, he wrote Six Degrees. Six chapters, each detailing the results of extensive research on what the next degree of warming is likely to cause.
He's also a prolific writer of articles, and has spoken out in favour of radical activists such as the Camp for Climate Action.
So it was surprising when, in May 2005, he came out as a convert to the idea of nuclear power using some questionable lines of thinking.
Even with crash programmes for wind, wave and tidal, with nuclear stations closing we would still have the same greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 as we do today.
New nuclear power stations proposed today will not be onstream until the 2020s. So even with a crash programme for nuclear, it won't affect our 2020 emissions at all.
It's a simple fact that undoes all the stuff about nuclear power helping us towards our 2020 targets, or about it preventing the 'energy gap' when numerous coal power stations are decomissioned in 2015.
People like Derek Simpson, joint leader of the uber-trade union Unite, should be openly ridiculed when they come out with cack like
Nuclear energy can reduce our reliance on foreign gas and oil, and start to reduce household bills by 2015.
In his 2005 nuclear advocacy Lynas qualified his enthusiasm somewhat, though.
It can reduce carbon emissions only as part of a combined dash for renewables and energy efficiency, buying us time while truly clean energy systems are developed.
The builders of nuclear plants will not be investing so much only to shut them down after a few years. They would run for their full lifespan, fifty years or more. This 'time' they buy us doesn't begin until the 2020s, and produces nuclear waste and swallows vast amounts of money until the 2070s and beyond. It is not a stopgap.
There is also something else at work here. Lynas's position is reminiscent of George Monbiot's declaration last year that he 'no longer cared' if nuclear was part of the solution to climate change. Whilst the wording may be carefully balanced, that's not the full story of how language works, as Jonathon Porritt noted.
a communicator as astute and clever as George should (and surely does) know the difference between a 'Yes...If' position and a 'No...Unless' position.
Still, Lynas retracted a little. In January last year he wrote an article entitled Why Britain Doesn't Need Nuclear Power.
He argues that China has cause to build new nuclear power stations as, if they are to generate huge amounts of electricity, it's their only serious alternative to coal. But in Britain, where our offshore wind capacity alone could power all our homes, nuclear is unnecessary.
Nuclear reactors can be built anywhere, and make far more sense in countries where renewables are less freely available than here. Because of our geographical position and shallow continental shelves, we could be the Saudi Arabia of windpower.
Nuclear power shouldn't be built here where there are such readily available alternatives, then.
The last thing we need now is for this momentum to be lost because of a huge diversion of political energy into justifying new nuclear power stations and battling environmentalists.
Apparently that's now not the case after all and we should, in fact, be diverting political energy and gargantuan sums of money into nuclear power.
In August last year he cited Jim Hansen and George Monbiot's ambivalence towards nuclear and, emboldened by their position, said
I would take a stronger position myself: that increased use of nuclear (an outright competitor to coal as a deliverer of baseload power) is essential to combat climate change, but clearly there need to be some significant technical advances in nuclear fission if it is to become acceptable to many in the west.
'Significant technical advances' required.
This idea - 'we need a miracle breakthrough, but let's keep going because I'm sure someone will find it soon' - is the argument being used to justify new coal plants, aviation expansion and every other inexcusable technology. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows it's crooked thinking.
Once again, I cite Jim Bliss' analogy of showering people with anthrax but saying that there might be an antidote discovered before any of them get sick.
As in 2005, Lynas is ignoring the fact that nuclear power plants won't be onstream until the 2020s at the earliest, whilst - the essential point in all this - the climate science demands that emissions start to fall by about 2015.
If a solution is not not on the table - or at least ready and within reach - it's of no use. Pinning our hopes on a technology that doesn't exist and won't within 20 years is ludicrous. Channelling reserves of money and momentum into such things when there are alternatives that work, available here and now, is horrifically irresponsible.
Of course, as I recently reported Hilary Benn rightly pointing out, 'just because you can’t solve a problem immediately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set it in motion'.
But, according to the Sustainable Development Commission, even if we replace all the nuclear power stations due to close, then double the capacity, even by the time they’re all on stream around 2034, we’d only make an 8% cut in our carbon emissions.
It wouldn’t ‘solve the problem’ even in 30 years. In the mean time, the money invested in nuclear is money not invested in renewables, and carbon savings from technologies that could be onstream quicker are lost.
Lynas advocates development of 'fourth generation' nuclear reactors. These plants won't generate more waste but instead burn up existing waste stockpiles. And probably solve world hunger, find a cure for cancer and bring you a nice cup of tea just the way you like it at the same time.
Back on planet earth, they don't exist. They burn up plutonium, which means waste has - at great cost - to be enriched, and significant highly radioactive waste remains. Also, the earliest projection is for commercial building to start around 2030. This is being advocated by a man who has previously demonstrated a real understanding of the climate emergency. Go figure.
Buying into a mindset that ignores the existence of renewable energy entirely, Lynas tells us
It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming
If the future were a choice between fossils and nukes this statement would have some relevance. But as there are now other fossil-displacing options on the table, it means nothing. Again, he displays a desire to put the nuclear option in a cosy light without any substantive point to make.
Lynas cites Professor David Mackay's study, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. Measuring deaths per gigawatt-year, 'nuclear and wind power are the safest technologies'. That's as maybe, but what if things go wrong? The liability for a wind farm accident is somewhat less daunting than for a nuclear one. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years. Will today's reactor builders be liable for all damage that comes from their works, whenever it might occur?
MacKay calculates that even if we covered the windiest 10 per cent of the UK with wind turbines, put solar panels on all south-facing roofs, implemented strong energy efficiency measures across the economy, built offshore wind turbines across an area of sea two-thirds the size of Wales, and fully exploited every other conceivable source of renewables (including wave and tidal power), energy production would still not match current consumption.
This is rather different to Britain being the "Saudi Arabia of wind power" as many in the environmental movement are fond of asserting.
I love the slight snidiness in the phrasing of that last line, said as if it wasn't the exact words Lynas himself had used to discredit nuclear power only nine months earlier.
But that's a side-issue. The real key phase is 'match current consumption'. If we scale consumption back, what then? If we have localised energy production with Combined Heat and Power plants so we use all the energy generated (fossil power stations send two-thirds of their energy up the cooling towers as waste heat) and thereby reduce the amount we burn, what then?
Greenpeace cite a report showing that Combined Heat and Power at just nine key industrial sites could generate the same power as eight nuclear power stations, and do it a lot more quickly and cheaply.
In November 2005 Lynas worried
if the energies of climate campaigners are diverted from mobilising popular support on global warming into trying to stop nuclear power, this will be an enormous step backwards.
What if the energies of climate authors are diverted from promoting sustainable technologies into advocating nuclear power? Or, as we remember someone wise saying a year ago, 'the last thing we need now is for this momentum to be lost because of a huge diversion of political energy into justifying new nuclear power stations'.
Lynas' most recent reconversion to nuclear says
it is vital to stress the neither I nor MacKay nor any credible expert suggests a choice between renewables and nuclear
But, as he surely knows, that is precisely what we face. In 2003 the government launched its White Paper on Energy saying it would have been 'foolish' to decide on a new generation of nuclear power stations 'because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables'.
Lobbied by the nuclear industry, the government U-turned to a pro-nuclear position. Like Monbiot, Lynas is smart enough to know that his vociferous pro-nuclear voice is a weapon against renewables. In an either/or political reality where the big money's going to renewables or nuclear, he's helping the push to the latter.
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UPDATE 23 Feb 09: It seems this post was rather timely. Today's Independent has an article featuring four prominent former anti-nuke environmentalists backing nuclear power on grounds of climate change.