The nuclear lie of the land

The government's recent appointment of Dr Kelvin Kemm as chairman of the state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation went by, surprisingly, without comment in the press. As the only trained nuclear physicist on the board, the other NEC board members are likely to take their cue from Kemm, so maybe we ought to know a little more about the man.

But first, this, by Bill McKibben in a recent New Yorker magazine:


In September last year journalists at InsideClimate News, a website that has won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, ran an exposé of the response of Exxon, one of the world's biggest oil producers, to the threat of climate change.

The documents the journalists have compiled and the interviews they have conducted with retired employees and officials show that, as early as 1977, Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew that its main product would heat up the planet disastrously. This did not prevent the company from then spending decades helping to organise the campaigns of disinformation and denial that have slowed — perhaps fatally — the planet's response to global warming.

There's a sense, of course, in which one already assumed that this was the case. Everyone who's been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn't just 'know' about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the [US] Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company's tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO² readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company's management committee that there was 'general scientific agreement' that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO²; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet's atmosphere, we would increase temperatures by two-to-three degrees Celsius. That's just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day.

'Present thinking,' Black wrote in summary in 1978, 'holds that man has a time window of five-to-ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.'

Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later — after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping 'global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion' — that Nasa scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen's findings? By changing the company's focus to renewable technology?

No. Instead, Exxon responded by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns. (In a blog post responding to the InsideClimate News report, the company said that the documents were 'cherry-picked' to 'distort our history of pioneering climate science research' and efforts to reduce emissions.) The company worked with veterans of the tobacco industry to try and infuse the climate debate with doubt (see below). Lee Raymond, who became the Exxon CEO in 1993 gave a key speech to a group of Chinese leaders and oil industry executives in 1997, on the eve of treaty negotiations in Kyoto. He told them that the globe was cooling, and that government action to limit carbon emissions 'defies common sense'. In recent years, it's gotten so hot [InsideClimate's exposé coincided with the release of data showing that this past summer was the United States — and South Africa's — hottest in recorded history] that there's no use denying it anymore; Raymond's successor, Rex Tillerson, has grudgingly accepted climate change as real, but has referred to it as an 'engineering problem'. In May, at a shareholders' meeting, he mocked renewable energy, and said that 'mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,'which would stand it in good stead in the case of 'inclement weather'.

The influence of the oil industry is essentially undiminished, even now. The Obama Administration may have stood up to Big Coal, but the richer Big Oil got permission this summer to drill in the Arctic (something that Exxon secretly predicted would become possible because of climate change and the resultant melting of the ice cap). Washington may soon grant the rights for offshore drilling along the Atlantic seaboard. All this will help drive the flow of carbon into the atmosphere — the flow of carbon that Exxon knew almost 40 years ago would likely be disastrous.

After Exxon buried the evidence and waged an advertising and public relations campaign to deny the science, the company coordinated and financed several groups to confuse the public.

Central to these is the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). Hired to head CFACT was Marc Morano, an expert at disinformation: he had previously been employed by the tobacco industry to persuade smokers to deny or at least doubt the scientifically established link between smoking and cancer.

Exxon-funded CFACT, along with Chevron, coal utility Southern Company and a number of other fronts forged a plan in 1998 at the American Petroleum Institute.

The 'Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan' involved placing scientists who appeared independent at these front groups, financed by coal, oil, car and other industrial corporations to make public relations sound like science to reporters and the public they report to. And who should we find as a long-standing member of CFACT's board of expert advisors and contributor to its website but our own Dr Kelvin Kemm!

Readers might also have noticed  that, while Dr Kemm was long a climate-change denialist, he has more recently tempered his tune Ðsince the nuclear industry realised that it might benefit from the public awareness of the dangers of fossil fuel combustion. They might also want to recall that Dr Kemm was the leading promoter of South Africa's failed, extremely profitable (to some) and extremely costly (to Eskom) pebble bed reactor project (noses54,66&105).

The Nuclear Energy Corporation will, it has been reported, be the owner of all those new nuclear power stations so dear to the heart of President Zuma. Do we really want a man like Dr Kemm to have his finger on our nuclear button?

The Editor

Also see nose74

Kelvin Kemm
Nuclear Energy Corporation
Pebble Bed Modular Reactor
Marc Morano
Fossil Fuel
Insideclimate News
Bill Mckibbon
Global Warming
South Africa
Nuclear Power Stations
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