Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Global Warming and Nuclear Power

P.E.Hodgson, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, UK.


1. Introduction.

It may seem surprising to see a talk with this title in a Symposium on "Fides et Ratio." My justification in presenting these reflections, as a physicist, is that faith and reason are intimately involved in scientific research, and science is an integral part of the 'journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more deeply' (FR1). For 'the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness' so that 'all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life' (FR1). Furthermore, it is the duty of the Church 'to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes responsibility of a quite special kind: the diakonia of the truth'(FR2). Thus the believing community is 'a partner in humanity's shared struggle to arrive at truth' and this 'obliges the believing community to proclaim the truths arrived at'(FR2).

Although 'the desire for truth is part of human nature itself'(FR3) and 'has driven so many enquiries, especially in the scientific field'(FR25) it is not easy to satisfy that desire. It may therefore be useful to recall the methods developed in the sciences, as they may provide analogies with those employed in wider and deeper problems.

When physicists are faced with an impossibly complicated problem we start by making a model. That is, we find a much simpler system, amenable to mathematical analysis, that is in some respects similar to the problem we are tackling. Thus if we want to understand the atomic nucleus, we compare it with a confined gas, a drop of liquid, or even a cloudy crystal ball (see for example (1) Hodgson et al, 1997). We then analyze the model quantum mechanically, and calculate its measurable properties. Choosing appropriate values of the parameters of the model, we often find surprisingly good agreement with experimental results. A good model also has considerable predictive power. We may find some disagreements that stimulate us to make the model more sophisticated. By combining several models we gradually build up our understanding of the nucleus, and this is so reliable that it provides the basis of large industries.

In a similar way we can use the interplay of faith and reason in scientific research as a model for their interplay in theology. It is often fruitful to transpose a theological problem into a corresponding scientific context; this often indicates how it may be solved. Thus as Thomas Aquinas recognized 'nature, philosophy's proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of Divine Revelation'(FR43).

Thus if a skeptic challenges the assertion that "God is one and God is three" on arithmetical grounds I can easily point out that this is a shallow misunderstanding. But if he goes on to ask me why I believe this statement, I find it difficult to answer. The skeptic may go on to say that in theology we accept absurdities because we are subservient to authority, whereas in science we believe as a result of a rational process. To this I can reply that the ways to God and the road of science are not so dissimilar as he thinks (2). If indeed in science we relied purely on deductive reasoning, we still have to justify our initial premises and these require an act of faith. Furthermore, science is rarely an exercise in deductive reasoning; it is altogether a more complex process that is quite similar to the process leading to assent in theology. 'There is thus a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith' (FR16).The results of reasoning 'acquire their full meaning only if they are within the larger horizon of faith'(FR20).

First of all, science is itself based on very special beliefs namely that the natural world is rational, orderly, contingent and open to the human mind. They may appear quite obvious to us, but in the context of the whole of human history they form a unique set that was provided for the first time in history by Catholic theology during the High Middle Ages. This enables us to understand why science achieved its first viable birth at that time (3). It is also the basis of the confidence of scientists that 'they will find an answer. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer' (FR29).

Science cannot be deduced from these beliefs about the natural world. It is a creation of the human mind that is constantly checked against our experiences. This if, for example, I am asked why I believe a particular scientific result, such as the Lorentz transformation in special relativity, I could produce a rational argument from certain very plausible premises and experimental results. This may or may not be found convincing, but it certainly does not convey the full justification of the belief. At best, it evokes a notional assent. If however we examine the arguments in more detail, we find that many different lines of thought converge to the same conclusion, so that if we want to deny the Lorentz transformation we have to deny a whole range of beliefs that we would not otherwise dream of denying, as shown in the Figure. A full understanding of this can induce a real assent. Theoretical physics is a very tightly interlocking set of beliefs, and it cannot be fitted into the straightjacket of simple logical deduction. Conviction in science, as in theology, comes from what Newman called the unity of indirect reference (5).

Figure 1. Ways to the Lorentz transformation. This diagram shows schematically the interrelationships of some of the arguments in this and other chapters. It is intended only as a broad overview. The concepts invoked are in boxes, hut note that they are defined and used differently in different approaches. Because only two dimensions are available on the diagram, the Equivalence Principle is given a multiple location. The names in balloons indicate the authors of the different arguments (C4).

Newman, in his Grammar of Assent, was concerned to justify the faith of ordinary Catholics who may not be particularly well-educated nor able to enunciate a rational argument. He found it in the convergence of numerous indications, each individually inconclusive, but cumulatively convincing. This gives real assent, in contrast to the notional assent attained by logical reasoning.

We might at this point object that there are many scientific theories such as Newtonian dynamics (and the associated Galilean transformation) that are widely supported and firmly believed, but which are now recognized to be wrong. This is to mistake the nature of scientific progress. Newton's dynamics remains valid in its domain, but Einstein showed how it must be modified for velocities comparable with that of light. The Galilean transformation is obtained as the limit of the Lorentz transformation as v/c tends to zero. In a similar way theological beliefs develop, increasing in depth and scope without rendering previous beliefs invalid (Newman, 1845)(6).

A further example of the process of coming to believe is provided by global warming. Once again this is not a simple rational argument but the accumulation of individual indications. The final conclusion is potentially of great importance for humanity. We are forced ask what actions should be taken by the State, whether the Church should concern itself with such questions and the responsibilities of scientists. Certainly, 'the immense expansion of humanity's technical capacity demands a renewed and sharpened sense of ultimate values. If this technology is not ordered to something greater than a merely utilitarian end, then it would soon prove inhuman and even become potential destroyer of the human race'(FR81).

2. Global Warming.

The arguments for global warming are quite familiar. It has long been known that due to extensive burning of the fossil fuels such as wood, coal, and oil the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is steadily increasing. This gas acts like the glass in a greenhouse: it lets the sun's rays through but blocks the secondary radiation. As a result, the earth warms up, the Antarctic ice cap melts and the level of the sea rises, inundating coastal regions. While many of us would welcome a warmer climate, there may be other unpredictable climate changes.

There are other gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect, in particular methane, nitrous oxide and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFS). The last two of these are far more damaging per molecule than carbon dioxide. The concentrations of these gases are increasing annually by 0.4% for carbon.

There has been much argument about the reality of global warming, and I must admit that as I have not worked in that area of research I am not competent to form a judgement. Indeed I have been rather skeptical for a number of reasons that I need not summarize here. However I recently had an opportunity to discuss the matter with Sir John Houghton, who is the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. I put all my reasons to him, and he was able to give quite convincing answers. Furthermore, the weight of scientific opinion, as given in the Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that the earth will warm by 1 to 3.5 degrees Centigrade in the next century, causing a rise in sea level of about 50 cm.(7). Thus on the whole I am now inclined to accept that there is good reason to accept global warming as quite likely.

It will be noticed that this is a probability argument that relies greatly on informed judgement of a vast mass of data by a large number of scientists. This is quite typical of many scientific problems and completely different from what we are often told about scientific questions being answered by definitive experiments that give clear-cut answers.

There are 'many more truth which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could asses critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being the one who seeks the truth is also the one who lives by belief'(FR31).

Anyone unconvinced by the arguments for global warming can consider the other products of burning fossil fuels which include sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and whole range of noxious substances. These fall as acid ram and pollute the lakes and forests so heavily that the fishes and the trees die. They pollute the air we breathe, increase respiratory diseases and shorten our lives.

Apart from these immediate consequences, a rise in the global temperature may produce far-reaching changes in the earth's climate. We may already be seeing some of these effects in the warmer weather in some countries and the floods and droughts in others. On the longer term, a rise in sea level will practically eliminate many low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and many islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and severely reduce the areas of many others, including Holland and England, with devastating consequences for the people living there. We have a serious moral obligation to tackle these questions before it is too late.(8)

This problem will now be considered under three headings: Firstly what are the possible ways to reduce global warming and what are their relative effectiveness. Secondly, what are Governments doing about it, and thirdly, what is the Church doing about it.

3. The Ways to Reduce Global Warming.

Global warming can be reduced by replacing fossil fuel power stations, and by curtailing other industrial and domestic activities. Removing fossil fuel power stations will greatly reduce the power available, so we will have to learn to use less power, or find other ways of generating the needed electricity, or some combination of the two. The general experience is that in spite of exhortations to use less and to increase efficiency the consumption of power still rises. It is therefore extremely difficult to reduce the demand. Exhortation is useless in the long run. An effective way is simply to increase the price, but this bears most heavily on the poor and on those living in rural areas, and would make our industries uncompetitive compared with other countries with cheap power.

The only really satisfactory way is to increase the non-fossil ways of producing power. Let us consider them in turn. Hydroelectricity is already fully developed in the major inudstrial countries, and is limited by the availability of suitable rivers. The renewable sources, principally wind and solar, are very popular, but in spite of intensive development for many decades they still produce a miniscule amount of power. Thus for example in Britain the contribution of wind power, the most promising of the renewables, to our electricity production is 0.16% This can and will be increased, but there are serious difficulties to be overcome such as the public opposition to very large numbers of windmills and the uncertain cost. It is thus very unlikely that wind can make a major contribution to energy needs in the forseeable future.

What is left? There is nuclear power, already written off in some quarters as a has-been. But what is the reality? Nuclear reactors provide about 20% of the world's electricity. In France, they provide about 80% and in Western Europe as a whole about 50%. Since nuclear reactors produce practically no carbon dioxide it is no surprise that countries with a large nuclear programme have achieved the largest reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Thus since 1970, France has reduced them by 50%, Japan (32% nuclear) by 20% and the USA (20%) by 6%. The emission of noxious gases like sulphur dioxide is also dramatically reduced by going nuclear.

The British Government has Set a target of a 10% cut in the period from 1990 to 2010. By 1995, a reduction of 6% had been achieved, and this is due to the increase in nuclear output by 39% from 1990 to 1994. However, if no more nuclear power stations are built, this Set to rise steeply in subsequent years as the older nuclear power stations retire, and the Government will find it impossible to reach its target. Many new gas power stations are now being built, and these emit only half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal power stations. However this is offset by the leakage of methane, which has a global warming potential about sixty times that of carbon dioxide. These two effects are about the same, and so if this is true then no reduction in global warming is to be expected from the switch to gas power stations. Even if this effect is neglected, then if gas increases to 43.5% while coal declines to 2.5% we can expect a 10% reduction is carbon dioxide emissions, while if nuclear rises to 43.5% at the expense of coal there will be a reduction by 20%. Same recent estimates of the emission of carbon dioxide (in tons per gigawatt hour) from various power sources are: coal 870, oil 750, gas 500, nuclear 8, wind 7 and hydro 4.

It is thus difficult to see how global warming can be averted without nuclear power stations. Statistical analyses show that they are demonstrably safer than other energy sources. Surprisingly to many people, they emit less radioactivity than coal power stations, and the costs of decommissioning are relatively small. The problem of waste disposal has been solved: the radioactive fission fragments can be sealed in insoluble ceramic, put in stainless steel containers and buried deep in a stable geological formation. Long before any radioactivity can escape, it will have decayed naturally to a level similar to that in the surrounding rocks. The onus of demonstrating a better way to combat global warming lies on the opponents of nuclear power.

In order to stabilize the emission of carbon dioxide by the middle of the next century we need to replace 2000 fossil fuel power stations in the next forty years, equivalent to a rate of about one per week. Can we find 500 sq.km. each week to install 4000 windmills? Or perhaps we could cover 10 sq.km. of desert each week with solar panels and keep them always clean. Tidal power can produce large amounts of energy, but can we find a new Severn estuary and build a barrage costing £9 billion every five weeks? The same sort of question could be asked about nuclear power. The answer is that in the peak period of nuclear reactor construction in the 1980's the average rate of construction was 23 per year, with a peak of 43 in 1983. A construction rate of one per week is thus quite practicable. It is a well-tried and reliable source whereas the alternatives are mainly wishful thinking.

We may also reflect that if we do not solve the problem now, then it will soon be solved for us. We are living in a very special period in human history when oil, gas and coal are readily available. At present rates of consumption the oil will be gone in less than a hundred years, and the coal in about three hundred years. Fossil fuel burning will then cease and alternatives will have to be found. If we continue to burn the fossil fuels we not only pollute our earth and bring on global warming, we also deprive future generations of these valuable materials, the bases of the petrochemical industries. Would it not be better to salve these problems now, instead of waiting until it is too late?

The conclusion is inescapable: the only practicable way to avoid global warming is by replacing fossil-fuel burning power stations by nuclear power stations.

So what are Governments doing about this?

4. Governmental Action

Most Governments have accepted the arguments about the dangers of global warming, and several large international conferences, such as that at Rio in 1992 and that in Kyoto last December have been convened to discuss the issue. Governments have been asked to pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by so many percent in a stated time. Of course they are very reluctant to do so, because such actions may require very unpopular and costly decisions that are bitterly opposed by the industrial community.

The British Minister for the Environment, Mr Michael Meacher, has recently stated that : "The Government recognizes that nuclear power assists the UK in limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, and provided that high standards of safety and environmental protection can be maintained and that decommissioning liabilities are fully funded, we believe that it will continue to be so."(9)

In spite, however, of the seriousness of the problem and the recognition of the contribution made by nuclear power in reducing carbon dioxide emission the public debate on the means to combat global warming is very different.

Sir John Houghton recently wrote an article on global warming in Physics World (10). After describing the methods used to study global warming, he summarizes the ways to reduce carbon dioxide emission. "The key", he says, "lies in the rapid development and growth of renewable energy", and by this he means wind, biomass, solar, wave and tidal, He gives no figures for the energy produced in this way, although as mentioned above the contribution of the most promising of the renewables, namely wind, is still extremely small. He simply expresses the hope that the renewable energy saurces will make up 12% of the total energy production by the year 2020.

He also mentions increasing the energy efficiency of coal power stations, impraving the insulation of buildings, using cheap long-life light sources, and making more efficient vehicles. All this is of course desirable, and improvements are being made continuously. All these measure are inherently costly and will take a long time to implement on a large scale. What is remarkable about the article is that there is no mention whatever of nuclear power. He certainly knows about it because in his book on Global Warming,(11) he remarks that "it has considerable attractiveness from the paint of view of sustainable development because it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions".. Furthermore, although "it is not strictly a renewable source", "the rate at which it uses up resources of radioactive material is small compared with the total resource available.".. "A further advantage of nuclear energy installations is that the technology is known: they can be built now and therefore contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. The continued importance of nuclear energy is recognised in the WEC energy scenarios, which all assume growth in this energy source next century." He also wrote a similar article in the Times Higher (12), again ignoring nuclear power.

Another article in Science and Public Affairs (13) by Jim Skea is along much the same lines. He emphasises the challenge to citizens and companies to use less energy and use less polluting sources. This will require Government actions: new taxes and regulations must be created, and people must be taxed to make them adopt greener lifestyles. New regulatory standards may be needed to enforce energy efficiency. "Increasing taxes on motor fuels will provide incentives for manufacturers to produce more efficient cars and for drivers to buy smaller cars and to drive less. But an ambitious transport policy will require many more measures administered through central government, planning authorities and private companies." All these and many other taxes and regulations will induce wide-ranging social and economic changes. They know that the renewables cannot produce the energy we need, so everyone must be forced to use less by a barrage of regulations and taxes. The obvious way to produce the needed energy by environmentally benign nuclear power is not even mentioned.

If you start a discussion on these questions, and ask why nuclear power is not considered, one is inevitably told about the hazards of nuclear power, particularly the disposal of waste, the hazards of nuclear radiation, the decommissioning of nuclear reactors at the end of their useful life, and nuclear proliferation. These arguments have been comprehensively discussed over the years, particularly at the Sizewell Enquiry, but they are never accepted.

This is a truly bizarre situation. It seems that nuclear power has become a taboo subject, and one can only speculate on the reasons. Nuclear power has become anathema to the general public. For many, it is the symbol of the hated technological society, and any argument in its favour is instantly rejected.

Politicians, who look to the next election and not to the next generation, are very wary of nuclear power. If it is proposed to site a nuclear waste disposal facility in their constituency, an Opposition pressure group is immediately formed. The politician tells the Minister for Energy that if this project goes forward, he may lose his seat at the next election. So the Minister cancels the project, even though it poses no hazards whatsoever. Quite recently NIREX has been refused permission even to make a test drilling to see whether a proposed disposal site is suitable or not. Then they are accused of not making any provision for nuclear waste disposal. No progress can be made in such situations.

As another example of what is called the nuclear debate, it has been argued that it is unwise to rely on thermal reactors because the world supplies of uranium will soon be exhausted. However the possibility of developing fast reactors is dismissed as unnecessary, because there is plenty of uranium that will allow us to obtain our power needs from the existing thermal reactors (14). It hardly needs a degree in nuclear physics or the skills of a master logician to see that there is something wrong with these arguments. The truth is that those who speak in this way have lost all touch with reality and are convinced only of the evil of nuclear power, which must therefore be opposed by any means.

In several European countries completed nuclear power stations, built to the highest safety standards, have been refused permission to start generating power simply for political reasons (15). There are continual demands for public inquiries whenever a new nuclear facility is proposed. When the report is published, it is immediately rejected and another enquiry demanded.

The result of all this is that the nuclear power program has been almost halted, and the coal power stations continue to pour their poisons into the atmosphere and to contribute to global warming.

5. Church Action.

The Pope has frequently emphasized the need to care for the environment, and has encouraged scientific study of this and related problems. Decisions vital for the future of humanity are being taken on political grounds, ignoring the long-term consequences. The Church is, or should be, above short-term political pressures, and is therefore in a strong position to speak out. As far as I know, there have not yet been any Church statements on global warming, but many Bishops Conferences and other church bodies have indeed spoken out on the question of nuclear power. These serve to illustrate some of the difficulties that are encountered.

The first requirement for such statements is that they should be based on a thorough knowledge of the scientific and technological facts. A survey (16) of Church statements on nuclear power shows, however, that in most cases they are gravely deficient; no one with any knowledge of the situation could take them seriously. They are worse than useless.

There are three exceptions to this that deserve more detailed comment. The first is the comprehensive statement made by the US bishops in 1981 (17). This was based on a good general knowledge, but nevertheless had several serious flaws. I published an analysis of that document (18), but so far as I know it had no effect.

The second statement was made by the Home Mission Division of the Methodist Church in Britain in 1981 (19). They assembled a group of about sixty scientists, technologists and engineers, and for several years they studied the problems not only of nuclear power, but also of many other technological developments including electronic computers and genetic engineering. Their report is a very valuable survey of modern problems. Their conclusions concerning nuclear power are:

1. Nuclear energy is an integral part of nature, just as much God's creation as sunshine and rain.

2. It does offer mankind a new energy source which is very large, convenient and not very costly.

3. Around the world the most important energy sources, oil in the rich world and wood in the poor, are becoming scarce, so that we cannot afford to set aside any energy technology with large potential which is cost effective, provided it is reasonably safe.

4. There are risks associated with the use of nuclear power, as with everything else, but these have been very carefully evaluated, are not very big and are not at all out of scale compared with risks of other energy sources and other ordinary hazards.

The third Church document on nuclear power was produced by the Pontifical Academy of Science. The Academy arranged a meeting of world energy experts in November 1980 and published the proceedings in a volume of 719 pages (20). The final conclusions of the proceedings strike a note of urgency: "We have no time to waste. Energy policies are urgently needed, involving concerted action by the responsible bodies, and this requires the support of public opinion and energy users. Unfortunately, even in the industrialized countries, the public consciousness of the problem is lacking. . . Only coal and nuclear power together with a strong energy conservation policy and continued gas and oil exploration can allow us to effectively meet the additional needs for the next two decades". This study was made the basis of the submission of the Holy See to the International Conference on Nuclear Power held in Vienna September 13-17, 1982 (21). The leader of the Vatican Delegation, Mgr. Peressin, referred to the peaceful applications of atomic energy, including food conservation, new techniques of plant breeding, medicine, hydrology and, most important of all, energy for industrial and private use. He reminded the Conference that many United Nations Agencies have stressed that the economic growth of the Third World countries seems "to be impossible without same applications of nuclear energy." Therefore, Mgr. Peressin continued, "my Delegation believes that all possible efforts should be made to extend to all countries, especially the developing ones, the benefits contained in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

Although I try to keep myself informed about Church statements on nuclear power, I heard about the work of the Pontifical Academy quite by accident. I was unable to obtain a copy by writing to the Academy, and eventually succeeded through the personal efforts of one of my Oxford physics students, who was at that time studying for the priesthood in Rome. As soon as I read the document I realized its importance, and urged that it be reviewed in a prominent Catholic weekly, but without success. I therefore wrote an article on it that was published in the Clergy Review (22).

A Conference on the Christian Dimensions of Energy Problems was organized by the Catholic Union and the Commission for International Justice and Peace was held in England in April 1982. It is noteworthy that it took no notice of the work of the Pontifical Academy in 1980. This is unfortunately quite typical; studies are undertaken and conferences arranged, by people without any knowledge of what has already been achieved. It is therefore impossible to make any progress; they are continually trying to invent the wheel. By contrast, in the scientific community, a prime requisite for serious research is a thorough knowledge of what is already known. There are scientists who are unfamiliar with the literature (often through no fault of their own) and write papers that might have been interesting two years ago, but are now quite useless. Such scientists are not taken seriously and their papers are rejected.

The result of all this is the production of statements that are frequently worse than useless, with a small number of very competent and valuable statements that are so poorly publicized that they have little effect.

There are several reasons for this unsatisfactory state of affairs. The first and fatal mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the scientific and technical work that must be undertaken before any realistic moral judgement can be made. In the case of nuclear power, it is essential to study in a quantitative way the world energy needs, the resources of raw materials, the economics of the different methods of energy generation, and their associated hazards and effects on the environment. The requires the co-operation of experts in many fields. Only when this is done is it possible to cut through the smokescreen of politically-motivated propaganda obscuring the whole subject and then go on to establish the true situation that must be taken as the basis of any realistic moral judgement on the best energy sources to choose. The report should be written up by the scientists and the moral theologians working together.

Without the participation of qualified scientists the report may well contain many wise and sensible thoughts, but the cumulative impression will inevitably be that it comprises well-meaning generalities that are unlikely to have any practical result at all.

This work need not be done in every country; indeed it is preferable that it be done on an international level. Nevertheless it is also desirable that there is in each country a group of qualified people who keep the subject constantly under review. If this is not done, then when the report comes from the international committee it not well understood and so its conclusions cannot be properly implemented.

The second mistake was to fail to ensure that the Report is printed in large numbers and sent to a wide range of interested people. A vital link in this process is the weekly Press and also magazines dealing with world affairs. The editors need to be aware of the status of the international committee and the importance of giving it wide publicity. They should also know some well-qualified scientists who can comment on the report and answer questions.

It is recognized that it is desirable that: "The Church must draw into the work of evangelization those Catholics who have a acknowledged competence in contemporary scientific disciplines"(23). Unfortunately these fine sentiments are seldom put into practice.

6. Establishing the Truth

Before any statement can be made, it is essential to establish the truth, and this is by no means easy. Global warming is one among many contemporary social problems that require a knowledge of science to be understood. to assist this understanding, many scientists have written books and articles on global warming. It may however be asked whether, having read this material, ordinary citizens are in a position to form an independent opinion on the reality of global warming. This is indeed very doubtful. One of the difficulties is that the whole discussion is extremely complicated, and much controversy remains. Although an overall consensus has been reached by a large body of scientists forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are many other scientists who are strongly opposed. There is the additional complicating factor that huge commercial interests, and therefore pressures, may underlie reports that appear, on the surface, to be scientific and objective. It is thus difficult, if not impossible, for a scientist who does not specialize in studies directly related to global warming to form an independent judgement.

This illustrates a characteristic of scientific knowledge that is perhaps insufficiently appreciated, namely that it is only those who are thoroughly immersed in a particular field and have researched in it for years, who may be in a position to evaluate what is going an. A scientist in a nearby field is seldom able to do this, even after a period of study. This is similar to the experience of scientists that only active practitioners in a field are able to referee a paper effectively. Other scientists, however eminent, may easily miss a consideration that destroys the whole argument. These reflections should make us skeptical of the value of public declarations by groups of distinguished scientists, even if they are Nobel Prize-winners, most of whom are unlikely to have first-hand knowledge of the subject concerned. It is always flattering to be treated as an authority on everything, and the temptation to pronounce on subjects for beyond one's specialty is not always resisted. This is even more necessary when theologians speak on scientific subjects. A smattering of knowledge, such as may be obtained by taking a degree in science, followed after a few years research by a half-baked doctoral thesis, is not enough. As Duhem remarked, 'in order to speak of questions where science and Catholic philosophy touch one another one must have done ten or fifteen years of study of the pure sciences'(24).

The whole question of how one comes to believe is indeed very complicated. An instructive example of a gradual shift of belief is provided by the Copernican revolution (25). In the Middle Ages, Aristotelian cosmology was so firmly established, and apparently confirmed by a multitude of direct experiences, that the heliocentric theory of Copernicus seemed just absurd. Copernicus' book De Revolutionibus made no mark on the prevailing geocentric belief as it was largely unintelligible to all but professional astronomers. This small specialized group, well aware of the large number of minor improvements that had been made in the Ptolemaic system over the previous centuries without significantly improving the fit to the unsatisfactory ancient data and which proved quite unable to fit the greatly improved data of Tycho Brahe, increasingly turned to the Copernican theory as the basis of their calculations. Many of them still rejected the heliocentric theory as a real account of celestial motions and used the Copernican theory simply as a method of calculation. The astronomers gradually improved the Copernican theory and found that it is much more tightly constrained that the Ptolemaic theory, so that it is not possible to adjust the parameters of the planetary orbits independently of each other. Furthermore, several important results, such as the retrograde motion of the planets and the phases of Venus were immediately explicable in a natural way. As so, gradually, impelled by their very practical concerns the belief of the professional astronomers changed. By around 1616, the time of the Church's first action against Galileo, the case for Copernicanism was weak, but the time of his recantation in 1633 the tide had turned and geocentrism was almost a lost cause. According to Kuhn, 'by the middle of the seventeenth century it is difficult to find an important astronomer who is not Copernican; by the end of the century it is impossible'. And yet it is important to recall that not one of the arguments for Copernicanism was conclusive. Galileo's favourite argument from the tides is fallacious. Bellarmine said that if the heliocentric theory was proved correct, then it would be necessary to study carefully how it could be reconciled with Scripture, but he did not specify what he would accept as a proof. The proofs that first convinced the astronomers were only accessible to them; it is the cumulative effects of a large numbers of indications, individually not coercive, the unity of indirect reference akin to the illative sense of Newman. When eventually the definitive proof of the heliocentric theory came two hundred years later with the measurement of stellar parallax by Bessel, the battle was long over, and it is doubtful if there was any great stir among either scientists or theologians.

This illustrate the difficulty of deciding when a Church statement on such subjects should be made. If it is made too early, it may well eventually turn out to be wrong. Fortunately, for example, no Church statement was made on the clusters of childhood leukemia around nuclear plants, as these have now been shown to be due to same other cause (26). On the other hand, if the statement is too late, it will be greeted with laughter as just another instance of the Church living in the past. There is the additional consideration that it is almost always the case that if you wait until you are sure, then it is too late to take effective action. We have therefore to act on arguments of probability, but be aware that we are doing so.

7. The Responsibilities of Scientists.

If this analysis is accepted, it is obvious that the participation of scientists is essential. Correspondingly, scientists have a responsibility to put their knowledge at the service of the Church and of society in general. This was realized very clearly by the nuclear physicists in the immediate postwar years, so they were very active in founding associations of scientists, writing articles and giving lectures. This was the origin of the Federation of Atomic Scientists in the USA and of the Atomic Scientists' Association in Britain.

Initially, the public was very receptive, but after a few years many newspapers had scientific correspondents and most of the scientists thought that their work was done, and withdrew from their public activities. Gradually, over the following decades, the public mood changed. The accident at Three Mile Island severely shook the public confidence. Fears of unknown radiations and memories of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to the fore, and were fanned by media stories of thousands of people who would die because of the accident. Although devoid of foundation such fears, once released, could not easily be calmed. The public concern was greatly magnified by the far worse accident at Chernobyl. The public anxieties were increased by the activities of vociferous and powerful pressure groups and so many people became hostile to nuclear power and rather wary of other scientific and technical advances. The result is that the public debate on nuclear matters has degenerated into the mindless repetition of arguments that were long ago discredited, coupled to a refusal to listen to any counter-arguments.

Underlying this deplorable spectacle is a weakened sense of the importance of finding the objective truth. Thus it is now widely accepted 'that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today's most widespread symptoms of a lack of confidence in truth'. Thus everything is reduced to opinion; and there is a sense of being adrift'(FR5).

In this situation, most attempts by scientists to provide factual information are doomed to failure. If he writes on article it is seldom accepted for publication. If he tries to correct a misconception, his letters are seldom published, and if they are published then in the next issue they are criticized, and no opportunity is given to reply. The usual result is that a scientist soon realizes that he is wasting his time, and so no longer contributes to the public debate. I could give very many examples of this (27); here one must suffice.

Soon after the Chernobyl accident there was a leading article in a prominent daily newspaper reporting a large increase in the death rate in the United States due to the dust from Chernobyl, complete with a large picture of Death the Reaper. It was obvious that this was extremely unlikely because such no effects had been reported from Europe, where the amount of dust deposited was much larger, though still far below that likely to cause any detectable effects. The article was however supported by statistical data apparently showing a strong correlation between the amount of dust deposited and the death rate in several areas.

Since the story seemed to be unlikely, I contacted the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and asked them to obtain the detailed figures for me. This took same time, and when they arrived it was clear that the figures had been obtained by statistical fudging, and that they showed no effect whatsoever. I wrote to the newspaper, but was told that it was now so long ago that everyone would have forgotten all about it and so no action could be taken to correct the story. It is however more than likely that they remember the association between nuclear power and Death the Reaper.

My experiences with the Church have been somewhat mixed. The Editor of the Fact and Faith books, Lancelot Sheppard, invited me to contribute to the series, and I wrote a book on "Nuclear Physics in Peace and War" (28). Subsequently, Professor Torrance invited me to contribute to the series of books on Theology and Scientific Culture and I wrote "Our Nuclear Future" (29). Several monthly journals such as The Month, New Blackfriars and The Clergy Review have published articles on nuclear power and the environment.

Other experiences have not been so good. The Catholic newspapers tend to accept the misconceptions of the secular media and it is often impossible to present a balanced view without it being contradicted in a subsequent issue, with no opportunity for reply.

I once wrote a booklet on World Energy Needs and Resources and sent it to a leading Catholic publisher. Subsequently I was told that it could not be accepted because it was contrary to the statement of the English and Welsh bishops. I asked for a copy of this statement, and was told that it was to be found in a periodical called Briefings, which however was confidential. I therefore wrote to a few bishops known personally to me, asking about their teaching on nuclear power. Many of them thought that I was asking about nuclear weapons, but those who read my letter all said that they knew nothing about this statement, even the bishop who lectured on energy affairs. After same detective work I found out that my booklet had been sent for refereeing to a Jesuit scientist, a distinguished Catholic nuclear physicist and a lawyer. The Jesuit and the physicist recommended publication but the lawyer made the objection already mentioned. Eventually I obtained a copy of the issue of Briefings that contained the statement in question, and found that it was brief, trivial, unbalanced and innumerate. Who then wrote it? Not one of our bishops, or a Committee appointed by them to examine the problem, but the aforesaid lawyer, a member of an anti-nuclear group. Meanwhile I had sent my booklet to a non-Catholic Christian publisher, and it was published without any difficulties (30). This shows how simple-minded scientists are easily outmaneuvered by clever lawyers.

From such experiences one learns that it is difficult for scientists to contribute to the public debate on matters related to our specialized knowledge. It is a great mistake to assume that our contributions will be welcomed. If what we say is contrary to the agenda of same pressure group we will have great difficulty in even obtaining a hearing. No sensible scientist would want his views to be taken on trust, but he does expect them to be given a hearing. He is familiar with what happens within scientific research: new ideas are put forward and subjected to rigorous criticism and testing until eventually the truth becomes clear. No one stands on ceremony or defers to authority; the sole object is to find out the truth. The public debate on scientific questions should also be like this. However, this sort of debate very rarely happens; usually one realizes that one is dealing with people who do not know, who do not know that they do not know, and who do not even know what knowing means.

8. Outside and Inside Knowledge

There is a fundamental and essential difference between the two acceptable statements on nuclear power and the remainder. Both groups of statements are written from inside Christianity, but the former are written from within science as well, while the latter by and large are not. The view from inside is always different from the view from outside. Those within science have much mare chance of seeing technical matters in their true perspective, with the potentialities and dangers in proportion. In the words of C.P. Snow, we have the future in our bones, and we look forward to it with hope and confidence. So of course should Christians.

Viewed from outside, science apparently appears to many to be a fearful monster, giving birth to unimaginable evils that we will somehow have to fight and control. They do not understand science, so they fear science. Such people fall easy prey to every wild tale of the mass media, and lend their support to campaigns to slay the dragon. They are present in every generation. They opposed gaslight, they opposed vaccination, they drove Semmelweiss insane, they opposed steam trains, they opposed aeroplanes and now they oppose nuclear power.

Churchmen sometimes talk about the need for dialogue with scientists as if we were Hindus or Hottentots (31). When will they realize that there are scientists actually inside the Church, kneeling in the pews and sharing with them the Body and Blood of Christ? Why not listen to them for a change, instead of running after the first rabid journalist and swallowing his wild stories about the strange and menacing land of science?

The chief merit of the Methodist Study Shaping Tomorrow and of the Vatican Study Week is that they got the facts right. There is little that is new in either report; they simply present in a balanced way material that is available elsewhere in much greater detail. Their specifically Christian contribution is by comparison rather meagre, and this is a real weakness of the work of the Churches in such areas. There is little long-term scholarly commitment to the moral analysis of problems like global warming, the energy crisis and nuclear power. Few moral theologians devote their lives to thinking about them. The authorities of most Churches failed even to discover the essential facts and to put them into perspective, and this is no more than an essential preliminary to serious moral thinking. There is an urgent need for same moral theologians to spend years mastering the facts and thinking about them in the light of Christian principles. This very necessary theological work simply cannot be done by busy bishops on the evening before they are due to address some conference. There are some men in the Churches who are potentially able to do such work, namely the young clergy who studied science to degree standard before ordination. They know enough to understand what is going on, but not enough to make weighty contributions to the debate. They see very clearly that vague and well-meaning platitudes are no substitute for a clear moral lead. Usually their scientific knowledge rusts as they are swamped by other duties. Yet if they were specifically assigned to theological studies where their scientific knowledge would be used, and given the opportunities to learn from experts, to take higher degrees, to devote most of their lives to study, then in a few decades we would be in a position to make a serious contribution to the debates on global warming, nuclear power and similar problems that are of such vital importance for the future of humanity. Then, in the words of Fides et Ratio, 'moral theology will be able to tackle the various problems in its competence such as peace, social justice, the family, the defense of life and the natural environment, in a more appropriate and effective way' (FR98).


References

Quotations from Fides et Ratio are indicated by FR, followed by the number of the section.

  1. P.E.Hodgson, E.Gadioli and E.Gadioli Erba. Introductory Nuclear Physics. Oxford University Press, 1997.

  2. S.L.Jaki. The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Chicago University Press, 1978.

  3. S.L.Jaki. Science and Creation. Scottish Academic Press, 1974.

  4. J.R.Lucas and P.E.Hodgson. Spacetime and Electromagnetism. Oxford University Press, 1990.

  5. J.H.Newman. An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Longmans Green, 1947

  6. J.H.Newman. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Sheed and Ward, 1960.

  7. J.T.Houghton, G.J.Jenkins and J.J.Ephraums (Eds). Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment. Cambridge University Press 1990.

  8. J.T.Houghton, B.A.Callendar and S.K.Varney. Climate Change, 1992: The Supplementary Report to the IPCC Scientific Assessment. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

  9. P.E.Hodgson. Energy and Environment. Bowerdean Publications, 1997; Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment. World Scientific, 1998. Global Warming and Nuclear Power. Nuclear Energy 38.147 1999.

  10. Letter from Michael Meacher to the British Nuclear Industry Forum, 18 January, 1988.

  11. Sir John Houghton. Physics World. February 1998, p. 17.

  12. John Houghton. Global Warming: The Complete Briefing. Lion Publishing, 1994.

  13. John Houghton. Times Higher. 3 December, 1997. p.21.

  14. Jim Skea. The Challenge of Climate Change. Science and Public Affairs. Winter l997.p.24.

  15. P.E.Hodgson. How Very Inconsistent! Nuclear Forum, March 1991, p. 16.

  16. A scandalous example is the nuclear power station at Zweitendorf in Austria.

  17. P.E.Hadgson. The Churches and Nuclear Power. Unpublished. 1984.

  18. Friedhelm Solms (Ed). European Churches and the Energy Issue. Forschungsstatte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft, Series A Na. 11. October 1980.

  19. The Moral Dimensions of Energy Policy. Bishaps' Committee for Social Development. Origins, NC Documentary Service, 23 April, 1981, Vol. 10. No.45, p.706.

  20. Peter Hodgson. Reflections on the Energy Crisis. The Month. November

    1982. P.382.

  21. Shaping Tomorrow. Ed.Edgar Boyes. Hame Mission Division of the Methodist Chureh, 1981.

  22. Semaine D'Etude sur la theme Humanite et Energie: Besains Ressources Espoirs. Nov. 10-15 1980. Ed. Andre Blanc-Lapierre. Pontifleal Academiae Scientiarum. Scripta Varia 1946.

  23. Statement of the Holy See to the International Conference on Nuclear Power, Vienna, September 13-17, 1982. International Atomic Energy Authority Paper CN-42/449.

  24. Peter Hodgson. Nuclear Power: Rome Speaks. The Clergy Review, February 1983. Vol.LXXVIII, p.49.

  25. Submission of the Bishop's Conference af England and Wales to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in Rome in November 1985.

  26. P.Duhem. Quoted by S.L.Jaki in Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem. Martinus Nijhoff, 1984. P. 114.

  27. Thomas S.Kuhn, The Copernican Revolutian. Harvard University Press,

  28. Owen Gingerich, The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus,

  29. Kepler. American Institute of Physics, 1993.

  30. Sir Richard Doll, Dr.H.J.Evans and Dr.S.C.Darby. Nature 367.678.1994.

  31. P.E. Hodgson. Reflections at La Rabida: The Responsibilities of the Nuclear Physicist for Peace. Oxford Project far Peace Studies, Paper Na. 13. 1988.

  32. Peter E. Hodgson. Nuclear Physics in Peace and War. Burns and Oates, Hawthorn Books, 1961.

  33. Peter E. Hodgson. Our Nuclear Future? Christian Journals Ltd, 1983.

  34. Peter Hodgson. World Energy Needs and Resources. Grove Booklet on Ethics Na.44. 1981.

  35. Until recently the relations with the scientific community were the responsibility of the Pontifical Consilium for Non-Believers. Now, more sensibly, it is included in the Pontifical Consilium for Culture.


© P.E.Hodgson,
Corpus Christi College,
Oxford, UK.