David Suzuki Interview

David Suzuki Interview

GEORGE NEGUS: David, it is good to see you again.


Last time we spoke it was on your territory, this time it is on ours. But welcome.


GEORGE NEGUS: David, could we start with something that is particularly topical in this country at the moment? It was yesterday that Australia, it was said, was put on the path towards nuclear power after John Howard’s Government said construction of new plants, nuclear plants, could start within a decade. That was greeted with mixed feelings, to say the least, in this country. What was your reaction, as somebody who has got pretty strong views about these things?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: Well, my reaction immediately was thank God Mr Howard is finally admitting that climate change is real and that something has got to be done about it. I mean, here is a man in his fourth term in office and it has taken until now for him to take climate change seriously. And I think it is being driven by the current water crisis. So good, we are finally going to start to do something, and certainly something serious has to be done.

The question is whether it is to be nuclear. And I am not one who takes a knee-jerk automatic ‘no’ response to nuclear energy, but I think that if you’re going to seriously consider nuclear as an issue, then you have to answer some serious questions. First of all is cost. Show me that nuclear can be competitive with other forms of energy, including solar energy.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you believe, David, if I can interrupt you there. And I want to hear those points because I know you do have a number of them. But do you believe that it is cost-effective? Because when the Minister involved, the Minister for Resources, Mr McFarlane, when this point was raised, he says that – eventually at least – nuclear power will be much, much cheaper than any of the other forms of power, including renewables.

DR DAVID SUZUKI: You know what, they used to tell us – the reason that we bought into nuclear in the first place – was it is going to be so cheap you won’t even have to monitor how much you’re using. It will be virtually limitless at very cheap prices. That’s turned out to be absolute nonsense. And I’d like to take an example of my own country. The largest province, Ontario, the industrial heartland of Canada, 40% per cent of its energy is nuclear energy, and the province has a $40 billion debt for their energy, 95% of it is because of the nuclear industry itself. This is not a cheap form of energy. So cost alone says these guys ought to seriously consider the history of nuclear energy around the world. It is not cheap.

Second of all, reliability. If you are going to go online with a very serious commitment to mega, mega energy sources like this, you want to be able to depend on it. History in Canada is they are breaking down all the time. There are leaks that develop, cracks that develop and then they go off the stream. And guess what, when they finally come back on to start deliver energy, it costs us millions and millions more dollars to get them back on stream. So that is cost and reliability – two big issues.

We live in a post-9/11 world in which terrorism is a very real possibility. Again, it has been shown again and again in Canada that terrorists could get into any of our nuclear plants with no problem. What do you do to ensure they don’t get in and either blow it up or steal radioactive material? That is going to cost you millions of dollars more. And finally what you do with the waste? And waste is usually the issue that is raised first. So I think there are four huge questions that are raised and until those are satisfactorily answered, I am amazed anyone would seriously say nuclear is what we should go for.

GEORGE NEGUS: In the past, David, you have actually said that the Howard Government’s position on climate change and on Kyoto was outrageous. You were appalled at their position, the position they have adopted. Why do you think this change of heart? You said because of our water problems in this country. John Howard says he believes strongly that nuclear power now has to be part of the equation in this search for an answer to climate change.

DR DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I find that statement so lacking in credibility. This is a man, for years and years, who has denied the reality of climate change caused by human beings even though his scientific community in Australia has been saying that for more than 15 years, that this is a serious issue and Australia is particularly vulnerable. So for this man, now having denied all these years, to suddenly come out and say nuclear is the only option, I don’t see how he has any credibility on this issue at all. I have no idea why suddenly nuclear’s on the agenda but I would think that anyone would say we have to look at our whole energy policy, look at how it relates to water, how it looks to many other issues – of sea level rise and so on – and then having had a major consideration, come up with a plan that we can commit to. I think the idea of nuclear is just not thought out very critically.

GEORGE NEGUS: To be fair to John Howard, he has said that he doesn’t believe nuclear power is THE solution but part of the solution. The Government does intend looking at in fact they are looking at renewable sources of energy as well.

DR DAVID SUZUKI: I’m getting very confusing signals from the Federal Government now because, OK, Mr Howard is finally admitting global warming is serious, we’ve got to do something, but his Minister of the Environment is saying, “Oh, we’re gonna meet Kyoto.” What’s going on here?

GEORGE NEGUS: So you don’t believe that they will meet their Kyoto target?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: I have no idea. He is talking about things that I have no idea because this government has been denying the need to meet any kind of target because it would destroy the economy. So where suddenly does it come out that Australia is going to meet the Kyoto target? Now, the Kyoto target for Australia, remember, is a much softer target than any of the other industrialised world, so has always been a mystery to me why there was a complaint that Australia was a special consideration. But if Australia is going to meet its Kyoto target, why not ratify? Kyoto is international law. When Putin of Russia signed and ratified Kyoto, it became international law. The United States was the only industrialised country to say no to Kyoto. We know they are outlaws but I am amazed that Australia..

GEORGE NEGUS: You have described George Bush as an international outlaw. Do you put John Howard in the same category?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: Well, he is. Obviously if Mr Howard is going to join Mr Bush and say no to Kyoto, he is saying no to what is an international law. Now, we know that Bush has been an outlaw. He said from the time he got in ‘no’ to any landmines treaty, ‘no’ to any dispute being settled in the world court, ‘no’ to any extension of nuclear test bans, ‘no’ to Kyoto. He clearly has said the US is going to go its own damn way and to hell with the rest of the world. I’m amazed that Australia would choose to be that kind of an international citizen.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is that one of your great frustrations – that most of the the time you are preaching to the converted, and the people you’ve been trying to convert – if you like, the John Howards of this world – don’t want to know?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: The frustration I feel is with the political process. You see, I understand the reality of politics. When you get elected to office your absolutely first priority is to get re-elected. That means whatever you do has to pay off in something you can brag about before the next election. The political vision is too short to really get involved in something as serious as climate change. And then it is compounded by the fact you’ve got to be worried about people that are going to vote. Children don’t vote. So the reality is politicians cannot pay attention to the needs of children because they are not voters. For that matter, future generations don’t even exist. They’re not even on the political agenda.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, in your autobiography you suggest that “it has been your lot to be a Cassandra or Chicken Little, warning about imminent disaster” – which you appear to be still doing. “But it gives me no satisfaction at all to think that my concerns may be validated by my grandchildren’s generation.” That is a very, very pessimistic, very doomsday view of things. Do you feel as though you’re a comparative success as an environmentalist or a comparative failure?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: Well, it depends on how you define success. The problem is we don’t know what the world would be like if environmentalists and Greenpeace and Bob Brown and all of us didn’t exist. We don’t know. But the reality is I have been doing this kind of thing since Rachel Carson, in 1962, published ‘Silent Spring’. And the warnings of the scientific community for over 40 years have been coming at us and we’re going in the wrong direction. Now, I don’t say this is inevitable. I operate only because I have hope. When I do things I always try to remember Nelson Mandela. If Nelson Mandela could hang in there for all of those years as the best years of his life went down the drain, then I don’t think anyone can say it is too late, we have to abandon hope. But I have also got a brain, I also listen to scientists and they’re telling us we’re heading down a very dangerous path.

GEORGE NEGUS: But you are still hopeful nevertheless. Of what? What are you hoping for?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: I have to. I have got children. I mean, the fact that Mr Howard is finally, rather late, but finally admitting climate change is serious, we have got to do something, that’s an incremental step. And that is what we have got to do, is keep working towards that. My prediction is the next election is going to be one in which the environment will be a major, major issue. He will not be able to avoid that. And that is a small step again. The environment is emerging around the world, again, to become the number one issue, as it was in 1988.

GEORGE NEGUS: It’s a awful way to put it but it is almost thanks to climate change, the environment is back on the political agenda. That is ironic isn’t it?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: It is very ironic. You know, I’ve use the metaphor – I feel like we’re in a giant car heading at a brick wall at 100 miles an hour and everybody is arguing about where they want to sit. It doesn’t matter who is driving, for heaven’s sake, someone’s got say, “Put the brake on and turn the wheel.” A few of us are saying that but we are locked in the trunk, and nobody hears us anyway.

GEORGE NEGUS: Does this autobiography mean it’s the end of the public road that you’re on, for David Suzuki, or are we going to have to put up with you for a few years yet?

DR DAVID SUZUKI: Well, if George Negus keeps inviting me back on the show, I guess I won’t be able to put a sock in my mouth and shut up.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, it is great to talk to you again.

DR DAVID SUZUKI: OK, thanks a lot.