Fortune senior editor David Kirkpatrick reports from Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference:
PASADENA, Calif — One of the more interesting observations I’ve heard at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference concerned genetically-modified foods and nuclear power. Someone commented that these two things — historically the object of huge vituperation from environmentally-minded critics — are both seeing a modulation of criticism.
The world is undergoing a food crisis caused, at least in part, by an undue emphasis on biofuels and in any case closely connected to the dramatically increased price of oil. (I certainly hope the issue of biofuels and food comes up when Adam Lashinsky interviews biofuel’s crown prince Vinod Khosla.) In the face of this food crisis, the antipathy toward GMOs may be starting to fade. The recent moves by Korea to allow in American beef after long resisting it, and by Japan to allow American rice, may just be early signs, this guy said. I’d speculate also that if it’s a question of starvation or survival, the southern African nations which have so adamantly opposed GMOs will almost certainly rethink their positions. (Aside from Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, of course, from whom rationality cannot be presumed.)
In a session on the topic of nuclear power, Fortune’s David Whitford asked the audience how many were unalterably opposed to increasing nuclear power in the U.S. for any reason. In this room of perhaps 300 environmentally-minded Americans, only about 20 raised their hands. With oil at $116 and global warming an ever-more urgent concern, minds are opening. Not that most of those in the room wouldn’t add substantial caveats to their unwillingness to rule nuclear out.
That said, the advocacy of nuclear power shown by Alex Flint of the Nuclear Energy Institute on Whitford’s panel drifted to some absurd extremes. For instance, he said that he would be willing to have a nuclear waste facility in his backyard, and that the location of a nuclear power plant “as close as possible” to his house “would be good for land values.” What is this guy smoking?
In answer to my question — one also raised by his co-panelist David Lockbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists — about what happens if a jet piloted by a terrorist plows into a nuclear plant, Flint was unconvincing. He claims that studies show that plants’ containment vessels are strong enough to prevent any release of radiation. To which Lockbaum replied that all the studies pre-9/11 found that even if that were the case, the shaking that would be inevitable in such a scenario would sever essentially all pipes and cables in and out of a plant, making a meltdown likely. Studies since 9/11 are classified, he noted, adding “but the laws of physics did not change that day.”
In the random interesting comments category, I was struck by an amazing statistic proffered by IBM’s (IBM) Rich Lechner in a session on Greening the IT industry. There were plenty of convincing arguments being made in the room that IT and the intelligence bequeathed by computing can have a major impact on reducing energy use and carbon releases.
But Lechner noted that a virtual person in Second Life has a larger carbon footprint than the average person in Brazil. His point, presumably, was that as people enter a developed economy, their carbon footprint goes way up along with their increasing use of tech.