Global warming row goes nuclear as bishop quits Friends of the Earth

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The Independent Online

He's the nearest thing Britain has to an eco-bishop, having campaigned on environmental issues for more than 30 years.

He's the nearest thing Britain has to an eco-bishop, having campaigned on environmental issues for more than 30 years.

Yet now the Right Rev Hugh Montefiore, the former Bishop of Birmingham, has been kicked off the board of Friends of the Earth (FoE), the leading environmental group, for saying publicly that the fight against global warming should involve using nuclear power.

The outspoken prelate, one of the most colourful figures in the Church of England, has been an FoE trustee for two decades, and chaired the group from 1992 to 1998. But in an extraordinary and acrimonious row, he has been forced to sever his links with the organisation because of an article on climate change which he has written for tomorrow's edition of The Tablet, the Catholic weekly.

In it, Bishop Montefiore says that the dangers of global warming are greater than any others facing the planet, and that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy. Nuclear does not produce the carbon dioxide (CO2) that comes from coal, gas and oil-fired power stations - global warming's main cause.

In doing so he becomes the second major green figure this year to advocate a radical step that is deeply unpalatable to most of the environmental movement, which opposes nuclear power as almost an article of faith. It was first put forward in May by James Lovelock, the independent scientist and green guru behind the celebrated Gaia hypothesis (the idea that the whole earth behaves like a single living organism).

Writing in The Independent, Professor Lovelock set off an international argument when he said that climate change was now proceeding so fast that there was simply not enough time for renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar power - the green movement's favoured solution - to take the place of conventional power stations burning fossil fuels. Only a huge expansion of nuclear energy could check a possible runaway warming which would be disastrous for the world, he said.

Bishop Montefiore's article for The Tablet comes to the same conclusion in a similar way. He goes through the renewable options and says he does not believe they can do the job in time. He writes: "The real reason why the Government has not taken up the nuclear option is because it lacks public acceptance, due to scare stories in the media and the stonewalling opposition of powerful environmental organisations. Most, if not all, of the objections do not stand up to objective assessment."

The bishop, who says he has been "a committed environmentalist for many years," makes it clear at the outset that writing the piece is costing him his long-standing place on the FoE board. "I have been a trustee of FoE for 20 years and when I told my fellow trustees that I wished to write for The Tablet on nuclear energy, I was told that this is not compatible with being a trustee," he writes. "I have therefore resigned because no alternative was open to me."

He adds stingingly: "The future of the planet is more important than membership of Friends of the Earth."

Bishop Montefiore, who is retired but is still an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark, has impeccable green credentials. In the 1970s, when he was a suffragan bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames, he was much involved with campaigns for environmentally friendly transport, and protested against Concorde and excessive aircraft movement in and out of Heathrow. He was also anti-nuclear. As Bishop of Birmingham from 1978-87 he had an agenda of helping the poor and was regarded as being very much an anti-Thatcherite.

He comes from a famous Jewish family and converted to Christianity when he was a pupil at Rugby School. He has been a lecturer in New Testament studies at Cambridge, and dean of Gonville and Caius College.

He declined yesterday to talk in detail about his row with FoE but he said that "of course" he felt sad about what had happened. "I have great admiration for FoE in many ways," he said. "But they don't seem to think it's appropriate to have nuclear and I do. I think it's the only way to get out of this mess."

He said he had once been an opponent of nuclear power. "I was against it. I thought it wouldn't be necessary. But I've changed my view. I just don't see it [the fight against climate change] happening without nuclear."

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said last night: "Hugh has been a very valuable member of our board of trustees for two decades, and has made an enormous contribution to Friends of the Earth's work.

"But having analysed the energy choices and different options that we have as a society, we are firmly of the view that we can and should fight climate change without relying on nuclear power, and that has led - sadly - to a parting of the ways.

"To have us saying one thing and a member of the board of trustees saying the opposite is clearly unworkable in practice. We can't have the organisation saying two things at once."