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A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.
Friday, June 11, 2004
Here is an excellent report from Alex Kirby on a well-argued case: 'UK charged with nuclear "fudge"' (BBC Science/Nature News Online, June 11):
Following James Lovelock's support for nuclear power, Sir Crispin Tickell, former UK ambassador to the United Nations and warden of Green College, Oxford, has now justly accused British politicians of failing to give a lead on nuclear energy. Sir Crispin rightly declared that nuclear power ought to enjoy comparison with "other forms of renewable energy" in making policy.
I could not agree more. As further reported, Sir Crispin said:
"Next I reproach them for fudging nuclear issues. I believe the word 'nuclear' is now banned from No 10 Downing Street."
"One of the conclusions of the Chatham House study was that public opinion was persuadable if anyone wanted to persuade it." [cf. the lack of confidence in the UK government with the planning for nuclear waste in Sweden, for example].
He also said that the UK should be investing in new fusion technology in the Iter project, the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor.
Sir Crispin further commented: "The problems of true cost, safety, proliferation, security, risk and the rest should be examined in a complete overall assessment of nuclear against other forms of renewable energy to lay a proper foundation for debate and future policy."
Philip, completely enfused! Whenever Sir Crispin is mentioned, I just have this vision of Camelot, King Arthur, etc. "Shall I get the round table out for tea?"
Although biomass fuels will only ever represent a marginal contribution to overall UK energy production, with the right initial support, they could still provide useful opportunities for British farmers to help to revivify UK agriculture.....
IF YOU find yourself on the Nottinghamshire-Lincolnshire border near to East Drayton, watch out for the willows, but not for cricket bats. Here Renewable Energy Growers (REG) is promoting short-rotation coppiced willow for heat and energy. It is one of the country’s more sensible developments in the commercial growing of energy crops, or biomass fuels – biofuels for short. As we increasingly become dependent on energy imports from countries like Russia, Iran and Algeria, burning our own wood chip in place of oil, gas and coal can only assist energy security, however marginally.
At £45 per oven-dry tonne (ODT), REG have shown that farmers are able to produce willow for energy at the competitive price of £2.10 per Gigajoule (GJ). This energy can be used on the farm, for local and district heating schemes, and as a co-firing material in coal-fired power stations. Above all, it can help the government to attain the goal of generating 10% of electricity from renewable sources.
The whole issue of biofuels was recently discussed at The Lincolnshire Agricultural Society’s Annual Spring Lecture on ‘Fuelling Farming for the Future’. This imaginative event was attended by over 300 farmers, all keen to share ideas on the role biofuels might play in re-invigorating British agriculture, which has suffered markedly over the last few years. There was wide agreement that, with innovative, positive farming and the right government support, biofuels could succeed in the UK.
Biofuels come in two basic forms. First, there are the true biomass fuels, like willow and poplar, for generating heat and power, as grown by REG. Secondly, there are the liquid biofuels for use in transport. These are of two types, namely biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesel was used by Rudolph Diesel in 1901, and it is made of mono-alkyl esters of long-chain fatty acids derived from either 'natural' virgin oils, as in mustard, oil seed rape, soybean and sunflowers, or re-cycled vegetable oil. Attempts to make biodiesel covertly from chip shop waste have led to sizzling jokes about the ‘Frying Squad’. Biodiesel is employed in diesel engines and the oils are converted to biodiesel by combination with an alcohol and a catalyst. Interestingly, the country has always turned to biodiesel in wartime.
In contrast, bioethanol is formed by ethanol-producing microbes that require either a sucrose or a glucose substrate. Key crops are thus sugar beet and sugar cane, but bioethanol can also be manufactured from starch crops, including wheat, maize and potatoes. Many regard bioethanol as a fuel for the future, because of its high energy content and its excellent environmental characteristics, including reduced carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions. There are, in addition, valuable by-products, such as high-fibre protein additives, gluten meal and amino acids for animal feed. And there is a further bonus for the farmer, in that off-grade, or damaged, crops – even mixes with weeds – pose few problems. Bioethanol is used to run petrol engines. At a 5% mix, there is no need to modify the engine. At 10%, the adjustments remain minor.
But now we come to a mystery. Although this is a government that says it believes passionately in the threat from ‘global warming’ (which, of course, I don't) and in the need to develop alternative sources of energy, it has done virtually nothing to promote the successful initiation of biofuels. All forms of energy need a kick start to play their fundamental role, however small, in the economy, and, of course, this government is massively, and controversially, cross-subsidising wind farms. But with respect to biofuels, the situation makes little sense, especially when we remember that British farming is desperate to find new, environmentally-benefiting, often non-food, forms of production.
Total UK liquid-fuel use is about 37 million tonnes per year, which is largely imported. Local biofuels contribute a mere 0.7%. Yet, we have over 1.5 million acres of set-aside farmland. To raise biofuel take-up to 5% would require only 900,000 acres. But the rebate of tax on biofuel remains a miserly and uncompetitive 20p, which contrasts bizarrely with 40p on LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), both less environmentally-friendly. A minuscule increase to a rebate of 30p on biofuels would see the industry flourish; a parallel 40p would witness it fixing carbon for England. And this is not just another farmers’ subsidy – it represents the peanuts required to start up what would soon become an independent sector.
Regrettably, we are already behind our EU competitors. Spain, for example, has tripled bioethanol production to 300,000 tonnes, and we are even exporting our rape seed to Germany, where it is then turned into biodiesel to be re-imported to the UK. This is surely Alice-in-Blunderland thinking.
Gordon Brown must act. We need an urgent increase in the rebate on biofuels to at least 30p, but preferably to 40p. We should also consider a mandatory 2% biofuel mix by January 2005, rising by 0.75% tranches to 5.75% by 2010. Above all, we must see more joined-up thinking between the five government departments involved in biofuel policy, from Defra via the DTI to the all-dominant Treasury.
There is little to lose (even for the Treasury), but much to gain from improving the UK energy mix, energy security, the energy environment, and British farming. It’s time to support the renewable-energy growers - from willows to wheat.
Philip, totally mystified by government policy(?) on this. Fuel for thought over morning coffee. "Join me, old bean?"
Thursday, June 10, 2004
You may listen online to my short debate this morning with Dr. Eric W. Wolff about the significance of the new Antarctic ice core evidence for climate variability over the last 740,000 years:
Go to: 'What did scientists discover when they drilled two miles into the ice of Antarctica?' (Today, BBC Radio 4, June 10), choosing the 07.50 am slot.
Philip, finding Mozart in the frozen wastes.
It is good to see the always interesting site, Conservation News, taking up the idea of fluxology: 'Fluxology' (June 10):
"Sometimes Jones [Crumb Trail] gets my back up. Occasionally Stott makes my blood boil. But in this, as in many other things, I think they're on the right trail. And I'm eager to see where it leads."
Philip, clearly not writing in vein!
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
It was George Bernard Shaw who wryly observed that Britain and America are "two nations divided by a common language"; we might today add that they are divided by a common science, and that this division extends to bien pensant Europe as a whole.
Thus, when Christine Todd Whitman, the then newly-appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that Mr. Bush and the US had “no interest in implementing that treaty”, meaning the ‘global warming’ protocol signed in 1997 at Kyoto, Europe went hysterical. This was far worse than not having had sex “with that woman.” The German newspaper, Die Woche, attacked Mr. Bush as the ‘Climate Killer’. And, of course, the bitterness has rumbled on to this day, when not drowned out by the insistent drums of war and world terrorism.
To grasp fully the depths of this division, however, and the current role of Britain's Chief Scientific Officer, for example, it is vital to understand what has happened to the popular view of science in Europe over the last thirty years.
First, there was the thalidomide scandal; then followed the BSE debacle; and, more recently, we have witnessed the burning pyres of animal carcasses following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth. These events have been coupled with the rise of a radical environmentalist movement that has virtually turned itself into a 'New Age' religion, the adherents of which eschew economic growth, trade, globalisation, chemicals, change sensu lato, but, above all, the 'Evil Empire', America. They hanker after a mythical refuge of a lost ‘Golden Age’, when the world was seen as 'in balance', all food was ‘organic’, and humans were 'in harmony with Nature'. Hence why Mr. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, to some European eyes, was not simply the rejection of a mere treaty, bad as that was perceived; it was far more fundamental than this. He had blasphemed against the new religion of the European intelligentsia. America had become an apostate nation.
For, in Europe, much science, but especially soft environmental science, is no longer legitimised by the normal, cautious processes of science itself. ‘Science’ has become legitimised by what the great French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, has called the ‘social bond’.
Let me give you two examples of how this works.
It is 8.15 a.m. and you are listening to a flagship radio, or television, news programme, the quintessential voice of right-thinking metropolitan Britain. A 'white-coated scientist' is brought on to say that his recent work seems to indicate that humans may have some major influence on climate change. ‘You mean that we are definitely causing serious global warming and destroying the ozone layer’, the renowned (and slightly confused) interviewer gleefully declares, herself warming quickly to the subject. A similar white-coated scientist is then brought on the next day to report that her research has demonstrated the safety of a certain genetically modified crop. The questioning on this occasion is markedly different. Now a sceptical voice is disbelieving and aggressive: “How do you know? Surely it will affect nearby organic farms and the pollen of local beekeepers – have they been informed of your work? And [always the lazy interviewer's 'killer' question], how was your work funded – by one of the big companies, I bet?”
Put simply, you are witnessing the legitimization of ‘science’ by the prevailing 'social bond', in which an existing social myth selects the ‘science’ that is acceptable and that which is not. Often, the media will try to exclude the ‘demonized science’ completely. Indeed, some commentators have even (to their everlasting shame, I might add) argued recently for a kind of media self-censorship on counter arguments.
The second example is a real one. A couple of years ago, seven national academies of science spoke out in favour of genetic modification in agriculture – in Europe, they were vilified by the media and by Green organisations; more recently, a similar grouping came out cautiously for ‘global warming’, but they, in stark contrast, were warmly embraced.
What does this all mean for ‘global warming’, for biotechnology, and for America, where careful scientific argument is still powerful as an arbiter of progress? In America, people, in the main, rightly listen to their National Academy of Sciences. In the U.K., its equivalent, the Royal Society, is totally unknown, or roundly vilified (when in favour of biotechnology), or praised (when it cautiously supports ‘global warming’), precisely according to what is said in terms of the hegemonic social myth.
This makes any sensible popular scientific dialogue between America and Europe fraught. In Europe, scientific evidence raising doubts about the scientific and/or economic significance of ‘global warming’, or the potential dangers of GM crops, is both sub-consciously and consciously excluded from public debate by much of the Middle Class media, by many politicians, and by extreme environmentalist groups who strive to drown it out with carefully-chosen exaggerations and distortions. Recently, finer scientific minds than mine have questioned, for example, the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, the accuracy of surface temperature measurements, the little understood, but crucial, role of water vapour, the many missing variables in the simplistic climate models, and our understanding of climate history. But little of this has penetrated the carapace formed by the European 'social bond'. There are exceptions, of course, such as the admirable 'Jeremy Vine Show' on BBC Radio 2, where the dominant role of our self-appointed intelligentsia is kept firmly in check.
The truth is that most Europeans simply do not wish to hear any counter arguments, for challenging their legitimizing ‘science’ would also undermine their deeper attitudes to the car, to economic growth, to trade, to development, to globalisation, to change itself ... and, as already asserted, to the 'Evil Empire'.
This is why America, and both Russia and China for that matter, must not be cowed by UK and European rhetoric on ‘global warming’ and on biotechnology. This why America must remain open to genuine, critical science, and to economic progress. For at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol is a ‘scientific’ oxymoron: controlling human-induced emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ will not halt complex climate change and it will never produce a 'sustainable climate', the very concept of which is scientific goobledygook. And biotechnology is a useful 'tool' for an ever-changing world.
But, Americans must also be ready for the fact that, in Europe, cautious and careful science will not necessarily win the argument.
Philip, breaking out of 'social bondage'. Coffee?
Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Scott Burgess applies for a job at The Guardian: 'Guardian application sent' (The Daily Ablution, June 3):
"What would you add to The Guardian newsroom?"
"Ideological balance and accurate research."
A blogging gem - do not miss.
Philip, ties in just perfectly with my own little June 6 piece on 'The Gloomiad indeed.....'. And so to bed, not a crossword to be said. Goodnight John Boy, Mary Ellen.....
Well, here's a news item to make one smile: 'GMO-öl på systemet' (DagensHandel, June 8):
"Det skånska genmodifierade ölet Kenth som tidigare sålts, men tagits ur sortimentet på Ica, har fått något av en revansch sedan det införts i Systembolagets ordinarier sortiment."
Which, I think, vaguely reads something like: "Sweden's state alcohol retailing monopoly Systembolaget started selling genetically modified (GM) beer 'Kenth' in its stores..."
"The GM beer 'Kenth' will be available in Systembolaget's stores in the county Skane, southern Sweden. Clients will also be able to order the beer at Systembolaget's stores countrywide."
And here is one reported earlier - a happy chap with a bottle in his hand: 'Premiär för GMO-öl'.
"Well done, Sven!" Now I can really cheer on the lads! And to any anti-GM party poopers out there: "Consumer choice, matey. Skol!"
Philip, hoping he can get a bottle or two online. Dinner - only a good claret, I fear, this evening. C'est la vie!
Monday, June 07, 2004
I admit that I somewhat salaciously wallowed in this distinctively 'downunder' piece from The Independent (June 7), 'The crocs are biting back', dealing with the inevitable dilemmas involved in managing, on the one hand, a burgeoning population of Jurassic leftovers - namely 2m- to 5m-long 'salties', i.e. Northern Territory crocs, - and, on the other, the new arrivals in the pond, Homo sapiens touristicus:
"'It was sitting in the water like a dog with a bone,' says Lindner. 'Time stood still for me. I watched it swim along with the girl in its mouth. It wouldn't let go.' It distressed him, too, that the crocodile had to be killed. 'It was an identity croc that was well known to us.'"
"There have been numerous other incidents, in and outside Kakadu. Crocodiles are getting bolder. An 11-year-old Aboriginal girl was recently attacked. A 22-year-old man was killed last year in the Finniss river, south of Darwin. Salau was mauled while conducting a night-time survey on a beach north of Kakadu. 'He came up from behind, grabbed my foot and dragged me off,' he says. 'He got me by the stomach and we were rolling around in the sand. I managed to get my arm round his head and he let go. It was horrific.'"
Indeed, the stuff of many a Hollywood nightmare. I just goggle at the idea of 'identity crocs', by the way. "Hi! big feller! Got your identity card there? Owch! No need to take it like that... just checking! Now let's see if those teeth marks fit..."
Crocs evolved way back in the Triassic and the Jurassic - I believe the oldest fossil is around 240 million years. The 'salties' I saw when I visited Kakadu were enormous and very fast. One of my Ph.D. students also had a terrible time with them when she was researching fire ecology just outside the National Park - her funding body, if I remember correctly, even provided her with a gun!
Thus, it's down to that age-old question - to cull or not to cull? In this case, I suspect, both crocs and tourists!
Philip, an old croc himself ..... coffee by the billabong, my dear? Dundee cake?
What can one say? The shooting dead of the BBC camerman, Simon Cumbers, and the serious injury to the BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner, in an attack in Riyadh last night is a dreadful tragedy and a yet another terrible witness to the evils of the world in which we live ('Two BBC men shot in Saudi capital', BBC Online Middle East News, June 7). The two men were filming the house of an al-Qaeda militant who was killed last year. Cameramen are too often the unsung heros of television reporting, being regularly exposed to enormous danger in the course of their work. Frank Gardner is also one of the best of the BBC correspondents and he has striven tirelessly throughout the current conflicts to present genuine insights into most complex issues. His commentaries have been, for me, models of fairness and precisely what is required from the BBC. We can only express our strongest outrage at the gratuitous ambush of these independent reporters and messengers, express our deepest condolences to Mr. Cumbers' family, and pray that Mr. Gardner recovers swiftly. We owe them both.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
Two of our most right-on, trendy, Dave Spartist/metropolitan-left, eco-hyping newspapers appear to be in trouble, namely The Guardian and its Sunday bedfellow, The Observer. According to the latest statistics (May 14, 2004) issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), both are suffering declining sales:-
Between April 2003 and April 2004, the daily sales of The Guardian fell by 17,357, or -4.35%. The average daily sale is now only 381,449, which is but 14.32% of the quality national daily newspaper market, or a minuscule 3.14% of the total daily national newspaper market. And this is despite a large increase in the number of weekly supplements issued by the paper (including the new 'Life' supplement on science).
The story for The Observer is perhaps worse. The average Sunday sale is currently 450,119, which represents 16.30% of the quality Sunday national newspaper market and a mere 3.55% of the total Sunday national newspaper market. Losses on April 2003 were 5,363 (-1.18%). But the problems appear to be accelerating, with losses in April 2004 on March 2004 looking worryingly bad at 2,138 (i.e., -0.47% in one month). This is not surprising, because the Saturday Guardian is now largely indistinguishable from its Sunday stablemate and people are tending to buy only one weekend paper.
The causes for these declines are, therefore, multiple (including online blogging?), and, of course, they reflect a general fall in newspaper sales (only a couple of titles are showing significant rises). But, more specifically, The Guardian has been badly hit by the new competitive tabloid versions of both The Independent and The Times (the former benefiting from a large percentage rise in its circulation, the latter from a smaller rise).
The Observer seems, however, to be in particularly serious trouble. It is being alleged that it has lost some £100 million over the last ten years since The Guardian took it over, which appears to have been a bad deal for both The Observer (which once had its own distinctive brand) and The Guardian. According to media rumours, this oldest of Sunday newspapers (founded in 1791) is now under review. The Guardian itself will probably have to go tabloid in the near future.
Interestingly, the good Dr. S demanded this morning that we also stop taking The Guardian and The Observer and just stick to having The Times delivered (we currently take both, as we have done for a long time). She declared that she has had enough of The Groaniad's morally bankrupt one-sided pontificating on everything from America to Israel and 'global warming'. I'm still holding in there (after all, we have read The Guardian throughout our lives), but I might (and I usually do!) lose these domestic debates. This is surely, granted in miniature, further bad news for both The Guardian and The Observer, because, as long-time Labour supporters, we are their quintessential readership.
But, sadly, I have largely to agree with Dr. S. The Guardian has become boring, repetitive, and shrill. Above all, it preaches. It also seems to be falling foul of a disturbing trend in many newspapers, whatever their assumed quality, namely a failure to distinguish clearly between reportage and propaganda, while, too often, it appears defunct in its critical values relating to age, Israel, America, and environmentalism. I thus don't apologise for repeating here part of a gently ironic post I made some time back about The Gloomiad's relentless and trendy 'intellectual' predictability:
[Now you’ll never have to read The Guardian again…..
I’m a publicly-spirited chap - so here is my attempt to save you ever having to fork out 55p on The Gloomiad again. As the headlines never change, why bother. This is a portmanteau Guardian for every day throughout the year. It might also be called: 'Spot the By-line' (affectionately, of course).
The Groaniad, any day in 2004
Holly Hobsbawm: 'Blair must be brave: tax, tax and more tax'
Maudlin Flags: 'Tears for our stressed-out children'
Rachel Whine: 'Why glogolisation is dangerous for us all'
Dave Vital: 'New study in Vanuatu shows GM crops cause impotence'
Peter Green: 'The world is doomed: new evidence on …..' [alter daily as required– asteroids or global warming or pollution or chemicals or GM or disease or allergies or introduced mouse/daisy or Lomborg or any scare story doing the rounds]
A.L. McOther: 'I don’t do coherent, but it must be Bush anyway'
Henry Moonbat: 'Blair, Bush and Monsanto in conspiracy over Scottish sheep farmer'
Barry Olde: 'Haiti [change country as required] – it’s all America’s and/or Israel's fault'
Jamie Gafkin: 'We must learn to breathe out hydrogen'
Arabia Felix: 'Supermarkets strangling our salsify and samphire'
Sean Milliner: 'Power to the Iraqi resistance'
Harry Hand: 'Power to the Grunwick strikers'
Care Long: 'My part in Blair's downfall'
Diary: Surveillance: Daily Mail ranter, Melanie Phillips, in the Muswell Hill Pizza Express at 12.30 pm on Saturday reading The Guardian. [And I didn’t make this metropolitan nonsense up!]
Letters: "So Blair and Bush don’t know who Bruckner is. Music to my ears." Stan Dart, Wapping.
Impossible Crossword by 'Araucaria' (the best thing in it).]
I do hope we can stay with The Guardian and The Observer and be one fewer statistic in their precipitate decline. Yet, if they continue to espouse little but the right-on attitudes of Dave Spartism and of a self-referential, privileged, often metropolitan, 'intelligensia' (who, however, seem to lack fundamental commonsense), then I might not be able to hold out against Dr. S. in full flight.....
And, for nearly all newspapers (with The Financial Times possibly the only true exception), the biggest problem remains an increasingly-worrying conflation between reporting and comment.
Philip, off to read - er - The Sunday Times with his coffee (they have a little letter of mine in today, so I feel kindly disposed towards them).
[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]