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, October 14, 2005

A stake in the Kyoto Protocol's and the IPCC's heart.....

Another stake has just been driven into the heart of the monstrous Kyoto Vampire:

From the ''Statement' of Lord Nigel Lawson, House of Lords, former Chancellor of the Exchequer (1983-1989) and former Secretary of State for Energy, United Kingdom, on the 'Kyoto Protocol: Assessing the Status of Efforts to Reduce Greenhouse Gases' (U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works Hearing Statements, October 5, 2005):
"In conclusion, I believe that the IPCC process is so flawed, and the institution, it has to be said, so closed to reason [my emphasis], that it would be far better to thank it for the work it has done, close it down, and transfer all future international collaboration on the issue of climate change, where the economic dimension is clearly of the first importance, to the established Bretton Woods institutions."

And just read this:
· "The IPCC’s consistent refusal to entertain any dissent, however well researched, which challenges its assumptions, is profoundly unscientific;

· Although its now famous 'hockey stick' chart of temperatures over the last millennium, which inter alia featured prominently in the UK Government’s 2003 Energy White Paper, is almost certainly a myth, the IPCC refuses to entertain any challenge to it;

· The IPCC's scenarios exercise, which incidentally incorporates a a demonstrably fallacious method of inter-country economic comparisons, manifests a persistent upward bias in the likely amount of carbon dioxide emissions over the next hundred years. For example, a combination of steadily increasing energy efficiency and the growth of the less energy-intensive service economy has led to a steadily declining rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions over the past 40 years: all the IPCC's scenarios unaccountably assume an abrupt reversal of this established trend."

Indeed, read it all. [So much for Mr. Oliver Letwin! See my Wednesday blog, below].

Philip, are we, at last, going to witness the monstrous Kyoto Protocol laid to rest? Now where is that big wooden cross? "A cup of Earl Grey first, Mary?".
The Homecoming for 'Global Warming' policy in the UK, or the Death of a Salesman.....

While Sir David King is going walkabout in Australia rabbiting on about 'global warming', back here in the UK, the Government is quietly, and with Blairite cleverness, sidelining the Kyoto Protocol, refocusing the whole debate on the contentious economics of climate-change policy. The process has been a slow boil, but things are now clearing through the steam, and I suspect that poor Sir David may, like Celia Johnson, be getting a bit of soot in the eye before his Brief Encounter with the rough world of politics comes to an end. The 'global warming' train is leaving Platform 9.75 on the track for Azkaban. Oh dear! Are we about to witness the Death of a Salesman? For...

First we had this: The House of Parliament, 6 July 2005, The Lords on the economics of climate change policy:
"The UK Government should review its climate change policy, including the roles of renewable energy and energy efficiency...

Lord Wakeham, the Chairman of the Committee, said:

'We call on the Government to give the Treasury a more extensive and more rigorous role in examining the costs and benefits of climate change policy and presenting them to the UK public.'

'We are also concerned about aspects of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) and want to see the Treasury more involved in this.'

The Committee concluded that:

The science of climate change leaves considerable uncertainty about the future.

The balance between mitigation and adaptation needs to be re-examined. The costs of mitigation are uncertain, as are the benefits which are also more distant. Adaptation - including for instance flood defences and water conservation - has recognisable costs and calculable benefits.

Because the Kyoto Protocol will make little difference to rates of warming and because a continuation of the same approach focusing excessively on emission reductions is likely to fail, the UK should take a lead in exploring alternative approaches based on agreements on carbon-free technology and its diffusion.

There are concerns about the objectivity of the IPCC process and about the IPCC's crucial emissions scenario exercise.

Positive aspects of global warming appear to have been downplayed in IPCC reports. The Government should press the IPCC to reflect the costs and benefits of climate change in a more balanced way.

The Government should review its energy and climate policy which includes some dubious assumptions about the roles of renewable energy sources and of energy efficiency.

The Government should review and substantiate the estimated costs of achieving its objectives, and present these estimates transparently to the public.

UK nuclear power capacity should be maintained at least at its present level, even after existing plants have been decommissioned..." ["Couldn't have put it better myself, Your Lordships!"]

And this week we have this: HM Treasury, 12 October 2005, Press Release:
"Sir Nicholas Stern FBA, currently Second Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, has been appointed by the Prime Minister as Adviser to the Government on the economics of climate change and development. In this role Sir Nicholas will report to the Prime Minister. This appointment will strengthen still further the work on the Gleneagles agenda on climate change and development.

Sir Nicholas is already closely involved with both issues. He is presently leading a major review of the economics of climate change, reporting to the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. This review was announced by the Chancellor on 19 July and both the terms of reference and a call for evidence have been announced today. He was also Director of Policy and Research for the Commission for Africa which reported in March 2005. Before joining HM Treasury, he served as Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank from 2000 to 2003.

He will remain the Head of the Government Economic Service, the professional body for economists within the civil service, and will continue to serve on the Treasury Management Board as a non-executive member."

Now you really know that the Kyoto Protocol is dead and buried in the UK when it is handed over to... The Treasury, and to a leading proponent of economic growth, globalisation, and free trade to boot. That's it!

And, meanwhile... back in the Old Europe of Merkel's Germany, the Greens are just fading away: 'Has the Green dream wilted?' (BBC World News Online, October 13):
"Only half a decade ago the future of Europe looked greener than ever before.

Green parties were part of the governments of five European countries, pushing the environment closer to the forefront of policy-making.

'Some had the impression that a luminous sunflower was hanging in the grey sky,' wrote Juan Behrend, the former secretary general of the Green federation in the European parliament.

But that era is now over.

With the cementing of a grand coalition in Germany this week, Greens have lost their last toehold in western European government, and their most recognisable figure, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, is out of office..."

The post-materialist dreamers are about to experience the harsh light of a hard economic and political day.

Philip, feeling rather Pinteresque as he has been predicting all this darkness under the babble for some time. Lunches and Nobels all round. Hm! The smell of butternut squash soup. Yummie!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Norm and Ollie, or "Another fine mess you've got me into".....

Did I hear aright on this morning's Today programme? Or was it the fag end of some overheated nightmare? Oliver Letwin of the Conservatives (MP for West Dorset) and Norman Baker of the Liberal Democrats (MP for Lewes) are going to try to form some unholy alliance to deal with climate change - "because it is so serious"! Oh dear! Oh my! Has it dawned on these gentle souls that, even if they could do something about climate change which would work predictably (which they can't), their economic and political approaches are Hayeks apart?

I must say, as a down-to-earth Labour lad, I simply burst out laughing and nearly knocked over my coffee. And Margaret Beckett's comment was perfect and apposite: "Interesting!" Quite.

From the point of view of the Conservatives, this is Alice-in-Blunderland madness. "Another fine mess you've got me into, Ollie!" But then, the Conservatives are, at the moment, a risible shambles and being sucked into 'command-and-control' socialistic policies won't make a spot of difference, will it? Their 'True Blue Capitalist' supporters will be even more bereft of a port in the political storm. Whoever is made the new Leader of the Conservative Party is going to have to rein in Mr. Letwin swiftly and firmly. The Conservatives need to be taken seriously. Presently, they look like rabbits facing a stoat - weasily discarded.

And Norman Baker? He's a lovely lad (I've even supped a happy pint of Harveys with him down there in Lewes), but the Lib Dems are so wet on topics like energy and 'global warming' that you can shoot snipe off their leaflets. You just can't take them as a serious party of government.

And, of course, the moment these Tweedledums and Tweedledees begin to discuss topics like nuclear power and wind farms, they'll soon be fighting again over the rattle. When the Conservatives start to support wind farms, they will lose half of their rural votes overnight; when the Lib Dems support nuclear power, they will have grown up (at last!) and returned to being true Gladstonian Liberals rather than soggy Green lefties.

I suppose it all adds to the gaiety of the nation. But when will politicians learn that 'halting' climate change is beyond their petty parliamentary punches and that the jolly UK (less than 1.5% of world energy consumption by 2020) is no longer a big player in the energy game? Moreover, ask anyone outside the UK if they have even heard of Norm or Ollie? Or, for that matter, the Lib Dems, or even, these days, the Conservatives? And precisely what will the new young Liberal turks feel about Norm and Ollie and their latest wheeze?

I thought Oliver Letwin was supposed to be a bright, sharp Tory hopeful. He should know better - as on tax?.

This is the politics of Ruritania:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

Philip, I hear the Red Queen will make the next move. Norm and Ollie are just pawns in the game. What a gambit! "Tea, your Majesty?" "Off with their heads!"

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Back to biogeographical basics (environmental reporters please note).....

Here is a short but thoughtful comment, and useful link to a penetrating longer article, both by Jon Christensen, a Research Fellow in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy, Stanford University, over at The Uneasy Chair blog: 'What if we're wrong' (Conservation in Practice, Oct-Dec 2005 Vol. 6 No. 4).

In the latter, Jon recalls seven assertions, based on recent biogeographical research, challenging current theory made by the eminent New Mexican biogeographer, Professor James H. Brown, an absolute leader in his field:

1. Species diversity of most taxa inhabiting islands and insular habitats is far from a dynamic equilibrium between opposing rates of colonization and extinction;

2. Much, perhaps most, speciation is not allopatric;

3. Different taxonomic groups living together in the same place usually do not have congruent biogeographic histories;

4. Range shifts in response to major geological and environmental changes have not been unidirectional and coincident across different species, lineages, and functional groups;

5. Diversity of most lineages cannot be explained simply by a difference between speciation and extinction rates;

6. Latitudinal and elevational patterns of diversity are often different;

7. The current rate and magnitude of human-caused global extinctions are not the greatest in Earth history.

As an 'old' biogeographer myself, I would agree with all of these points. Indeed, I very much hope that, as Jon avers in his blog, we are experiencing a paradigm shift, for, as Professor Brown himself declared at the inaugural meeting of The International Biogeography Society (IBS): "Much current biogeographic theory is either wrong, too simplistic, or relevant to only specific instances..."

Watch this space you environmental reporters who have assumed so much ...

Philip, who always argues [along with Charles Darwin (for it is he!)] that biogeography - geography - is "... that grand subject, that almost keystone of the laws of creation." Time for tea in the parlour, Mrs. D.
Lest we forget: climate crisis - 1975 style.....

From Noah onwards, every age has had its climate crisis. So, lest we forget too easily, here is an article, 'The cooling world', from Newsweek (April 28, 1975) about the 1970's climate crisis of... 'Big Global Cooling':
"There are ominous signs that the Earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production - with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth..." (read on)

I make but two teeny observations:

(a) none of it happened; and,

(b) many of the 'Big Global Coolers' became - of course - 'Big Global Warmers'.

Read into this what you will.

Philip, absolutely fed up with the doomsters and the gloomsters who have been wailing and rending their organic kaftans since the late 1960s. It really is time to put a nylon sock in it! "Yes, dear! I am doing the washing!" Coffee in the giardino segreto first, of course.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Brief notes on the causes of tragedies.....

The earthquake which has devastated Pakistan, Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and Indian-controlled Kashmir, bringing such tragedy and human misery to this remote hill region, has, sadly, been expected by geologists for some time. The Indo-Australian Earth Plate has been moving north into the great Eurasian Plate at a speed of around 4-5 cm per year, but there has not been enough earth activity, to date, to release the resultant pressure. A major earthquake, or a series of significant earthquakes, was thus inevitable at some point in the wider region of the southern Himalayas, although the area struck was not necessarily the most likely to be hit. Moreover, though terrible, at 7.6 on the Richter Scale, the present earthquake is weaker than predicted by some, and this is deeply concerning because it is unlikely to have released sufficient pressure throughout the tectonic belt. Further powerful earthquakes are therefore likely along this most complex and active fault line, although nobody knows exactly where and on what precise timescale. There have already been a number of aftershocks, some over 5 or 6 on the Richter Scale, thus representing major earthquakes in their own right.

This natural tragedy is compounded by the difficult mountain terrain and the fact that this is a politically-disputed region and the home of many poor people. Neither the rugged landscape nor the buildings are readily earthquake-proofed, and mud slides are an additional hazard. With numerous small bridges crossing dramatic ravines, the transport infrastructure within the region is especially vulnerable.

By contrast, the loss of the European Space Agency's Cryosat spacecraft is a set back, but not a tragedy, and it is likely to have resulted from human error. The craft fell into the Arctic Ocean, north of Greenland, minutes after lift-off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Russian officials state that a problem caused the rocket's second stage to run out of fuel, so that it could not eject the probe. The craft cost £90m. Space travel remains, of course, a fundamentally risky business, and we can only be glad that no human life has been lost in this particular operation. However, in science, good data collection can only be welcomed, and it is a pity that an opportunity has been lost to measure changes in ice area and ice thickness. Debates will now have to take place about the feasibility of a second Cryosat mission, but in the light of many competing alternative missions.

For the people of Pakistan and India, however, true tragedy continues to loom, and there is the most urgent need to plan for the aftershocks and for the future earthquakes that are worryingly still expected along the southern flanks of the Himalayas. In this awesome task, both countries deserve the help and support of the whole world.

This BBC page lists all the major donor agencies, including Muslim Aid and the Kashmir International Relief Fund, and indicates how you may help (scroll down to 'How To Donate').


Sunday, October 09, 2005

Why 'Green Bunnies' will always be 'Unhappy Bunnies' (or the rage of impotence).....

I'm so glad I am not an ecofundamentalist. To be a 'Green Bunny' is to doom oneself to perpetual unhappiness, frustration, and anger with your fellow human beings and the state of the world. The reason is simple. Ecofundamentalism is utopian (and remember "utopia" means "nowhere"). People will just not do what you demand. You are never going to achieve even a smidgen of your desires, and whatever you do manage to squeeze from a reluctant and unconvinced populace, you will always, like Oliver Twist, be left wanting more.

'Global warming' is the classic instance. Forget the science. The real drive for 'global warming' has always been a neo-puritan agenda to limit growth, to make small beautiful, to reduce population to some nebulous optimum, to rein in the 'Great Satan' (America), to crush the car and aeroplanes, to curb capitalism and globalisation, to continue to laud it over the developing world, especially those rampant Asian dragons, and to return us all to a 'Golden Organic Age' that never was. So powerful is 'global warming' as a legitimising 'science' for this deeply emotional agenda that there is no way the 'Green Bunnies' can drop it, whatever the scientific, economic, and political realities. The burrow would collapse. I actually feel sorry for them.

For reality will always bring a cold chill to the burrow. As Mr. Blair reminded us only a couple of weeks ago, no country can afford to abandon growth, and debating globalisation in the face of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, South Africa - you name them - is like arguing whether summer comes before autumn. Indeed, rising CO2 levels are little more than a proxy measure of much-needed growth.

The truth is that the 'Green Bunny' agenda is just not going to happen, whatever the column inches of angst and anger in The Guardian, The Independent, and on Channel 4 (watch out for the new digital spin-off channel, More4, which launches this Monday, the 10th). There will be no limits to growth. Humans will continue to outpace limitations through constant adaptation and technological wizardry. Population will continue to rise naturally to around 8.9 billion, before the curve flattens through normal economic processes, through increasing wealth, and, hopefully, through the empowerment of women. Overall, life expectancy will continue to rise, despite the inevitable setbacks of AIDS and other viruses.

We will also, of course, continue to be afflicted by an ever-unstable earth, with earthquake, fire and flood, although the evidence clearly indicates that the more wealthy the country, the less damage these inflict. But stuff happens; that's life on a restless planet. And, there may indeed be that ultimate supervolcano or asteroid about which we can do absolutely nothing but pour out the single malt.

The 'Green Bunnies' are silflaying in the wind, and their increasingly shrill squeaks will follow, one by one, a pattern outlined in a brilliant article in The Economist way back in 1997 (I précis):

In Phase 1, some obscure scientists discover what they think is a potential threat to the Earth. In Phase 2, left-wing journalists oversimplify and grossly exaggerate the threat. The scientists become minor celebrities (The Big Brother Lab?). In Phase 3, the 'Green Bunnies' seize their opportunity, and they deliberately aim to polarise the issue - in the words of the original article: "Either you agree that the world is about to come to an end and are fired by righteous indignation, or you are a paid lackey of big business." In Phase 4, the bureaucrats emerge out of their cocoons, with international conferences mooted, thus keeping public officials well plied with club-class tickets and treats abroad. This inevitably diverts the argument to regulation, and totemic targets are set - and then ignored. In Phase 5, it is time to pick on a scapegoat. This is usually America, or 'big business'. Phase 6 sees the entrance of the sceptics who declare that the scare is grossly exaggerated. Again, in the words of The Economist article: "This drives greens into paroxysms of pious rage. 'How dare you give space to fringe views?' cry these once-fringe people to newspaper editors." Phase 7 witnesses the politicians and bureaucrats, and even some of the scientists who first proposed the scare, waivering, and trying to re-emphasise the scientific and political complexities. Meanwhile, the journalists start to get bored with the topic. Phase 8 becomes the quiet climb-down, while the issue slowly dies away from the headlines, to be replaced, of course, by a totally new scare. "And so", as Samuel Pepys might have said, "Back to Phase 1"...

In the long run, to be a 'Green Bunny' is going to make you a very 'Unhappy Bunny' indeed. Rupert Bear's 'Nutwood' is but a childhood Utopia; 'Virtualia', by contrast, is a future we cannot even yet conceive.

And 'Green Bunny' anger (not to mention More4) is but the rage of impotence.

[For an excellent reader on Utopias see: The Faber Book of Utopias, ed. John Carey, Faber & Faber, 1999 (2000).]

Philip, academically intrigued by Utopian 'Golden Ages'. They always end in tears before bedtime. Sunday lunch, on the other hand...

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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