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, December 23, 2005

Our Christmas message: the sin of presentism and the state of fear.....

Mary ShelleyA volcano erupts killing 92,000 people. Drastic climate change afflicts Europe, laying waste to summer. Some 200,000 people die from hunger and cold. Frosts end in June and begin again in August. Mighty storms, unleashing abnormally-high amounts of rainfall, lead to severe flooding on many rivers, including the Rhine. War has just finished. The dreadful summer is compounded by post-war famine and dearth. There are food riots in Britain and France, violence in Switzerland. Grain warehouses are looted. In New England, people lose their livelihoods, and Joseph Smith Sr., the father of the Mormon founder, is forced to move his family, including the young Joseph (aged 11), from Vermont. High levels of ash produce glowering, spectacular sunsets around the world, which affect the palettes of painters like J.M.W. Turner. Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and their friends are forced to stay in doors for much of their Swiss holiday, resulting in Shelley'’s Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre.....

All is gloom and doom; "Is this the ending of the world?"

Sound familiar? But this was 1816, the Year without a Summer, not 2005.

The media are desperate to tell us that the year 2005 was the annus horribilis of all anni horribiles. It is, of course, bunkum, but such wanton pessimism reflects the curse of nearly every age - the sin of presentism - namely, the abiding conviction that everything about the present age is more wicked and more doom-laden than anything in the preceding eras of human existence.

In reality, of course, 2005 does not enter the top league of anni horribiles, and, even if we include the tragic Boxing Day Asian tsunami of 2004, this remains true. Just recall, for example, these selected disaster statistics for the first three-quarters of the C20 alone:

1900 - India: up to 3.5 million killed, drought and famine;
1917 - Typhus Fever (1917-22), Russia: up to 3 million deaths;
1918 - 'Spanish Flu' (H1N1): >25 million deaths (possibly 50 million);
1921 - Soviet Union (1921-22): up to 5 million killed, drought and famine;
1923 - Great Kanto Plain Earthquake (Yokohama, Tokyo): 140,000 killed;
1928 - N.W. China (1928-39): >3 million killed, drought and famine;
1931 - Huang He Flood, China: up to 4 million killed;
1936 - Sichuan, Hebei, China: 5 million killed, drought and famine;
1941 - Sichuan Province, China: 2.5 million killed, famine (plus war);
1957 - 'Asian Flu' (H2N2 and H3N2) (1957-58): >1 million deaths;
1965 - India (1965-67): 1.5 million killed, drought and famine;
1970 - Bhola Cyclone, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): >500,000 killed;
1975 - Henan Province, China: floods kill more than 200,000;
1976 - Tangshan Earthquake, China: 242,149 killed.....

And, if you want a truly devastating earthquake, you might consider 1556 and the Shaanxi Earthquake in China, which, at the lower population densities of the C16, still killed a dramatic 830,000 people.

Despite, therefore, the genuine human tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina and with the Himalayan earthquake, no 2005 tragedy has come anywhere near to matching the virulence of past events, not even in their own categories of disaster.

Yet, to employ the title of Michael Crichton's important novel, we indulge a 'state of fear', daily whipped up, knowingly, by politicians and the media.

I think it is now time to call a halt to this pernicious and deliberate peddling of fear. Newspapers like The Independent devalue the currency of past human disasters with their daily diet of doom - "I will do such things - what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth." At one and the same time, such self-inflicted pessimism is an insult to all those who have died and suffered in the many natural disasters of the past and it denies the brilliance of human adaptability to change and disaster.

The Christian story of the birth of a child in a manger is itself hemmed in with disaster, from the killing of the innocents to the nailing of a grown man onto a rough wooden cross in an occupied land. Suffering is at the very epicentre of the existence of humanity on Earth. Enlightenment thinking has never claimed to be able to answer the mighty question of suffering, but it does unravel the long truth of an ever-restless and dangerous Earth. And the cross, for Christians, is the ultimate symbol of empathy with, and triumph over, suffering, not a sign of despair. The women who wept at its foot were the first to experience a resurrection of hope.

Today, much of the world lives longer and better than at any previous period in history. It is the duty of those of us so blessed to aid humanity still afflicted by our restless Earth to achieve similar levels of progress and safety. Despair, and the wilful loss of hope, under such riches is a sin. Failed political states compound many times the toll of death, while trying to take us back to a non-existent 'Golden Age' (when disasters killed the poor in millions) is a dangerous conceit.

Promoting states of fear has become the self-indulgence of a spoilt and pampered North. It is the external expression of the sin of presentism, and it is time to lay to rest the Frankensteins and Vampyres that sap our will.

And, finally, if you want a Christmas present to counter all this and bring tears to the eyes, I must recommend the guttingly hilarious: The Book of Bunny Suicides (Hodder & Stoughton: ISBN: 0340828994).

Christmas wreathPhilip, my warmest "Good Wishes" to all 'EnviroSpin' visitors at this festive time and for a 2006 in which we regain a true sense of human (and climate) history. A toast to you all! "God bless us, every one!" [The image of Mary Shelley is in the public domain - from Wikipedia; the lovely Christmas wreath is courtesy of Animation Factory.]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The UK: end-of-term political review with respect to climate change and carbon claptrap.....

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, seems to be exhausted, and he is currently fighting for his 'legacy' on many fronts, with both Old Europe and New Europe; with the anti-Iraq War brigade, who will never forgive him, whatever else he achieves; with the rumbling Left of his own Labour Party; with his Chancellor, Gordon Brown (whose vaulting ambition may well o'er leap itself); and with the great intractables and bottomless pits of education and the National Health Service (NHS). With respect to climate change, Blair has learned painfully the stark realities of international politics, a politics in which the US, Australia, and a group of fast-developing countries all take a different view from that of his ever-sanctimonious, but largely failing, EU partners. Despite the genial efforts of Margaret Beckett, his Secretary of State, Blair increasingly exhibits declining energy for this issue, and he is delaying, yet again, the vital (and urgent) decision on nuclear power, following a disastrously pusillanimous energy white paper issued during his last administration. Blair's leadership of the G8 and of the EU finish this year, and both are looking bedraggled, although Blair undoubtedly deserves credit for focusing the world's attention on the plight of Africa.

And the longer-term prognosis? I should expect little further of any real significance on climate change. The economics are, at last, receiving serious scrutiny. More importantly, the New Year will be absorbed (and absorbing) with bruising domestic encounters, especially on education, the NHS, civil rights, and a range of other proposals, many bitterly contended by his own Party - and not just by the usual suspects. In addition, Cabinet unity will be strained, John Prescott, his once loyal Deputy, having, only this morning, broken ranks over education policy. As 'President' Blair nears the end, intriguing and manoeuvering with respect to the next 'Court of 10 Downing Street' will become endemic among ministers, Brownites versus Blairites.

Secondly, David Cameron has risen to power in the Conservative Party largely by avoiding spelling-out any detailed policies. He has devolved the initial stages of policy-making to various policy groupings, the environment ('Quality of Life' issues) having been allotted (most short-sightedly many think) to the Kyoto-loving and burger-touting John Selwyn Gummer and to the nuclear-power-loathing 'eye candy', Zac Goldsmith. Superficially, this is depressing, but the party and press are already hinting at dissent. I do not see a Conservative Party opposing a return to nuclear power, and, if they support wind farms, for example, they will enrage much of their rural hinterland. I also think that the harsh truths of international climate-change politics will soon begin to constrain any 'Little Britain' tendencies that might be tempted to surface. Moreover, business, in the past a natural Conservative supporter, will take kindly neither to further carbon taxes, curbs, and red tape nor to a Conservative leader, however young and dynamic, who starts to espouse authoritarian, socialistic, 'command-and-control' measures.

Moreover, Cameron has already been caught out on air over the shallowness of his climate-change politics, and by Today's big beast, John Humphrys, too. When asked what kind of action he would support, Cameron limply came up with biofuels. Humphrys was swift to make a jibe about this, noting, quite correctly, that many environmentalists [including, I might add, souls at the Environment Agency] believe biofuels to be extremely bad for the environment (and for biodiversity). It was not a good start on the details, and Cameron lamely replied that this was why he was setting up a policy group. All this leads one to question Cameron's experience, not to mention the wisdom of basing 'policies' on liberal-elite, metropolitan dinner-table chat and on a rather crass attempt to win over the wetter, 'beards-and-sandals' supporters of the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems).

And then, thirdly, we have Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Lib-Dems, a man who appears increasingly to be a lame duck, one badly wounded politically. Inevitably, Kennedy is the burgeoning subject of media speculation and risible commentary and excoriating cartoons. This is not entirely his fault. Kennedy is, somewhat wearisomely one guesses, trying to hold together a 'party' which is visibly splitting between the authoritarian 'Green' lefties, mentioned above, and true Gladstonian liberals. The sense in Westminster is that Kennedy will not remain leader for much longer, and that, for him, it is very much the Season of "Look behind you!" On the environment, the Lib-Dems inhabit Toytown. They are charmingly utopian in their approach to climate change and to energy, but they can't be taken as a serious contender for government. Until the Lib-Dems learn to face up to harsh political facts (like nuclear power), they will make little serious progress. They are even split over issues like wind farms, glibly supporting them nationally, while often opposing them locally. The thought of the Lib-Dems in power is terrifying.

All other parties require no comment, as they mainly add to the gaity of the nation, but little else. The Green Party is rather like the Lib-Dems, but with even more Green wellies and flowers in the hair.

Many people to whom I talk thus feel disenfranchised. The wishy-washy political consensus over climate change is sapping adult, serious debate in the UK, especially with regard to the economics of the issue and to energy. The last thing we want is a cross-party agreement on the subject. We are crying out for some hard-headed politicians to take a tough, realistic look at climate change and energy. Kyoto isn't working, and, in truth, the Protocol has presided over a massive increase in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The Montreal conference will make no change to this. There is even evidence that carbon trading is resulting in an increase in emissions. Yet, UK politicians feel bound to continue to mouth the rhetoric of Kyoto. Accordingly, the political gap between fact and rhetoric grows ever wider - a chasm of carbon claptrap. And this is a chasm eagerly exploited by all the big energy companies, who will happily play 'global warming' every which way, chasing the money wherever it politically pops up.

By contrast, in the real world, it is increasingly obvious to any objective observer that the focus of debate has already shifted to adaptation to inevitable climate change, to technological innovation and transfer, and to the countries of the Pacific Rim, from India and Indonesia, through China, to Brazil and Mexico.

Tony Blair knows this, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, he now lacks drive, being hog-tied by domestic battles and EU squabbles. The 'Little Britain Green' stance taken by David Cameron is potentially a disaster, and it does make one wonder about his inexperience and to question whether he is too enmeshed in thirties-year old, Notting Hill agenda-setting. Moreover, how does this stance square with his comments about needing more roads, about making the UK more competitive, and about cutting red tape for business? Meanwhile, back in Toytown, the Lib-Dems are plunging into pantomime, and, if they are not careful, they could well be blown away, along with with their utopian wind farms.

Thus, beyond a world-weary, but still driven, Mr. Blair, climate-change politics in the UK has something of the nursery about it. We are crying out for a brave, senior politician who can openly declare that the Kyoto Protocol is a disaster and that we must put our efforts into maintaining a viable and flexible economy, one that can support technological innovation and transfer, which can sustain economic growth, and which can adapt to climate change, whatever it throws at us [see: the following comment and economic critique, December 19]. We need a politician who can ignore the daily dose of doom served up by 'newspapers' like The Independent, with Britain, at one-and-the-same-time, one might add, turning into an Arctic tundra, a Mediterranean olive grove, a land of flood, a land of drought,and one with more species - er - or fewer species. We need a politician who truly cares for the environment sensu lato (including the urban environment), not one who is blown off course by every environmentalist whim, stunt, and shock-horror.

And the bottom line? We need a politician who will provide us, urgently, with an energy policy that will work and who will energise Britain for the future.

Philip, time to speak out, and for some political bravery. Carbon claptrap is warping British politics. Late lunch.

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

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