New technologies are shaping our cities in ways that we have not seen before. IT systems ca...
New technologies are shaping our cities in ways that we have not seen before. IT systems ca...
TARU Leading Edge is a leading Indian Think Tank exploring issues of climate change resilienc...
The lively market town on the Welsh borders, Hay-on-Wye, is once again hosting its annual festival, the most successful festival not devoted just to music in Britain. I was once wandering around Hay, a few years ago now, with the wonderful writer and friend Richard Boston. He looked at the populace and said; “This town is full of lunatics.” I disagreed: “Nonsense. It’s just a lively market town on the Welsh borders.” Then around the corner came a man dressed in a Roman toga. “I rest my case” said Richard.
This year’s festival includes some lunatics but the sane and sensible are far more evident. One of the persistent strengths of the festival is its interest in environment issues. This year, as before, an excellent green programme has been put together by Andy Fryers; the Hay-on-Earth programme has in fact been running for seven years now.
The highlight green event so far has been Nicholas Stern giving the British Academy lecture. Six years ago, Lord Stern was also at the Festival, also talking about climate change and his landmark report which showed how the costs of not doing anything to mitigate climate change far exceeded the costs of action.
Now he was back again, looking trimmer and younger if anything, which was more than can be said for the globe. Fascinatingly, he set out what had changed in the six years. There had been less political progress, but more technological progress than he and others had foreseen. The Arctic ice was melting much faster than people had predicted. He gave short shrift to those deniers who argue that the slower rise in global surface temperatures this century give cause for comfort. El Nino, a weak cycle of solar activity, rise of temperatures in the deep oceans and the effects of aerosols have held global surface temperatures steady - but this will not last, sadly.
He was intriguing about the green leadership being shown by China, which is taking climate change very seriously, as well it might with most of its population living around its shores. Stern put this enlightenment partly down to the fact that many in the Chinese leadership have engineering degrees, mostly from Tsinghua University. They understand and accept the science of climate change. In the US, on the other hand, there was good local progress but Congress was a roadblock. “The Republican Party has declared war on the laws of physics” he said.
Nick Stern’s view is that we are headed for temperature rises of 3.5 to 4 degrees well within a hundred years, unless serious in-roads are made to reduce the 50 billion tons of CO2 being emitted. We need this down to 20 billion in 40 years.
Meanwhile David Cameron is surrounding himself with deniers and firing civil servants working on climate change adaptation.
One woman stood to say…”Many people now are afraid…” We are right to be.
The opening green session of the Festival featured the environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, who spoke about her work to get the international crime of Ecocide accepted as an amendment to the Rome Statute of the UN. It would outlaw dangerous industrial activity and would create a legal enforcement mechanism which could result in people who cause such damage, from CEOs to Ministers, being prosecuted. The most impressive Polly Higgins said that it was possible this crime could be in place by 2020 - one of the most cheering statements of the day. I have never liked lawyers so much.
The session was also enlivened by Molly Scott Cato, a professor of economics and leading Green party member. She’d just come back from Brazil - on a cargo ship. It took only eight days to cross the Atlantic. That’s the sort of speed I like.
Molly Scott Cato dealt briskly with the usual wind farm objector, shooting down his points like a Mustang fighter. No, wind turbines in the right place were beautiful. No, they did not take 20 years to pay off the energy used to build them (it’s now about 10 months.) The key, she thought, to making wind farms popular was to follow the Danish example - where most wind farms are owned not by private speculators but by co-operatives, giving reduced energy bills to local people.
I walked out of this session in a much better temper than I bore in with me.
I would wager that with 20 years it will, in some countries, be a criminal offence to deny that climate change caused by man’s activities is occurring.
May 1st was an unusual May Day in our neck of the Herefordshire woods. For one thing, the trees were bare, not a leaf emerged, a greatly discomforting sight. The grass was growing at last, the sheep had something to eat, but while some of the hedgerows were in leaf, the trees were stark, Shakespeare’s `bare ruined choirs’ indeed.
The night before, my wife said, with reason, that this is what our springs will look like if the Gulf Stream packs it in. The blood draining from my brain, I was saved, perversely, on May Day itself by a farmer talking on Farming Today. He said that the EU ban on the bee-destroying neonicitinoids would force him to use even more destructive insecticides on his oil seed rape. Amazingly, the Farming Today presenter did not call for the BBC security guards to escort him from the building nor even challenge him. This is a farmer growing a crop with little social value, much of oil seed rape being used for bio-diesel. To my mind, he is rather like a car thief complaining that if car security gets any better, he will be forced to turn to house-breaking.
The answer for the farmer here is simple: don’t grow oil seed rape here, if the only way you can do it is destroy the insects on which we all depend.
Having come to this conclusion, I felt much better and leaped out of bed to make the tea.
One of the pleasures of growing one’s own vegetables is choosing the varieties, reading the seed catalogues and their fulsome promises. I choose some varieties just by their names alone. Years ago there was a runner bean on sale called As Long As Your Arm. I always bought it. Today, Simpson’s sell a lettuce with the delightful name La Grosse Blonde Paresseuse - The Fat Lazy Blonde. She is well-named, for she sprawls around the garden in an idle way. This year, I have planted the Blonde in the heated greenhouse, and boy, how she is loving it. She lies back, soaking up the heat, getting fatter as even you watch her.
At a lunch party the other day, I was shocked when a good friend remarked that she didn’t eat meat “except chicken, because chickens are stupid.” As the keeper of a 14 strong flock, I took mild offence. Our chickens display many signs of intelligence. On arriving at the farm, they quickly learn its geography and the shortest routes to the barn, to the bird-feeders, to the sheltering hedges. We have one chicken who specialises in laying her eggs in secret places, where she hopes we can’t find them. As she approaches her secret place, she feigns nonchalance, scratches her back, examines her claws, all the while watching me out of the corner of her eye. As soon as I turn my back on her, she’s vanished, fooled me once again. Often I cannot find her laying places. I think this shows intelligence.
Interesting contrasts in reactions to the news last week that for the first time in human history C02 concentrations have passed 400 ppm. The Independent reported that several senior civil servants with responsibility for climate change have either resigned or been moved, while the Prime Minister is increasingly surrounded with climate change deniers. I call this the “Pull the Blankets over the Head” response.
More intelligently, there is growing interest in climate change adaptation - accepting that it is happening and getting ready, as much as we can, for it. This is what the Get Resilient website has been devoted to pursuing. More power to its elbow.
For a good summary on where we are in climate change politics and realities, I can recommend the current issue of The London Review of Books, where Thomas Jones writes an excellent piece.
At a good party in London last weekend, a cheerful cove engages us in conversation with the novel ploy: “Don’t you think the Blairs have been terribly badly treated? They have four policemen around their house day and night and they can’t go out without protection?”
New Labour, of course, had its heart the core belief than any problem, however toxic or complex, can be spun. The Iraq War, most notably, was spun, not just with the Dodgy Dossier, or Tony Blair’s mendacious assurances to the House of Commons on WMD, but also with the carefully managed inquiries, the selection of the friendly judge (Lord Hutton) or the sympathetic panel (Chilcott). Even now it goes on. Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, has refused Chilcott permission to publish the communications between Blair and George Bush about the war. He’s done this, he says, because publication would damage Anglo-US relations. This factor weighed more heavily with him than the public’s right to be fully informed about what led the UK to go to that disastrous war in which many Britons and countless Iraqis died. (Lord Gus, who the hell pays yours wages? Your pension? The US State Department?)
One after-effect New Labour have not been able to spin away is the public disgust with Tony Blair. That is why he has to be smuggled into buildings, surrounded by over-size security gorillas. Just for once, spin has not been able to work for New Labour.
An extraordinary idea occurred to me the other day: I might be wrong. Even about climate change. The notion came to me after reading Simon Hoggart in The Guardian. He was assessing Thatcher’s record and found little positive in it. He did however believe she was right about the Falklands War. The same sentiment was expressed to me by Matthew Engel, the FT’s best scribe and a neighbour a few valleys away. Well, during the Falklands War, I was pretty disgusted with the whole performance. I drank at the time in the Crystal Palace Tavern, a licensed premises in East Dulwich, South London. Its customers divided into groups during the short war. There was the white English working-class, who were set alight with patriotism by the war... There were a few tables of card-playing West Indians, who were largely indifferent but if pressed thought that Brits ought to keep out of the southern hemisphere. There were a few Guardianistas, such as myself, who questioned it strongly. And there was an Irish contingent who hoped with a passion that Britain would be defeated in an utterly humiliating way.
One Irishman, Jim Logan, came in one evening. He had fought for Britain in the last war, being one of the first soldiers into Berlin, so could be taught no lessons on patriotism by plumbers and painters. He held up his hand for silence, and announced: “Gents, I have to tell yous that HMS Sheffield has been sunk by some kind of a Jewish missile” (He meant an Exocet). Jim’s demeanour was of a man telling of a disaster which had happened in a way that he had foretold. But understandably shock and bedlam followed. I beat a retreat. Next day, there was a framed photograph of the Sheffield above the bar, dressed in black crepe.
Simon Hoggart’s judgement was that Thatcher saved the Falklanders from a hideous fate under General Galterieri’s dictatorship – and indeed helped to free the Argentinians themselves from the ghastly General. He must be right here. I conceded, if a bit late. Qualifying, though, I do think the Falklands War revived both our imperialistic feelings and made the way for more wars of intervention. The Americans took note as did Tony Blair. The roots of the Iraq War lie in the Falklands. So it is a mixed picture.
Any readers of this blog may well say that I’ve been mealy-mouthed about omitting error. OK, here are a few admissions. I was wrong about Britain and the Euro, believing we should join at the first chance. In my early youth, I thought Mao’s China might have lessons for us, until I saw the Red Guards at the Chinese London embassy waving their little red books. Obvious nutters. I thought Thatcher would not last beyond one term of office. I have been wrong over and again about Crystal Palace’s chances of playing in the Premiership again. And I Have been wrong in other judgements too numerous to mention. However I’ve done no worse, perhaps, than David Aronovitch, the Times columnist who has travelled from CP member to Murdoch journo, en route becoming a florid supporter of the Iraq War and once declaring that if WMD were not discovered in Iraq he would eat his hat, in public. When they were not discovered, he wrote that his promise was just “bombast”. Ah well, David’s an amiable bloke in the flesh, just has a weakness or ten in judgement.
All this is by way of pre-amble to getting round to ask: what if I am wrong about climate change. What if the sceptics are right? What if Lord Lawson. Lord Ridley and Lord Monckon and, jaysus, Jeremy Clarkson are right? In his excellent new book The Silence of Animals, John Gray writes of the phenomenon of ‘cognitive dissonance’, in which people who passionately hold to some beliefs continue to find ways of doing so despite rock solid proof of error. Thus those who held to the Mayan belief that the world was going to end a month or so ago, still hold to that Mayan credo all the more strongly and will be back with a new date shortly. Believers in millennial faiths are serial sufferers from cognitive dissonance. So I would suggest, are climate change deniers.
But then look at this: since the late 1990s, global temperatures have not risen, despite increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. In the last decade, they held steady. That’s enough for Lawson and his pals. One scientific explanation is that the world has been cooling for the last five millennia, and the increasing CO2 is halting the cooling in some decades, before overwhelming it in the following ones. To be frank, my own belief in climate change rests (i) on respect for the judgement of the vast majority of climate scientists and the International Panel for Climate Change (ii) the knowledge that Lawson, Clarkson et al know zilch of climate science (iii) that my own experience, in the English countryside, in Uganda, on islands in Greece, tell me that the climate is a-changing. (Lord Lawson knows nothing of the countryside. I suspect his idea of an outside experience is walking the length of Cheyne Walk in Chelsea).
A recent study in Science magazine, reported by John Timmer on March 7th sums up a study by Shaun A. Marcott, Jeremy D. Shakun, Peter U. Clark and Alan C. Mix. “Although the most recent decade (2000-2009) isn’t the warmest of the Holocene, it’s not too far off…. it was warmer than 82 per cent of the decades of the last 12,000 years. ‘Global temperatures therefore have risen from near the coldest to the warmest temperatures of the Holocene within the past century, reversing the long-term cooling trend”, the four authors conclude. And based on the records of things like solar output, ocean currents and volcanic eruptions, there’s little indication of anything other than greenhouses gases that could have caused this reversal.”
The report concludes that the world is certain to notch up a hottest decade of the entire inter-glacial period soon. I believe them. I hope though that should another decade pass with no rising temperatures and with the climate settling down, I will have the courage to eat my black Fedora hat, in a hot chocolate sauce, before an invited audience of climate change sceptics (yes, even the loutish Clarkson.)
Quote of the month: Jeremy Grantham, the successful financier and influential environmentalist in The Guardian on 23 April: “Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. It balances supply and demand in an elegant way that central planning has never come close to. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, they are the issues which are absolutely central to our long term wellbeing and even survival.”
In other news: Seen this week at the Welsh Mountain Zoo near Colwyn Bay: A chimpanzee staring at the humans staring at him, grimaces and then draws a finger across his throat, and grimaces some more. Does he know something that we don’t?
A long time ago, when I was a hack on The Observer, I had a scoop of sorts, a curious scoop because it was about something in front of everyone’s eyes, under their feet, around them completely. It was about the climate. In the early months of 1976, I became very aware how dry the earth had become. My hyper-awareness was due to my having an allotment in Dulwich, South London, where hoses were banned and only watering cans filled from distant stand-pipes allowed. This rule was rigidly enforced by a committee of grim-faced gardening gauleiters, who used to march around carrying out inspections. In very early spring in ’76, I found that had to start watering the spring cabbages and the broccoli to keep them going. To do this easily and at the same time elude the gauleiters, I used to get up at the very first light, taking a hose and give the allotment a good soaking before any of the Committee had even eaten breakfast. They were puzzled of course as to why my allotment looked so moist and fresh. “Hard labour” I used to say. They didn’t believe me but wondered how I was doing it. My allotment box was even opened to see if I had a hose coiled up in there (as if I would have been so foolish).
As the spring months rolled on, we still had no rain. I knew that there had been no rain in the winter and now it looked as if we were in for a serious drought. I mentioned it to the Observer New Editor, a decent man named John Lucas, who said – do a piece. That following Sunday, The Observer carried a big piece on the front page declaring that Britain was in trouble and water-less. It was the first major article in a national to herald the Great Drought of 1976, when the countryside resembled the interior of Saudi Arabia, a drought that lasted until September when the Government created the post of Minister for Drought, installed the amiable buffer Denis Howell, whereupon the heavens opened and it rained for four months.
I relay these events to make a point: on matters of weather and climate, gardeners and farmers are often the first to know what’s afoot. They are indeed close to the ground. And once again, I am worried. This is the most horrible spring I have ever experienced. Never anything so cold and so late; even the blackthorn, first to flower, is not out yet, in mid-April. In Pembrokeshire last week, the fields were brown and grassless, the local fire brigades already putting out brush fires. What’s going on? Some climate scientists are convinced that the rapidly melting Arctic Sea ice is the cause of the Jetstream moving northwards and producing this interminable Siberian north-easterly wind. Should this pattern continue, it is possible, isn’t it, that Britain’s climate will resemble that of Labrador, dry and cold, on our parallel on the other side of the Atlantic? If that’s right, my current gardening practice of spreading black plastic on the beds to help them warm up will be spitting in the wind.
As Britain faces major climate challenges, we surely need a cohesive society, working together. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies is the corrosion of cohesive society and the triumph of the individualistic. “There is no such thing as society” she said famously “only individuals and families.” The sad roll-call of Labour leaders extolling her qualities yesterday was a tribute not just to how New Labour was in essence Thatcherism-lite, but also how unaware of these politicians were of the major needs of a society facing the new century. Resilience has never been in their dictionaries.
The Surgeon has been surgeoned. His right shoulder had deteriorated to the stage in which it could barely lever a pint of beer to the lips. This appalling state of affairs called for drastic action and I am delighted to report that The Surgeon is doing well with a new shoulder, though one that has to be cossetted for the moment. I have characterised The Surgeon in this blog as an optimist. He thinks I have read him wrong, and that really he is a cheerful pessimist or a smiling fatalist.
To prove the point (and I think really he’s right), I quote from an email he’s sent me about John Gray’s new book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Myths. “It is very impressive. It is hard to argue with his disavowal of the idea of progress. Very closely argued and he makes sense of the disjunction between progress in knowledge, science etc and the complete absence of progress in politics, ethics and art. The human heart is ever the same and while occasionally we achieve a society where there is a ban on torture and people live prosperously together, it is like life disobeying the second law of thermodynamics – in the end we know that entropy will win and this glorious efflorescence of complex life will disappear as entropy runs downhill.”
Both The Surgeon and John Gray seem spot on to me. But where Gray is more, well, grey, The Surgeon’s innate good nature still keeps bubbling up. He ends his email by saying: “We just have to glory in the little temporary blips of beauty and loving kindness! Seize the day and enjoy the brief span allotted us.”
I’ll drink to that! Now where is that glass of claret I put down somewhere?
Rattus rattus, the Black Rat, is not popular in Herefordshire. Like many other farms, we have a Rat Man, by the name of Roy, who comes once a month to lay bait to stop the rats becoming masters of the farm. Roy is careful about his work and takes it personally if rats are found thriving on the farm. Once, he was disbelieving when I said that there were rats in the chicken run. He changed his position only when I reported that we now had more rats and chickens and that Con, an expert Irish builder, had told me; “I saw in the barn, with me own eyes, a rat as big as a fat Pekinese.” The Pekinese rat did not last long.
Locals talk of even more horrible ways than Warfarin (through which rats die of internal bleeding) to kill the rat. Of course, Rattus rattus is unpopular pretty well everywhere. One of my daughters, then living in Reading, had a rat jump out of a packet of cornflakes; she was unimpressed. Only in the London borough of Hackney did I come across someone who liked rats: she kept them as pets and smiled enigmatically as they ran up and down her arms and encircled her neck.
The Black Rat is hated, of course, for good reason: he spreads disease and destroys feed and food; he tunnels into walls. Now there is a new charge against him: he knocks out nuclear power stations. This week, the already crippled Fukushima power station had the power cut off to its cooling systems, causing a major crisis. A 6 inch long rat was found dead near a switchboard and is thought to have chewed through crucial wiring. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has been scrambling since to get power back on to keep cool the ponds in which spent fuel rods are kept.
For myself, I think Rattus rattus has done us a big favour. He has reminded us the importance of resilience in our power systems, and the vulnerability of nuclear power in particular. Nuclear in the UK has been coming back into favour; there’s the decision in favour of a new plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset… and there are also the pro-nuclear Greens. Amongst these are George Monbiot, a good man fallen among neutrons, and Mark Lynas, who last week was again sounding off, in The Observer this time, against environmentalists who opposed nuclear power. Both men reason that only nuclear energy can step in to replace coal as a power option – and that where nuclear stations are not built, then coal is the choice – the worst of all power sources as far as CO2 is concerned. Lynas specialises in abuse of green opponents.
Both men suffer from a poverty of imagination. In terms of creating a society with power stations that can withstand shock and disruption, nuclear power is the worst choice. As Lynas should know, we are entering a period of great climatic instability: one study suggests that a two degree warming of our climate (inevitable now) will produce ten times as many weather extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina. Nuclear power stations, often built on the coast, will be vulnerable.
Fukushima Dai-chi is serviced by an extraordinarily sophisticated technocracy, in one of the most advanced societies in the world. Yet even in Japan, the technologists are struggling still to close it down and clean it up, many months after the tsunami came rolling in. Imagine how future societies, very possibly shaken by wars over food and resources, will cope with nuclear power stations being hit by hurricanes and tsunamis. Will they always have white-coated technicians, experts in nuclear power, ready and able to rush to work to shut down the station before it melts down? Will the nuclear technicians alone be immune to the disasters that will hit societies? It seems unlikely.
Having bequeathed a highly unstable and difficult climate to our children, surely the least we can do is to spare them radioactive nightmares dotted around their nations and coastlines and give them instead power systems which are decentralised and as resilient to shock as we can make them.
Perhaps Rattus Rattus will bring this point home. He will then have done us a favour.
Nothing makes a politician panic more quickly than the thought of power-cuts. It is taken an item of faith that nothing defenestrates a politician faster than a failure to keep the lights on. This is why, I am sure, all the discourse is about supply – how to get more gas, electricity, oil. Very little is said about demand – how could we use less? The Electricity Bill trundling through Parliament has almost nothing in it on demand.
In Britain, we have truly barmy power tariffs. Broadly, the more power you use, the cheaper the power becomes. The most expensive tariffs apply to the initial uses of electricity. The tariff structure should be turned on its head, so people and businesses that leave their lights and heating on find it very dear indeed.
Might it also be worthwhile society re-assessing the idea that ‘all demands must be met’, which seem to apply in the areas of power supply and roads? Why not have limits on the amount of electricity a household can consume? That course might be preferable to building dangerous power systems.
The chickens have taken the unseasonable snow very badly. Initially, on seeing the snow, they refused to come out of their hut. I heard them muttering “March 23rd, for God’s sake. Why has Britain done absolutely nothing about climate change mitigation?” Only when I spread straw over the snow in their run, did they deign to lower their delicate feet onto the ground.