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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...
As Jeremy Bugler wrote in his last blog (see 15th March, below), Chasing Ice really is one to watch. See the trailer for this extraordinary film here:
Now is the time of the year where rituals are undertaken which lift the spirits. One spring task I relish is chitting the spuds, a practice of no mean resilience value. It entails buying seed potatoes and putting them in trays, in good light but cool temperatures, to chit. A potato chits by sending out short green shoots, which when the potato is planted next month, give it a flying start and so bring nearer that lovely time when you raise the first new potatoes of the year, white and shining amidst the loam. So this weekend I set out my seed spuds in a cold front room, soaking up the light.
Usually, I get my seed potatoes from a nearby garden centre, but I have become worried about the way they are stored in these places - very often in conditions good for the OAPs who are their most popular customers and but far too warm for spuds. This year I have bought them online and direct from Scotland, from where the best seed potatoes in the UK come. I have to say they arrived in perfect condition, amongst them enough for a good row of Foremost (aptly named - it is the best first early, I promise) and also a row of British Queen. This second early has an interesting history - it is a floury spud, and thus perfect for mashing in the mid-summer when you have got bored of salad potatoes. It was thought a lost variety until it was found still being sold in the Irish Republic, having been re-named Queens, the British bit being a serious turn-off in Ireland. (Old Irish republican slogan: “Burn everything British except their coal.”)
Just as I had finished setting out my spuds to chit, I bumped into John, our neighbouring farmer, down in our yard where he keeps some cattle. John: “They are lifting potatoes in Dorstone.” Me: “What?!” Had Dorstone, a village over the hill in the next valley, discovered some new secret for the earliest-ever potatoes? Turned out not. The farm workers were lifting spuds they couldn’t raise last autumn, because the land was soaked. So these potatoes had spent the whole winter in the ground. God knows what they are like. Perhaps this is a practice which will become familiar.
One thing in modern British life continues to surprise me. It is the capacity for people who have made major balls-ups in public life to continue steaming on, much as if nothing has happened. The City is stuffed with serial incompetents who appear and re-appear on the boards of public companies or in other institutions. Or think John Yates, the Scotland Yard detective initially in charge of the News of The World phone hacking. He solemnly told the Guardian there was nothing in the complaints. The comedian Mark Steele suggested that the BBC should do a series called Yates of The Yard, in which a detective keeps falling over evidence and failing to solve obvious crimes. Yates is now in a top job in a Gulf state.
One such well-bred Houdini (Eton and Magdelen, Oxford) is Viscount Ridley, otherwise known as the science writer and climate change sceptic Matt Ridley. Visc. Ridley was the chairman of Northern Rock in the period up to the collapse of the company and the first post-war bank run, after it had followed banking practices of wildness that even Bernie Madoff might have been too frightened to follow. The Treasury Select Committee’s report into Northern Crock found that Lord Ridley hadn’t got the right financial qualifications for the job and had failed to provide against the risks of the “reckless business strategy” pursued by his bank’s executives.
After such a mess, you might have thought that Ridley would have retired to his Northumberland estate, perhaps to look after bantam chickens or take up pigeon racing. No such luck. Amazingly, Ridley has just been elected to the House of Lords, in what Michael Grayshott in the current London Review of Books describes as one of “the most peculiar elections in the Western world.” A rump of 92 hereditary peers still exists in the House of Lords, the Commons have not got round to sending them packing back to their clubs. Every time one of their members dies, they can hold an election to replace him. And they have just voted for Ridley. (Though mind you, they might have voted for Douglas Hogg, who put the refurbishment of his moat on his expenses, to be paid by taxpayers. A Hogg would have been almost as bad as an ex-Rock chairman.)
Ridley is cheerful cove and relentless optimist. Indeed his last book is called The Rational Optimist, and argues that such things as climate change disaster are all exaggerated. He is a walking proof that too much optimism is bad for you. I must take this up with The Surgeon (who to be fair is not an unthinking optimist, but rather an anti-miserablist).
Last week, I finally caught up with that extraordinary movie Chasing Ice. It was showing at the Borderlines Film Festival, Britain’s largest rural film festival, centred in Hereford. (Plug, I know. I am on the festival’s board). In the film, a National Geographic photographer, James Balog, sets himself to record what is happening in the Arctic, as glaciers retreat and ice-caps melt. He erects time-lapse cameras alongside glaciers in Alaska, Iceland and Greenland, returning at intervals. I suppose it is the speed at which the ice is melting that is so extra-ordinary. A large audience gasped as they say how a massive glacier was not only retreating but thinning. It is by far the most terrifying film I have seen in years - Django Unchained is a child’s panto-party by comparison and The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre is a baby shower.
I feel that if anything is going to awake a climate change sceptic, Chasing Ice will do so. I resolve to send DVDs of the film to Matt Ridley and to Owen Paterson, the cc sceptic who is, oddly, also Secretary of State for the Environment.
Deep in Herefordshire, we’ve been talking about The Size of Wales, the green charity which two weeks ago succeeded in its target of raising enough money to replant rainforest the size of the Principality. (see my blog of March 4). A few of us have resolved, in principle, to set up The Size of Herefordshire, with the same ambition scaled down to our county size. Herefordshire in fact is pretty much 10 per cent the size of Wales, so by that comparison, we’ll have some £200,000 to raise. But first comes a lot of research into how to do what we want to do, as well as how to shake down Herefordians for the loot to do it with. I’ll keep you posted.
The moment when I became absolutely certain that great changes are afoot in Africa came a couple of weeks ago. I was in a very remote village in the Luwero district of Uganda, so remote that in getting there I had asked the driver how on earth could he tell the way, since we were now travelling not along a track but a rough pathway. Emma, our excellent driver, only smiled as we hurtled pass banana plantations, conveying four of us, all fund-raisers for a clean water charity named Busoga Trust (www.busogatrust.co.uk).
At the end of the pathway, there was the small village of Kasambya, a cluster of buildings, a cluster of people. The village was in the last stages of completing its first well, which when the Suffolk-built pump is attached to its concrete lid, will provide clean water to the people of Kasambya for the first time. Up to now, the villagers have had to get their water from a pool in a swamp, where animals also drink. The water there is filthy and full of very nasty bugs.
It wasn’t, though, the new water well that made me feel Africa is stirring. After all, Uganda and other African countries are dotted with wells, quite a lot of them sadly not working. It was one of the welcoming party, a middle-aged man speaking excellent English, but wearing clothes tattered from months of work in the fields. We’d been talking and then he said suddenly: “Could you give me your email address?”
The request came from a villager who lives in a community without any electric power, where people light their homes with paraffin lamps, where some of the cooking is still done in the traditional method: a pot on top of three stones and firewood. But the villagers also have mobile phones, which are transforming Africa. Uganda has transmission masts everywhere, and has better mobile coverage than, say, Herefordshire, as my curses attest. Ugandans use their mobiles for sending and receiving money (the celebrated MobileMoney system), for getting news, including news of the prices their crops may fetch in the local markets, for communication. And now smartphones have arrived, re-chargable by solar … not as cheap as the basic mobiles which can be had for £12 or less, but still affordable for some. And with the smart-phones come email…
Another token of rapid change in Africa we experienced was less electronic; three rows of sleeping policemen (or rumble strips), each about 50 yards apart and set right opposite the hotel we stayed in for three nights. The strips had been laid down about six months ago and were causing trauma for both the guests and the hoteliers. Every 20 seconds or, a lorry travelling along this road to or from the Congo and Rwanda, would crash over the strips. If the lorry was heavily laden, the noise was bearable. But if the lorry was empty, the sound was like a Tornado jet fighter going through the sound barrier. The hotel staff said they no longer registered the noise, but the guests were wrecked by it. If you got to sleep, you wouldn’t sleep long. An American there, Tom by name, working as an agricultural adviser for USAid, wondered if the hotel was being shaken down by a local mob: the strips stay until you cough up.
The interminable crashes and explosions, though, attested to the amount of trade going on. Uganda and much of East Africa is experiencing a building boom, and huge quantities of building materials are being shipped around. One breakfast, we read the Ugandan paper New Vision, which includes an expose of the illegal timber trade. Trees are being mass-felled in the Congo and smuggled into Uganda. Is there hope?
Mercifully we return home to some good news, some rays of hope, which will get me off a dressing-down by The Surgeon, our neighbour and optimist. A charity called The Size of Wales has raised enough money to re-forest a tropical area the size of the Principality. (www.thesizeofwales.org.uk) The organisers, working from the small town of Llandiloes, had got fed to the very back teeth of hearing on the radio and TV that clichéd form of measurement …“Last year, rainforest the size of Wales was felled in the Amazon basin/ Indonesia/Africa..” The Size of Wales has raised £2 million pounds, and one of its projects, I am thrilled to see, is in a deforested area of eastern Uganda called Mbale. Thirty villages are being involved and work given to 1,600 people.
Now Denmark is reported to be starting a Size of Denmark project (the Danes have about twice the land area of the Welsh), though I was a bit underwhelmed by the Irish project, called the Size of Phoenix Park. OK, Phoenix Park in Dublin is one of the bigger urban parks - it even includes a racecourse - but for God’s sake, couldn’t they have tried the Size of Co. Galway or something? An area the size of Phoenix Park is clear-felled every five minutes (and that’s just by your local Dublin tree surgeon.) What next? The size of St Stephen’s Green? The size of the lawns in the front square of Trinity College?
This is the second year I’ve been to Uganda to look at water well projects. I was also very struck, this year, by the number of occasions on which villagers gave speeches thanking the Busoga Trust for a new well and also asking for a second or third well. “The village is growing” they said “half the village still needs clean water.” The trust’s benign and excellent manager in Luwero, Moses Mugabene, had a special calm face, on which he gave away nothing, not even when one villager asked for ten wells, in a speech of extravagant exaggeration. Moses has to field all the requests from the villagers in his district and then decide which ones can go ahead, according to need but also to the local geology.
Population is still a tricky issue to raise in some quarters; I was warned that some Ugandans would be touchy about it, though in practice I found all Ugandans I raised it with were happy enough to talk it through. The problem is this in a nutshell: a new report from the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau indicates that Uganda is heading to have the world’s highest population growth rate in the world. In 2003, its population was some 27 million – on current trends, this will be 130 million by 2050. Carl Haub, a demographer at the PRB says that such a population will entrap Ugandans in poverty and instability. “No one would consider such a rate of growth to be sustainable” says Mr Haub.
So I had a mixed feelings in the seeing the crowds of young children in the villages - delight at their animation and fun and clear intelligence, concern about what sort of a society they are growing up into. One clever woman, a graduate of Makere University in Kampala, told me that the education of women was the key to getting people to have smaller families. “If you are educated, you want a job, not just to be having children all the time.” I asked her about her own family. She was one of ten. I asked her about her nephews and nieces. She shrugged that she didn’t know them. One sister has thirteen children, another ten. Too much even for birthday cards. She, however, wanted perhaps two children. When the right man presented himself.
On our small farm, in the past few days, it has been raining carbon fuel. Now I am not reporting that an oil gusher has emerged suddenly, in west Herefordshire. The story is less dramatic. Very high winds have brought down a shower of twigs and small branches from the walnut orchard that lies near the house. (Explanation of walnut orchard, a relative rarity in Britain: Edmund Wall, the farmer here before us – who was still occupying the bedroom in which he was born - decided to plant walnuts and being a farmer, Edmund could only plant a crop. So in a two acre field we have 26 huge walnut trees, producing bushels of walnuts.)
The twigs are additional crop: they make very good kindling and save me from either splitting up kindling myself or buying the stuff. Moral: it’s an ill-wind that blows no kindling.
Ill-winds they were, too - immense gusts, lifting tiles off old barns and corrugated iron sheets off newer ones. Climate change is bringing surprises, and I guess we will have to get used to more of them. Last year, I had repaired an old shed which had many planks missing from its sides. Hardly had the lovely new feather-edged boards been nailed into place than a great wind blew up. It was not content with merely damaging the old shed. Now getting inside a shed with no missing planks, the wind was able to lift the whole building up in the air and dump upside down, shattered, many yards away.
I have a strong feeling that there will be a lot more flying sheds - and larger buildings – in the coming years.
Confirming this feeling, Lord Nicholas Stern had some grim things to say when interviewed at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, quite in defiance of The Surgeon’s demand that we shouldn’t be so sodding gloomy. Lord Stern was the author of the very important review published in 2006 which predicted there was a 75 per cent chance of global temperatures rising two to three degrees in this century. In Davos, however, Lord Stern said he’d been much too optimistic. He now believes we are “on track for something like four.” Had he known the way the situation would evolve - nations doing damn all to halt CO2 rising - “I think I would have been more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a 4 or 5 degree rise.”
Backing him up, Jim Yong Kim, the new president of the World Bank, also gave a Davos warning of what such major rises in temperatures would mean. “There will be water and food fights everywhere” he said, pledging to make tackling climate change a priority of his term.
I think world leaders and ordinary folk are both starting to suss that something grim is rumbling down the road towards us. (Read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees if you really want to get a notion of what 4 degrees would mean.) Something as mundane as buying potatoes is a portent of what just half a degree can mean. In a Hay-on-Wye shop this week, I whistled at the price of the Caras I was buying: “It’s crop failures” said Alex in the shop. “A lot of last year’s crop was left in the ground. Couldn’t be lifted.”
A little imagination is needed. One such thing: I foresee that in the future there will be Climate Change Trials, in which major politicians (such as the Georges, Bush and Osborne) are put in the dock to account for their obstructions of climate change control measures. Seems absurd now. But in 2030?
Interesting, in this context, to read in the Acclimatise Newsletter that major corporations are now concerned that their businesses risk being damaged by climate change. When big companies develop an interest, they at least have very effective ways of getting politicians to listen. Politicos can patronise and ignore greens all the day long, but when RTZ or Nissan coming knocking, the door is quickly flung open.
David Cameron, however, seems to have lost his early interest in climate change, when before 2010 he did such things as travelling to the Artic and kissing baby polar bears. He now gets most over-heated about such things as terrorism in the North African Maghreb. I reckon he must have caught the Tony Blair bug ( t.blairii ) off the upholstery in No 10. ( TB Bug: “There are bad people out there. We have a moral duty to duff them up.”)
I think Cameron could do a lot more to cheer us up, and keep The Surgeon happy, by announcing a National Resilience Programme. This programme would include steps such as requiring by regulation supermarkets to keep major stores of imperishable food in each store, shifting away from the just-in-time approach. Doing the same for medical supplies and energy. Developing basic transport networks that are engineered to withstand extreme weather events. Fostering new farming approaches that cater for huge rains or fearful droughts.
Now such a programme would really be something to get excited about.
We can't believe it but Get Resilient is 1 today! Many thanks to everyone who has contributed, commented, shared and supported us in our first year. Stay tuned for big things in 2013!