Fresh hope for a climate deal?

October 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

If you’ve been paying any sort of attention to the protracted, furious and utterly miserable fight over healthcare in the U.S. Congress, you probably won’t be holding out too much hope that this same body can agree to tough measures to combat climate change. Until yesterday, that is, when hope was restored by a quite unusual source:

First, we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security. That is why we are advocating aggressive reductions in our emissions of the carbon gases that cause climate change. We will minimize the impact on major emitters through a market-based system that will provide both flexibility and time for big polluters to come into compliance without hindering global competitiveness or driving more jobs overseas.

Whilst to most eyes the above paragraph is a fairly unremarkable, bog-standard political position, what makes it incredibly significant is that it was co-authored by Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator for South Carolina. In an op-ed which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, Graham & Democrat John Kerry spelled out their commitment to reaching a deal on climate change and pushing it through the Senate.

It’s the partnership between Kerry & Graham which gives me hope that an agreement can be reached. Graham is a hardcore Republican who doesn’t deviate too often from his party’s platform. But despite his trenchant conservatism, he is rational and seems increasingly eager to talk his own party out of its extremism – even to the point of publicly slapping-down Glenn Beck. Crucially, he also has power and influence on the rest of his party, and putting his name on any legislation could encourage the moderate Republicans in the Senate (all two of them) to follow suit.

It’s very early days, of course, and a speedy resolution to the health care impasse is vital for a deal to be reached before the mid-term elections. Still, it’s one to watch, I think.

Vestas & beyond: missing our green energy opportunities

July 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change | 1 Comment

turbine

The other day, a friend asked me to tap a few words in support of the protests by workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory who’re trying to stop the loss of over 600 jobs and a potentially important resource for expanding renewable energy. Whilst that support is freely given and sincerely felt, the circumstances of the case have been so widely-stated and well-documented elsewhere that I don’t want to spend too long restating the obvious.

It’s clear that Vestas has acted with contempt towards its workers: the practically non-existent dialogue, the transparent attempt to starve them out, the delivery of termination letters with the workers’ one hot meal, the shoddy paperwork filed to have them evicted, and the laughable charge from their legal team that there was a fear the protests could get ‘heated’ or violent.

Equally, whilst Ed Miliband has handled the matter better than one might’ve expected, the charge that his government has lacked leadership on this can’t be ignored. Whether the option is nationalisation or, more preferably, a kind of decentralised, locally-run operation, there is a case for the government to facilitate some kind of deal to save the factory.

But I’d now like to leave the particulars of Vestas’ closure to one side and try to consider the case from a national perspective.

The common purpose shown by the pro-labour left and the green movement (and obviously there are overlaps between the two), comes from two sources. First, concern for the livelihoods of workers at risk of unemployment and disgust at how they’ve been treated, but also from a wider feeling of anger & frustration at what many activists feel has been a lack of resolute commitment by the government to tackle climate change and remodel our system of energy production.

Those activists have a point. However, so does Miliband when he argues that government shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for the lack of progress on wind farms; many councils have been resistant or hostile to planting turbines in their back yards, and many community campaigns have succeeded in having plans to build one in their area aborted. If the green movement – and the general public – is serious about seeing wind power as part of our energy future, then solely lobbying central government isn’t the way to go.

So the fault is partly on this government, partly on us for resisting change, and partly on the failure of green activism to make a grassroots case for why action is necessary and what rewards can be reaped.

For me, this all rather underlines the urgent need to be more radical about clean energy, and for government to create the conditions which make it easier for us all to take ownership of spreading green technologies. If we could really push forward with the ‘smart grid‘, take greater steps to decentralise electricity production & distribution, and incentivise micro-generation , you might just see more switched-on (pardon the pun) energy consumers.

Let’s just take one example from abroad. Denmark is currently the biggest source of wind power in Europe, but to get to that position it encouraged the public to invest in it; offering tax incentives for people who either generated their own electricity or as part of a commune. Eventually wind turbine cooperatives became commonplace, with individuals being able to own a stake in the power being produced. In 2004, over 150,000 Danes either owned turbines or shares in a turbine cooperative.

Could this not work in Britain? If there were genuine economic incentives as well as environmental benefits for individuals & communities embracing wind power (and green energy more generally) would the resistance to them really be so great? The advantage of these reforms is that it could enable the general public to become more involved, but first the government needs to create the conditions & incentives for it to happen.

Again, aside from the specific cruelties of the Vestas case, it should seen as reflective of a sense of frustration about Britain’s environmental and energy future. To turn that into positive action, our best hope might be to (quite literally) put power in the hands of the people.

Cameron gets ‘smart’

January 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 2 Comments

It appears we can no longer doubt David Cameron’s commitment to a low carbon future. With his history of attention-grabbing gimmicks – whether cycling to work, erecting a windmill above his home or galavanting across the Arctic – many of us assumed the Tory leader was only interested in the PR opportunities ‘going green’ provided, and was rather less concerned with making the tough choices needed to meet future challenges.

But a day after bashing the government for its cavalier expansion of Heathrow, Mr Cameron has proposed arguably the best policy of his leadership – a genuine infrastructure project which could help the economy, cut our energy bills and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.

Cameron has committed the Conservatives to a £1bn pound investment in the country’s electricity network, and has promised a ‘smart grid‘ which will finally bring the way we produce, consume and pay for energy into the 21st century. So what is a ‘smart grid’, and why is the idea so good that I’m breaking the habit of a lifetime to praise official Conservative Party policy?

First, some background. The bulk of Britain’s electricity network dates back to the post-war era. In those days, because fuel was cheap and in abundant supply, and because concepts like climate change & energy efficiency were unheard of, it suited us to have a centralised system consisting of a small number of massive power stations guzzling coal and pumping the proceeds across the country – sometimes to towns and villages hundreds of miles away.

But in an age where we need to be more conservative with our use of energy, the current system just isn’t good enough. A massive two thirds of the energy produced in our large, fossil fuel-burning power stations never reaches our homes: they always produce more than is actually needed, waste massive amounts of heat and lose a considerable amount of electricity in transmission from supplier to consumer. In short, our system is the epitome of inefficiency.

To remedy this, the Tories plan to decentralise the national grid. By shredding regulation and offering financial incentives, they hope to encourage small businesses, schools, hospitals and even Joe Public to install their own renewable energy sources, which they can feed back into the electricity network. They hope that a revolution in ‘micro-generation’, in addition to larger, industrial forms of renewable energy, will replace our wasteful, fuel-burning behemoths, slash our carbon emissions and – by increasing the sources of electricity – reduce our energy bills as well.

To compliment this, the Tories want to see each home and business having its own ‘smart meter‘. Smart meters are a more modern and interactive version of the bog-standard electricity meter, and give consumers will have a clearer picture of how much energy they use, how much it costs, and gives them the ability to change suppliers and consumption patterns. It’s not quite the ‘internet for energy’ that Cameron describes it as, but it still transforms the use of electricity from one of passive consumption to something more active and energy-conscious.

Finally, each household will be given the funding of up to £6,500 to introduce energy efficient improvements. Whilst the government has schemes to achieve the same goal (albeity more incrementally), it’s still true that even after their plan is complete, some 14 million homes will still lack the most basic efficiency measures.

There are some criticisms to be made. For one, it remains to be seen whether a scheme of such high ambitions will only cost £1bn, and it’s not entirely certain how this investment coheres with the Tories’ promise to slash the rate of public spending. Second, as George Monbiot notes, the plan overstates the amount of energy which can be produced from micro-generation, particularly in comparison to large off-shore wind farms. You’re not going to meet your energy needs just by putting a solar panel on your roof. It’s also worth remembering that many of these proposals have already been made by the Green Party & Liberal Democrats, who’ve both been leading the way on green energy, even if it gets little attention from the media.

Nonetheless, this plan proves that Cameron’s Conservatives are deadly serious about creating a low carbon economy. We can question whether their policies are good enough, go far enough, or whether his opposition to Heathrow expansion was mere opportunism, but we can’t deny that he’s committed to finding creative ways of solving one of the most intractable problems this country faces. For that, and that alone, he deserves great credit.

Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

December 31, 2008 at 12:39 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Polar bear: "thank you Christopher Booker!"

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits:

Booker’s articles in The Daily Telegraph on asbestos and also on global warming have been challenged by George Monbiot in an article in The Guardian [1].

Booker’s scientific claims, which include the false assertion that white asbestos (chrysotile) is “chemically identical to talcum powder” [2] were also analysed in detail by Richard Wilson in his book Don’t Get Fooled Again (2008). (The chemical formula for talc is H2Mg3(SiO3)4 or Mg3Si4O10(OH)2, while the formula for chrysotile, the primary ingredient of white asbestos, is Mg3(Si2O5)(OH)4).

Wilson highlighted Christopher Booker’s repeated endorsement of the alleged scientific expertise of John Bridle, who has claimed to be “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”, but who in 2005 was convicted under the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act [3] of making false claims about his qualifications, and who the BBC has accused of basing his reputation on “lies about his credentials, unaccredited tests, and self aggrandisement”.[4].

Christopher Booker’s scientific claims about asbestos have been criticized several times by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. In 2002, the HSE’s Director General, Timothy Walker, wrote that Booker’s articles on asbestos had been “misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.”[5].

In 2005, the Health and Safety Executive issued a rebuttal[6] after Christopher Booker wrote an article suggesting, incorrectly, that the HSE had agreed with him that white asbestos posed “no medical risk”[7].

In 2006, the HSE published a further rebuttal[8] after Christopher Booker had claimed, again incorrectly, that the Health and Safety Laboratory had concluded that the white asbestos contained within “artex” textured coatings posed “no health risk”. [9].

In May 2008, the Health and Safety Executive accused Booker of writing an article that was “substantially misleading”[10]. In the article[11], published by the Sunday Telegraph earlier that month, Booker had claimed, falsely, that a paper produced in 2000 by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton[12], had ‘concluded that the risk of contracting mesothelioma from white asbestos cement was “insignificant”, while that of lung cancer was “zero”‘.

In December 2008, an article by Booker was published in The Daily Telegraph, ‘Facts melted by ‘global warming”[13] and subsequently in The Australian, ‘More inconvenient cold weather, snow and polar ice’.[14] The article claims that “Without explanation, a half million square kilometres of ice vanished overnight.” That claim is false as an explanation was provided on 13 December and Booker’s article was published on 21 December.[15]

If this doesn’t persuade you that everything the guy writes should be trusted, nothing will!

Anyway, if it’s really that easy to get a newspaper column to write about subjects you know nothing about, I think it’s time to get myself some of that. From now on, all of the posts on this blog will be detailed discussions about global economics. Granted, I have no academic training or related work experience, and some of my more controversial pronouncements (like ‘Capitalism Makes You Impotent!’ or ‘Marxism Clears Blotchy Skin!’) are based on flawed or fabricated evidence. But just like Booker can claim that cold winters disproves global warming, so I can claim that my lack of money proves the inherent evil of capitalism. Now all I need is for someone to hire me because, regardless of my rare imperfections, I’ll tell them everything they want to hear.

Form a queue people, and I’ll start reviewing job offers in the new year.

(By the way, if you want, y’know, a scientific rebuttal of Booker’s piece rather than just endless snark, here’s a good place to start)

Monbiot’s wrecking ball environmentalism

December 20, 2008 at 11:37 pm | Posted in Climate Change, U.S. Politics | 4 Comments

You’d struggle to place a cigarette paper between George Monbiot and myself on the broad principles of climate change. We both recognise that it exists, that it has the potential to wreak unimaginable havoc on our environment & our way of life, that only a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions will stop its most extreme effects, and that there is a fierce urgency to act now.

But whilst his passion, his breadth of knowledge and his tireless persistence are all very valuable to the cause, there is a tendency towards dogmatism, even extremism, in Monbiot’s work which – deliberately or not – reduces all other political issues to this one, non-negotiable crusade.

I doubt there’s a better example of this than in his latest column condemning the Bush Administration’s $17.4bn bailout of America’s car manufacturing industry. Monbiot’s argument is simple: given the inefficiency of their products and their failure to produce the kinds of cars needed in the 21st century, there is no justification for a ‘new round of corporate socialism’ which will only throw more money at a failed business model.

And so he praises Senate Republicans at the same time as calling them “neocon nutcases”, blames the industry for being the author of its own woes whilst admitting the need to bailout a similarly self-harming banking system, and dismisses President Bush’s argument that he must safeguard jobs before denouncing the wage & benefit cuts to the jobs he has saved. To say this is all a bit inconsistent is putting it mildly.

But it’s the lack of concern for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who would lose their jobs which is most troubling. Monbiot spends no time pondering what impact the industry’s collapse would have on a city which relies on its existence, nor does he spare a thought for more than one third of its residents who live below the poverty line. His column reads like classic wrecking ball environmentalism: cars pollute the atmosphere, so we must destroy the industry, and to hell with the consequences!

The uneasy implication within the piece is that it is not possible for the priorities of environmentalists & labour activists to coexist peacefully, and that politicians and policy-makers should always prioritise the former even if it comes at the expense of the latter. If this view was to be adopted at the level of political campaigning, it would create an incredibly damaging split within the progressive coalition which would make progress towards either group’s goals so much harder to achieve.

As the New York Times reports, this is not a good bailout; there’s little corporate accountability, workers’ wages will be cut at a time when they can least afford it, and the industry is only safe until March, when the then-President Obama will have to make a decision about its long-term viability.

But for now, at least, hundreds of thousands of working/middle class Americans in one of the most economically blighted cities in the Union will still be able to live above the breadline. Monbiot would be a far more sympathetic figure if he could stop sounding so upset about it.

Image by Flickr user freeparking (Creative Commons)

Burning up

November 11, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

This report (PDF) by ten of the world’s leading climate scientists (very briefly discussed here) has been causing a fair amount of worried hand-wringing on the environmental blogs, partly because of the very stark predictions it makes, but also because it renders the task of constructing an effective climate change policy more difficult than ever.

As I wrote earlier, the magic number used by climate scientists is 350 parts per million (ppm); that’s the maximum amount of carbon our planet can handle before the damaging effects of climate change take effect. At the moment, we’re at around 385, and that number is increasing by about 2 ppm every year.

As Bradford Plumer explains, until recently, climatologists have believed that stabilising the amount of carbon at around 450 ppm was the most realistic target for world governments to aim for, and if there was a concerted global effort to cut emissions 80% by 2050, then there’d be a good chance of us achieving that. We would still inevitably experience the damage of climate change, such as changes in weather patterns and rising sea levels, but it would at least avoid something far, far worse.

That understanding has been cast into doubt by this report, which glumly predicts that holding the number steady at 450 ppm would still lead to the erosion of the arctic tundra, the peatlands drying out and saturation of the ‘carbon sink‘, all of which could amplify the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and potentially take it to such doomsday levels as 700 – 1000 ppm. Scary, scary stuff.

Even more depressing is the report’s conclusion that we need to completely eradicate burning coal into our atmosphere by 2030. Problem is, the global use of coal rose by 30% between 2001 – 2006, and when China’s building two new plants a week, it seems fanciful to think we can shut these all down in the time required.

Which brings us to the thorny topic of ‘Clean Coal‘. Clean Coal champions will tell you that if we need to reduce emissions, it is surely sensible to adapt existing coal-fired power stations so that instead of letting the carbon float up into the atmosphere, we can capture it, bury it underground and make like it never existed.

Sure, it’d be a great idea if it weren’t for a few not-so-minor problems. The first is that there is not yet a single plant which operates with carbon capture & storage (CCS) technology, and when you consider that the process requires a massive expense of energy to get moving – an expense which will doubtless be passed onto the consumer – we don’t know how comercially viable it is. Secondly, not every coal-fired power station is built on land suitable to store carbon; because of the significant ecological damage which could occur in the event of even low-level CO2 leakage, we couldn’t just allow them to be installed anywhere. Thirdly, we’ll still have the problem of the environmental damage caused by mining – particularly open-cast – and the attendent resources used in transporting coal, and it remains unknown whether it is permanently safe to store CO2 underground.

Therein lies the almighty headache for those who’re trying to plan our way towards a safer climate and a more sustainable use of energy. I’ve no doubt that clean coal might play some role, but only amongst a myriad of cleaner, more efficient alternatives. And if this report is anything to go by, it need to start happening very, very soon.

Image one: Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Taken by Flickr user Marina & Enrique (Creative Commons)

Image two: Thorpe Marsh Power Station near Doncaster. Taken by Flickr user Dr Stanz (Creative Commons)

It was a nice planet, while it lasted

November 10, 2008 at 12:37 am | Posted in Climate Change | 3 Comments

Wow, that Hope high didn’t last long, did it?

The good news: We can avoid multimeter sea level rise, the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people, rapid expansion of the subtropical deserts, and mass extinctions — each of which is all-but inevitable on our current path of unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions.

The not-so-good news: We will probably need an ultimate target of 350 ppm (or lower) for atmospheric carbon dioxide — if you accept the analysis of ten leading climate scientists from around the world.

For the uninitiated, 350 parts per million refers to the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. It’s widely  regarded as the maximum our planet can take before it begins to do serious damage for itself. Unfortunately, we’ve already shot way past that number, it’s increasing by around 2 parts every year and even holding the number steady at 450 ppm (where major ecological damage would be guaranteed) is considered politically ambitious:

More not-so-good news: That kind of emission reduction isn’t going to happen, not even under President Obama, not even close. Heck, I doubt it would happen under a President Hansen. We just are not going to see 350 ppm this century.

Climate change: a reader writes

April 13, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment
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Reacting to this piece. Not so much a dissent as a warning against complacency:

on the contrary, the battle has only just begun. whilst you’re right to point to the rather anti-climatic cries of hoax or conspiracy on the part of the climate-sceptic right and the associated limited scope for fear-mongering, you perhaps overlook the obvious. we are now entering the era of boring, nagging and persistent complaints of the ‘cost of action’, cos doing nothing must be cheaper than doing something right?

sure, inaction can’t be sold as easily as tightening of immigration policies or tougher sentences for criminals, but its the economy, stupid. anything to protect us from european bureaucrats and their deadly creeping environmental legislation must be good; its like the new soviet threat or something. they probably believe marxists are behind it all.

and god forbid some other country leads the way with green technology or green business a la the danes or germans with wind turbines. then it can be sold as some zero sum game, where tackling climate change may actually be attacked as a way to lose jobs overseas, undermine our international competitiveness and destroy our national culture of dirty capitalism.

alas i think they have ammunition enough to see phillips et al. into retirement and beyond.

Climate change: the sceptics’ tough sell

April 10, 2008 at 7:57 pm | Posted in Climate Change | 3 Comments
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If you woke up this morning, stepped out into unseasonably cold weather and thought ‘aha! I always knew this global warming thing was a hoax!’, well, today’s your lucky day: Melanie Phillips, who has quite the reputation for reporting fringe science as absolute truth (see the MMR scandal), brings us the latest round-up of ‘evidence’ against the existence of climate change.

Now, the science of climate change doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Nor, for that matter, does the hyper-emotional street brawl between environmentalists, sceptics, big business and government. I recognise there’s a broad consensus on climate change and I’ll vote for a party that offers sensible policies to reduce our contribution to it, but my passion for and participation in this well-meaning movement won’t extend too far beyond that. But what I find interesting about the politics of climate change is how lousy those sceptics on the right (and they’re overwhelmingly on the right) have been in finding a decent argument.

If there’s one thing people like Melanie are good at, it’s stoking outrage, spreading fear, stretching the smallest policy disagreement into an affront to moral decency. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about: feral, hash-happy teens are prowling our streets with a lust for blood, Islamomurderers hatch sinister plots to turn your church into a Mosque-cum-death-palace, godless liberal hippies plan sex education so our 9-year-olds can learn how to pout and pose and work a stipclub pole. To put it rather less charitably, they practice the politics of Chicken Little.

But when it comes to global warming, they just don’t seem able to pull the same stunt. Sure, they might quibble with the science, moan about ‘Climate Change Fascists‘ (how tasteful, by the way, to compare mass-murderers to mass recyclers) and whinge about how composting is just like being in a gulag, but all it really amounts to is the lazy-arsed whinging of obnoxious loudmouths who think they know better than everyone else. In short, they don’t give us anything to fear.

I think their general weakness on this subject can be summed up with the following question. Let’s just assume for a moment that we all wake up in 30 years to find that neither temperatures nor sea levels nor species extinctions have risen dramatically, that the problem’s been grossly exaggerated and all our recycling and energy conservation has been for naught.

Well, so what?

What harm will have been done to our country and our planet by implementing pro-environment policies? When we walk around our villages, towns and cities and see more widespread recycling, increased energy independence, greater use of renewable energy, cleaner air and more responsible, sustainable economic development, will we really hold our hands over our heads and cry “OH MY GOD! WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!!” Yeah, I doubt it, too.

By failing to convince us about the disastrous consequences of tackling climate change, the sceptical right is fast slipping into irrelevancy. Which, if you’ll forgive the pun, should give the rest of us a slightly sunnier outlook

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