Sunday, June 26, 2005

Green thoughts in a green shade

To Green College yesterday afternoon for the 25th anniversary garden party. I found a snail had hitched a ride across a very busy Oxford inside the pedal of my bicycle. Cristina and I met Mike Mason, CEO of Climate Care outside the Central furniture store on the way, and Mike offered me his old rosewood table.

Good to see some old faces at the party including Kristina Plenderleith (who worked so much with the late Darell Posey) and Jeff Burley, professor of forestry (still active). Also, Michael Peerie, the garderner who does such a wonderful job on the gardens there and years ago helped me get my own tiny garden going (I worked at Green College from 1992 to 1994 for Crispin Tickell's environment policy unit).

We had strawberries and cakes with the wonderful Jane Moser, who was so amazing with Darrell through his long and very difficult illnesses and death. Jane had recently been to Kentucky and had visited Darrell's family (long of Henderson, Kentucky - Darrell was a direct descendent of George Washingon's aide de camp): his 81 year old mother shares many of his characteristics but has even more energy, it seems.

And then Jane introduced me to Charles Barclay, who I had last seen when, as seventeen year olds, we shared a tent in an expedition to Arctic Norway in 1980 (it rained for four weeks: I read Anna Karenina for the first time).

I had no idea what happened to Charlie after that. Turns out he studied astronomy in St Andrews, became a teacher, married and has three children, and now, an FRAS, is Director of the Marlborough College Blackett Observatory. He introduced me to his good friend Roger Davies, the head of astrophysics at Oxford. Roger Davies, of course, knows my brother in law John Huchra, and we touched on the battle to save the Enlightenment. His son Frank is doing War Studies at King's College, London, and would be a good candidate for an internship at openDemocracy.

Charlie, Roger Davies and the Oxford astronomers are good people, with a very postive outlook. They obviously enjoyed having Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues, as their artist in residence until June this year.

Then to the serious part of the afternoon: Roger Harribin's key note annivesary lecture. The poor guy had been asked to speak on "Can democracy save the planet?".

Roger Harrabin ducked the question - he said "No" at the top of his remarks - and instead showed and then talked about and around three short films he'd made for Newsnight - one on ocean acidification (Prof Eretz? from Eilat and Carol Turley at the PML), a second on the sequestration challenge (clean coal technology in the US and geological capture demonstration by BP in the Sahara, remote controlled from Sunbury), and a third on bringing cheap solar cooking systems to rural Gujurat.

The talk was largely unstructured but Roger is good in almost all circumstances, and brought a number of things together well. A few questions from the stellar audience (James Lovelock was there, but didn't comment - I was told Richard Doll - one of the people I most admire - was there too, but didn't see him) including Crispin Tickell who was more optimistic than most about getting the Chinese - at least - and maybe, eventually the Indians, more fully and meaningfully on board. The Chinese scientists and leaders understand the full gravity of the threat to water supplies and from sea level rise, he said, while the implications of a possible shift in the South Asian monsoon were beginning to sink in in India.

I gave Roger a hard time about the Today programme's "even-handed" treatment of so-called climate sceptics and the scientific consensus. This was a little unfair as I would guess that nobody fights harder than Roger to change the grossly irresponsible and unprofessional approach of the editors and producers at Today towards climate change science.

Through gritted teeth, Roger gave the diplomatic answer he has to as a BBC employee - that there was an "intense internal debate" going on. He added that the recent statement from the G8 academies of science plus those of China, India and Brazil might help finally shift things (the Royal Society had pressed for something even stronger he said).

He added that one needed to understand the culture of journalism. Journalists are by nature sceptical - mischief makers - and there's particular pressure at the BBC not be perceived as being too supportive of power and government (he did not mention David Kelly).

I interrupted to say that scepticism has nothing to do with it. Properly defined, the word means careful examination and scrutiny of reliable evidence. This has nothing to do with what's going at Today.

What I did not say is that it's a pretty bad state of affairs where influential players at the BBC choose to deny or distort best truthful evidence precisely because those in positions of power accept it. This is the George Galloway approach to life.

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