Friday, December 15, 2006

River colours

"The river changes colour a lot depending on what’s going on in the mountains. So you can have a spring day when you’ve got a blue sky and the river takes on this blue sheen. In the summer, when the light’s right... particularly over a rocky ledge, you’ll see this red brindle colour almost like the peat coming through the water. In autumn time, or in the summer when you have heavy rains up in the mountains and you get a lot of silt runoff, the river will just thunder down like a stream of hot chocolate. It’s quite amazing. And then in the winter if you have a quick snowmelt it’s quite deceptive. You don’t think the river’s in spate but actually you’ve got this ink black roar of water coming down. A bit like this like we have today we have to day [but ] much fuller. And the power of the spate on the river Findhorn is...incomprehensible until you actually see it. It’s completely exhilarating”

-- Jamie Whittle on Open Country (re-broadcast on 14 December).


Dieter Helm is characteristically sharp:

To meet [a] series of new challenges, Europe needs more than a set of national responses, however much these might be in individual member-states's narrow interests. That Germany is in the driving seat, both as Gazprom's hub and with the presidencies [of the EU and G8], provides a timely chance to prepare Europe for its future energy dependency, and to better align its internal energy market reforms with the external challenge.

But at stake is much more: if Germany fails to go down the European path, it will be a break with one of the deep political objectives of the EU, and it will show the sceptical voters of Europe that the EU cannot deliver in an area of such vital interest. Energy is where a significant part of the case for greater European integration may be won or lost.


The Economist, the house magazine of old fashioned liberalism and maybe neo-liberalism too, gets it right:

No ifs or buts. Whatever the general did for the economy [Pinochet] was a bad man... took the return of democracy in 1990, with its ability to bestow legitimacy, to create an investment-led boom and a large fall in poverty. Elsewhere in Latin America, free-market reforms were enacted by democracies...

...Even if history bothers to remember that he privatised the pension system, that should not wipe away the memory of the torture, the “disappeared” and the bodies dumped at sea. His defenders—who include Britain's Lady Thatcher—really should know better.

Lovey Dove-y

"The wider public interest"..."outweigh[s] the need to maintain the rule of law".
It looks like an extraordinary thing for the highest officer of the law in any jurisdiction to say. But the BBC's diplomatic correspondent writes: "Nobody anywhere is...surprised at [the] decision" [to end a corruption investigation into a British-Saudi arms deal].

Well, even if that's true (and not everyone agrees -- see comments below by one activist), please let's have a dispassionate and rigorous analysis of what the attorney general's statement and the Prime Minister's reasoning say about: 1) the British constitutional system and the place of law within it; and 2) how, precisely, "the UK public interest in terms of both national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East" is served.

(The activist wrote:
Why should anyone want 'integrate' into a country that: goes to war illegally; makes money selling arms to despotic regimes; lets arms traders know they above the law; allows the judiciary to be overruled by the executive; claims that it is not in the 'national interest' to uphold the rule of law and; has a government that brazenly pretends that the 'national interest' is not 'economic' ('national interest' halts arms corruption inquiry, 14 December). Let's face it, we are hooked on oil and will do anything to ensure we keep on getting it, including sell arms to pay for it - and blow the impact on global climate. Only one political party has stood up against all of this but, because of our outdated electoral system, it hasn't a single seat in parliament. Vote Green for sanity and self-respect!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bye baiji

What would Daoists say about the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin?

Horn of Africa

“I am ready to die,” [says] Osama Abdi Rahim, dressed head to toe in camouflage and marching around with a loaded rifle. He is 7 years old.

-- Somalia’s Islamists and Ethiopia Gird for a War, front paged in the NYT on 14 Dec. The article continues:

“I’ll be honest,” said Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Monsur, the deputy security chief for the Islamists. “America is the best friend of Islam. It wakes up the sleeping Muslim.”

Factors behind the hysteria include drought and demographics. A startlingly pessimistic article in The Economist this summer (The Path to Ruin, 10 August) noted:

It wouldn't take much for famine to seize hold of the [Somali borderlands in the Horn of Africa]. Humanitarian action has kept the starving alive, but it has not enabled them to recover their lives. The trend is an ever increasing need for food aid plus ever less money from donors to pay for it. The World Food Programme (WFP) is responsible for delivering most of the aid in the Horn. It says that the number of Ethiopians on its books has doubled since the 1990s, in bad years to as many as 10m. The situation is not much better elsewhere. Some 1.7m hungry people are reliant on food aid in south Somalia—when the WFP can get it to them. And 3m people in Kenya, mostly in the country's arid north, will get some kind of food aid this year.

The Economist article includes a chart of population growth, showing the total number of people in Ethiopia rising from about 75 million today to 144m by 2030, and Kenya from about 35m to 65m over the same period the same time. Somalia's population, says the graph, will grow from about 8m to nearly 20m. Somalia has the highest fertility rate of the three countries (6.8 children per woman) and there are sizeable Somali minorities in Ethiopia and Kenya too.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A cause for celebration

Bushmen from the Kalahari desert have won a court case in which they accused Botswana's government of illegally moving them from their land.

Don't know how lucky you are, boys

Breakup, chaos, poverty, violence and extreme corruption: it happened to the USSR and was hailed as a triumph of democracy.

"A large majority of Russians...regret the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for 'communism' but because they lost a secure way of life. They do not share the nearly unanimous western view that the Soviet Union's 'collapse' was 'inevitable' because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good reason, that three 'subjective' factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in 'privatising' the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it. Most Russians, including even the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a 'tragedy'.

In addition, a growing number of Russian intellectuals have come to believe that something essential was lost - a historic opportunity to democratise and modernise Russia by methods more gradualist, consensual and less traumatic, and thus more fruitful and less costly, than those adopted after 1991".

-- Stephen Cohen, who puts a lot of the blame on Yeltsin, in The Guardian and The Nation.

I'm not sure the majority of Russians are right to believe the USSR didn't have fatal defects. Clearly, however, a less destructive transition path was possible.

We don't care

A useful post by Clive Bates here, on which I have commented as follows:

Thanks indeed for this sober and thoughtful analysis. I found it particularly useful after reading a 12 Dec article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr titled The Cost of an Overheated Planet.

It's clear that governments and societies (which are not the same think - thank you, David Cameron) will sometimes spend on things they think will reduce the risk of big hazards. A Lohr points out, "In the late 1950s...American military spending reached as high as 10 percent of the gross domestic product and averaged about 4 percent, far higher than in any previous peacetime era. A Soviet nuclear attack was a danger but hardly a certainty, just as the predicted catastrophes from global warming are threats but not certainties."

The article then touches on the implications of spending 1% of US GDP to fight global warming (incidentally, says Lohr, 1% of US GDP is more than $120 billion a year, or $400 a person; it is about equal to the Bush administration’s tax cuts in 2001; and roughly the amount spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2006).

At first sight one might think: "Case closed - if [we] are willing to spend 1% on war surely [we] are willing to match this in the struggle to save the planet", or some such worthy statement (1% being also the figure Stern recommends for expenditure to fight climate change).

As you rightly point out, however, revealed preferences for things that seem to be remote tend to be smaller, even among those who self-define as altruistic (which takes us back to Adam Smith, the Chinese empire and one's little finger).

Climate change is perceived as a much more remote, and lesser threat than nuclear war was in the 1950s and 60s.

It may be that that perception is wrong. The probabilities of a nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA, which occasioned the latter to spend up to 10% of GDP to fight it, may for much of the time, including in the 1950s, have been smaller than thought (although, if Robert McNamara is right about Castro, we got incredibly close in 1961). And the possibility of "runaway" climate change is not, as far as I know, something that serious scientists dismiss completely (this would not necessarily be as bad as nuclear war, just that it could be very bad).

I'm not suggesting one should try and create a "duck and cover" hysteria about global warming. I am suggesting we need to recalibrate our understanding of respective risks.

Here's a further thought. As you say, in Britain (and other rich industrialised countries) we are willing to spend disproportionate sums on immediate near term problems. You give the good example of health care in the last few days of life.

So what if societies such as ours started to place greater value on the near term impacts of climate change (for example, the likely loss of tropical coral reefs at less than 2C global average temperature rise)?

I feel out of my depth using a term like "the construction of value", but isn't that what we are talking about? Those concerned with local and global social and environmental justice may seek to reshape values so that more people cherish such things (yes, even in our revealed preferences) a little more with respect to what we believe to be our own near term utility. (By the way, perhaps there is a case for dialogue/education with those facing terminal illnesses and their families regarding the case for a less drawn-out death -- ouch! a difficult but valid debate).

So to your final point: "perhaps a human rights or pure justice lens would be better". Well yes! The comparison may be a tendentious, but imagine a political economist of the 1770s looking at the economic case for and against the abolition of slavery. That would provide useful data, but it would only take him so far. The battle in that case was political.

Also, this time the people on the receiving end may have other ways of expressing their grievances or otherwise making themselves felt - through, for example, large scale migration from West Africa to Europe.

Reading it back, this comment comes across as impossibly idealistic. As Jonathan Glover points out in his extraordinary book Humanity: a Moral History of the 20th Century, we have hardly begun to tackle the social psychology and practical ethics of warfare, still less issues such as environmental protection.

But as he is flavour of the week, let's cite Barack Obama - let us have the audacity to hope.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

24 hour party people

This on the impacts of a small nuclear war, both directly and on the climate, is interesting -- not least as it appears in "proliferation week", when the US aids NNPT cheeky chappy India, and the Israeli PM says they have the bomb.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The day before yesterday

In An Inconvenient Truth (and here), Al Gore quotes Winston Churchill: "we are entering a period of consequences". The phrase came to mind in connection with at least three different things to which I was more or less paying attention on Wednesday, 6 December: the publication of the report of the Iraq Study Group; the pre-budget statement from Gordon Brown; and my own meanderings as a country mouse visiting The City, which took in a street opera and a discussion of carbon trading.

The ISG report may bang a few Washington heads together over the consequences of what has happened since the 2003 invasion. But both the shriller critics of the Iraq war, such as Greg Palast, and the more thoughtful, such as Mark Danner (see Iraq: the war of the imagination), point to reasons why, in the unlikely event it is implemented, this is unlikely to be enough.

Meanwhile, in Britanistan, Chancellor Brown chose not to announce the "green" budget some had hoped for. Small additional revenues from travel taxes (£5 on flights and £23 on a motorist who drives 10,000 miles a year) will be used to fill a hole in finances, not to transform the transport system (never mind the whole economy). If Brown is serious about the recommendations of his own Stern review, he is not showing his cards now.

My own business in London allowed time to contemplate two very different approaches to dealing with the consequences of the actions of the majority of us in rich industrial societies.

The first was And While London Burns, an "opera for one" about climate change which you download onto an MP3 player and then follow on foot as an audio guide leads you around byways in the Square Mile.

I will not review it in detail here, but this is a serious, imaginative, engaging, astute, ambitious and resonant but musically weak drama. A central theme is fully imagining, and taking responsibility for, the consequences of our actions.

In three acts, Fire, Dust and Water, treading from the earth of a once-buried temple of Mithras to the golden ball of fire thrust into the air on top of The Monument, the opera glimpses down many alleys (and passes roads untaken, from Blake to the Blitz), but it centres on the mental breakdown/liberation of a City worker at an investment bank that services BP, one the great beasts of the carbon web.

Among several effective sequences is a walk around the underground ring in Bank station passing exits one to six as the possible consequences of one through six degrees of climate change are dramatised. No need, now, to read Mark Lynas's forthcoming book! (One note of detail: I did the walk on a cold winter day when the fans, which extracted heat from deep below ground during London's summer heatwave, were not turning. So the dramatic effect here was lost.)

But what works best dramatically in the opera is also, perhaps, where one of the greatest questions lies: the consequences of imagining downfall and apocalypse, and how this makes one feel, think and act.

Because even though And While London Burns searches for optimism – finishing with a chorus "we could build a new city" – a strong sense of apocalypse runs through this "requiem for a warming world". And for the protagonist, this is a drama of escape: to follow the trail of his lost love who gave up her safe middle class job and now hides out on some remote sunny beach, waiting for the downfall of Empire.

Visions of catastrophe run through many cultures. In the West, drawing on traditions that include the pursuit of the millennium, these took a new turn with the industrialisation of work and war, and a growing sense that humans themselves can destroy each other and the planet on a massive scale. (Cruel pre-modern imaginings of destruction by supernatural fury still thrive in things like the Left Behind series).

My generation, growing up in the last days of the Cold War, could with good reason allow nuclear annihilation to squat on our dreams: a reality well captured in Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (1982). So the idea of a human-caused catastrophe that only cockroaches and Keith Richards survive is nothing new. The apocalypse outlined by James Lovelock sometimes seems mild by comparison.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of apocalyptic imagining. (Children of Men is one of the better recent genre films). In connection with climate change I have indulged in it myself in an article sensationally titled Tsunami coming for us all (Andrew Baird and others have cast doubt on the idea that reefs and mangroves really did afford significant extra protection to coastal communities, but I think the main point of the piece – that we need to think harder about the human impact on nature – still stands).

Giving some space for the worst imaginings can help us to deal with them. But how?

As I hear it, for the protagonist of And While London Burns (and, I guess, its authors), there can be no salvation within "the system". This belief is most clearly illustrated through the treatment of Swiss Re, the giant reinsurance company caught at the heart of what the opera portrays as a spinning paradox. Swiss Re thrives on "just the right amount of disaster" but would be ruined by a sharp increase in damages associated with climate change. Meanwhile, Swiss Re must invest its revenues in the very oil and gas companies that cause climate change.

The company and the network of which it is part must look for ever new markets in order to grow, and in an image of a crazy, dizzy dance, round and round the Gherkin, the sense of a snake eating its own tail, with the ultimate madness – echoed by voices around and around on the soundtrack – "they are even selling the sky".

This sounds like a reference to carbon trading, which was the subject of another bit of business I had in London that day: a panel debate at ABN AMRO on "Gourmet Carbon versus Commodity Carbon".

Ricardo Bayon, co-editor of Voluntary Carbon Markets (Earthscan, January 2007), set the context. Regulated carbon markets are growing fast from a total volume about $9bn in 2005 to $21.5bn in just the first nine months of 2006 (with the EU ETS accounting for $18.5bn and the CDM about $3bn).

Voluntary markets were smaller and harder to measure, he said, but the best guess was that ten to twenty million tonnes of CO2 were traded in 2005 at an average of about $10 per tonne – making a market worth $100m to $200m market last year.

So the voluntary market is
small – perhaps just one hundredth the size of the regulated market, but it is growing fast too.

[Disclosure: Coral Bones has received a grant from (among others) Ecosecurities, a major player in the CDM, and carbon offset for emissions associated with the project has been donated by Climate Care]

The six panellists and, I guess, most of the hundred or so attendees from organisations with names like Ecosystems Markets and Evolution Capital, clearly do not believe in dropping out. Some see a bright new market, and a chance to make money. And most clearly believe it is possible to change "the system" from within.

Here is a sketch of a case in their favour. First, as Pedro Moura-Costa of Ecosecurities put it, a voluntary market can be a place for experimenting and getting things to work ahead of a regulated market that requires compliance. Perhaps the most striking example of this pre-compliance phase may prove to be the State of California, where legislators and the governator have agreed to return total emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% cut them by 2050 under a cap-and-trade system. Just to reach the 2020 target would mean a cut of around [did he say 25% or 45%?] on present emissions, said panellist Joe Nation, who is a California state assemblyman (D) and a co-author of AB 32. The governor is pushing for this in six months because, said Nation, "like 87% of Americans" he understands the gravity of the situation. (The Bush administration is threatening to sue California. As no one quite said: "bring them on".)

Second, a voluntary market can allow individual consumers and groups of consumers to express preferences and back them with money, and maybe this can aggregate into something good.

A number of arguments are made against this second point. For example, carbon sequestration in forestry has been described as like drinking water to lower sea level (attrib. Oliver Rackham) or worse (The Cornerhouse). And offsets are just a way of buying one's way out of a guilty conscience and don't lead to the changes in behaviour needed to actually reduce emissions (this criticism has been given life by a comparison to indulgences offered by priests in Europe in the Middle Ages).

On the indulgence point, well yes Martin Luther was right that the system was corrupt. But what if the priest or monastery spent the money raised from indulgences on something that actually benefited of the poor, the sick and the abandoned rather than timeshare on plainsong?

What if purchaser of the voluntary offset has a certificate he or she feels she can trust which says that something less bad than nothing at all was done with the money to reduce emissions that would otherwise have taken place? (Imagine a priest with a chain of custody from your indulgence all the way to the hot soup going into the mouth of a starving peasant). Millions of people in rich countries donate hundreds of million of dollars and euros to development organisations to alleviate poverty on the basis of evidence that is often as sketchy, and/or does as little to address the root problem.

A voluntary carbon offset standard (VCS) was, not suprisingly, central to the discussion at ABN AMRO. One should remember the lessons of the CDM, said Mark Kenber of The Climate Group. In the early days, "we thought it would solve everything" - climate change, global poverty, injustice. Of course it hasn't but, he said, it is a first step. And until such time that the international community agrees on an enforceable system that enforces stabilisation at "450ppm or whatever the science indicates" the players sould try to develop a robust international standard that permits the market in reductions to grow (The Climate Group has this. See also this from The Carbon Trust.)

There's a lot to think about here (the interim statement on Coral Bones is:
"offsets do not solve the problem of emissions from flights or make the project 'carbon neutral'. But they are better than doing nothing to account for emissions"). Do we really need carbon markets to protect the likes of Mexico's Sierra Gorda, as some panellists argued? It begins to seem like some sort of religion.

It's a no brainer is that we need to do a lot more soon, however powerful the interests vested against change.

A final point. Al Gore chooses an odd quote for his foreword to Voluntary Carbon Markets: "Between the idea and the reality...Falls the Shadow". If you read the whole poem from which this quote is taken it's not exactly encouraging, but then its author knew more about London and desolation than most.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A paradise for fly tippers

Nida Al Fulaij of the People's Trust for Endangered Species writes to all Hog Watchers to suggest they nominate the hedgehog in a competition for the quintessential icon of the English environment (

It's a nice thought, but I like some of the other suggestions too, including Watchtree Nature Reserve. Helen Rimmer says:

"Watchtree Nature Reserve was established on the foot and mouth burial site in Cumbria. Ironically, prior to F & M the site was an old airfield, which had become a paradise for fly tippers. Over 100,000 native trees have been planted (23 species) along with 4 km of hedgerows. A lake (with bird hide), reedbeds, wetlands and ponds have also been established. It is teeming with wildlife & also some rare species have now made their home there. The site is now run by DEFRA and is open to the public at certain times. It’s fantastic!"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Temperature tantrums

"Now, maybe it's because I have a toddler at home, but the EPA's argument, presented by Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, quickly sounds very familiar. 1) I can't clean it up; 2) Even if I could, I don't want to clean it up; 3) You can't make me clean it up; and 4) China is making an even bigger mess. How come China never has to clean it up? When and if all that fails, the EPA, like my son, just puts its hands over its eyes and says there is no mess in the first place."

Dahlia Lithwick The Supreme Court Melts Down Over Greenhoues Gases (