Lavalle is a rural district situated at the north east of Mendoza, Argentine. Surro...
Lavalle is a rural district situated at the north east of Mendoza, Argentine. Surro...
Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, explains why we must redef...
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.
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.