Au revoir

This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Scientific Alliance newsletter I will be writing and sending to you in this way. Time and funding constraints make running a network such as the Scientific Alliance increasingly difficult. Members often give generously of their time and experience but, without more sustained effort, there is relatively little we can do to influence views in comparison to larger organisations with permanent staff.

These pieces have been appearing on our blog (scialliance.wordpress.com) for some months now and there may be occasional further pieces posted there as the spirit moves me. This is also an opportunity to interact with readers via the comments section. Direct emails are of course also welcome.

The Alliance has tried to provide a voice of reason on some important matters, often being critical of mainstream environmentalism, but hopefully supported by evidence. When it comes to something as important (and divisive) as climate change, for example, there is a very fine line to tread in keeping people reading. Preaching to the converted is ultimately futile, but engaging with the undecided, lukewarm or agnostic can help to open minds.

Even with this in mind, it is difficult to get approval from fellow sceptics (a word which I see in a very positive sense) while not alienating those who subscribe more closely to mainstream views. The fact that these pieces have continued to be quite widely read I hope means that the balance is about right.

There are others whose faith will never be shaken by reasoned criticism. They are best described as Deep Greens, and for them protecting species other than our own and minimising human influence on the environment has effectively become a religion. Moderate environmentalists will hopefully continue to influence policy more than such extremists.

The environmentalist movement is in essence a campaigning one, so strong and eye-catching messages are the norm. It is easy to forget when we hear a stream of what is wrong that, by and large, the environment is much better cared for than a few decades ago. Many of the issues highlighted in the early days of Greenpeace have now been incorporated into mainstream public policy.

Admittedly, a number of wildlife species are under pressure, often still because of changes to how we manage landscapes. Evolving arable and livestock farming are perhaps the most important factors in this overall, but it is easy to forget that farming in any form has transformed landscapes worldwide. Forests have been cleared, but this has created habitat for a wide variety of other flora and fauna.

The fall in numbers of farmland birds is often highlighted as a problem, but we are in fact comparing current numbers with those nurtured more intensively by earlier forms of farming, not with the relatively low biodiversity levels in the ancient woodlands cleared by our ancestors to provide farmland.

The very concept of environmental damage is to an extent in the eye of the beholder. What we should more accurately talk about is environmental change. Whether or not we find such changes to our liking is a matter of choice, although this does presuppose that any changes do not wipe out other species or create deserts.

I feel I have nothing very new to say on key topics. Politicians continue to at least pay lip service to big environmental issues, the overarching one at present being climate change. However, it is difficult not to think that the international effort to control climate – including the Paris agreement – is losing momentum as the sheer difficulty of slashing emissions without compromising our way of life becomes increasingly apparent.

I’ll bow out with a final thought on this. The rhetoric from both Greens and politicians will remain essentially unchanged, but climate change will continue to drop down the list of priorities for the great majority of voters. At some stage, a breakthrough in energy generation or storage technology may provide an economic and secure way to decarbonise economies, in which case societies will undoubtedly follow that route. Oil will not continue to be the mainstay of the global economy ad infinitum.

But, barring that, words will continue to speak louder than action. China and India will not compromise their economic growth in the name of reducing global emissions. Action in the USA during this presidential term will be largely from the private sector (and therefore necessarily economically viable) and even the EU cheerleaders will probably disappoint campaigners by the (voluntary) action they take under the Paris agreement. In a decade or two, whatever has been achieved will probably still be claimed as at least a partial triumph for environmental activism even if (as I think likely) temperatures continue to rise more slowly than the models predict.

Others will, I hope, continue to debate this and other issues. All those who claim to be scientists should act as professional sceptics. I wish you well.

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Posted in Climate change, Energy, Newsletter | Leave a comment

Accounting for climate change

Climate change, unsurprisingly, continues to generate headlines. However, it rarely makes the front pages anymore; like any issue, there comes a time when the peak has been reached and there simply isn’t the public interest to warrant banner headlines. For activists, this is something of a problem, since they want to keep this topic firmly in the public eye to maintain pressure on politicians to take action.

So, with the UK having had an unusually warm May bank holiday Monday, we might have expected stories about how this would increasingly become the norm. But no; most reporting was factual and referred back to the previous records set back in the ‘70s. Instead, we seem to read more and more about air pollution although, as this is generally related to road transport, the two topics are closely linked. It’s difficult not to think that the baton simply gets passed from time to time between climate change, air pollution and ocean ‘acidification’ to avoid issue fatigue.

What the climate change lobby wants to make less of, of course, are negative stories such as UN puts brave face as climate talks get stuck. This and similar pieces report suspension of UN talks in Bonn on how to implement the much-lauded Paris climate change agreement. Talks will start again in Bangkok in September, doubtless with much frantic work having been done behind the scenes prior to that.

This is all in preparation for the December climate summit (the Conference of the Parties), to be held this year in Katowice in Poland. At first sight, this is a rather unexpected choice of venue for a meeting where it is intended to adopt the rulebook that turns the aspirations of Paris into a working reality. Poland relies heavily on coal to generate electricity, and is not exactly the most enthusiastic EU member state when it comes to emissions reduction, but this will no doubt be an opportunity for the usual travelling circus of demonstrators to try to shame the Polish government into a change of heart (don’t hold your breath).

Poland’s attitude is in marked contrast to the UK, where the government has declared its willingness to host the 2020 COP, expected to be the first such summit after the Paris agreement comes into operation. Maybe this is a case of anything to take people’s minds off Brexit.

There are reports of dissension in Bonn. To quote “China and some other countries, perhaps frustrated by the slow pace, have sought in this Bonn meeting to go back to the position that existed before the 2015 deal, where only developed countries had to undertake to reduce their emissions.” In fact, this is more likely to be a case of China – the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, let’s not forget – playing the system to benefit its own economy, although it’s unlikely to get away with it at this stage of its development.

But some of the real difficulties in reaching agreement will come from the sheer complexity of the task. The overall goal is easily stated – to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by an agreed amount by a certain date – but achieving that is far from simple. Take out of the equation the lack of available, economic technologies to deliver a secure and reliable electricity supply, forget the even greater difficulties associated with transport and heating, even ignore the inevitable political complications, and we are still left with some very basic problems of definition, accounting and attribution.

For example, we read that Tourism’s carbon impact three times larger than estimated. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 8% of global emissions, once food, hotels and shopping are taken fully into account, along with the travel itself. The authors then assign these total calculated emissions to the tourists’ home countries. Not surprisingly, the US comes top, but this followed by China, Germany and India.

So, of the top four contributors to the calculated impact of tourism, two are actually emerging economies, albeit the world’s two most populous countries. The Chinese and Indian middle classes are enjoying their new-found prosperity and will continue to contribute to the projected 4% annual growth of the sector. It would be a brave government that tried to reduce such travel.

The other side of the coin is the destination countries. For developed countries such as France, the UK, the US and Australia, tourism is an important sector, but for states such as the Maldives, Thailand or Kenya it is a mainstay of their economies. Globally, tourism employs 10% of the world’s workers. Inhibit the sector and the economic consequences would be dire indeed.

This is only one example of the difficulties, albeit a very important one. Every potential course of action has consequences, and some of those can be very hard for individual sectors or countries. The radical cutting of emissions deemed necessary by the IPCC will become increasingly hard to achieve without real disruption of societies. This is why some committed to the cause have spoken of the inadequacy of democracy to bring about such change.

We may slowly be coming to a crunch point where political realities make the kind of actions demanded practically impossible. Even in authoritarian societies such as China, the rulers are aware that they need to keep the population happy if their authority is not to be questioned. What may happen – possibly in the UK – in 2020 is anyone’s guess. Another fudge is likely, but the limits to action may have by then become more obvious.

Posted in Climate change, Newsletter | Leave a comment

The future of farming

Last week, the crop protection industry suffered a significant but not unexpected blow. A typical headline was EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban. In 2013, the use of this popular class of insecticides on flowering crops was banned temporarily, but the latest decision now makes the ban permanent and extends it to non-flowering crops outside greenhouses, because of concerns about carry-over of traces of neonics from treated seed.

This has been a major target of campaigners for a number of years, but it has never been possible to garner enough support for such a ban. A major factor in the latest vote has been the change of heart from the British government, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove supporting the ban, based on the latest scientific advice. With Germany also falling into line, a qualified majority was ensured.

The change of heart was the result in part of a study published by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology last year, reported as Large-scale study ‘shows neonic pesticides harm bees’. To quote from the article Researchers said that exposure to the chemicals left honeybee hives less likely to survive over winter, while bumblebees and solitary bees produced fewer queens. The study spanned 2,000 hectares across the UK, Germany and Hungary and was set up to establish the ‘real-world’ impacts of the pesticides.”

The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, whose advice Michael Gove acted on, published its views recently (UK Expert Committee on Pesticides annual report explains neonicotinoid decision). In the words of the chairman, “Following several years of carefully reviewing new studies, data and information, we concluded that the weight of evidence had reached a point at which it could no longer be concluded that use of these chemicals posed an acceptable risk.”

Note the careful language: the advice is based on what was probably a relatively small change in the balance of risk. This has not been enough to convince everyone of the case. Manufacturers such as Bayer continue to insist that the evidence is far from clear-cut. Some may see this simply in Mandy Rice-Davies terms (they would say that, wouldn’t they) but such companies rely very heavily on scientific evidence rather than simply defending their products at all costs.

In the long run, they need to keep the confidence of their customers, and they certainly don’t seem to be out of step with them: many farmers are far from happy with the latest decision. The NFU spokesman is quoted as saying “the Commission hasn’t been able to find that these restrictions have a measurable effect on bees”, for example. And therein lies the rub: experiments may show all sorts of associations and links, even incontrovertible evidence of direct harm, but they are not real life.

In practice, bee populations fluctuate considerably, depending on the weather, infestation with parasites (varroa mites in particular) and a range of other factors. Undoubtedly, some pesticides will also have a negative effect from time to time, but there is no evidence that I am aware of that countries not using neonics have a better record of bee health than those where the insecticides have been allowed. In recent years, major losses of bees have been categorised as Colony Collapse Disorder, in the absence of any specific identifiable cause, but attempts to link this to pesticides have failed. Indeed, there have been similar very bad years for bees in times before pesticides were widely used.

What the latest EU decision ignores are the benefits that use of neonics can bring. The scientific advice is only ever about the risks (or in the case of new approvals, simply the hazards) of pesticide use. Used as a seed dressing (so avoiding most direct contact between non-target insects and the active ingredient), neonics allow farmers to grow oilseed rape, whose flowers are brightening parts of the countryside right now.

Many farmers say that, without neonics, it may not be viable to grow oilseed rape. We don’t know the effect for sure, but there is certainly likely to be a decline in acreage in coming years. For us, this would mean we no longer see bright yellow fields in early summer, and for some hay fever sufferers this would be a great relief, but for bees it would represent a loss of a major source of food.

Oilseed rape flowers profusely and produces large amounts of pollen, on which bees love to gorge. Take this away, and some hives may struggle to find such a rich source of nourishment close at hand, although increased planting of wildflower areas would certainly help. Also, if Europe produces less rape, imports of both vegetable oil and protein sources for animal feed would have to increase.

Another irony is that both of these are highly likely to come from American soya, nearly all of which is genetically modified. While succeeding in their drive against pesticides, campaigners are also increasing the export market for GM crops, another bugbear for many of them.

Campaign groups such as the Pesticides Action Network must now feel the wind in their sails. With neonics ticked off the list in one major region, they will now have glyphosate in their sights. The EU may be ahead of the game internationally by continuing to ratchet up controls on pesticides, and in so doing may simply be expanding the market overseas, but the ultimate aim of PAN and others is to eliminate chemical crop protection worldwide.

They and their allies see a future of biological control and, in many cases, organic agriculture. The reality of this is lower yields, more expensive food and a doubtful real environmental benefit. Farmed areas would undoubtedly have to be extended and the reality is that biodiversity is much higher on field margins and unfarmed areas than in stands of crops, however they are managed.

Fortunately, organic farming continues to be a relatively small niche and there is no sign of a large-scale movement towards it. In the meantime, conventional farmers are increasingly being rewarded for managing the environment as well as for producing food (although they have always cared for the environment, despite popular misconceptions). We are likely to see a continuation of the status quo for many years to come, but the situation with neonicotinoids should be a warning of some of the troubles ahead.

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The Circular Economy

Whatever your feelings about the European Union, it’s undeniable that the bloc is good at setting ambitious targets. Many of these are definitely good ideas, but meeting the goals is generally less successful. In this sense, the Commission appears to act as a high-level think tank, putting out proposals, targets and road maps to catalyse change. The member states, meanwhile, at least pay lip service to the goals, while in practice often not being fully committed to achieving them.

Nevertheless, it is arguable that, if such proposals were not made, progress would be slower still. The problem is that the Commission’s plans have to be radical enough to make a real contribution to future strategy, while being sufficiently practical and grounded that a reasonable amount is actually achieved. If not, member states, key policymakers and the international community will lose all faith in future packages.

Most EU member states, like other developed countries, have become less and less competitive as manufacturers, with both heavy industries such as steel-making and ship-building and assembly work in the electronics industries moving to lower cost countries, mainly in Asia. Even there, we are seeing a transition from Japan and Korea to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. Even China will not be immune to this transition as the economy grows and wage rates rise.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Many British towns were made rich by the wool trade, and the Industrial Revolution increased the global dominance. Nowadays, Asian countries produce both the cloth and make the clothes we wear, while the fabric mills of northern England stand as museums. So it goes. In future decades, increasingly prosperous Asian countries will lose such jobs to newly-industrialising African competitors. Nothing lasts forever.

In a changing world, the EU cannot be complacent about maintaining the prosperity and living standards of its citizens, but must look for comparative advantage. The US is once more an important oil and gas producer, and its low energy prices are allowing at least a temporary resurgence in energy-intensive manufacturing sectors. But the EU is dependent on imported energy and, even if not, is philosophically heading in a different, greener direction.

The UK is already an economy dominated by the service sector, and many other EU member states are on the same track (Germany, with its highly productive, export-driven manufacturing sector, is an outlier). Financial services is a very lucrative and specialised sector, but many other current service jobs are relatively low-skilled and low-paid. This is one reason why the EU has bet in particular on its strengths in basic science, particularly biological science, as a creator of comparative advantage and driver of economic growth.

From the early years of this century, the concept of the so-called Knowledge-Based Bioeconomy (KBBE) evolved. The idea was that the academic sector, working with industry, would provide the tools to enable not just improved and sustainable food production, but a transformation of existing chemistry-based manufacturing processes to biological processes using renewable raw materials (biomass) in place of fossil fuel feedstocks.

A flurry of activity created seven Technology Platforms and a raft of centrally-funded collaborative R&D projects. But few people outside the research or policymaking communities have heard anything about the KBBE. It’s not dead, but seems to have evolved into a global cooperative programme rather than being a driver of regional economic growth. Earlier this year, the second Global Bioeconomy Summit was held in Berlin but it there has been any positive influence on the European economy, it has been kept very quiet indeed.

In the meantime, the focus has also shifted towards what is termed the Circular Economy, not necessarily all bio-based, but concentrating in particular on avoiding waste. The key concepts are to reduce manufacturing waste and to recycle products at the end of their life. Everything is to be reused.

This of course is a laudable aim. But the Commission also has wider ambitions. On its website talking about this year’s package to implement the Circular Economy Action Plan, we read that “The European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Package, which includes measures that will help stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy, boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.”

The Circular Economy seems to have replaced the Bioeconomy as the driver of prosperity, but are we really any further forward than when, in the early noughties, the earlier concept was born? There have been some high-profile initiatives to reduce waste – even British shoppers no longer get free plastic bags and may soon have to pay a deposit on bottles – but this is really tinkering round the edges. There remain real problems with making effective use of even well-sorted plastic waste. And even the now mandatory recycling of electronic goods captures only the high value materials.

This shouldn’t stop us trying to make better use of raw materials and working on new materials with the benefits of current plastics but which break down much faster in the environment. But it seems that our European antipathy to waste and environmental degradation has the unfortunate flipside of making us much less positive about science and technology in general, and it’s science that makes changes possible.

The biological sciences undoubtedly could make a big contribution towards the future economy, be it circular or otherwise, but the distrust of what has come to be seen as ‘tinkering with nature’ (genetic engineering in particular) at the moment makes it hard to fulfil the promise. Until we get over this collective hang up, ambitious plans to remake the economy are probably pie in the sky.

Posted in Biotechnology, Newsletter, Policymaking, Progress, Science | Leave a comment

Let the facts speak for themselves

Hans Rosling’s name is not one that is widely known, but it should be. He died last year at what today is a young age – just 68 – but his last book (Factfulness) has recently been published (with his son and daughter as co-authors). He was a physician and statistician and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute.

Bill Gates is quoted by the publishers as saying: “One of the most important books I’ve ever read – an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Reviews have been almost universally positive (eg, from the FT, Why the world isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is) and Daniel Finkelstein has devoted his Times column to it this week (Here’s how to make the world a better place).

Rosling’s main thesis is that people are too pessimistic. When presented with a range of options for questions about human development and the state of the world, the answers given even by highly educated audiences (in fact, perhaps particularly by highly educated audiences) always err towards the negative, even though the objective evidence says otherwise. As some stories put it, random choices by a chimp would be closer to the truth. It’s not a question of people thinking they don’t know. They think they do know, and they always think things are worse than the reality.

The fact that his conclusions were based on hard evidence should please everyone, particularly those with scientific training. But there is also a danger, some will say, that this is a case of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and that we will become complacent about the real problems that still face too many people. By this line of thought, a degree of alarm is needed to raise awareness and keep focussed on the goal of, for example, eradicating poverty or malnutrition.

Whatever the reason, policymakers and opinion formers have been exposed to views like this from Rosling and others on a number of occasions, but they are still more susceptible to the messages from campaigners that highlight problems, and the mindset remains one of pessimism. The danger is that by thinking we are making no progress, we take our eyes of achievable goals while focussing on absolutes. The perfect then becomes the enemy of the good.

Rosling pointed out the facts, but did not ascribe the improvements to any particular policies or economic system. He also signed up to the consensus on the dangers presented by climate change. For that reason, he has not generally come in for the sort of criticism reserved for other optimists (more correctly, realists) such as Bjorn Lomborg or Matt Ridley. Nevertheless, despite the good reviews of his work and the sadness at his early death, we are unlikely to see his outlook becoming commonplace in political circles.

This suggests that pessimism is somehow hard-wired into our psyche. It may be a real benefit in modern societies, or it may be just another trait that was important for our more primitive ancestors but is more of a hindrance in today’s world. In practice, though, the facts still speak for themselves. At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Rosling had died at an early age by today’s standards, where men can on average expect to live to about 80. However, in 1970, less than 50 years’ ago, the average life expectancy was just 69 and Rosling’s death would have been nothing out of the ordinary.

And to put the rate of human development into even sharper perspective, here is what Daniel Finkelstein has to say: “When Rosling was born in 1948, Sweden had the national income and many of the social circumstances found today in Egypt. In 1863, when his grandmother was born, it had been like Afghanistan is today; by 1891 it was like Lesotho; by 1921 like Zambia.”

Statistics like this point to why someone like Bill Gates is such a fan. Having made a fortune from Microsoft, Bill and his wife Melinda are now dedicated to spending most of that to make the world a better place. Their foundation takes a hard-headed, business-oriented approach to this. Rather than be steered by emotion about those suffering the most, an objective analysis is done of projects to choose those with the greatest likelihood of doing the most good.

As an example, much has been invested in trying to eliminate the scourge of malaria, which still kills far too many people – often children – in tropical areas. Distributing insecticide-treated bed nets is highly cost-effective, while improving ways to manufacture the most effective anti-malarial drug available (artemisinin) has made treatment more widely available. But, like any insect and parasite, the targets evolve to become resistant to existing treatments, so more money is being spent on alternative prevention and treatment strategies.

The point is that there are always bad things in the world and today we are more aware of them than ever, via the ubiquity of the internet. Some seem almost intractable and are essentially man-made: there is no simple answer to poor governance and civil war, in particular. But the world is getting richer, the number of people in absolute poverty is falling and the number of malnourished people, although remaining stubbornly at around 800 million, continues to fall as a percentage of the global population.

If we accept that good things are achievable, and that we need to focus our attention on those projects most likely to do the most good, continued progress will be made. The facts speak for themselves.

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Transforming transport

Undeniably we live in interesting times. Whether you consider that a curse or a blessing is probably down to your world view but, in any case, we all have to cope with it. Nearly every change lies somewhere on the grey scale between being beneficial or detrimental. Every development, however well intentioned, has some downside, while even technologies primarily developed for military use have some really useful spinoffs (satellite navigation, for example).

What we now call social media is a prime case in point. Facebook allows people to keep in touch and let each other know what they are doing, but it is also a largely unsupervised channel to make vile threats, peddle lies and bombard people with a mixture of cuteness and rubbish. In some cases, it seems largely a platform for self-promotion.

Neither should we forget the downside of sharing personal data. The coming General Data Protection Regulation may force organisations of all sizes to get (apparently) informed consent to hold even basic data on them, but that doesn’t stop people sharing quite personal information via their mobile phones. Mark Zuckerberg and others in the tech sector are being taken to task on this issue right now.

In this vein, consider the implications of the current policies on road transport, with the primary aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One strand is the use of biofuels – ethanol, bio-diesel mainly – as a partial replacement for conventional petrol and diesel. At first glance, this seems relatively uncontroversial; taking renewable raw materials to create a cycle of carbon dioxide emission and recapture.

In practice, things are not so clear. CO2 emitted by burning biofuels one year can be theoretically recaptured by crops grown the following year. But this doesn’t take account of additional greenhouse gas emissions arising from growing and processing the crops in the first place. Nitrogen fertilizer, ploughing and processing starch into anhydrous alcohol (for example) all require significant energy and the net carbon dioxide savings can in practice be much lower than the theoretical ones.

Add to that the fact that most bioethanol is currently produced from food crops and we can see that there is also a distorting effect on food prices and a likely increase in the area of land needed. In the case of bio-diesel, the clearance of land for oil palm plantations also destroys the habitat for the orangutan. And for both types of fuel, the limited supply of available biomass means that replacement of fossil fuels can only be a partial one. Until the large barriers to fulfilling the potential of algae to produce much larger volumes of fuel without impinging on terrestrial farmland are overcome, biofuels look like a dead end.

Two other options for transport are to use hydrogen as an energy source, converted to electricity by fuel cells, or opt for battery power. Hydrogen may sound clean and green but, in the real world, storage is a real problem, distribution is virtually impossible on a practical level and it gradually escapes from even the best-sealed container. Add to that the fact that fuel cell technology still has a long way to go to reach economic energy production per unit weight and volume and currently this is pretty much a non-starter (despite a handful of demonstration projects).

Which really leaves battery power. Battery technology has progressed significantly, to the stage where cars such as the Tesla model S can provide an excellent driving experience plus a range of several hundred miles. For many people, this is more than enough, although the big problem that remains is the greater cost of such a car relative to its conventional cousin. For those with around £70,000 to spend, they may seem a good buy, but this is hardly a mass-market car.

This does not necessarily mean that all-electric cars are necessarily another blind alley. If Tesla ever manage to ramp up the production of their more affordable model 3, the potential for a real market shift may be demonstrated. But that may simply highlight some further issues, not least of which will be charging facilities. Suburban owners will usually have the luxury of off-road parking and their own private charging point, but for city dwellers who may not even be able to park outside their own home, things are different.

Matching supply of chargers with demand at an affordable price is a problem that remains unsolved for the time being. While fully electric cars are relatively uncommon, finding an available charger may not be too difficult, but if the market does take off, it may be nipped in the bud if there aren’t enough chargers to go round.

We also need to remind ourselves again that electric cars bring no net benefit to emissions unless the electricity is from nuclear or renewable sources (the same can be said for hydrogen if this ever becomes a viable option). There is still the localised environmental benefit of cleaner air in urban areas, which is an advantage being promoted at the moment, but that is a different issue.

So, the future of all-electric cars is by no means assured, unless the practical problems can be solved. However, the technology developed will not necessarily be wasted; in practice the transition away from the internal combustion engine is likely to be towards plug-in hybrid vehicles. For city-dwellers, they would probably be run on batteries most of the time, improving air quality, while for longer journeys drivers still have the freedom and flexibility of a conventionally-fuelled engine.

New developments are never wholly good or bad, but ultimately the market will choose which are the most useful without having unmanageable downsides.

Posted in Climate change, Energy, Newsletter, Transport | Leave a comment

With us or against us: revisiting the facts

At one time, many people could be neatly pigeon-holed according to their beliefs. In the 1990s, the great majority of those categorising themselves as environmentalists could reliably be assumed to oppose the use of pesticides, air- and water-pollution from industrial processing, nuclear power and genetically modified crops, with (anthropogenic) climate change rapidly reaching the top of the list. But in the early 21st Century, things are often less clear-cut.

But in some circles, if you don’t subscribe to this basket of beliefs, you become persona non gratis in the green movement. Older readers will remember the naturalist David Bellamy as an almost ubiquitous presence on television, but he disappeared from UK screens in the early 2000s, largely for the sin of not agreeing with the orthodoxy on climate change (although a foray into politics for the anti-EU Referendum Party may not have helped). Certainly his views on climate change led to him being marginalised by the Wildlife Trust.

James Lovelock, a near-contemporary of Bellamy and well-known for putting forward the Gaia theory of life on Earth, was at this time convinced of the dangers of global warming. In January 2006, he said in an interview with the Independent “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable” by the end of the 21st century.

Four years later, he argued that “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while” (James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change). His only sin as far as other activists were concerned was that he backed nuclear energy as being necessary to reduce the projected rise in temperatures.

By September 2016, however, we can read this in the Guardian: What has changed dramatically, however, is his position on climate change. He now says: “Anyone who tries to predict more than five to 10 years is a bit of an idiot, because so many things can change unexpectedly.” But isn’t that exactly what he did last time we met? “I know,” he grins teasingly. “But I’ve grown up a bit since then” (James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’).

Lovelock now believes that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable. In fact,” he goes on breezily, “I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t crazy, this climate change. You’ve only got to look at Singapore. It’s two-and-a-half times higher than the worst-case scenario for climate change, and it’s one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in.”

This position has infuriated many environmentalists, although Lovelock is difficult to dismiss because of his important work in the area. Some think he is simply a contrarian, always going against the grain once the majority has come round to his previous point of view; others dismiss him as going senile, although he shows no sign of this, even in his late 90s. Whatever their view, mainstream greens are uncomfortable with someone so identified with their movement being dismissive of IPCC projections, pro-nuclear and (more recently) pro-fracking.

Another high-profile change of heart came from Mark Lynas, a committed environmentalist and one-time destroyer of GM crop field trials. On January 3, 2013, he spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference, starting with these words: “My lords, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start with some apologies, which I believe are most appropriate to this audience. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

Lynas is still deeply committed to the mainstream views on climate change and indeed has been towards the more alarmist end of the spectrum. But for a change of mind on the issue of crop biotechnology he has come in for intense criticism from his former friends. An attack published on the GMWatch website (Why Mark Lynas changed his mind) starts by rubbishing his claim to have been a leading light in the anti-GM movement, describing him as “more like a johnny-come-lately carpetbagger.”

It then goes on to criticise the evidence he quotes for his change of mind and suggests that this came about more for political than rational scientific reasons. His primary sin seems to have been losing faith in a left-wing version of environmentalism and selling out. As quoted in a Guardian article from 2011, “Is the green movement a leftwing, anti-capitalist movement? Mark Lynas believes it is, and that those who style themselves as greens should be marginalised and allowed to die off so that they can be replaced by a new breed of market-friendly environmentalists like him.”

It is surely healthy that people should change their minds from time to time, not necessarily just because the facts change, as Keynes said, but also because they begin to take a different point of view on something they feel strongly about. This is the sign of an open mind, in contrast, for example, to middle-aged Marxists who are blind to the obvious failure of their ideology in practice.

As for politics, policies are usually successful when made on the middle ground. Activists play an important role in raising awareness and applying pressure, but all too often they remain rigid in the purity of their views or become even more extreme. Progress is most often made by combining the righteous anger of the activist with the pragmatism of practical politics.

A first step is to look beyond the more extreme arguments and try to look objectively at what opponents have to say. If we begin to understand the reasons for their stance we may learn something and alter our own position to some extent. We may even go for the full Damascene conversion, although this is relatively rare. In any case, useful progress can often be made through compromise.

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