Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musings on the "Environmental Debate"

There's so much utter rubbish talked about in relation to "the environment" it makes me want to scream. Why when there is almost total unanimity in the scientific community about, say, climate change, is there a debate going on at all?

1. The environmental debate impacts on wider political agendas

Man is inquisitive. For centuries we have striven to discover new lands, new inventions and new ways of doing things. We are also instinctively greedy having necessarily evolved through a couple of million years an urge to acquire resources when they're available in case there's a famine around the corner. The idea of environmental limits is anathema to that enterprising spirit, aspiration and natural greed.

Many of the shriller climate sceptics appear to be driven by the idea that climate change has been invented by left-leaning Governments in order to limit enterprise and raise taxes. Of course for that to be the case the scientific consensus must also be constructed by Governments who (apparently) only fund research programmes which support the notion of climate change - overlooking the fact that political opinion has lagged behind scientific opinion for years and years. Or maybe both have conspired together...

On the other side of the debate there are the deep greens and their political allies in the anti-capitalist movement, not only get the idea of environmental limits, but embrace them as it fits with their wider value system. While I'm all for people pointing out what is wrong with the modern capitalist system (and it's doing a fine job of flagging that up for itself just at the minute), many commentators fall into the trap of being against everything. They will deride technological or economic efforts to cut carbon emissions as greenwash or an outright con and undermine some of the most promising 'quick wins' as ineffective. This creates paralysis in the debate - should we be recycling if even (some) greens deride it as ineffective? The hair shirt approach also tends to switch off the majority of people in the country - the very people we have to reach to move the agenda forwards.

2. Global environmental issues are very, very complicated

If someone dumps oil in a village pond and the fish die, we can all understand that. If sulphur dioxide from a power station in the UK converts to acid rain over the North Sea and kills trees in Norway, most people can get their head around that. But to start to get your head around the mechanics of, say, climate change - extra carbon dioxide traps more heat from the sun (but only what has been absorbed and re-emitted by the earth), but some carbon dioxide is absorbed by carbon sinks and some is emitted due the rising heat, and how the heat affects a whole series of weather systems, climatic patterns, ice sheets and sea levels - well that's really, really complicated. And then there's the complex patterns of production, consumption and related economics that lead to those carbon emissions... There is no simple connection between cause and effect.

This throws up three problems:

a. The man in the street can't easily get his head around it. In fact no-one can get their head around all of it - I've been interested for 2 decades and a professional for 11 years - I learn something new every day, but if somebody, say, challenges me on the Vostok ice core samples, I'm stuck (I do solutions, not analysis of the problem).

b. It is very hard to make judgement calls - Should waste be recycled or incinerated? How much is a Siberian tiger worth in kg carbon dioxide (ie if you had to choose)? Does tree planting offset carbon emissions? These sorts of questions are almost impossible to answer from a purely objective point of view.

c. It is very easy for anyone with a particular agenda to cherry pick a couple of facts and present a superficially straightforward conclusion that suits that agenda.

3. The modern press answers to no-one

"Recycling is a waste of time!", "Organic food exposed!", "Eco-friendly lightbulbs give you cancer!". A significant chunk of the press loves nothing more than to rubbish the 'current big thing', or, in the case of the Daily Mail, to persuade its readers that the country is going to hell on a handcart (pushed along by sundry foreigners).

Journalists rarely have to answer for misleading, incorrect or frankly fictional statements. The prime scourge of the climate change lobby, as he would see it, is Christopher Booker in the Telegraph. I went through one of his columns with my father who had read it and thought it had some merit. Booker based his attack on the International Panel on Climate Change's conclusions on two blogs. We looked them up. The first, written by two scientists, criticised how the IPCC handled some data but stated clearly that this did not prove that climate change was not man made (Booker omitted to mention that statement). The second was written by an ex-TV weatherman with no apparent qualifications in meteorology or climatology. So Booker dismisses the views of 97.4% of published qualified climatologists in favour of the musings of a TV presenter. The TV guy might be right, of course, but it's more than a bit unlikely. This 'analysis' would not pass muster as an undergraduate dissertation, but is printed in the best selling serious newspaper in the UK.

And everyone feels qualified to comment, no matter how toe-curling the results. I love Simon Hoggart's satirical take on politics in the Guardian but why he feels he can and has to repeatedly make naive comments on global carbon emissions and windpower in his Saturday columns is beyond me.

And people believe what they read. And it comes out in statements like "They're saying now..."


We have people who have an axe to grind (point 1), an opportunity to make it sound convincing (point 2), and a huge audience (point 3). Hence we appear to have a debate when there isn't one.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Guilt trip TV...

Mea culpa. On Friday I bought a new TV. A 32" flatscreen telly to replace our 25 year old set that had gone on the blink and was too small to watch modern programmes without pressing your eyeballs to the screen. 32" looked modest in the shop and with a toddler in the house we don't get to the cinema much and watch a lot of movies on demand, but since we've got it home it's given me a massive guilt trip, dominating a corner of the room - a big, black, earth-crushing monolith of consumerism...

Except it's not really.

Its power consumption is 100W - a traditional light bulb's worth. OK that's almost twice its teeny predecessor, but it also includes a digital receiver which we'll need in a couple of years when analogue signals are switched off - that cuts out using 38W of digibox and unlike the latter it has an easily accessible off switch, avoiding even shortish stints on standby. And we don't leave the TV on in our house unless we are actively watching it (hint: check the TV schedule first before switching the thing on). So the difference between this and our old set up quickly disappears if we redouble our efforts to switch off unnecessary lights through the winter.

I'm not trying to paint this as a green move - it is a carbon sin, but on the grand scale of things it's a teeny-weeny one. Yes, we could have stuck with our tiny old flickering picture, we could have bought a smaller set, we could have tried to go without (tried that, OK for a while, but wait until you're ill and/or shattered and just want to veg out), but we decided differently.

So, why do I still feel so damn guilty? Where do we draw the line in luxuries? Deep green living in a teepee, or light green life-as-usual with a green electricity tariff and ecover at the sink? It's the space in between that's much more difficult, if you, like me, want to benefit from the joys of modern life but want to make a difference to the planet. I've insulated the loft, replaced the windows, walk and cycle for most trips, work from home, eat local and organic food, use manure on the allotment, feed the birds, work to cut emissions from 100s of clients, avoid foreign holidays - can I not have the TV? And the DAB radio? And...

The guilt trip continues...

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hand me downs...

Any parent will tell you that children grow up very quickly and are hard to keep in clothes.

Very little of what our boy Harry wears is brand new, most of it has been handed down from two sets of neighbours with older kids (and better fashion sense) than us. It's funny when we meet in the park and they recognise everything he's wearing. When Harry grows out of it, it gets handed down to a friend's younger kid and some of that clobber has come back again to be passed on to a little'un who arrived just three weeks ago - that's four owners at least.

Nobody sees this as unusual, or particularly green, just good common sense. Who says we are addicted to buying new stuff and throwing it away when it's not wanted?

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Earth Hour switch off 8:30pm 28 March 2009

Switch off your lights for an hour and make a statement on climate change...

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

UK Govt Announces Green Home Makeovers

Today the UK Government announced a package of green measures for every home in the UK. For some reason this will not start until 2013, which would be after at least one general election, but as the other two main political parties are proposing similar measures, this is unlikely to go away.

Very welcome, but maybe a little more haste would be in order.

There's plenty of work to do too, with the Energy Savings Trust estimating there are 7.3m cavity walls that could be filled with insulation, 7m solid walls that could be insulated, and 12.9m lofts which do not have the recommended depth of insulation, and 4.5m G-rated (the least efficient) gas boilers.

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Norn Iron & the Climate Debate

I was born in Northern Ireland and most of my family still live there, so I keep an eye on the news from home. The big fuss recently has been the Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson, banning a Government ad for their Act on CO2 campaign, as he doesn't believe in man-made climate change. Mr Wilson stated that a recent poll suggested that 43% of climatologists didn't believe in climate.

My parents have been over for the last couple of days and this news sparked a red wine fuelled debate on uncertainty, climate change and the scale of human impacts on the environment. What resolved the debate was this 2009 survey of scientists and climatologists in particular which concluded that 97.4% climatologists who publish on climate change believe that climate change is happening and man-made. The wikipedia page that led us to this research claims that no scientific body of national or international standing dissents from the consensus.

I don't know where Mr Wilson got his stats from - he didn't quote a source. Despite his sometimes buffoonish reputation, I hear from good sources that he is very intelligent. Maybe then he will listen to the evidence. I wonder what his views on evolution are...

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

FYI: Wattson Competition

Thought this may be of interest...

Win a Wattson energy meter from OPC

If you've made a New Year's resolution to cut your energy bill, why not enter OPC's January draw to win one of three free beautiful Wattsons, each worth £100?

We've teamed up with cutting edge design team, DIY Kyoto, who've put the sophistication into sustainability. Don't believe an energy meter could be a thing of loveliness? Just take a look – it beats a lava lamp any day, and it's practical, too.

To enter our draw, just email and tell us three ways you can reduce your domestic electricity bill, how a Wattson would help and how much you hope to save. We'll select winners who show plenty of enthusiasm for energy saving and are happy to be featured as case studies by OPC and DIY Kyoto.

Winners must agree to participating as a case study, including submission of an appropriate photo. The closing date for entries is 15 February 2009


Monday, February 02, 2009

Nature, God and us...

With the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth comes the shocking statistic that 50% of the UK population do not believe in evolution.


150 years after The Origin of Species and 50% of people do not believe what is plainly in front of their eyes. I thought that argument was settled with Watson & Crick's (and poor neglected Rosalind Franklin's) discovery of DNA in the 50s. OK we've had an anti-science regime in the US for 8 years and the learning of the Arabic word has been crushed by religious fundamentalism, but I always hoped that rationality reigned supreme in Blighty.

And what has this got to do with eco-living? Well, the creationist theory states that after creating all the organisms in the planet, God created man and gave him dominion over all the other beasts, plants etc. Evolution puts us right into the middle of nature, part of it, not on top of it - this was a fundamental mindshift and the one that scared Darwin himself. While we can damage natural systems, we cannot dominate them. We need the environment as our life support system and we need to align to its systems - solar powered non-toxic cycles of materials - and stop going against them.

While I write this there are people on the radio who can't understand why "in this day and age we can't handle a couple of inches of snow". It's Nature, baby, and she's bigger and stronger than us.

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