Spiking Copenhagen

Happy New Year!

We have been somewhat neglectful of our blog. The truth – other than that we’re very busy – is that we decided to enjoy Christmas, and forget about climate change for a while.

Normal blogging service will be resumed shortly. And there will be much to discuss. The debate has moved on considerably in the last few months. There has been Climategate, Copenhagen turned out to be more of a failure than anyone was predicting, and the cold snap is once again causing hand-waving from the weather-is-not-climate warmers, who are only too happy to leap on freak warm weather, or other outliers such as the 2007 Arctic Ice extent as evidence of our imminent demise. More imminently, the UK faces a general election, and there are efforts to resuscitate the international response to climate change after Copenhagen.

Two predictions. First, we are anticipating that “scepticism” or “denial” – call it what you want – will become more organised this year, perhaps it already is. Second, although the climate issue is not going away, it has suffered terrible PR, and there is widespread recognition that the climate change pudding has been over-egged. We anticipate that the environmental debate will begin to refocus around the issue of over-population, rather than climate.

Ben has a piece up on the Spiked “after Copenhagen” online debate today.

December’s Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to be the moment at which nations came together to save the planet. But the attempt to produce an international, legally binding agreement on climate change ended up more like a squabble between rivals than the invention of a new green era. Even the force of the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ championed in the lead up to, and during, the conference was insufficient to unite the world’s decision-makers. Although the blame game has begun, it is the nature of the meeting itself that explains its failure far better than the behaviour of its players.

Read on at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/7912/

Which is First: Chicken Little or the 'Perfect Storm'?

John Beddington is the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor and Professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London. On Monday, the soothsayer’s foresight was the subject of a BBC feature.

As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

That’s the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030.

Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 “a whole series of events come together”:

  • The world’s population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%)
  • Demand for food will increase by 50%
  • Demand for water will increase by 30%
  • Demand for energy will increase by 50%

The ‘coming together’ of all these trends, amounts to a ‘perfect storm’, set to arrive in 2031.

On an interview on BBC TV (also featured on the linked page) Beddington warns:

So these are all coming together. Indeed I was at a scientific meeting at the Royal Society only yesterday in which a prediction was that the Arctic might be free of ice in the summer of 2030.

The professor links climate change, resource abundance, agricultural productivity, and water management with a cataclysmic event situated 20 years in the future.

It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that more people will create more demand for water, energy, food, and planning. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that if you fail to make plans for the future, you will likely face some sort of problem. So far, so not rocket science, and not applied population biology.

But what sort of planning is needed to cope with life in 2030? Why, at this point in humanity’s history is the provision of water, energy, and food so difficult and dangerous? We’re better at creating all of these things than at any point in the past. Just a few generations ago, mechanised water, and instant light in homes were an impossibility, never mind an inconceivable luxury. It wasn’t much before that that people were just getting used to the idea of using steam to propel machines, never mind splitting the atom to power computers, satellite links, and heart and lung machines.

In our advanced economies, subsistence is not a day-to-day concern for the vast majority of people, and this is rapidly becoming true for an increasing number of the world’s population living in developing economies. Western standards of living are on the horizon for people in all continents, who had been deprived of it. Just as in the West, there is no reason why, in just a few generations, water, electricity and cheap, good quality food can all be taken for granted.

Except, that is, for the opinion of the scientist John Beddington and his ilk. For them, human progress of this kind is ‘unsustainable’. He is concerned that 8 billion people will be unable to produce the water, energy and food they need. But might it not be possible that 8 billion people are better at meeting their needs than 6 billion? After all, the industrial revolution was not a response to the needs of a growing population, but was made possible by it. Have you ever tried building your own iPod, powered by your own handmade generator, in a house you built yourself, whilst growing your own food, fed with water from a well that you sunk yourself?

There is an attempt being made to ground politics in the ethics not merely of ‘sustainability’, but the harsh reality of mere subsistence. Accordingly, this diminishes the potential of politics, and our expectations of it. We are being asked to be thankful for every moment of heat, light, food, and warmth, rather than demanding of more, better, faster, higher. This is because politicians cannot conceive of any other notion of progress than mere survival. Their horizons are so low, and imaginations so limited, that they cannot conceive of attempting to organise public life around the possibility of a better future.

It is this pessimistic outlook within the political establishment that has misconceived human progress and how it is achieved. Paradoxically, it is scientists such as Beddington who are engaged to give their politics the appearance of legitimacy. But this is because Beddington’s science is expedient to their political aims, not because Beddington’s science can produce a robust analysis of the future, such that he can tell you what the year 2030 will look like if you haven’t listened to him. ‘Applied population biology’ is the science of the day because it is the most convenient to the politics of the day, just as Kennedy’s lunar project made heroes out of rocket scientists. But at least rocket scientists looked upwards, and their project broke boundaries. Beddington’s science is expedient because it allows politicians to set boundaries.

What this says to us is that politics is prior to the science. Beddington’s appointment is political. Beddington’s science has developed in an era which demands it. It is predicated on an understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world as being ultimately limited by what nature provides, rather than what humanity develops (or is capable of developing) in order to overcome such limits. That makes an ethic out of limiting progress and development to that which nature provides. But this ethic is, again, prior to the science.

The Chicken Little comes well before the perfect storm.

And here’s another flapping misanthrope

Climate Change Delusion By Proxy

Since the first case of the psychiatric disorder ‘climate change delusion‘ was diagnosed in an Australian patient earlier this month, commentators have suggested that the symptoms expressed by Al Gore and the like point to the condition being a rather common one. Indeed, it seems that the medical profession itself is not immune. John Guillebaud, professor of family planning at University College London, confesses all to the Guardian:

I’m terrified about climate change

More accurately, perhaps, Prof Guillebaud’s case is better described as ‘climate change delusion by proxy’ because while the Australian patient was trying to save the planet by ceasing to drink, the voices in Guillebaud’s head tell him that the solution is for other people to stop reproducing.

Writing in the British Medical Journal with Pip Hayes, a GP based in Exeter (who hasn’t expressed publicly how completely terrified she is), the father of three and patron of the Optimum Population Trust calls on

schools and GPs to develop education programmes to explain how a rising population is environmentally unsustainable, and how families who have no more than two children will help ensure the population remains steady or even falls.

As they write in the BMJ:

doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars.

Guillebaud’s adamance that this does not amount to coercion is wholly unconvincing, especially when he claims that

It’s people’s right to have the size of family they choose, but surely that should be balanced against the rights of future generations.

Not only is it coercive; it’s also deeply patronising:

an opportunity is missed when a doctor is talking to a young couple, in saying, you know, ‘have you thought about the family size you might choose? Have you thought about having one child less?’

And, of course, misanthropic:

It’s a fact that each new UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emission than, say, a new birth in Ethiopia. Now, there are two ways of looking at that – three ways really. One is to say that we rich people in the UK must enormously reduce our consumption of resources. But also there’s the fact that, if each of us is doing 160 times more damage, then not having a UK birth is more beneficial to the planet than there not being an Ethiopian birth.

He doesn’t say what the third way of looking at it is. Perhaps it’s that it’s OK for Ethiopians to keep reproducing just so long as they remain poor and don’t consume much. Except that he isn’t even happy with that. He seems to prefer that they remain poor and stop reproducing, as is evident in his justification for why Ethiopians should be encouraged to have fewer children: it would reduce the high rates of maternal mortality. As would proper medical facilities, of course. But, well, have you seen the electricity bill of a modern hospital? We can’t let all and sundry have access to one of those.

What we say in our organisation, The Optimum Population Trust, is the greenest energy is the energy you don’t use. And one way of not using it is to cut down your consumption by using a smaller car, or preferably by not using a car at all and going everywhere by bicycle or train like I do. But also, a really green thing to do is to have one child less than you normally would have had, because every additional child born in the UK produces in its lifetime three-million-miles-worth of carbon dioxide as driven in a Toyota Prius.

Any positives that ‘every additional child’ brings to the world don’t figure in Guillebaud’s calculations. Never mind that every additional child is a potential solution to problems – environmental or otherwise. Never mind that every additional child brings happiness, interest and love into the lives of others.

When babies are viewed as analogous to patio-heaters and big cars, you can bet that there is more to Environmentalism than an urge to save the planet. It reveals a deep-seated dislike of humanity. Children are polluters, energy-wasters, or in Guillebaud’s words:

the environment is being trashed partly by the number of environment-trashers

Frank Furedi puts Guillebaud’s Mathusianism into historical perspective over at spiked. Climate change is, he argues, just the latest in a string of tenuous justifications for Malthusian politics:

In the past, Malthusians warned that overpopulation would lead to famine. When that argument disintegrated, they said overpopulation would undermine economic development. Later they claimed that overpopulation might assist the spread of communism, and more recently they have argued that it aids terrorism (lots of poor young men with no jobs apparently leads to apocalyptic violence).

Now they have latched on to environmentalism and the widespread concern about humanity’s impact on the planet. What we have today is a new form of joined-up scaremongering, where the traditional fear of human fertility is linking up with anxieties about what humans are doing to the Earth.

It’s interesting, then, that Chris West, director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, told the Guardian that population control won’t have an impact on climate change anyway:

“If we had a way to reduce the population … it would be one way to address climate change, but in the current circumstances, it’s not a very effective way,” he said […] “it’s not going to deliver emission reductions on anything like the timescale we need.”

We have said before that it’s really just a few Environmentalist cranks who talk about population control in positive terms, and that most of us are repelled by the idea. Even the editorial pages of the green-thinking Guardian are unsympathetic:

The problem that the BMJ authors and others highlight is real; the solution they give, however, is plain wrong […] Population control has a terrible reputation: India’s forced-sterilisation programme was among the blackest points in its recent history. Just as there is a reason why prophets come back into fashion, so there is normally a reason why history turned its back on them. In Malthus’ case, he was simply wrong.

But while few can bring themselves to agree with Guillebaud and Hayes’ misanthropic vision, Environmentalism remains dependent on the notion of population control. In fact, the Environmentalist case falls apart without it. Take Caroline Lucas’s claim that

this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet

Though she’s talking about economic growth, her argument extends unavoidably to population growth. And it’s equally flawed whichever one you apply it to. But given the green establishment’s reliance on the concept of sustainability, it’s strange perhaps that it keeps resoundingly schtum on matters of population. The only occasions that the ‘issue’ of over-population gets an airing is when some eco-warrior pitches into an internet forum with something along the lines of ‘when will we acknowledge the elephant in the room and face up to the fact that there’s just too many people?’, which is usually received with an embarrassed silence, or when one of the small cabal centred around the Optimum Population Trust manages to secure a few column inches. (Unless you count this.)

The Green Party, despite having supposedly discussed the matter at its spring conference this year, have no policy on population. All they have to say on the subject is embedded within a so-called ‘policy pointer‘:

a stable or slowly reducing population is also necessary to achieve a sustainable and equitable society

That’s not to say they don’t think there are too many people – they almost certainly do. Or that they are not not concerned that their lack of commitment on the subject undermines their political philosophy – they must be. It’s just that they know that coming out of the closet on over-population will make them even more unelectable than they already are.

Nothing humans have ever done has been sustainable; and nothing that is billed as ‘sustainable’ is sustainable in the sense that it can continue indefinitely. Likewise, nothing is renewable in the sense that Environmentalists mean ‘renewable’. Paving the Sahara with photo-voltaics would be neither renewable nor sustainable. It would be bound to affect local and even global climate. And yet it would be worth doing because of the vast amounts of energy it would provide. But Environmentalists only ever sell ‘renewables’ to us on the basis that it will allow us to keep the lights on given that we’re all going to have to batten down the hatches, scrimp and save, make do and mend. That is all Environmentalism has to offer us, as spelled out, as it happens, in the sub-title of Sir David King’s book, The Hot TopicHow to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On.

We suggest that greens are pro-‘renewables’ not because they are sustainable or renewable, but because they have not been expected to produce more energy than we have available to us at the moment. The test of that will be to watch and see as the green movement starts opposing large-scale solar projects such as this one.

Given that population control is so repulsive to so many, the only question we need to be discussing is this: How do we provide more energy and more resources for more people? And that’s a discussion that Environmentalists can take no part in. They’ll just have to settle for the voices in their heads for company.

It's All About Ethanol

Poor old Gordon Brown:

More than 80 Labour MPs have signed an amendment to the Climate Change Bill, which would force ministers to promise greater cuts in carbon emissions.

The Climate Change Bill commits the government to make at least a 60% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. The MPs want that figure to rise to 80%.

The rebels say the 60% goal will not do enough to control global warming.

This is the latest installment not only in Brown’s Prime Ministerial nightmare, but also in the razor wars that masquerade as environmental politics in the UK. Looking on the bright side, we’re right on course to collect on our prediction that somebody, sometime soon, is going to pledge that the country will be carbon negative by 2050.

Even more predictable is the excuse that the backbenchers offer for their rebellion:

[The rebels] also claim it is based on out-of-date science.

These figures aren’t based on science at all. They are plucked from the thin air of our ailing stratosphere and given authority merely by the use of the word ‘science’ in close proximity.

It all makes the negotiators at the G8 summit seem so last week:

World leaders say they will aim to set a global target of cutting carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2050 in an effort to tackle global warming.

Only 50%! Ach, they’ll get the hang of it. Especially with the G5 developing nations snapping at their heels:

Mexico, Brazil, China, India and South Africa challenged the Group of Eight countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by 2050.

Not to mention that bastion of objective, detached scientific investigation, the IPCC’s chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who complains that the developed countries should be showing leadership on such matters:

“They should get off the backs of India and China,” he told reporters in the Indian capital, Delhi.

“They should say: ‘We’ll assist you to move to a pattern of development which is sustainable, low in terms of emissions intensity. But we as the richest nations are willing to take the lead and we affirm our commitment to do so.'”

But the G8 statements on carbon emissions have been eclipsed by discussions of the global food crisis and biofuels, and the supposed causal connection between the two. The G8 pledge to ensure that biofuel policies are compatible with food security comes in the wake of the leaked World Bank report that the push for biofuels accounts for 75% of the food crisis by competing with food crops for agricultural land. Suddenly, it seems, all the world’s problems are less about oil than they are about ethanol.

But, in Food price rises: are biofuels to blame?, James Heartfield provides such anaemic thinking with a healthy dose of red-blooded realism:

For more than 20 years now, both the US and the European Union have pursued policies designed to reduce food output. They have introduced policies that reward farmers for retiring land from production (such as the EU’s set-aside and wilderness schemes). At the same time, the United Nations has used its aid programmes to penalise African farmers who try to increase yields with modern fertilisers or mechanisation […]

The programmes of land retirement and reservation have been so successful worldwide that between 1982 and 2003, national parks grew from nine million square kilometres to 19million, 12.5 per cent of the earth’s surface – or more than the combined land of China and South-East Asia. In the US more than one billion acres of agricultural land is lying fallow. So the idea that land has been lost from ordinary crops to biofuels is not really true; rather, it has been lost from agricultural production altogether.

For the environmentalist critics, blaming biofuels is a desperate act of scapegoating. For years now, they have been propagandising against mass food production, favouring a return to less efficient farming methods, and for the return of farmland to its natural state. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, that biased UN programmes against modern farming techniques in Africa (in favour of ‘appropriate’, which is to say poor ‘technologies’). Just when it suited large-scale agriculture to wind down output to protect prices, the environmentalists were on hand to support land retirement schemes. Farmers, according to Britain’s Countryside Agency, would no longer farm, but become stewards of the countryside.

It’s interesting, then, that the G8 summit has also committed to fulfil a pledge to raise annual foreign aid levels by $50bn by 2010, of which $25bn is intended for Africa. Not that that is a Bad Thing in and of itself, of course; it just depends how it is used. If it’s spent on more of the same, and if similar strings are attached, we can expect more land to be taken out of agricultural production in the name of the saving the planet, more food shortages, more scapegoating, and more tin-pot explanations for why the world is screwed and we’re all going to die. As we keep saying, Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A major question remains regarding the green U-turn on biofuels. Why did Environmentalists ever push the bloody things in the first place? OK, so they are, theoretically, a carbon-neutral source of energy. So far, so green. But the fact remains that it was hardly rocket science to work out that they would necessarily jostle for space with agricultural land and wilderness areas.

So please indulge us while we speculate wildly, and quite possibly wrongly… Could it be that those who were pushing biofuels at the start of the century were figuring that, come 2008, primed by the Green Great-and-Good, the world would have moved on to debating how best to go about reducing the human population to more ‘sustainable’ levels? And let’s face it, if there’s one thing that Environmentalism doesn’t like it’s humans – especially lots of them. And you can bet that, while Environmentalism is not the conspiracy that many of its critics accuse it of being, its adherents do have some sort of long-term strategy. While Gordon Brown, his backbenchers, Tory leader David Cameron and pretty much everybody else in parliamentary politics grasp desperately and opportunistically at Green policies in the absence of any other, better ideas, we at least know where we stand with environmental idealogues such as Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ehrlich (who are both, as it happens, trustees of the Optimum Population Trust, a group for whom ‘optimum’ means – in case you hadn’t guessed – ‘much smaller’).

The trouble is that they underestimated the humanity of, well, humanity. The fact is that in 2008, and despite the efforts of Porritt, Ehrlich et al, the vast majority of us remain repulsed – and may we remain so for ever more – at the thought of population control, just as we remain repulsed by the notion a moral equivalence between nature and civilisation. The result is that they have had to think again.

That said, we are keen not to fall into the trap of painting a simplistic, one-dimensional picture of Environmentalism. There has always been a significant element of the movement that is against the dealings of big-business – especially big agri-business – as a matter of principle. But at the same time, other greens have appealed to market forces in the fight against ecological meltdown. (To repeat ourselves again, Environmentalism transcends traditional Left-Right distinctions.) In which case, the whole messy business might be the product of the push-and-pull between these various Green factions. A bit like the Labour Party, perhaps.