Thursday 26 March 2009

Is the end Nigh?

Prompted by a comment on a previous post, I went to see "The Age of Stupid".

It's a documentary, with a bit of drama, about climate change. The drama shows one of the last remaining humans in 2055 in an enormous tower in the Arctic, which was an archive of almost everything valuable that had ever been produced or found. The man had apparently created and collected the archive himself. It was enormous: the carbon expended in its creation kept me worried throughout the whole film. The documentary showed him selecting excerpts from a series of stories from 2007/8, interspersed with comments about climate change, big business and George Bush. The stories were about a trainee doctor in a Nigerian village next to an oil processing plant; an Indian entrepreneur launching a low cost airline; a couple of refugee Iraqi kids; a retired oil worker who survived Hurricane Katrina; a French mountain guide mourning the shrinking of glaciers; and a British wind farm developer. They were interesting stories presented in a brief and shallow way: the good thing was that unlike the rest of the film they alluded to the issue rather than shouted about it.

Would I recommend it? No. I’m not sure what the point of the film was: it had too many unchallenged sweeping allegations to convince anyone not already convinced about the dangers of climate change. And it did not offer solutions. But it was mildly entertaining (is that patronising enough?), so my rating, to quote the Hitch Hiker’s Guide about Earth would be: Mostly Harmless.

I think the issues around environmental damage are better set out, and in a more balanced way, in a book called Collapse (about how societies fail or succeed) by Jared Diamond; he gave an hour plus talk about the book a couple of years ago which is I think more challenging than the film. The book covers many themes and problems; my main take on it was that our biggest current worry should be over-population rather than carbon usage, and trying to manage birth rates globally would be our best chance of avoiding societal and environmental collapse.

The issues are also set in out in a less balanced way by Michael Crichton (of ER and Jurassic Park fame) in his book State of Fear (criticised by some for mixing science with a thriller and spoiling both aspects). My overriding thought from the book is that the main drive behind the climate change campaign is to increase the powers of the state by frightening people into submission. Although fear of terrorism has now been picked up as the main reason for state expansion and interference, the climate change campaign started before 9/11. And petty though they may seem in the bigger picture, replacing heat generating light bulbs with mercury filled low light bulbs and encouraging fly tipping and poor public health by restricting litter collections are examples of this.

I’ve always been nervous of people who cannot imagine they are wrong. I was a member of Greenpeace for many years (I still have the green umbrella with the “Stop Acid Rain” logo I used in the City, instead of a tightly furled black one) but left when they campaigned to stop Shell from disposing of the Brent Spar platform in what seemed to be a sensible way. They seemed driven by distaste for Big Oil rather than logic. That approach worries me about so much of the “carbon is evil” campaign. One of the telling scenes for me in Age of Stupid was the wind farm entrepreneur driving away from his country home in the middle of a wind farm free area of natural beauty (in his black BMW) saying that the reason people objected to wind farms was that they spoilt the view.

The reason I object to wind farms is not the view: it’s that they are ineffective; they wouldn’t exist in the scale they do if the Government wasn’t over-subsidising them compared with other energy sources.

So what would I do? To coin a phrase from our Prime Minister, it’s a global problem. So although they are full of soundbites and achieve little, we should participate in the various global conferences/agreements. But perhaps we could set an example by mostly communicating by video-link and email? We should be encouraging population control at the same time as trying to improve developing world healthcare. We should encourage the taxation of aircraft fuel to try to offset the real cost of flying. Nationally, we should be investing in nuclear energy and carbon capture coal power stations (if the figures add up for the latter). We should be providing more grants for micro-power generation at home. We should be encouraging refuse collection and not seeing it as a way for Councils to make money: bulk recycling is most efficiently done centrally – but we should make shops be responsible for their own packaging. We should not build a third runway at Heathrow; we can tax aircraft fuel on internal flights even if we cannot on international ones. We should establish a carbon trading system and as a nudge for the consumer and a sop for statists, charge for plastic bags.

But despite all this I suspect the solution to global warming will come from new technology of which we are not yet aware so both nationally and internationally we should support pure as well as applied scientific research.

A view from Europe

He says it better than I ever could:

Friday 13 March 2009

A quiz question

I don't normally gratuitously insult people I don't agree with - there's more effective methods than that. But this from today's Telegraph (via Guido Fawkes) appealed:

Q: What's the difference between Bernard Madoff and Gordon Brown?

A: One has drained fortunes from gullible victims, plundering their income and savings to create an illusion of prosperity. The other is going to jail.

Another difference: I met Madoff a few times many years ago. He was charming, switched on and positive. His misdemeanour was a genuine surprise. Brown's was obvious from the beginning.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Light Touch Regulation?

It is popular to say, in the financial field, that there was too little regulation.

The photo (of two colleagues) shows the amount of paper generated in a year by the UK's financial regulators in terms of new regulations, amended regulations ro consulations on regulation. Just think how long that would take to read, never mind understand and implement. And also - what good it did.

The problem hasn't been too little regulation, its been too much. And of the wrong kind. The mass of paper stopped regulators and firms from focusing on the real issues, but gave the impression of action. Bit like most of the Government's initiatives, really.