Government, energy & environment

Blowing Hot and Cold about Climate Change

Have you noticed how global warming has turned into a religious crusade of late?On one side we have the evangelical believers that talk in apocalyptic terms about the ‘end of days.’ Opposing them are the heretics who deny anything is happening or insist that it is still uncertain why something is happening or what the consequences will be. Both sides use armies of facts to fight their battles although both sides seem to forget that these ‘facts’ are historical and that any forecast is just a prediction and not an empirical observation. Somewhere in the middle of this fighting are the vast majority of people who suspect that something significant is going on but aren’t too sure what due to the complexity of the debate. Clearly what’s missing is a sober analysis of the situation and a balanced discussion of some of the potential problems and solutions. Most people do in fact agree that there have been large increases in CO2 in the atmosphere and there is not much disagreement that mankind is largely responsible for this. A recent survey of climate scientists, for instance, found that 70% supported the view that mankind was responsible. Where the agreement breaks down is what the effects of this will be on temperatures and what should be done about it.

What’s interesting to me about this debate is that to some extent it is polarised along the old lines of left and right. Why could this be? One answer might be that since the collapse of Marxism some people have been looking for a new ‘big idea’ to believe in and climate change ticks all of the boxes. Radical environmentalism appeals to people that believe that accumulating wealth is morally suspect and also strikes a chord with people that think global wealth should be more equitable. Radical environmentalism is thus anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist and at the extreme favours population control, higher taxation, new regulatory regimes and radical changes to personal attitudes and behaviour.Another argument, put forward by the historian Arthur Herman, is that the mind of man is at times taken over by anxiety and apprehension when real physical worries are missing. In short, worries become invisible and unknown when real enemies disappear. The logic here is that the collapse of the cold war and the booming global economy have removed many of our everyday worries allowing superstition to take hold once again. Old fashioned fear and ignorance flourish in an age of unreason where trust has evaporated and change is endemic.

Both of these ideas strike a chord with me. First, the power and authority of a priesthood is always greatest when ignorance and fear are most prevalent. Compare the past to the present and the idea makes some sense. Climate change has also moved from scientific theory to a form of quasi-religion with the true believers promising penance and biblical hell if sceptics and heretics do not change their ways and repent. But, strangely, talk of damnation and salvation does seem to sell to a secular audience. What’s clever about this is that from a scientific point of view climate fears are a non-falsifiable hypothesis. Arguments for an impending apocalypse are indistinguishable from claims about the existence of God. Neither can be disproved. So, to sum up, is climate change actually a problem? On the balance of probability I would suggest that it is and we should be doing something about it, if only from a risk management perspective. Having said this there are worse catastrophes imaginable and there might be better ways of spending trillions of dollars if your fundamental objective is either to save the most lives or to improve the quality of life for the greatest number of people.
Ref: The Australian (Aus) 4 August 2008, ‘Climate hysterics v heretics in an age of unreason’, A. Herman Wall Street Journal (US), 1 July 2008, ‘Global Warming as Mass Neurosis’, B. Stephens Spiked Online (UK) 7 March 2008, ‘The King of Climate Porn’, T. Gilland Spiked Online (UK) 24 July 2008, ‘The only certain thing is that the science is uncertain’, R. Lyons. See also Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Climate change, global warming, global cooling, risk,
Trend tags: Environment, sustainability

New Strategic Threats

For three decades strategists in Washington DC have worried about oil as a national security issue. Recently the price of oil has come close to $140 a barrel and food inflation is also fuelling unease, not only in US and European foreign policy circles but in developing countries too. To date there have been riots in around 30 countries due to the cost of food and according to Morgan Stanley, 42% of thew world’s population now lives under double-digit inflation. The threat is most acute in Muslim nations such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and Egpyt and Saudi Arabia is seriously worried about being cast as a scapegoat. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the world Food Programme, has made the comment that many of the world’s fledgling democracies are only seven meals away from social anarchy and civil upheaval. However, perhaps the threat of radicalisation is not merely confined to emerging democracies. Rapidly rising food and energy prices in countries such as the US and UK also have the potential to topple governments.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) 21-22 June 2008, ‘West rethinks strategic threats’, C. Hoyos and J. Blas.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Risks, uncertainty, wildcards, oil, food inflation
Trend tags: Inflation, resource shortages

Future Wars

According to David Armatage, a Professor of History at Harvard University, we may have seen the end of formal inter-state wars, with the US-Iraq war being the last formal occurrence. The evidence cited to support this view is fairly impressive. Since 1989, 115 of the world’s 122 wars were civil wars and last year there were 32 civil wars in progress compared to no inter-state wars (Iraq and Afghanistan now being classified as civil wars). This view roughly follows the collective wisdom that democracies never go to war with each other and also ties into some of the ideas expressed by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. As you might expect the economists have now got involved and have calculated that an average civil war costs US $60 billion including loss of life and resources wasted. Given that there are roughly two major civil conflicts per year that adds up to $120 billion annually, which is more than the developed world spends on humanitarian aid to developing counties. It is also noted that civil wars tend to be fought between poor countries and it is the poorest members of these countries that tend to suffer the most. This is all very compelling stuff but I can’t help think that there is al least a possibility that a small incident between, say, the US and China, or between Israel and Iran, could at least temporarily become a full blown war. More likely perhaps is a new cold war between the US and Russia or between the US and China. Let’s hope not.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 19-20 July 2008, ‘ The shape of wars to come’, D. Armatage.
See also The Atlantic (US) June 2005, ‘ How we would fight China’, R. Kaplan and The Atlantic, July/August 2007, Superiority Complex’, K. Lieber and D. Press.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: War, cival war, conflict
Trend tags: Anxiety

Open-Sourced Government Policy

In the US political bogs are a powerful tool. Using social networking and web 2.0 principles politicians are connecting with, organising and inspiring vast numbers of voters. They are also bumming money in spectacular fashion. For example, back in December 2006 Ron Paul (a former candidate for a Republican Presidency) raised US$6million in a single day online. Things in the UK are smaller and considerably more sedate. In the US the blogosphere is vibrant because the mainstream US media isn’t. In the UK this isn’t the case. As a result the official websites of the UKs three major political parties receive miniscule amounts of traffic. This may be generational and there are certainly signs that the new blood in Westminster is more attuned to using citizens plus new media to improve policy-making. George Osborn, the Shadow Chancellor, is also making noises about putting US style crime maps online in the UK and is also openly talking about using open-sourced principles to involve the citizenry in policy creation. Given that the Jubilee Petition of 2000 attracted some 24 million signatures it looks as though there are a considerable number of people out there that might welcome such a development.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 19 April 2008, ‘Semi-connected’
See also Financial Times (UK) 17-19 May 2008, ‘Signature Power’, P. Goldman and The Atlantic (US) July-August 2008, ‘MySpace Politics’, J. Green.
Source integrity:*****
Search words: Policy, open government, open innovation, UGC, customer co-creation
Trend tags: Open

The Participative Learning Trend

In education, the idea of teachers or lecturers that are in the know teaching or lecturing students that aren’t has been the dominant model for centuries. Students were presumed ignorant until proved otherwise. However, things are changing. A recent US study of computer gamers found that young gamers did not take kindly to formal front-end instruction. Instead of reading instruction manuals, the preferred mode of learning was hands on trial and error with instruction, such as it exists at all, being found from peer to peer inquiry. This is very much a Generation Y trait and participative learning is making its presence felt at the university level with students boycotting lecture theatres in favour of downloading lectures directly onto computers or iPods. In other words the architecture of learning has shifted from a vertical structure where physical presence was virtually compulsory to a horizontal or networked approach in which learning is quite literally virtual. But should everything move on line? Clearly there is considerable scope to allow students to collaboratively design a learning process and to provide feedback on the results but one wonders whether removing many of the physical and social aspects of learning will negatively impact on students’ ability to think. Ideas and knowledge are inherently social and removing the physical element altogether may prove to be a big mistake.
Ref: The Australian (Aus) 2 July 2008, ‘No longer tuned in to his masters voice’ E. McWilliam and N. Jackson.
See also The Australian literary review (AUS) 6 August 2008, ‘Paralysed by postmodernism’, G. Kitching.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Education, schools, learning, Gen Y

Can't See the Wood for the Carbon-eating Trees

About 8% of the CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed by vegetation and returned as oxygen each year. Therefore, the life expectancy of an average CO2 molecule is twelve years, which means that altering the CO2 content of the atmosphere can be achieved relatively quickly if the technology to so existed. One possible technology to do this is genetic engineering, specifically carbon-eating trees. Bearing in mind that the effects of transformative technologies tends to accelerate over time, it is quite possible that a biological solution to climate change could be available within 60 years and even within 20. Food for thought.
Ref: The Australian (Aus) 14-15 June 2008, ‘Cooler climate for Rudd’, C. Pearson
Source integrity: ****
Search words: climate change, CO2, wood, trees
Trend tags: Genetics, genetic engineeering