Government, energy & environment

Global warming – we didn’t do it

Sceptics about global warming continue to speak up and Professor Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist, is one of them. He claims that it is impossible for human activity to create global warming, because this contradicts validated knowledge of solar physics, astronomy, archaeology and geology. As a geologist, he recognises that the climate has changed over the last 4,567 million years, but he does not accept that the past 150 years means much at all.

For example, polar ice has been on earth for less than 20% of geological time, extinctions are normal, climate change is cyclical and random, and CO2 in the atmosphere is only 0.001% of total CO2 held in oceans, rocks, air and soils. The professor also claims we are in a period of global cooling, which began in 1998 and already the past two years have erased nearly 20 years of rising temperatures. More radical still, he claims that people are “too wealthy” and, for this reason, they have the luxury of eco-guilt. The author claims that the global meltdown has rightly caused people to question much of the green legislation because now they don’t feel quite so able to afford it.

His book, Heaven and Earth, is selling well, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its firm rejection by most publishers. Meanwhile, governments continue to spend up big on cap-and-trade legislation and so-called green policies. It will be interesting to see whether climate change sceptics ever manage to tip the balance away from such anthropocentrism when the global warming crisis so readily suggests more taxation, regulation and protectionism from those who can profit from it.
Ref: The Spectator, 11 July 2009, Meet the man who has exposed the great climate change con trick. James Delingpole.
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Search words: global warming, anthropogenic, cyclical, random, global cooling, environmentalism, Australia, government policy.
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Space mirrors and other life preservatives

If human beings are responsible for climate change, then they are using their ingenuity to come up with ways to alter the earth’s systems to combat it. The term is “geo-engineering”, and it is much more high-tech than giving up plastic bags. It includes such mechanical innovations as space mirrors (which deflect the sun’s rays), seeding the oceans with iron (to encourage the growth of phytoplankton that absorbs CO2) and shooting sulphur into the atmosphere (to dim the earth by reflecting sunlight).

Other ideas use the ocean to create clouds – scooping up seawater and spraying it and pumping nutrient rich water from the bottom of the ocean – that block sunlight. Each of them is incredibly expensive, particularly the space mirror, and some scientists say that it is already too late to put any of these practices into place. They also warn that they are no substitute for making much-needed changes to human behaviour. It sounds to me very dangerous to be interfering with the eco-system even more, given that, like the human brain, nobody really understands it as well as they think. More playing God or a genuine effort?
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 9/10 May 2009, How changing the planet might help preserve it. Fiona Harvey.
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Search words: geo-engineering, space mirror, iron filings, ocean, sulphur, stratosphere, clouds, pipes, dimethyl sulphide.
Trend tags: geo-engineering, climate change, environment

Electricity shortages

Britain is running out of charge – electricity to be precise. Just over 45% of its power comes from plants fuelled by gas from the North Sea, 35% from coal sources, less than 15% from nuclear, and the rest from other sources. After 1999, supply of North Sea gas peaked and since then, the flow has dropped by half; in 2015, it will have fallen by two thirds. What does this mean for a country whose electricity demand grows more urgent?

By 2015, four of the UK’s ten nuclear stations will have shut down and coal is becoming fundamentally unpopular. Even if the country were to use more renewable energy sources, these would not offer the predictable flows available from traditional sources. The alternative is to import gas from Russia, a politically risky business because relations with that country are at a new low. Meanwhile, there seems to be no official energy policy, with politicians becoming distracted by emotional issues like nuclear power and wind farms. Britain will probably have to depend on gas for up to 75% of its electricity in the next decade and gas prices can fluctuate strongly. The Economist suggests there are two options for the future: gas storage and carbon taxing, neither of which is going to please the greenies. Meanwhile, Britain is in danger of suffering 1970s-style power cuts and there are not too many people who like sitting in the dark.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 August 2009, How long till the lights go out?
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Search words: electricity, North Sea, Renewable energy, free market, gas, Russia, carbon tax.
Trend tags: Resource shortages

Time for State ownership?

The trend towards public or public ownership seems to go in cycles and the prevailing philosophy is a reflection of domestic and world events. With the global financial crisis, governments in the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Ireland have seen fit to buy ailing banks. Many are wondering if this should be interpreted as a crisis of capitalism. Perhaps it is more aptly a crisis in capitalism.

According to Andrew Turnbull in Strategy & Business, there are several reasons why governments cannot continue to own state enterprises. Their finances are already stretched, they lack the people who understand good financial management, and they face constitutional hindrances. On the other hand, overly heavy-handed regulation is not likely to solve the crisis either. Even so, more attention to systemic risk in the banking system is much needed and the structure of it will change. For example, there could be a resurgence of financial service providers with a mutual or cooperative tradition. There will also be a prudent reassessment of the need to pay the person at the top 500 to 1,000 times what a teller earns. People will start to demand more simplicity and transparency in their dealings with business finance.

Some people may claim that they have lost faith in the free market system, but it is important to distinguish between what is chronically broken and what still works well. Who would question the value of competition, open trading markets, well functioning labour markets, or good corporate governance? The writer refers rather ironically to the “chastened capitalist”, “shorn of much of its swagger”, suggesting perhaps that the real problem was not capitalism, but arrogance about it.
Ref: Strategy & Business (US), 28 April 2009, Is State control making a comeback? Andrew Turnbull.
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Search words: Nationalisation
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The future of Europe

A decade ago, the EU was a power on the rise. Now it seems to be slipping backwards behind the US or China (a potential G2?), or even India. In some ways, it is a miracle in cooperation and soft power; in another way, it lacks ambition and common policies. Here are some ideas for making the EU more consistent, more unified, and more effective.

First, put the foreign policy provisions of the Lisbon Treaty into action and replace the rotating presidency with one permanent institution. Second, it is too cumbersome for 27 countries to agree on defence. Those countries with strong cultures should form a defence club with stringent criteria. Third is similar: 27 countries cannot set foreign policy. Smaller groups with special interests should decide on policies about those topics.

Fourth, an open door policy would be better than allowing enlargement to stall, with a stronger neighbourhood policy so that countries around the EU have looser visa regimes, more opportunities to participate and more political contacts. Fifth, there should be a common energy policy with a true single market and pipeline network that provides an efficient and more sustainable supply where needed. Last, leaders should promote the EU, so that people are willing to put their voting energy into it. They need to know that the EU can help tackle things they claim to care about: climate change, energy security, illegal migration or terrorism.
One of the EU’s directors makes the point that the EU could never be a single state, like the US or China, so it is better not to have unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, unrealistic expectations have more potential to change the world.
Ref: Prospect (UK), July 2009, The unravelling of the EU. Charles Grant.
Financial Times (UK), 23 July 2009, Absence of ambition leaves Europe in the slow lane. Philip Stephens.
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Search words: multipolar, EU, security, soft power, foreign policy, Balkans, G20, Chinese, defence policy, Russia, gas, enlargement, social democracy, Lisbon treaty, energy policy, ambition, introspection, expectations.
Trend tags: Nationalism, tribalism, localisation, globalisation