Monday, 30 November 2009

Climategate – Who is being Stupid?

I have been watching the debate over the so-called “climategate” with close interest. Scientists have been caught cooking the climate data. The exchanges that have followed have been highly emotional and often vitriolic. Youtube has a range of videos produced by people taking great delight in presenting climate change as an elaborate hoax.

The same people delighting in the mistakes made by the scientists were active recently opposing wind turbines. They now see their position of opposition vindicated, but who is being stupid?

I listened to a wind protester at a public meeting recently and the argument was based on the health hazards of wind turbines. The protester spoke about wind turbine syndrome. He pointed out that there was no proof that the condition existed but, on the precautionary principle, wind turbines should not be erected anywhere near human habitation. These same people are now gleefully jumping onto the mistakes made by a few scientists, citing this as a reason not to make efforts to make the changes in society required to reduce carbon emissions. Where is the precautionary principle now?

Human society is putting the ecosystem at risk of major damage. The only solid incontrovertible evidence will be when we are living in the consequences. Climategate has exposed the human instinct to live for today, despite evidence (some of which is now tainted) that there is a need for fundamental change to protect our future.

The scientists at fault should resign and play no further part in the IPCC, but it is the people who claim that climate change is a hoax who are being stupid.

Monday, 23 November 2009

‘Eco’ Selling – Beware the Climate Con

We are being inflicted with a con so insidious that even the perpetrators believe their own sales pitch. The con is based on a number of true statements and a few apparently logical deductions. Beware, because this con is sweeping through the shopping malls, mail order catalogues and internet sales sites.

The traditional con involves fooling people into thinking they have stumbled across some easy money. Con artists often play on a person’s weakness such as loneliness, insecurity, poor health or simple ignorance. This con is based on people’s growing awareness that climate change is a potentially serious problem. It is widely known that reducing our carbon footprint is one action we should take and this is starting to influence purchase decisions. It is scandalous that this change of attitude is being exploited by unscrupulous traders.

First, we need to understand the mechanism of the con so we do not get trapped by it. The scam relies on ignorance that climate change is part of a greater challenge. The prime challenge is to make society sustainable. Reducing carbon emissions is only part of the change required. Focus too hard on carbon and we will miss spotting the greater issue. This is like the con artist that grabs our attention to persuade us to part with our cash whilst hiding the true nature of the transaction.

The example I came across this week was a throw-away consumer product that was presented as ‘eco’ because of the carbon reductions associated with its use. Buy this product and you will drive less and consume fewer other throw-away products. The product itself was a classic example of buy it for Christmas, use it for a while and then chuck it when the novelty has worn off. Watch out for this green spin marketing ploy. It will trap a lot of people until we start to see ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco’ as more than a carbon counting exercise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Pumping Money into the Economy

Should the Bank of England be pumping money into ‘banks’, ‘bubbles’ or the ‘real economy’? The only choice we can rule out for sure is ‘bubble’. The choice that Alistair Darling has taken on behalf of the government is to pump money into the banks in the hope that it will be channelled into the real economy. That is not what is happening. The money is going into the financial system and appearing as a surge on the stock market. This is exactly where we do not want tax-payers money to end up.

There is a lot of talk about persuading banks to take action to support the real economy. They are being urged to be more prudent and to lend more to small businesses (not easily compatible aims). There are also proposals to cap banker’s bonuses but this may be more political posturing than trying to fix the financial system. When money flows into banks it enters a system which is the same as it was prior to the crisis but with some of the more extreme elements neutered (for now). It is not banks that need the money, it is the real economy.

The central bank can make new money at the flick of a switch. Quantitative easing is a very easy option. It is hoped that this then helps the economy. This is lazy policy making; like the government’s action to reduce VAT early in the crisis. The real challenge is boosting the real economy and getting people back to work. It will not be easy.

One way would be channel government money to the insulation of all the housing stock in the UK, starting with that in public ownership. The money will go direct to employing people from the hard-hit construction industry and deliver long-term reductions in carbon emissions as well as improve security of energy supply for the country. This would pump stimulus directly into the real economy. The effects would ripple out, allowing people to get off the dole, back to work and pay off their mortgage arrears. This is not an easy option, to implement quickly, but governments should not be in power looking for easy options. This could be up and running now if our leaders had more vision and more drive.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Time for World Leaders to Act

We like to listen to optimists, and I am an optimist, but I am also a realist. My new book, Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk contains a blueprint to save the world but it is not a small change to business as usual. Decades of denial that a problem is brewing means that now it is not possible to avoid difficult and painful decisions. This is the uncomfortable and worrying reality that we don’t like to hear.

I remain optimistic because I know that when people really understand the risks we are taking on behalf of the next generation, they will be willing to enter crisis mode. The current set of proposals, being worked on for the climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, is not enough. A deal will be agreed, but it will then stifle the debate for the next decade whilst we invest in more nuclear power, ramp up carbon trading and then miss the ambitious targets that were agreed.

By then, climate change will be hitting many countries hard, the world population will still be expanding and natural habitats will have been destroyed. We will stop, think, and try again to come up with another blueprint for the planet, but by then the problems will be much more intractable.

My book is not the blueprint to save the world. It is a call to action, a plea to open our eyes to reality and an indication of the nature of a new direction for society. The time for complacency and reassuring optimism is long past. Civilization is at risk and it is up to this generation of world leaders to take steps to protect it.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

De-Carbonising Europe

Gerry Wolf, of Desertec-UK claims that, using proven technology, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) could deliver the entire world’s current electricity demand using less than 5% of the world’s desert area. This could mean that the deserts of North Africa could power Europe.

These ideas have been around for a while. I wrote in my book Adapt and Thrive that the deserts could provide ‘liquid sunshine’ as a viable transport fuel. I used the term ‘liquid sunshine’ in order not to be prescriptive over which technology would win out. Some people argue for hydrogen; my personal favourite is a bio fuel produced by photosynthesis perhaps from algae grown in tanks. Of course this needs water and the sunniest places are deserts where, by definition, water is in short supply.

This is where CSP can work along-side liquid sunshine plants. CSP uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat which is then used to generate steam to power conventional turbines. The engineers have developed clever design concepts to store the heat so that the turbines can continue to run when the sun goes down. This means that solar electricity from the desert can provide the steady reliable power that our grids demand.

There is another fortunate development that engineers are working on. The CSP has ‘waste’ heat that can be used to operate desalination plants to extract fresh water from sea water. It is technically feasible to combine a CSP plant sending electricity to our cities over low-loss power lines with a plant to produce a bio fuel (my liquid sunshine) to be shipped and used in transport.

The engineers have the solution to de-carbonising Europe; all that is needed is the business case. That business case hinges on the price of fuel and energy. It is simple; we must accept much higher energy costs to give companies like Desertec the business case to deliver the engineer’s designs. ‘All’ we have to do is to overcome the political difficulty of much higher energy prices.