Monday, 25 January 2010

What to Discuss in Davos?

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting starts later this week in Davos Switzerland. This gathering of leaders from all walks of life has helped to shape the global agenda at the start of each year since 1970. This year, there are claims that climate change is a hoax and expectations that the financial crisis of 2008 is now over. So what is there left to discuss at Davos?

There are two categories of people who may be less in evidence than previous years – bankers and climate scientists. Bankers have fared worst; their reputation as masters of the universe has been shown to be less than accurate. Unwisely, they have further tarnished their image by awarding themselves a big slice of the bumper profits made on the back of cheap money provided by governments. This is insensitive at the very least. If they want to keep the tentacles of government regulation out of banking then they should have shown more respect for public opinion and taken more responsibility for their actions. Some bankers have been forced out (with their pension pots intact) but few have fallen on their swords or expressed contrition.

Climate scientists - and the chairman of the IPCC in particular - are also in the dog house. Exaggerated claims and sloppy research have made their way into the IPCC reports. These are vital documents that world leaders need to be able to justify taking action. The evidence that climate change is a threat to society is robust, but the presentation of the evidence to persuade a sceptical public has to be transparent and accurate. There are echoes of Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the war in Iraq by over stating the evidence (as we will hear more of on Friday when he appears before the Iraq inquiry). Such deception leaves a bitter taste and is best avoided even if the intentions are honest.

These are dangerous times as leaders gather in Davos. The crisis is far from over – the flaws in the financial system have not been fixed, just papered over. Climate change is real and we are not taking action to reduce the threat. There is plenty to discuss in Davos. We need to move beyond bashing bankers and scientists (no matter how well justified) and get on with the process of building a sustainable future for society.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The UK Reopens for Business

Britain has been gripped by the coldest winter for decades. Many parts of the country have been paralysed; children’s education has been interrupted and many businesses have had to curtail operations. The thaw has brought welcome relief.

I lived in Finland 2004 to 2008 where such weather is normal and may last for months. The Finns are equipped for such weather; the society and the economy hardly miss a beat, except in the most severe storms. Here in the UK, some people argue for better contingency plans, more snow ploughs and larger stockpiles of salt.

It is ironic that this spell of cold weather comes hard on the heels of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Climate change deniers have welcomed it with glee, claiming that this weather is proof that global warming is an elaborate hoax peddled by scientists wanting to keep their research funding. But weather is not the same as climate. Climate is all about long-term trends; weather is fickle and changeable. According to the UK Meteorological office, ‘the current cold weather in the UK is part of the normal regional variations’. Concurrent with cold weather in the UK, many places in the far north have seen temperatures above normal – in many places by more than 5 °C, and in parts of northern Canada, by more than 10 °C. According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, the cause of this warm weather in the Arctic is an ‘extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO)’ – a natural pattern of climate variability.

Cold weather in the UK does not disprove global warming nor lessen its dangers. There is a simple fact that cannot be ignored; if all other variables remain the same, an atmosphere with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide will absorb more of the sun’s radiation. The weather may respond in a number of ways but the overall trend towards a warmer planet can only be stopped, and reversed, by breaking the world’s reliance on the burning of fossil fuels.

As for the UK’s contingency plans for a long spell of freezing weather, what should we do? We could procure all the equipment to be able to run our country like the Finns run Finland. This is not warranted. It would be more cost-effective to close down our little island for one week each decade than to keep it running through the rare big freeze.

We should remember that the sledging has been great and the weather excellent for building snowmen and for snow sculpture. The McManners tribe constructed a Tardis in our back garden which makes it look as if Dr Who has come to call. The kids may not have learnt much at school but they have had a lot of fun. Let’s stop work and enjoy the winter fun on the few occasions we have the chance, knowing that, for the UK, it is the most cost-effective solution.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Learning a New Rhythm

I was reminded of the power of repetition in returning to the river yesterday afternoon to race against the Durham University first rowing VIII. It is over 30 years since my last race in a rowing boat but the instinct came flooding back. The old boy’s boat went well (for a short period) but as expected the younger men won.

Rowing in perfect unison is a good analogy of successful society and a successful corporation. We each play our part according to a unifying rhythm. Once we have learnt how to operate we repeat the same actions over and over again reinforcing success and getting ever more efficient.

Novice oarsmen or women take many months to get the balance, a feel for the water and the rhythm that will take them through the race. Old hands like us could slip into old habits with ease. In the past, many hours, days, weeks and months on the river have honed our instincts into a perfect machine. These habits are not forgotten but it would now be tough to learn a new rhythm.

The thirty years since my undergraduate days has seen a huge expansion in the world economy and a huge increase in the pressure we are placing on the environment. The rhythm with which we run society is focused on economic outcomes. This rhythm has become ingrained and second nature.

It will be hard to change the rhythm to a different beat but change it we must. This new rhythm is sustainability. If you are not used to it, you have to concentrate hard or get caught in a number of traps. Take heart; sustainable policy and sustainable operations have a much more natural rhythm. Once learned it will run much more smoothly and intuitively, but putting aside the rhythm of the past will take time.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Opening the Decade of Change

This is the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century when I hope and expect there will be a major shift in the way we run human affairs. Society needs new ideas and a new direction.

The Noughties (as the BBC called the last decade) has set the scene for change through demonstrating that continuation of the policies of the 20th century will not solve the world’s problems. As the new millennium dawned, it was hoped that there would be substantive progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. It was hoped that world leaders would embrace sustainability and reduce pressure on the environment. It was hoped that the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009 would be the crowning achievement of the decade and solve climate change for us and future generations. It was not to be. Human society has found that, despite good intentions, the straightjacket of 20th century policies is preventing progress.

If there is one word that can describe the policy framework that brought economic success to the closing decades of the 20th century, it would be ‘globalization’. Our commitment to the concept of open markets, free flows of capital and deregulation has been dented by the financial crisis, but confidence is returning. The fact that the global economy has been rescued from immediate collapse gives breathing space to start work on medium-term solutions. We must use the opportunity well, not to reinforce the policies of the 20th century but to craft a framework fit for the 21st century.

I hope to see the concept of sustainability mature into a robust policy framework that is understood by all and implemented widely. The second decade will set the direction of the 21st century but only when we accept the need to leave the concepts of the 20th century behind.