Looking at ourselves better, with increasing truth

Andrei Tarkovsky – in the classic SF movie Solaris – floats the thought that since we cannot know when we’re going to die, we are, at any given moment, immortal.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change surreally redraws the climate change message into a risk-management challenge, and one through which risks become opportunities. Two co-chairs of IPCC working groups write that:

Progress in reducing emissions is an important part of responding to climate change, but it is not the whole solution… Investments in managing those risks can be effective and affordable. Indeed, some of the most appealing responses are relatively inexpensive. Others, which require more resources, can be developed as investments that not only provide protection from climate change, but also advance competitiveness, development, and security.

Denial is a classic human fallibility, and it comes in many forms. As Nick Cohen notes many politicians cannot discuss how their countries could accept huge reductions in their living standards in order to tackle climate change – and oddly the British Chancellor does not want Britain to ‘punch above its weight’ on this occasion – because to concede its inevitability would demand a reckoning with a world they are loath to acknowledge exists.

Climate change deniers … If they admitted they were wrong on climate change, they might have to admit that they were wrong on everything else and their whole political identity would unravel.

The professional economist (blogger) (vox) fraternity also stalks around the main issue. They point to the market failures implicit in the business-as-uBeijing pollutionsual fossil-fuel subsidies – $520 billion in 2011 alone.  Cap and trade is discounted (so much then for REDD?) ; carbon taxes are OK to discourage further greenhouse gas emissions. But only after fossil fuel subsidies have been phased out and preferably when investments in green and basic energy technology have been made and new technologies realized, in effect when non fossil energy prices are less than fossil fuel prices.

But time is not on our side. Emissions are accelerating, and at the current rate the twenty-first century’s entire carbon budget will be used up by 2030.  China has recently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – not least because it makes much of the stuff we buy. But the issue is not about Country A or B; rather, it is more about global Company A, B, and C etc., and the response of governments (here and here). Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone nails two crucial points.

Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization…According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it. So pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

If the global corporates are responsible for supplying the goods and services that we consume, then we are responsible for our own over-consumption that drives the global economy to the planet’s ecological limits. Although UK per capita carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from 10 to 8.5 tons since 1990, David McKay reckons this needs to come down to 1 ton per person by 2050 based on reaching global equal per-capita emissions.

To fix the basic problem emissions need to be cut at their source. It’s time to campaign for a 10-year time frame to reduce UK per capita emissions through the setting up of individual carbon budgets. Each year everyone gets an equal allowance and each year this is reduced (for an earlier post on carbon rationing). Every purchase has a carbon cost (similar to value-added tax). If you don’t use up your allowance for the year you can sell it back into the market; if you need more you will have to buy it in that market place. Extended and free public transport and comprehensive home insulation subsidies will offset a large part of the initial transition costs; energy-efficiency will be led by innovative market economies, and the result will be sustainable employment and growth. And the transfer of income from the rich to the poor will lead to a massive reduction in inequalities.

The experience of prolonged mass unemployment, poor social services and war provided a moral imperative for the Labour Party’s campaign and victory in 1945 on a programme of establishing the welfare state.  A similar campaign – to make the country fit for the twenty-first century – based on redressing social justice through reducing emissions could be a key platform for the General Election of 2015.

As Victor Havel wrote that it is essential to live within truth, and to be free. His humble greengrocer:

…has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system…He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade…and exposed the real, base foundations of power…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal…everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety …

*Julian Barnes – an author that I grown up with (from reading Metroland as an undergraduate,  Flaubert’s Parrot as a postgraduate moonlighting in Paris, through A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Nothing to Be Frightened Of) –  in his recent book Levels of Life, writes of ” … advances which allowed us to look at ourselves better, with increasing truth.”

UPDATE: The UK’s Infrastructure Bill received royal assent on 15 February 2015; the Act makes “provision about maximising economic recovery of petroleum in the United Kingdom”. This is the essential truth about the present Conservative Party leadership’s view on climate change.


Football environment

Euro 2008 kicks off this weekend and promises some intriguing group stage encounters (not least Holland v. Italy, Holland v. France, France v. Italy, Spain v. Russia, Czech Republic v. Portugal, and Germany v. Croatia). And the games can only get better in the following knock-out stages. Sometimes it is argued that this competition is stronger than the World Cup, insofar as the weather tends to be kinder both on players and pitches, and there are fewer weaker teams. In the betting, Italy, the current World Cup holders, are rated behind Germany and Spain, but this a competition that has a habit of producing unexpected winners – for example the Czechs (1976), Denmark (1992) and Greece – the current Cup holders – (2004). Part of me is backing Spain, part takes refuge in Eduardo Galeano’s sentiments (post) that it is enough to enjoy the game.

The reason that I’m cheering on the Spanish is, of course, that none of the British representatives have made it to the Euro 2008 finals, in the year in which two English teams contested the UEFA Champions League final and Rangers reached the UEFA Cup Final, and when 13% of the players taking part in Euro 2008 practice their trade in the Premiership. Of the 16 nations competing, only Italy & Russia do not have at least one current Premiership player in their squads. The globalisation of professional football is largely the consequence of the EU’s regulations on the free movement of labour: no amount of posturing by UEFA on the numbers of home players per team is going to be successful. Ironically in the Champions League final both Chelsea and Manchester Utd fulfilled Blatter’s ‘six-plus-five’ principle (which would limit a team’s “foreign” players to five).

The number of home-based players in each nation’s squads is shown the graph, and is contrasted with the number of all players in each country’s domestic leagues: 96% of Russia’s squad play in their domestic clubs (and 8% of all the players in the tournament play in Russia), whereas only one Croatian plays in Croatia (and no one else does). Unsurprisingly the big football nations – Germany, Italy, France & Spain – have a high percentage of domestically-based squad members as well as sharing a large proportion of foreign players in their respective leagues [Data source: BBC].

Will this make any difference to their chances of success? The second graph contrasts the current odds (from William Hill: 4-1 Germany; 11-2 Spain; 7-1 Italy, Portugal; 15-2 France; 12-1 Croatia, Holland; 16-1 Czech Republic; 22-1 Greece; 25-1 Switzerland; 28-1 Russia, Sweden; 40-1 Romania, Turkey; 50-1 Poland; 100-1 Austria) with the number of players in the finals who play in each nation’s leagues (thereby assuming that this is an indicator of performance). The relationship looks quite close – without getting drawn into any statistical tests – but the actual results are likely to depend upon the players’ form and the quality of management. Let us remember that during qualifying England made the fundamental error of promoting the #2: see post No Easy Matches.

The Premiership is probably the most international league in the world (in terms not only of players, but also sponsorship, worldwide tv coverage), and yet the overwhelming majority of the England team would most likely be drawn from the top four clubs (less if Arsenal is one of these). The question then – accepting the positive impacts of globalisation on British football – is how sustainable is the modern game given the clubs’ level of indebtedness and cost structures, and arguably the increasing inequalities between clubs, and the lower divisions. The issues is not about players’ nationalities, but rather the linkages between the advantages of globalisation and ensuring that domestic football can generate new talent and decent national teams (i.e the financing of domestic football, benefit-sharing arrangements and the “rules of the game” in the widest sense). Perhaps this is where the Germans, Italians, Spanish & French are doing better?

But there is a lesson here for the World Environment Day too: strengthening local capacities is the key to help countries lever to their advantage the benefits from globalisation. Both the agricultural and forestry sectors in developing countries have been relatively neglected by multilateral and bilateral donors. The success of efforts to create new carbon markets to support avoided deforestation will depend upon the quality of local institutions and knowledge to match initiatives and funding to tackle the drivers of deforestation whilst supporting farming systems. Implementing such environmental service programmes – and wider reforms needed to decarbonise the world’s economy – will be by necessity a step-by-step experimental process based on enduring partnerships, but one that has hardly begun:

Juan Bautista Alberdi, an Argentine constitutionalist and liberal, noted in 1837 that “Nations, like men, do not have wings; they make their journeys on foot, step by step.” Latin America, long susceptible to the utopian mirages of revolutionaries and caudillos and still not immune to them, has struggled to absorb this truth. But … durable mass democracies have emerged across the region…[Brazil’s] leadership in nonfossil fuels and the unparalleled biodiversity of its Amazon rain forest make it a natural leader in the 21st-century struggle with global warming. (NYT)

UPDATE: 25 June

The first graph shows the four semi-finalists came from the top-5 rated nations (which is better than the match makers managed). I’m sure that Eduardo Galeano enjoyed the romance of the plucky and skillful Turkish performance, as well as Richard William’s sympathetic sport writing – here

we haven’t had rain, we’ve had too much rain

As Benjamin Zephaniah wrote: ‘A few years ago if u said yu were Green / Yu were really seen as Red’ [Me green poem, in City Psalms, Bloodaxe Books, 1992].

Now the British Council has published “Feeling the Pressure. Poetry and science of climate change”, a short anthology of new poems (downloadable, see below), described as a “weather report, a British snapshot of intellectual and emotional reaction to things as they stand at the end of 2007:

It’s noticeable how many of the poets have adopted a rather oblique approach, almost seeming to shy away from direct statements about the predicament we face. Is that a lack of confidence in the facts? A loss of nerve? I don’t think so. It is more a refusal to jump on the bandwagon of self-satisfaction like those corporations preening themselves on account of their ever so slight ‘green’ credentials. There are no token gestures among these poems. The poets are more honest than that; they do not claim to have solutions or even some special understanding. What is striking throughout all the contributions, however, is the way in which the science of climate change has clearly entered the language and permeated the way we think [Paul Munden].

The contributions are really good, with the poems grouped in 5 sections, each introduced by short prose contributions by scientists. My own favourite poem is the editor’s “Mitigation”.

Now hopefully the British Council will assist a similar publication from scientists and poets in the those countries that have already suffered from, or will be most likely to be disproportionately affected by, climate change.

Feeling the Pressure. Poetry and science of climate change. Edited by Paul Munden. British Council, 2008. http://www.britishcouncil.org/switzerland-climate-change-anthology.htm

Flower power

Girona’s 53rd annual flower festival has been taking place this week, drawing good crowds of locals and visitors to the city. It is — as usual — well organised with lots of interesting exhibits, concerts and other activities interspersed in and around the Barri Vell (the old town centre). It’s a great opportunity to amble around the streets as well as get free access to many public & private buildings, churches, gardens, and museums.

There is an excellent web page for the Temps de Flors -look in particular at the gallery of pictures of earlier festival and festival posters. The town’s many bookshops have copies of the book “Girona Temps de Flors: 50 anys de cartells 1955-2005”, Col.leccío História de Girona 35, Ajuntment de Girona [ISBN 84-8496-004-8]) which is well worth buying as a souvenir.

Last year the festival week took place in unusually hot weather and by the end many displays were unsurprisingly looking rather tired; fortunately this year’s rain on the opening and final weekends has only slightly dampened some activities & displays.

But is there a sense that the format needs revamping? There is nothing really dramatic or memorable this year, nor was there last year. It’s important to keep the festival’s core visitors, but perhaps this is the time to increase its attractiveness and relevance to a wider range of visitors and residents.

Here are three ideas:

First, take part of the festival out of the town centre, specifically by having some exhibits and shows in nearby Salt’s own old town centre. This would be an opportunity to draw upon Salt’s more dynamic and diverse communities’ cultures, (for example, this week there is a festival of African films — AFRICAT — in Salt), and to bring the two town centres and peoples closer together.

Second, install some exhibits on nearby walks or cycle routes, such as the Girona-Olot and Girona-Quart sections of the classic bike route the Ruta de Carrilet Olot-San Feliu de Guìxols on the banks of the River Ter and River Onyar respectively. Other potential sites include the extensive allotments and woods of San Eugenia (Hortes de San Eugenia),  and the ecosystem bike routes at the end of the San Daniel Valley.

Third, give the festivals a theme – for example emulate the 2050 Garden exhibit at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show which looks at plants and gardens in a changing climate.

Much of Catalunya’s wealth is drawn from tourism and built upon the high public subsidies (much provided by the EU following the restoration of Spanish democracy) for infrastructure and public sector construction. Now it is time for the town council to start to decarbonise the local economy and tourism: free public transport in Girona and Salt, plus town bike schemes are long overdue.