24 November 2007

Climate change – or climate crisis?

By Rupert Read

I teach at UEA. One of my fellow academics there is the climate scientist Prof Mike Hulme who warns against using terms such as "catastrophe" in describing the potential future impacts of manmade climate change because he is concerned that the use of such alarming terms may disempower people.

Now, I agree that it is absolutely not enough to scare people. I agree that one needs to emphasise how the changes needed to stop man-made climate change are in themselves life-improving (e.g. that localising life rather than globalising everything will actually make us happier). And I agree that one needs to ensure that people don't think that the mountain is too big to climb: people need to be given tools to see that preventing catastrophic climate change is doable. But, by sticking to talking of climate change rather than of climate crisis and potential climate catastrophe, one is in fact playing the same game as the more subtle and intelligent of the climate-deniers. One is talking their language.

Steven Poole has shown this, in his important book Unspeak. Poole documents how the term 'climate change' became the term of choice for the Saudis, for the US oil companies, for the Republicans, displacing even the fairly anodyne 'global warming'. It is the very people who have wanted us to go on simply burning fossil fuels as if there was no tomorrow who have insisted that the issue be described as one of 'climate change'. Because, as leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it, in a secret document that was leaked: 'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming'.

Frank Luntz wants us all to stay cool-headed over 'climate change'. A goal that he shares with Mike Hulme. I by contrast think that we ought to be mad as hell, and scared stiff. The big bad wolf is at the door, with a thousand hurricanes in his belly…

Already in places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the climate crisis is biting and killing. If and when we get devastating sea levels rises – the leading US climate scientist James Hansen is now warning of sea levels going up by several metres, this century, enough to drown much of London and East Anglia, unless we stop polluting our atmosphere with so much CO2 – then would anyone not call that catastrophic?

None of this involves crying wolf. This is simply telling the truth. Runaway climate change could within a century or so collapse civilisation on lifeboat Earth almost entirely, just as (for example) civilisation and population levels on Easter Island collapsed over a much-shorter period.

My proposal is straightforward. 'climate change' is an Orwellian euphemism, and should be dropped. To use that term is still to be in denial. We should speak honestly, instead. We should speak of 'climate crisis', 'global over-heating', and the risk of 'climate catastrophe'.

Prof Hulme wants to maintain scientific 'decorum'. But it is not the job of climate scientists to tell us how to describe what the human consequences would be of us ignoring their predictions. That is rather the task of artists, activists, politicians and philosophers.

'Climate change' is a criminally-vague and anodyne term that is dangerous for us to use. Talking instead about averting 'climate catastrophe' is not alarmism. It is simply calling things by their true names.

Why are people so reluctant to acknowledge that global over-heat is the ultimate slow-burning manmade weapon of mass destruction? The bottom-line, literally, is that it is notoriously difficult for people to understand things that their salary depends on them not understanding. There are hundreds of millions of people whose prosperity in the current set-up depends on our continued decadent use of fossil fuels or chopping down rainforests. It is so tempting to find ways of thinking that one doesn't have to change anything – that the science is wrong, or that there will be a techno-fix, or that it is too late to do anything about it anyway.

Let's not soft-pedal on the greatest threat that humankind has ever faced. Let's not fool ourselves by using warm words such as 'climate change' (or indeed 'global warming', which still to my ears sounds pretty misleadingly-pleasant. I meet lots of people this time of year who say things like, "Yeah, we could use a little global warming around here!"). In the emergency that we are in, let's at least talk in a way that reminds us regularly that it is an emergency.

Parts of this article are drawn from a piece previously published in the Guardian.

17 November 2007

Nuclear liability: time to address the imbalance

By Marguerite Finn

"The one area where nuclear energy does receive an effective subsidy is in state support for insurance against the cost of a major nuclear catastrophe." (Malcolm Grimston in 'Nuclear energy – unlocking the market potential', 2006)

On 6th November 2007, Her Majesty The Queen pronounced the words "My Government will introduce legislation to provide clean, secure and affordable supplies of energy". The main aims of the Energy Bill are (a) to strengthen the market framework to help ensure secure and affordable energy supplies and (b) to encourage a diverse, secure supply of electricity while at the same time reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There is one important word missing from the description of the energy the Government aims to supply. It is the word safe.

Safety applies to all energy production but to none more so than nuclear energy – which is fraught with danger at every stage of the nuclear cycle and which is why nuclear power is so unpopular. To pacify and encourage a reluctant and suspicious public anxious not to see their money spent on unnecessary and dangerous nuclear technology, the Government has assured us that: "if it is decided that it is in the public interest to allow private sector investment in new nuclear power stations, the Energy Bill would create a framework that will help protect the taxpayer by requiring owners or operators of a new nuclear power station to make financial provisions to cover the full decommissioning costs and their full share of waste management costs". OK – that's better than the current situation where the public has to foot the bill. Yet, there is a word missing here too – insurance. Who pays the insurance policy against nuclear accidents? This insurance is often referred to as the nuclear sector's 'silent subsidy' and we don't talk about that – but we should talk about it because you and I are currently paying for it!

Insurance is something we grapple with frequently in our daily lives: whether it is chasing the best deal on car insurance (to protect us and our possible victims in the case of an accident), insuring our diamond rings or arguing with the water company as to who is liable for the drains between the house and the road – it is a tiresome but essential part of our lives. It is fair too that large companies whose waste products may cause severe damage, cover all such third party costs. Why then is the nuclear industry, so uniquely capable of catastrophe, exempt from this liability – which is currently underwritten by the taxpayer? At present, international insurance regimes only require that nuclear operators pay, in the event of a nuclear accident, a small fraction of the potential claims. The rest would have to be paid by the Government or not paid at all.

This may be about to change. On 5th November, Anthony Froggett, an independent consultant on European Energy Policy and Simon Carroll from the Centre for Biological Diversity, in Sweden, presented a paper entitled The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World, arguing that there are "seriously inadequate nuclear liability and compensation arrangements currently in place across the various EU Member States". They suggest there is a "need to introduce new liability and compensation arrangements that reflect the actual potential costs of nuclear accidents, that would fully compensate damage caused in the event of a nuclear accident and which would eliminate this significant subsidy to nuclear electricity generation". So far, attempts to raise the minimum nuclear liability by even a modest amount have been fiercely resisted but the European Commission now wants to address the whole issue of nuclear third party liability. This presents a real opportunity to develop and implement a fairer, more efficient and effective nuclear liability and compensation scheme to the benefit of all.

The lack of such a requirement produces the biggest market distortion in the electricity sector. If nuclear operators were required to pay their own nuclear insurance, the cost of nuclear electricity production would significantly increase – and this would be reflected in the true cost of nuclear energy.

Renewable energy generators do not enjoy this economic protection. They have to take out insurance to cover the risk of potential damage to the environment and the public. This makes them seem less 'competitive' than nuclear energy – although the reverse may be the case.

The consequences of a nuclear accident are of such an order of magnitude compared to any other accident, that the international community should make absolutely certain that – if nuclear power really is necessary – the nuclear industry should cover all the risks itself with adequate insurance.

10 November 2007

Stand up for journalism

By Juliette Harkin

Reporters Without Borders catalogues the most feared 'predators' of press freedom in its infamous hall of fame. All the usual suspects are featured, from Musharraf's new Pakistan and Burma’s military to Nigeria's State Security Council. At any given time journalists around the world are being harassed, held without charge, beaten and some murdered for doing their job. In these cases it is the direct hand of the government, leaders and military who can be blamed for the flagrant disregard for freedom of the press.

People are risking their lives to impart knowledge about the every day events in our world. Article 19 reminds us in its global campaign for free expression that:
    Freedom and expression and a free and independent media constitute crucial actors in the development process and the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is the most potent force to strengthen peace and pre-empt conflict. It is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.
The state of the media is one of the key indicators as to the health and authenticity of a democracy and should serve as a source for knowledge and education.

And yet journalists continue to suffer at the hands of controlling governments. Egypt's courts have been kept busy over the last months in dealing with cases of journalists covering things that the government doesn't want them to – notably local corruption and speculation about the health of President Mubarak. Editors working on the few seemingly independent newspapers are being sentenced to hard labour for damaging the interests of the state.

In fact what is happening is that these journalists are continuing to push and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Egypt's historically controlled state media environment. If any 'crime' is being committed at all, it might be ceded that the editorial process has not been strong enough to ensure that their reports can stand up. This should lead to action on raising professional standards not imprisonment.

Some countries of course don't even bother with the pretence of a judicial system. In Afghanistan and Burma journalists are simply killed if they become troublesome, in Iraq we are all too familiar with the grim reality of a complete breakdown of order resulting in assassinations of journalists going about their daily work. The committee to protect journalists keeps a score card – 56 deaths worldwide so far this year. Western governments certainly shouldn’t be let off the hook. Media organisations are not and should never be seen as acceptable military targets or collateral damage. The attack on al-Jazeera in Baghdad that killed Tariq Ayoub in 2003 is a case in point. The fact is that al-Jazeera and other channels were airing the unpleasant reality of war, including the high number of civilian deaths and the rising American body count.

Our journalists at home are safe, but we should not be too complacent. There are now ever greater challenges for journalists in this era of news on demand, interactive formats and so-called dumbed down information for increasingly busy people. In a paper entitled Do you get what you want? the European Federation of Journalists, the Association of Professional Journalists (AJP) and the Flemish Association of Journalists (VVJ) have come together to tackle what they see as some of the most pressing issues in the profession of journalism today. Working conditions and the creeping influence of commercial considerations are highlighted as of growing concern.

The lines between profit and content are blurring and the National Union of Journalists recently went as far as to call for a new 'Berlin Wall' to be erected to protect the journalists from the cut and thrust of the advertising budgets that pay for their newspapers. Meanwhile those striving for the highest standards of reporting, such as Le Monde Diplomatique, struggle with financially because they are operating with a clear conscience.

The International Federation for Journalists website quotes Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe Thomas Hammerberg as saying that "even in Europe's democratic heartlands governments and media employers were undermining scope for quality journalism". Along side attacks and harassment of journalists in Sudan, Article 19 publishes its latest report on concerns about free expression here in the UK. We are not immune and take our media and journalists for granted at our peril.

3 November 2007

Hidden dynamic to Kurdish conflict

By Liam Carroll

Analysts of Turkish politics have identified the Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as a potential casualty if the Turkish-Kurdish conflict seriously escalates any time soon. In this light, Prime Minister Erdogan's threats to take military action in Iraq against the PKK should be understood as an attempt to avoid military action in Iraq, rather than as a serious desire to instigate it. In times of great tension, all is not always what it seems, and if ever there were a field in which perceptions can out maneuver realities, it is surely politics.

To understand who benefits from war it is quite often necessary to understand the political dynamics of a situation and how they might change in the event of conflict.

There is a general consensus that an escalation of violence in the current scenario would increase divisions between Turks and Kurds in Turkey and restore the role of the military to its preeminent place as defender of the nation's security. To be sure, the military has been suffering a declining role in the Turkish government recently due to constitutional changes being made by Erdogan and the AKP.

Recently the military also suffered a humiliating defeat over the selection of a conscientious Muslim President, whom they opposed. When the AKP held an election over the issue they won convincingly, increasing their share of the vote to 47%, over the old secularist elite and their military colleagues. The treasured secular nation of the Turkish nationalists, as founded by the revered patriarch Kemal Ataturk, was thought to be under threat from this new popular party, some of whom, including Erdogan and the new President, have Islamist origins.

The AKP are also avowed Europhiles and advocate improving human rights and granting the Kurds unprecedented cultural recognition. Yasar Buyukanit however, who is chief of the armed forces, is deeply skeptical about the European Union which he believes supports Kurdish nationalism and a continued subordination of the military to civilian rule. The very same Buyukanit also made cryptic references to "crafty plans" to "destroy the gains of modernity" in the wake of the struggle over the presidency.

The success of the AKP has been built partly on their ability to respond to the needs of the majority population by improving Turkey's economy and developing poorer districts and supporting the rural workers who have migrated to the cities.

This popularity has also been replicated in Kurdish provinces where the AKP won over 50% of the vote. By contrast the PKK performed poorly in the heart of their recruiting territory. In these poorer southeastern provinces the AKP government has boosted its popularity by extending free health care and schoolbooks. It is also thought that Prime Minister Erdogan believes in solving the Kurdish problem peacefully and through the recognition of ethnic Kurdish identity. The PKK may also have lost votes from the fact that they are a secular organisation, whereas most Kurds are in fact Muslims, like the AKP.

Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP have built a new political constituency in Turkey based on subordination of the military, improved rights for Kurds and economic liberalization that has brought prosperity to those outside the traditional political elite. A Turkish analyst, writing in the New York Review of Books on 27 September, welcomed these changes but pointed out that both the PKK and the Turkish military are loosing important political ground to Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP. The writer goes on to point out the PKK might try to increase its attacks on the security forces in the hope that the reaction from the military might help radicalize normal Kurds, who are otherwise fed up with the war.

The same writer, and others also see the Turkish military as being potential beneficiaries from an escalation in fighting. This view stems from the belief that a major conflict would end Turkey's chances of EU accession, return the military to its traditional role as defender of the nation's security, and undermine Kurdish support for the ruling AKP and the Prime Minister, Erdogan.

In this situation Erdogan may well know that to authorize a major military campaign abroad could well undermine his support at home. Alternatively if he fails to take military action, then the military might have an excuse to remove him, as others have been removed before. It is a great irony that militants from behind opposing battle lines can sometimes work together to achieve the same end; in this case the perpetrators may be but a handful, but the list of casualties could be huge, including Turkish democracy.