Recently in Science Category
Late on Friday I read a document linked to from Twitter, supposedly the near-final agreement at Copenhagen. It had flaws, but many of the key demands were still there, and was certainly better than the expectations at the time.
By Saturday morning it was clear that the good bits had been excised. What was left was a sham and a carveup, not a credible deal worth a signature. The expectations had been right after all.
It's not hard to see why. Almost two hundred governments met in Denmark, but not one was led by a Green*. Most thought they were in the negotiations throughout, but almost all were excluded at the end. The final document was instead delivered by a small cabal - the US, China, India, Brazil & South Africa - with the poorest states cut out, the island states cut out, and Europe itself entirely excluded.
This betrayal was therefore delivered by the most left-wing American president since FDR, a notionally communist regime (although more accurately an authoritarian capitalist one), the more left of the main Indian political blocs, the most left-wing Brazilian government in modern times, and a South African president promoted by the South African Communist Party over his predecessor.
Gordon Brown wasn't in that room, but no-one could imagine he'd have improved it. After all, he's part of that same market-obsessed post-left soggy consensus, and his Panglossian review claimed that:
"This is the first step we are taking towards a green and low-carbon future for the world, steps we are taking together."
Clearly none of the various forms of vague leftism on offer are going to save us. Last week they stood together as they abandoned the environment, they abandoned the planet's future, and they abandoned social justice too. They are not part of any progressive consensus worth supporting: they are just another of the obstacles to progress.
Incidentally, if you want to know what Obama's priority really was during Copenhagen, his Twitter account gives a hint. From the start of the summit to Saturday lunchtime, his staff (one presumes) posted twenty-five comments. Just two were about Copenhagen, and thirteen, a narrow majority, were about healthcare reform. An important issue, sure, but should selling out the public option really come ahead of saving the world?
Update: I just spotted this on Jon Snow's blog, predating the failure of the talks.
"Not one of these world leaders is an elected Green. These are all mainstreamers - Communists, Social democrats, Islamic Revolutionaries, Christian Democrats and the rest, conventional mainstream politicians with no environmental power base.
"And the issue that has brought them together, once the preserve of open toed sandal wearing green protesters and green politicians, is climate change. They have taken a collective decision for mankind to attempt to preserve the ecology of the planet we all live on."
Or so it would have been, if they hadn't taken a collective decision to shaft us.
* Pop quiz: which country was the world's first to have a Green Prime Minister?
The Sunday Herald had an advance on today's landmark report from the Sustainable Development Commission (press release), which describes Ministers' attempts to rebuild the same failed economic system, built on growth at all costs, as "delusional" and "pathological".
These are delusions and pathologies the SNP share with Westminster. The Nats describe their central purpose as "sustainable economic growth". Sustainable should mean "designed to work within our long-term ecological capacity", but here it's a proper weasel word, meaning something they would like to sustain.
In particular, they suffer from the delusion that they can engage on the biggest road-building and airport expansion programme Scotland has seen since the 1960s and still meet any kind of carbon emissions targets. New roads plus new public transport does not reduce emissions, and to think so displays a pathological misunderstanding of some pretty basic science and economics.
Although they're government-funded, the SDC have clearly had enough of being polite about abject government failures of this sort, both north and south of the border. In a quote that would fit well on the cover of a Green manifesto, Professor Jackson, the report's author, says:
"Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilised society."
They're so on the same page as us that I even lifted their perfect image (above).
By coincidence, Holyrood debated the economy last Thursday. The patchy and limited understanding of sustainability across the chamber makes it pretty depressing fare - the usual exceptions apply. I fear we'll wait a long time before we have a Scottish Government which even understands the problems we face, let alone capable of pursuing constructive answers to them.
Some people ask me if they're allowed to go on flights, because I work for the Greens. I think it's weird, but it does happen.
Other people ask what will happen when oil runs out: will we all be stuck in northwestern Europe, eating only potatoes and drinking only whisky? What happens when cars become simply too expensive to run?
Whether you're more worried by climate change or by peak oil, these are all good questions, apart from the first one. You can heat your home 100% sustainably if you put the effort in. The power can stay on, if we make a proper commitment to renewables. But transport is harder.
So here's the good news. Flying will not only still be possible, if we get back into airship technologies, but it could also be more fun and less like being exported in a veal crate. Admittedly, this same prediction has been made for decades and hasn't proved to be true yet. My father once rang me up (I inherited my airship obsession) to tell me that regular airship flights between Cape Town and New York - did I want to go? Of course I did, but that was just another Branson project that never happened.
The downside with the technology for today's short attention span, limited-holiday-allowance lifestyle is that it'll take longer to get from A to B. In the 1930s it took 75 hours to get from Rio to Frankfurt - at even that speed Marseilles is just 11 hours from Edinburgh, and Melbourne just five days away. Personally, I'm fine with that. The world is still accessible, it's just takes a bit more commitment to get to. The views will be better, you won't need to be buckled in, and there'll be space for a cocktail bar, a games room and the like.
The reputation of the airship is low, for two reasons. First, the Nazis used them, and that's never good PR. They also invented the Volkswagen Beetle, though, and the hippies still bought those. Secondly, the Hindenburg blew up. While a lot more than 35 people tend to die when aeroplanes come down, leaving aside the almost 3,000 people who die on Britain's roads each year, that hasn't stopped the negative associations.
The secret and the problem are both in the buoyancy. The Germans were denied helium by the Americans during the 1930s, which was understandable. Modern semi-rigids use helium, just as the Germans did before the ban, and helium is both perfectly inert and only 8% less lifty (technical term) than hydrogen, a price well worth paying to avoid dying in a massive fireball. One thing's for sure, even if it still used hydrogen in the envelope and had a cigar smoking room on board it'd feel more safe than the "flying bomb" proposed earlier this year.
The buoyancy is also what makes airships energy-efficient - you're not generating lift by endlessly forcing air over a plane, and the engines are just used for altitude alterations and propulsion. I've seen figures which suggest that an airship can deliver the same payload over the same distance as a 747 for one seventh the energy, assuming we stick with fossil fuels. Another way of looking at that is that they can cruise for a week on the fuel a 747 uses to taxi to the end of the runway, enough to get you to Tokyo and back.
Other plans include augmenting traditional sources of fuel with solar power during the day - there's obviously a large surface area for that - or even going 100% electric. Either way, it's a lot closer to sustainability than a plane.
Another substantial advantage is the ability to put people and goods down almost anywhere, reducing the need for those awkward runways and enabling even the most remote parts of the world to trade, or to receive aid or even tourists. They're just as stable as aeroplanes in extreme weather, and are less likely to be hampered by ice formation.
Predictions of the rebirth of the airship have been endless, and so far it's all come to nothing. However, the next time we get an oil price spike (I foolishly predict November next year) it'll start to look more attractive. I'll be at the bar, looking at the view.
Well, I wouldn't mind. There's always something to be getting on with, and there are never enough hours in the day. Plus, the alternative has never seemed that appealing.
The Government is apparently considering keeping GM test crop locations secret. You can see why: activists (like me) have been known to use that information to remove threats to the environment (thanks for asking, I was acquitted on appeal). But why is it a threat?
Well, these crops are made using DNA-weakening viral vectors to insert sequences from another species into a host crop. It's called genetic engineering to give it a veneer of precision, but in fact it's not quite as precise as pinning the tail on the donkey.
The normal test to establish whether the DNA has successfully been taken up consists of dosing the seeds with antibiotics: the sequence added usually has an antibiotic resistance marker gene included.
This passes antibiotic resistance to the crop, which should immediately be no problem, and the whole process also weakens the gene structure, especially in the relevant area. There's also no good way to tell what area has been interrupted with the new sequence. Fans of Turing machines will be able to imagine what new code inserted in unknown locations does to the process. God knows, is the short answer.
This instability also makes it easier for GM material to pass to soil bacteria, who act like a genetic clearing house, and hence onwards, even into honey (limited DEFRA counter-argument). Even without that weakness, GM crops cross with wild relatives, especially oil-seed rape. The brassicas, it turns out, are particularly promiscuous.
To add to that, the difference between GM crops and other environmental risks is that there's no recall. The material will spread, especially if it's advantageous to the plant or animal - herbicide tolerance is spreading in just this manner.
Bearing all this in mind, it's extraordinary for Professor Tim Benton, the research dean of Leeds University, to declare that: "There is absolutely no way we can move towards a world with food security without using GM technology."
That's what I love about science - the impartiality, the rigour, the open minds, and I'm sure Professor Benton will do everything he can to make sure this wonder technology is safe.
It reminds me of the story of the no doubt equally responsible scientists who, appalled at the scientifically-based concern green fear-mongering over this issue, wanted to demonstrate that their GM tomatoes were entirely safe. They ate the tomatoes as a stunt, before someone brighter than them realised that meant the seeds of this unapproved tomato would soon be out in the wild, growing in sewage plants and beyond. Cue red faces all round.
Apparently Science Minister Lord Grayson has a sixth sense, the Sunday Times reports. Technically, it's the mystic skill of precognition he's claiming - second sight, in other words. (declaration of interest: the Brahan Seer is quite possibly an ancestor of mine)
Perhaps he's right - he certainly does appear to predict how good things will come to him. Famously, in 2002 he donated £50,000 to Labour, then his pretty incompetent company got a £32m contract. Next, he gave another £1m+ to Labour before getting a peerage and a ministerial role.
Spooky! I wonder if Gordon has asked him who's going to win the next election..
This YouTube video was apparently created by a CERN employee, and it's extremely clear. Via Neatorama, my favourite site of the week, who also put up Ten Things You Wanted To Know About the LHC But Were Afraid To Ask.
I also like the emergency stop button below, which is also from the same place. If all the reassurances in the last part of their list fail, someone will hopefully press this.
Finally, according to a friend of mine who subs on one of Scotland's newspapers, he's been correcting copy about this experiment all week. The third and fourth letters of the middle word of the device keep being transposed. Easy mistake to make.
If there's one thing that Salmond, Brown and Cameron all agree on, it's carbon capture and storage (CCS), which allows the filthiest fossil fuel around to be rebranded "clean coal".
The theory is that you attach a big hose to a coal-fired power station's chimney, and pump the CO2 back into empty oilfields.
The Nats, Labour and the Tories think this is a magic bullet to allow business-as-usual power generation. Our position has always been "well, if you can prove it works and is more cost-effective than renewables, it's a possible transitional technology".
But the evidence is growing that CCS simply won't work. The reason is that the CO2 doesn't just magically get itself underground - it has to be pumped, and that takes more energy, specifically about 30% more coal power.
Once you factor in the lifetime consequences of extracting, transporting and burning that extra coal, the nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide emissions are up to 40% worse (peer-reviewed actual science) than a standard coal plant. That means more acid rain, more ozone destruction, and more water pollution.
In short, Labour, the Nats, and the Tories are going down a dead end. Shouldn't the fact that Arthur Scargill's also on their side have been a bit of a give-away? It's not as if we don't have other perfectly good and genuinely clean technologies that we could be diverting the money towards instead.
Via the excellent Gristmill.
As you may know, I've a bit of history with direct action.
Most notably, Mark Ballard and I got lifted at a GM protest in 1999, along with four others. We were convicted in 2001 (the group pic there is amusing, as is the Ballard/Castro quote), and acquitted on appeal in 2003.
We always knew our colleagues really well, and never saw any of the paranoia that some activist groups get into. Still, there have been a couple of examples recently where that kind of anxiety proved justified, and where corporate interests have infiltrated campaign groups.
Last year Mark Thomas wrote about Martin Hogbin, who worked undercover at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, on behalf of British Aerospace (Monbiot on the same story). And just yesterday MotherJones uncovered an NRA mole in the American gun control movement. Both had been in place for ten years or so, passing everything from legal advice to campaign strategy out to their handlers.
The media do something similar too: the BBC sent someone into the Climate Camp last year so they could do a tabloid style "OMG DIRECT ACTION!!1!" scare job. It's a shame they don't feel it would be as worthwhile to get undercover with BAA to see what they're planning. Perhaps it's just too much work to get near the board-room, especially when compared to wandering into a public camp.
Still, there's no point getting anxious about it. We ourselves have environmentalists undercover in corporations across the country and embedded in countless government agencies, passing information on and ready for action. You'll see.
That's a tough gig, though. As Leonard Cohen said, "they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within". (youtube)
One of my favourite sites just published this fascinating tale of ecological insanity, corporate greed and the ingenuity of science.
But apparently it's the end of the world. The fact that they've even taken the time to deny the possibility that the mini black holes they're creating could expand and swallow us all just alarms me all the more. I know, doom-mongering greens. But seriously, do you feel better after reading that article? (musical relief available here)