Thursday, February 26, 2009

into chernobyl's dead zone

In writing that piece about Mark Lynas and nuclear power, there was a something he said about the Chernobyl incident that resonated with me.

Without wishing to downplay the tragedy for the victims - especially the 300,000 people who were evacuated permanently - the explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone.

If ever there was a bit to cut from an article - on grounds of flimsiness as a defence of nuclear power, or for unnecessarily feeding into the stereotype of environmentalist misanthropy - it's that one. But it dredged something up for me, I remembered a website I saw a few years ago where a Ukrainian had taken a motorbike trip through the Chernobyl dead zone.

The site is still up, considerably expanded, and it's every bit as enthralling as I remembered. I'm not plugging this as any comment on the wisdom on future nuclear power, just as a bit of mesmerising travelogue and social history.

In the last few years Elena Filatova's made numerous trips into the dead zone. There are now hundreds of photos, needing only a little captioning, yet even in that she provides a great historic and poetic insight.

Usually, when they talk about the dead zone, they talk about area that is 30 kms around reactor.

What about this towns and villages? They are 60 kms from reactor.

The Wolves Land is bigger than many think and it keeps on growing. Now days, it spread on 300 kms from South to North and on 100 kms from East on West.

There are more than 2,000 dead towns and villages within a radius of 250 kms (155 miles) around Chernobyl reactor. Each year I travel, I see more and more ruined places.

This barbed wire marks the limit of the '30km' zone, but according to the site it's over 50km from the reactor.

Fence around the Chernobyl exclusion zone

She visits a sizeable ghost town, Pripyat. One of the spookiest aspects is the Sovietness of it.

Paintings of Soviet leaders and slogans

Not only are there relics from the Soviet Union, but the accident happened in late April. The towns were evacuated on April 27th, four days before the Mayday celebrations.

At first glance, Ghost Town seems like a normal town. There is a taxi stop, a grocery store, someone's wash hangs from the balcony and the windows are open. But then I see a slogan on a building that says - "The Party of Lenin Will Lead Us To The Triumph Of Communism"......and I realize that those windows were opened to the spring air of April of 1986.

Overgrown street into Pripyat

It is safe to be in the open air in Ghost Town. It is inside the houses where the real danger lies.

Taking such a walk with no special radiation detecting device is like walking through a minefield wearing snowshoes.

Fading personal photographs left behind

People had homes, garages, cars, country houses, they had money, friends, relatives cats and dogs. People had their lives. Each in own niche. And then in a matter of hours, their entire world fell to pieces.

After a few hours trip in an army vehicle, they stood under a shower, washing away radiation. Then they stepped in a new life, naked with no home, no friends, no dogs, no money, no past and with a very doubtful future.

Inside a school building there is the added eerieness of discarded toys and other childrens items

child's gas mask on a window sill

There are hundreds of little gas masks, a teachers diary and a last note saying that their walk on Saturday has been canceled due to some unforeseen contingency.

This is the highest building in town. On the day of disaster, many people gathered on this roof to see the beautiful shining cloud above the Atomic Power Plant.

Tall tower block in Pripyat

She goes to the top herself and the power plant is clearly visible.

View over the town towards the power plant

Away from the town, she passes through villages, towns and vast areas of reclaimed wilderness. The modern maps don't show the roads or deserted villages. Consequently, she doesn't know the names of many of the places she finds. Some of the larger towns have big concrete signs as you enter, but smaller places have metal signs with the placename rusted away.

Along the Ukraine/Belarus border area, the towns are not only often de-named, but you don't even know which country a town is in.

We are on the border and the sign welcomes us in all fifteen languages of former republics of Soviet Union

The Ukraine / Belarus border sign

In one village she see a monument, a grave of the unknown soldier from the Great Patriotic War (known to us Westies as World War 2). How odd for a monument to spend its life unseen and unvenerated, stranger still that it's an unknown individual who's become part of a wider monument, an unknown town.

Peeling red-star topped grave, monument to the Great Patriotic War

On previous visits she left a few logs across roads to see if anyone moved them. returning several years later they're in place, meaning nobody else has travelled the roads in the meantime.

Year after year it becomes more difficult to reach those distant towns and villages of Chernobyl; roads overgrown, trees falling and bridges collapse.

Nature is relentless at reclaiming the land. In some hundred years all signs of humanity will be gone from here. Radiation will stay long after that.

She's compiled pictures from several visitors into a book called Pluto's Realm. Proceeds go towards buying supplies for the few people who still live in abandoned villages in the dead zone.

It is really Plutonium that will reign here for thousands of years. It is extremely toxic and highly chemically reactive, half-life of Plutonium-239 is over 24,000 years. Plutonium is appropriately named after Pluto, god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

The pictures here are a tiny fraction of what's on the site and by no means the most remarkable. You can spend hours being spooked, thinking about time, nature, industrialisation, politics, resilience and more.

Monday, February 23, 2009

caviar enemas vs inter-generational justice

Imagine if your mum and dad went off on first-class round the world cruises, filling their toilet cistern with 30 year old Laphroaig and their swimming pool with Dom Perignon, having caviar enemas and a programme of extensive plastic surgery, all of it on your credit card that they took without asking.

Whilst it would be outrageous to do as individuals, as a culture it's so prevalent that we don't often think about it.

My last post dealt at length with the venerable climate writer Mark Lynas' advocacy of nuclear power. In the Comments I cited something George Monbiot once said about the bonkers and murderous geoengineering idea of firing sulphates into the stratosphere to reflect the sun. He said that governments would choose it over carbon cuts.

if the atmosphere could one day be fixed by some heavy artillery and a few technicians, why bother to impose unpopular policies?

It is very perceptive, and exposes one of the central problems we face. Reducing consumption, even maintaining standards of comfort but having some disruption as we reorganise, will make the present population unhappy with the government. If they can find a way to avoid that, they will. If that way happens to pass all the risks, all the maintenance, much of the cost and none of the benefits on to those yet to be born, so be it. It is the idea at the core of the push for geoengineering, carbon capture and new nuclear power.

It's something Al Gore recognised when he advocated making America's electricity 100% renewable within ten years instead of having targets for 2050.

a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.

The nuclear power debate often conflates several essentially separate issues. Whilst the issue of financial cost has some bearing on climate impact (money spent on nukes is not spent on renewables), Lynas is right when he says that the issue of radioactive waste and radioactive damage are not really part of the climate equation. Psychologically and culturally speaking, though, it is a very similar issue because of the 'pass it on to the future' thought-basis.

In his most recent pro-nuclear article, Mark Lynas says that the duration of the waste threat is overblown. Despite, as Greenpeace's response to him pointed out, the fact that UK and US authorities for decommissioning say waste should be 'maintained in the repository environment for at least a million years', Lynas asserts that new technology reduces this considerably, saying

In fact, almost all waste will have decayed back to a level of radioactivity less than the original uranium ore in less than a thousand years

Oh well then. When we have enough radioactive material, properly dispersed, to kill everyone, leaving a small proportion around for centuries is no biggy.

And only a mere thousand years you say? Imagine if we were still taking care of lethal waste left behind because of Tudor excessive living, with centuries still to go.

Imagine if we were, by the time you and I die of old age, just finishing tidying up the Normans' waste legacy after a time so long that the original records wouldn't have been in English because the language didn't exist then.

Or to look at it another way, imagine if all humans who are to live in the next thousand years were alive at once. Imagine if the early 21st century ones were living high on the hog, squandering resources and becoming obese, with their toxic wastes and sewage being piped into the homes of the people from the remianing 95% of the millennium.

If we could see those people, if we had to stand in front of them, we could never justify nuclear waste. How dare we advocate things we couldn't justify to our victims simply because we'll be dead by the time they come along.

The only thing less justifiable would be climate change caused by our carbon emissions. If it came to a straight choice between the two then Lynas and Monbiot would be right to choose nuclear. The damage - and the likelihood of the damage happening - are almost incalculably greater with climate change. But, contrary to the implications from the nuclear industry and Lynas, there are other options.

The rush to nuclear might be easier, but it is far more unjust. The real issue here, as with climate change and much of our overconsumption, is the issue of inter-generational justice. It is astonishing how people can be so concerned with global justice in the present - saying we have no right to exploit people just because they are born in a different part of the world - and yet be so blase about shitting on people just because they're born in a different time.

Nuclear power - like high-carbon power - is the social-industrial equivalent of your mum putting a daily champagne jacuzzi on your tab.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

nuke mark lynas

Mark Lynas is a seriously well informed person. While many of us use broad phrases like 'climate change impact', he has very precise knowledge.

To show that climate change isn't something that's going to happen but is already here, he visited many parts of the world already affected, reporting it in the book High Tide: Notes From A Warming World.

As the global temperature is likely to rise up to six degrees this century, he wrote Six Degrees. Six chapters, each detailing the results of extensive research on what the next degree of warming is likely to cause.

He's also a prolific writer of articles, and has spoken out in favour of radical activists such as the Camp for Climate Action.

So it was surprising when, in May 2005, he came out as a convert to the idea of nuclear power using some questionable lines of thinking.

Even with crash programmes for wind, wave and tidal, with nuclear stations closing we would still have the same greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 as we do today.

New nuclear power stations proposed today will not be onstream until the 2020s. So even with a crash programme for nuclear, it won't affect our 2020 emissions at all.

It's a simple fact that undoes all the stuff about nuclear power helping us towards our 2020 targets, or about it preventing the 'energy gap' when numerous coal power stations are decomissioned in 2015.

People like Derek Simpson, joint leader of the uber-trade union Unite, should be openly ridiculed when they come out with cack like

Nuclear energy can reduce our reliance on foreign gas and oil, and start to reduce household bills by 2015.

In his 2005 nuclear advocacy Lynas qualified his enthusiasm somewhat, though.

It can reduce carbon emissions only as part of a combined dash for renewables and energy efficiency, buying us time while truly clean energy systems are developed.

The builders of nuclear plants will not be investing so much only to shut them down after a few years. They would run for their full lifespan, fifty years or more. This 'time' they buy us doesn't begin until the 2020s, and produces nuclear waste and swallows vast amounts of money until the 2070s and beyond. It is not a stopgap.

There is also something else at work here. Lynas's position is reminiscent of George Monbiot's declaration last year that he 'no longer cared' if nuclear was part of the solution to climate change. Whilst the wording may be carefully balanced, that's not the full story of how language works, as Jonathon Porritt noted.

a communicator as astute and clever as George should (and surely does) know the difference between a 'Yes...If' position and a 'No...Unless' position.

Still, Lynas retracted a little. In January last year he wrote an article entitled Why Britain Doesn't Need Nuclear Power.

He argues that China has cause to build new nuclear power stations as, if they are to generate huge amounts of electricity, it's their only serious alternative to coal. But in Britain, where our offshore wind capacity alone could power all our homes, nuclear is unnecessary.

Nuclear reactors can be built anywhere, and make far more sense in countries where renewables are less freely available than here. Because of our geographical position and shallow continental shelves, we could be the Saudi Arabia of windpower.

Nuclear power shouldn't be built here where there are such readily available alternatives, then.

The last thing we need now is for this momentum to be lost because of a huge diversion of political energy into justifying new nuclear power stations and battling environmentalists.

Apparently that's now not the case after all and we should, in fact, be diverting political energy and gargantuan sums of money into nuclear power.

In August last year he cited Jim Hansen and George Monbiot's ambivalence towards nuclear and, emboldened by their position, said

I would take a stronger position myself: that increased use of nuclear (an outright competitor to coal as a deliverer of baseload power) is essential to combat climate change, but clearly there need to be some significant technical advances in nuclear fission if it is to become acceptable to many in the west.

'Significant technical advances' required.

This idea - 'we need a miracle breakthrough, but let's keep going because I'm sure someone will find it soon' - is the argument being used to justify new coal plants, aviation expansion and every other inexcusable technology. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows it's crooked thinking.

Once again, I cite Jim Bliss' analogy of showering people with anthrax but saying that there might be an antidote discovered before any of them get sick.

As in 2005, Lynas is ignoring the fact that nuclear power plants won't be onstream until the 2020s at the earliest, whilst - the essential point in all this - the climate science demands that emissions start to fall by about 2015.

If a solution is not not on the table - or at least ready and within reach - it's of no use. Pinning our hopes on a technology that doesn't exist and won't within 20 years is ludicrous. Channelling reserves of money and momentum into such things when there are alternatives that work, available here and now, is horrifically irresponsible.

Of course, as I recently reported Hilary Benn rightly pointing out, 'just because you can’t solve a problem immediately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set it in motion'.

But, according to the Sustainable Development Commission, even if we replace all the nuclear power stations due to close, then double the capacity, even by the time they’re all on stream around 2034, we’d only make an 8% cut in our carbon emissions.

It wouldn’t ‘solve the problem’ even in 30 years. In the mean time, the money invested in nuclear is money not invested in renewables, and carbon savings from technologies that could be onstream quicker are lost.

Lynas advocates development of 'fourth generation' nuclear reactors. These plants won't generate more waste but instead burn up existing waste stockpiles. And probably solve world hunger, find a cure for cancer and bring you a nice cup of tea just the way you like it at the same time.

Back on planet earth, they don't exist. They burn up plutonium, which means waste has - at great cost - to be enriched, and significant highly radioactive waste remains. Also, the earliest projection is for commercial building to start around 2030. This is being advocated by a man who has previously demonstrated a real understanding of the climate emergency. Go figure.

Buying into a mindset that ignores the existence of renewable energy entirely, Lynas tells us

It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming

If the future were a choice between fossils and nukes this statement would have some relevance. But as there are now other fossil-displacing options on the table, it means nothing. Again, he displays a desire to put the nuclear option in a cosy light without any substantive point to make.

Lynas cites Professor David Mackay's study, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. Measuring deaths per gigawatt-year, 'nuclear and wind power are the safest technologies'. That's as maybe, but what if things go wrong? The liability for a wind farm accident is somewhat less daunting than for a nuclear one. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years. Will today's reactor builders be liable for all damage that comes from their works, whenever it might occur?

MacKay calculates that even if we covered the windiest 10 per cent of the UK with wind turbines, put solar panels on all south-facing roofs, implemented strong energy efficiency measures across the economy, built offshore wind turbines across an area of sea two-thirds the size of Wales, and fully exploited every other conceivable source of renewables (including wave and tidal power), energy production would still not match current consumption.

This is rather different to Britain being the "Saudi Arabia of wind power" as many in the environmental movement are fond of asserting.

I love the slight snidiness in the phrasing of that last line, said as if it wasn't the exact words Lynas himself had used to discredit nuclear power only nine months earlier.

But that's a side-issue. The real key phase is 'match current consumption'. If we scale consumption back, what then? If we have localised energy production with Combined Heat and Power plants so we use all the energy generated (fossil power stations send two-thirds of their energy up the cooling towers as waste heat) and thereby reduce the amount we burn, what then?

Greenpeace cite a report showing that Combined Heat and Power at just nine key industrial sites could generate the same power as eight nuclear power stations, and do it a lot more quickly and cheaply.

In November 2005 Lynas worried

if the energies of climate campaigners are diverted from mobilising popular support on global warming into trying to stop nuclear power, this will be an enormous step backwards.

What if the energies of climate authors are diverted from promoting sustainable technologies into advocating nuclear power? Or, as we remember someone wise saying a year ago, 'the last thing we need now is for this momentum to be lost because of a huge diversion of political energy into justifying new nuclear power stations'.

Lynas' most recent reconversion to nuclear says

it is vital to stress the neither I nor MacKay nor any credible expert suggests a choice between renewables and nuclear

But, as he surely knows, that is precisely what we face. In 2003 the government launched its White Paper on Energy saying it would have been 'foolish' to decide on a new generation of nuclear power stations 'because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables'.

Lobbied by the nuclear industry, the government U-turned to a pro-nuclear position. Like Monbiot, Lynas is smart enough to know that his vociferous pro-nuclear voice is a weapon against renewables. In an either/or political reality where the big money's going to renewables or nuclear, he's helping the push to the latter.

= = = = = = =

UPDATE 23 Feb 09: It seems this post was rather timely. Today's Independent has an article featuring four prominent former anti-nuke environmentalists backing nuclear power on grounds of climate change.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

ain't that the truth

If you're all alone this valentine's day and wish you had the love of a good woman to warm you, take a tip.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

integrity reserves hit new low

Iggy Pop. Fronting the Stooges he embodied something feral, questing, reckless, dark, bold and challenging. The Stooges were so out-there that Elektra, a label that comfortably handled The Doors' sinister weirdness and Jim Morrison's antics, didn't let them record the scheduled third album.

In recent years he's back with the re-formed Stooges - complete with the funniest rider in the history of rock - and showing that age doesn't have to compromise your incendiary drive.

Except now he's doing adverts for car insurance. He's taken thirty years to go from a lust for life to 'get a life, get swift covered'.

A man who pioneered so much of the punk attitude of authenticity and outsiderness. A man who, given that he gets half the royalties for oldies-radio fave China Girl as well as trousering much of the recent Stooges reunion dosh, is not in need of the money.

Like an adolescent who's suffered the indignity of their mum walking in on a wank, decided there's no shame left so carries on even though she's stood there watching, he's done a second advert.

Iggy explains how he's 'got a life' and 'isn't wasting it any more' because now he's got this brand of car insurance.

As I've said elsewhere -

Bill Hicks described marketing and advertising as 'the most evil concept ever'. Surely an exaggeration? What about war, torture, Chris De Burgh? But with those at least there's a purpose of belief and commitment, however misguided; marketing and advertising are all about lying by inference, by association or just plain outright.

It uses vast resources and hires some of the best creative minds alive in order to make people misunderstand themselves and the world around them, to discourage and thwart critical thinking. Advertising exists to make us feel more alienated, and make us pay for that feeling. Its sole intended purpose is to deceive, its primary effect is to make people feel worse by promoting a deep spiritual emptiness.

It works by divining our deepest desires and then saying they will be realised if we only buy the product being advertised. Then we buy the product, find our deepest desires haven't come to pass and feel a deeper yearning, a great deflation and further removed from what we were hoping for in the first place. In the meantime, we've also got poorer as the advertiser scuttles off laughing to the bank with our money.

We end up trapped in jobs that mean nothing to us, led away from things that would enliven and unify us by false promises that, once they are seen through, make us even more empty and hopeless. These things combine to desensitise us, to make us feel less connection, have less time to care, to make us more prone to all those other things - such as war, torture or Chris de Burgh - that we might suggest as the more evil concept.

Even the hardline Bill Hicks said 'if you're a struggling actor then I'll look the other way' while an advert is made. But the more prominent someone is the richer they are so the less excuse they have.

What's worse, much worse, is that if they're any good at all they've built up something, a public profile based on having something to bring to people, something enriching, something that takes us closer to where we should be. Then they take that open door to our hearts and let a load of vultures come in and rip our guts out.

Somehow when Keith Richards sells the rights to use Satisfaction to Snickers, or even when Lemmy advertises Nestle chocolate it's not quite the same to me. Those guys have a long history of being amoral.

But some people really stood for something, so there's something lost, something betrayed by becoming a tool of consumerism. So it means something when Iggy flogs us insurance, when John Lydon sells butter, when Joy Division advertise banks or when Led Zeppelin flog a 14mpg Cadillac.

Zeppelin, by the way, aren't the only ones hawking Cadillacs. Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour is one of the best radio shows I've ever heard. His ability to pick through nearly a century of recorded music and to bring the ancient as alive as the modern, to recontextualise something you thought of as fluff (the Beatles' Baby's In Black will never be the same again for me) or present you with a nugget of true greatness is unparalleled.

The show goes out on the BBC in the UK. Elsewhere on earth it goes out on commercial stations. And that's fair enough I suppose. What I can't understand is why there had to be TV commercials for the show's sponsors Cadillac.

It's bad enough that the ads feature Dylan not only pouring that great voice as a shill's lies about the cars ('they make you feel like a million bucks,' says the man who knows what a million bucks or ten feels like and so doesn't need to be selling his arse like this). But they also have the man himself driving around in one. And a fucking SUV at that. And totally gratuitously, or, as he put it, 'nothing goes better with a Cadillac than a long ride to nowhere'.

This is Bob Dylan doing a radio show! I doubt he'll have much trouble getting on air if he strikes out the 'personally suck corporate cock on camera' clause. Yet here he is.

Doing adverts not only sours the taste of what they do but also of their previous work, like the way none of the great Gary Glitter singles will ever sound right again.

Beyond that, it lowers what we expect of present artists and makes us wonder what even the great ones will do in future. It creates a culture of acceptance of this shit, it normalises and validates the idea that everything creative we ever do is less important than making profits, that no voice is more powerful or worthy than that of corporate power.

Or to put it another way, 'everyone dreams of being a rock star. What, then, do rock stars dream of?'. That's the text of an advert - another for luxury cars - featuring Sting performing then being chauffeured around in a Jaguar S-Type.

With carbon emissions of around 280g/km, double the new EU limit for manufacturers incurring fines, from a company that managed to get themselves a special exemption from that EU law, it's quite an assault on the rainforests Sting was urging us to save a couple of years back.

To return to what I've said elsewhere, taking the easy money of doing adverts is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in an established artist. By surrendering to the pressure to become just another brand, just a saleable commodity, or - less even than that - a mere sales tool for vacuous or actively destructive commodities, they tell us a lot about themselves.

They tell us their work is not paramount to them any longer; their view of the original reasons for doing their work has become obscured; their conscience is gagged; they don't mean enough to themselves any more. That being so, how can they mean anything to us?

= = = = = =

UPDATE 26 FEB 09: The Advertisiing Standards Authority are investigating following complaints that it is misleading for Swiftcover to imply Iggy Pop has insurance with them when - you guessed it - the company refuses to insure professional musicians.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

the sins of the father

The bible is admittedly an obvious place to find weirdness.

Still, there in the old testament among books named after people (Isiah, Samuel) and events (Genesis, Exodus) is one called the Book of Numbers.

Like the other books, it contains words more than numbers, so why the name? I'd look into it if only I felt it mattered to me in the least.

Anyway, there's a particular verse in it;

The Lord is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
- Numbers 14:18

The Good Lord recently reminded us of this.

The daughter of singer Chris de Burgh went on to say that, occasionally, she does get people trying to have a go at her because of who she is.

"I don't dwell on them. More often than not, it's at two in the morning and there's someone singing Lady in Red"

Thursday, February 05, 2009

too important for politicians

As the same tired responses and apparently ludicrous solutions keep on being advocated for climate change, I keep thinking, 'I'm just an amateur, what do I know? It may look wrong to me, but surely there's something those in power know that I don't'.

I mean, they wouldn't carry on with these schemes and saying these untrue things otherwise, right?

If I've got such a point in fields like medicine and architecture, whenever I dig deep I tend to find that yes, there is indeed some serious thing I was unaware of that disabuses me of my opinion.

In politics, especially as it pertains to climate change, I almost invariably find that no, they are just ignoramuses (ignoramii?) or barefaced liars.

Tom Philpott notes that last month there was a 300 word letter about corn ethanol from a teenager in a provincial newspaper, the Concord Monitor and New Hampshire Patriot, that showed a more sophisticated understanding of things than either the outgoing or the incoming president.

How can this be? It cannot be that the presidents' people are unaware of the points. It is simply that the author's voice is not beholden to the vested interests that obstruct the truth and responsible action.

The Green Party in London and Brussels have given their support to hydrogen buses. I looked into hydrogen as a vehicle fuel and it appears that these buses are a very bad idea indeed. They are a decoy by the oil companies and directly cause greater carbon emissions than a diesel bus.

I walk the Greens through it over and over again. They avoid the questions over and over and over again. Even when I give them clear evidence that their answers (to the wrong questions) from their Mayor Boris Johnson are bunk, they show no interest.

Why else would that be, except that they and Boris have the same policy on this issue, and no facts or demonstrable worsening of the problem they're supposedly solving will get in the way?

This week George Monbiot, with his characteristic flair for language, described our predicament, where 'unmolested by the public, corporate lobbyists collaborate with this empty political class to turn parliament into a conspiracy against the public'.

The solution he flags up is a sort of advanced lobbying of the politicians. Frankly, in itself and no matter what its anarchist motivations, that's all most political action can be. What is a campaign against a third runway or coal power station if not an urge to a change in government policy?

We're pushing for worthwhile victories and better conditions, but essentially it's just bigger cages and longer chains. The systemic changes are only alluded to, they are what we'll achieve if we continue onward after the immediate changes we're campaigning for are made.

We need to keep a clear eye on what lies beyond and on the real problem, namely that proximity to power compromises people. Concentrations of power remove people from what they hold power over, thus making bad decisions simple to take, free of personal consequences, and easy to rest on the conscience.

This was once again made clear to me last week with that peculiar mix of weariness and enragement at a 'climate question time'. On the panel were senior MPs from the Conservatives and Labour (including Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment), a prominent LibDem and Oxfam's Head of Campaigns.

They all managed to espouse positions based on factual error, with the Conservatives and Labour throwing in lashings of crooked debating tricks and contradictions, anything to defend the predecided position of their party irrespective of logic or science, let alone justice.

Clean coal, aviation, high-speed rail links, nuclear power, government's responsibility to help smaller businesses adapt to low-carbon methods, even the simple facts of how we're doing at cutting emissions; all of it was awash in the great tide of horseshit they - especially Hilary Benn - unleashed.

I've just published an article taking a few of the things they said to bits, with a conclusion about what this means in terms of the politicians' response to climate change.

It's over at U-Know and it's called Climate Action: Too Important for the Politicians.

Monday, February 02, 2009

stop emissions but keep flying

It was an extraordinary thing. Greenpeace activists had occupied a coal-fired power station yet the jury acquitted them.

Perhaps the key aspect of the Kingsnorth 6's defence was the testimony from NASA scientist Jim Hansen. One of the most prominent climate scientists on earth, he made clear that we have little time to scale back our carbon emissions, so plans to increase them were not far short of murderous. He's subsequently offered to help people who blockaded a coal plant in America.

Strange, then, that this week he's spoken out against activists opposing Heathrow's third runway.

The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic. You don't want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space.

Heathrow is already running at near-capacity. The whole point of building a third runway is to double the number of flights, which is far worse than any circling could be. The emissions from the extra flights readily compare to a large coal-fired power station.

Hansen could similarly argue that you don't want to stop new coal-fired power stations as it would mean older, less efficient, ones were kept in service leading to greater emissions.

The crucial point, as he's an order of magnitude clever enough to know, is that we cannot carry on with certain high-emitting activities. If the government were to get its way and double aviation capacity in the UK then by 2030 that sole industry would be likely to exceed our carbon budget before we touch a lump of coal.

Additionally, as he's also surely aware of, like Kingsnorth Heathrow is a flagship. It leads the way for other similar projects. If this first project gets stopped then it makes it much less likely that the ones queueing up behind it will go ahead.

"Coal is 80% of the planet's problem," he said. "You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts. The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that."

He is clearly right on that. But the thing is, most of the activists involved in fighting Heathrow are fighting coal too. There is a culture of action around climate change, one thing inspiring another.

There are a handful of industries that need radical change. Passenger transport, food production, power generation, heating, freight, they all have alternative methods and technologies to help us make the change. Aviation alone has no alternative. It is the one industry that needs to wither to almost nothing. Fortunately, also unlike those others, it is the one that is a complete luxury that we can live without.

As Hansen told the court, obstructing Kingsnorth prevents carbon emissions that kill. Blockading runways to cause flights to be cancelled does exactly the same thing.

In a heavy-handed pun, the article closes

Aviation was not a danger, and he would not fly to the help of those who disrupted airports and flights, he stressed.

He would, of course, fly into Heathrow. It is extraordinary that a climate scientist can take such a stand. The only reason I can think of is that he flies a lot himself and wants to avoid thoughts that make him stop.

He's not alone. The campaign against the third runway has got Greenpeace to gather and coach several celebrities, including Emma Thompson who, laying into Transport Secretary Buff Hoon, said,

They're planes! Give me a break! They use up a lot of energy, they let out CO2 emissions! Not even Mr Hoon can hide that from us.

Hiring celebs against flying is like hiring dogs against arse-sniffing. It's a gift to the aviation lobby that they're bound to enjoy. And sure enough, Hoon responded

"She has been in some very good films. Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don't see the logic of their position, not least because the reason we have got this problem in relation to Heathrow is that more and more people want to travel more and more," he said.

He added: "BAA do not wake up in the morning and think 'we need a bigger airport' and airlines do not say 'we need to put on more flights' unless there is a demand for it. So the point is about not just Emma Thompson, but lots of people.

Hoon's assertion that the aviation industry don't advertise or lobby anyone to increase business is almost as mad as his belief that Love Actually is a very good film.

But anyway, Thompson said that he had 'completely missed the point' and that - get this one - 'this is not a campaign against flying'.

Er, right. Show me anyone who flies whose emissions are sustainable. I'm willing to put a hefty bet of my personal body parts that Emma Thompson's aren't.

Unless you are against the runway from the perspective of the localised impacts of noise and demolished houses, it is surely all about stopping people flying. How stupid and hypocritical can she get?

The answer came the following week

The government is treating us as if we're stupid. They're asking all of us to reduce our energy consumption while they build another runway at Heathrow. I think it's the most egregious piece of hypocrisy I've seen in a long time.

One person on the Greenpeace email list asked if this meant Emma Thompson wouldn't be flying any more and got the reply

We are not campaigning to stop people from flying altogether, but we do want to prevent the number of flights from growing to dangerous levels

This is clearly implying that Greenpeace believe present levels aren't dangerous. They could do with talking to a proper climate scientist. Though they'll need to find one not blinded by his own hypocrisy.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

more dirty pop

Having passed on the recipes for assorted dirty pop, the ideal drink for the second-day munter, there’s a new one.

Victorian literacy rates were much lower than in the present day, so there was a neeed to have visual clues for important instructions. Also, really really important warnings needed to be glaring so that they cut through any daydreaming and mindfog. Hence, in the apothecary’s dispensary and the chemist’s shop, substances that were poisonous were stored in blue bottles.

The blue bottle has recently returned to public notice. The advent of cruelly strong and chemically dubious white cider (has it really ever been near an apple?) has given the adolescent experimenter, the street drinker, and all others interested in the best price per millilitre, a new favourite.

I used to wonder why it is sold in blue bottles. This is not one brand after all, it is a synchronicitous industry standard. Then it hit me; this is a folk-memory. It harks back to the Victorian glass bottles. It says ‘Warning! Poison! Unfit for human consumption!’.

Victorian poison bottle and a zeppelin of Frosty Jack's

And yet, as with the cheeky vimto that makes blue WKD into something not just drinkable but actually pleasant, it is possible to perform alcoholic alchemy.

Cheap and boozy ginger punch

6 litres of ginger beer
4 litres of strong white cider
1 litre-ish of really crap whisky
slices of orange and lemon

Combine ingredients, ladle into glasses and drink. Repeat until there’s none left.

As is essential for the second-day dirty pop, it has novelty, it is unchallenging, not bitter and packs a bit of a woof. Clocking in at around 6% alcohol, it’s ideal for staving off sobriety without getting you too splattered.

And,as with the Alcoholic Dr Pepper, it is cheap to buy so you can afford to get it in for everyone, refreshing not only your inebriation but also the team's bonds.