Azara Blog: March 2010 archive complete

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Date published: 2010/03/29

The Lib Dems really like pestering the citizens of Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Lib Dems will probably once again win the Cambridge parliamentary seat, if for no other reason than the current MP, David Howarth, managed to keep his nose clean in the expenses scandal. And if mass delivery of leaflets was any indication of victory, then the Lib Dems would win hands down. This past weekend they delivered not one but two leaflets, running to 12 pages in total. So they are concerned about the environment except when it comes to their own wasteful use of paper.

The first, 4 page, leaflet is a "Cambridge Herald". The headline here is about "Britain's unfair tax system", whereby "unfair" they mean that "the very rich pay a lower rate of tax than the poor". Well, that's obviously true, because the very rich have good accountants and because the poor are stuck in a benefits trap. Needless to say, the Lib Dems are not promising to sort this out, and would be incapable of doing anything about either situation. And they also fail to point out that the very rich pay a huge amount of tax, it's just not huge as a percentage of income. But never let reality get in the way of propaganda.

And what is a "fairer system", according to the Lib Dems? It is one where they will try to extort a bit more money from the very rich (via cutting tax breaks on pension contributions) and hand a small amount to everyone else. Needless to say that is not "fairer", it is just redistribution. So all taxes are random and to say that some random shuffle of taxes is allegedly "fairer" is a joke. The Lib Dems are just playing that typical game whereby they are telling the masses that they can have all the services they want and not pay for any of it, because some rich uncle is going to pay for it. And unfortunately all three main political parties are playing the same game. So the country is bankrupt, but not to worry, the rich will gladly bail every one out. Only the rich will not.

The second headline is that "More new homes will be affordable", about the unsuccessful attempt by the developers of Clay Farm to reduce the number of "affordable" homes from the agreed level of 40%. The way new developments are forced to have a large (rather ridiculous) percentage of "affordable" homes (which are not affordable) is currently considered to be a quick fix to the lack of housing supply, but it has done nothing. If the developer cannot make a good profit the developer will not build, and this forced subsidy of almost half the development ends up not costing the developer but the people who buy houses elsewhere on the site. All in all the way housing is planned and built in England is insane, and the Lib Dems have nothing to offer on this score (nor do the other parties).

On the last page there is the headline "Children deserve a fair deal say Lib Dems". They claim that "In Britain, clever children from lower income homes are already significantly behind less able children from wealthier homes by the time they start school". Well, the Lib Dems should know, their leader, Nick Clegg, is a classic nice-but-dim middle class boy who ended up at the extremely posh Westminister School before going to Cambridge (to study Archaeology and Anthropology, not the most serious of subjects). It is not clear how the Lib Dems would change the situation except to possibly throw more money at poor children (however "poor" is arbitrarily defined), as if that will help.

The final headline is "Years of 'savings' in roads budget bite" about the plague of potholes that have hit Cambridge after the hard winter. Needless to say, according to the Lib Dems, it is all the fault of the Tory run county council. Well, this is a bit ironic, given how much the Lib Dems hate drivers, and have spent their entire time running Cambridge city council the last decade trying to screw drivers as much as possible. But really, now that there is an election they have their hankies out and are weeping about potholes.

The second, 8 page, leaflet, is basically a hagiography for Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem candidate for parliament. On the front page is a picture of him with David Howarth and his number one pitch: "Cambridge is my home". Well, hopefully he has more than that to offer the people of Cambridge. On the second page is a pitch by Howarth of how wonderful Huppert is.

On the third page Huppert has an article about the police DNA database and ID cards. Well, he happens to be on the sensible side on this issue, but it's hard to believe that more than a handful of people care about this more than about bread and butter issues.

Then there is a two-page spread in the middle of the leaflet, about "what makes Julian tick", complete with a nauseating photo of him on the Cam when he was a kid (he's a faculty brat). At the bottom there is a small article about how he is opposed to university tuition fees. Well, he can say that knowing full well that the Lib Dems will never be in power and so will never have to figure out how to pay for that promise.

Then, on the next page, we are back to the "fair tax that works for you". Again, the Lib Dems are happy to campaign on the idea that the only "fair" tax is a tax that someone else pays for the services you want. Such is the stupidity of British political life.

Then we find out that "Green technology is the way forward". And about the only thing you can say that Huppert really has going for him, versus the Labour and Tory candidates, is that he is a scientist. We find out that "according to Julian, global warming is the biggest threat facing the world". And yet, when you turn the page over what do we find but that "As a father of three young children, it's no surprise that Nick Clegg cares passionately about education". It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the reason that "global warming is the biggest threat facing the world" is that the planet has six billion people, and it is totally irresponsible of anyone claiming to be concerned about this to have three children. Perhaps Huppert should have a quiet word with Clegg and remind him about the wonders of birth control.

Another pointless report by MPs on carbon (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government must act faster if the UK is to fully benefit from low carbon technology, a report by MPs has warned.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee said in 2008 there were 881,000 green sector jobs - but with extra funding that could rise by 44% by 2015.

But it criticised slow uptake of carbon capture systems, electric cars and home insulation, calling on the government to invest more in the technologies.
Committee acting chairman Paddy Tipping MP said: "Investment in low carbon technologies must be seen as key to economic recovery.

"These technologies have the potential to reduce the carbon intensity at every stage of the energy supply chain, resulting in lower emissions, many new jobs and growth for the economy."

Yet another pointless report by yet another pointless committee of MPs. Surprise, the conclusion is always that the government "must act", although there is never any indication that anything the government has ever done has ever helped in any area of technology, except to get in the way.

Unfortunately this report strays beyond the pointless and ends up in the realm of the silly with that last claim: "These technologies have the potential to reduce the carbon intensity at every stage of the energy supply chain, resulting in lower emissions, many new jobs and growth for the economy."

Countries with lower carbon intensity in general have higher (per capita) emissions than countries with higher carbon intensity, not the other way around. Although reducing carbon intensity means that a given task can be done with less energy / emissions / money, it then means that more can be spent on other goods and services.

Funds for the Sure Start scheme should allegedly not be cut (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cutting funds for a network of children's centres across England would be disastrous, MPs have said.

The Commons' Children, Schools and Families Committee says the Sure Start scheme is doing pioneering work which should be allowed to bear fruit.

But it criticised a lack of data on its effectiveness and value for money.

Let's see. The country is completely bankrupt but no programme should ever be cut, because some group of MPs with a vested interest, or some other special interest pressure group, thinks that (surprise) their own empire is not where cuts should be made. And yet here there is "a lack of data on its effectiveness and value for money", and that is a classic indication that indeed the programme is probably hugely wasteful. But never let reality get in the way of a good story.

Date published: 2010/03/06

Risk and (Human-induced) Climate Change (permanent blog link)

The 2010 Darwin College Lectures are about Risk. The eighth, and final, lecture occurred on 5 March and was by Bob Watson, of the University of East Anglia, on the subject of "Risk and (Human-induced) Climate Change". He is also chief scientist for the UK ministry DEFRA.

Watson has done the rounds, and this lecture was, not surprisingly, almost identical to the lecture he gave in the Engineering Department two years previously, in 2008. And he must give this lecture pretty much every week of his life, and it is astonishing how enthusiastic he remains for the task.

Meanwhile, the world has not moved on since 2008. Climate change is still the biggest topic on the planet but nothing has changed in the science and nothing has really changed in terms of government action, so two-year old slides are perfectly acceptable. The only thing that has happened since then is that a fake controversy was drenched up, involving Watson's own university, UEA.

Copenhagen, the latest gathering of the governments of the world, and the zillions of NGOs that think they have something to say on the matter, and the climate change groupies, came and went without anything much happening. And this provided one new quip that Watson could make. So he said that as a scientist he thought that the meeting was a "complete failure" but as a government advisor it was a "minor step in the correct direction".

Last time he mentioned the importance of valuing the ecosystem, this time he could report that it was actually happening, both in the UK and globally. Well, needless to say these reports are going to say that the ecosystem is worth trillions of dollars and nobody pays Mother Nature any respect. It will be interesting to see if anyone can find one human activity which actually covers all its externalities, given the claims that will be made about how valuable the ecosystem is just as it stands now, because it's not obvious there is any such activity (except for driving a car in Europe, because the taxation is so extortionate).

Because of the faux outrage over the UEA leaked emails, it has become evident to everyone that climate data and software needs to be publicly available. Well, most of it already was, but it will hopefully be the case that all of it is made available, possibly as a condition that any research that relies on it is published. But the climate science community has far better behaviour on this front that the ecological community does, where there are no standards for data, where many results are published in obscure and expensive or unobtainable journals, and where it is almost impossible to get hold of data or how it was analysed unless the authors feel so inclined to make it available. This will make the UK and global assessments that much more fragile.

At this point Watson trashed GDP as the only measure of a country's "success", and said we should also include other measures like natural capital and social capital, and no doubt the quality of Mom's apple pie. The problem is that most of these other things are not really measurable (GDP is hard enough). So who is going to trust any scientist who claims that a birch tree in such and such a location is worth 1.27 times what a house extension would be worth in the same location, or that a bus driver is worth 3.78 times what a banker is worth. It's all just fun and games for the academic middle class.

Watson of course made the point that society ought to try and internalise the costs of environmental degradation for any good or service, but it's just not totally practicable, except in very specific circumstances like a carbon tax, and even that is not trivial (how do you value land use change).

And bizarrely enough, on the very slide where he said we should internalise costs, he also then suggested that "new technologies" needed subsidising. Well, that is a perfect example of externalising the costs of something, and the UK is about to embark on this kind of folly big time by subsidising totally inefficient energy production by the middle class. Watson also said that in the UK he doesn't own a car (in the US he did) but goes everywhere by train and car, or sometimes by renting a car. But trains are hugely subsidised in the UK, so taking one is indeed externalising the costs onto the rest of society.

In this lecture he didn't mention GM crops at all, which is a bit odd given how crucial they will be to feeding the world in the coming decades. But afterwards he said that he was not necessarily against GM crops, and that people had incorrectly interpreted the IAASTD (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), which he had chaired, as being anti-GM, whereas he was just cautious. So the Tony Juniper spin on this report seems not to be the spin that Watson himself would put on it. Watson said that he thought that currently GM crops would not have helped with world hunger (given what is really causing it, e.g. poor governance) but that in the coming decades this technology might help.

An even bigger omission was that he did not mention population at all. So, like most of the academic middle class in Britain, Watson seems more concerned about citizens in the poor world than he is about citizens in his own country (who allegedly consume too much, although the average UK citizen consumes far less than your average UK professor). So he said that any climate change treaty had to be "equitable". But how equitable is it that certain countries of the world have let their populations explode with no thought to the consequence, and should the citizens in the rest of the world be held to account because of this?

Near the end he discussed people's willingness and ability to act to "do something" to help with climate change. He didn't say how and where this data came from, but it is evident that some marketing consultant was involved, because the result was a classification of people into seven magic categories: "positive greens", "concerned consumers", "sideline supporters", "cautious participants", "waste watchers", "stalled starters" and "honestly disengaged".

It's hard to take this kind of stuff seriously. You can quite imagine that 99% of his audience was a "positive green", but are these people really "green", or just "green" in some mythical measure. So the academic middle class are far wealthier than the average UK citizen, not to mention the average citizen of the world, and so the academic middle class are far more responsible for environmental degradation in the world, whether they drive a Prius or not. What matters most is how much you earn (and how many children you have), not how much you cycle to work.

At least Watson had another cute joke here. So he said that he called the "honestly disengaged" the "I don't give a sh*t" brigade. Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Date published: 2010/03/03

Central government tells local government to get stuffed over transport fund (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Plans for congestion charging in Cambridge could be scrapped after Government demands for the scheme were dropped.

But as well as ditching calls for a congestion charge, the Government announced Cambridgeshire had missed out on millions of pounds of funding for transport projects.

Transport bosses in the county were hoping for £500 million from the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) to pay for a range of measures to tackle congestion, including a new rail station at Chesterton.

Now the Government has said TIF will be replaced with a new scheme - the Urban Challenge Fund.

But there is no indication how much funding will be available.

Bosses at Cambridgeshire County Council were told yesterday their bid for the cash had been unsuccessful.

Given that the UK government is completely and utterly bankrupt, this is the only sane decision that could have been made. It would have been totally and utterly ridiculous for one small part of the country to get so much money for transport. And most of the money would not even have gone to Cambridge city but instead would have been wasted on far flung parts of the county. The premise behind the TIF was that local authorities should be bribed in order to bring forward so-called congestion charging, and given how cynical and corrupt that premise was, the decision was also just.

European Commission approves a GM potato (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has cleared the way for a genetically modified potato to be grown in the EU - only the second GM product it has allowed.

The starch of the Amflora potato can be utilised for industrial uses like making paper, and for animal feed - but not for human consumption.

Environmental groups have strongly opposed the introduction of GM crops.

But the Commission insisted its decision was based on "a considerable volume of sound science".

The Amflora variety was developed by German chemical and biotechnology firm BASF, for the special qualities of its starch.

BASF says: "Amflora starch can be used in many different ways. It makes yarn stronger and paper glossier; it also makes spray concrete adhere better to the wall and keeps glue liquid for longer."

One very small step forward for the world. It is unbelievable how backwards Europe has been over GM crops, all because so-called environmental groups have a religious objection to the technology. It is about time that Europe stands up to this blatant fear-mongering.

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