Land use and food security

One of the big questions for me is whether we devote too much land to farming and not enough to land use for wildlife, wilderness, woodland, places to walk and places to live etc. that is land for its ‘amenity’ value or for development. About 70% of England is given over to farming and only about 10% to development (see my earlier posting), yet surveys show most people think that much more land (>50%) is developed than really is (see Q1 in this survey for the Barker Review). The survey also shows that people have strong preferences for land for its wildlife and landscape value (Q3).

So, why don’t we have more national parks, reforest large areas of rural England, get most of the sheep off the uplands, switch to extensive low impact agriculture producing high-quality and high-value foods, open up access to land, fill the countryside with helpful signposts and paths and let people enjoy living in England? I was out walking in the Thames Valley this weekend – very nice, but I did wonder why there was so much sheep farming going on what must be some of the most highly prized real estate in the land. An occasional sortie out of the city reveals just how much space there is given over to low value agriculture, even in crowded South East England. Continue reading “Land use and food security”

Saying stupid things with fake sophistication

If you want to say something absolutely jaw-dropping in its idiocy, then you need to cloak it in lots of fake sophistication. And this is what ASH Scotland has done with its new position paper on smokeless tobacco.

No less than 266 references are used to support the truly stupid idea that smokeless tobacco, which can substitute for cigarettes and is far less hazardous, should be banned. Smokeless tobacco is far less dangerous because there is no, er, smoke to draw into the lungs. The red hot particles, volatile gases and thousands or organic products of combustion ingested deep into the body do the harm. Continue reading “Saying stupid things with fake sophistication”

Is the UK flooding down to climate change?

As an employee of the Environment Agency, I am increasingly asked “what an earth is going on with all this flooding?”.

Is climate change to blame?

Maybe, but only maybe – and maybe not. There has been highest rainfall in parts of England since records began in 1766 (Met Office stats), but many have leapt in with rather more certainty than is justified to attributing this to climate change – citing the usual formula (to paraphrase) that “no single event can be attributed to climate change, but this is consistent with the predictions”.

Actually the picture is far less clear than even this. Continue reading “Is the UK flooding down to climate change?”

IPCC ends the adaptation = defeat argument

There has been a kind of omertà over talking too much about adapting to climate change – to do so would surely be an act of resignation, a distraction from reducing emissions and effectively a ‘gated community’ mentality by rich countries that would look after themselves and build walls to keep out the poor.

That argument cannot stand any longer. Continue reading “IPCC ends the adaptation = defeat argument”

Climate scientists in epistemological lather

I awoke today to the depressing sound of an eminent climate scientist arguing that other eminent climate scientists were going too far in making alarming statements about climate change. The self-styled purist was gathering at a Sense about Science meeting and was heroically guarding the pristine truths of science from the barbarians of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and their climate change statement. He said he was doing this in order to preserve the trust of the public in the pronouncements of scientists – fat chance. Well he’s made a mess of that..! All blown wildly out of proportion in a BBC story and interview in which, Prof Paul Hardacre, the scientist with the gripe, completely failed to explain what he was concerned about. All involved professed support for the findings of the IPCC and Prof Hardacre even said he “agrees with everything in the [AAAS] statement”, but didn’t like the way it was phrased. Continue reading “Climate scientists in epistemological lather”

Climate change – what the IPCC tells us (and doesn’t)

In many ways the IPCC 4th Assessment Report (known by aficionados as ‘AR4’) from the physical science working group confirms much we had already taken to be established beyond reasonable doubt (see summary). A huge impulse (greenhouse gas increases) is being applied to a complex physical system (atmosphere, oceans and carbon cycle) and modellers are struggling through the task of working out how it will respond… (see charts to the left). To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s famous saying, the exercise involves narrowing quantitative uncertainties in the known-knowns, giving qualitative warnings about the known-unknowns and admitting we should still be worried the unknown-unknowns. And worth remembering, Rumsfeld also concluded, albeit in a different context: “it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” It is fashionable amongst environmentalists to see the IPCC as above reproach, but it is in this area that the IPCC is weak and does the world a serious disservice Continue reading “Climate change – what the IPCC tells us (and doesn’t)”

The despairing nihilism of intelligent design – please keep away from schools

Oh dear…. the creationists have returned to planet earth and appear to be fanning out from their landing site in the United States. After a week away, I see a Newsnight podcast on creationism in schools, following a Guardian report, Revealed: rise of creationism in UK schools stating that 59 schools are apparently using new materials about ‘intelligent design’ that had been circulated by a British creationist group called Truth in Science. The language of the proponents of intelligent design is infuriating: it appropriates the ideas of challenge and open-mindedness to counter-argument, testing theories by evidence and examination of paradoxes, opposition to dogma and even offers a scientific justification for intelligent design (‘irreducible complexity’). In fact it is anything but scientific and anything but a useful or valid challenge to the alleged dogma of Darwinism and the theory of evolution. Let us examine this more closely. Continue reading “The despairing nihilism of intelligent design – please keep away from schools”

R&D sometimes necessary, but never sufficient, for innovation

A couple of interesting reports on R&D… firstly the DTI’s R&D Scoreboard 2006, where clearly more is better – at least one assumes that’s the purpose of creating lists and league tables ordered by the sums spent (see chart from the report showing the world’s biggest R&D spenders). Note the big spenders are not necessarily who you would regard as the great innovators.

The second report is from the management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton… Its arresting title is: A Select Set of Companies Sustain Superior Financial Performance While Spending Less on R&D Than Their Competitors [release/report]… What it comes down to is that innovation drives business, but that R&D spend is only loosely correlated with innovation. Booz Allen reckons that 94 out of the 1,000 companies it surveyed are ‘high leverage innovators’ (ie. Google not Microsoft, Toyota not General Motors)- they have an innovation system rather than R&D spend.

All of this should give pause for thought… For example, the EU plans to spend €50.5 billion on R&D between 2007 and 2013. Will this be spent in a way that generates innovation? Continue reading “R&D sometimes necessary, but never sufficient, for innovation”

Soft paternalism – changing behaviour for the common good without giving orders


Several interesting meetings last week… including with:

And it turns out they all had a common theme, namely ‘behaviour change‘ – ie. recognising that people have considerable behavioural autonomy and governments can’t simply legislate to achieve many of the key sustainable development outcomes, so more subtle persuasive models are needed. This is sometimes seen as a branch of paternalism known as ‘soft paternalism‘.  The Economist [leader/article] recently highlighted its rise – partly to disparage (it in that annoying way they have), but also approvingly to distinguish the soft from the ‘hard’ variety. I think it’s an apt description of the role of the modern state in securing collectively-valued outcomes from an aggregation of individual behaviours. Continue reading “Soft paternalism – changing behaviour for the common good without giving orders”

England 1 – Paraguay 0… setback for England

How to interpret England’s 1-0 victory against Paraguay? On the one hand it was a win. On the other hand, it was only just a win, a poor performance marred by defensive tactics and bad subsititutions that allowed the Paraguay into the game. This might have revealed England’s deeper weaknesses. One guide is betting markets, like Betfair. Its market in an England World Cup win showed deterioration in the market’s view of England’s chances in the period after the game (see chart), meaning the money says it was a setback.