Chris Goodall cached version 08/02/2019 16:13:11 en Tactical voting worked, and it got people engaged in politics for the first time <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>In Oxford and Abingdon, tactical voting on an industrial scale succeeded in ousting the Tories. There is much to learn from this.</p><!--[if gte mso 10]> <mce:style><! /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;} --> <!--[endif] --> <!--StartFragment--><!--EndFragment--> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span><em>Students at My Big Fat (Mini) Election. Cabinet Office / Flickr. Some rights reserved.</em></p><p>Bookmakers regarded the result in Oxford West and Abingdon as a near-certainty. The ten thousand vote Conservative majority from 2015 seemed impregnable. But an almost unequalled 15% swing on the day saw Liberal Democrat Layla Moran beat the incumbent Tory by a few hundred votes. This was one of the most extraordinary results in an extraordinary election.</p> <p>What happened here to push out the Conservatives? Simply put, tactical voting on an industrial scale. Large numbers of people were persuaded to ‘lend their vote' to the Liberal Democrats, in the language of the many garden placards that dotted the constituency.</p> <p>How did we get so many voters to transfer to the Liberal Democrats, perhaps their second or third choice of party? Three aspects of this campaign seemed crucial.</p> <p class="mag-quote-center">What happened here to push out the Conservatives? Simply put, tactical voting on an industrial scale.&nbsp;</p><p>First, groups of individuals, often with strong existing political affiliations, met from early spring to start an alliance of left-of-centre voters in Oxford. The Labour party could not be drawn in, even though many local supporters saw the strength of the case for tactical voting in the constituency. The party had got less than half the Liberal Democrat vote in the 2015 election. The Progressive Alliance nevertheless pushed on and organised a march attended by about 200 people in Oxford city centre early in the campaign. The work of these individuals, and the encouraging publicity achieved, helped give momentum to the tactical voting drive. Tina Leonard, who organised much of the Progressive Alliance’s work, stressed that the purpose of the campaign was not just to elect a non-Conservative MP but also to try to build a wider involvement in politics.</p> <p>Second, the local Green Party made a risky move by standing down early in the campaign. Some supporters wanted the party to negotiate a deal that saw the Green withdrawal rewarded by a Liberal Democrat candidate standing down elsewhere. In the end local party members decided that its candidate would step aside with no direct promise of reward from the Liberal Democrats, but an agreement to work together in future local elections. This helped avoid the accusation that the withdrawal was part of a pact that would inevitably be described as grubby or unprincipled.</p> <p>Voters seemed to understand that the lack of a Green name on the ballot was an outcome driven by political conviction and generosity – a rare quality in politics. Yes, the decision was unusual but it was warranted by the need to maximise the anti-Tory vote. Party co-leader Caroline Lucas had made her support for cooperation clear and candidate Cheryl Briggs agreed to step aside “for the greater good”. Local Greens, including Cheryl and the chair of the Oxfordshire party Sarah Wood, canvassed alongside the Liberal Democrat candidate. As a result, most of the 2,000 or so Green votes won in 2015 probably transferred over to the eventual winner. The Green decision also appears to have helped some more Labour loyalists to decide to disobey party instructions and support the Liberal Democrat candidacy.</p> <p>Third – and this may have been the most important force at work – the last two weeks of the campaign saw large numbers of previously non-political people get actively involved in helping the Liberal Democrat candidate on behalf of the Progressive Alliance. Almost one hundred voters participated in some way. They imitated conventional politicians by door-knocking, pushing leaflets through doors across the constituency and standing in the street trying to talk to voters on the way to the shops. One of these neophytes even had the good luck to badger Guardian columnist Professor Timothy Garton Ash as he passed Marks &amp; Spencer. His friendly suggestion was that she call the campaign ‘strategic’ rather than ‘tactical’, a word she then employed in later conversations.&nbsp;</p> <p>Ordinary people stopping other ordinary voters in the street to talk about politics is not something I’ve ever seen before in the UK. On election day itself, in the perhaps the world’s first flash mob composed of people averaging over 50 years old, a group of fifteen people stood outside the door of an Oxford college and stopped students to talk about the reasons for supporting the Liberal Democrats, a party which many of the activists and students will never have voted for before.&nbsp; We need more of this, lots more of it.</p> <p>The UK will probably wait a long time for proportional representation. Tactical voting is a poor substitute, but the Oxford and Abingdon victory shows it has a future. And if it gets more people involved in political activity, it has much to recommend.&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/neal-lawson/its-time-to-start-planning-for-post-election-progressive-alliance">It&#039;s time to make plans for a post-election Progressive Alliance</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk uk Chris Goodall Sat, 10 Jun 2017 10:43:00 +0000 Chris Goodall 111556 at An industrial strategy for energy <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Britain should abandon Hinkley Point and invest in storage.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="306" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Hinkley Point nuclear power station. By Di Richard Baker.</span></span></span></p><p>In early July, French parliamentarians produced a report on EdF, the largely state-owned electricity company that wants to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. The legislators concluded that the Hinkley project ‘is probably the last opportunity for EdF to restore the reputation of the French nuclear industry internationally and gain new business in a highly competitive market’. The implication was clear; Hinkley is a central part of the national industrial strategy of France. </p> <p>The nuclear power station will proceed not because it is good for Britain or its electricity users but because the French state thinks that maintaining the capacity to export nuclear power stations is a paramount objective. And, by the way, France itself is closing down the nuclear plants on its own soil as fast as it can, with no intention of replacing them. Instead it is driving forward with solar and wind. </p> <p>A few days after the French parliamentary report, the UK’s National Audit Office brought out its own report on nuclear power. Among its conclusions was a calculation that Hinkley will receive subsidies of about £30bn in the first thirty five years of its life. This figure is the difference between the open-market price of electricity and the much higher figure paid to EdF for the electricity produced by the proposed new power station. Directly and indirectly through higher prices of goods and services, the average UK household will pay about £32 a year for more than three decades for the privilege of supporting the French industrial strategy.</p> <p>In fact, the NAO figures are probably too optimistic. It assumed wholesale electricity prices of around £60 per megawatt hour. Based on today’s trades, the electricity market thinks differently. Wholesale prices for 2018 - the best guide we have to the future – are around £41, or less than 70% of the NAO’s figure. If the cost of wholesale electricity remains at this level, Hinkley won’t cost UK households £30bn but the rather larger figure of £47bn.</p><p class="mag-quote-center">If the cost of wholesale electricity remains at this level, Hinkley won’t cost UK households £30bn but the rather larger figure of £47bn.</p> <p>Estimates for the underlying price of putting nuclear power on the grid continue to rise sharply. Nuclear power stations being built around the world today are almost all very much more costly than predicted and are taking several years longer to build than promised. The most troublesome new plant – at Olkiluoto in Finland – is now slated to start generating in late 2018, about eight years late. The cost overruns have near-bankrupted the developer, which is now fighting legal battles over $5bn of claims and counter-claims in international arbitration. Olkiluoto is built to the same design as Hinkley, suggesting that the French unions and EdF middle managers that are so opposed to the UK power station have considerable logic behind them. </p> <p>The NAO acknowledges the cost inflation of nuclear power around the world and also notes that solar and wind require lower subsidies. One chart in its report shows this point clearly. By 2025, the earliest conceivable date by which Hinkley could be providing electricity, the NAO sees solar costing £60 a megawatt hour (about 65% of nuclear’s cost) with onshore wind at a similar figure. In other words, the subsidy needed by solar is expected to be little more than a third of that required by EdF. </p> <p>What’s also clear is that while nuclear power is tending to get more expensive, wind and solar get cheaper and cheaper every year. Even experts find it difficult to keep up with the speed of the change. In 2010, the government’s energy department said that solar would cost £180 a megawatt hour in 2025. The most recent estimates, less than six years later, are no more than a third of this level. And, by the way, this failure to predict the steepness of decline in the costs of solar power is characteristic of all governmental and research institute forecasts around the world. The likelihood is that by 2025 solar will actually need no subsidies at all, even in the gloomier parts of the UK. </p> <p>Nobody really disputes any of this. Even the NAO acknowledges that the only remaining argument in favour of the ‘cathedral within a cathedral’ at Hinkley is that nuclear gives the UK what is known as baseload power.<a href="#_ftn1">[1]</a> This comment mirrors an assessment by the new UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who described security of energy supply as an ‘absolute prerequisite’ in a BBC interview on 14 July, although he added he had not seen the new cost figures from the NAO and hopefully gave himself some space to reconsider. A well-functioning nuclear power station will provide a stable and consistent output for every hour of the year. It cannot be turned up and down as power needs vary during the year. Mr Hammond sees this an an advantage but as renewable sources grow in importance, the opposite is likely to be true. Modern economies actually don’t want baseload at all; we need electricity sources that ramp up and down to complement highly variable amounts of wind, solar and other renewables. Inflexible nuclear power is the worst possible fit with increasingly cheap but intermittent – although predictable – sources of low-carbon energy.&nbsp; </p><p class="mag-quote-center">Inflexible nuclear power is the worst possible fit with increasingly cheap but intermittent – although predictable – sources of low-carbon energy.</p><p>By 2025 the UK will probably have at least 18 gigawatts of offshore wind and perhaps 12 gigawatts of onshore wind. My guess is that we might see at least 25 gigawatts of solar power, and it could be much more if photovoltaic technologies continue to surprise us with rapid declines in price. (We already have about 12 gigawatts, mostly added in the last two years). The scope for continued improvement in the cost and performance of solar is substantial.</p> <p>Total demand for electricity falls as low as 19 gigawatts in summer compared to the 55 gigawatts of renewables. So there will be many occasions when the UK has too much power and nuclear power will be unnecessary. On other occasions, such as still December evenings, demand will be 50 gigawatts or so and solar and wind will be producing a fraction of the amount required. The 3 gigawatts at Hinkley will be helpful but insufficient.</p> <p>Here then is the challenge facing Greg Clark, the new minister in charge of both energy and ‘industrial strategy’. How does the UK avoid becoming the testbed for France’s horrendously expensive nuclear technologies and the proving ground for EdF, its national champion? What technologies will come to the fore that allow the world to switch principally to cheap solar power, by far the most abundant source of renewable energy? In what technologies can the UK develop knowledge and skills that both provide us both with the reliable power that Philip Hammond stressed is needed but also give us goods to make and to export? </p> <p>Batteries aren’t the answer for us. Although the energy storing potential of lithium ion cells is substantial, they will never get northern latitude countries like the UK through the winter. We have little sun and sometimes the wind doesn’t blow for weeks at a time. Batteries won’t hold enough electricity. And, second, the car makers and the Asian industrial companies that make their batteries have that market already cornered. The UK would be wasting its money on R+D in this area. </p> <p>The real opportunity is finding ways of storing large amounts of energy for months at a time. This is where the need is greatest, and the possible return most obvious. More precisely, what we require are technologies that take the increasing amounts of surplus power from sun or wind and turn this energy into storable fuels. In The Switch, a book just out from Profile Books, I explore the best ways of converting cheap electricity from renewables into natural gas and into liquid fuels similar to petrol or diesel so provide huge buffers of energy storage.</p> <p>This sounds like alchemy. It is not. Surplus electricity can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon dioxide and hydrogen can then be merged by microbes to make more complex molecules, such as methane. Methane is the main constituent of natural gas, so it can be simply stored in the existing gas network. Other microbes take carbon and hydrogen molecules and turn them into liquids that can be kept in the oil storage networks. </p> <p>Many companies around the world are trying to commercialise zero-carbon gas and green fuels as natural complements to solar and wind. This is where Greg Clark’s new industrial strategy could really make a difference. A few percent of the £30bn+ subsidy for Hinkley devoted to conversion technologies that can take cheap electricity and use it to store energy in gas or liquids could help build British companies that could expand around the world. The UK’s ability in applied biochemistry is acknowledged and the country could become the global research and manufacturing centre. We missed the early opportunity to develop a large onshore wind industry and gave the market to Denmark twenty years ago. Brexit threatens to have the same impact on offshore wind fabrication here. Greg Clark has the chance to support an even larger industry developing chemical transformation technologies for seasonal storage. Let’s not miss this opportunity. </p> <hr size="1" /> <p><a href="#_ftnref1">[1]</a> This phrase was used in a public lecture by Cambridge University’s Tony Roulstone, a nuclear engineer who trains postgraduates.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/david-lowry/new-challenge-for-uks-nuclear-debate">The new challenge for the UK&#039;s nuclear debate</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk uk reset Chris Goodall Tue, 26 Jul 2016 10:34:26 +0000 Chris Goodall 104276 at Are higher tuition fees justified? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Are higher tuition fees justified by the cost of providing undergraduate education? Chris Goodall breaks down the cost of one sought-after degree course, and comes to some controversial conclusions. </div> </div> </div> <p><em>Are higher tuition fees justified by the cost of providing undergraduate education? Chris Goodall, businessman and author, breaks down the cost of one sought-after degree course, and comes to some controversial conclusions.<img class="image-right" src="" alt="" height="292" width="300" /></em></p><p>Many universities are positioning themselves to charge &pound;9,000 a year in tuition fees. The arguments about whether this figure is acceptable will burn for years. But no-one seems to have asked a slightly different question: what does it actually cost to teach an undergraduate? Is a fee of &pound;9,000 justified by the money a university spends on its teaching staff and the other undergraduate facilities? My assessment of the teaching provided to language students at one first-rate university suggests that it is not. In this particular case, the cost to provide a year&rsquo;s teaching is about &pound;4,500. In other words, there is no justification for charging any more than half the proposed maximum fee. </p><p>Details of my method of calculating this number follows in the next few paragraphs. The calculations may seem complicated but what I am simply doing is working out how many hours of teaching a student gets and what it costs in salaries and other costs to provide this tuition. It is very simple arithmetic and the results are conclusive.</p><p>a) I asked a 2nd year student of French and Spanish at University College London to write down the details of teaching she receives this year. She is given nine hours tuition a week in groups that range from 10 to approximately 30. The average class size is about 16.</p><p>b) She is taught a total of 21 weeks a year. The autumn and spring terms have a week in the middle in which no teaching occurs and there is no tuition at all in the summer term.</p><p>c) So this undergraduate gets 21 weeks multiplied by 9 teaching hours a year, making 189 contact hours a year. She is asked to write just two short essays a term plus a number of smaller exercises, so the marking load on the teachers is small. (It may be worth noting that she gets very little of teaching of spoken languages. Out of her own pocket she pays a Spanish native working in London to help her with the oral language).</p><p>d) My calculations then move on to estimating the cost of teaching her these 189 hours. Looking at the financial accounts of UCL, I can work out that the average employee is paid between &pound;35 and &pound;40 thousand. UCL encompasses a huge number of different components, including several hospitals. The average probably disguises a large number of lower paid people and also includes about 300 people who are paid over &pound;100,000. I made the assumption that the average modern languages teacher is paid about &pound;50,000 per year including his or her pension contribution. This figure mixes higher paid professors and young staff who have just joined the department.</p><p>e) In addition, we need to estimate the cost of administering the subject at UCL and spread this cost over the academic staff teaching modern languages. I have no easy way of calculating this figure but I don&rsquo;t think it can add more than &pound;10,000 a year to the direct cost of the teachers. It certainly wouldn&rsquo;t be higher than this in a typical school or college. This means that the cost of staffing for modern language teaching is about &pound;60,000 per teacher.</p><p>f) Staff costs, including pensions, form about 59% of the total expenses of running UCL. The buildings need maintenance, libraries need to be stocked, computers bought and rooms heated and lit. To get a figure for the full cost of a modern languages teacher, I therefore assumed that the staffing cost also represented 59% of the full cost of this individual, including all the ancillary functions. This takes the total cost of a teacher to slightly more than &pound;100,000 a year.</p><p>g) I assume that the average modern languages teacher at UCL teaches 12 hours a week during the 21 weeks of student teaching a year.</p><p>h) He or she will therefore do 252 teaching hours a year. At a full cost of about &pound;100,000, this means that an hour of teaching costs about &pound;404.</p><p>i) Now consider the person I wrote about above. She gets 189 hours of teaching a year, but typically this is carried out in groups of about 16. If we take the hourly cost of the teacher (&pound;404) and allocate this to our undergraduate, we multiply by the number of hours teaching the student gets but divide it by the number of people with whom she shares the teacher. This results in a total cost of her tuition of about &pound;4,500 a year, one half the proposed maximum.</p><p>What does this calculation actually mean? It demonstrates that if we make very cautious assumptions, the UCL modern languages undergraduate will be getting very poor value for money if the university increases the fee to &pound;9,000. Based on my estimate that of the full costs of a university teacher teaching 252 hours a year - equivalent to just over seven weeks work for a standard employee in another occupation working for 35 hours a week - the tuition fee should be no more than half this figure.</p><p>When I have shown this calculation to my friends in university employment, they make the following comments. First, they say that the main job of a university teacher is to do research, not teach undergraduates. Fine, I reply, my calculations assume that the teacher gets 31 weeks a year completely free of teaching. And even during the teaching terms she or he will only be in front of students for 12 hours, or about a third of the typical working week. (This leaves plenty of time for preparation of the seminars and lectures). The upshot is that university staff have plenty of time for active research, although to my mind it is questionable whether undergraduates should be paying through their tuition fee for this activity, however important it is.</p><p>The second objection is this. I assume that the university is broadly efficient, with a relatively small number of people supporting the teaching activities of, in this case, the modern languages department. Actually, my academic friends say, many universities are full of administrators and non-teaching staff. Once again, if this is true, I can see no reason why undergraduates should pay for this inefficiency. Secondary schools in the UK, which teach pupils for an average of about 25 hours a week over a 39 week year - and have to cope with marking substantial amounts of written work - get paid about &pound;4,800 a year per pupil. Compare this to the UCL undergraduate I interviewed who gets nine hours teaching for little more than half the number of weeks of a school pupil and I think it is arguable that no undergraduate should be asked to pay more than the government&rsquo;s allowance for secondary schools.</p><p>We all know what the real truth is. Universities want to do more research (on which their rankings and income strongly depend) and intend to use the higher tuition fees to subsidise this activity. But young people obliged to pay these inflated fees can appropriately question whether their money should be used to pay for the non-teaching activities of their universities. David Willets, minister for universities, might also suggest that an institution in which it costs &pound;404 to provide one hour of teaching should be looking at radical ways of improving the efficiency of its activities.</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> UK </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Economics </div> </div> </div> uk openEconomy uk UK Economics economics Students and Higher Education Chris Goodall Mon, 29 Nov 2010 00:00:00 +0000 Chris Goodall 57042 at Chris Goodall <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Chris Goodall </div> </div> </div> <p><span>Chris Goodall is a commentator on energy and climate change. His most recent book&nbsp;</span><em>‘The Switch’&nbsp;</em><span>focuses on the unstoppable global switch to solar power and battery storage. He was the Green candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2010</span></p><div class="field field-au-shortbio"> <div class="field-label">One-Line Biography:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Chris Goodall, who blogs at &lt;a href=&quot;;&gt;CarbonCommentary&lt;/a&gt; is the author of &lt;a href=&quot;;amp;camp=1406&amp;amp;creative=6394&amp;amp;linkCode=as1&amp;amp;creativeASIN=184668868X&amp;amp;adid=0CJVHAVCE1SN3DD904M5&amp;amp;&quot; target=&quot;_blank&quot; onclick=&quot;javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview(&#039;/outbound/article/;camp=1406&amp;creative=6394&amp;linkCode=as1&amp;creativeASIN=184668868X&amp;adid=0CJVHAVCE1SN3DD904M5&amp;&#039;);&quot;&gt;&lt;em&gt;Ten Technologies to Save the Planet&lt;/em&gt;&lt;/a&gt;, listed as one of the &lt;em&gt;Financial Times&lt;/em&gt; Science Books of the Year 2008. His previous book, &lt;a href=&quot;;amp;s=books&amp;amp;qid=1175077866&amp;amp;sr=8-1&quot; target=&quot;_blank&quot; onclick=&quot;javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview(&#039;/outbound/article/;s=books&amp;qid=1175077866&amp;sr=8-1&#039;);&quot;&gt;&lt;em&gt;How to Live a Low-Carbon Life&lt;/em&gt;&lt;/a&gt;, won the 2007 Clarion Award for non-fiction and was described by the &lt;em&gt;New Scientist&lt;/em&gt; as ‘the definitive guide to reducing your carbon footprint’. His latest book is &lt;a href=&quot;;amp;camp=1406&amp;amp;creative=6394&amp;amp;linkCode=as1&amp;amp;creativeASIN=1846688744&amp;amp;adid=1D2B6BTC5ZKHFK31SQQB&amp;amp;&quot; target=&quot;_blank&quot; onclick=&quot;javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview(&#039;/outbound/article/;camp=1406&amp;creative=6394&amp;linkCode=as1&amp;creativeASIN=1846688744&amp;adid=1D2B6BTC5ZKHFK31SQQB&amp;&#039;);&quot;&gt;&lt;em&gt;The Green Guide for Business&lt;/em&gt;&lt;/a&gt;. </div> </div> </div> Chris Goodall Wed, 31 Mar 2010 10:02:34 +0000 Chris Goodall 53358 at The human brain is made for environmental complacency <p> Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have <a href="">helped us survive</a> as a species in the past.  Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as <a href="">adding new runways</a> to the local airport or sanctioning the development of <a href="">new coal-fired power stations</a>. </p> <div class="pullquote_new"> Chris Goodall writes on climate change and energy issues. His recent book ‘Ten Technologies to Save the Planet’ was listed as one of 2008’s books of the year by the Financial Times. <a href="">Carbon Commentary</a>, a blog on UK climate policy problems, is part of the Guardian’s Environment Network. This piece was first delivered as a talk to Oliver and Jenny Black’s Sunday salon. </div> <p> I see two groups of reasons why action on climate change is not as fast or as effective as the scientific consensus suggests is as necessary.  First, although we are constantly fed with information on the severity of the threat, at some subconscious level most people believe that climate change is not dangerous. Second, the desire to protect future generations – and current generations who live far from us – is much less well entrenched in human thinking than we piously assume.&#39; What has posterity ever done for us?&#39; The phrase may now be ridiculed, but it contains a worrying truth. </p> <p> <strong>Perceiving Danger</strong> </p> <p> <strong>Optimism bias</strong> </p> <p> Human beings seem to have a psychological predisposition towards believing matters will eventually turn out well. The phrase &#39;<a href="">optimism bias</a>&#39; is sometime used to describe this phenomenon. We see this in many different circumstances. In the planning of a new construction project, for example, the costs are routinely underestimated. The <a href="">UK Department for Transport </a>web site says that &#39;there is a demonstrated, systematic, tendency for project appraisers to be overly optimistic and that to redress this tendency appraisers should make explicit, empirically based adjustments to the estimates of a project&#39;s costs, benefits, and duration.&#39; </p> <p> In the case of climate change, we may unconsciously have a similar bias. Although the results from scientific work seem increasingly worrying, many of us may be saying at the back of our minds that the concerns are exaggerated. Inherent optimism may have helped our ancestors and ourselves cope with present adversity and future threats. It does not help us deal with a <a href="">long-distant and highly uncertain </a>set of risks from rising temperatures and changing climate patterns. </p> <p> <strong>Central estimate bias</strong> </p> <p> Humans tend systematically to over-estimate the tightness of the distribution of likely outcomes (Loosely speaking, they wrongly guess the width of the &#39;bell curve&#39;). Ask an individual a question on a subject about which they know little and then request an estimate of the probability that his or her answer is nearly right. People will routinely <a href=";source=web&amp;ct=res&amp;cd=10&amp;;ei=qFARSpCiPIaZjAeGrNXkCA&amp;usg=AFQjCNFz-XLqTrc8h8MnhwfcZrdKD5Dsaw&amp;sig2=UxJBJQZ2Q0NQe7BBKDBLAw">be far more certain</a> than they should beW. Examples might be a question that asked how many species there are on the planet or the number of books published a year. People don’t generally know the answer but will nevertheless be far <a href="">more confident than they should</a> be about the general correctness of their estimate. </p> <p> This phenomenon <a href="">helps us to be usefully decisive</a>. Rather than endlessly discussing which way to go to hunt, perhaps our ancestors found it useful to have an exaggerated certainty. This phenomenon allows <a href="">leaders</a> to get groups to engage in purposeful action. Unfortunately this human attribute is not helpful when it comes to climate change. The world faces a high degree of uncertainty about the impacts of warming, with a very wide distribution of possible outcomes. We may experience 1.5 degrees of temperature rise or it may be four times that level. Humankind can probably cope with the smaller number but the larger figure will make most of the globe uninhabitable. Similarly, the Siberian permafrost may melt, causing an outpouring of methane that rapidly destabilises the world climate. Or it may not. It is the width of bell curve of outcomes that should worry us, but we naturally tend to compress the range of outcomes into a much tighter range than is justified. </p> <p> The <a href="">books</a> about climate change from Nigel Lawson and Bjorn Lomborg are particularly good examples of this. Having been sceptics about the existence and then the severity of climate change, both authors write with excessive certainty that the eventual temperature rise is going to be about 2 degrees. The overconfidence is their way of getting us all to underestimate the risks of unpredicted climatic change. </p> <p> <strong>Problems dealing with a high noise-to-signal ratio</strong> </p> <p> We are much more aware of weather than we are of climate. In countries like the UK, the variability of the weather is high. It can be sunny and 25 degrees on day and rainy and 15 degrees on the next. This variability (or &#39;noise&#39;) tends to drown out the underlying &#39;signal&#39; (changes in the climate). A coldish 2008/9 winter in the US may be connected with recent opinion poll evidence that shows increasing numbers of people thinking that the potential effects of climate change are exaggerated. People in countries with a lot of weather can always find data that supports whatever opinion that they happen to have on climate change. This is unsurprising: survival in past centuries depended more on the weather in the crop growing season than it did on the climate. </p> <p> It may be no accident that countries with less weather and more climate seem to have smaller percentages of their population denying the existence of climate change. The rapid spread of deserts in eastern China is obvious, and perhaps is correlated with polls showing the Chinese are among the most worried by the effects of climatic change. </p> <p> <strong>Assumption of exaggeration in those trying to persuade us</strong> </p> <p> Scientists are increasingly seen as salespeople trying to &#39;sell&#39; their research findings. Correctly or otherwise, ordinary people seem to believe that the conclusions in scientific papers are biased by the need to impress the journalists that cover the topic, who then amplify the results in order to attract attention from their readers. The general population tends to discount the findings, presuming them to be exaggerated and distorted by the need to show increasingly bad outcomes. A cynical citizenry may also believe that striking results are more likely to get the authors future research funding. </p> <p> I think it is probable that pressure from the press does slightly distort scientific research and, being human, scientists may sometimes amplify their concerns in order to attract attention. But the huge majority of climate change work is carefully designed and robust. Most people in the general population don’t know that the process of peer review will tend to dampen, not exaggerate, the upsetting implications of a new piece of research. </p> <p> <strong>An underlying faith in smoothly adjusting and self-correcting processes</strong> </p> <p> The latter half of the twentieth century bought a profound change in the way that people in developed countries saw their world. Effective markets meant that prices generally quietly and unobtrusively adjusted supply and demand so that crises of availability became rare. Although there are good counter-examples, such as the severe depletion of Atlantic fish stocks, markets have been generally very good at dealing with temporary disruptions. For example, it&#39;s possible that a smaller percentage of people have starved to death in the last generation than for any comparable period in the last thousand years. We may have partly lost the ability to comprehend the risk of <a href="">sudden and unpredictable</a> environmental collapse. Perhaps our pre-industrial ancestors would have understood the threat from catastrophic climate change much better than we can. </p> <p> Until the recent implosion of large parts of the banking system, trade and financial flows seemed superb at avoiding the awful effects of natural disasters and other extreme events. We have gradually lost the sense that food or raw material shortages can get worse and worse. So an escalating and near-irreversible climate change threat – a classic &#39;commons&#39;  problem, like the over-fishing of many of the world&#39;s seas, is not fully comprehended by the modern mind-set. The liberal capitalism of the last twenty years has been so successful that we have become blind to potential threats from environmental collapse. The examples of such crises in the past – from<a href=""> Easter Island</a> through to soil degradation in the US in the Dust Bowl years– are now ignored. </p> <p> The dominance of what might be called the economist&#39;s model of the world is under threat from the deepening recession. The invisible hand is now looking a little arthritic. But for the last thirty years it has provided the standard ideological framework in Anglo-Saxon economies. We are, in the words of Keynes, all the slaves of some defunct economist. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the way we think still owes much to Milton Friedman and his friends. The discontinuities, non-linearities and tipping points of climate change will require us to reprogramme our minds. It will take many years. I remember intellectuals like Keith Joseph acting as the nuclei around which free-market liberalism began to form in the mid-seventies. One looks in vain for similar cells of green philosophers or economists now. </p> <p> <strong>The lack of an observable enemy</strong> </p> <p> CO2 is invisible, largely innocuous except for its absorption of certain frequencies of infra-red radiation, and it is a natural part of the carbon cycle. It sustains living systems and helps maintain the planet at a habitable temperature. These are not the usual characteristics of an environmental enemy. Depletion of the ozone layer was an easier problem to address. A small number of manufacturers were making CFCs for a limited number of uses and the effects on the stratosphere were clear to even the sceptics of the day. It was possible to begin the process of phasing out their use without too many obstacles because the enemy was obvious. </p> <p> Human societies have always sought to<a href=";source=web&amp;ct=res&amp;cd=2&amp;;ei=mlgRSqqwII-sjAf279HABg&amp;usg=AFQjCNGKhxtnOnJlOhNaeysobE1UiBGoeQ&amp;sig2=R3pQPHpVtz07oE3sxegmPA"> identify enemies</a>, whether it be racial minorities, foreigners with different ideologies or people who simply don’t fit in. But with CO2, the opponent is not easy to locate. We all produce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are not only invisible, which makes the problem difficult to see, but they are also all pervasive. We do not even know how to start battling the opponent – some say we should ban leisure flying, other suggest we need to stop burning coal, increase forest cover or turn down the thermostat. Compared to the usual cry of &#39;repel the barbarians&#39;, this doesn’t make for effective warfare on CO2. The lack of progress on greenhouse gas reduction has unnerved many activists, who now devote far too much attention to fighting among themselves rather than leading the charge against the shared enemy. </p> <p> <strong>Unknown unknowns</strong> </p> <p> Donald Rumsfeld&#39;s contribution to world history will be dominated by his disastrous actions before and after the Iraq War. But the useful restatement of the idea of &#39;unknown unknowns&#39; will merit a footnote in his Wikipedia entry. Getting people to accept even the possible existence of unknown unknowns in climate science or in other fields is difficult. It was always thus. Perhaps the more successful of out ancestors found it was generally not useful for us to worry too much about the things we don’t even know we don’t know. Many global warming scientists intuitively understand this. Although they should be telling us that they really don’t understand many aspects of the climate system, they fear that the admission of any ignorance will reduce their credibility. They tend to give us an exaggerated impression of the certainty with which we understand things or, more correctly, know what we don’t know. </p> <p> <strong>Valuing the future</strong> </p> <p> These seven different aspects of the way we comprehend the climate change danger are all inter-linked. How much do we really value the welfare of future generations or, indeed, the living standards of the people already affected by climate change in the tropics. </p> <p> a) Getting rich is a better way of protecting your own descendants. </p> <p> Effective human societies have developed systems for profiting from individual selfishness and combining this characteristic with laws and regulation, as well as a limited reliance on unselfish generosity. It is not through benevolence, said Adam Smith, that baker provided us with our bread. Although altruism is a substantial component of individual moral systems, this generosity tends to be restricted to our families and those around us. Protecting the world for our grandchildren&#39;s generation is often said to the primary reason for doing something about climate change. But, being realistic, most of us have very little interest in doing something for individuals yet unborn in countries of which we know little. </p> <p> Famously, of course, we are more interested in ensuring the prosperity of our genetic descendants than the world in general. We do appear to be concerned for our own grandchildren, and society smiles benignly on this devotion. How do we individually look after our own descendants in the future climate crises? Is it through lobbying parliaments for real actions to reduce emissions? Or recycling all our plastic?  No. The uncomfortable fact is that we are better advised to accumulate as much wealth as possible – even if it means using large amounts of fossil fuel - and then bequeathing our descendants enough money to avoid some of the impacts of global warming. Particularly in countries with weak commitment to collective action to fight social problems, such as the UK and the US, we will see the rich head for the high ground to give their children homes that will not be flooded. The important conclusion is, I think, that real determination to value the lives of people remote from us in time and in place similarly to our families and friends is very difficult to achieve. </p> <p> b) High discount rates </p> <p> Non-economists may not have picked up the strongly felt <a href="">dispute</a> between Stern and the economics establishment about how we should value the future. <a href="">Simplifying</a> the respective positions, Stern said that a person today is worth the same as a person in the future. Therefore if we had to make financial sacrifices today to gain a reduction in the costs of climate change tomorrow, we should not put an interest rate on the money we &#39;lend&#39; the future just because it falls on people who are not ourselves. </p> <p> This is all very well for society as a whole. But individuals generally discount heavily. Until the present financial distortions, many people would generally be happy to borrow from their future income stream (by getting a personal loan for example and paying it back over five years) at vastly higher interest rates. This gives us one of the most difficult problems in climate change policy-making: why should people who as individuals have high discount rates (as evidenced by their willingness to borrow from their future at usurious interest) vote in a government that wants to lend to the future either at no interest (Stern) or about 3% a year (other economists). When humankind – rich and poor – has such a strong preference for present-day consumption, how can we make the necessary investments in low-carbon energy that will take decades to pay back? </p> <p> c) confidence in collective action </p> <p> Let&#39;s assume we can get round the first two problems in this section – the lack of real interest in remote people in time or place and the individual&#39;s high discount rate. We still have a huge issue to face. For climate change policies to work, they have to be pursued for generations on end. The rich seams of coal underneath our feet will have to stay unburnt for ever for our climate change mitigation policies to work, even though the fuel is cheap to extract and burn. If we sacrifice our standard of living today by, for example, agreeing to the development of expensive offshore wind power, what reason do we really have to believe that future generations won&#39;t ignore our generosity and simply revert to fossil fuels? Many of us will have doubts about the continuing commitment of people in the future. Trust in the sensible actions of people in a hundred years time to productively continue our sacrifices will not be widespread. </p> <p> Capitalist and quasi-capitalist societies like China, have productively used selfish individualism to bring about economic progress. As is now well known, this appears to have brought about a widespread decline in what is loosely called &#39;trust&#39;. By trust, we seem to me faith that others will hold to promises and reciprocate generosity. Unfortunately it therefore seems that liberal individualism may well have made long-term collective action (where we need to trust in the sacrifices of generations to come) less rather than more likely. </p> <p> <strong>Hope in correlation and causation?</strong> </p> <p> I often find the picture I have tried to paint a deeply depressing one. Action on climate change seems to me to run counter to many of the most powerful currents in liberal societies around the world, particularly those run or guided by economists. No doubt they think they are being helpful, but their relentless focus on financial costs and benefits disrupts the gradual building up of a social consensus on what to do about climate change. </p> <p> If I had to guess whether humankind could possibly ever agree to take substantive action on climate change if the worst effects only really began in a hundred years time, I would be pessimistic. We would have to rely not on economics or even traditional moral arguments, which have all the weaknesses I have tried to identify above, but on what is essentially a religious faith – a view that <a href=";dq=arne+naess+bibliography&amp;printsec=frontcover&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=1LbKe4NpBF&amp;sig=LhL4g3uYcep_n30X2gmpLLidoME&amp;hl=en&amp;ei=vlsRSrSlJNKNjAfgmNCmBg&amp;sa=X&amp;oi=book_result&amp;ct=result&amp;resnum=9">respect for the Earth</a> demands that we allow it to stay largely as it is. There&#39;s no doubt that this is an important force in human thinking, even among people without conventional theism. After all, we do all seem to care a lot about a few thousand polar bears of no direct economic value. But I strongly doubt whether the quasi-religious strand in our thinking is powerful enough to get us to take the really radical actions that we need. </p> <p> The lessons from the near-breakdown of the financial system are unpalatably obvious. Many people knew that the potential for catastrophe was high. &#39;In a recent paper Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability, showed how little banks understood of the risks they were supposed to manage. He ascribes these failures to “disaster myopia” (the tendency to underestimate risks), a lack of awareness of “network externalities” (spillovers from one institution to the others) and “misaligned incentives” (the upside to employees and the downside to shareholders and taxpayers)&#39; (<a href="">Martin Wolf in the FT, March 8 2009</a>). These three systemic problems mirror many of the problems I have been talking about in this article. The threat of climate change seems to be producing disaster myopia at least as great as in the City of London even as the edifice of risk grew increasingly unstable. The misalignment of incentives is equally clear. For each one of us it is supremely rational to use as much fossil fuel energy as we can. The impact will be felt not by us but by future generations who have no voice in our decisions. For the &#39;network externalities&#39; read possible tipping points that rapidly amplify warming trends. For global warming alarmists – still a minority of climate scientists but gradually increasing in number – the financial breakdown is a perfect rehearsal for might happen to our climate. </p> <p> I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note. Paradoxically, the primary reason for hope is that the deleterious impacts of climate change are already apparently visible. Drought in China, Australia, Spain and the western US may or may not be due to global warming. But humankind has another important psychological flaw – a tendency to think that coincident events are causally related. People will often believe that today&#39;s extreme weather events are caused by climate change. This is very useful to those to those who push for concerted action soon. You are much more likely to argue for change if you believe that you can already see the possible effect on your family. Increasingly severe fires in the western US may have more to do with forest management practices than climate change, but politicians can use these disasters to impel faster changes in policy. The earlier the symptoms of global warming begin to affect powerful and rich individuals in the prosperous countries of the world, the more likely we are to see real action. The cynic might almost hope for some nasty disasters as soon as possible. Without them, we seem to be unlikely to see any meaningful political action while there is still time. </p> openEconomy openEconomy Science Climate change Chris Goodall Creative Commons normal environment email Mon, 18 May 2009 15:45:53 +0000 Chris Goodall 47997 at