Thursday 25 September 2014

On climate change, rainforests and saving the oceans

Climate change seems to have become a major concern, if not the major concern, of our time, for many in the West at least, in spite of the competing furies of war, terrorism, disease and the continued hunger of so many in poorer parts of the world (not to mention those in need of aid in our own backyards!) Is this because the others are familiar horrors, and familiarity breeds contempt? Is it the scaremongering that leads us to believe that if we don’t DO SOMETHING immediately the climate will go on and on getting warmer until we can’t live on the planet? – this seems to be a very real fear for many.

As readers of this blog will know, I am not all that convinced by the case for anthropogenic warming. The world has been much warmer than it is today, before humans ever arrived on the scene, never mind before they began burning fossil fuels. Cows emit methane, a much more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the Ice Age plains of Europe were full of their ancient relatives. But on the other hand, it is clearly true that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the oceans are very high, probably the highest they have been for many millennia, and whether or not this has caused the relatively modest warming we have experienced over the past century or two, it is likely to be significant for the overall climate trend of the planet. However, I think we are concentrating far too much on reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide, which will only slow down the rise in CO2 levels, and not enough on reduction of the CO2 that is actually present.

The Earth has a very good balancing mechanism of its own, which works well if we don’t interfere with it. What is not much discussed, however, in comparison with reduction in CO2 emissions, is the way in which we are wrecking the Earth’s own carbon-reduction system. The rainforests (which are sometimes recognised in public debate as in need of protection) and the oceans (which seldom are) both play their part. It is fairly well known that the rainforests take in CO2 through their leaves, as part of the process by which they make food for themselves, and of course they also very usefully give out oxygen. A carbon-rich atmosphere should encourage them to grow well, which is itself part of the Earth’s climatic balancing system. I think we may just have learned the lesson that it makes no sense to cut down rainforests (which are long-term environmental investments by the Earth and which cannot be replaced quickly) in order to plant biofuel plants. I don’t seem to have heard much about that lately – and you can run cars on waste products from fish and chip shops, apparently, so I would hope that this madness has now ceased. But the rainforests still need much more protection from the rich(er) West because most of them are situated in tropical countries which have less other resources. We can do far more than we are doing in this regard.

Even more urgent, however, is proper protection of the oceans as an environment, because they too are a major sink for dissolved carbon dioxide. The fact that CO2 levels in the sea are so high at present means that the sea cannot absorb any CO2 from the atmosphere, as it normally would. It is effectively saturated. This may be partly because of the high levels in the atmosphere, but I think it may also involve some change in the numbers or behaviour of the plankton that do the absorbing. However that may be (and you only have to read the hotly debated issues in the scientific and pseudo-scientific press to know that no one has all the answers!), when I read that a recent survey of the ocean surface has calculated that across the globe, around 40 per cent of the surface is affected by human litter, much of it from ocean-going ships of various kinds, I almost despair. How long will it take us to give as much attention to our precious marine treasures as we do to galloping carbon dioxide emissions or (to a lesser extent) to the rainforests. All pollution is a serious matter, because the Earth can only deal with so much. If we want a healthy planet to live on we must look after all its elements, quite apart from the scenic beauty that surrounds us.

I think we are right to be watchful about rising temperatures. There are tipping points either way which can prevent the Earth from rebalancing the climate quickly (though so far it has always managed it in the end, over millions of years). But climate change can be caused by many different factors, of which carbon dioxide levels are only one, and quite possibly a small one at that. In any case, if we are really concerned about these levels then to neglect any part of the Earth’s own system for removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere seems a form of collective madness. Sadly, we humans seem rather prone to that – once an idea has taken root, we can be blind to others even when they are related to it, if they are related at a tangent. Maybe it is a kind of protective blinkering. After all, ‘human beings cannot bear very much reality.’ For most of the time, most of us do not sail the oceans, and so the reality of marine pollution is hidden from us. But it is real, and it is increasing from an already high level. To clean up the oceans must be a positive thing to do – but like the atmosphere we all own it, and must work together to look after it. History suggests that this is the task that human beings find most difficult. In order to do it, we have to have a sense of belonging together. But that’s the subject of another posting, another day!

Monday 15 September 2014

Disenfranchisement and the Scottish Referendum

Two blog posts within a week! My readers will never recover from the shock. But this is urgent, because the Scottish referendum is almost upon us. So here goes.

It occurs to me to wonder how democratic this Scottish referendum really is, as I’ve thought further about the implications of what the Scottish Parliament has set in motion. You are entitled to vote if you are a UK citizen (and certain other groups) resident in Scotland. There is a provision for people who are out of the country at the time of the referendum, but none at all for those who were born in Scotland but are resident elsewhere in the UK. Yet these folk (I know a number of them personally) self-identify as Scottish quite specifically, and would be horrified to think of themselves being classed as English (or Welsh or Northern Irish, too, I daresay, but they would hate the English classification most). Indeed, the thought is quite ridiculous. These people are Scottish first, and British second, and take great pride in their Scottish heritage. Yet they are not permitted to vote in this referendum that may in fact, if the vote is Yes, strip them of their Scottish citizenship permanently.

It makes perfectly good sense for the electors to the Scottish Parliament to be elected by those who live in Scotland, as they will be the people whose lives that Parliament will affect by its policies. But when it comes to independence, and splitting off completely and permanently from the rest of the United Kingdom, it is a very different matter. Since Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for many centuries, most Scots who are resident in the rest of the UK have done nothing but engage in simple labour mobility – they have gone where their work takes them. Their leaving Scotland implies no rejection of their Scottish heritage or sense of belonging there. Most could have had no idea that during the period of their exile the Scottish Parliament would demand and be granted a referendum on Scottish independence in which which they would not be entitled to vote. If ever there was disenfranchisement, this is it. Of course it may not be pure coincidence that this disenfranchisement directly affects the likelihood of a Yes vote. Those who have always seen the UK as a whole, and have lived in other parts of it outside Scotland, would, I suggest, be far more likely to vote No than those who have stayed within the country, and far less likely to appreciate Scottish Nationalism. How significant is this? Is this disenfranchisement of patently Scots people of many generations’ standing an accident? And it does seem strange that there has been little comment upon it, as though not many (apart from the Scots affected, presumably) have considered it.

Worse still, if the vote is Yes, those Scots people will, unless they abandon their careers forthwith and scramble back into Scotland before independence is finally declared, be permanently deprived of citizenship in the country to which they belong, and to which their families have belonged, the vast majority for many centuries. How can this be just? What will they then be – English? Welsh? according to the country they happen to be living in (this wouldn’t automatically qualify you to play for England at cricket or football, or represent a country at the Commonwealth Games, for example), or will they be left only with Britishness? I think some Scots have started to think about this – a letter or two about it has appeared in the newspapers – but it is something that should really have been considered long ago, before a referendum was agreed to by our foolish Coalition government. No wonder the Queen has advised the Scots to think very carefully. Above politics she may be, and unwilling to get involved on either side (quite rightly, as a constitutional monarch). But there is a coded message there. She knows it would be a mistake to tear the Union apart without very careful thought. I just hope the Scots who are entitled to vote will heed her advice.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Don't leave us, Scotland!

No one in the UK – or, for all I know, elsewhere in the world, can avoid knowing that the Scots appear to be (if the polls be believed) seriously thinking of leaving the United Kingdom. What seemed to me, and I think to the Better Together team too, a remote possibility when the referendum was first mooted, looks now to be what Wellington might have called “a damned close run thing”. God grant that we can look back at it as Wellington did at the Battle of Waterloo, and not with the chagrin of his opponent Napoleon Bonaparte.The very thought of having border controls between us makes me feel quite upset. I remember a few years ago travelling up that wonderful high road that takes you through the Cheviots into Lothian, where you come up to the sign that says ‘Scotland’ and the whole landscape changes as you pass over the geological join between England and its neighbour that was tacked on millions of years ago. Will we have to show our passports next time we go?

I count myself as English, when I think about it at all – and born and brought up in England, too, though there’s very little Anglo-Saxon English in me, when all’s said and done: I’m a nice amalgam of Celt, Viking and Scot – more Celt than anything else, probably, on my father’s side (his family came from Devon originally though our most famous member is renowned as the Bard of Bath); my mother’s family came from the north-east, where there are more Norse descendants than Saxon ones, and her grandmother was a lowland Scot. I don’t know of any Welsh ancestors, but the West Country celts are closely related, historically. And this mixture is very typical of those of us who are ‘English’. We don’t say much about our Englishness, for fear of offending the Scots, Welsh and Ulster folk, and we are a polyglot crew, it has to be said. So the idea of Scotland becoming independent ought not to worry us too much. If they do decide to vote that way, they will be bringing themselves all kinds of problems, economic and otherwise, I suspect – as Better Together keep telling them and Yes Scotland keep denying. Perhaps the only way to know for certain is to try it out; but what a gamble. However, we non-Scots don’t have a vote, so why worry? In a sense it isn’t our problem.

But in another sense it is. Not only will the loss of Scotland as a piece of national heritage be a terrible one – so many of our British heroes and heroines originated there (not least modern ones such as Andy Murray), but there will be a terrible rending politically, socially and economically if a piece of this integral structure we call the United Kingdom is torn off.  It will be an open wound for decades, and very slow to heal. There will be grief, trauma and economic struggle for both sides. And for what? Scottish pride, which they could have anyway – and always have had? The ability to make their own decisions, and be free of Westminster? They already have considerable powers, and the British government seem willing to concede more, if they decide to stay. Do they really want complete responsibility for everything, including defence? We have already seen how complex disentangling governance institutions will be if independence comes, not to mention the pound (one of the largest economic reasons to stay). Can this really be in the best interests of the Scots themselves, never mind the rest of us?

I have to admit I really can’t understand how Salmond has persuaded even 40 per cent of the Scots that it might be a good, or even viable option to leave the United Kingdom – and I must say I resent the suggestion that they might evict the Queen. Salmond is a clever politician, and a personable one, as well – I met him once, on a train travelling between London and Edinburgh, in the early 1990s, and liked him, though at the time I hadn’t a clue who he was, as he identified himself only as a nationalist politician; I only recognised him later from a newspaper photograph. But he was very persuasive, even then.

However, it doesn’t matter what I think (as any readers of this blog will no doubt themselves be saying at this point). We in the rest of the UK don’t have any say in the matter, although the outcome will affect us almost as much as it will the Scots themselves. So I can only say, sincerely: Scotland, please don’t leave us! We need you. We love you and your people because YOU ARE PART OF