Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: January, 2014

Why do we all turn to stone in the face of the climate change debate?

The ancient civilisation of Easter Island almost died out sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when it ran out of trees. “ What on earth could they have been thinking of “ Jared Diamond asks in his book ‘Collapse’, “when they cut down the last tree?”

This was an intelligent community, famous for building a series of stone statutes that fascinate anthropologists to this day. They must have seen this problem coming  as deforestation continued apace. Perhaps, Diamond suggests, it crept up on them slowly and imperceptibly and that no one was prepared to take a stand until it was too late?

I was reminded of the story on Saturday listening to Mike Berners-Lee address the Hexham Debate on the subject of global warming. His book, ‘The Burning Question’. co-authored with Duncan Clark, is a disturbing  read without a happy ending.

The few readers who deny the link between global warming and carbon emissions will already have moved on to the business and culture pages. Make no mistake; the scientific community is unequivocally of the view that extreme weather is linked to rising temperature around the world due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Ask anyone living on the Somerset Levels this past weekend, where there has been a ‘major incident’ following further rainfall.

Readers still on this page should reflect on why we  do not get more worked up about the continuing  increase in carbon energy use that  rises at 1.8% a year despite all the recent attention to global warming. Nothing is changing. The upward exponential curve continues.

I had not realised that the coal, oil and gas companies already hold more than enough reserves to kill the plant. Their balance sheets  show  reserves ready for excavation of   2795 gigatonnes  worth well over $10trilion.  They spent $674billion in 2012 in research and exploration for new reserves and a further $1billion on lobbying and political donations.

Now here comes the maths. The scientific community’s best estimate is that global warming must be kept to 2 per cent celsius. In fact, even this  figure now looks highly risky; one campaigner calls it a “prescription for disaster”. To have an fifty per cent  chance of keeping temperature below the two degree target, we must limit future carbon emissions to  565 gigatonnes. Beyond 2 per cent,, the so called ‘tipping point’, serious discontinuities in climate are predicted.

As Bill McKibben writes” We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think it is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 % of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.  Before we knew those numbers, our fate had seemed likely. Now barring some massive intervention, it seems certain” ( read his article at )

We kid ourselves in thinking that installing solar panels and tolerating wind farms that will make everything alright. Alternative forms of energy, only contribute a small of our current energy use. Carbon emissions need to fall rapidly as well. There is no avoiding the need to change our lifestyle.

In the same way  that the Easter islanders depended on trees to build their homes, construct their canoes and cook their food, we depend on carbon based fuels for heating, transportation and to manufacture the conveniences that run our homes. The history of civilisation is of increasingly heavy use of energy – the equivalent these days of everyone employing 100 servants. How would we manage our lives without such luxuriant amounts of energy?

At what some considered the most important gathering since the second world war, at Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders agreed that deep cuts in global emissions were required. But the Copenhagen  conference failed to agree measures to cut carbon emissions and there has been no further progress.

The trouble is that everyone needs to agree to take a cut and then keep their promises.  There are some awkward questions in working out who should bear the brunt or how economies like the United States and China, which between them account for 40% of world emissions, can be brought into line. Any form of binding international agreement is difficult in the extreme.

Most politicians shy away from  domestic measures that would increase the price of fuel. They are loathe to take steps that might hold back economic growth – even though the influential Stern report showed that the threat to our economic future is far greater if we do not tackle climate change. There is not yet any political groundswell to tackle rising temperatures.

It is also fanciful to place too much hope in a  science fiction solution like pouring iron filings into the sea to absorb carbon or shielding  the earth from the sun’s rays. But as Mike Berners-Lee pointed out, if the massive sums spent on exploring for oil were turned to finding ways of extracting  the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels instead, we might find a way out of our dilemma.

So why isn’t there a greater sense of urgency about tackling climate change? It is  just too abstract, too complex and too big a problem to get our minds around. There are powerful vested interests. We are too comfortable with our lifestyle and unduly worried by the thought of a faltering economy. We appear blasé about a problem that will hit our children and grandchildren in twenty years time.

We could all ‘do our bit’ by adopting alternative energy sources, cutting back on air travel  and coming to terms with wind farms. More importantly, we should take every opportunity to make clear to anyone without political clout or influence in the media, that climate change must return to the top of the agenda. Otherwise  we will be forever seen by the anthropologists of the future as a selfish and short sighted generation  alongside the tree fellers of Easter Island.

At the next Hexham debate on Saturday 8th February, 11am Andrew Feinstein  will describe the secretive world of the global arms trade.

I much prefer you tears to your ignorance, Mr Duncan Smith

My heart sank when I heard that Iain Duncan Smith had refused the meet the people organising food banks. Twelve years ago, is a much published visit to the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow, Duncan Smith reportedly nearly cried at the conditions he saw there. I urge him and his colleagues to take a large handkerchief and risk some tears again.

He refused to meet the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which develops and support the  food banks around the country,  because they had a political agenda. Food banks gave out parcels to a staggering 700,000 people last year. 114 new food banks were set up  taking the total to 408.

The Conservative party denies that that the growth in food banks is due to changes in welfare benefits and point out that there were food banks around under Labour. IDS accused the Trussell Trust of “political scaremongering.” As I have argued in this column before, food banks are all about the politics of welfare and it is a strange for a politician to duck a political debate.

It has not been a good week for the Work and Pensions Secretary. He is said to have fallen out with the Cabinet Office over the costs and complication of the computer system required to introduce the universal benefit scheme. His  mind is  set on the goal of welfare reform to the exclusion of the pain it is already causing people all over the country and the difficulties of eventually running the scheme.

In what feels like the run up to a general election still 17 months away, the Coalition needs to temper its conviction with compassion. Government ministers all need to be issued with handkerchiefs and sent out to see what is happening around the country.

George Osborne ventured  to the West Midlands last week to deliver a much trailed speech about the need for further belt tightening. He announced government spending  cuts of £25b a year continuing beyond the general election. The job of reducing the deficit, he said, is “not yet half done”.

The Chancellor thought that at least £12bn could be saved from the welfare budget   from those returning to work but his figures were quickly discredited by the Institute of Fiscal Studies who showed that only £1bn was likely to be achieved in this way.

The Institute had performed a similar hatchet job after the Chancellor’s Autumn statement showing that future cuts would take government spending  as a share of national income to the lowest level since records began in 1948. This may still fall short of austerity imposed in Greece or Spain but is it too high a price to pay?

 In the last week alone, the Journal has carried stories about further cuts to Northumbrian Police and the threatened closure of Sure Start centres in Gateshead. There may be an ideological drive to do away with local state but does anyone in government realise what this actually means in terms of services to those in need?.

In the North East, the scale of cuts is greater than in other parts of the country. Yet the Journal reveals that Conservative  ministers including Theresa May, Michael Gove and Phillip Hammond, have failed to visit the region. North East authorities lose another £68m this year and a projected £60m in 2015.    Households in Newcastle lose £115 each whilst those in Surrey gain £51. There no longer seems to any attempt to bias government spending towards  the poorest communities. 

It was at first sight remarkable that the Prime Minister’s contribution to political debate last week was to assert that pension increases were sacrosanct. Those  of pension age, of whom I will shortly be one, are guaranteed annual increases according to the ‘triple lock’ formula.On another day and in another climate, there is an argument to be made that the low level of pensions is a scandal, but this is not the time to do so.

David Cameron has also given assurances that  the fringe benefits of winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and television licenses will continue. Anyone boarding a bus just after  9.30am will know how many  older people enjoy a day out thanks to the bus pass. But given the scale of cuts the government proposes, is it fair for pensioners to escape their share of the pain and for these allowances to remain?

Perhaps the Prime Minister is already casting an eye to the next election where the grey vote will be all important? Even if there is increasing disaffection in voting among younger generations, pensioners continue turn up at the ballot box and so must be mollycoddled.

This is a government  with too firm an idea of the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor; an idea that was discredited with the poor law reforms  over 100 years ago though still paraded most days in the pages of the Daily Mail.

George Osborne offers jam tomorrow in the form of tax cuts as the reward for several more years of public spending savings. A hike in the minimum wage, now at its lowest level in real terms for 9 years, would actually be a better idea.  Osborne must  believe that lower levels of taxation will win the next election for the Conservative party.

In the remaining months of this parliament, we have the chance to say that enough is enough. Cuts must be moderated and the deficit funded through, wait for it, increased taxation instead. The Labour Party  needs to be bold enough to take a stand on maintaining public  services and  funding them  through taxation.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” according to Mahatma Ghandi.  The Conservative Party will not score highly on this criteria and  hangs on to the belief that that most of us prefer to look after number one.  Over the next year, politicians would be well advised to get out  more.  

 George Hepburn