Climate Change Scepticism

I was struck at work this week at the mountain still to be climbed with regard to energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions.  For some reason the conversation came round to company cars and tax, and the comment that there are two hybrid cars in the Company – the belief was that there is a good chance that they were bought purely for tax reasons.  There then came the comment that the emissions from a Prius included a high degree of smugness.  This was  followed by a general level of guffawing from the self-proclaimed climate change sceptics in the room.  In fact, they seemed rather smug about the fact that they were sceptical about climate change.

I tried to point out that climate change is not necessarily the issue, that wastefulness, loss of resources and biodiversity is the issue – particularly for those in the room with young children.  The answer was that they would be able to watch the now extinct butterflies on a lovely big flat screen television.  Apart from thinking that was a pretty pathetic and blinkered response (not to mention that televisions require resources to make and run), I started to imagine a world where the only interaction we had with nature was through videos of long dead species and then I shuddered.

The real problem is that in addition to the lack of  appreciation of the effect we are having on our environment, I am not sure we have it in our power to change these attitudes.

Waste – who is responsible?

There was an article in Business Green today which stated that leading retailers have grouped together to ask the government for new policy to ‘encourage firms to design out packaging’.

This raised a number of questions in my mind.  Firstly, who holds the key to the use of packaging?  Is it government – I don’t think so.  It is consumers, and, as we only buy what is available, then, surely retailers hold the trump card – reduce the packaging or we won’t stock your product.  Waitrose have recently moved to biodegradeable and recycled packaging, Amazon publicly stated it was going to reduce its packaging, so, surely there is good publicity to be had if these retailers move to reduce packaging rather than asking the government to make it happen.

Secondly, where do the Government’s priorities lie?  They have recently announced a review of the UK waste policy, details of the remit are yet to be announced, but they are concentrating on increasing recycling rates – because they look good, and have scrapped ideas about a pay as you throw tax, because that would be unpopular.  After all, who benefits economically from reducing waste – no one makes anything in this country, but recycling, well, that creates good headlines and, jobs in this country.  Or am I getting more cynical in my old age?

The obvious answer is to reduce packaging as it uses precious resources, including water, but the initiative should come from retailers and consumers, not from government.  This would also have the added benefit of reducing litter – a huge bugbear of mine which I think we need to tackle, not just ignore.

A word about the BP and oil.

Despite trying to earn my environmentalist stripes, I admit to not following the events of the coast of Louisiana too closely.  It is not because I don’t think it is important, but more because I think its potential importance is largely being missed, certainly by the traditional media.

Firstly, it is not the worst oil-related disaster, whilst it has apparently leaked about twice the amount of oil as the Exxon Valdez oil spill which I remember watching news coverage of as a teenager, (oh for the days of John Craven’s newsround) the Exxon Valdez is still considered a relatively small oil spill.  However, from an ecological point of view any spill has to be a potential disaster.  Not only is there the problem of the oil to deal with, and the area over which the aforementioned dealing has to happen, there is also the effect of the burning of the oil and the residuals from the dispersants to deal with.  All in all I am sure that most people (even the manufacturers of the dispersants) would agree, it is not a good thing.

There is a lot of blame being levelled at BP, and, rightly so.  It would appear that they did not include such an incident in their risk planning – but then, with the deafening silence from the other oil companies, other than we will help if we can and we should make sure this never happens again, one can assume that it was not in the risk planning of any of the oil companies.  It is just a stroke of luck for them that it happened to BP first.

A lot of the adverse publicity seems to be emanating from the American government – but they do not appear to have any better ideas either, and, I assume that they have profited from the jobs and licenses that result from the deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

My main point, which I am eventually getting to, is that if we are blaming BP for drilling, and we are blaming the American government for its inaction (which apparently some Americans are), then why are we not blaming ourselves?  We bitch and moan about the price of petrol and the excessive profits that the oil companies make, but we can do something about it.  We can stop buying as much fuel, we can stop insisting that our pensions are worth more every year, we can demand that we pay more for our fuel and that some of the revenue is used to undertake deep sea research to stop disasters on this scale occurring.  But we won’t, we will carry on regardless, watch the pictures on the TV and then hop in the car to run an errand.

Perhaps it is time the true cost of oil related products was revealed, and we started to think about whether we think the environmental devastation that comes with any sort of extraction of natural resources is a price worth paying.

How to lead a more simple life….

A three part series has just come to an end on BBC2.  The series was presented by Peter Owen Jones, an Anglican vicar who tried to reduce his dependence on money and ‘stuff’.  During this time he tried self sufficiency, managing without money and making his way from his Sussex parish to North Devon depending on the benevolence of complete strangers for food and shelter.  His inspiration in this was St Francis of Assisi, his quest was to find out if living a more simple life would make him happier.

There have been some criticisms of this, many justified; is it easier to live without money if you have some, the presence of a camera crew may have made people more generous etc.  But, to me, the central messages of the series are pertinent to modern day life.

Firstly, the acquisition of money seems to be a way of reducing reliance on others, building up barriers so we can separate ourselves from other  people – we can just buy things or services from anonymous people and anonymous companies.  There is no need to bother building a relationship with people, having a relationship with money is easier.

Money is also self-defeating to some extent, or, rather the pursuit of money is.  Once we get past a certain point where we have enough to live comfortably; put food on the table, pay the bills, what do we want more money for?  In part it is (hopefully) for insurance for old age, but, more often it is to buy more.  Buy more cars, buy more things, buy a bigger house to put them in etc.  Then, we need more money, because there are other things we need more of.  When do we stop and ask whether we need these things, or even really want them.  There are very few people who do not have things in their house that they don’t use or wear, or that someone else bought for them, because they had to get them something, but ‘they already had everything they needed’.

Finally, by working to pay ever increasing bills, we are rushing round, not stopping to see what is there, all around us, and, more importantly, getting stuck in a rut, not finding out what we are really capable of.  Whether this is painting, gardening or even just listening, there are many of us who don’t take the time to find out what we can do.

So, did Peter Owen Jones successfully live without money, did a simple life make him happier?  I think the answer to both is yes.  In the end, the system beat him, he has to have a car due to the fact that he is vicar to three rural parishes, and car insurance is not something he can trade his time for.  But, admitting that in modern times it will be necessary to have some money, then I think he did quite well.  However, when he finally did get his wallet back I was surprised to see him struggling to not make spontaneous purchases of stuff!  Oh, and he did seem to have found a way to make his life more meaningful, and consequently happier – by spending time with parishioners, swapping his time for whatever they wanted to give – surely that is the way it should be if they value the service he offers?

So, what are my thoughts about Peter Owen Jones’ experiment?  I think it was an admirable experiment, that, whilst it would not work completely for everyone, certainly has something to offer to all.  It’s message certainly resonates with me.  We can all live with less, without the hankering for more.  Over the last few years I have bought less and less, Waitrose and books from Amazon being my main indulgence.  Not only does this give me more financial security, it means I throw less away, and, I have more time.  In that time I have discovered new hobbies – blogging for one, made new friends – at Tai Chi and a local camera club, and learned a lot more – through distance learning, internet resources and good, old fashioned reading.

I am at the point now where I don’t want more stuff, only more time.  As the saying goes, the best things in life are free (written whilst listening to bird song and watching the sun go down).  Maybe if we all tried to slow down and live a more simple life we could reduce society’s dependence on outside addictions including anti-depressants?

Fish & Chip Shop Dilemma

We all know that fish stocks are declining, but we are told that we should eat two portions of fish per week, and most of us indulge in the (hopefully) occasional fish and chip supper – so are our food habits compatible with living an ethical lifestyle?  In the second post trying to unravel the tangle that is the topic of sustainable fish I examine whether cod and haddock are OK to eat with a clear conscience.

Let’s deal with the easy bit first – unless you know where you local chippy is sourcing its fish from then, I am afraid, that the answer is a definite no.  I believe that there are fish and chip shops that do advertise the origin of their fish – but none of these are in Daventry.  If you can’t live without your take away, then I would suggest that haddock is a better choice than cod, but your conscience will still find you.

And so to the sustainability of cod and haddock.  Stocks of both have been overfished and in many areas continue to be so.  According to Greenpeace, most cod fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic are in poor condition, except for Iceland and the Barents Sea where there is better management.  All stocks are however, ‘overfished or at risk of being unsustainably harvested’.  Haddock has had a similar history, but there is a little more hope.  Northwest Atlantic stocks were overfished in US waters until the middle of the 1990s, but since then there has been some recovery.  Scientists now believe that some North Sea stocks can be fished sustainably, whilst West of Ireland and Icelandic fisheries need better management.  They are also recommending the closure of the fisheries of the West of Scotland.  A further complication arises from the fact that cod are also caught when fishing for haddock.

So, it would seem that maybe you can eat an occasional piece of cod or haddock with a clear conscience, but, as ever, it comes with a caveat.  It also matters how your fish is caught.  In common with lots of fish that live near the sea bed, a lot of cod and haddock is caught by bottom trawling.  Not only does trawling result in a large bycatch (typically 30% of the catch by weight is thrown back dead or dying – these are mammals, juvenile fish, turtles and sharks) but it also damages the sea bed.  Instead Greenpeace are recommending buying only line-caught fish – this is a more selective fishing method without the associated bycatch and the degradation of the seabed.

According to Greenpeace Atlantic cod and haddock should both be avoided unless the cod is from Waitrose or Marks and Spencer or is line caught or the haddock is Icelandic line caught.  But wait a minute, didn’t the scientists say that the Icelandic haddock fisheries need better management – they certainly did, and that all stocks are at risk from overfishing?  Does this help – I am not sure.  What makes Waitrose and M&S fish so special?  A look at Waitrose’s website and my local branch’s fish counter shows that the haddock and cod is indeed Icelandic and line caught, and this includes their prepacked breaded range.  M&S’s website leaves me with more questions than answers though.  Although M&S now source their cod and haddock from Iceland, their website states that the fish is air-freighted in – how is that sustainable?  Their cod is line caught, but, apparently the haddock is trawled or line-caught, and smaller haddock are caught from the west coast of Scotland.  This seems to go against the Greenpeace guidelines – maybe they just need to update their website?  I hope so – as it makes me start to question the validity of Greenpeace’s advice.

My take on cod and haddock?  Both are under pressure, fishing methods need to be changed to reduce the amount taken from the sea, and, we have to pay a little more, eat and waste a lot less and hopefully fish stocks may recover.   Will I eat cod and haddock again?  Probably, in the future, eventually, but I don’t need to eat fish more than every other month and I will insist on it being line caught.  In the meantime I will stick to my pole and line caught, Waitrose own brand, tinned tuna.

Thoughts about Copenhagen and Kyoto.

Copenhagen left me puzzled, not by the lack of agreements from the parties involved, but by my own ambivalence towards the whole thing.  After all, I am supposed to be an environmentalist, I should have been avidly following all the reports, debating the successes (if there had been any) and failures.  In truth, I paid no attention to it, yes, I read some of the pre-meeting reporting, added a tck tck tck ribbon to my Twitter image, agreed that time was running out and we needed an international resolution, but I didn’t actually think that anything would happen there.

In the meantime I have just finished reading a book (Why We Disagree About Climate Change) which has helped me to clarify my thoughts about Copenhagen.  The basis of the book is that everyone has different priorities in life, and perceive the risk of Climate Change differently depending on their circumstances, nothing that is not obvious there.  However, one of the later chapters talks about how the idea of an all encompassing agreement at Copenhagen was flawed and was never going to happen.  Climate Change has now been altered from a physical manifestation into something more, it is linked to world poverty, economic development and even to religious beliefs.  With so many facets to the problem (a so-called ‘dirty problem’) how will we find one solution, a magic silver bullet that will fix everything.  The plain answer is that we won’t and, while we are convinced that we will (i.e. we will get  an extension to Kyoto) we will stop looking at the solutions to the parts of the problem that we can fix.  OK, they may not be the ultimate best answer, but making some progress until something better comes along is surely better than waiting for a solution that may never come.

For example, why was deforestation under discussion?  Surely most people believe that it is wrong, so why wasn’t an agreement made by the interested parties, does someone in Iceland have to agree about rainforest destruction?  I am sure they agree that it is bad, but put it in with something they don’t agree with and they will vote against.

I have come to the conclusion that I, personally, if I am honest, don’t care about climate change.  Any changes to be seen in my lifetime are likely to be already set in motion, I don’t have children and therefore have no future generations to directly care about.  I do, however, care about other things that are affected by or do affect climate change.  I care about needless waste, lack of energy resources, reduced levels of oil available for the important things because we have wasted lots for electricity and transport, loss of biodiversity, lack of water, lack of available education and the fact that there are just too many people on this planet to consume as much resource as we do, but climate change – not really.  Start to look at solving these problems individually and then we will solve the problem that we perceive to be climate change and, if not, we will still be making the world a better place.

Baby Steps

Today is Blog Action Day, the theme this year is Climate Change, influenced no doubt by the upcoming Copenhagen summit.  These days it is hard to go through an entire day without finding a reference to Climate Change or Energy Saving, the Energy Saving Trust even has an annoying advert on the television.  I am not sure how much all of the reminders and the small snippets that appear on the news will make a difference.  I think there are two major problems; firstly people get bored with hearing about how we are all doomed, there is often the feeling that there are enough things to think about in life as it is, why worry about climate change when there is nothing we can do about it anyway?  It is everyone else that is causing the problem, besides, the worst will happen elsewhere in the world, and probably not in my lifetime.

Then we come to the second problem: what can you do about it that will make a difference?  There is so much information out there, some of it conflicting, that it can be difficult to know where to start and who to believe, no matter which level you are at in terms of ‘green-ness’ it can be confusing.  It is probably easier to not bother yet, better wait until more information is out there, until the ‘experts’ make their minds up.

The problem is, time is ticking and we all have a responsibility, why waste resources when it is just as easy not to, why waste money just because it is too much effort to turn a light out when leaving a room?  If you can make the changes at home then take these good and virtuous habits to work – your example can make a difference, I have seen it happen.

So what practical changes can you make?  How long have you got?  Everything you use, whether it is energy, water, fuel, food, resources such as paper, they are all, to some extent, finite, we can’t replace them all at the same rate that we are using them, and the planet cannot absorb all of our activities as they currently stand.

Firstly, energy.  Turn lights off, don’t leave things on standby, only leave your mobile etc plugged in for as long as it takes to charge (you’d be amazed at how many people leave them in overnight – they don’t stop drawing power because the battery is fully charged), turn your computer and monitor off when you leave work.  One of the best things you can do is to buy an energy monitor – they will help you find where energy is being wasted.  Want to think bigger – try switching energy supplier to one that uses renewables – they may not be the complete answer to our problem at the moment, but the more that is invested the bigger the improvements that will be made in the technology.

Water – old fact, but, 9 litres of water for every flush if you don’t have a dual flush toilet, put a bottle of water in the cistern to reduce the level down, save water and money at the same time.  Fit a water butt to your drainpipe to use for garden watering – they may look a bit unsightly, but, lets face it, so do satellite dishes, but most of us find somewhere to put one.  Don’t leave a sprinkler on your garden for hours – grass is hardy stuff, that’s why it is used for lawns, it doesn’t need constant watering and nobody else notices how green your lawn is!

Fuel – School run- why are there so many people dropping their children off?  Can’t they walk, I worry more about people being run over by someone on the school run than about other dangers facing children today.  How about just walking to work once a week for a change.  I would suggest public transport, but in Daventry, unless you are willing to set off 24 hours in advance it is a little pointless.  Planes – I love planes, I think they are a fantastic feat of engineering – but they are used too much and deliver their pollution to just the wrong place.  I can’t go on one again, maybe you can, but just one return transatlantic trip would double our household carbon footprint for the year (in terms of gas, electricity and transport) – I don’t think it is worth it.

Food – one of my major worries.  Why buy food only to throw it away?  There is a lot of talk in the press about food security and can Britain feed itself.  We probably can’t, we probably shouldn’t, our national income increased when we started trading with the world; there are some things that can be done better elsewhere.  But there are things we are good at growing, and, if we stopped throwing so much away we could grow all the staples that we need.  After all, the Romans didn’t invade us all those years ago because they were fed up of living somewhere dry and sunny!

Resources – whether it is paper in the office, packaging on our food, why is there so much that we are throwing away?  Admittedly the levels of recycling have grown massively, and Daventry District Council should be applauded for its household recycling (although, if you are a business, tough, you have to sort that out yourself), but wouldn’t it be better to just use less.  Does your broccoli really need a bag to make sure it gets home safely, does your Easter Egg need so much cardboard and plastic that your child could live in it?  I don’t think so.

So, what has this to do with Baby Steps?  If we all make a small change, one step at a time it will make a difference.  Then, if we make the next step, and the next step who knows what kind of change we can make?  There are so many resources out there if you need help.  If, as recently reported, the onset of power shortages has been put back by 3 -5 years because of the recession, an unintentional change in our habits, what can we do if we really try?

Why should I care?

This is a question that my green conscience devil has been asking from my left shoulder whilst my green conscience angel is sitting on my right shoulder urges me towards more environmentally friendly ways and puts causes such as the World Land Trust and the plight of bumble bees in front of me.  After all, I don’t have any children to leave the planet to, no one is likely to remember me when I am gone, and that is just fine.

He (I am assuming the devil is male) asked that question again this morning whilst I was listening to Farming Today.  There was an interview with a dairy farmer who was thinking of leaving the business after the price they were being paid for their milk was reduced by 3 1/2p per litre.  Over the last twelve months I have become increasingly concerned about the amount of food imported and the loss to the rural communities with the reduction in UK agriculture.  I therefore studiously gaze at labels in Waitrose before making a purchase, buy British whenever possible (bananas are not an option in the UK so I buy Fairtrade) and don’t buy imported produce just because it is out of season here.  Imagine my face when the lady in question admitted that when she bought cheese from the supermarket she didn’t look to see the country of origin!  For goodness sake, if I can spend time looking at labels when there is no direct effect on my livelihood I expect that those in the industry would do their bit to support themselves and their colleagues.    Hence my question, why should I care?

I had a discussion along similar lines with a work colleague today about air travel – I won’t see the worst of the effects of global warming, and I have no children, why am I trying to make a difference for his future generations.  I don’t know the answer, I just know that if there is a choice I need to do the right thing, whether that is buying local food, supporting good causes or not flying around the world.  I need to do the right thing whatever sphere it is in, because I have a choice whereas others around the world don’t.

I apologise if I am preaching, but if people directly affected don’t take the time to think about their actions, how are we going to persuade those who are not directly affected to change their actions, or at least think about them more?

Pig Business

Last night, encouraged by a myriad of twitters and tweets, I tuned in to watch Tracy Worcester’s ‘Pig Business‘, an exposé of the pig industry.

For those of you who did not see it, Pig Business was a relatively objective film highlighting the activities of Smithfield, one of the US‘s largest suppliers of meat, as it started up operations in Poland, where it has bought up a number of farms and meat processors in the post communist era.

The film concentrated on two main themes; surprisingly, animal welfare did not seem to rank as highly as the Industry’s impact on human health, or the loss of a traditional way of life for Poland’s many small farmers.

Human health issues were linked to the practice of spraying the pig excrement onto nearby fields from a series of lagoons, a method that is now banned for new facilities in the US due to the ill health suffered by nearby residents; needless to say there were similar complaints in Poland.

Predictably, the number of independent farmers was also on the decline, as they cannot compete with the sheer scale of the operations and were, in the main, not prepared to house their livestock in similar intensive conditions. An interesting point made by an American campaigner, suggested that this competitive edge would be seriously eroded if the intensive producers had to pay the full environmental cost of their operations; a point coming into sharper focus in most industries today.

On the lack of sentimentality I would like to applaud the film makers as many people are unconcerned by animal welfare standards or the resulting quality of the intensively raised food. As Tracy stated in the film, food has started to become a commodity: people are only interested in the cheapest price, and this is a point on which I can become quite agitated if drawn into a debate.

Over the last few months, and particularly during the European elections, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with eastern European immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs.

Why do people not equate their purchasing decisions, and the constant drive towards price reductions, with the loss of jobs in the UK? This film made it plain to me that it’s these same decisions that prevent the same immigrants from making a living at home, unemployment was very high: jobs in agriculture have plummeted to realise the efficiency gains needed to provide us with cheap food.

Why can we not accept that food should have a minimum cost, buy a little less, eat a little less, keep people in jobs, and enjoy better quality food. Paying more might make us think twice about throwing things away.

Capitalism is a double edged sword, and it is easy to blame everything on evil Corporations, but the truth less comforting: they have to sell what we as consumers will buy. If we change our behaviour we would surely all be winners? 

Energy Awareness at Work

One of the major problems highlighted as part of our energy audit was employee awareness of energy wastage.  This was obvious just on the walk around when the number of lights and computers left on was visible to anyone with their eyes open.  As a consequence, we were offered several one hour training sessions to try to raise the awareness of staff about the cost of leaving things switched on.  This was sold to us on the basis that most people, even advocates of energy saving, don’t even think about saving energy at work and are often unaware of just how much leaving some devices on standby could be costing.

So, I organised three sessions for all the employees on site that day, and was impressed to see that everyone did turn up for the sessions.  Only one person asked if they could miss it (I obviously said no as they are the biggest sceptic that I know and believe that climate change is just a government scare tactic to introduce more taxes).  I also (admittedly a bit belatedly) sent an email to other departments and sites inviting them to send someone over if they wanted (I had only one response, and everyone else ignored me) – this is obviously not currently a priority within the Company – although I believe this may be about to change with the requirements for the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC).

How did the training go?  Well, it was not the most dynamic of deliveries I have ever come across.  There were some interesting facts and figures about the cost of leaving appliances on standby, which did seem to be news to some people in the room, but other than that there did not seem to be very much content and certainly nothing that I thought would influence many people to change their habits.  There was also a large concentration of effort about the Carbon Reduction Commitment, despite my assurances that there really was nothing that I could do about it at my lowly level.  Maybe I was a little prejudiced though, because it wasn’t news to me, but apparently some people did not know that leaving their mobile on charge for longer than required was wasting money.

So, results of the training, no immediate effects were noticeable, although it did get some people talking about it.  I have since discovered that more warehouse staff are turning lights off as they leave the room (I discovered this second hand due to a comment from maintenance that they are having to replace more bulbs).  Most disappointing though is that people in the office are still leaving lights and IT equipment on – one of our biggest wastes of energy.  So, although it did not change the world, it was probably worthwhile as it did what it said on the tin and raised employee awareness with regards to energy usage – now it is up to me to start getting them into new, better habits.