Friday, April 10, 2009

Overdoing the gloom

I regard climate change as a major challenge. As it is a global public bad, it requires action by governments, individually, at EU level and globally. However, these actions will be insufficient if there is not an adequate response by business and by citizens.

In my view excessively gloomy predictions about climate change actually have a disempowering effect on citizens. They start to think it is all hopeless and they might as well continue with their existing environmentally unfriendly lifestyles.

Some of those putting forward these views have a broader agenda which is well served by taking an excessively pessimistic view of the prospects for climate change mitigation. (Adaptation is only now really starting to get on the EU agenda in a serious way).

This was the case with one of the speakers at the recent meeting of the Franco-British Council that I attended. I have so much material from this meeting that it is going to take some time for me to blog it all.

I thought that this particular speaker made some good points, but he undermined them through overstatement. He started by stating that we were just nine meals from anarchy because of our over reliance on retailers for buffer stocks. We do sometimes rely too much on leading supermarkets as a private governance mechanism, a subject which I am personally interested in. Indeed, I believe that Cobra, the civil contingencies unit in the Cabinet Office, has taken an interest in the subject of potential threats to food stocks.

The speaker argued that national food self-sufficiency was in long-term decline. The UK was increasingly reliant on imports when the ability of the rest of the world to provide for us was weakening. The fabric of biodiversity, nature's insurance plan against disaster, was wearing thin.

The speaker went on to argue that intensive farming defied ecological gravity. I think that this depends on how it is done. In arable farming, one needs the use of methods of Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Management, subjects I have written on with my biological science colleagues. Livestock farming needs to observe animal welfare standards. All these objectives can, and are, being pursued through appropriate EU policies and it this dimension of the CAP that needs to be developed and strengthened.

The speaker argued that obesity is a climate change issue and that we need to consume less. The food crisis had been coopted to promote asymmetric market liberalisation and particular commercial agencies.

Where I did agree with the speaker was his emphasis on the importance of the planet's hydrological cycle. The proportion of the earth's surface subject to extreme drought had already increased from one to three per cent and could increase to one third by the end of the century [this is a worst case scenario in my view].

A person associated with DG Agri asked whether there was really a problem about generating a sufficient food supply. Yields had improved in the past. This commentator also defended biofuels, arguing that higher energy prices in the longer run would mean that they would be used without public policy.

The speaker asserted that biology must become before economics and politics. Scientists, however, were prone to pander to politicians. This is not my experience of working with natural scientists. It is not a question of biology coming before politics, but the insights of economics, political science, law, biological science and many other disciplines being brought together as in the RELU programme: RELU

A person from a farmers' organisation argued that the model of a richer country outbidding everyone else on the world market was not sustainable in the future.

The speaker concluded by celebrating the return of dirigiste politics and said that we could fundamentally re-engineer the economy as we did in the run up to the Second World War. The state rules ok!

For some of my work on ICM and IPM go to: Biologicals

On animal welfare: Livestock

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