Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Monbiot on Stern

Hat tip Ballots Balls and Bikes

George Monbiot has published a 10 point plan for being much much greener than the stern review.

He is scrambling for clear green water here between himself and the mainstream.

Points 1 and 2

1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions based on the latest science. The government is using outdated figures, aiming for a 60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough. Timescale: immediately.

2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski-jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota. This accounts for about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce. The remainder is auctioned off to companies. It's a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the EU's emissions trading scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies. Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.

Well that seems to be just one point. And it seems to settle the matter. If we do this, the emissions will be cut the required amount. Who needs the other 8 points? They may affect how the carbon is emitted but they will not affect the total.

As it happens, I don't agree with the free annual traded quota. It is a cash-equivalent handout to every citizen. If you support the Citizen's Income idea as an alternative to benefits and tax allowances you should advocate it honestly, not try to slip it in on the back of a global warming measure.

And Citizen's Income is fine as an idea. It is just much too expensive.

I think green taxes are a better way of setting a price than traded quotas. They are less bureaucratic and less volatile, sending simpler clearer signals. They work differently in that taxes set a price premium and let the market find the level, whereas quotas set the level and let the market find the price. But effectively the two are tied: for a level of price or emissions there is an associated level of the other. We might not estimate the exact relationship well, but we can refine policy over the years to get the right outcome with either policy.

What delights do Monbiot's unnecessary 8 points offer us?

5. ...Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.

Er, another pipeline network? Can't we use the same pipes to carry hydrogen as we use to carry natural gas? Where on earth is all this hydrogen going to come from? The problem with hydrogen is generating it. If we do generate some, with, say, surplus renewable electricity, transport would be a better use for it, replacing oil, than piping into homes for heating, replacing gas.

10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco's "state of the art" energy-saving store at Diss in Norfolk has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%. Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car - delivery vehicles use 70% less fuel. Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.

Am I missing something, or are we talking about nationalising the retail sector here? If not, who is going to be building these warehouses? None of the companies that have just had all their assets abolished would be that keen, or able.

As for the other points, there is a lot of banning, where supertaxes like on gas guzzlers would be a better measure. But there is no analysis of the freeloading problem (scroll down), it is Kantian ethics and that is the end of the story. Sorry, George, but this is not the 18th century.

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A stern warning

I have blogged at Liberal Review on the Stern Review on global warming.

A summary of the review can be found linked from this page, just above where it should say Most computers will open PDF documents automatically, but this pdf may crash Firefox making you retype that whole blog post from memory.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Filling infidel quotas

The government has backed down on requiring new faith schools to admit 25% from outside the faith, having extracted promises from Anglicans and Catholics that they will do it anyway. Muslims schools such as there are, are willing to join in too, although there is, as expected, little interest from non-Muslim parents.

Guido seems rather skeptical of the Catholic promise. And the small print seems to support him.

Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, said Mr Johnson understood it was "quite unacceptable to force into a new Catholic school 25% of people who were not particularly sympathetic to that faith".

Er, so why have you just promised to do exactly that? Is this just part of a face-saving formula for a government U-turn? Looks like it.

Tory spokesbod Nick Gibb adds that the Conservatives had always believed the faith school issue had been one "for schools themselves to decide". I guess he is forgetting his leader's speech that kicked this debate off by calling precisely for these new quotas.

Lets remember that we're only talking about new faith schools here. And this is at a time when the polls are suggesting majority opposition to any new faith schools on the grounds that they are divisive and bad for social cohesion. Some bright spark comes up with the quota idea to make these new faith schools more palateable, but even this modest suggestion offends Catholic preciousness - perhaps because non-Catholics might be using their toilets - and the Catholic church has enough muscle to get the government to drop it.

Lest we forget how modest this proposal is, what about the thousands of existing faith schools. Up and down the country we have doctors mowing vicarage lawns, teachers sweeping the church, professors of metallurgy polishing the candlesticks* so that they can get their children into the only local school that other middle class children go to. It is an outrage that clerics are given gatekeeper status to publicly funded services, and we should not be surprised that these are the consequences. Whatever we think about the choice agenda, schools choosing pupils is not what we want.

(*OK I am making this up, but we have all heard the stories.)

Perhaps I have insufficient appreciation of what faith schools can do, and what I advocate is an assault on their essence and character. It is easily claimed, but I think such a claim needs some justification. Any school would be able to do well if it can select the pupils that it wants. If the essence is selection, it is no big deal.

And I find it difficult to credit a style of education that relies on children being already "sympathetic" to the subject. How many are sympathetic to mathematics, biology or geography? We can't teach you unless you already believe in (or are at least sympathetic to) calculus, evolution or plate tectonics?

My suspicion is that much Catholic education is simply too heavily Catholic to be at all appropriate for non-Catholic children to be subjected to. That there would be complaints about the stories of hellfire, about guilt manipulation, that the schools would have to suffer bad press or adapt. In which case, I would have to ask why we want to fund this sort of religious instruction out of taxes at all. If people want their children to fear hellfire and feel guilty about the death of Christ, can't they arrange this themselves? Shouldn't public money be focussed more on the sort of thing that we can all agree is useful for children to learn?


Update: Pickled Politics quotes Sarah Teather.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Defender of the defender of faiths

It may look like I've been asleep for a few days, but I've taken to watching Question Time a little. Until I see it I can be oblivious of what rot people out there are thinking and the need to put them straight.

So Prince Charles wants to be "Defender of Faith" rather than defender of the faith. Some people hate this, some love it. Paddy Ashdown on Question Time was emphatic that it is the right thing to do, that it better reflects one of the strengths of today's society.

I find the whole debate of what Charles ought to do, as putative head of the Church of England and whatnot, somewhat uncomfortable. I think Charles, like everybody else in the country, should be free to say what he believes in, and not be required ex officio to subscribe to particular beliefs handed to him on a plate. That is not how belief works, if we are honest, and if we want our king to be honest.

If that means the monarch and the church would one day no longer like to be so close, well that is fine. I don't see any reason for an obligation on either party to get, theologically, into bed with somebody incompatible.

There is a debate to be had about the role of religion in society, and about the pre-eminence of Christianity, or anglicanism. But this is not a debate that can be sensibly had in the text of a coronation ceremony. It is not one in which we should take a lead from the monarch. And it is not one that should be too political.

And if one day we get a monarch who follows the Bahai faith, or humanism, or Wicca, or a postmodern mishmash, or even Roman Catholicism we should not disbar them or demand that they lie. That would be a denial of civil rights. And hardline monarchists, in particular, should accept whatever monarch the hereditary lottery gives them, and like it. If you show any inclination to pick and choose your monarchs, or tell them what they ought to do, you are not much of a monarchist.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Veritas in 2040

What will the veritas party be like in 2040, if it still exists? Or UKIP for that matter. For a history lesson, we need only look at an embryonic political party, in the early 1970s, initially called PEOPLE, whose colours were red, white and blue.

Inspired by an article in Playboy, featuring Teddy Goldsmith, can you guess what it is yet?

I will post the link to the full article at the end of this post, but first here are some gems:

Right-wing zoo owner John Aspinall supported the campaign, supplying dozens of canvassers drawn from his London casino. Goldsmith disguised his mainly longhaired student supporters as Arabs and borrowed a camel from Aspinall to launch a highly visual assault on the soil erosion, which to this day is turning Sudbury into a region of the Sahara.

The first thing that Goldsmith’s handout stressed was that his father, Major Goldsmith OBE, had been Conservative MP for Stowmarket”, noting that there was “nothing to be proud of there”. The leaflet contained ... very Conservative statements amongst the prophecies of doom”, including attacks on women who worked and thus neglected “essential maternal duties” and the “all pervasive welfare state” that “mollycoddles the population”, as well as support for the family unity as a means of discouraging crime and dissent.

Derek Wall, the author of this excellent history, is most agreeable in person, but as a Marxist, quite wrong, even by the standards of the Green Party.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Moral panic on Madonna

Adoption is a noble act. Giving a family to a child with none is just about the best thing that can be given. It is a great commitment and sacrifice. Rewarding, yes, but a noble act beyond what most of us will ever achieve.

It is not something I have done and I will not criticise anybody who does. It would be mean spirited to say to any adopter - you could have done it differently; you should have adopted somebody else; I impute shallow motives to you.

Madonna attracts this kind of attention because of her celebrity, and a little notoriety. We like our celebrities to be shallow. What a disappointment when they are not.

Lifting a child out of extreme poverty into extreme wealth is a good thing to do. Why does it make us uncomfortable? If we fail to praise the good when we see it, due to some inarticulable discomfort, it is our own motives we should be examining.

Due process? Give me a break! Get some perspective! There are miscarriages of justice, people's lives ruined by lack of due process. One life is being unruined. Is that your priority?

The child will lose contact with his culture? Perhaps. I take the view that people own cultures, cultures do not own people. When he develops interests in his origins he will be able to explore them. But he is not the property of his origins, he is a baby who needs a family.

If you or I were adopting a child and were subject to this media circus and moralistic indignation, we would be outraged. Adoption is a personal family matter, where celebrities should be shown the same respect as anyone else. Butt out, people.


Liberal Review

For anyone who hasn't noticed, I am doing some of my blogging at Liberal Review these days. So far I have

Green Taxes not self-defeating

Nuclear power: time for a rethink?

Religion and politics: overlapping magisteria?

I will keep this blog going for posts where I might want to stick my neck out a little further than I would on Liberal Review, for GreenPartyWatch type posts, and for any reviews of books, plays and so on. And as I will stray off politics a little more, Political has been dropped from the title.

And I will keep posting to Dave, Nice but Knave too, when the muse grabs me, which is not often these days. Please, Dave, do or say something substantial so I can get my teeth into you.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Micro turbines: The jury is out

B&Q sent me an email the other day advertising their new Windsave rooftop turbine.

This is likely to considerably boost penetration of this kind of product. I am a big supporter of wind power, and I think it would be great if everybody had a 1 kW wind turbine on their house, providing most of their electricity needs and recharging their cars.

However, the question remains of whether rooftop locations are suitable for this kind of product. The Centre for Alternative Technology express concerns about turbulence and stresses on the building structure.

If a turbine needs a clean airflow and doesn't get it, it will not generate much power and will wear out quickly, perhaps having a zero or negative life cycle impact on carbon emissions, and obviously failing to deliver an acceptable return on investment.

If it damages the structure of the building, this would have to be repaired at great expense and not insignificant environmental cost.

CAT's advice is quite old - it has been there for a while. Perhaps the latest breed of turbines has overcome these problems. But perhaps it hasn't. These issues don't seem to be addressed in the marketing of new turbines. So this could be a big mis-selling scandal, exacerbated by well meaning promotion by supporters of renewable energy.

Newsnight's ethical man Justin Rowlatt is getting one. I will see how he gets on before considering one for myself.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

e-voting compromised again

According to this story, the Nedap ES3B can be privacy compromised by eavesdropping on radio emanations. It is not clear from the story whether the machine must be tampered with first, and the manufacter of course insists their machines will be clean.

Transparency is the Achilles heel of e-voting. Building a machine which faithfully records votes is easy. Building a machine which can be seen to faithfully record votes without compromising the secrecy of the ballot is next to impossible.

Making voting software open source would improve this transparency, but even then it is far too easy to run software on a machine that is different from the software it should be running.

We've all heard the stories about Diebold machines in the US being preloaded with votes for Bush. Probably some of the stories are true, but what is even more frightening is that there is no way of knowing.

No election is perfect, and a few votes have always been stolen here or there. But we should beware of automating this fraud, giving a single individual in the right place the power not to steal a few votes, but everybody's vote and a whole election.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw and moral relativism

Liberal Review gets it right.

Straw did no more than express a preference, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would also be my preference even if I didn't articulate it.

Of course people are free to choose how to dress. But, I wonder, how many of the people criticising Straw do not believe people should be free to choose how to dress - rather that some people have an obligation to follow certain Saudi fashions.

When you consider that something is a matter of moral obligation not personal freedom, then it is understandable to be angry at a third party asking you not to do it.

If you were asked to remove all your clothing before you could see your MP, you would probably consider the request to be wrong. If you are religious you may justify this in terms of a religious injunction against nudity. But even those of us who aren't religious are likely to agree with the conclusion. We would be quite likely to describe the request as offensive rather than free speech.

At this point moral relativists will all be glowing - you see this proves it, they will say. Values differ from one culture to the next, nobody is truly Right or Wrong, we just all have to learn to get along.

Well this isn't good enough. This sort of relativist, if consistent, is incapable of criticising not only other societies but also their own society. If values are only statements of the preferences of a society, then an assertion that your own society is doing something wrong is a self-contradiction. This relativism is politically impotent.

As an aside, I don't agree with the criticism that this kind of relativism is amoral, that a relativist has no moral standards. To a moral absolutist the statement that there is no such thing as a true Right or Wrong seems like amorality, but that is only if the words are interpreted the way the abolutist interprets them.

So where does this leave us? Whether or not we have a well thought-out (non-relativist) personal moral philosophy, or a moral system derived from a religion, I don't think we should be afraid to say that we think some things are OK - like showing your face - and other things are wrong - like asking constituents to undress. And if other people disagree with us, then that is fine.

While people disagree on these moral questions, it is inevitable that some people will do what others think is wrong or fail to do what others think is obligatory. We should try not to get too upset about this. In particular, we should not try to criminalise everything that the majority thinks is wrong. I would argue for criminalising only when the consequences of criminalising are better for life, liberty, health and happiness, and that sort of thing, than the consequences of not criminalising. But I suppose that reflects my consequentialist moral perspective, and I recognise that it is an extremely difficult judgement to make in borderline cases. I would also try to err on the side of criminalising too little.

The alternative position, that politics is simply applied morality, and that we should seek to ban everything that is wrong, will rightly cause fear in people with minority moral perspectives, particularly when they hear statements like Straw's indicating a dislike of one of their moral rules.

Personally, I would like it if we all felt able to debate why we think something is right or wrong. But for many this would mean debating the tenets of their faith, and there seems to be an unfortunate general reluctance to do this. And it may well be hopeless naivete to think any such debate would make much progress.

Drawing to a conclusion, I do think it is wrong to tell anybody they ought to cover their faces, therefore I disagree with at least some interpretations of Islam. As I am not a muslim, nobody should be surprised by this. We have to be able to discuss issues of morality and freedom with people we disagree with. And if we are liberal enough not to show much inclination to ban everything we think wrong or make compulsory everything we think right, it may make it possible to have this debate without it seeming part of a process of oppression.