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Archives for March 2010

MPs' message of climate trust

Richard Black | 13:29 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010


The first of the numerous enquiries into the state of climate science has just been published in the UK, and - you might be tempted to conclude - so far, so predictable, in terms of its conclusions and of the reactions to it.

Iceberg meltsIt's important to be clear on what the enquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee did encompass,and what it didn't.

It isn't the main review into whether poor practice at the University of East Anglia (UEA) - allegedly revealed in e-mails and documents stolen from the university and posted on the web last November - changes the mainstream picture of global warming driven by humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases; that's for a later panel, chaired by Lord Oxburgh.

It isn't the investigation into who stole the e-mails and why - that's still in the hands of the Norfolk police force.

It isn't the global review of the state of climate science and the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - that's being handled by the Inter-Acadermy Council.

And there are other reviews, too.

Professor Phil JonesSo although the MP's report does make more than a nod to some of these issues, the focus is overwhelmingly on whether UEA or Phil Jones, the long-time director of the university's Climatic Research Unit, were guilty of poor scientific practice - and if so, why.

In doing so, it also touches on reaction to the so-called "ClimateGate" issue in the big rough-and-tumble world of politics that now encircles scientists working in the field.

In the days and weeks following the news of the e-mail hack, I've had many, many discussions about the issue with people working on climate change in the fields of science, policy and journalism; and the vast majority of the reactions I've had tally with the conclusions of the report.

The hacked e-mails and documents date back more than 10 years, and huge changes have occurred since then in three key areas: scientific practice, information technology and the expectations of society regarding openness and transparency.

A decade ago, scientific journals were mainly disseminated on paper, and thus the capacity to publish reams of background and workings was constrained by space. Now, many journals have their main or indeed their only existence on the web, which is never full; and the practice of publishing supplementary material in separate files is now commonplace.

A decade ago, I would have been struggling to write this on a computer with perhaps a couple of gigabytes' space on the hard drive over a 56k modem connection. The one I'm using now has more than 400G of memory, and the megabytes stream fluidly through my cable modem. Scientists, 10 years ago, were just as limited by now obsolete technology as anyone else.

A decade ago, we didn't expect Members of Parliament to publish details of their expenses, or bankers their bonuses. Now we do; and, through Freedom of Information legislation, all kinds of institutions have had to become more open in their dealings.

It is through this lens of change that the MPs have looked back at CRU and Professor Jones:

"On the accusations relating to Professor Jones's refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies."

UEA accepts that it has been "taken to task on a number of issues which we are determined to address" - and this is clearly one of them.

DroughtHowever, on the most significant and potentially damaging of the accusations - that Professor Jones and other climate scientists sought to subvert the peer review process, and manipulated data in a manner calculated to produce a picture of rising temperatures (the infamous "trick" e-mail) - the university and Professor Jones are in the clear:

"...insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty - for example, Professor Jones's alleged attempt to "hide the decline" - we consider that there is no case to answer."

The vast majority of the raw data that UEA had been accused of hiding had in fact been freely available for years, the MPs found, while accepting the explanations Professor Jones has been giving for years as to why the few bits that remain could not at the time have been published.

There are implications for the government - re-framing bits of the Freedom of Information Act - for academic institutions - the need to properly resource areas tasked with responding to FoI requests - and for the media, with implicit references to a rush to judgement on the part of some journalistic institutions.

But in the main, it is in the established practices of scientists and their institutions that reform is urged - with the caveat that as far as this review was able to ascertain, individual scientists were not behaving fraudulently and the overall mainstream picture of climate science is not challenged.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning about the report.

Firstly, it wasn't something that the Science and Technology Committee had to do, in the same way that UEA clearly had to mount an inquiry; committee members chose to do so themselves. And secondly, as their report admits, it was done in something of a hurry, as the end of this parliamentary term approaches.

Whether you think the balance of those two factors adds to or detracts from its credibility may depend largely on where you already stand on man-made climate change.

Some of the most vigorous critics have not leapt to endorse the report:

"The report is clearly biased and far too kind to Professor Phil Jones," said Benny Peiser of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, who had given evidence to the committee.

Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit also criticises what he sees as mismatches between the questions asked by the episode and the answers obtained by the committee.

Dr Peiser says the report "will be widely regarded as an attempted whitewash".

Absolutely, it will. But in parts of the opinion spectrum, anything that did not result in mass resignations and a conclusion that man-made climate change is a myth and a fraud would be so regarded.

What is more important is how its conclusions, and those of the other reviews yet to come, are seen across the broader mass of uncommitted people who simply expect scientists to do a good job, and were unsure whether the behaviour of Phil Jones and his fellow climate researchers was good enough that they could trust their conclusions.

Whaling words: Into the new

Richard Black | 10:32 UK time, Monday, 29 March 2010


Few things drive people who would like to see whaling end to distraction quite as much as the lack of engagement with the issue across Japanese society.

Their argument goes like this: continuing whaling is clearly not in the best interests of Japan as a nation, raising opprobrium in countries that are otherwise its friend while gaining virtually nothing in the way of meat; so even though whaling might be in the interests of the Fisheries Agency, which implements policies domestically and represents the country internationally, why don't other parts of the government or wider society weigh in, stand up for their interests, and get the practice shelved?

Demonstration_against_Sea_ShepherdActivists have made such arguments long into many a frustrated night. But still, within Japanese society, criticism of whaling is pretty much confined to the Tokyo outposts of Western NGOs.

Last year saw the publication of a book that adds something to the picture. It's called Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy, and it's written not by anyone from the conservation community but by a Japanese academic, Professor Jun Morikawa, who's based at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo and specialises in studying Japan's relationship with Africa.

I read the book earlier this year, and have just been to hear the professor lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Summing it all up in one single blog post is not a simple task, because the thesis he outlines runs from the desks of Tokyo bureaucrats to the forests of Africa and the waters of the Antarctic.

But theses are some of the key points:

• Whaling is of no real importance to Japan, producing 0.2% of all the meat eaten in the country
• The authorities claim to base their arguments for whaling on science, but in fact invest heavily in emotive messages - for example, that whaling is an integral part of the national culture
• There is no national culture of whaling in Japan; there are local cultures, but there are also local cultures that regard whales as gods, where killing them would be unthinkable
• Successive governments have placed a high priority on ensuring a plentiful supply of fish through diplomacy, often building relationships with developing countries possessing productive coastal waters
• One part of these relationships is backing for Japan's position in all aspects of international affairs, from supporting its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to voting with it in the International Whaling Commission
•The industry is perpetuated by the practice of amakudari, where retiring bureaucrats go on to take jobs in businesses that their successors are supposedly regulating
• Japan is a major consumer of all kinds of wildlife, sometimes destructively
• The status quo is helped along by a compliant media, while organisations such as Sea Shepherd also lend a hand by giving the Fisheries Agency ammunition with which to label anti-whaling groups as anti-Japanese

OK: I think I've got most of the important bits.

Most of these arguments - even the last, behind closed doors - have been made before, but mainly by Western environmentalists.

The potential importance of Jun Morikawa's book is that his background is not in the environmental movement, but in the academic study of politics and foreign relations; and that he is Japanese, and of an age and status that generally garner respect.

Whereas anti-whaling sentiment is often characterised in Japan as having cultural imperialist and even racist roots, the reasoning of a Japanese professor cannot be so easily categorised.

Whale_tailIn some ways, Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy forms a counterpoint to another book published in 2008 with an even longer title - The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse.

If you're thinking that this doesn't sound like an easy read, you'd be right.

It's an unashamedly academic tome; the author, University of Sydney-based Dr Charlotte Epstein, comes - like Jun Morikawa - from the disciplines of politics and international relations rather than biology or conservation.

What she attempts to do is to plot, through analysing the language used about whales and whaling down the years, the transformation of the whale in Western society from a real living thing that real hunters caught in the oceans to an idea, an icon - the "superwhale", intelligent, kind, endangered - a totem of humankind's relationship with the environment.

One of the examples in the book is an advert that ran in the Los Angeles Times of 1974, advocating a boycott of Japanese goods.

With Dr Epstein as sushi-chef, the advert is sliced into morsels indicating how it transformed objective reality into a message better suited to the aims of the anti-whaling movement of the time - and to the US government of the time, for which Japan was the biggest economic rival and the Soviet Union the biggest military rival.

The juxtaposition of the phrases "The Japanese are the biggest whale killers" and "More than 2,000,000 whales have been killed in the last 50 years", for example, creates the impression that Japan was responsible for that toll; whereas history tells us that Norway and the UK played much bigger roles.

Here again: "Modern whaling is a savage, ruthless exercise, nothing like the romantic days of 19th Century whaling... the terror-stricken whales are... blown up in agonising death by grenade-tipped harpoons..."

There is no evidence, however, that the whales targeted in the19th Century lolled back with contented smiles and welcomed the hunters to throw their harpoons as soon as they realised how romantic a pursuit it was.

Romantic_whalingIt won't have escaped your notice that the "romantic" era lauded in the US-based advert was dominated by US fleets; and you'll probably have realised also that grenade-tipped harpoons were designed to kill whales in a few minutes, rather than the hours to death typical during the "romantic" Yankee whaling era.

Dr Epstein follows this pattern of discourse through blow by blow, as western NGOs and Western politicians shaped an identity of whalers as people who were both cruel and - more importantly - Japanese.

The relevance to the present is that this is the genesis of the identity of whaling that still pervades Western culture, distortions and all.

If it's hard to sum up the Morikawa book in a few sentences, it's doubly hard with the Epstein, which is much longer and which attempts to cover two fields - whaling and the language surrounding whaling - in one go. if you're enticed, you'll just have to read them.

So why might these books prove to be important?

It isn't about whether the authors are right or wrong - some readers will find plenty to abhor in the first and love the second, other readers will have it the other way round, and often interpretations of history and definitions of the right course of environmental action are matters of opinion anyway.

Where their importance potentially lies is in bringing fresh analyses to an arena that has in recent years become sterile and entrenched, and in which both sides arguably could benefit from a little more self-reflection and a little less easy bombast.

Professor Morikawa would clearly like his book to be taken up and discussed among a wider Japanese public - many of whom, from my own experiences, don't know anything about whaling apart from what they read in the newspapers (the compliant newspapers, to take his critical description), which is mainly articles about the latest "anti-Japanese" shenanigans in the Southern Ocean.

He'd also like to facilitate greater participation in discourse about Japan's whaling policies across the wider political classes, empowering ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Economy and Environment to become involved in the rights and wrongs of an issue in which he believes the official definition of "the national interest" is completely at odds with reality.

For that to happen, he'll have to publish a Japanese edition of his book - so far, he says, publishers are not queuing up to make this happen.

Charlotte Epstein's book has clearly not shifted opinion much in Australia, which remains the most implacable foe of Japanese whaling. So perhaps Jun Morikawa's won't in Japan either.

One other thing unites the two books: both will make for uncomfortable reading among the sectors that they criticise, explicitly or implicitly.

But this is part of their importance; and so is the fact that they are both cogently-argued theses coming from outside the the circle of "usual suspects".

Arguably, such contributions are sorely needed as we approach the June meeting at which governments inside the IWC will have to decide whether to embrace a limited, predictable amount of commercial whaling in place of the current stand-off.

CITES: Murky waters for marine conservation

Richard Black | 17:33 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010


So, the once-every-three-years Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting has come to an end; and rather like the last time, conservationists are coming away with hands empty, apart from a few scrappy morsels of succour.

I haven't been at the meeting in Doha, but I have been talking regularly to people there; those who arrived thinking it might produce something to halt unsustainable fish catches, in particular, are not happy bunnies.

It's a safe bet that those Qatari bars that aren't dry will see plenty of sorrow-drowning before delegates take their leave.

HammerheadNot only did the bid for a trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna fall - it fell spectacularly, not coming remotely close to securing a majority.

(This is the species, you may recall, believed by scientists to be below 15% of its abundance in the days before industrial fishing began.)

Proposals to restrict trade in four shark species - hammerhead, porbeagle, oceanic white-tip and spiny dogfish - also fell, as did a bid on the red and pink corals used in jewellery.

This made it a virtual clean sweep for countries that do not want to see trade restrictions used to conserve marine creatures of commercial interest - even if, like the scalloped hammerhead and porbeagle, they reside on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group, who has longer experience than most of CITES, observed archly:

"CITES has always been a treaty that restricts trade for conservation. Now it restricts conservation for the sake of trade."

There were agreements to strengthen measures on trade in tiger products and rhino horn, but these really add up to implementing promises already made - nothing more.

And the elephant ivory discussions ended up reinforcing the status quo, with no new legal ivory sales sanctioned, but equally with no agreement on a long-term ban on future sales.

Shark finsThis is the second CITES meeting running at which people seeking greater protection on sea life have - if you'll pardon the expression - got their collective butts kicked; and there seems no reason to believe things will be any different next time.

The forces ranged against this conservation initiative are several. There are countries that traditionally eat a lot of fish and are determined to preserve their right to catch and to buy - a phalanx headed by Japan, but with Iceland, among others, in the vanguard.

Others, such as China, are traditionally opposed to international regulation - or interference, as it may be construed - in matters seen as being of national interest.

Others, such as Libya, are relatively new entrants into the business of commercial fisheries; and part of their argument is that as they did nothing to destroy a species (Atlantic bluefin, in this case), why should they be punished now?

(You may have noticed that this parallels the reasoning traditionally used by developing countries when arguing against curbs on their carbon emissions.)

Though it's hard to argue against it on the basis of simple equity, it falls at the logical imperative of ecology. If tuna are dangerously depleted, they're dangerously depleted; it doesn't matter whether they are now fished by Libyan or Spanish boats, the consequences will be the same.

(The author Mark Lynas makes the same point regarding carbon emissions; arguing that only the rich must cut, he says, is the logic of mutually assured destruction.)

Power stationBy the time the next CITES meeting comes around, the Atlantic bluefin may have reached commercial extinction.

It depends on whether countries inside the organisation charged with regulating the fishery, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), crack down as they have pledged on illegal fishing and on the "oversights" by their national fleets that carry them over their allocated quotas.

(Often Iccat itself is criticised for mismanagement - but what is Iccat except the countries in it? As the independent performance review commissioned on the organisation two years ago made clear, it's nation states that are behind the failures.)

It also depends on luck. Will the fish have a couple of highly successful spawning seasons that will see stocks replenish, or a couple of relatively barren ones?

It's worth recalling that the countries and campaign groups arguing for bans on tuna and shark trading through CITES were doing so only because Iccat and its fellows have so signally failed to live up to their mandates of conserving the stocks, year after year.

And having lost here, the question is begged: what else is there?

It is not a particularly good time to be asking the question, however.

Any agreement to curb fishing on these species has to be international, because the fish certainly don't recognise boundaries between national waters.

But the overwhelming message from the biggest and loudest environment summit of our time - Copenhagen - is that major governments are becoming more reluctant to deal with environmental issues on a multilateral basis, if multilateralism means being prepared to move your national position to meet the concerns of your neighbours.

Some people of much longer experience than me are asking whether it would be possible to pass a treaty such as CITES now, in the current climate.

So "what next?" is an important question. Consumer power? International law? The linking of overseas aid to support for conservation?

If you have an answer, please post below; an army of tired and frustrated conservationists in Doha is thirsty for your ideas, as well as for a drink or 10.

Does healthcare win leave climate in better shape?

Richard Black | 12:42 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010


The passage of President Obama's healthcare reform package prompts the question: what might it mean for climate change legislation?

Barack ObamaWill it clear the path for a climate bill this year, as some believe?

Or has politicking over the healthcare bill poisoned the well of goodwill in Washington, as others argue?

Around the turn of the year, things were looking fairly bleak for proponents, with delays in bringing the Kerry-Boxer bill (which evolved from the Waxman-Markey bill approved by the House of Representatives in the summer) into the Senate.

Then came the vanilla-coloured accord from Copenhagen, and the Republican triumph in the Massachusetts election for the formerly Democrat seat of Edward Kennedy; many wise heads on both sides if the US political divide were arguing that the tortured progress on healthcare effectively meant the end of Boxer-Kerry, which could well in turn mean the end to any prospect of a negotiated, global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Now that the healthcare reforms are apparently here (pending a likely Supreme Court challenge by disgruntled Republicans), it's clearly an opportune time to revisit the issue: so obviously opportune, in fact, that Grist magazine was moved to use the most jaded title for a blog entry I've seen in a long time, "The inevitable 'What Does Health Care Reform Mean for Climate Legislation' post".

Grist doesn't come to a conclusion, but its explanation of the senatorial numbers game is worth a read if, like me, you sometimes need a refresher on the intricacies of super-majorities and reconciliations and other details of Congressional procedures.

If and when a bill does go forward, however, it will be a very different beast from the original bill. When that was clearly going to stumble, a cross-party group of senators - the Democrat John Kerry, the Republican Lindsey Graham and the Independent Joe Lieberman - convened to write something that they thought might have a greater chance of success.

Twenty-two Democrat Senators, at least, want to push ahead on this immediately; they sent a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid at the tail end of last week saying:

"Our lack of a comprehensive clean energy policy hurts job creation and increases regulatory uncertainty throughout our economy...We need to take action in order to lead the emerging sectors that will drive our economic recovery."

In this they are echoing the language used by Mr Obama since the turn of the year, seeking to recast the climate bill in terms of jobs and economic recovery, which his advisers clearly see as a more attractive way to frame the message.

And it appears that their wish may be granted, with Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman reported to be on the verge of submitting it to the Environmental Protection Agency for analysis of its costs and benefits.

Precisely what is in the new bill has not yet been disclosed. But leaks in the US media suggest it is likely to be considerably weaker than Boxer-Kerry.

Those of you with wonkish tendencies can head to The Wonk Room for a measure-by-measure comparison. But the main points of difference, if the rumours turn out to be accurate, would appear to be the sector-by-sector phasing in of emission caps, the limited scope of cap-and-trade, and greater support for nuclear power, offshore drilling and possibly "clean" coal.

The bill would reportedly require the cancellation of many state-level legal actions that are vexing the corporate sector, and could even lead to negation of the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate to control carbon emissions.

Some reluctant senators are - again, reportedly - being wooed with the promise that their coastal states will receive a share of the income from offshore drilling.

Oil wellThe problem with giveaways is that what placates one group can end up alienating another. And these are not trivial issues; billions of dollars are at stake, and it's not surprising therefore that some senators who have been generally supportive are now finding reasons to baulk.

As in many countries, businesses are divided on the measure. While some detest anything that might disrupt what they see as essential freedoms, others are urging legislators to set down a coherent policy framework for the next decade at least in order than they can make better-informed investment decisions.

In the main, environmental groups are for now hanging in there behind the much-reformed legislation, though it is causing a deal of angst.

Many of the old heads remember the Bush years and calculate that the new bill is the only game in town; politics is after all, as Bismarck noted 150 years ago - 40 years after Fourier described the greenhouse effect - the art of the possible.

Some of these groups may be able to live with support for offshore drilling. But less palatable morsels might soon occupy their plate.

Logically, the net impact of the new bill on greenhouse gas emissions - if the rumours are broadly correct - ought to be less than the cuts of 17-20% from current levels by 2020 that were promised during the presidential election campaign, contained in the Waxman-Markey bill and pledged to the international community around the Copenhagen summit.

If that turns out to be the case, then we may see a weakening of support among the environmental movement, with, presumably, a concomitant weakening of support from green-tinged senators.

The political pathways become even harder to guess at when you factor in the influences that other issues and events may have.

Joseph FourierIf, as some liberal commentators suggest, poor Americans feel themselves to be better off over the next few months as their access to affordable healthcare increases while rich ones find that reforms have not brought the sky down on their heads, will that give the climate bill added support?

What of reforms to the financial sector, of relations with China, of the weather?

If the prospects of passing a climate bill appear impossibly finely-balanced, there is one other question that deserves attention: would the bill make any real impact on climate change?

At least one liberal commentator is already arguing that it would not; that the prospects of a meaningful bill are so slight as to render the entire edifice merely a mirage.

There's an echo of Copenhagen here. Would a "bad deal" be worse than no deal? The UK's position leading up to the talks was that it would be, and that the government would not support an outcome that did not contain several key ingredients.

Yet in the end it did, along with many other governments that had similar reservations about the Copenhagen Accord.

Why? Because it was all that was possible, and because emerging with something permits a victory jig, however tuneless, whereas empty hands beg only a humbling.

For those reasons, one suspects the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill will enter the Senate at some point this year in a form that has been melded to garner as much support as is feasible.

Whether it passes is another matter. But it is surely more likely to be tabled, and more likely to pass, than if Mr Obama were licking his wounds (or having corporate health providers expensively licking them for him) in the aftermath of a healthcare defeat.

Tuna defeat's hypocritical roots

Richard Black | 17:24 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010


The frustration of conservation groups at the outcome of Thursday's tuna trade discussions was almost palpable.

The proposal to ban international trade in the Atlantic bluefin discussed at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting - tabled by Monaco and backed by all of the important conservation organisations working on the issue around the Mediterranean - fell by a substantial majority.

The numbers (described in the news story linked above) are a bit complex because there were actually two votes, but basically delegations voted against the proposal by almost two to one.

Recall that passing a CITES motion necessitates gaining a two-thirds majority, and it's clear just how far short the numbers fell.

Tuna_and_fishermanThe world already has organisations that are supposed to regulate commercial fisheries and ensure catches remain below danger levels. They are the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations; the one in question here is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).

So poorly has this body performed its task (it was declared a "disgrace" by an indepenent performance review two years ago) that conservationists have another way of interpreting its initials - the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.

And it was in frustration with Iccat's annual habit of setting quotas higher than its scientists recommended (they have advised zero quotas for the last few years) that conservationists turned to a CITES ban as an alternative way of reducing the catch.

Well, it hasn't worked; and there are perhaps three major reasons why.

Firstly, there is the issue of consistency.

The largest bloc supporting the bid was the European Union.

If it is so keen to see vast reductions in tuna catches, it could accomplish this through Iccat. Instead it gets the largest share of the annual tuna catch from the Mediterranean, and as recently as the last Iccat meeting was lobbying hard against the moratorium that its own scientists had recommended.

The EU is deeply divided on the issue, with the tuna-fishing countries of Italy, Spain, and France routinely deploying the argument that its fishermen would suffer under a moratorium.

Sushi_chefJapan - the largest bluefin consumer by a distance - has argued that it is up to the EU to put Iccat in order, rather than using a body such as CITES designed to restrict trade in endangered species.

It is a convenient argument for Japan to make; but the EU's position - giving bigger catch quotas with one hand and demanding a trade ban with the other - is so obviously inconsistent as to give it added legitimacy.

(A sign of frustration with the EU's bloc-voting strictures emerged in the day's second vote. The 27 countries were supposed to abstain on this - it sought a stronger ban than the EU had collectively decided to back - but in the secret ballot, I've been told, the UK and possibly some other EU nations as well defied the common position and voted with their consciences - a move with politically explosive potential.)

You might think that in lobbying against a CITES ban, the tuna fishers are proof of the argument that turkeys can indeed vote for Christmas, as they will have nothing to catch if the bluefin population continues to fall; you might think they would have been lobbying for a suspension rather than against it.

And this is the second point: fisheries economics isn't as simple as that, particularly in the modern era when big vessels can traverse wide tracts of ocean in search of new hauls.

As a commodity becomes scarcer, the price goes up; investing the extra short-term revenue accrued, at favourable interest rates, can be more profitable than cutting catches to ensure a sustainable fishery.

Sometimes - this is the real world, after all - fishermen also gain financial compensation from their governments if they have to scrap the ships that brought the resource to its knees in the first place.

The end of the line is sometimes a profitable place to be.

The third issue is that in a sense, what countries were arguing about here isn't fish but the universal cake.

The cake can be anything desirable. In the climate change arena, it's the atmosphere's "emissions space"; in fisheries, it's the total catch available.

It is the tragedy of the commons, with nations as the actors.

Patrick_van_Klaveren_of_Monaco_and_Masanori_Miyahara_of_JapanAlways, the proponents of restriction argue for scaling down the size of the cake.

Always, the national interest expresses itself in trying to increase the size of that country's share of the cake.

The results are entirely predictable.

In recent years, new countries have entered the annual Mediterranean tuna race - North African countries such as Libya and Tunisia that now have enough capacity to catch a year's worth of bluefin if EU nations pulled out.

Any nation is allowed to exempt itself from CITES rulings; Japan had indicated it would exempt itself from a tuna trade ban, which meant that if North African nations did the same, the legal trade from the Med to Japan would have continued with no net impact other than on EU fleets which would now be out of the race.

These concerns led to the EU supporting only a weakened version of the CITES resolution that would have deferred the tuna ban for a year, and that could have been lifted without ever coming into effect if Iccat were to adopt measures considered to put the fishery on the road to recovery.

The report that labelled Iccat as a "disgrace" really saved its ire for member governments that routinely undermine the organisation's conservation mandate, not least by turning a blind eye to dodgy activities (such as going over quota, and even fishing illegally) by their national fleets:

"Iccat's failure to meet its objectives is due in large part to the lack of compliance by many of its CPCs (member governements)... CPCs have consistently failed to... implement monitoring, control and surveillance arrangements on nationals and national companies."

And why have national authorities not been in the habit of persecuting such matters? Because each country's agents could argue - and they were right - that all the others were doing it too, and asked themselves: why should those foreigners get a bigger slice of the cake?

The real irony here is that the North African competition only flourished because European companies (with the blessing of member governments, as is necessary) allowed and even encouraged it.

As the same report concluded:

"Developed states use foreign investment rules to place excess or additional capacity owned by their nationals or companies under the flag of developing Contracting Parties. In many cases these developing countries have inadequate monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) arrangements..."

So what happens now?

As Jane Lyder, acting head of the US delegation at the CITES meeting in Doha, said:

"The responsibility is now on Iccat to manage the fishery in a sustainable manner. The world will be watching."

But not, presumably, holding its breath.

Climate ads far from divine

Richard Black | 15:08 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010


Some interesting perspectives on communication, information and climate change emerge this week from Africa and the UK.

A survey for the BBC World Service Trust (the corporation's international charitable arm) shows that although many Africans are noticing progressive changes to their weather, they're tending to ascribe those changes to agents above and outside the atmosphere.

A fisherman from Ghana told researchers:

"It is the will of God for these things to happen. When it comes to rainfall, it looks as though God has changed his calendar."

RefugeeWhile Dr Samson Kwaje, agriculture and forestry minister in the government of Southern Sudan, said:

"The farmers are only praying: 'Why is God punishing them?' Some of them don't know that we have punished ourselves."

Meanwhile, the UK government has come something of a cropper, with adverts it sponsored to raise public awareness of human-induced climate change being banned because of a tendency to treat projections as fact.

Based on nursery rhymes and featuring stanzas such as:

"Rub a dub, three men in a tub, a necessary course of action due to flash flooding caused by climate change."

...they could presumably have also faced action on aesthetic grounds, but that's a different story.

Managers of African news organisations told the World Service Trust that they struggle to communicate the causes and possible impacts of climate change to their audiences.

This is a problem that governments, activists and media organisations in the West have failed to find answers to, despite wrestling with them for well over a decade; hence, presumably, the UK government's decision to resort to adverts of somewhat questionable veracity.

The ads are the latest example in a series of attempts to convey possibly catastrophic impacts of climate change that have at least partially backfired.

One thinks back to Greenpeace's video link in 2001 from Kilimanjaro, arguing that the mountain's famous snows (that have inspired much better writing than advertising agencies can apparently muster these days, by the way) would be gone by 2015 - a prediction derided in some quarters at the time, and subsequently shown to be wrong.

One thinks of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a movie whose science was mainly well grounded in the prevailing consensus but that allowed itself to stray too far on issues such as a shut-down of the Gulf Stream and the cause of Lake Chad's drying.

Of course these points were picked up and picked apart - as have the recent UK government adverts.

What's clear from conversations I've had recently is that the loose alliance of people keen to "get the message across" is still scratching its collective head about how to do it, 20 years after the United Nations decided climate change needed to be taken seriously.

On one level, this is surprising. The loose alliance includes an unprecedented concentration of top environmental campaigners with successful track records on other issues, government ministers accustomed to selling themselves and their policies, and advertising executives accustomed to selling us shoes and shampoo.

You'd think they'd have found the formula by now.

Protest at CopenhagenThe "awareness-raising" has not been a complete failure - the Copenhagen summit, for example, saw the biggest mass mobilisation on climate change in history, with as many as 100,000 people taking to the streets of the Danish and other capitals; and despite rising scepticism in some countries, global polls show substantial slices of the population in many countries in favour of mitigating emissions.

The essential problem is that it's complex.

Take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's lately-maligned Fourth Assessment report with its 3,000-odd pages of densely-packed text, and try distilling all of its nuances and caveats and ranges of uncertainty into a campaigner's soundbite or a minister's speech; it can't be done.

So the nuances and caveats are lost; and when people feel the issue is so grave that the awareness-raising must be immediate, the findings they distil out will inevitably come from the scary end of the uncertainty range.

KilimanjaroBut then they get found out, and the "message" is coated with tarnish - perhaps irrevocably.

The complexity is an issue for the news media as well - a group criticised by Lord Stern this week for its lack of breadth and perspective in recent coverage of the supposedly cold winter (cold only in certain parts, in fact) and IPCC errors.

Yet when you come back to the African realities revealed by the World Service Trust, it is clear that the media there has a job to do.

The Trust survey shows that the vast majority of Africans are noticing progressive changes in rains and temperatures - changes that have the potential to inflict vast suffering on many millions, if projections of falling food production are correct - so it is clearly an important issue for the continent.

And while the science might not be completely settled when it comes to apportioning causality between greenhouse gasses, aerosols and solar cycling, it is so far unequivocal on the complete absence of evidence for divine wrath.

In the continent that has been worst affected by HIV/Aids, it is striking how many editors saw a parallel. Joyce Mhaville, managing director of ITV in Tanzania, told researchers:

"You know, this is like the HIV story. When it started nobody wanted to believe it, 'it's got nothing to do with me, and it's not going to touch me,' but before we knew it, it hit us left, right, and centre... And the same thing is going to happen with climate change."

Yet the shenanigans over the UK government adverts show that in one important respect the whorl of ideas around climate change is very different from HIV/Aids - namely, in its complexity.

Don't have unprotected sex and don't inject yourself with drugs using a dirty needle, and you'll banish almost all chances of HIV infection; there, I've done it in 23 words.

Climate change is far too complex to distil into a "message" of that size.

And maybe it's time to stop trying - to abandon the notion that it can be broken down into bite-sized chunks and turned scary through slogans or nursery rhymes. Especially if the exercise usually goes wrong.

Can rhinos cure cancer?

Richard Black | 19:18 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010


Black rhinosLast June, a group of five men drove into South Africa's Addo National Park and held up the rangers' station at gunpoint.

They emerged with a small consignment of ivory and rhino horn worth an estimated 850,000 rand - about £75,000, or $114,000.

The rhino horn - which came from animals that had died naturally - was probably destined for Vietnam, where the popular folk tale about its capacity to boost powers in the bedroom has been augmented by a belief that it can cure cancer.

Last year, a Vietnamese diplomat was recalled to Hanoi after being filmed apparently buying rhino horn outside her embassy in Pretoria.

The Addo Park hold-up is perhaps the most striking event to date in what is, by all measures, an escalation in the illegal wildlife trade.

Put together a dwindling resource (in some important species, at any rate) with a growing demand and capacity to pay, and there is only one outcome.

It's a trend that has just been raised at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar, where UN agencies have warned again about the urgent plight of the tiger.

Across all sub-species, only about 3,200 remain in the wild. That is considerably fewer than exist in captivity - in the farms and breeding centres of East Asia, and in zoos across the world.

Forgive me if you've heard it before, but to me it is still a staggering statistic that if you were to pick a tiger on the face of the earth at random, the odds are that you would be picking one born and bred in captivity.

Wild tigers now exist mainly in small, fragmented populations - a pattern that promotes lack of genetic diversity and hence is often a step on the road to extinction.

Year of the tiger celebrationsWhereas some governments have stepped up to the plate, all the links in the chain that the wildlife gangsters need appear to be functioning well enough.

Tigers can be poached in India and transported through Nepal to China; rhinos can be shot in one African country, their horns shipped out from a second to an address in Thailand, Vietnam or China.

I had a chat with John Sellar, who heads CITES's enforcement operation.

"It's now four decades since we realised the tiger was in trouble," he noted.

"We've spent millions of dollars on it and we have failed miserably - I like to be optimistic but we have to ask ourselves whether we are really committed."

In south-east Asian countries, he said there was now evidence of a demand for tiger meat.

As a former policeman, he said he found the situation incredible.

Conservation organisations are routinely finding evidence of abuse, of poaching and illegal trading - and many police forces and customs authorities just aren't acting on it, as one presumes they would if the cargoes contained heroin or AK-47s.

As to the price of rhino horn in one of Hanoi's unlicensed (and ineffective) "cancer clinics", Mr Sellar would not be drawn, suggesting that the information could encourage further poaching.

The black rhino, by the way, is already listed as critically endangered.

Often we envisage the solution to environmental problems as being about laws and policies, or markets and incentives, or scientific research and public awareness.

Here is an equation far simpler.

Unless police and customs forces stop the gangsters involved in this business, there will be no more tigers and no more black rhinos in the wild: that's it.

Climate review seeks detachment

Richard Black | 23:41 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Venice_in_snowThere's little doubt, I think, that the forthcoming review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can make quite a lot of difference to the organisation itself.

(This is the review that was demanded last month by ministers, and whose terms of reference and operating agency the UN has just announced, entrusting the running of it to the Inter-Academy Council, an umbrella body for science academies independent of the UN.)

Many scientists who have served in the IPCC believe its 22-year-old shape is no longer fit for purpose, and have said so publically.

Its chief, Rajendra Pachauri, was talking about the need for an internal review before the UN announced this external one; and it is surely impossible that there is nothing that can be improved in the working practices of an organisation that was conceived before instantaneous electronic distribution of information became the norm and before climate science became the political battleground it is now.

A bigger question is whether the review can have much impact outside the organisation. Will governments be any keener to act on the recommendations of a reformed IPCC? Will the public find its currently rather impenetrable phraseology easier to decipher? Will it be more widely trusted?

It's possible to divide published opinions on the issue into three broad categories: those who are only concerned with getting the message across that man-made climate change is an over-riding threat requiring urgent action, those who are concerned about the issue but are more concerned by what they see as lack of rigour and transparency within the IPCC, and those who are convinced that global warming is a fraud anyway and the IPCC one of the lead swindlers.

Ban_Ki-moonThose in the first group are unlikely to be influenced by the review, even if it eventually contains damning passages.

Those in the third group are unlikely to be swayed by anything praiseworthy; in fact I have e-mails coming in right now that are already assuring me that the review will be a whitewash, which is I suppose a logical conclusion if your frame of reference is that everything about climate change is just a conspiracy.

It's the second group that intrigues me, including as it does some pretty smart and independent-minded people.

Most are yet to comment. One who has, Roger Pielke Jr, describes what we know about the review so far as a "good start", but has some words of caution as well. I'll be watching the blogosphere and the op-ed-o-sphere with interest over the next couple of days to see what other thoughts come up.

One issue that was raised at the UN news conference - who raised it I cannot tell, as I listened to the conference remotely in London - was how independent the scientists on the Inter-Academy Council's review panel will be from the scientists who contributed work to the IPCC in the first place.

It's a natural question to ask. There's clearly a chance that the first people you would think of to take part in such a panel would be the most eminent climate scientists of the day, and they're wholly likely to have been intimately involved with the IPCC at some juncture.

There's also the wider point that some of the institutions involved with the Inter-Academy Council, such as the UK's Royal Society, have taken a very public stance on climate change.

But to assume this will automatically cause problems for the review is, I think, to misunderstand its nature and purpose.

It is not a review of climate science - some would say it ought to be, but it isn't, it's a review of IPCC practice - and it will surely draw more interesting and meaningful conclusions through involving scientists working in completely different fields, with experiences of completely different collating organisations.

They do exist; medicine alone has many. One that provides an interesting comparison is the Cochrane Review process, which aims to provide something analogous to IPCC reports - regular assessments of the evidence base on its chosen subject - but works very differently.

Will the Inter-Academy Council choose to make use of expertise from fields apparently unrelated to climate science? We shall see - and that, perhaps, will be one of the factors that determines how meaningful and visionary the review turns out to be, and how it is eventually perceived.

EU - bloc vote or blocked vote?

Richard Black | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010


The somewhat abstruse and legal-jargon-adorned world of internal European Union politics is likely to have a key role to play in two big forthcoming decisions concerning some of the most charismatic life in the world's oceans.

EU nations are supposed to adopt a common position on such issues, either by consensus or qualified majority voting, and then cast their collective 27 votes within international fora en masse.

On climate change, the process has not been without its hitches, with some countries such as Poland and Italy opposed, at times, to the more stringent policies that others such as the UK and Sweden wanted to pursue.

Matters at the last meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) came to a more clear-cut head over a possible trade ban on red and pink corals, which are harvested from the Mediterranean Sea by Italian fishermen and used to make jewellery.

That situation saw one EU country - Italy, naturally - fighting its corner against the remainder of the bloc's joint weight. Of course it lost, in the end - but the delay while deliberations went on took many days and many long evenings.

The next CITES meeting, which begins this coming weekend, sees a similar but much more complex situation emerging over Atlantic bluefin tuna.

SushiMonaco last year proposed banning international trade in the beleaguered species. Most EU nations support the notion - not a permanent ban, but a suspension until stocks recover - but others don't.

It will come as no surprise to find that the nations having doubts are those with significant tuna fishing operations - Spain, France, Malta, Greece and Italy.

When it comes to deciding a common position, EU rules assign each member country a number of votes depending partly on the size of its population. So Germany, the UK, France and Italy each have 29 votes - then it ranges down through the 27 of Spain, the 14 of Romania and the seven of Denmark right down to Malta's three votes.

In order to adopt a position, it's necessary to have a simple majority of countries in favour or against a proposition, and to have at least 73% of the total votes.

A country finding itself on the losing side can also then demand verification that votes cast account for at least 62% of the total EU citizenry.

The German government has thoughtfully provided a calculator you can use to see whether motions meet the criteria for success.

And as you can see if you plug in the numbers, if Spain, France, Malta, Greece and Italy all vote against an international trade ban, there aren't enough votes in the house for it to become an EU position.

In that case, the bloc has to abstain.

You could argue that this would be a seriously odd position to adopt given that the trade ban was proposed by Monaco, which resides within western Europe, and is supported strongly by many EU members.

(Serious Europhiles will have noticed that Monaco is not officially an EU member, although most of the time its interests are obviously aligned with those of France.)

WhalingMore pertinently, abstention would significantly alter the balance of power within CITES.

Motions need a two-thirds majority to pass, so the EU's 27 votes are a pretty major component of the voting bloc; there's also the issue that a number of developing countries tend to align themselves with the EU position.

This becomes much more significant within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which may well vote at its meeting in June on a proposed 10-year plan that involves a whole raft of measures I flagged up a couple of weeks ago.

Eighty-eight countries are currently members of the IWC, and a three-quarters majority is needed to make a major change. So if the EU votes en bloc against anything, that alone will stop it going through.

The EU is split on the proposed 10-year plan, though final positions will depend on what numbers of whales Japan, Iceland and Norway eventually say they are prepared to hunt in the immediate future - numbers that, in true negotiating style, will probably not become clear until the final evening of the June meeting.

On the tuna issue, lobbyists for every interest group are of course working their socks off right now in an attempt to secure EU support.

It may hinge on what compensation packages governments are prepared to offer their fishermen in return for withdrawing from the water.

We shall see whether they succeed - an EU decision on whether to support the trade ban may emerge this week.

Keep the calculator page handy...

Troubled history tinges marine plan

Richard Black | 10:42 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010


So what do you think: should the Chagos Islands archipelago be turned into a marine reserve, or shouldn't it?

Chagos archipelagoIf you care either way, you have until the end of the week to give the UK government your views.

If you don't care either way... well, read on, and perhaps you'll decide whether it matters or not.

The colonial history of the Chagos does not make a pretty tale.

Discovered by Vasco da Gama in the 1500s and pretty much uninhabited as far as early explorers could tell, the territory was claimed in the 1700s by France, which decided the place ought to be inhabited so plantation owners could grow coconuts and make a profit.

It became British with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. The plantations eventually failed, but some of the workers remained.

Many places that were annexed and traded between colonial powers have similar tales to tell, of course. But whereas most of those tales end with independence some time in the middle of the last century, this one doesn't.

Instead, it continued with perhaps the darkest move of all; the deportation of all 2,000 inhabitants of the largest island - Diego Garcia - in the late 60s and early 70s in order that the US could establish a military base there.

A series of recent court judgements has ruled that displaced Chagossians have the right to return home. Only a ruling in 2008 by the UK House of Lords prevents the government from having to allow them back - perhaps being forced to fund their return in full.

The legal saga isn't over, with Chagossians pursuing their cause now through European courts.

But if there can be a silver lining to such a history of man's capacity for inhumanity to man, it is that nature has flourished in the scarcely populated archipelago.

With no indigenous fishermen left and with international fleets largely barred from its territorial waters, with tourism conspicuous by its absence, the islands and their extensive coral fringes are now arguably the largest unvisited and unspoilt chunk of life-rich waters on the planet.

Which is why nine conservation organisations comprising the Chagos Environment Group are campaigning to see full protection conferred on the archipelago, to make its seas a full marine protected area with all fishing and other forms of exploitation banned.

The government likes the idea, and last year opened a public consultation [863KB PDF]. Originally scheduled to end last month, it now closes on 5 March - this coming Friday.

If approved, the huge size of the territorial waters would make this one of the biggest marine protected areas in the world, covering more than half a million square kilometres - a little larger than the total area of US-owned Pacific Ocean protected as one of George W Bush's final environmental acts.

Hawksbill turtleAnd what riches it contains: more than 1,000 species of fish including rays, sharks and tuna, and 200 corals; endangered green and hawksbill turtles; the world's biggest land crab, the metre-spanning coconut crab; and breeding colonies of terns and shearwaters, the most diverse in the region.

The Chagos Environment Group makes the point that protecting these reefs and atolls could well bring benefits to other parts of the ocean by providing a secure nursery for fish.

And with no-one but a few thousand military personnel in the place, no-one's lives would be compromised by new constraints.

So what's not to like?

One concern surrounds the Chagossians, who still hold out hope of securing a passage home.

Once there, they would need to live - and fishing, for local consumption or export, would be an obvious option.

So would full protection now make it less likely that they opt to return, supposing they eventually win their case - or less likely that they could survive independent of government support if they did return? The UK government has argued once before that it's virtually impossible for people to survive there without financial assistance.

At some point, when the US doesn't want its military base anymore, Diego Garcia and other islands will be given to Mauritius. Would it want to inherit such stringent protection over what would then amount to most of its territorial waters, and the expense of keeping them pristine?

A third concern is financial. Marine reserves need to be policed - and that will perhaps become increasingly important as demand for fish, especially high-value species such as tuna, increases.

But how should policing be funded if there is no income from tourism or from fishing in associated areas? Is that sustainable?

The UK consultation document tries to put the first two of these to bed. Any decision on a reserve will be made "without prejudice" to the Chagossian's legal battle, and it includes a joint communiqué in which Mauritius makes clear it's happy with the situation.

Yet by stressing that the decision will be made in the context of current UK policy that "there is no right of abode in the territory and all visitors need a permit", are UK authorities laying themselves open to the charge that protecting nature fits their people policy a little too comfortably?

One issue the plan certainly illustrates is the growing importance of archipelago states in marine conservation.

Increasingly, conservation groups are realising that you get a lot of "bangs for your buck" in protecting territorial waters in states made up of scattered islands. In the Chagos, territorial waters cover an area 10,000 times bigger than the actual land.

The Pew Environment Group is one making a lot of headway here, as demonstrated by its involvement in the Chagos application, the recently-declared Palau shark sanctuary, and the 2008 US Pacific territories plan.

Conservation science is clear on the importance of maintaining large, integrated areas where the habitat as well as the species are protected. And with no legal formulation yet in place for establishing reserves on the high seas - international waters - these archipelago nations are as good as it gets.

And the argument is made that if the Chagossians do eventually return with an exemption allowing them to fish, they would find themselves in some of the best-stocked seas on the planet.

So what do you think? Should the Chagos plan go ahead? Answers on a postcard, as they used to say, to the UK Foreign Office... or you could always post a comment here.

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