One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why We Need Diplomats

Last week, a gaggle of US Republican Senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, in which they said that as soon as their party wins the next election, they'll reverse a treaty on nuclear energy and weapons. 

Right. We're going to leave behind the content of the letter for the rest of this blog. Let's focus on the method of communication.

By writing directly, these Senators took it upon themselves to speak directly to a foreign government, bypassing the centuries-old practice in which countries talk to each other via ambassadors and diplomats. They took upon themselves the responsibility which is reserved for the President, thereby breaching the Constitution.

A US senator is a domestic politician; he or she is elected to represent his constituency and not his country. He or she should concern themselves with the laws of the land and how it affects his or her constituents, rather than agreements among nations.

Presidents and heads of state, diplomats and ambassadors are the ones who are appointed to talk to other countries on behalf of senators, Congressmen and pretty much everyone else in the country.

So when this troupe of senators put pen to paper to warn a foreign nation that as soon as their party gets into power they'll tear up an agreement their two countries have made, they've essentially gone rogue. They've exceeded their brief, they've undermined the position of their country's leadership and its ambassadors, and they've lowered their country's standing in the community of nations.

Diplomacy evolved for exactly the same reason that traffic lights were invented. If we left it to each citizen to carry on relations with citizens of other nations, there'd be seven billion shouting matches going on at the same time. These 47 fools just went and proved why we need diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's finance minister, and his German counterpart Wolfgang Schauble are embroiled in a less-than-ministerial tussle. Varoufakis claims Schauble has insulted him by saying that the recently-appointed Greek minister has been naive in his dealings with the media.

Not only that, but Varoufakis' boss, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, popped up in the Greek Parliament this week saying that Germany still owes Greece money from World War Two: not the most sensitive way to shepherd tense negotiations.

This mudslinging and name-calling may persuade you that those US Senators were on to something when they decided to bypass the normal procedure. But all this unedifying spectacle tells us is that politicians have started to believe that they are more important than the system. 

I've met my share of politicians, and more than my share of diplomats over the years. Let me tell you, politicians are desperate to talk. It's their job. They can't stop themselves from spouting forth on anything and everything. All you have to do is wind them up by asking a question and you're good for the next 45 minutes.

Diplomats, in contrast, have to be cajoled, encouraged to say something. And when they do say it, it's spoken in a code, in a formula that may not mean much to you or I, but means a great deal to other diplomats. And it's delivered slowly, carefully. You can see the gears working in a diplomat's head when you ask him for a comment on something. And when diplomats write to each other, it's even worse. Long, formal sentences full of "heretofores" and "without prejudices". It's basically lawyer-speak.

Which makes perfect sense. Whether we know it or not, there are laws, or conventions that govern the way countries relate to each other, and diplomacy is the practice of that set of international laws and conventions.

My grandfather - a diplomat up to the 1970s - once taught me a guiding principle of diplomacy. He sat me down and presented the following scenario:

"There's been a coup in the country of X-land, and the president's been shot. The next morning you, as the British ambassador in the capital city of X-ville, receive a letter from the new leader of X-land in which he asks for assistance in rebuilding X-land's economy and promises to be a faithful ally in the future. What should your reply be?"

I thought for a while and suggested that I would compose a stalling reply to say that my country would consider what to do next once we had assessed the situation. My grandfather shook his head.

"You would do nothing," he said. "You don't say anything or send anything. Why? Because your government hasn't recognised the new government of X-land. Until it does, the new government is in your official eyes, illegitimate and you don't talk to them or acknowledge their existence. Your relationship is, was, with the deposed leader until you are told otherwise." 

That shut me up.

I add this anecdote only to point out that there isn't a politician alive who could manage to follow those rules, to stay silent and follow protocol.

Politicians have started to believe that they have the right to get involved in issues that are outside their remit, and to ignore the fundamental principles of international relations. Because they're elected, they think they have the rights to *all* the buttons and levers of power, even ones they're not trained to operate.

Diplomacy has been practised, without interruption, since the 13th century. There's a code of conduct, and a reason why that code of conduct has remained in essence untouched since then. Firstly, it works, and secondly, it keeps the grubby, ignorant hands of politicians out of international discourse. Let's hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Nigel Farage Is a Benefit Fraudster

Ha. Nice catchy title. If there's one thing that I've learned from all my years in journalism, it's that a headline has to be sexy. And when a blog has been dormant for, what is it, eight whole years, you need something with pizazz to catch the corporate attention.

Why eight years? Because I found myself having relatively little to say, because I found myself all written out at the end of each working day, and because for the intervening years, any spare moments I had were devoted to SongsWithoutWhich

But happily, there's been a steady stream of nonsense that has finally filled my cup to overflowing, and One Rant At a Time is officially Re-Opened For Business. I'm back, and I'm hacked off at a lot of things. And because the internet is the only true democracy there is, I'm going to occupy my corner of it.

As you may not recall, I spend a lot of my time working in and around the world of climate change, specifically the efforts countries are making to address the challenge and the money that is being spent. So I deal with people who are deeply rational, financially astute and worried.

So when that charmer Nigel Farage popped up in an interview on the Spiked website, trumpeting both his ignorance about climate change - "I haven't got a clue whether climate change is being driven by carbon-dioxide emissions" - and at the same moment his opposition to doing anything about it, it became an opportunity too good to miss.

For a start, let's just unpack those two sentences. Firstly: "I haven't got a clue whether climate change is being driven by carbon-dioxide emissions." Well, that's fine Nigel, because you're not a scientist. Fortunately, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of qualified, highly-educated scientists all around the world who say that climate change is caused by CO2 emissions. So there's no need to trouble your little head on that, the science crowd has got your back.

Then he goes on to say: "We are a nation that produces 1.8 per cent of global carbon dioxide, so I do not get closing down our aluminium smelters, most of our steel production, and now our refining industry, and all that production being moved to India, and therefore the steel-based products made in India then having to be shipped back to Britain," he said. "This to me makes no sense at all."

Here's where he starts to betray ignorance that ill befits a man of his background. Farage conveniently neglects the fact that none of this closing down of aluminium and steel production has happened due to climate legislation, and he ignores the fact that all of it has happened due to the intense competition in the steel and refining industries worldwide. Not only is it cheaper to make steel in Asia, but countries in that part of the world also happen to be closer to the biggest consumers in the world - China and India. Steelmakers gain in terms of lower shipping costs, lower wages, etc. It's cheaper to refine oil and manufacture cement in Asia for exactly the same reasons.

Rolling back Europe's climate regulations would have ZERO impact on industry's profitability in this country, since those sectors are hardly impacted by the rules in the first place. Sitting in the European Parliament, you'd think Farage would know this stuff.

The Spiked article goes on to say: "Farage declares himself agnostic on climate change" and describes him as opposed to current policies designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

What he's doing here is absolving himself of any responsibility for doing anything. He disputes the science. He rejects it while all around him are knowledgeable people, politicians included, who accept it and are acting on it. This fingers-in-ears-la-la-la-I-can't-heeeeeaaarr-you attitude in someone who wishes to become leader of a country is not particularly reassuring. How will he react when something equally threatening, but far more immediate happens - say, Russian planes flying over UK soil, rather than just over territorial waters? Cover his eyes and pretend he can't see them?

And it's not just his climate denial in the face of facts and evidence that gets my goat. 

Now, to the character assassination: this is a man who takes a £78,000 annual salary as a member of the European Parliament, an institution he wants the UK to withdraw from, while undertaking almost none of the duties an MEP is expected to perform. He participates in less than half of the votes held in the Parliament. He's prepared no legislation, nor has he offered any amendments to any other proposals. The one time he did propose a motion, he failed to turn up to support it. 

In short, Nigel only goes to Brussels because some of us elected him, and because the European Parliament pays him to go; he's certainly not there to work. He's the leader of a political party but doesn't take any salary from UKIP. Brussels - and by extension, you and I - pick up the tab for his ventures. 

He engages in petty stunts to try to highlight his views: last year he pointedly turned his back on the Parliamentary leadership during the playing of the European anthem. To my mind, one of the things that any institution deserves is the respect of its members. This action underlines more strongly than any other the enormous con that he's perpetrating by pretending to be a member of the European Parliament.

Basically Farage is a benefit fraudster, taking public funds under false pretences. When politicians are paid out of our tax money, we have the right to expect that they will work hard and diligently to represent us, rather than treat the office they hold as a vast joke. Nigel Farage is banking on us accepting that because it's his "politics" that drive him to cheat us of our tax money, it's OK.

He's made a monumental miscalculation. How can we, upon knowing how he disrespects us, the political process, his role as an elected official and the European institutions that have been built over the past 70 years, how can we trust him not to treat elected office in the U.K. with the same flippancy, the same cavalier sense of middle-class entitlement?

Since he came to national prominence, he's been fire-fighting pretty much non-stop, as various acolytes betray their real prejudices and passions, and his own peccadilloes come to light. We can only hope that enough radioactive gunk attaches itself to him that he remains a nine-day wonder, and that he loses both his deposit, and his day-job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Carbon Offsets: the Whole Story

If you surf over to, you can enjoy a giggle at the idea of paying someone else to remain faithful to their partner so that you can continue your philandering ways.

It's a spoof site, and the idea behind it is to raise some issues surrounding the idea of carbon offsetting, which has come under some fire recently. The accusation is that carbon offsetting allows us in the industrialised world to carry on with our carbon-intensive ways, and to just pay someone to salve our consciences.

Here's how offsetting works.

1. You need to calculate just how much carbon dioxide emissions you are responsible for: everything from your car, your gas or electrical heating and cooking, your business or holiday flights, everything.

2. Once you've added it all up and worked out your total CO2 emissions, you're encouraged to buy the same number of carbon "offsets" to effectively neutralize your impact on the planet. You can do this by paying for trees to be planted, or helping to fund an energy-efficiency project, for example.

3. Those projects will contribute to reducing CO2 emissions elsewhere. But since CO2 is a global problem, and our atmosphere doesn't obey national borders, a contribution in Birmingham is just as valid as one in Bali.

Sounds simple, right? And it is. Not just individuals but whole companies are offsetting their carbon "footprint". HSBC, for example.

But the opponents of carbon offsetting think it's all a scam. They think it's immoral to allow big business to continue to emit CO2 and simply pay someone to deal with the problem somewhere else.

And that's precisely where they're getting it wrong.

The whole point about offsetting is that you are investing in someone who can reduce their emissions more cheaply than you can. Let's use HSBC as an example. They've probably changed their electricity supplier to one that generates power using renewable resources like biomass or wind. They've probably maximised their recycling, and done any number of other things in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

But they're still emitting some CO2. And if you want to become carbon-neutral, you need to ensure you're doing something about every single tonne of CO2 that you're resopnsible for.

So HSBC has done as much as it can. And it still finds it's emitting however many thousand tonnes of CO2 a year. So, the next step -- apart from shutting down the entire business -- is to offset its remaining carbon footprint.

And here's the clever part. To be truly carbon neutral, you need to invest in something, some project or activity, that is reducing emissions compared to what would have happened, if carbon offsetting didn't exist.

To explain: imagine you're the government of Botswana. Your population is growing, energy demand is rising, and you need to build a new electricity plant. Your first choice is to use coal to generate power because it's cheap and plentiful. But coal is massively carbon-intensive and you're not keen to damage the environment.

So you look at alternatives. Natural gas would be good, as it's half as carbon-intensive as coal. but a gas-fired plant costs more to build. Wind power would be best of all, since it's completely carbon-free.

But thanks to this new-fangled carbon offsetting, you can build your gas-fired plant, you can calculate how many tonnes of CO2 your new plant saves compared with your original choice of coal, and you can sell that many carbon credits to foreign buyers.

So, in a nutshell, carbon offsetting does help cut carbon emissions. It cuts them compared to what they would have been without this whole new carbon market.

The problem that many environmentalists suffer from is their inability to see the wood for the trees. They want society to come to an instant solution. They're saying "carbon dioxide is bad, so we must all stop generating it at once." As if that's likely to happen.....

Sure, carbon offsetting isn't the total solution, but as we struggle to come to terms with our new responsibility to the planet, it's a pretty good way to get us all thinking about the subject. And it does work.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sandwiches can save the planet

This made me laugh today. Apparently you can save the planet by eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of meat-based meals. The folks at PBJCampaign say those burgers cost too much in terms of water, carbon dioxide emissions and forest cover.

But I wonder where the peanuts in my PBJ come from, and how many miles they flew to get here. Likewise my jam. And how much water did the fruit and nuts need in order to reach my kitchen?

Just reassure me that a PBJ does less damage to the planet than a burger or a pizza and I'll sign up.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Corporate Greed 1: Aer Lingus

Been a while, hasn't it. Sorry about that.

I flew to Ireland over the weekend, using Aer Lingus rather than Ryanair purely for convenience, but now I wish I'd gone with the upstart.

I paid £64 for my return ticket online, all taxes and charges included. Which is perfectly fine, and a very welcome cheap price too.

But when I got to the airport to check in, I was told that I'd be charged 8 euros to have my bag stowed in the cargo hold.


Yup, the lady said. New policy, check it out here on this nice laminated notice on the desk.

I managed to simultaneously scrape my jaw off the floor and pay the lady 8 euros, and wandered off to the gate, trying to arrange my thoughts into coherent strands.

So now Aer Lingus is charging us extra to carry our luggage? How the hell did they get that one past us?

After a while, I realized they are clever, clever people. Here's how I reckon they must have thought it through:

"The SLF (self-loading freight - what airlines refer to us mugs as) are caught between a rock and a hard place. They need to travel. They may want or need to spend more than a few nights away. So they will bring lots of liquids like shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, mouthwash.

"BUT, the SLF also know that under the new anti-terrorist rules they can't take more than 100 ml of any liquid in their carry-on luggage.

"So if they're going for more than an overnight trip or if they happen to be carrying a full jumbo tube of toothpaste, they'll have to check the bag into the cargo hold. Which is where we get them in their wallets. I reckon 8 euros should be enough: not too much, and yet not enough to make them want to discard all their liquids and buy them at the other end instead."

Cue cheers, celebrations and champagne and Guinness all round for the bright sparks in Aer Lingus marketing.

So, in a nutshell, Aer Lingus has decided that it's OK to gouge their passengers, knowing full well that we are only obeying the law of the land in the form of the anti-terrorist regulations.

Now, another point. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but isn't the cost of a ticket supposed to cover the carriage of your luggage as well? When did that change and why didn't I get the memo?

What next? Charging us for the air they're recycling in flight?

I'm fairly confident that some day soon we'll tip up at the airport, clamber aboard the plane and take off, only to be told 30,000 feet over Bristol that the airfare we paid Aer Lingus three weeks ago only covered the first part of the journey, and unless we stump up another £70, we're going to have to disembark here. Now.

What's a far surer bet is that Aer Lingus will soon set up a shop in the arrivals terminal at Dublin, to sell us all manner of liquids that we dumped in London, just to avoid paying the thieving so-and-sos the 8 euros for the pleasure of having our bags stowed in the hold.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Labour office politics

If anyone ever needed proof that politics is a venal, grubby unpleasant occupation, I hope that the events of the last few days have convinced you.

The unedifying sight of a Prime Minister under siege from a baying pack of politicians and journalists and being forced to announce a departure date, followed by a series of resignations from former supporters, simply underlines the fact that politics, no matter what anyone may say, is a career just like any other.

And just as in any other large corporation there is office politics (sic), gossip around the water cooler, smarmy, toadying drones applying their noses to the buttocks of the directors and dark, ambitious forces eddying around the door of the boardroom.

Consider this: Since Blair (or people assumed to speak for him) indicated he would step down in early/mid 2007, one junior minister and seven parliamentary secretaries have all resigned, while the calls from the margins for him to go now are growing ever louder.

If we assume that those that have resigned were Blair loyalists, why the need to resign? Oh yes, to begin the arduous task of removing their faces from one set of buttocks and join the feeding frenzy that is building between another pair of cheeks.

If these people had principles, they'd accept that once "their man" no longer holds power, they too should go. There used to be something called "collective responsibility" whereby the government as a whole stood or fell together.

Nowadays though, that's an expensive indulgence. Politics is no longer the preserve of the moneyed or titled classes as it was 200 years ago, but a highly sought-after pit-stop on the way to a lucrative career in consultancy or lobbying. It's a career in itself for many people, too.

Remember the recent scandal over former ministers not vacating their Government lodgings? Just greed.

And once you've got your arms and legs tightly wrapped around the greasy pole at any height off the ground, you're damned if you're going to jump off.

Hence environment secretary David Milliband, a Blair appointment, has already nailed his colours to the mast: "The smooth transition to Gordon Brown, the energising, refreshing transition to Gordon Brown - not to anyone else - is a transition that is about ideas and values more than about dates."

I was always under the impression that politicians and civil servants ran the country; nowadays though they look more like contestants on the X Factor.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Would Jesus drive a Chelsea Tractor?

This article amused me. It seems the Church of England has decided that it needs to set up a new category of sin - sins against the climate. According to the article, "flying abroad for a holiday is a sin against the planet."

That's a bit strong, surely?

Now it must be quite clear by now that I'm strongly in favour of us making more of an effort to rein in our relentless generation of greenhouse gases and to try to prevent catastrophic climate change, but the idea that organized religion feels it should try to exert some influence over our attitudes to climate change made me chuckle.

For a start, a lot of religious folks don't believe climate change is a problem. Take that man Bush and his ilk, for example. Whether it's his religion or the fat paycheck from Exxon that tells him this, is another question; but he's an avowedly religious man, and he doesn't believe in climate change.

Secondly, there are a bunch of total nutters out there who believe that it's a fine idea to actually hasten the end of the world, so they can lay out their beach towels on the beaches of Heaven before the rest of us get there. So for them, climate change is just fine, thank you very much.

So you'll forgive me if I say that organized religion's track record on global warming isn't all that.

To their credit though, there is a growing body of opinion among the various faiths that we should try and get a grip on the climate and reduce the impact of our actions. In the US, the National Association of Evangelicals got pretty close to taking a positive stand on the issue, while younger Christians are getting restless about their elders' inaction.

Nonetheless, this new line from the Church of England sounds depressingly like the sort of policy U-turn for which Tony Blair has become so derided. It's almost as if the Church (wherever it may be established) has decided that the environment is a vote-winner. But is it a bums-on-seats, pounds-in-collection-plates issue, which is probably what the Church is really hoping?

Maybe we should just be grateful that the Church of England has come out in favour of firmer action on the climate, rather than examine its motives. That'll be the cynic in me.

But if we go back to the quotation from the article at the very top of this entry, note that the bish says "flying abroad for a holiday is a sin against the planet." What about business travel? Do we get a special dispensation for that? Maybe it's OK for me to fly to visit my ailing grandmother, but NOT to relax while I'm there.

The problem with this attitude, if we are to believe the article, is that the Church is looking for an easy target. So many of us fly, especially on holiday, that's it's too easy and too lazy of them to target just recreational flights.

It's OK to fly. If we do so responsibly. For example, there are plenty of programmes out there that allow us to offset the impact of our flights by buying carbon credits that will go towards investing in clean energy projects around the world. So while our flight generates some carbon, our credits will go towards generating carbon-free electricity. Net result - a carbon-neutral flight.

What the Church of England has conspicuously failed to do is to point out that driving honking great Chelsea Tractors is a sin against the planet.

Now, I ask you: if you want to take a stand on the environment, are you going to rail against cheap flights to holiday destinations, which have come within the reach of the vast majority of the country, most of whom don't attend church anyway?

Or are you going to rail against the owners of Range Rovers or Porsche Cayennes who, face it, are your preferred kind of parishioner, who leave large lumps of cash in your collection plate each Sunday and who can be relied on to staff your jumble sales or fund-raising drives?

No-brainer, right?

The problem is that the Church hasn't weighed up the amount of global warming caused by those cheap holiday flights. They're usually packed to the rafters and therefore as carbon-efficient as they can be, while each driver in this country probably generates more carbon dioxide from one car than a plane does on return flight to Malaga. And most of those cars are driven with just one passenger in them.

What's even more depressing is that the Church of England doesn't seem to have educated itself on the issue, to have understood that there are ways and means for us to offset the impact of those flights we take, whereas there isn't as much opportunity for the average driver to really do anything to offset the impacts of their school run.

So until the Church can build itself a consistent, morally-defensible point of view on the issue of the environment, it's just cashing in on the latest hot topic, and what's worse, in fact what's reprehensible and plain downright cowardly of them, is that they're targeting the softest target of all. Back to the drawing board, Vicar.

With thanks to Donel McClellan for the title, and a great sermon. With jokes.