Sunday, August 7, 2022

The funny side of climate change


Former Portugal prime minister, now United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, came out with another of his extraordinary dire statements last week.

   Referring to the war in Ukraine and Western tensions with China, Korea and Iran, he said that humanity was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

   Here are some of his other most notable remarks this year.

   “The only certainty is more uncertainty.”

   “Mistrust among world powers is reaching fever pitch.”

   “The information superhighway is clogged with hatred and lies, giving oxygen to the worst impulses of humanity.”

   “From global health to digital technology are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.”

   “Unless governments everywhere reassess their energy policies the world will be uninhabitable.”

   Guterres obviously doesn’t mince his words, but the reaction from many people is merely a weary shrug of the shoulders. Others take such grim warnings so seriously that it causes mental health problems.

   During the COVID-19 pandemic and the social isolation than came with it, a great Increase in the number of individuals in Portugal and elsewhere were experiencing feelings of loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression. Several psychological studies concluded that this led to a profound short-term and also long-term damage to societies. 

   A survey conducted by the Ricardo Jorge National Foundation showed that in every ten Portuguese citizens quarantined during the pandemic, seven were revealed to have psychological distress. The majority were young adults or women. They showed symptoms of moderate to severe depression.

   Concerns about the present and future consequences of global warming were foremost among the young before the worst of the pandemic. They still are in 2022, which has been designated by the EU as the  ‘European Year of Youth.’   

  The young and plenty of oldies too, find the goings on in the world today simply preposterous. For example, United States senior politician Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, apparently unaware it would immediately infuriate the mainland Chinese, who promptly launched a massive military exercise involving cruise missiles over Taiwan, that heightened the chances of another war between nuclear superpowers.

   Only after months of infantile bickering has the export of 50 million tons of cereals been allowed to proceed to impoverished parts of Africa where every day so many people are dying of starvation. 

   “The height of irresponsibility” was one polite way of describing Russia’s launching of missiles from around a captured Ukrainian nuclear plant.

     In the words of a Bloomberg report, “burning fossil fuels can power the world 24 hours a day, sending electricity almost anywhere near instantaneously. Unfortunately, this very effective source of power is pushing ecosystems, animal species and human civilisation closer to catastrophe.” 

   It’s serious stuff, but on the pretext that we don’t laugh enough, lots of people are said to be asking why the end of humanity should be so depressing when there is always a funny side to life?

   Can we laugh about something as dire as climate change? Yes, if you agree that humour is a way to reach people who haven’t thought much about climate change. Research shows that comedy is a great way to break down defences; a great way to have people listen to truths that they might otherwise have missed. Comedy is said to be good for your mind.

   There are already quite a number of silly jokes  online, but now a group of nine comedians from around the United States are learning from climate experts and collaborating to pitch jokes for future performances and videos starting in October. They hope audiences will be learning, laughing and leaving feeling inspired.

   We’ll probably all be able to watch on YouTube. Whether António Guterres finds it amusing remains one of life’s less serious uncertainties.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Global warming crisis here and now


   Events over the past two weeks have surely scuppered any Trunp-like delusions that climate change is not happening or not threatening all forms of life on planet Earth.

   For example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the iconic monarch butterfly is now officially an endangered species close to extinction due to climate change and habitat loss. Best known for its incredible migrations across thousands of miles between Canada and Mexico, its population in western America is estimated to have plunged by 99.9% between the 1980s and 2021. The monarch butterfly is still to be found in parts of south-western Europe, including the Algarve, Madeira and the Azores, but maybe for not much longer.

   The IUCN’s ‘red list’ now totals 41,415 endangered animal and plant species, up 16,118 from last year. A total of 16,306 species are considered to be on the very edge of extinction. Unless we humans get our act together on climate change, we too could soon be on the red list.  

The extraordinary heat waves in Europe and North America have wakened people up to the likelihood of a global calamity unless vital action is taken by the leaders of major powers without further delay.

   The latest extreme heat that caused wildfires across Portugal, Spain, Greece, France and Italy has been a reminder to Europeans of their ever-worsening vulnerability to climate change. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1,700 people have died  because of the heat in mainland Portugal and Spain alone. And the summer is only half over.  

In Lisbon, Reuters correspondent Barry Hatton summed up the overall situation thus: “wildfires in Europe are starting earlier in the year, becoming more frequent, doing more damage and getting harder to stop. And scientists say, they are probably going to get worse as climate change intensifies, unless countermeasures are taken.”

   The heat problem in Portugal has been greatly worsened by the severe drought that has gripped the country because of last winter’s low rainfall. The month of May this year was the warmest in nine decades and 97% f the land was classified as suffering drought. Crops have been wilting. It will be many weeks before we can expect any substantial rain.

   Portugal’s Environment Minister Duarte Cardoeiro has told parliament that preparing the nation for climate change will take a generation. Meanwhile, he said, citizens should cut back on their use of water. Some local authorities have already closed public swimming pools at the very time they are most wanted. Irrigation is to be cut on golf courses and green spaces in the Algarve.  Rationing on domestic water supplies may follow as the levels of reservoirs continue dropping to very low levels.

   France had its hottest May since records there began. The river water used to cool French nuclear power plants became too hot to be effective. This pushed power prices up 10 times higher than between 2017 to 2021.

   Unprecedented heat in more northern countries, including Scandinavia but particularly the United Kingdom, have exposed how unprepared some are for extreme weather conditions.

   London’s fire services were busier coping with fires in the city than at any time since the blitz in World War II. As temperatures reached an all-time record level, the demand for power in the UK sent power processes soaring by 5% in a single day.

   So the global warming crisis is not only about preparations for 2030 and 2050. It’s also about the here and now.


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Charming Predator outwits the law

   After almost twenty years on the run from the UK and committing many crimes in various countries including Portugal, the serial fraudster Kenner Elias Jones, also known as ‘Conman Ken’ and ‘The Charming Predator’, has been tracked down living in a comfortable care home in Munich, Germany.

   There are two particularly shocking things about this sociopath. Firstly, his crimes have been so numerous and incredibly audacious. Secondly - and in complete contrast - police forces and judicial authorities in the UK and Europe have been unwilling or unable to arrest him since he jumped bail from Lewes Crown Court, East Sussex, and absconded in 2003. A warrant was issued for his arrest, so far to no effect.

   The name ‘The Charming Predator’ is the title of a biography by his first wife, a Canadian artist and former journalist, Lee Mackenzie. Like many others, she is awaiting the outcome of Jones’ discovery in Munich, hoping that this time the police and judicial authorities will act decisively.

    Kenner Elias Jones is believed to be occupying a room in the German care home under a false name which has been reported to Mackenzie as ‘Dr. Adam Palfrey.’ He is also alleged to be in poor health. Jones has often done the combination of name change and purported medical conditions before elsewhere.

   A recent visitor to his bedside said he indicated he was unable to speak or to communicate by typing on his laptop even though it was open right in front of him. The same visitor said staff at the care centre reported hearing him speaking at times before they entered the room. Details of Lee Mackenzie’s book have been left for him to read.

   A highly intelligent, friendly and likeable man originally from north Wales, Kenner Elias Jones is a compulsive liar who has variously posed successfully as a medical doctor, an Anglican priest and a refugee.

   He had already committed scores of crimes and served sentences in prison many times in the UK before seizing his chance to go on the run. Since then he has been deported and permanently barred from Canada and the United States. He was sentenced to a federal prison in the US for crimes of fraud. A senior immigration officer in the US described him as “the best conman I have ever encountered in my entire career".

   A warrant for his arrest was issued in Kenya, but it was too late. He had fled owing an estimated $100,000 on behalf of a charity he had set up in which he personally treated all ages and both genders of children despite having no medical qualifications.

   Portugal was his next stop. BBC Wales, the first to call him ‘Conman Ken’, interviewed a travel agent in Palmela near Lisbon who said Jones had tricked her into issuing tickets for his third wife and her children to fly to Portugal from Kenya. The promised later payment was never made.

   A Portuguese estate agent said Jones had persuaded him to lend hundreds of euros for medicines and other supposedly urgent needs while expressing interest in buying a property in the €400,000 - €500,000 price range. The investigative Policia Judiciaria were informed, but that’s as far as it got. No arrest but plenty more victims still to come.

   Next stop was south-western Spain. After a full meal one day,  Jones went to the toilet and collapsed with a suspected heart attack. An ambulance took him to a district hospital where tests during a six-week stay could find nothing wrong with him. He chalked up a bill of €26,000 on the understanding he was awaiting health insurance money. He vanished when pressure on him to pay increased. It’s understood the bill was never settled. He then had another unpaid stay, this time in a Spanish seaside resort, which also didn’t seem to greatly interest the Spanish police.

   Jones was next spotted in Sweden where he claimed to be a refugee who had fled from likely assassination in Africa for exposing corruption. The British police were again told of his exact location as they had been when he was in Spain. Swedish police knew about a warrant for his arrest in the UK, but the UK police had not issued a European Arrest Warrant, thus Kenner Elias Jones was free to pursue his wicked ways even though his British passport had expired by then.

   Jones’ exact whereabouts in Germany is now well know, but it remains to be seen if the UK and German police and judicial authorities are willing to cooperate and finally put this man behind bars and give him mental health treatment. It is well past time to keep him away from innocent victims on whom he practises his financial and emotional damage.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Climate change: it’s now or never


We’ve all heard about the need for enough urgent action to avoid a climate change calamity, but it simply isn’t happening.

   Here in Portugal, one of the most vulnerable countries to global warming, the authorities have been moving decisively in the fight against climate change by replacing fossil fuels with renewables. But this is only a small country. It is the major polluters – China, the United States, India and Russia - that need to get their act together if mass human and environmental destruction is to be avoided in the not too distant future. This is not doomsday talk. It’s common sense based on science.

   Under Donald Trump’s presidency the United States scoffed at climate change and  made many decisions that slowed climate action. President Joe Biden has tried to reverse that, but now a majority far-right Supreme Court ruling has disrupted America’s ability to cut carbon emissions.

   In another recent development, airlines in Europe and the US are demanding weaker rules on aviation emissions. In contrast to claims that airlines are aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, a research study concludes that the airlines are responsible for more global warming than previously thought and that their CO2 emissions may triple by 2050.  Some climate experts say this is “the biggest long-term issue our generation faces.”

   Setbacks such as those created by supreme court judges, CEOs of fossil fuel organisations and aviation executives are said to be “flying in the face of science.”  Accusations are being made of “moral and economic madness.” 

   The ones who are most worried about all this are the young and those feeling trepidation about future generations. Small countries such as Portugal, and even large ones such as Australia, have grave concerns about heat waves, wildfires, rising sea levels, floods and droughts, extreme conditions already often being experienced with dreadful economic consequences.

   Carbon dioxide released into the Earth’s atmosphere is the main source of greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. Most of it comes from just a few powerful countries. The US annually dumps about 5.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. China is currently dumping more than 10 billion tons, a massive figure that is expected to reach well over 12 billion tons by 2027.

   Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations and former prime minister o f Portugal, has frequently spoken out about the need for urgent action. He has warned that most national climate pledges are simply not good enough. “This is not just my view. Science and public opinion are giving timid climate policies a giant fail mark,” he has said.

   “We are witnessing a historic and dangerous disconnect - science and citizens are demanding ambitious and transformative climate action. Meanwhile, many governments are dragging their feet.”

    He anticipates that dreadful consequences will be the result. Nearly half the world’s population are already highly vulnerable. This is at a time when countries should all come together in the fight for human lives instead of allowing senseless wars and political divisions to tear us apart.

   “The energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine has seen a perilous doubling down on fossil fuels by the major economies. The war has reinforced an abject lesson: our energy mix is broken.”

   The paradox, says Guterres,is that cheaper, fairer and more reliable energy options, including wind and solar, should have been developed sooner and faster.    “Had we invested massively in renewable energy in the past, we would not be so dramatically at the mercy of the instability of fossil fuel markets.”

   The World Economic Forum (WEF) has warned that “it’s now or never” to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. For our part, we must keep reminding ourselves that this is not just one of the many matters troubling the world today. It is by far the biggest and the very existence of humanity on planet Earth is at stake. 



Sunday, July 3, 2022

Unveiling the world of corruption


The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has produced an easy-to-read insight into the vast number of leaked documents contained in its explosive Pandora Papers about global corruption.

  The Pandora Papers are highly relevant to Portugal as this is regarded internationally as well as by its own citizens as a significantly corrupt country that the authorities here are struggling to put right.

  ICIJ has now released a series of brief explanations about how the rich and famous have been able to exploit offshore financial systems. It summarise the Pandora Papers published that run to almost 12 million documents amounting to 2.9 terabytes, an unprecedented collection of leaked files gathered by more than 600 investigative journalists from 117 countries.

    The most corrupt individuals include heads of state, top politicians, billionaire company executives, entertainment celebrities and sports stars. What these crooks have been up to is still unfolding, but greatly inhibited by ICIJ’s revelations about the shadowy world of offshore finance and how inequality is impacting on everyday people around the globe.

    Two names that immediately come to mind in relation to corruption in Portugal are the once fabulously wealthy businesswoman Isabel dos Santos whose Portuguese assets have now been seized, and former Prime Minister Joao Socrates who has spent a lot of time in court. ICIJ has named a dozen other former prime ministers from various countries.  Two heads of royal families are on ICIJ’s lengthy corrupt list: King Abdullah ll of Jordan and former King Juan Carlos of Spain. Music celebrities include Ringo Starr and Elton John. Many of the elite have been using tax havens to keep under wraps such things as luxurious foreign homes, private jets, deluxe yachts and more.

  The offshore world has thrived despite decades of legislation, investigations and international agreements aimed at combating money laundering and tax dodging by the wealthy and well-connected. These reforms are typically aimed at tax havens, which in popular imagination are often seen as a far-flung cluster of palm-shaded islands, according to ICIJ.

  Keeping financial activities secret has become a big business in itself. The offshore system is underpinned by elite institutions – multinational banks, law firms and accounting practices – often headquartered in the U.S. and Europe, notably Delaware and Switzerland.

  Why does it matter that lawyers and accountants are subverting the system? Well, explains ICIJ, when the super-rich get to play by different rules and stash their wealth in places where they don’t live, don’t make their money, and probably haven’t even been to, trillions get drained from public coffers — money that governments might otherwise be using to help deal with revenue crunches, a pandemic, climate change and more. While fortunes are sheltered offshore, everyday people cover the difference, exacerbating the divide between the global haves and have-nots.

  Those assets are also hidden out of sight from authorities, creditors, claimants and public scrutiny — concealing unexplained or illicit wealth, enabling corruption, and depriving victims of wrongdoing of potential recourse.

  ICIJ has also dug into stories on how financial secrecy works against the public interest in some surprising ways. But while raucous protests and fiery press conferences tend to dominate the headlines after ICIJ publishes a major investigation like the Pandora Papers, the real action — the real change — takes months and sometimes years to develop fully.

    Based in New York, but ever focused on the entire financial world, ICIJ is keen to spread the word and welcomes newcomers to its information links and anyone who can help with donations to continue its extraordinary work.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Painful prices at the petrol pumps


  Drivers in Portugal are feeling not just the pinch but the pain of soaring petrol and diesel prices due to the war in Ukraine.

  Transport fuel prices are now more than €2 a litre, much the same as in most other European countries. Diesel in Portugal rose from €1.78 per litre on 28 May to €2.08 by 22nd June. Petrol (octane 95) went up from €1.88 in early May to €2.17 in mid-June. Octane 98 is more expensive and not all petrol stations sell it.

  An average car drive from Lisbon to Faro will cost just over €76 one way. It’s about 277 km via the A2. Lisbon to Porto -  341 km via the A1 -  costs about €85.75. Elsewhere in the world some prices are higher, more are lower. The average price of petrol per litre in the world recently has been €1.89.

  Crude oil, the fossil fuel from which petrol and diesel are refined, is imported by Portugal from Angola, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Natural gas, the fuel used for heating and creating electricity, is imported from Nigeria and the United States. Crude oil and natural gas are shipped into the deep-water port of Sines, south of Lisbon, the closest major European port to the U.S.

  Portugal itself has both onshore and offshore areas containing oil and a number of years ago the government granted concession contracts to several large oil companies. The concessions in the Algarve and Peniche offshore areas – highly contentious among environmentalists – were terminated by the government in 2017. There is still no clear evidence as to whether Portugal has sufficiently large quantities of hidden oil to consider commercial extraction.

  That aside, former Environment and Energy Transition Minister João Matos Fernandes has said that Portugal has strategic reserves of petrol and diesel that guarantee the country’s consumption for 90 days, plus the reserves that energy companies themselves have. The reserves of natural gas are also at very comfortable levels, exceeding 80% of the country’s total storage capacity. Fernandes has said he considers it crucial to increase Iberia’s gas pipeline connections to the rest of Europe as there is only one running from Spain to France.

  According to the World Bank, the war in Ukraine could keep oil and natural gas prices at historically high levels through the end of 2024.It expects energy prices to rise more than 50% in 2022 before easing in 2023 and 2024. In the event of a prolonged war, or additional sanctions on Russia, prices could be even higher and more volatile than currently projected.

  European and other countries placed hard sanctions on Russian imports to try and stop the Kremlin funding their outrageous aggression. It has backfired in the sense that stopping imports of Russia’s main export commodities – oil and gas – has harmed the West as well as Russia. Germany is particularly concerned that Russia’s moves to slash Europe’s natural gas supplies risked sparking a collapse in energy markets and a situation similar to the 2008 global financial crisis.

  Russia is meanwhile benefitting by selling vast amounts of oil at discounted prices to China and India. This surge in demand from Asia is making up for the significantly lower number of barrels being sold to Europe.

  China’s imports of Russian oil rose 28% in May this year from the previous month, while India has gone from taking in almost no Russian oil to buying more than 760,000 barrels a day.

  The oil is being sold at a steep discount because of the risks associated with sanctions imposed to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Still, soaring energy prices have led to an advance in oil revenue for Russia, which reaped in $1.7 billion more last month than it did in April.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Conning on the cost of living

The soaring cost of living because of record-breaking inflation rates is bad enough in itself, but there are a couple of other rather sneaky economic things to worry about too.

The annual inflation rate in Portugal hit 8% in May, up from 7.2% in April and the highest since February 1993. It has pushed up the prices of fuel, food and much else.

The latest statistics confirm that the annual rise across the Eurozone was a record 8.1%, four times higher than a year ago. In the United States the rise was 8.6% in May, up from 7% in April. In the United Kingdom it is already at a 40-year high and predicted to peak at 15% and remain very high into 2023.

Inflation and the cost of living are causing a global crisis that is expected to get worse, perhaps much worse, just about everywhere. It is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the breakdown in economic relations between Russia most European countries and elsewhere in the Western world.

The economic crisis has prompted some companies into a neat way of deceiving consumers. The name of the game is 'shrinkflation'. The trick is to reduce the quantity of a product while keeping the same price. It’s happening mainly in the food and beverage sector and it’s a way for companies to maintain or boost profits while combating rising import and processing costs.

The cunning ways being used in shrinkflation include reducing the content of toilet rolls by shrinking the size or thickness of each sheet, or cutting the number of sheets per roll. Would you really notice the difference?

One way of cutting the quantity but not the price of a non-alcoholic liquid in a plastic bottle is by curving the centre of the bottle inwards so it has a slimmer waist and is easier to hold. Some coloured bottles of cleaning liquid are perhaps unnoticeably just not topped up as before.

These sorts of tactics make it less obvious to consumers than simply bumping up prices and apparently they are perfectly legal if the correct information is included in the small print on the bottle or package.

No-one can get away with this when selling a kilo of potatoes of course, but shrinkflation is seen by producers as a method of reducing the risk of affecting the reputation of brands. It has been around quietly for a few years, supposedly far less so in Portugal than elsewhere, though it is difficult to monitor and little talked about.

A nastier con trick among some companies passing rising costs along to consumers is the so-called practise of ‘drip-pricing’. The way it works is that online retailers of goods and services offer an attractive price that lures buyers into a purchase process, only to be told at the last minute that a fee, tax or surcharge has been tacked on. 

It’s all rather grim, but so is most of the news nowadays. However, the world’s wealthiest billionaire, Elon Musk, has a positive tip if you happen to have money and aren’t quite sure what to do with it. He suggests putting it into real estate. House prices are high but buying one can be a solid investment. Looking at it another way, it’s currently a seller’s market and there’s a serious demand for homes, so if you sell one you might make a solid profit.

Musk was talking from an American perspective, but it probably applies here in Portugal too.

As one specialist company put it: “Buying a property in Portugal is becoming more expensive and the pace of increases shows no signs of slowing down.” A year-on-year increase of more than 15% has been recorded. To heck with inflation, both Mr Musk and you might be tempted.