Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blocking out global warming worries

Climate change is arguably the biggest threat that humanity has ever faced and so perhaps it should have repeatedly dominated the headlines this past year, if not the past decade. It didn’t because discussion on the subject is so confusing and implicitly terrifying that many people don’t even want to think about it.
Academic debate rages about whether or not the globe really is warming – or if so, why, by how much, and what should be done about it.  
The majority of leading scientific authorities argue that the surface temperatures of the Earth have been rising since 1900 - increasingly so in the last four decades.
The Royal Society, Britain’s pre-eminent scientific association, is in little doubt as to why: “It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing the Earth’s climate.”
On what may lie ahead, the British Society is equally confident: “Long-term climate change over many decades will depend mainly on the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activities.”
Others are bolder in the views. George Marshall, the Oxford-based founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, points out in a new book that “scientists who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nonetheless keep using the same word: catastrophe.
But sceptics insist the theory of ‘catastrophic’ global warming is doom mongering and a fraudulent scientific conspiracy. Some have dubbed it ‘the greatest scam in history.’ 
Paradoxically, the fuss is about only a few degrees. The word ‘catastrophe’ enters the fray to describe what the world can expect if the climate warms by more than 2ºC.
‘Catastrophe’ may seem a little strong for a small amount of warming, but even a change of a few degrees could have extremely negative effects on agriculture, food production and fisheries in Portugal as elsewhere.  
If it were to stretch to 4ºC, sea levels would rise so much that not only small towns and resorts in the Algarve, but Lisbon and two-thirds of the world’s other major cities would end up underwater.
One of the world’s most influential climate scientists, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber believes, “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.” Along with many fellow-scientists, he thinks the 4ºC scenario is increasingly likely.
Four degrees of warming overall would make it two degrees warmer in some places, 12 degrees or more in others. The world, much of it then uninhabitable, would be hotter than at any time in the last 30 million years.
This could happen by 2060 – in other words, if not in our lifetime then in the lifetime of our children or grandchildren.
Portugal is thought to be one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming in Europe. Sea levels along the shores of the mainland have been rising annually by more than 4mm over the past decade, twice those in the previous two decades, according to a government-commissioned report.
Rises in average summer season temperatures of up to 7ºC are predicted for the mainland, though only 2-3ºC in Madeira and 1-2ºC in the Azores.   
Referring to a report released last month by the World Meteorological Organization, the Scientific American magazine ran an article stating that 2014 will likely prove to have been the hottest on record for the planet. “This would make 2014 the 38th consecutive year with an anomalously high annual global temperature.”
Such assertions are dismissed by sceptics who insist that the latest scientific evidence shows that while carbon dioxide emissions have risen, there has been little or no global warming since 1998. 
According to climate specialists Sebastian Lüning and Fritz Vahrenholt, who have examined historical temperature data recorded by weather stations in Lisbon and Coimbra over the last 140 years,  the temperature has risen by nearly one degree since 1850, but there has been no warming either in Portugal or globally in the past 16 years.
“Hardly known today is the fact that around 1950 temperatures in Portugal were as warm over a ten-year period as they are today. And 60 years before that, during the late 19th century, another warm peak had occurred in Portugal, though temperatures were not quite as high as modern levels.”
Those in the sceptical camp claim that the catastrophe hypothesis is a socialist plot designed to curb capitalism.
The retort from the other side is that ‘denial’ of global warming is being engineered and funded by right-wing elitists with vested interests in the oil industry.
On carbon emissions, however, there is some common agreement that the levels are rising and that something ought to be done about it.
Portugal is only a small country but it is doing its bit to cut fossil fuel dependency, expand renewable use and generally strengthen its climate policies.
A survey in 2014 confirmed Portugal’s high standing among the 58 countries responsible for more than 90 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
The biggest polluters, including China, Russia, India and the US, have been ducking and diving on this issue since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Copenhagen summit in 2009 and 18 other major meetings under the auspices of the United Nations. The latest, a few weeks ago in Lima, Peru, offered a glimmer of hope.
“Governments took a step back from chaos in the climate change discussions in Lima and found a way forward,” reported the Guardian, “albeit with some fudges and compromises, giving themselves just 12 months to finalise a crucial international agreement to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.”  
The only startling news to come out of the Lima conference, attended by representatives from 195 countries, was that a group of Greenpeace eco-warriors distinguished themselves by trampling over an ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site “while setting up one of their sanctimonious, publicity-grabbing stunts,” as a sceptical columnist in the Sunday Times put it.
Environmentalists everywhere are fed up because top-level political shilly-shallying has been going on for well over a decade. Now would be a good time for world leaders to stop procrastinating and start turning words into action.
They are in no great hurry, of course, as governments rarely have a long-term vision, being focused only on their next election. The next summit, in Paris, will not be until towards the end of 2015.
As for the rest of us, we can barely cope with all the bad news about wars and terrorist savagery, corruption and economic crises, let alone the terrifying prospect of a global climate catastrophe.
As supposedly the most intelligent of species with dominion over all others, the title of George Marshall’s new book - Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change - speaks volumes about what a hopeless lot we humans are when it comes to looking after life on our planet.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A new shake-up in the Madeleine case?

The Operation Grange investigation by the Metropolitan Police into the disappearance of  Madeleine McCann is said to be “upbeat” and set to continue despite mounting costs, a top resignation and apparently still no breakthrough in sight.
The latest episode in this extraordinary case, with Scotland Yard detectives questioning ten people in Faro, does not seem to have resulted in any meaningful progress.
 The previous high point in the investigation featured British police searching across three sites next to Praia da Luz in the summer. Scorned by sceptics as a ‘whitewash’ and a ‘circus,’ the searches produced no new evidence and gave rise not only to exasperation among local citizens, but also speculation that the investigation was nearing its endgame.
The speculation heightened with news that the cost of the inquiry was approaching £10 million at a time of stringent budget cuts that could have disastrous consequences for police forces across the UK.   
The announcement that Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood was retiring from the Met as the head of Operation Grange further invigorated the notion that the case was going nowhere.
“After careful consideration and a full and rewarding career in the Met, the time is right for me to move on,” Redwood said.
A headline in the Mirror declared: “Madeleine McCann top cop quits: This does send a certain kind of message.”
The paper reported that with Redwood’s resignation, “the inquiry into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann suffered a blow.” It went on to quote a source close to the inquiry: “The investigation has gone on for three and a half years now. However a lead detective would not typically stand down if they can see a result in the pipeline.”
If this did indeed send “a certain kind of message,” it was somewhat confused by the simultaneous announcement that DCI Nicola Wall was to replace Redwood as leader of the Operation Grange team.
This left some observers wondering if the latest questioning in Faro was a last ditch effort that might soon lead to a formal wrapping up of the investigation.
Not so, apparently.
Anthony Summers, co-author with his wife Robbyn Swan of the book Looking for Madeleine, told the BBC Breakfast programme that, according to his sources, the Operation Grange team is “upbeat and believes the case is solvable.”
There is said to be no political pressure, no hidden agenda and no pressure or problem about expenditure.
The team still comprises about 30 officers and support staff, essentially the same number as earlier in the investigation. The expectation is that they will continue ploughing methodically though a vast amount of information.
So, the indications are that although the investigation is taking a very long time with apparently little success, this should not be interpreted as meaning that detectives are pessimistic about the case or about to give up.
It has been known by insiders for some months that Redwood was going to retire. But immediately after the announcement, the Mirror quoted a senior Labour MP as saying: “There are times when public duty must override personal circumstances, and this is one of them. If senior officers were aware of the DCI’s retirement plans, why was he put on to this case in the first place?”
Interesting question, but this is a side issue.
The main thrust is that Nicola Wall has now met the senior Portuguese officials she will be collaborating with after formally taking command of Operation Grange on 22 December.
When Inês Sequeira was appointed Portimão’s new public prosecutor in October she was quoted in the press as being “utterly determined” to crack the case.
She has the backing of Portugal’s first woman attorney general, Joana Marques Vidal, Portimão’s PJ chief, Ana Paula Rito, and the Oporto-based PJ detective in charge of the Portuguese investigation, Helena Monteiro.
Nicola Wall has served at the Met for 26 years, most recently as head of the Murder Investigation Team in West London. Hitherto she has not had much media coverage, but that’s about to change.
Vogue magazine last year reported that she prided herself on her investigative speed; that she was only partially joking when she attributed her low media profile to the fact “we solve cases so quickly nobody gets involved.”
       An omen perhaps?

DCI Nicola Wall arriving at the PJ headquarters in Faro.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Human migration: madness in motion

Unlike birds and other creatures that migrate in an orderly and timely way, the mass movement of humans is shambolic.
We used to wander about freely hunting and gathering in small tribes. As human populations grew and greeds as well as needs became greater, the more developed tribes sent explorers forth to look for opportunities among vulnerable communities abroad. Invaders and colonisers followed.
Portugal and Spain appealed to Celtic, Roman and Moorish intruders. Britain attracted Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Normans.
The trend swivelled when the Portuguese, Spanish and later the British dispatched their brightest and bravest to set up shop in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Now we are into a different kind of mass movement in which the trend has done a U-turn: the former colonising countries are being colonised.
Accurate statistics are fleeting and iffy because of the erratic and sometimes illegal nature of migration, but according to the OECD the percentage of foreign-born citizens living in Portugal is about 8% compared with 12% in the UK and well over 14% in Spain.
In Portugal, foreign-born residents from outside the EU outnumber those from within by about four to one. The majority are from the former colony of Brazil. There are also plenty from the old African territories.
Being among the poorer European countries, Portugal is not fretting about being swamped by EU immigrants. They are seen as an asset not a threat. Over the past couple of decades, plenty of East Europeans have come to work hard. Reasonably well-off British citizens, who like to be thought of as ‘expatriates’ rather than immigrants, have ambled in to buy property and retire in the sun.
Alarmingly, however, with Portugal’s population ageing and its birth-rate dropping, there has been an exodus in recent years of well-educated young men and women seeking employment in the far-flung Portuguese-speaking diaspora.
Some are going to the US where Barack Obama recently emphasised that Americans “are and always will be, a nation of immigrants.” About 20% of all international migrants - nearly 41 million or about 13% of the total population - live in the US.
Obama’s decision to enact sweeping immigration reforms that would allow almost five million people to remain living in the country illegally has outraged Republicans. Immigration could become a central issue in the next US presidential election. It undoubtedly will be high on the agenda in the next general election in Britain.
David Cameron pledged last year to reduce the UK’s net migration rate to tens of thousands. Embarrassingly, the net figure to June 2014 has turned out to be a whopping 260,000. It could have been worse: Germany is much the preferred destination within Europe.
It’s not only the scale of immigration that currently has the British in a lather. The Brits see themselves as victims of their own economic strength and generous benefit schemes. It’s claimed that too many immigrants, especially those from cash-strapped Eastern Europe, turn out to be scroungers.
Because of the many indigenous people in Britain who say immigration is so far out of control that they feel like foreigners in their own land, a referendum on continued membership of the EU becomes ever more likely.
Well aware of the surge in euroscepticism and the need to placate anti-immigrant voters, Cameron said he would lead the UK out of the EU unless it reformed the ‘fundamental principle’ of free movement of workers.
He quickly backed down on his demand for a cap on the number of EU immigrants after German Chancellor Angela Merkel ‘sat on’ him and said the matter was non-negotiable.
Political squabbles don’t come into the equation for those from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa paying big bribes to people smugglers to get them to the French port of Calais. If they manage to scramble past the high fences, riot police, sniffer dogs and ranks of carbon dioxide detectors at Calais docks, there’s a chance of making it across the English Channel to the new El Dorado.
By contrast, the controversial Golden Visa scheme (which the Portuguese government intends to continue) enables the wealthiest from China and elsewhere to become residents and travel freely within the Schengen countries of Europe. This despite the recent unveiling of a predictable scandal involving corrupt Portuguese government officials and property agents.
In some ways migration seems to have descended into madness, a frenzied free-for-all. Bar-tailed godwits and monarch moths behave with far more dignity.