Is our world too complex to be trusted to politicians?

I am not the only person to comment that the environment has been largely sidelined in the 2015 General Election (see “A plague on both their houses“).   As a result, my efforts to find points of contact between the election campaigns and my life as an ecologist have taken some odd twists and turns.   What, for example, should an ecologist make of Ed Miliband’s attack on David Cameron’s handling of the situation in Libya in 2011, and on the Tories’ angry response?

But first, some good news: less focus on climate change in the election has, at least, spared us from the ranting of climate change deniers.   I have often found myself wondering why the opinions of few non-scientists have gained so much traction over the past decade or so. The answer, I suspect lies in the very nature of climate science, and the complexity of the systems with which it is concerned.   Note my use of the word ‘complexity’ rather than ‘complicated’. This is an important distinction. A car engine is complicated because there are many interconnected components. Nonetheless a good mechanic will understand how they all fit together and, more importantly, be able to diagnose faults and have confidence that any adjustments that s/he makes will solve the problem. Scientists understand ‘complexity’ rather differently and, crucially, recognise that cause-effect relationships are less straightforward.   This means that complex systems are less deterministic. Tinkering with one component will not necessarily have the effect you want and, indeed, may even make it worse.   Consequently, predictions need to encompass a range of outcomes, each with an estimate of its likelihood.

Climate scientists understand this and gone to great lengths to understand the uncertainties associated with their predictions and to publish these in the peer-reviewed literature. Unfortunately, this has, in the process, provided fuel to those who, for their own reasons, want to play down the implications of global warming. They can tug and tug at every thread left hanging out of the fabric of an argument and gleefully draw everyone’s attention away from the substance of the debate.   It is exactly the same tactic as that used by Creationists looking to undermine evolution.

No politician would be as naïve as climate scientists. All their policies are packaged and presented as neat, deterministic cause-effect relationships.   This is the case even when we know that, in reality, we are dealing with aspects of society, economics, international relations, or whatever, all of which are complex systems and, therefore, resilient to meddling by politicians elected with a five-year mandate.  We all want to believe the promises that politicians will Get Things Done; the issue is which set of policies we want, not whether they are being hopelessly naïve in offering them to us in the first place.

Ah yes … international relations.   This brings me back, neatly, to Libya.   The Conservatives, in their manifesto, claim credit for “….intervening to prevent a massacre in Libya”. This is true; however, they were dealing with a complex system, and short-term measures to prevent a massacre did not prevent the country’s political system subsequently unravelling, creating a space for militias and, indirectly, contributing to boatloads of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea.   Miliband clearly hit a sensitive nerve, because the Tory response was to attack him rather than to defend their policy.   To be fair, Cameron was dealing not just with a complex international issue but also with a British public jaded by lengthy, costly and ineffective interventions elsewhere in the Muslim world. And, as every Tory leader loves to be compared with Winston Churchill, we should remind David Cameron that he is in good company in his blunders in Middle East policy.

Though the details differ, climate science and international relations both belong to the same class of “complex problems”.   The difference is that practitioners of the former are frank about the issues that this raises, whilst politicians prove to be reluctant, time and time again, to publicly contemplate alternative outcomes to their policy pronouncements. And it is not just foreign policy where politicians and policy makers are reluctant to be frank about their practices and to put all their evidence in front of the public (see “The madness that is ‘British Values’” for another example).

All the political parties are guilty of this. It is the nature of the game that they play, the need to be seen to Get Things Done (or to show that the other lot failed to Get Things Done) before the cycle grinds round and we are all looking towards the next election. I am trying not to sound too cynical about the system but my professional life brings me into contact with many issues that require more time than a five year political cycle.   Perhaps – dare I write this – democracy has some limitations in our modern age?

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Disunited Kingdom?

Alert readers may have spotted a flaw in my last post about the forthcoming UK General Election. I wrote that, in my next post, I would consider the environmental policies of the regional parties.   “But,” I hear you all shouting “responsibility for the environment has been devolved to the regional assemblies, so the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties will not be campaigning on this issue in this election.”   Correct.   However, I have tried to show in my writings on the election, that policies on a wide range of other issues has knock-on effects on the environment, so we still need to consider the policies of these parties, particularly as the likely outcome is unlikely to be an outright majority.   One or more of the regional parties could well hold the balance of power and, in the process, influence environmental policy directly or indirectly.

The two big factors are the economy and Europe.   Any sort of pact between a minority Labour or Conservative government and a regional party, whether it is Labour and Scottish Nationalist Party or the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, would inevitably involve a deal that leads to more money being spent in Scotland or Northern Ireland.   And that, in turn, would put a further strain on the finances for other sectors of government, including the environment. Just as for the other parties (see “A plague on both their houses” and “The political landscape isn’t very green …”), the manifestos of the regional parties are not short of fine words on environmental protection, so perhaps the best we can hope for is slightly more expenditure in Scotland or Northern Ireland, albeit at the expense of England.

My biggest worry, however, is UK’s relationship with Europe (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?”) and, on this point, most of the major regional parties are firmly pro-Europe. The only exception is the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland who support the idea of a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union.   I do believe that several elements of the EU need significant reform and that those countries that have opted out of the Euro may need different terms of membership to those that are in the Eurozone. But I don’t think that a referendum on UK membership is a good idea.   If I thought a referendum would stimulate a sober debate on the pros and cons of our membership, I would have no qualms. The reality, I suspect, would be that Eurosceptic elements of the Conservatives would unite with UKIP and media barons to create a feeding frenzy of scare stories that could precipitate an anti-EU victory.

Please excuse this series of posts on the election.   I am a floating voter by inclination but my constituency (City of Durham) has an entrenched Labour majority and a sitting MP (Roberta Photo-Opportunity) who has shown herself to be a loyal and ambitious apparatchik unlikely to deviate from official party policy.   So I can read every manifesto, ruminate on the budgetary implications of every pronouncement and cast my vote without ever shaking the foundations of Westminster. I am to UK politics what a eunuch is to the survival of the human race. However, having lived in Nigeria at a time of military rule when democracy was just a dream, I know that we should not dismiss the privileges that we have lightly.   So I’m typing away here hoping that someone out there who reads my blog lives in a marginal constituency and has the chance to influence things in a bigger way than I can.  Though, as you may have noticed, I am not expecting a major improvement in the state of the UK’s environment, whoever gets elected on May 7th.

The political landscape isn’t very green …

My pre-election review of the environmental policies on offer continues with an overview of the parties who are likely to hold the balance of power if, as is predicted, no-one has an outright majority. In this post, I’ll look at UKIP, the Green Party and the Lib Dems.   After that, I’ll consider the regional parties.

UKIP first. For anyone with an interest in environmental policy this is a no-brainer. As I wrote back in December, leaving the EU would be a disaster for the environment (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?“).   Repealing the Climate Change Act, whatever they regard it’s faults to be, also sends out the wrong signals when the great majority of scientists are convinced that major changes in climate are taking place.

Surprisingly, the Green Party do not do very much better, in my opinion. The problem, here, is not the insistence on sidestepping any issue beyond a few core dogmas, as UKIP do, but a propensity for vague generalisations lacking in detail. It may seem odd to say this when the Greens devote so much of their manifesto to the environment and climate, but it is a frustrating read, stuffed with good intentions but short on practicality. Here’s an example: “Because of the interaction between water supply and the wider environment, require Ofwat … and the Environment Agency to work together to create a healthy water environment and long-term low prices for consumers.” That is pretty much what happens at present, so what, exactly, are the Greens offering other than a continuation of the status quo?   What is more worrying is that, tucked away in the financial appendix, we see that the Green’s plans are, in part, funded by “efficiency savings on base government expenditure”.   No guarantee, then, that Ofwat and the Environment Agency will actually get any more funding to work towards this healthy water environment.

And, finally, what about the Liberal-Democrats? Their standings in the polls are not good, and many feel that they are tainted by their involvement in the coalition. Reneging on 2010 promises about university tuition fees leaves a bitter taste for many but perhaps we in the UK are not yet fully attuned to the give-and-take of coalition politics? If anything, I think that the Lib-Dem manifesto has a pragmatism borne from their experience in government.   There is less rhetorical grandstanding than in some of the manifestos, and a clearer sense of the steps needed to translate dogma into practice. They recognise the important role that the EU plays in creating environmental law, and that working at this level helps to maintain the UK’s competitiveness. I was particularly taken by the proposal to set up a commission to research back-to-nature flood prevention schemes. As I have mentioned before (see “Beware the modern day Cnuts”), political meddling did not help during the 2014 floods and removing the issue to an independent body seems to be a sensible way forward.

All manifesto statements about the environment have to be read with a healthy degree of scepticism. If we assume that the major battle will be over the economy and the deficit, and remember that the NHS and education expenditure are ring-fenced, then the room for manoeuvre during coalition negotiations becomes very limited. Proposals from the minor parties will, moreover, have to dovetail with the political philosophy of the major party in a coalition (so any proposals involving greater European collaboration, for example, will be less likely to succeed if the Tories win). Proposals that require significant expenditure are also less likely to be part of a coalition agreement than those that are cheap to fulfil. Yet it is unrealistic to expect significant improvements to the state of the UK’s environment if our statutory bodies are not properly funded. All of which leads me to suggest that the best thing to do right now is to enjoy the soothing, optimistic words of the manifestos. Because delivery is going to be a whole different, and far more uncertain, game.

122 days to go …

According to the statistics from WordPress, people from 110 countries looked at this blog last year. This means that readers in 109 of those countries might have little interest in my promise to cover the environmental implications of this year’s UK general election on 5 May; however, a promise is a promise, so bear with me for a few minutes.

Here are a few points to watch out for when the manifestos start appearing in a couple of months:

  1. What will happen to the UK environment if we vote in parties that want to leave the EU? This will be one of the key battlegrounds of the forthcoming campaign but, curiously, I don’t think there will be immediate negative effects arising from a decision to leave the EU. This is because all EU environmental legislation has already been transposed into UK law and provides the framework that underpins how we manage the environment.   However, belonging to the EU means that the UK has to fulfil a number of obligations, which has protected some aspects of environmental regulation from the worst ravages of the public sector cuts over the past few years.
  2. Leaving the EU will make the environment vulnerable to manifesto pledges to reduce red tape.   Whilst I recognise the need to keep businesses competitive, we need to recognise that what one person sees as sensible regulation of the environment may be perceived by someone else as unnecessary bureaucracy and, therefore, ripe for repeal.   Less regulation will encourage businesses to externalize their environmental costs which may look good on their profit and loss accounts in the short-term, but will have longer term consequences.   I also doubt that UKIP’s promise to “negotiate a bespoke trade agreement with the EU” will have any chance of success if the environmental costs of this trade are not taken into consideration.
  3. A bigger challenge in the short-term is the state of the economy and the resulting squeeze on public spending, as I have already mentioned (see “When Right is not right”).  What we need to look for in the party manifestos is creative thinking about how to manage the environment with fewer resources. Don’t be suckered by weasel words about increasing “efficiency”. The public sector is already working at full stretch and any further “efficiency” can only mean that less can be done.
  4. Watch out, too, for words about increased spending on flood defence. There are situations around the country where improvements to flood defences are needed but also, I suspect, marginal constituencies where the memories of flooding are raw enough for such promises to deliver votes (see “More about floods …”).   However, because flood defence is a function of the Environment Agency, we will need to read the small print of any such promises to make sure that this is not funded by a redistribution of budget that would result in less money for environmental protection.
  5. And, finally, climate change will feature in most manifestos at some point. UKIP are, at least, refreshingly frank about their intention to repeal the Climate Change Act . However, I have concerns about policy towards climate change across all the major parties. As for flood defence, it is not that I don’t think that something should be done; rather that we need to watch that steps to mitigate climate change are not made at the expense of dealing with other environmental problems.   I have a suspicion that politicians like climate change because the timescales are such that they reap the rewards of bold policy initiatives without running the risk of being judged on the results.   We will need to unpack the rhetoric within all the manifestos to make sure that the politicians are focussed on the here and now and not just showboating.

I have already declared myself as being pro-Europe (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?”) but, otherwise, I go into the election campaign undecided about how to vote.   I will be reading all the manifestos with interest …

Normal service will resume in the next post.

When Right is not right

My post “What has the European Union ever done for us?” started my own countdown to the next general election by laying out the case for continued UK membership of the EU.   Britain’s relationship with Europe will be one of the key battlegrounds for the next election, without a doubt, with the second being the economy. Every other manifesto promise will be shaped by each party’s response to these two issues. In many ways, I suspect, last week’s news about the continued high level of national debt and the need for continued austerity will shape the day-to-day policies of the next government (whoever that is) rather more than the arguments about Europe.

The impression I have formed over the period since the 2010 election is that many in the public sector and on the Left regard the current austerity as a relatively short-term event to be survived before business as usual can be resumed.   The language of “efficiency” is still invoked to imply that service delivery continues despite smaller budget but my impression is that Government agencies concerned with environmental management are struggling to fulfil their statutory duties, let alone indulge in any strategic thinking.   And the likelihood is that this situation will continue throughout the term of the next government as well.   The Left faces a Faustian choice: raise taxes to fund the public services properly or radically rethink how public services are delivered.   The “efficiency” mantra has a limited shelf life and promising to raise taxes will hand the election to the Right.

Roger Scruton, a philosopher of the Right, argues eloquently against interventionist approaches to managing the environment which equates to this “radical rethink”. The core of his argument is that socialism has unpicked the natural homeostatic mechanisms by which societies manage themselves and, by extension, their environments. That, in itself, is contentious and it is equally possible to argue for the damaging effects of multinational companies. Where I think he is on stronger ground is his argument that it is too easy for companies to externalise their environmental costs, as happens when a water company discharges partially-treated sewage, relying on the natural self-purification capacity of the river to finish the task for them. Downstream river users, in effect, ‘pay the price’ in terms of lost opportunities for fishing or bathing.

At present, this situation is managed by regulation, by the Environment Agency waving the threat of criminal prosecution at the water company if they fail to comply with the conditions of their consents to discharge. Roger Scruton suggests, instead, that such situations could equally well be managed by the existing common law of torts.   He cites examples where this has been used successfully, most relevantly, given my example, the cases fought by the Angler’s Co-operative Association (now Fish Legal). There are, however, a huge number of problems with extending this principle, not least of which is that you need to have property owners who recognise the damage and who can act collectively.   Angling clubs own riparian rights, have a clear incentive and are well organised.   Where does the impetus come from if the stream has no recreational interest to be ‘damaged’ and scores of stakeholders who are not necessarily property owners and who lack the organisation to band together to confront a multinational water company? Environmental regulators may be bureaucratically-heavy but they do have the ability to act in the public interest in a way that few voluntary groups can. ‘Interventionist’, in this situation, may not be ideal, but it is likely to be more effective than the alternatives.

That’s the problem. If you want to justify ‘small government’ you need to demonstrate either that there are alternative mechanisms to delivering the services that are no longer being provided by the state or that we never needed those services in the first place.   Alternative philosophies such as ‘nudge’ theory (see “More about floods …“) have their place but are not a wholesale replacement for the status quo. This leaves both Left and Right in the unenviable position of needing to devise practical approaches to environmental management that can be delivered using substantially smaller budgets than is presently the case. I await the party manifestos with interest.

Reference

Scruton, R. (2012). Green Philosophy. Atlantic Books, London.