Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Deadly mudslides

At least 400 people have been killed by the mudslide that swept through Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on Monday morning. Another 600 are still missing, as rescue workers desperately hunt for survivors.

Freetown is an overcrowded city of more than a million, many living in makeshift settlements which are easily washed away in frequent heavy rains and floods. A key objective at the moment is to avoid the disaster being made worse by water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.

Probably the deadliest mudslide ever was the one that hit Venezuela in the dying days of the last millennium in December 1999. It effortlessly swept away the shanty towns precariously perched on ridges around the capital Caracas.

But smart apartment blocks also found themselves buried under the mud. Most estimates put the number killed at around 30,000, with 140,000 left homeless, and more than 20,000 homes destroyed. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

See also my post of 21 February 2010.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Brexitwatch. Hammond's surrender gives certainty. UK will be driven off a cliff

The last member of Theresa May’s cabinet who could give a passable imitation of having some grip on the reality of Brexit has caved in. Chancellor Philip Hammond, has surrendered to Brexit fanatic and disgraced former defence minister, Liam Fox.

After arguing for a meaningful transition phase after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 to spare us from the worst effects of Brexit, Hammond has now agreed that instead, we will jump off a cliff, leaving the Single Market and the customs union.

This is precisely what UK businesses feared and had been arguing against, but the modern day Tory party has little interest in jobs, the economy or prosperity. Many will see Hammond’s decision as the ‘certainty’ they have been asking for. Unfortunately for you and me, that ‘certainty’ will be that the UK is no longer a viable country in which to invest.

Fox and Hammond’s joint letter repeats the lie that in the referendum, voters voted to leave the Single Market. They did nothing of the kind, of course, and indeed a whole series of Leave campaigners promised we would stay in the Single Market. It is important that this lie is contradicted every time it is uttered.

This odd couple say we need the transitional arrangement so that goods can still cross borders, and businesses can still trade and recruit the staff they need. The corollary of that, of course, is that once the arrangement ends, these things will no longer be possible. What Liam Fox does not explain is why, if Brexit is as marvellous as he says, is it so important to delay its effects?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wars, ethnic rivalries and weather

Last year, nearly 102,000 people were killed in armed conflicts across the world according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Many of them died in civil wars, and since 1946, two-thirds of civil wars have been fought between rival ethnic groups.

But climate-related problems, like crop failures, also play a role. Research published last year found that between 1980 and 2010, 23% of civil wars coincided with climate-related disasters in countries with deep ethnic divides. And worryingly global warming may make this kind of disaster more common.

Delving back into history, another study discovered that outbreaks of violence against Jews often seemed to be linked with economic shocks. The authors examined more than 1,360 pogroms or expulsions in more than 930 cities between 1100 and 1800, and plotted them against falls in temperature big enough to reduce crop yields.

They found that a fall of just one third of a degree increased the danger of a pogrom or an exclusion by half over the next five years. As we have seen recently, in times of economic difficulty or disappointment, it is very tempting to blame people who are different in some way.

For more on the link between global warming and war, see my posts of 21 September and 25 November, 2009.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the government should have....done nothing

Oh, the perils of failing to follow my advice. There would have been no referendum. Today we would still be happily in the EU not looking over the abyss of an economic collapse, we would not have had a spike in xenophobia and hate crime, and David Cameron would still have been prime minister with a workable majority.

If only he had taken note of what I wrote on 3 April 2015:


UK election: the next government nothing

One of the more bizarre criticisms of the UK’s coalition government was that in its latter stages, it entered a ‘zombie’ phase. In other words, for once, MPs were failing to carry out their supposed duty of rushing through poorly drafted new laws which they have not read properly, and which have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

It is the kind of mentality that saw Labour inventing 3,600 crimes in 11 years, and we wonder why the prisons are overflowing. Or that had the Tory-dominated coalition mounting yet another complete reorganisation of the NHS – something David Cameron had specifically promised not to do.

What we seem to get more and more is government by vanity project. After all, how is a politician meant to get into the history books by making sure the health service or public transport ran efficiently? No, they want to be the man or woman who shook up the NHS, or built HS2.

How many times have you heard governments promising to ‘cut red tape’? But power is so delightful, and the temptation to boss other people around just too great to resist. Back in the nineteenth century when a colleague demanded that Prime Minister Lord Palmerston should pass a new piece of legislation, he replied: ‘There are too many laws already.’

Somebody once said the trouble with elections is that whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. Whichever government wins this time, expect a flood of new laws and regulations.

More on this from Simon Jenkins -

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Storms and floods: Met Office says they'll get worse

New analysis from the Met Office says there is an increased risk of ‘unprecedented’ winter downpours in the UK, perhaps even worse than those that caused the major floods of 2014. Its supercomputers have calculated that for each year over the next decade, there is a one in three chance of record rainfall in an English or Welsh region.

In my book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion 2016), I noted that four of Britain’s five wettest years since records began have happened since 2000. Globally, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seeks a consensus from the views of thousands of eminent scientists all over the world, predicts fiercer rainstorms ‘over many areas’.

In my previous book Flood (Reaktion 2013) I quoted a United Nations report from 2011 which said the number of natural disasters had quintupled over the previous four decades, and that most of the increase could be attributed to what it called ‘hydro-meteorological’  events, including storms and floods.

I also wrote about a UK government report in 2012 which concluded that climate change would greatly increase the danger of flooding, saying the number of people at risk could more than double to 3.6 million by 2050.    

Monday, 24 July 2017

The real 'Dunkirk'

Just seen Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. An impressive and gripping account of the evacuation of nearly 200,000 British troops from the beaches in 1940. 140,000 French and Belgian troops were also rescued.

Churchill, though, recognised that the campaign overall had been a ‘colossal military disaster’, with the British Expeditionary Force losing almost all its equipment as well as 66,000 men killed, wounded or captured.

One of the fascinating questions the film does not tackle is why Hitler made his rampaging army call a halt when the enemy appeared to be at his mercy. Was he concerned that in some parts of his force, half the tanks were now out of action?  

Had he been shaken by a British counter-attack near Arras or did he believe that surely at some point, the French – supposedly Europe’s greatest military power – must have a serious counter-attack in them?   Or was he convinced by Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could destroy the Allied forces on Dunkirk’s exposed beaches without any help from the army?

Whatever the reason, the result was ‘Dunkirk’.

For the full story see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters. See also my post of 24 January 2012.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the compromise that could unite the UK

Heavily diminished Prime Minister Theresa May keeps saying she wants to unite the UK behind Brexit. This is a tough ask as tens of millions have long ago realised how damaging it will be, but all the same there is a potential strategy she has not yet tried.

The winning margin was very narrow – closer than 52% to 48% - but one thing that was striking was how many top Leave campaigners promised that even if we left the EU, we would remain in the Single Market.

Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson, Daniel Hannan, and the man who bankrolled Brexit, Arron Banks, were among those who took this line. So it is reasonable to assume a fair proportion of the 52% who voted to leave the EU wanted to STAY in the Single Market. Clearly all the 48% who voted Remain wanted this, so if you add to that the Leave voters who also wanted Single Market membership, you end up with a proposal that seems to enjoy considerably more support than the proposition to leave the EU, and could become a compromise around which a substantial majority of the country would rally.

But bizarrely, Theresa May ruled out Single Market membership, saying people had voted against it, even though they plainly had not. Even more bizarrely, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supports Theresa May.

I personally believe the UK should remain in the EU because I cannot find any form of Brexit that will not be worse than what we have now. But if Leavers were prepared to implement their promise of leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market, this is a compromise I, and I suspect most of the country, would accept.

What a shame for the UK then that both Tory and Labour are ruling it out.