Friday, June 20, 2008


The Julian Hodge Bank lecture given at Cardiff, April 2008 by Colin Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Surrey:

Many people in this audience will believe that significant changes in the world`s climate are already under way and that, in the medium to long term future, there will be further changes that will have catastrophic economic and social consequences if action is not taken in the near future to avert them. Virtually all the world`s opinion leaders subscribe to that view. As one example of this `doomsday view', take the comments of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon who said of the scenarios in a report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[2] in November 2007, `These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie. But they are even more terrifying, because they are real'[3]. Ban Ki-moon is talking about views of the future which cannot in any accepted sense be `real': his comment shows that the inevitability of severe climate change is now so taken for granted that the future has become merged with the present.

The hypothesis and some broad issues

Put simply, the usual hypothesis about climate change is that emissions of carbon dioxide and other `greenhouse gases', from the use of energy and from other human activities, will lead to a future trend towards warming of the earth and consequential damage to economic and social life.

There is general (though not universal) agreement that there has been some warming of the earth in the last hundred years or so, but it is relatively modest[4]. The IPCC puts the increase in global annual mean temperature at around 0.75 degrees centigrade over that period[5]. Future warming has become the main focus of concern: there is a wide range of estimates, varying from about 1 to over 6 degrees C[6], comparing the end of the twentieth century with the end of the twentyfirst century. Obviously, I cannot provide a critique of the hypothesis from a climate science viewpoint[7] but economists are in a position to comment on some of the underlying methodological issues, on the economic and social consequences of climate change and on possible policy responses and their effects. I begin by outlining the links in the chain that lead to the view that climate change will be damaging and make some initial comments on them.

1.1 A climate change trend?

Since the climate is always changing, the damaging change hypothesis is difficult to pin down, but I was careful to specify it as implying a trend towards global warming. I take it that those who support the hypothesis must think there is a such a trend. If we were merely in the upward phase of a cycle, caused by natural forces, presumably there would be much less cause for concern because, by definition, the direction of the cycle would reverse and global warming would be replaced by global cooling. Determining whether warming is a trend or just part of a cycle is extremely difficult, given the apparent very long time scale of climatic change, yet, from a policy point of view, the distinction between trend and cycle is clearly vital: if warming is to be replaced by cooling in the relatively near future, as part of the same natural cycle, action now to curb warming might well have perverse effects. The amplitude and length of any cycle are also critical issues.

1.2 The link with greenhouse gases

There is scientific evidence that, other things equal, increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will bring rising world temperatures. However, in the absence of complete scientific knowledge, the list of the `other things' and their effects is long but incomplete. There is considerable controversy over the significance of man-made emissions, compared with all the other effects on temperature. Most climate scientists would, like most economists, readily admit that their models are gross simplifications and that large areas of ignorance remain. Working out what happens when other things are constant is therefore not easy and it seems that experience in the twentieth century must lead to some doubts about the exact causal link between emissions and warming: despite continuously rising emissions during the century, the warming occurred in two periods (1920-1940 and 1975-1998), with slight cooling in between the two periods and no clear trend in the last ten years or so.

Economic and social consequences

Even if it could be established that there is a clear warming trend caused by greenhouse gas emissions, there are still important questions to be answered about the extent to which natural adaptation will deal with any economic and social consequences or whether, if action to combat the trend should be taken, what form it might take and what the costs might be compared with the benefits. Some economists, such as Sir Nicholas (now Lord) Stern, have attempted to answer these questions and to say what actions are required[8]. But, in the process, they have used some of the most heroic assumptions I have ever seen and tried to peer into the far distant future.

Bearing in mind these broad issues, in the rest of the lecture I will try to deal with a number of matters which seem important in deciding whether scepticism is justified about claims that damaging man-made climate change is in prospect. My purpose is not to say that there is no such prospect, but to argue that the sceptics should be taken seriously and that we should be careful not to plunge into large-scale, expensive, centrally run programmes to combat prospective climate change based on the assumption that we know more about the future than is possible. After making some rather critical comments about climate alarmism in the first part of the lecture, at the end I will accentuate the positive and suggest how it might be best to face a very uncertain future prospect.

My starting point is to try to place the global climate change debate in a more general context.

More here

British MP: 'Yes, I am a heretic on global warming'

By Ann Widdecombe

Much has been made of my voting with the Gov-ernment to allow the police to detain terror suspects for 42 days, rather than 28, in special cases. Yet there was a more important vote last week, in which I was one of only three Members of Parliament to vote against the might of all parties and defy the Climate Change Bill which will cost Britain hundreds of billions of pounds, will not mean any other country has to follow suit and, as we are responsible for only two per cent of the world's carbon emissions, will make no difference to the climate or to global warming.

Climate change has become a religion, with anyone who dares to throw?out?a?question?or?two instantly accused of heresy. I have had my doubts for some time, and certainly about major unilateral action on the part of the UK, but these have crystalised since reading Nigel Lawson's book An Appeal To Reason, subtitled A Cool Look At Global Warming.

Appallingly, this gem could not find?a British publisher because none was brave enough. One wrote: "My fear with this cogently argued book is that it flies so much in the face of prevailing orthodoxy that it would be very difficult to find a wide market."

Everybody who has English to GCSE standard can understand it and anyone who has uncritically swallowed the belief that the Earth is warming dangerously should open his or her mind at least a little bit.

It is a FACT that there has been no global warming this century, yet never has there been so much production of carbon dioxide, with India and China increasing their activity by the week.

It is a FACT that global temperature has varied throughout history and scientists explain this by changes in solar activity.

It is a FACT that not all climate scientists agree with the prevailing orthodoxy. Those who dare to dissent are treated with about as much respect as Galileo was by the medieval church.

Even if the predictions are true all they offer is a small increase in the globe's temperature over the next hundred years. As Lawson points out, the difference between the temperature in Finland and that in Singapore is vast but in both countries people thrive and so do their economies. Therefore we might be better off adapting rather than trying to reverse the trend.

I need not go on. You may believe one side of the argument or the other or, like me, you may suspend judgment but until matters are somewhat clearer, I am most certainly not prepared to vote to commit Britain to a course of action which will make not a jot of difference to global temperatures but which could change our way of life and leave us unable to compete with those countries that keep a better sense of proportion.

Some of the worst mistakes are made when all political parties agree. Our entry into Europe is a pretty good example with Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Jeremy Thorpe all urging a "yes" vote and dissenters dismissed as flat-earthers. Yet what we thought we were joining (a tariff agreement and economic union) was very different from what we are now proved to have joined (a political union with gradual loss of control over our own affairs).

Healthy opposition is needed, if only to ensure that all arguments are heard. The media had a great deal to talk about last week and three MPs calling for a pause for thought over something most commentators consider a cast iron certainty did not get a great deal of attention. Yet the Bill still has some way to go before it becomes law. There is still time for a challenge if anyone is interested enough to take his head out of the sand.


Declining university standards in Britain

Academic standards are in decline in many British universities. Students who would once have been failed their degrees pass, and students who would once have been awarded respectable lower seconds are now awarded upper seconds and even firsts. Students - British as well as those from overseas - commence their studies with levels of English so poor that universities run remedial English courses to ensure at least basic literacy. Cheating is rampant, encouraged partly by lenient penalties.

How do I know all this? Part of the evidence is statistical. Over the past decade the number of firsts has more than doubled, while the undergraduate population has increased by less than a half. The standard leaving qualification for most students is now an upper second - the lower second is an endangered species and the third on the verge of extinction.

A recent survey by the Higher Education Academy suggested that, of 9,000 or so cases of plagiarism recorded last year, only 143 resulted in expulsion. The survey pointed to an alarming variation in penalties. In many mainly post-1992 "new" universities, lecturers must take national, ethnic and even social background into account when punishing cheaters.

But statistical evidence is no more than a signpost. In recent years I have become alarmed and depressed at the number of inquiries I receive from usually young scholars just embarking on their careers and coming under intolerable managerial pressure to pass students who should fail and to "massage" students into higher qualifications.

It is not only probationer lecturers who are victims. Last year Paul Buckland, Professor of Environmental Archaeology at Bournemouth University, resigned in protest at the decision of university authorities that 13 students whom he - and a formal examinations board - judged to have failed a course should be passed. In so doing, the authorities appear to have endorsed the view of a senior official - an official, mind you, not an academic - that students should have been able to pass merely on the basis of lecture notes, without doing the required reading. Universities UK should have issued a formal public rebuke. Its silence on this and similar cases is a scandal. Faced with criticism that academic standards are being dumbed down, British vice-chancellors customarily point to the external examiner system as a guarantee that it cannot happen.

It can and does. In the typically modularised degree system run by the now typical university, external examiners - academic specialists from other institutions - no longer oversee the entire assessment process, and are not permitted to review individual grades. Their job, at most, is simply to ensure as best they can that correct procedures are applied. To quote from an e-mail I received yesterday from an external examiner, "the externals are not permitted to alter marks or comment on individual scripts in any way. Their function is to comment merely on adherence to procedures. I complained about this repeatedly, to no avail."

How has higher education got itself into this mess? An insidious managerial culture obsessed with league tables and newspaper rankings is partly to blame. The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its near rivals in the league tables, and if they are using more lenient schemes, the argument is put about that "peer" institutions must do the same. The upholding of academic standards is replaced by a grotesque "bidding" game, in which standards are sacrificed on the altar of public image, as reflected in the rankings.

This is only part of the problem. League tables are here to stay. A robust university management, however jealous for its own reputation, will never let them dictate the terms upon which its guards its academic standards. Part of the problem stems from gross underfunding. Non-EU students attract full fees, and have become a lucrative source of cash. Failing or expelling a non-EU student can have serious implications. Was this, I wonder, why at one university last year, a lecturer was criticised for neglecting to give "token credits" to failures? In the modern, mass higher education system, there must be prizes for all, because the student is the customer and the customer must have something for his money.

What can be done about these evils? British universities are self-regulating, and I would not want it any other way. But with self-regulation comes responsibility. The representative bodies, and the Quality Assurance Agency to which all their members subscribe, should summon the courage to name and shame miscreant institutions, and perhaps even to suspend them.

Ultimately, the buck stops in the vice-chancellor's office and with the governing body that is legally responsible for the general character of the education at the university. Quality in higher education cannot be reduced to a simplistic rankings list, however appealing rankings may be to newspapers and their readers, not to mention university governors whose attention span (it seems) cannot extend beyond a set of numerical performance indicators.

When a professor says that a student should fail, the wise vice-chancellor will support that decision, and the governors will publicly congratulate both for putting first standards rather than student retention and "customer satisfaction".


NHS reviewed

I am looking at a leaflet informing the public about the creation of the National Health Service, almost 60 years ago. The celebrations for this anniversary begin at the end of this month. There will be a party at Wembley Stadium, a service of celebration at Westminster Abbey, and countrywide events, most of it organised by the Department of Health in Whitehall.

Never underestimate the desire of politicians to lay claim to the NHS. For many years it was a “Labour” achievement, its strongest stick with which to beat the Conservatives. And when the next election comes, the NHS - the fate of the local hospital or GP surgery - will still account for far more votes than any esoteric arguments about 42 days' detention, or EU or climate change treaties.

Labour will suck every piece of political capital it can from the 60th anniversary party. By chance, as I write this, I receive a voicemail from Labour HQ asking whether I plan to write about the anniversary in the next fortnight. “Health ministers are very keen to start laying out where the NHS needs to go in the next few years” and one of them would be very keen to have a few words with me... The debate on polyclinics, the press officer adds, “is one very clear dividing line on modernisation”.

Poor old health service, batted from party to party, from election to election. I turn back to that leaflet from 1948: “Your new National Health Service begins on 5th July. What is it? How do you get it? It will provide you with all medical, dental, and nursing care.” And a very clear dividing line on modernisation in 60 years' time.

All medical, dental, and nursing care... you don't even need to ask the question to know that the NHS could never claim that today. NHS dental care is patchy at best, medical care is heavily rationed, and nursing care, as anyone who has spent time in hospital will tell you, is hit and miss. In part, this is due to greater demands on the health service. Whatever it offers, we want more: more treatments, more consultations, more medicine. More care. Demand has always taken the politicians by surprise: Nye Bevan estimated the initial cost of the NHS at 176 million pounds for 1948-49. Its first full year of operation came in at 437 million.

Today we want the service to meet an ever-expanding definition of health. We want it to make us happy as well as healthy, fertile as well as fit. One day we will expect it to make us beautiful, perhaps even successful too. No wonder it is still struggling on its 90 billion annual budget.

It isn't only the fault of the patients. The officials and the politicians who run the NHS have lost sight of what they are there for. Look at the current campaigns listed on the DoH website: “know your units”, “top tips for top mums” (including “top tips from Patsy Palmer” of EastEnders), and my favourite “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it”, a campaign to encourage the public to practise “correct respiratory and hand hygiene when coughing and sneezing”. The NHS waggles its finger at us, naughty children. Put your hand in front of your nose when you sneeze! It has turned into mum.

When it doesn't admonish, it consults: yesterday the department sent hospitals tens of thousands of surveys to track patient satisfaction with the patient choice programme. And when it doesn't consult, it issues edicts: June 12, 2008 - “The NHS Resilience and Business Continuity Management Guidance 2008: interim strategic national guidance for NHS organisations.” Poor guys. No wonder the best managers in the NHS are the ones who know which Whitehall edicts to file immediately in the bin.

Time after time patients tell the politicians that what they want from the NHS is what the NHS promised at the start: access to high-quality medical care (in clean premises) as and when they need it.

Now the greatest risk to the health of the NHS is approaching: the march of the alternative health industry. This week came the publication of the “Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK”. Otherwise known as twaddle. What it said is that government should regulate alternative therapies from acupuncture to Ayurveda.

It's the latest step by the alternative health industry, spearheaded by the Prince of Wales, towards official recognition by the NHS. Their problem: doctors see no scientific merit whatsoever in most of the “treatments”. Research by Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine, has found the majority of alternative therapies to be clinically ineffective, and many dangerous.

Regulate the practitioners - for safety, note, not for efficacy, as that is impossible to prove - and you give them official recognition. From recognition it is but a short hop to demand and then prescription: packet of Prozac, bit of yoga and a bag of dodgy herbs for you, sir. Britons already spend billions on alternative medicine; how much more could they spend when it is public money floating down the colonic canal? Free massages and maharishi ayurveda for all!

And imagine the bonanza in work for the Whitehall bureaucracy, as the British Association of Accredited Ayurvedic Practitioners grapple for dominance over the Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians' Association (none of these is made up). Question 10 of the consultation document preceding Monday's report read: “Would it be possible for the herbal medicine traditions of Kampo and Tibetan herbal medicine to be individually represented on Council?”

The Government responded on Monday - with a three-month consultation. So join in. Write to the Health Minister Ben Bradshaw at Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, SW1A 2NS. Write, on behalf of the NHS: “What I want for my 60th birthday is... the chance to provide medical, dental, and nursing care to all. And absolutely nothing else.”


Muslim woman not given job as a hairdresser gets $8,000 for "hurt feelings"

Since people are not usually awarded large sums of money for hurt feelings, we have to assume that Muslim feelings are especially important. So whence equality before the law?

A Muslim woman has been awarded 4,000 pounds for "injury to feelings" after a hair salon owner refused to employ her because she wears a headscarf. Bushra Noah accused Sarah Desrosiers, owner of a trendy central London hair salon, of religious discrimination after she failed to offer her a job in May last year. A panel sitting at the central London employment tribunal dismissed her claim of direct discrimination but upheld her complaint of indirect discrimination.

Mrs Noah, of Acton, west London, applied for a job as a junior assistant at the Wedge salon in King's Cross. Giving its judgment, the tribunal said it accepted that Ms Desrosiers said that Mrs Noah lived too far away but was persuaded to give her an interview. But when the 19-year-old applicant arrived at the salon she claimed that the Canadian salon owner was clearly shocked by the fact she wore a headscarf.

Ms Desrosiers told the tribunal she was surprised that the younger woman had not mentioned it earlier. She said she needed stylists to reflect the "funky, urban" image of her salon and showcase alternative hairstyles. If an applicant had a conventional hairstyle she would insist that it was re-styled in a more "alternative" way, she said. After a 15-minute meeting she and Mrs Noah parted and both parties told the tribunal it was obvious that the 19-year-old would not be offered the job.

The panel refused an application by Mrs Noah for aggravated damages and rejected her claims that the episode had put her off hairdressing, finding that she applied for further salon jobs before deciding to retrain in tourism. But they did find that she had been badly upset by the 15-minute interview and awarded Mrs Noah 4,000 pounds damages for "injury to feelings".

In their judgment, the panel stated: "We were satisfied by the respondent's evidence that the claimant was not treated less favourably than the respondent would have treated a woman who, whether Muslim or not, for a reason other than religious belief wears a hair covering at all times when at work." But they also concluded: "There was no specific evidence before us as to what would (for sure) have been the actual impact of the claimant working in her salon with her head covered at all times. "We concluded that, on a critical and balanced assessment, the degree of risk, while real, should not be assumed to be as great at the respondent believed."

Ms Desrosiers, 32, said: "I feel it is a bit steep for what actually happened. It's really scary for a small business. "I never in a million years dreamt that somebody would be completely against the display of hair and be in this industry. I don't feel I deserve it." She said she still had not appointed someone to the job and had decided to "leave it for a while".


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