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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for tag: Spectator

The inventor of vaping

It was always about quitting smoking

My Spectator article on meeting the man who invented vaping, Hon Lik.

Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.

Spectator diary

On climate policy, coal, charity and ducks

My recent Spectator diary:

Martin Williams, former head of the government’s air quality science unit, has declared that the reason we have a problem with air pollution now is that ‘policy has been focused on climate change, and reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of much else, for most of the past two decades. Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars.’ Yet another example of how the global warming obsession has been bad for the environment — like subsidising biofuels, which encourage cutting down rainforests; or windfarms, which kill eagles and spoil landscapes; or denying coal-fired electricity to Africa, where millions die each year from the effects of cooking over smoky wood fires.

Greens are too hard on coal. If much of the world had not switched from wood to coal in the 1800s, we would have deforested the planet almost entirely. By 1860, Britain was getting as much energy from coal as a forest the size of Scotland could yield; today, we’d need a forest the size of South Africa. And coal produces less carbon dioxide than wood per unit of energy. I would say this, wouldn’t I? My ancestors were in coal from about 1700 and I still am, hosting a temporary surface mine on my land. It provides good jobs, lots of tax, a community benefits fund and an income windfall for local residents as well as me. Plus opportunities for spectacular restoration schemes, like Northumberlandia (look it up). It also helps keep electricity affordable.

The coup d'etat of 1714 - when the Whigs won

Was an English Enlightenment delayed by the Hanoverian succession?

I have a piece in the latest Spectator on the tercentenary of King George I:

E-cigarettes are making tobacco obsolete, so why ban them?

Smoking will go the way of the top hat and the crinoline

Adapting to climate change

Global warming looks like it will be cheaper to cope with than to prevent

My Spectator article on the IPCC's new emphasis on adaptation:

Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it. Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for preventing carbon dioxide emissions.

That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories about scientists being even more certain of environmental Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times, the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.

Spectator Australia diary

Home thoughts from abroad

After my recent visit to Australia I wrote the diary column in the Australian edition of the Spectator:

I flew from London into Sydney, then Melbourne, to make three dinner speeches in a row. Through nerves I never finished the main course of three dinners. Pity, because in my experience Australian food is as fine as anywhere in the world: fresher than American, more orientally influenced than France and more imaginative than Britain. That was certainly not true the first time I visited Australia 37 years ago, when I slept in youth hostels and Ansett Pioneer buses, and ate rib-eye steaks for breakfast. I still remember with horror the moment I realized I had left my wallet on a park bench in Alice Springs, dazed after 31 hours on a bus. I went back and it was still there, wet from a lawn sprinkler.

Like Britain, Australia’s been confronting the costs of climate policies. The Abbott government has begun to deal with them robustly, whereas in Britain we are still in denial. Our opposition leader Ed Miliband has promised to “freeze” energy bills for two years if he gets into power – a threat that probably caused companies to push them up now -- even though it was he as Energy and Climate Change secretary who did most to load green levies on to consumers. Conservatively it looks like his Climate Act of 2008, with its targets for carbon emission cuts, will cost us £300 billion by 2030 in subsidies to renewable energy, in the cost of connecting wind farms to the grid, in VAT, in costs of insulation and new domestic appliances, and in the effect of all this on prices of goods in the shops. If people are upset about the cost of energy now, they will be furious by the election in 2015. I don’t like to say “I told you so”, but I did, in my maiden speech in the House of Lords in May: “One reason why we in this country are falling behind the growth of the rest of the world is that in recent years we have had a policy of deliberately driving up the price of energy.” David Cameron should take note that Tony Abbott is the first world leader elected by a landslide after expressing open skepticism about the exaggerated claims of imminent and dangerous climate change. Nor can greens argue that the issue was peripheral. The carbon tax was what won Mr Abbott his party’s leadership, and it was front and central in the election campaign. More and more politicians will be finding out that defending green levies on energy bills is more of an electoral liability than doubting dangerous climate change.

The net benefits of climate change till 2080

Few people know that warming is doing more good than harm

My Spectator cover story on the net benefits of climate change.

I will post rebuttals to the articles that criticised this piece below.

Spectator Diary April 2013

The cold spring weather and what it means

I wrote The Spectator diary column this week:

We’ve discovered that we own an island. But dreams of independence and tax-havenry evaporate when we try to picnic there on Easter Sunday: we watch it submerge slowly beneath the incoming tide. It’s a barnacle-encrusted rock, about the size of a tennis court, just off the beach at Cambois, north of Blyth, which for some reason ended up belonging to my ancestor rather than the Crown. Now there’s a plan for a subsidy-fired biomass power station nearby that will burn wood (and money) while pretending to save the planet. The outlet pipes will go under our rock and we are due modest compensation. As usual, it’s us landowners who benefit from renewable energy while working people bear the cost: up the coast are the chimneys of the country’s largest aluminium smelter — killed, along with hundreds of jobs, by the government’s unilateral carbon-floor price in force from this week.

There were dead puffins on the beach, as there have been all along the east coast. This cold spring has hit them hard. Some puffin colonies have been doing badly in recent years, after booming in the 1990s, but contrary to the predictions of global warming, it’s not the more southerly colonies that have suffered most. The same is true of guillemots, kittiwakes and sandwich terns: northern colonies are declining.

Diseases and pests are the real ecological threat

The bureaucracy's carbon obsession is distracting

I have an article in this week's Spectator about ash trees and exotic pests:

I'm pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark's trees and spreads by air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are not clones - uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it's only a glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth, have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.

The Forestry Commission's apologists are pleading 'cuts' as an excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years ago of the problem.

Tobacco denial and pesticide alarm

Rachel Carson and Al Gore relied on a tobacco denier

I have an article in the Spectator drawing attention to the curious fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring owed much to a passionate tobacco denier. It's behind a paywall, but there it is with the sources as links. Hat tip Ron Bailey.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this month, effectively marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. "Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history," wrote Al Gore in his introduction to the 1994 edition.

The beginning of the end of wind

To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world's energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons, felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a ton of which is in the average turbine - despite all this, the total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per cent worldwide.

If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look closely, you can see David Cameron's government coming to its senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore wind - Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens - are starting to worry that the government's heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas, which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines before it builds its factory.

This forces a decision from Cameron - will he reassure the turbine magnates that he plans to keep subsidising wind energy, or will he retreat? The political wind has certainly changed direction. George Osborne is dead set against wind farms, because it has become all too clear to him how much they cost. The Chancellor's team quietly encouraged MPs to sign a letter to No. 10 a few weeks ago saying that 'in these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines'.

Gas against wind

Here's an article I wrote for this week's Spectator about UK energy policy. Wind must give way to gas before it ruins us all, and our landscapes.

Which would you rather have in the view from your house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers twice the height of Nelson's column with blades noisily thrumming the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar: eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25% capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first ten years.

Difficult choice? Let's make it easier. The gas well can be hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground pipe.

The Polar Bear problem

It's not that they are more desperate. it's that they are thriving.

Here is a piece I just published in the Spectator.

Spectator Diary

Random thoughts on gas, songs, weather, walls and dead flies

I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):

A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch. Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races' to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off. Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four days after the song was first performed by the song's writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the groons quite muddy'. By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles' character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is almost too late. This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods, things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather we can expect more of.' The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky. Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in Scotland's independence referendum, then? Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another ****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work? We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the Roman army included. As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die (dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that `even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like papal indulgences, or carbon offsets. On Saturday night, the rain came.