Sunday, May 22, 2022

UK: Farmers could ‘meet shortages’ caused by Ukraine war if Boris Johnson ditched Net Zero policies

Boris Johnson is "out of tune" with British farming and his pursuit of net-zero policies is causing farmers to "rip up wheat crops that could reduce" the impact of the cost of living crisis, a farm director has said.

Rayner Farms Director Colin Rayner told GB News that while Germany has “cancelled their green farming policies” in the face of an international crisis, the UK Government has refrained from acting accordingly and exaggerated the cost of living crisis. Mr Rayner said British farmers “could meet the shortages lost by Ukraine” if a similar approach to the Germans was adopted.

He said: “I think [the Government] is out of tune with what’s going on in the world. We can produce a lot of the food that was being produced in Ukraine in the UK.

“We have Government policies that are making us plant wildflower meadows. We’re ripping up wheat crops that could reduce the price of wheat.

“In Germany, they have cancelled their green farming policies and put a million hectares back into production.

“Why are we not doing this in the UK?”


How the Science Media Centre made science journalism worse

By Dr David Whitehouse

If you reduce science journalism to science communication and want spoon-fed quotes and only establishment views, then the Science Media Centre – aka Big Science’s PR Agency – is all you need.

In the 1990s I could sense that scientists were getting more and more frustrated with the news media, and more than a few times some were certain that they knew how to do my job as science correspondent better. Most of the flak was aimed at TV news which was seen as more important than my beat which was radio. Besides there was more science on BBC radio news than ever before. It made little difference.

I can see why some of them were unhappy. Take the BSE/CJD crisis. Many scientists warned of the risks of feeding herbivores processed offal and the possibility of interspecies disease transmission. It was the politicians that changed their tune about it after it was too late and some journalists suffered if they pointed this out.

Then there was Arpad Putzai’s GM potatoes that he fed to rats who got ill. In general the media did not report this story with due caution; they should have stamped on it hard as an unverified report that obviously had red flags. I was at BBC News Online by that time and it wasn’t my beat, but I recall holding my head in my hands about it.

One prominent scientist told me that the increased profile science was getting on the radio (Radio 4’s Start the Week which once had very few scientists was later criticised in the press for having too many!) made them think they wanted more, more influence and more control.Writing in the journal Science at the time novelist Michael Crichton floated a suggestion:

"If I were magically put in charge of improving the status and image of science, I’d start using the media, instead of feeling victimized by them. The information society will be dominated by the groups of people who are most skilled at manipulating the media for their own ends. Under the auspices of a distinguished organization—like AAAS—I’d set up a service bureau for reporters. Reporters are harried, and often don’t know science. A phone call away, establish a source of information to help them, to verify facts, to assist them through thorny issues. Over time, build this bureau into a kind of Good Housekeeping seal, so that your denial has power, and you can start knocking down phony stories, fake statistics, and pointless scares immediately, before they build. And use this bureau to refer reporters to scientists around the country who can speak clearly to specific issues, who are quotable, and who can eventually emerge as recognizable spokespeople for science in areas of public concern, like electromagnetic radiation scares, cancer diets, and breast implant litigation. Convince these scientists that appearing on media isn’t an ego trip, but is part of their job, and a service to their profession. Then convince their colleagues.”

Under attack

Likewise at a meeting at the Royal Society in 1999 the veteran pollster Robert Worcester said, “Science is under attack.” He pointed out that people’s faith in the government and institutions had declined in the previous three decades, adding that the media is distrusted, especially TV. He said the solution could be found in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, “public opinion is everything.” He added, “the public may be ignorant of the background information which is necessary to put scientific developments in context.” About the same time New Scientist said, “let the people speak.”

Forces, scientific and otherwise, were on the move. The late 90s saw the rise of environmental activism and green consumerism. They realised that public opposition to science had the potential to be converted into considerable consumer power. Ethical management thrived and the sale of organic foods increased “because of the risks.” GM food was removed from sale. It was such a distrustful attitude combined with poor journalism that a few years later contributed to the MMR disaster.

Scientists latched onto this, the public are keen to be better informed. Their ignorance of science causes the public to fear them. The Science Media Centre (SMC) emerged from these sentiments and from a report by the House of Lords. Professor Susan Greenfield among other scientists pushed it through the Royal Institution where she had just become its director and thought it wasn’t regarded as important as she thought it should be. How that turned out is another salutary story.

Fiona Fox’s fascinating book Beyond the Hype tells the chequered story of the first 20 years of the SMC’s avowed campaign to change the culture of science communication. Many things it has done are to be commended, such as the opening up of government scientists, but it became too close to journalism, especially the BBC.

The BBC’s News guidelines prohibit it from becoming associated with pressure groups, however laudable their aims it states. The SMC is a pressure group but the BBC ignored this because who would not want better science in the media and who would not want Fiona Fox and her team to select suitable experts and collect quotes from them? For years the BBC’s Head of News, who claimed in 2005 that climate science was settled, was a SMC trustee. Today the BBC’s science editor is on its Advisory Committee as is a former BBC science correspondent. Its chair is a former senior BBC news executive.

The authority of science

It was an attitude that went to the top of the BBC. Director General Mark Thompson, after he left the BBC, bemoaned the failure of scientific authority to prevail. He thought that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was a “compendium of scientific evidence,” and also believed the ludicrous 97% of climate scientists non-survey. Thus was science journalism undermined from the very top of the BBC.

The BBC’s climate coverage in particular was hampered by its myopic view of the research, its climate travelogue approach, and its obsession with bashing “sceptics.” It was the reason why the full range of scientific research into climate change is largely not represented.

There is a chapter in the book about Climategate that I suspect readers of pages such as this will not recognise. All the time the SMC was aiming “To promote the views of the science community.” Curious then that it should so frequently feature that master of client journalism, Bob Ward of the LSE, as a regular source of the quotes they distribute. The book is tame with the critics of the SMC choosing only the weakest arguments laid against its influence and practices.

Science journalism is always changing adapting to new outlets, platforms, subjects and styles. There is a school of thought that holds that science journalism is all about relaying the scientific consensus on a subject. I don’t agree. In a world where good science information, indeed very good science information, is easily obtainable online, the legacy media looks dispensable and inessential.

In terms of news the BBC’s science coverage looks indistinguishable from everyone else’s – except its sparser, slower and even more boring. Overall, Iegacy media is declining and once again, like they did twenty years ago, the scientific community will have to adapt to the new world of Covid, Tik Tok and fake news. Once again, as was said in the 1999 House of Lords report, “the culture of UK-science needs a sea-change.”

This is the story of how those behind the SMC wanted to get better science into the media but instead weakened it in the process. The SMC is on the side of scientists. The SMC is a tool and only part of the armoury a science journalist needs, but if you reduce science journalism to science communication and want spoon-fed quotes and only establishment views, then the SMC – aka Big Science’s PR Agency – is all you need.


"Renewables" struggling

America’s clean-energy industry is stuck. Blame in part its climate-friendly president

America’s clean-energy bosses thought they would by now have more to celebrate. In the presidential campaign of 2020 Democrats tried to outbid one another on climate plans—Joe Biden offered $2trn, Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal was $16trn—as if the nomination would go to the highest bidder. In the three months after Mr Biden defeated Donald Trump, an index of clean-energy firms jumped by about 60%. Goldman Sachs, a bank, forecast “a new era for green infrastructure” in America and beyond.

Though Mr Biden’s infrastructure bill offered some help for clean energy, a giant climate bill now seems fantastical. Worse, green power is not just failing to boom. It is going bust. An array of American solar projects have been delayed or cancelled amid a federal probe into tariff evasion by manufacturers of solar panels and modules. The countries in question—Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam—together produce about 80% of America’s solar­-panel imports. Politics is stymying makers of wind turbines, builders of wind farms and the utilities that buy power from them.

The results are stark. So far this year the clean­-energy sector has lost about 25% of its market value, compared with an 18% drop for the benchmark s&p 500 index of big American firms. Rystad Energy, a research firm, estimates that two­-thirds of its forecast solar installations for this year are in doubt. According to Bloombergnef, a data provider, the capacity of new renewables projects in 2022 looks set to be a tenth lower than in 2020, under the wind­mill-hating Mr Trump.

Two years ago clean-­energy enthusiasts were right to feel bullish. In the decade to 2020 the levelised cost of electricity—which takes into account investment in equipment, construction, financing and maintenance—had fallen by 69% for onshore wind and 85% for solar projects, according to Lazard, an advisory firm. With renewables technologically mature and economically competitive, utilities and developers planned to pour money into solar and wind. Next-era Energy, a giant utility that in 2020 briefly overtook Exxonmobil to become America’s most valuable energy firm, said it would spend up to $14bn a year on capital projects in 2021 and 2022, calling it “the best renewables development environment in our history”. In the arduous effort to decarbonise America’s economy, building clean power would be the easy part.

Turns out it isn’t. Some problems stem from the pandemic and gummed-­up global supply chains. Pricey commodities helped push up the levelised cost of wind and solar in the second half of 2021 (though more slowly than for coal and gas). But many of the current woes are political in nature. Take restrictions on products from Xinjiang. Last year Mr Biden, seeking to limit imports made with forced labour, announced a ban on polysilicon coming from big companies producing in the Chinese region. American importers scrambled to present proof that they weren’t violating the ban. As customs officials pored over suppliers’ lengthy attestations, in Chinese, solar modules languished in ports. A lack of equipment forced developers to delay construction.

That problem has now been dwarfed by a bigger one. In March the Commerce Department humoured a request by Auxin Solar, an American manufacturer, to check if Chinese companies were circumventing anti­dumping tariffs. Duties had originally been imposed by Barack Obama, then extended by Mr Trump; Auxin claims that firms are dodging tariffs by making parts in China but assembling modules in their South-­East Asian factories.

The effect is that a small American firm is obstructing more than 300 projects, according to a tally by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a lobby group. Some developers cannot get their hands on kit. Others find that costlier gear has put their construction deals in the red. Next-era told investors in April that up to 2.8 giga­watts of solar and battery projects planned for this year, equivalent to around a tenth of its intended renewables investments in 2021­24, would be delayed. American assemblers of solar panels, it said, were sold out for the next three years. America’s largest solar project, spanning 13,000 acres of Indiana, has been postponed. Nisource, the utility behind it, will instead delay the retirement of two coal-­fired power stations to 2025.

The challenges facing the wind industry look less severe only in comparison. Like many capital­-intensive industries, the wind sector is grappling with rising costs of steel, copper, resin and other materials needed to craft turbines. Global manufacturers such as Vestas and Siemens Gamesa have seen their margins shrink. In America, rising input costs have unfortunately coincided with declining tax credits. It is possible that Congress could extend those for wind—but improbable given partisan deadlock. In the meantime developers and utilities are delaying new contracts, unwilling to make commitments before knowing the true costs.

Politicians may create problems where things have been going well, as with auctions for seabed leases for offshore wind farms. These have attracted ample bids from oil firms and utilities. The House passed a bill in March with bipartisan support that would require the giant boats used to install turbines off America’s coast to replace some foreign crews with Americans. Wind executives note the country lacks enough people with the requisite skills.

A high-voltage situation

Republicans, who look poised to control Congress after the midterm elections in November, remain more hostile to greenery than Democrats. But the renewables industry’s current troubles highlight the contradictions within Mr Biden’s coalition. It wants to build green projects quickly. At the same time, it wants Americans to build them with American inputs. The trouble is that you cannot have both. In a letter to Mr Biden on May 17th, 85 members of Congress argued that the tariff inquiry could cost America’s solar sector more than 100,000 jobs. That is bad for workers, bad for the renewables industry—and terrible for the climate.


Electric Vehicles Have a Water Problem. It isn’t going away anytime soon

I recently drove from Virginia to Colorado in my Nissan LEAF and in the process gained a real understanding of the current state of America’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure. For a long time, I have thought that the biggest challenge associated with the transition to mass electric vehicle adoption would be the build out of a robust charging infrastructure. However, after successfully traversing the American Heartland in an electric vehicle that only has a 150-mile range, I am confident that our electric vehicle charging network is on its way to ubiquity. It will take a few more years, but we will get there.

The bigger challenge I see now relates to the massive amount of water that it takes to mine Lithium and other minerals that are necessary for the production of electric vehicle batteries. Right now, Lithium mining and production is dominated by four countries, namely Argentina, Australia, Chile, and China, which make up over 90% of global Lithium mining operations. This presents unique challenges as demand for Lithium skyrockets. Wendover Productions produced a video with helpful data and visuals to understand many of the unique challenges associated with the skyrocketing demand for Lithium.

The United States does have a significant mostly untapped Lithium resource in Nevada, but there is very little water available to mine and refine the minerals. As you might imagine, the water rights in a place like Nevada are very precious and valuable, since Nevada is an arid region with little water availability. The extraction and processing of Lithium requires massive amounts of water. And, because of the extreme scarcity of water in the region, using water for extracting Lithium inherently means not using it for something else like ranching or farming.

There is also a non-trivial possibility that the mining and processing of Lithium in Nevada could leak unsafe levels of Arsenic into the regions groundwater table, which would have significant negative impacts on the water supply for communities in the region. There are also a number of biodiversity hotspots in Nevada, which means that a massive mining operation is likely to have a significant negative impact on wildlife in the region by destroying or deteriorating habitats and obstructing migratory paths.

And, if all of the above is not enough to make your head and heart hurt, then also know that resource extraction operations generally have a bad track record associated with labor rights and the treatment of indigenous populations. So, even if we solved the environmental challenges, we would still have challenges associated with human rights, safety, and cultural devastation.

So, how do we address all of these challenges? We need Lithium and other minerals to produce electric vehicle batteries. We need water to mine and refine the Lithium and other minerals. And, on top of all of that, we need to address environmental, safety, and cultural issues associated with the mining and production of Lithium and other minerals.




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