Defra – drowning not waving

There are 653 days until the next General Election and since a week is a long time in politics this a very long time to go.  However, most people will probably already have made up their minds on this coalition government and it will take distinct jolts , changes or events (dear boy) to alter their opinions.

As far as Defra is concerned, it is a shambles. David Cameron can’t care about the environment otherwise he would have noticed and done something about it.  And George Osborne, we know, doesn’t care about the environment and so is perfectly happy for the shambles to continue.

We have a Secretary of State at Defra who: is climate-sceptical, is anti-Europe, is pro-badger culling, sat on his hands for too long when ash dieback arrived and hasn’t said anything sensible about nature since he arrived.  On Saturday he awarded a prize to Melton Mowbray pork pie makers and that is the level at which Mr Paterson’s engagement with rural issues should remain; looking handsome and handing out the prizes.  He is quite handsome and he would hand over a cup very nicely – but he’s clearly out of his depth when it comes to running the environment department.

I said that most people will have made up their minds on this government, so what have they decided?  A Conservative majority is now at odds of around 100/30 – less than a one in four chance according to the weight of money.  A hung parliament is favourite at around 11/8 and a Labour majority is around 13/8.  And the polls suggest something quite similar.

Cameron won’t care much about the Defra team in electoral terms and he shows no sign of caring about the countryside anyway, but he may have to reshuffle just to give himself some chance of finding a better electoral hand with a few decent cards.  He looks like he has a doctored pack with all the picture cards and aces removed and replaced with jokers at the moment.  Obviously the Queen of Hearts, Theresa May, is keeping her head down and the Knave of Spades, Michael Gove, is thinking up next week’s reorganisation of the education system.  If Cameron feels he has to reshuffle, then Defra will be bottom of his list of priorities, but he may, in the end, think about putting someone in Defra who can look good and not lose the respect of everyone except the CLA and the NFU.  Is there anyone out there who can open his, or preferably, her, mouth without looking like someone who wants to get rid of Britain’s wildlife?

Even Richard Benyon, who ought to know so much better, couldn’t rustle up anything meaningful to say at the State of Nature Report launch back in May (the Minister appears in the video after 23 minutes).  He praised volunteers and the business community whilst avoiding committing government to doing anything important in the UK for biodiversity conservation.  He even had to mention that some species are increasing and he’d have to have a word with the RSPB about them – have you seen a buzzard eating a pheasant Minister, or maybe a cormorant eating a fish?  How shocking! Some species are doing well even under this government – something should be done about it!  I’ll have a word with my ‘keeper.

I do wonder what those Conservatives who care deeply about the environment think about the mess that Defra are creating.  Does Carolin Spelman feel that she is well out of it these days?  Maybe Sir James Paice feels the same? Surely John Gummer feels that the steps forward that he and Michael Meacher, in their own ways, achieved were not secured by the last Labour government and have not been recovered by this Conservative administration.   What does Peter Ainsworth, such a good Shadow Secretary of State who had the respect of the nature conservation NGOs, but ditched from the ministerial team before the last election, think of the mess that his colleagues are making of nature conservation? How about Ken Clarke – a proper birder – does he wince at the legacy of a broken statutory conservation system that his colleagues will leave behind?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  However,  I notice that Conservative supporters are wondering where the green Tory agenda went.  This article treats ‘green’ as ‘energy and climate change’ like so many do these days, and says little about the countryside and its wildlife, but it is right to say that ‘conservation is a very conservative end‘ and also that ‘environmentalism may only win votes at the margins – but that doesn’t mean the Conservatives should just let Labour, the Lib Dems, whoever, range freely across this territory at the next election. Nurturing a “clean and healthy environment to pass on to our children,” as the last Tory manifesto put it, is a noble endeavour, and one that shouldn’t just be associated with the left.‘.  I agree with that.

The trouble is that the Conservative party is running out of time, when in power, to persuade anyone with a green thought in their heads that they would be the party for whom they should vote.  Defra has been useless in this government and a few voters will remember that when they stare a ballot paper in the face.  Some of them may vote for the dreaded UKIP as a result, not because UKIP have any sensible green policies but because the tug of the Conservative Party has been loosened by Defra’s ineptitude over several years.  We quite often vote against things as well as for things.

Having said all that – there is little sign of a green clarion call from the Labour Party either.

I wonder what the Green Party are up to?

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30 Comments

  1. Roderick Leslie

    You would have thought Defra - and its Ministers - would have had enough of forestry. Not a bit of it: in response to the Bishop of Liverpool's independent panel report recommending arms length management from political Government what does Defra come up with ? They've accepted the Bishop's recommendation of a 'Board of Guardians' certainly, which looks good on the surface - but then they have slipped in their own 'Management Board'. The Minister will appoint it's Chairman who will then chair a (Defra) panel to appoint the other members. This Board will be responsible for the management of the organisation, will own the land and will be able to sell land. The Guardian's role is as yet undefined - it'll be 'strategic' and 'advisory'. There will of course be legislation, a charter etc and they will no doubt talk a lot about 'balance'. Anyone who has dealt with 'balance', especially with a Department like Defra whose openness to comment and scrutiny has been well tested by this blog's FOI requests, will know what that means. Far from securing the future through an arms-length release of the forests from day to day politics, Owen Paterson clearly plans to pull the forest estate even closer - for what ? Well, the Government's response to the panel tells it all - a lot of talk about money, with body language that suggests they really do think they are going to get their hands on the money from the land but search in vain for any commitment, for example, to reversing the decline in woodland birds.

    I find it quite extraordinary that Minister's are risking forestry blowing up again - is it really so hard a thing to do the right thing for once ? - I think they believe no one is going to notice and there is some interesting coercion underway already - and, I suspect, offers of favours 'you'll get a seat on the guardian's if you support us' and also 'if you oppose our proposals there'll be no legislation before the next election' - a rather idle threat as surely for the Conservatives the objective is to put this issue to bed ? David Cameron has been rumoured to have said he never wants to hear the word 'forestry' ever again - well, as things are going forestry will without doubt be an election issue - and it's till a favourite with the media, mentioned every U turn as the first and silliest of all the messes the Government has got itself into.

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  2. Jonathan Wallace

    I snuck a peak into the current edition of Shooting Times whilst in the local supermarket the other day (I wouldn't wish to encourage them by buying it!). It includes an interview with Richard Benyon which, predictably casts a very favourable light on shooting. Amongst other things we are told "it is the people who are...burning heather to maintain moorlands who are the real guardians of the natural environment." No mention, of course, of Walshaw or of the environmental damage that grouse moor management can cause, and nothing to suggest the Minister is overly exercised by the elimination of hen harriers from grouse moors. No doubt the grouse-shooting estate owners and their clients will vote Tory to a man and can probably be relied on to chip in generously to the Tory election coffers.

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  3. Hugh Webster

    I have written to my MP (Tory Anne McIntosh) twice in the last few months, the second time at some length (copied below). Both times I have received a brief and rather dismissive response along the lines of "thank you for your recent letter... I have written to the Rt Hon Owen Patterson requesting that he addresses the points you have raised... I will contact you again as soon as I have received a reply". I sent my messages in December and May. You'll perhaps be unsurprised to hear I've never heard anything further. Meanwhile I am frustrated that my MP has simply passed the buck without expressing her opinion on the points I raised and have decided to write again, asking her to express some specific opinions and try to pin her down. Faint hope.

    "Dear Miss McIntosh,

    You may recall last December that I wrote to you concerning the issue of farmland birds and their continuing decline. You kindly wrote back to say that you had written to The Rt Hon Owen Patterson MP requesting that he address the points I raised, specifically concerning the ineffectiveness of the Entry Level Scheme farm payments in halting the loss of our skylarks, lapwings and buntings. However, despite your promise to contact me again with his response I have since heard nothing.

    In the intervening months the continuing sad decline in our nation's wildlife has been documented in alarming and unprecedented detail. Most significantly in the State of Nature report (http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/science/stateofnature/index.aspx) compiled by our 25 leading wildlife NGOs which concluded that a staggering 60% of our wildlife has declined since reliable records began being kept. It should also be noted that these are conservative estimates, given that the available baseline data often stems from the 1960s and 70s , when our wildlife had already suffered massive and largely undocumented declines. We are left with a hugely depleted flora and fauna and a population increasingly ignorant even of what has been lost, although invariably in my experience, people share a nagging suspicion that it is something profound, irreplaceable and key to our mental, spiritual and physical well being.

    What then can be done? As one individual I am often frustrated that I feel helpless, but I hope that by writing to you – particularly given your role as chair of EFRA – that I can convince you that you have an opportunity (and in my opinion a moral duty) to act to improve this tragic situation. A number of quite straightforward changes could have a significant impact, yet to date this government has fallen lamentably short of its once much trumpeted green credentials.

    1)ELS farm payments could fund five RSPBs, but at the moment are yielding no significant benefit for the hundreds of millions of taxpayers pounds. This scheme must be overhauled to ensure it delivers first a stabilising effect and then an increase in the numbers of our embattled farmland birds. Wider field margins, ecologically literate hedge and roadside verge trimming regimes and many of the successful measures required by the HLS scheme should also be required of the ELS scheme, if it is to be anything more than a free supplement to the single farm payment.
    2)Government environmental policy must reflect mainstream evidence-lead scientific consensus. I think of the fiasco of the proposed badger cull where the results of a multi year, multi million pound, scientific study are being ignored because they do not happen to support the desires of a minority lobby in the form of the NFU; or the shame of the neonicotinoid affair where our own politicians claimed there was insufficient field based evidence to support a ban, failing to mention that this was because in our pesticide soaked countryside it had proven impossible to find anywhere to run a control study where the bees were not exposed to these chemicals. Devastating lab results should have been more than sufficient to trigger the precautionary principle of banning the chemicals until they could be proved safe, but bizarrely our minister favoured a “let's keep using it until we know for sure it's disastrous” approach, presumably as might be demonstrated by the complete extinction of all our bees. Dangerously this providential approach (it might not happen, so let's ignore it) has infected too much of our environmental policy.
    3)The imminent extinction of the hen harrier and the golden eagle as breeding species in England, together with the ongoing persecution of other raptors is a national disgrace, such that our national parks are not worthy of the name. Indeed this is doubtless part of the reason why the IUCN does not recognise any national parks in the UK. Harsher penalties, the adoption of vicarious responsibility for landowners and a review of upland management (grazing, burning and predator control regimes) with a view to improving biodiversity are all urgently needed.

    Action on these three points could see this government achieving some demonstrable successes for the British people at a time when economic hardships mean that there are few easy wins for any government. A survey last year by the Wildlife and Countryside Link recorded 84% of people think that the natural environment boosts their quality of life. Surely politicians cannot ignore this?"

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    • MK

      Hugh - superb letter imho, thanks for sharing it

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    • Mark

      Hugh - excellent letter. Of course Ms McIntosh might have been a Defra Minister herself had not the voting in that seat been delayed.

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      • Hugh Webster

        I'll let you know if I get anything in reply to today's effort:

        "Dear Miss McIntosh,

        I have written to you twice in the last 8 months expressing my concerns about the alarming declines being documented in this nation's wildlife (60% of farmland species in decline according to this year's State of Nature Report). Both times you have replied with a promise to pass on my concerns to the Rt Hon Owen Paterson, but on both occasions I have subsequently heard nothing but deafening silence. This does not surprise me as Owen Patterson's disgraceful record and astonishing ignorance speaks for itself (he's still a climate change skeptic for goodness sake! What sort of thinking individual imagines the climate isn't changing, that it is in fact eternally stable? The same type of person as might believe that species are immutable, the world is 6000 years old, flat and at the centre of the solar system one imagines). Forgive my tone, but the fact that a man in his position is a climate change skeptic beggars belief and one grows increasingly frustrated. So, despairing of hearing anything from the Rt Hon Owen Paterson, I would sincerely like to know your own views, given that in our correspondence to date you omitted to clarify whether you supported my suggestions, when passing on my points to your colleague. Specifically could you tell me whether you are:

        1) Content that the ELS farm payment scheme offers real value for money in delivering meaningful environmental benefits?
        2) In favour of the badger cull and the new temporary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides?
        3) Concerned/puzzled by the absence of so many raptors (hen harriers for one) from the expanses of ideal habitat in the North York Moors National Park?
        4) Proud of this government's record on the environment (you'll have to give me an example here as I couldn't think of anything).

        Your sincerely,

        Hugh Webster

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        • filbert cobb

          “but the fact that a man in his position is a climate change skeptic beggars belief”

          Why is that? One Dufus running another four-lettered gubmint department is enough, I would have thought. Scepticism is healthy. Concensus-following is ovine.

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          • Hugh Webster

            Sigh. I think skepticalscience.com addresses this and other tired arguments: "Scientific skepticism is healthy. Scientists should always challenge themselves to improve their understanding. Yet this isn't what happens with climate change denial. Skeptics vigorously criticise any evidence that supports man-made global warming and yet embrace any argument, op-ed, blog or study that purports to refute global warming."

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  4. Trimbush

    “Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether Labour’s lead is nine points, zero points, or somewhere in between (for what it’s worth, I think somewhere in between is probably the most accurate reflection of the respective party’s current standings). Labour’s lead simply isn’t anywhere near big enough.

    “Another thing all the polls are telling us is Ed Miliband and Labour are going backwards. At the turn of the year, double-digit Labour poll leads were the norm. Today, they are the exception.

    “That’s not what’s supposed to be happening. The 50p tax rate has come into effect. So has the bedroom tax. And the benefit cap. The squeeze on living standards is continuing. The NHS reforms are being implemented. More public service cuts have been unveiled. This should be the time for Labour to be driving ever deeper into enemy territory. Instead, they are in retreat.

    “There is one other thing all the polls agree on: Ed Miliband is crap. Or rather, the British people do not think he has what it takes to be Prime Minister, which in politics amounts to the same thing. Perceptions about Miliband are now set in stone. He could deport Len McCluskey, introduce hanging for shoplifters and personally lead an audacious commando raid to overthrow Kim Jong-un. And people would still see him as weak and indecisive”

    Dan Hodges – Telegraph –16 July 2013

    “Dan Hodges is a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest. He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns. He writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation”

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    • Mark

      Trimbush - welcome back with your refreshingly antiquated views. Question: What price three new party leaders before the next general election?

      Cameron is clearly very worried about UKIP and that changes everything. And if I am wrong, and he isn't very worried about UKIP, then he ought to be - as UKIP changes everything.

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      • Trimbush

        Hi Mark – thank you

        The above views are not my ‘antiquated views’ – they are all those of the splendid Dan Hodges (Labour): and his views on UKIP? :-

        “Then there is Ukip. Different pollsters have different methodologies for measuring support for Nigel Farage and his merry men, but all the pollsters agree on one thing: that support is declining. And as it does, Tory support it rising.

        “Some people argued that in the wake of the local elections Ukip had made a political breakthrough of such significance and scale they were set to break the mould of British politics. That is now being shown to be rubbish. Others argued Ukip were taking support equally from the two main parties. That’s been shown to be rubbish as well. The vast majority of Ukip supporters are going to switch their allegiance back to the Tory party before polling day. For good or ill, the mould of British politics will remain intact.”

        Dan Hodges is a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest. He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns. He writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation. He is on Twitter at @dpjhodges

        I have yet to establish whether Dan agrees with me or I agree with him !

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  5. MK

    Mark - re your comment about Sir Les and ash dieback, I think this came out when you were in the states:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/2
    00393/pb13878-tree-health-taskforce-final-report.pdf
    Very scary. If I've understood this correctly there's a serious threat to every single one of our native species waiting in the wings, except possibly lime. What hope a recovery of woodland and farmland birds then?

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  6. Doug Mack Dodds

    You like an occasional punt don't you Mark?
    Last time I looked, Ed Balls was 20-1 against to be next PM.
    Some may scoff now.... but remember where you heard it first....!

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  7. Dennis Ames

    Mark,not sure if your great blog is supposed to be humorous,scary or other things.It does seem really accurate,however seeing as our NHS is in terrible trouble,education which is the future is going backwards I very much doubt whichever party gets in at the next election wildlife will greatly benefit.Of course just before the next election as has always happened especially under George Brown we will all be given a few sweeties and all the bad things over these past 5 years will be forgotten about.All that is needed is the right advisor even if they have dubious connections where they draw a big income from as well.
    Mark,it seems as if you have joined the cynical society like myself.

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    • Jonathan Wallace

      Would that be the George Brown who served as Foreign Secretary in the Harold Wilson Government in the 1960s Dennis?

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      • filbert cobb

        Possibly. G-B has form - in 1947 he was instrumental in getting the Agriculture Act passed, establishing price support to farmers, subsidies, and all that there. Yer Labour man, enriching all them Toffs! It was all his fault! Tsk tsk. He was an unpleasant chap, according to my Aunt Winifred, who worked for him. He was an avid supporter of the distilling industry.

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        • Mark

          Filbert - he doesn't sound all bad then

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  8. Dennis Ames

    Mark,well there is a turn up for the books,it seems a Labour politician Tom Williams I believe started the ball rolling for all farmers subsidies and prosperity or as F C puts so nicely a Labour politician feathering the nests of all the toffs.
    I just know you will have a different outlook on it.

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    • Mark

      Dennis - 1947 is a little while ago. There is nothing wrong with paying farmers for doing good things - it's just that the overwhelming amount of money these days pays farmers to be farmers and nothing more. Paying farmers to deliver public goods is just what I want - we pay them at the moment when they deliver public 'bads' and when they deliver very little except the produce that they are paid for.

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      • For once I agree Mark. Perhaps now folks south of the Border will understand the demand, born out of frustration, for Independence from so many Scots voters. If YOU guys can make so little impression on "Coalition" Westminster, what hope have the Scots got? One Scottish Conservative MP in Westminster, and all the rest bar SNP MPs, more intent on following the tit for tat party line rather than what's best for their constituents. It took one our FCS DGs to go south and sort out Caroline Spelman's forestry sell off disaster. He confirmed what a disaster DEFRA was and couldn't wait to get back to normality.

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  9. filbert cobb

    Hugh Webster
    July 23, 2013 – 11:21 am

    Sigh as much as you want - it doesn't change anything. Quoting skepticalscience.com, a rabidly CAGW blog, is pointless. Your assertions about sceptical positions on climate science are, to borrow from our host, antiquated views. There is a world of difference between Climastrology and real world science.

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    • Hugh Webster

      Ok Filbert, cards on the table. I'm not a climate scientist. Most people aren't. So what are we to think? I look at the evidence presented by the advocates of both sides, characterised by you as the rabid CAGW crowd versus the healthy skeptics and I'm afraid I find the arguments of the "rabid" lot more convincing. Indeed it's been said that "the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes” (Doran 2009). This perhaps explains why there are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

      Could the overwhelming majority of experts be wrong? Yes, of course they could. But it seems more probable on balance to believe that they are onto something. As Carl Sagan put it: "It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out."

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      • filbert cobb

        "both sides, characterised by you as the rabid CAGW crowd versus the healthy skeptics"

        Wrong. The skepticalscience blog you quoted and undermined your own point happens to be particularly obnoxious, but there are plenty of even-handed blogs out there. Try Judith Curry's blog - "Climate etc". Professor Curry has no truck with trolls and abusers.

        P T Doran's 2009 paper is like a poll of choirboys leaving a church, who are asked whether they sang a hymn today. To get an objective view it is necessary to poll a representative sample of scientists - physicists, mathematicians, chemists, geologists and especially engineers and statisticians. People like these, a rabid bunch, many of whom are no longer in need of research funding ...
        http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=1
        Richard Feynman cautioned that to avoid becoming cargo cult scientists, researchers must avoid fooling themselves, be willing to question and doubt their own theories and their own results, and investigate possible flaws in a theory or an experiment. He was scathing of the everyday dishonesty which should be unacceptable in science. Freeman Dyson also nails it: "The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models. They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models. ... climate science has become heavily politicised and to say that the dogmas are wrong has become politically incorrect."

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        • Hugh Webster

          Not clear why you describe the skepticalscience blog as obnoxious, but I was interested by the links you suggested. Lots of informed debate out there which can only be a good thing. I'm aware that just as there are some scientists with interests in the Oil and Gas industry there are other academics with a vested career interest in linking everything to AGW. We need skeptics to keep science honest; if everyone just nodded whenever a scientist announced a theory it wouldn't be science it would be religion.

          However, I'm afraid I mistrust those who find it convenient (politically or financially) to insist that climate change is miraculously unaffected by human emissions. So, while I welcome the debate promoted by the skeptics, as a layperson I still choose to believe what I perceive to be the current academic consensus, summed up here by the Royal Society (http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294972962.pdf):

          "There is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, including agriculture and deforestation. The size of future temperature increases and other aspects of climate change, especially at the regional scale, are still subject to uncertainty. Nevertheless, the risks associated with some of these changes are substantial. It is important that decision makers have access to climate science of the highest quality, and can take account of its findings in formulating appropriate responses."

          There is a world of difference between accepting that forecasting is complex and that there will be noise in the models for Global Warming versus claiming that human activity is having no significant effect. And so while I welcome the debate promoted by the skeptics I remain appalled that a man in Owen Paterson's position is a climate change skeptic - because for reasons of convenience he aligns himself (and so presumably his policies) with a skeptical minority, at substantial risk to us all.

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          • filbert cobb

            Royal Society
            Motto: Nullius in verba - Take no man's word for it.

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  10. Just exactly how is your local Labour MP doing on local issues Mark? After all he failed to block to extension to the radioactive waste dump at Kings Cliffe, which in turn could mean it will be the site for the old rubbish from Sizewell.

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  11. Hugh Webster

    A great motto for scientists, but not so practical for government ministers.

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    • filbert cobb

      Hilary Benn is a vegetarian - a minority lifestyle choice - but it didn't get in the way of his appointment.

      This link has an article concisely summing up a general sceptical position on CAGW

      http://notrickszone.com/2013/07/24/veteran-german-meteorologist-calls-climate-findings-procured-sees-only-0-5c-of-warming-for-co2-doubling/

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      • Hugh Webster

        This will be my last post on this - you can have the last word. As I quoted earlier: "Skeptics vigorously criticise any evidence that supports man-made global warming and yet embrace any argument, op-ed, blog or study that purports to refute global warming.” To me it seems that the arguments of this Puls you link to are full of the same old holes (e.g. feedback effects are just hypotheses so why worry, or no significant warming in the last fifteen years, so let's ignore the rest of the painstakingly accumulated data set that does show warming). So, on balance and after considering the evidence presented by both sides, I still consider AGW to be a reality. Meanwhile I wonder what it would take to convince you and what motivates your skepticism? If the climate warms in the next fifteen years and skeptics quietly drop their no significant recent warming argument, will you just move on to something else? We should all fervently hope you are right, but perhaps it would be responsible to act and prepare for the (probable) alternative.

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  12. filbert cobb

    "I still consider AGW to be a reality"

    That is the sceptical viewpoint as summarised in Puls interview.

    There is a world of difference between Climastrology and real world science.

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