Friday, 30 June 2017

Record Breaking Heat Wave Due to Man-Made Climate Change

Phew! June was a scorcher. The month of June 2017 was marked by high temperatures across Western Europe with heat waves triggering national heat-health plans and wildfires requiring evacuation in Portugal and Spain.

Record breaking heat gripped most of western Europe with mean temperatures 3 degrees above ‘normal’. England experienced the hottest June day since 1975. Belgium imposed water rationing because of record temperatures. In Switzerland a heat wave warning was issued, and in France and the Netherlands heat action plans were triggered.

France experienced the hottest June night ever recorded as the average nighttime temperature reached ​26.4 degrees Celsius on June 21st. Switzerland saw the second hottest day on record since records began in 1864. In England temperatures recorded at Heathrow reached 34.4 degrees Celsuis.

These high temperatures are no longer rare in the current climate, occurring roughly every 10 to 30 years.

So, was this heat wave a result of man-made global warming?

A detailed European collaborative study suggests it was, and warns that by the end of the century, these high temperatures will become the norm in Western Europe.

Scientists with World Weather Attribution (WWA) and partners in England, France and Switzerland conducted a multi-method analysis to assess whether and to what extent human-caused climate change played a role in the heat. The team found that climate change increased the frequency and intensity of such extreme events, which have at the very least doubled and in the south have increased by at least a factor 10.

First the team analysed the observed June temperature record in several Western European countries to assess whether or not there is a trend toward increasing temperature.

The next step was to assess whether and to what extent external drivers, in particular anthropogenic climate change, caused the positive June temperature trend in the observational data. To Answer this question they used climate models, in which the relative impact of various external “forcings” such as changes in solar insolation, volcanoes, and greenhouse gas concentrations can be quantified.

These model results indicate that past historical increases in greenhouse gases have raised the odds of a warm June in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the CET region of UK considerably. Furthermore, the observed trend is compatible with the effects of human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.

Since past and projected future greenhouse gas increases will continue to increase the temperatures, the frequency of summer months like June 2017 should be expected to increase over the coming decades, and what is still an unusually hot June today would be a normal June later this century.




Sunday, 25 June 2017

Cry of the wolf - Apes, wolves, culture and intentions

Melvin Burgess' children story, Cry of the wolf, tells the tale of a man whose quest is to kill the last wolf alive in England.  One female survives, wounded by The Hunter, but she survives long enough to teach her sole surviving cub a few skills before she then is killed by the man. The cub is raised by a human family, but being a social animal he waits in vain for the scent of another wolf. 

When I consider how badly we treat other intelligent beings here on earth I am rather pleased that Extraterrestrial Intelligence continues to  elude us.  It would be better if we were at peace with ourselves, and that we care for our living planet before we blunder about in the nether reaches of the universe.

Tragically, when we have found other intelligent life here on our planet, we have tended to do it harm rather than give it respect.  Nonetheless we have a notion and a sense of fairness and justice, else we would not agonise over the problems this presents.  We have an increasing understanding about our planet and that we should protect it from the harm our activity may be doing.  Our intelligence, and our capacity to make reasoned choices enables us to do this.  Hopefully it will enable us to repair the damage we have done.

We are not alone in having a sense of fairness and justice. It is present in other cooperative mammals.  The results of a recent study suggest that Wolves also have a sense of fairness, or at least of inequity.

Wolves hunt, raise pups, and defend their territory cooperatively.  Equity is important in maintaining cooperative behaviour in the group.  Iniquitous treatment leads to aversive behaviour with withdrawal of cooperation.  This sense of fairness has long been seen in studies of non-human primates.  The psycho-social environment of members of a group in non-human primates has cultural complexity that profoundly influences behavioural development.   Such cooperation doesn't involve an incident by incident 'what's in it for me' assessment.  It is socially developed and socially maintained.  Mutual cooperation maintains social cohesion, not self-interest.  
 
Our planet is teaming with intelligent life. Problem solving is ubiquitous on earth.  It would be easy enough to regard organisms as mere automata - or gene-driven machines.  But this, I think, is a woefully inadequate understanding of living things, and of so much of animal life.  We have a strange view of ourselves as the only intelligent beings.  But even for us,  the gene-centred view of our being prevails. So much so that many question our capacity to make purposeful decisions.  That seems odd given I am writing this with the purpose of refuting such a view.  

Some groups of Apes use stones to crack nuts.  This use of tools is learned and culturally transmitted to others.  They will make choices about what stones are best for cracking nuts.  They will sometimes share good stones with other members of their group, but they will also covet a good stone, or keep one safe.  Apes also use tools to extract water to drink.  This is also culturally learned behaviour.  They have social intelligence, and they are able to make social decisions.  The use of tools is indicative of purposeful behaviour: the stone is selected and modified to best crack nuts.  

Nothing excites debate more than the question of whether we can or do make truly altruistic decisions, or whether all our behaviour is gene-directed self interest.  Altruistic behaviour is dismissed, where demonstrated, as being merely reciprocal. It is said to be self-interested action that preserves 'our' genes in the 'gene pool'.   It is odd then that I should write this to persuade you otherwise.  My genes did not write this. I did.  Your genes are not reading it. You are. 

The contention of behaviour driven by 'selfish genes' has left a powerful imprint on our politics and our economics. It underpins the neoliberal view of society as an aggregate of individual self-interested behaviour.  The operation of markets has been built on this notion.  It is used also to justify the iniquitous exploitation of others by a few. It has transformed the very nature of 'freedom' into a freedom to exploit. It is a strange notion of 'freedom' that is predicated on biogenic determinism.

Yet there is another view.  Our actions are not driven by genes.   We can, and we do, act with reason. Just as the apes select and modify good stones to crack nuts, so we also produce elaborate and technically complex tools.  We use these tools with purpose. Furthermore, we make assumptions about the reason of others. When I see Jack and Jill go up the hill and then come down again carrying a pail of water, I make an assumption that they went up in order to fetch the pail of water.  I might be wrong, or I may be right in my assumption.  That isn't really the issue here. What is at issue is that it is a reasonable assumption.  It follows reasonable logic.  Nor was Jack and Jill's behaviour caused by their genes, any more than it was caused by the feet with which they walked up the hill, or their hands with which they carried the pail, although in describing how they did what they did involved all of these.  

We might also hold this assumption about Jack and Jill's purpose with greater certainty if we knew that Jack and Jill needed or wanted water. That would certainly provide a motive or driver for the action. We might also know that the source of water was up the hill. 

My statement about 'why' Jack and Jill went up the hill makes a lot of interesting assumptions about behaviour, not least of which is that it is purposeful. It assumes that actions are or can be intentional. 

You might think it odd that anyone would doubt this. But they do, and I suppose the problem is best summed up in another question: where does this intention come from?  

In answering this we often end up with a distinctly unsatisfactory dualism - body and mind - as if the two were somehow of different  stuff, or no stuff at all.  Descartes had this problem.  If we are machines, robotic beings, then how could we have minds with intentions, thoughts and actions? He made a curious exception for humans - that we are machines with souls. This became a major distinction between humans and other animals.  It was all very unsatisfactory.

The modern gene-centred view has substituted another dualism - a bit of the machinery within the machine that drives the machine.  In this case genes.  This leads to the same problem.  If bits of the machine drive other bits, then how can there be free will?  And if there is no 'free will' then how can any behaviour truly be said to be intentional? 

The answer I think lies in logic.  Organisms are logically functional problem solving entities. They are open processes engaged with their environment, not closed systems like machines. 

Intention isn't a stuff. It is disposition. Thought isn't a stuff.  It is a continuous process.

So what then of our quest to find alien intelligence?

If we were to find extraterrestrial life then I think we would judge it intelligent not only by how well it solved problems but also by whether it had intentions.  Only by intention can we understand the cry of the wolf.

An extended version of this article can be heard on The Thin End podcast.


Acknowledgements.

My thanks to Denis Noble and Eva Jablonka for wonderful discussions that led to this post and accompanying podcast.










Friday, 23 June 2017

Imagine Brexit doesn't mean Brexit

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Do you remember when it all appeared so simple? Just a few weeks ago Mrs May was still delivering the mantra 'Brexit means Brexit'. That was before the general election. Now it doesn't appear so simple, and Brexit gets softer, and softer and....why?

Reality awakens. The truth is understood. Brexit isn't good. It isn't good for the economy, for jobs, for health and social care, for research, for fighting climate change, and so the negotiations now turn on how to ameliorate the harm it will do.

When these harmful effects were outlined in the EU referendum, they were dismissed as 'scare tactics' by the Leave campaign. But they are real. The government will try to negotiate some sort of access to the single market. It will do so because much of our economy depends on it. That access will come with a cost, and we will wonder what is better about it. "What's it all about Alfie? The question will be repeatedly asked. Why leave?

Ah, I hear it said 'to take back control!: But will we really be taking back control when we will have access to the single market on worse terms than we have now? Is that really sensible?

Of course, 'take back control' referred in large part to migration. We will take back control of our borders. Yet, what is this control? Is it really worth a can of beans?

Our health service is struggling with a staff shortage. It would be made much worse by our leaving the EU without making arrangements to recruit staff from the EU.

Mrs May is right, now and belatedly, to wake up to the problem. Up until the loss of her parliamentary majority she failed to give priority to the status of EU citizens working in the UK. It was a bargaining chip we were told. Now, a more sensible if not complete approach is being adopted. Let's hope it leads speedily to removing the uncertainty hanging over EU citizens resident in the UK.

I have been giving some thought on slogans Mrs May might adopt to regain her authority. She would have liked 'tough on Brexit, touch on the causes of Brexit'. But now  "Soft on Brexit, soft on the causes of Brexit' comes to mind.

When the impact of Brexit was put forward as a reason not to leave, we were told it was just an opinion. All at once 'experts' were dismissed as mischievous and plain 'wrong'. They didn't know what they were talking about, we were told. Their view was no better than...than anyone else.

And so it was that estimates of a loss of GDP of nearly ten percent modelled by the Treasury, NIESR and the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE were dismissed in favour of populist Brexiteers.  Hardened Brexiteers pointed to disagreement in economic forecasts as a reason for ignoring them.  It was a bit like ignoring all weather forecasts on the basis that the don't always get it right - it might rain, but then again it might not.   Uncertainty of forecasting is no excuse for ignoring it. 

Similarly, warnings from the IMF and the OECD of the negative impact on the British economy were dismissed. "Well they would say that wouldn't they?"  Would they? 

So Her Majesty's Treasury forecast was a negative impact of between at worse -7.5 and at best  -3.8.  Rubbish the Brexiteers cried.  The Centre for Economic Performance forecast negative impact of -9.5 to -6.3. Rubbish the Brexiteers cried.  The National Institute for Economic and Social Research had negative impact of -9.2 to -2.4. Rubbish cried the Brexiteers.  

It became a mantra to dismiss such forecasts.  Brexit would be good for the economy.  The trick was then to make it almost unpatriotic to suggest Britain would struggle and 'could not stand on our own feet'.  Don't talk the country down.  "Be proud to be British!: "Britain" we were told "is strong".  We are up for it.  It was macho bravado! Things can only get better!  Ah, wouldn't it just.  

Certainly the realities of Brexit are  nuanced. But that alone will not be sufficient to mitigate the damage.  The simplistic 'the people have voted' approach is I suspect turning to a more realistic assessment of whether or what they voted for.  Brexit doesn't simply mean Brexit.   To say people voted to leave and to ignore the consequences is frankly abrogating any kind of responsibility.  It is a kind of 'now look what you made me do!"   It is time politicians were honest about it.  It is time they stopped simplistic slogans and owned up to the consequences.  This they are now having to do now Mrs May has lost her majority. 

Some of our EU partners are now saying they wish we would stay.   I wish we would too. 

European Council President Donald Tusk has quoted lyrics from John Lennon's Imagine to suggest the door remains open to the UK staying in the EU:  "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

You can listen to an extended version of this piece on The Thin End podcast.



Thursday, 22 June 2017

Impact on Health and Social Care should be centre-stage in Brexit negotiations.


With Brexit negotiations now underway this week the potential adverse impact on health and social care needs to be considered. The  British Medical Association, the voice of doctors in the UK, is calling on the government to protect future patient care by putting healthcare "front and centre" of its plans.

There can be little doubt that unless staffing issues are resolved the potential harm of Brexit to  health and social care is considerable.  The government should act speedily to resolve the uncertainty. 

Many health and social care professionals currently working in the UK have come from other EU countries, including 55,000 of the NHS’s 1.3 million workforce and 80,000 of the 1.3 million workers in the adult social care sector.   The NHS is currently struggling to recruit and retain staff.  Unless the future of NHS  and social care staff can be settled, then this problem is set to get worse with a deepening NHS and social care crisis.  

Since the vote to leave the EU, the BMA has been calling on the government to:
  • Give the 10,000 highly skilled EU doctors and medical researchers in the UK  permanent residence in the UK.  42 per cent of whom have told the BMA that are considering leaving in light of Brexit.
  • Ensure a flexible immigration system which meets the needs of the UK health service and medical research sector.
  • Preserve existing reciprocal arrangements, including mutual recognition of professional qualifications and measures which protect patient safety.
  • Secure ongoing access to EU research programmes and research funding, to maintain the UK's world-leading science and research base. 
  • Ensure Brexit does not hinder the UK's ability to play a leading role in European and international efforts to tackle global health threats.

Commenting ahead of the start of negotiations, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair said last week:

“With the NHS at breaking point, the government must keep the health service and its patients at the forefront during Brexit negotiations and control the impact that leaving the EU will have on health and social care across the UK."
The BMA warn that leaving the EU poses several risks to healthcare across the UK, not least in its staffing as almost half of the 10,000 doctors working here are considering leaving in light of the referendum result.

"These doctors have enhanced the UK’s medical research, brought expertise to the NHS and higher education, and filled shortages in specialties which may otherwise have been unable to cope. While we welcome the government’s pledge to provide certainty for EU nationals working in the NHS, the time has come for it to deliver fully on those repeated promises by providing them with permanent residence in the UK.

The BMA also call on the government to ensure long-term stability for the NHS by protecting life-changing medical research which benefits from European funding; ensuring that leaving the EU will not delay the UK’s access to vital pharmaceuticals, guaranteeing that leaving the EU will not hinder our efforts to tackle global health threats, and maintaining a soft border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland to help ensure that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare are not affected by leaving the EU.

The government must not use these workers as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations.  Guarantees should now be given that such workers can stay in the UK.

Update added 23rd June 2017 following Prime Minister's proposals on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK

Responding to the Prime Minister's proposals on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK following Brexit, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair has said:

“While we recognise these proposals are a starting position, they leave many unanswered questions, and only the full detail will show the potential impact they could have on medical research, and the NHS and its workforce.

“There are around 150,000 EU nationals working in the NHS and adult social care system in England. Already we know that more than four in ten doctors from the EU are considering leaving the UK in light of the referendum, with a further one in five unsure. 

“To provide stability to the NHS in the longer term, all EU doctors and academic staff currently in the UK should be granted permanent residence, regardless of how long they have been here.”