Saturday, June 07, 2003

Global warming worse than feared

So proclaims New Scientist this week. Essentially, the argument put forward at a climate workshop in Berlin this week is that the particles in the atmosphere that block the sun's radiation have been much more effective that previously thought. As a result, the "real" global warming due to carbon dioxide and other gases has been much greater than we thought before. As levels of aerosols decline but greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, temperatures will soar.

Which is great news for armageddon watchers, who have probably become a bit disappointed at the declining reaction to their threats of mass extinction if we fail to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, there are an awful lot of assumptions made to get to the conclusion that temperature change is going to be this severe. Which makes this science a case of seeing what you want to see.

Global warming's sooty smokescreen revealed, New Scientist, 4 June 2003

Water crisis? What water crisis?

Today, I'm chairing a discussion on water access in the developing world, organised by the charity WORLDWrite. The discussion will be very topical, given that last Thursday was World Environment Day, and the UN made water access the centrepiece of the day.

There is a very conservative streak running through discussion of water access. Discussions invariably state that the world is using too much water and that many of the current sources of water are running out fast, particularly groundwater supplies in many rapidly expanding urban areas. In other parts of the world, water provision has never been good and isn't getting any better.

Yet, there is no absolute shortage of water in the world. How can there be, when two-thirds of the planet is covered in it? Nor is there any technical difficulty in getting clean water to people. All sorts of projects, big and small, show that water can be moved, collected, purified and desalinated, depending on the needs of the area concerned. The barrier is invariably poverty - or, at least, it has been up until now.

The trend is away from attempting development to conservation of water, using very small schemes that have little impact on local environments. But all such schemes can do is make more reliable the current levels of water provision. There is no possibility of them providing the levels of water that could qualitatively change the way people live. Meanwhile, big schemes like the Three Gorges project and the North-South project in China are condemned as ecologically unsustainable, as illustrated in New Scientist this week:

'[A] series of mega-projects [is] now being promoted from India to Spain to central Africa, aimed at replumbing the planet at costs that make even the largest dams look puny. We don't need these projects. It is increasingly clear that the real water problems around the world are about managing demand rather than boosting supply. They are about the failure to adopt even the most basic water conservation measures... the cheaper, more peaceful and more rational path leads in quite another direction.'

A human-centred vision of water provision would make sure that the needs of people came first. That means not just clean and reliable supplies of water, but in sufficient quantities to allow them convenient access and proper waste disposal. Why should people spend huge chunks of their lives just trying to supply their water needs?

World's water supply 'running low', BBC News, 5 June 2003

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

The "total cost" story no. 538

1. You're a much-ignored concern which wants to get some funding.
2. To get funding, you need to show that your area of interest is Really Important in a way that will get some news coverage.
3. You release a report in which you add up every conceivable cost, expenditure etc related to your area of interest, which is always a 'shockingly high figure'.

This week, it's the turn of mental illness, which apparently costs the UK 77bn per year.

'Care for the mentally ill cost 12.5bn, including NHS, local authority and private care, as well as that provided by family and friends. The NHS alone spent 6.5bn on mental health services last year. The cost to the economy of people not being able to work because of their illness was put at 23.1bn by the centre's report. Around 39% of adults with a mental health problem do not have a job, which in itself represents a loss of 9.4bn. The final 41.8bn chunk of the 77.4bn bill was made up of the 'hidden' costs, say the report's authors.'

Oh yes. Assuming that the country needs that 'lost work', that those 'hidden costs' are genuine etc. Trouble is, does anybody ever really believe any of these reports?

Mental illness bill tops 77bn, BBC News, 4 June 2003
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More on NHS patient contracts

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick notes the irony of the opposition to the proposed contracts from organisations like the BMA that have supported the very trends in recent years that have led to this contractual relationship:

'In the new order being forged in medical practice in Britain, the patient is no longer an individual seeking treatment for illness. Instead, the patient is a unit of a population in which target quotas have been set for interventions (of highly dubious efficacy) designed to reduce rates of coronary heart disease, strokes, cancers and other diseases. The doctor is no longer an individual skilled in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, but is a bureaucratic functionary, the mere executor of protocols and the follower of guidelines, a ticker of boxes and a filler-in of forms.'

Signing away the NHS, Spiked, 4 June 2003

NHS: A contracting service?

New Labour have floated the idea of 'patient contracts', offering access to treatment in exchange for a commitment to lifestyle change.

For example, if smokers wanted nicotine patches to help them give up, they might also have to agree to go to classes to help them quit. The proposal has raised the possibility of patients being refused treatment if they don't sign up. However, a New Labour spokesman has denied that this would be the case. But if the contracts aren't both compulsory and binding, what is the point of this proposal? The buzzword seems to be 'responsibility'. 'The concept of reminding patients about the limits of the National Health Service and about their responsibility in using its resources sensibly is one we want to take forward,' a New Labour spokesman told the BBC. So, it's not the government's fault that you can't be treated, it's all down to the people who live bad lives and use up the resources intended for the saintly. The response of critics seems just as bad, though. 'People need help from the NHS and if changes are to be made there must be support available to them,' commented Lyndel Costain, of Dieticians in Obesity Management UK. Both the government and its critics thus have a rather low opinion of the patient as a victim of their own uncontrollable urges, in constant need of therapy. We need doctors who will help us enjoy the pleasures of life for as long as possible, even if those activities are not necessarily good for us. We don't need to be treated like naughty children who have to confess our wickedness, especially when the links between some of these habits, like eating too much of the 'wrong' food, and disease are weak and far from proven.

If New Labour really wanted to cut those waiting lists, they might like to do something about all those unnecessary health panics that fill the surgeries with the 'worried well'.

Anger over health contract plan, BBC News, 3 June 2003

In praise of bad habits, by Peter Marsh

Monday, June 02, 2003

Talking of awards...

Here are Steve Milloy's Junkscience Awards for 2002.