Far from quiet on the politics front...

A potential police strike, a tricky climate deal and a contentious EU treaty - it's been a busy week

A relatively quiet week for the government, in the context of the past couple of months: only threatened police strikes, a contentious EU treaty and a tricky international climate change deal to negotiate.

Jacqui Smith’s decision not to backdate a 2.5% pay rise for police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, prompted Lenin’s Tomb to write: "While public sector workers are ‘valued’ in a sentimental fashion, the general implication is that union leaders should shut their mouths and accept a period of belt-tightening in order to keep Brown's ‘Miracle Gro’ economy afloat."

Less sympathy can be found at A Tangle Web: "I say the police should damn the law and strike. It’s not as if we’ll miss them if they withold their labour. We learn today that they are on the beat for one hour in seven - as much as that, eh? Ministers often make the claim that there are more police officers than ever before and they speak the truth. There are more officers than at any other time, yet the police has never been less visible to Britons."

This hyperbole is perhaps explained when the post later reveals: "Yesterday a turd in a police uniform stepped from behind a bush and recorded me driving at 38mph whilst leaving a 30mph zone on my way out of a small rural town."

Daniel Finkelstein queries Brown’s defence that the decision was made to keep inflation low: "The deal isn’t big enough to cause inflation by forcing the government to borrow. So he can only mean that a large amount being paid to police would encourage other large pay increases. Fair enough. Except that the headline amount, the permanent part of the increase, is the one that will drive other wage claims and any increases based on comparability. If inflation was the issue it would have been better, surely, to have offered a smaller headline figure and then backdated it. So it seems more likely that public."

With Eurosceptics among the most conspicuous in the blogosphere, the signing of the Lisbon Treaty did not go unnoticed. For The Huntsman, it was "surely one of the most dishonourable and dishonest acts by a British Prime Minister since the early hours of 30th September 1938 when Chamberlain effectively signed away Czechoslovak independence to Germany".

While, Cranmer writes: “Nations tend to get the leaders of which they are worthy, and there is little doubt that the people of the United Kingdom deserve this - for their apathy, ignorance, and indifference. The reality is that so few care because so few understand, and so few understand because they are more absorbed by Big Brother, X Factor, Come Dancing and the National Lottery, than they are by matters spiritual and political."

As environmental concerns took centre stage in Bali, despite the US and Canada holding out on agreeing to emission cuts, John Redwood manages to lay the blame at the EU's feet: "The EU should grow up, and learn that if the world is to reduce its carbon output it requires goodwill and understanding on all sides, not a combination of bullying and vain posturing. We will not cure the world’s CO2 problem unless India and China, Japan and Russia are involved as well as the USA."

Owen Walker is a journalist for a number of titles within Financial Times Business, primarily focussing on pensions. He recently graduated from Cardiff University’s newspaper journalism post-graduate course and is cursed by a passion for Crystal Palace FC.
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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.