Reasons to be careful

Asteroids strikes, radiation and Rio+20.

So, yet another thing to worry about. It might not sound like news, but something big hit earth back in the 770s. Researchers looking at the radioactive carbon traces in tree rings from that period have discovered evidence of a burst of intense radiation between 774 and 775AD. It might seem churlish to worry about something that happened 1,200 years ago, given the problems that the Rio+20 summit this month clearly was not even going to begin to address. Yet warning us of potential danger is part of the scientist’s job description. What we do with that information is up to us.

The source of that 1,200-year-old radiation burst – potentially the harbinger of a much bigger catastrophe than climate change – is a mystery to scientists. A burst of radiation of this sort would normally come from a spectacular solar flare or a supernova. Taking the second option first, the exploding star in question would have been bright enough to be visible in daylight – a second sun that would have been recorded by contemporary historians. It should also have been spotted by today’s astronomers: the explosion would have created what looked like a new star. Stellar explosions recorded in 1006 and 1054 weren’t big enough to cause a spike in radiation but we have spotted the remnants in the sky.

The solar flare explanation has been ruled out, too. A flare occurs when the sun spits out a gob of plasma, a roiling gas of charged subatomic particles. If that is composed largely of protons and fired towards earth, its interaction with particles in Planet Earth’s atmosphere creates a burst of intense radiation. But it also creates the Northern and Southern Lights and, again, a radiation spike of this intensity would have produced a show spectacular enough to be recorded by historians.

On the downside, it would also have wiped out much of the ozone layer, causing biological chaos. The extra radiation and intense ultraviolet light usually absorbed by ozone would have mutated genomes and led to significant extinctions. There is no evidence that this occurred.

Why does it matter? Until we understand the source, we face a significant unknown. If it is somehow a threat from the sun, the threat is far bigger than we have known. Such a spike in radiation could be associated with the kind of solar activity that could melt many of the world’s power grids, sending civilisations howling back to the Stone Age.

We already know that things from space could hurt us badly. There’s about a one-in-five chance that, in the next 100,000 years, an asteroid strike will do as much damage as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. There is no reason for complacency: it’s highly likely that, in the same time frame, a chunk of space rock roughly 400 metres in diameter will hit earth. The impact will be significant enough to devastate an area the size of France.

Too much in the sun

The tree-ring work, published in the journal Nature this month, suggests that scientists don’t yet have a handle on all the threats to humanity. But it will almost certainly be dismissed as another curiosity, not worth following up.

Maybe that is the right response. The conclusions were a result of interpreting the amounts of radioactive carbon – created by collisions between particles in the upper atmosphere – trapped in the tree rings.

Anyone with responsibility to act over threats to his or her citizens can choose to find weaknesses and uncertainties in the data, the extrapolations and the conclusions and thus justify a non-response. Just as our political leaders (or, rather, their delegations) will do in Rio. l

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is out now in paperback (Profile Books, £8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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Who is responsible for an austerity violating human rights? Look to New Labour

Labour's record had started to improve under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. 

The UN has made it clear the Government’s austerity programme breaches human rights. This is not because of spending cuts - it is because because those spending cuts target women and disadvantaged groups, particularly disabled people and asylum seekers.

The degree of injustice is staggering. The Coalition Government used a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts to reduce the net income of the poorest tenth of families by 9 per cent. The cuts faced by disabled people are even more extreme. For instance, more than half a million people have lost social care in England (a cut of over 30 per cent). Asylum seekers are now deprived of basic services.

The injustice is also extremely regional, with the deepest cuts falling on Labour heartlands. Today’s austerity comes after decades of decline and neglect by Westminster. Two places that will be most harmed by the next round of cuts are Blackpool (pictured) and Blackburn. These are also places where Labour saw its voters turn to UKIP in 2015, and where the Leave vote was strong.

Unscrupulous leaders don’t confront real problems, instead they offer people scapegoats. Today’s scapegoats are immigrants, asylum seekers, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people. It takes real courage, the kind of courage the late MP Jo Cox showed, not to appease this prejudice, but to challenge it.

The harm caused by austerity is no surprise to Labour MPs. The Centre for Welfare Reform, and many others, have been publishing reports describing the severity and unfairness of the cuts since 2010. Yet, during the Coalition Government, it felt as if Labour’s desire to appear "responsible" led  Labour to distance itself from disadvantaged groups. This austerity-lite strategy was an electoral disaster.

Even more worrying, many of the policies criticised by the UN were created by New Labour or supported by Labour in opposition. The loathed Work Capability Assessment, which is now linked to an increase in suicides, was first developed under New Labour. Only a minority of Labour MPs voted against many of the Government’s so-called "welfare reforms". 

Recently things appeared to improve. For instance, John McDonnell, always an effective ally of disabled people, had begun to take the Government to task for its attacks on the income’s of disabled people. Not only did the media get interested, but even some Tories started to rebel. This is what moral leadership looks like.

Now it looks like Labour is going to lose the plot again. Certainly, to be electable, Labour needs coherent policies, good communication and a degree of self-discipline. But more than this Labour needs to be worth voting for. Without a clear commitment to justice and the courage to speak out on behalf of those most disadvantaged, then Labour is worthless. Its support will disappear, either to the extreme Right or to parties that are prepared to defend human rights.

Dr Simon Duffy is the director of the Centre for Welfare Reform