Putting your money where your mouth is on climate change

Forget football - climate science is well worth a flutter, says Michael Brooks.

Did anyone waste watercooler time on the World Bank’s recent global warming warning? The one that said the planet will probably experience a 4° Celsius rise this century? Of course not. Neither did anyone use work time to talk over the UN Environment Programme report, released ahead of the current international climate negotiations in Qatar. It says the atmosphere now contains onefifth more carbon than in 2000, with no visible fall in emissions to come. Bad news, obviously. But we were busy discussing who might replace Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea.

A report published in August showed that our interest in climate change has declined over the past five years. Only one-third of us even like to read or think about it. But Climate Science, the Public and the News Media does offer one useful pointer. People prefer climate coverage that is simple, bold and to the point. Even academics and broadsheet readers said that they preferred tabloid coverage of climate issues, and it had more immediate impact on their opinions.

We have to get past the idea that the only way we can cover climate science is by using long, balanced, reasoned arguments. So, why not take a leaf out of football’s book? Football has no trouble getting people’s attention. When Di Matteo was given the boot from his position as Chelsea manager, conjectures about his replacement sent the internet into overdrive. You could offer your contribution in online polls, or you could place a bet on Harry Redknapp or Avram Grant to take over at Stamford Bridge.

Every day, swaths of newsprint are dedicated to opinionated discussions of football that cut across divides of class, income or occupation. Season ticketholders for major football teams include politicians, comedians, television presenters, mathematicians, carpenters, journalists, roofers, bankers – every section of society.

But it’s not the movement of a football into a goal that is so interesting. It’s the people who make it happen. It’s the managers and their tactics. It’s the players and their skills and fallibilities. It’s about trajectories of success and failure, predictions that are proved right or wrong. Climate science has all these. And we could even make it worth a flutter.

Some people are already betting on the climate. At intrade.com, for instance, you can bet the average global temperature for 2012 to be the warmest on record. You can bet on the global-temperature anomaly for this month being greater than 0.45°C, or on global average temperatures for 2012 being the warmest on record.

Model behaviour

At the moment, Intrade’s bets are largely taken up by people advocating different climate models: it’s a way of putting your money where your mouth is. But surely there is scope to develop this on a bigger scale, and with endorsement from people in the know. If a Nasa chief started buying shares in a certain prediction, if a geographer saw a climate solution worth investing in, if a forestry researcher bet on a new ecological trend spiralling out of control, that might be more interesting than hearing the raw facts. It might even be a stimulus that made people look up the facts for themselves.

Perhaps it’s horrible to encourage us to place bets on the climate catastrophe, but it might be the thing that finally gets our attention. And at least there’s publicly accessible information to base your decisions on; you stand to make some quick cash by looking up Nasa satellite data before you commit. It’s definitely better than losing your shirt trying to second-guess the whims of a surly Russian billionaire.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Place your bets! Photograph: Getty Images

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 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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