Near the end of the world

Perhaps it will go down in history. At 4pm on 10 February, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is giving a lecture at the Royal Society in London which dismisses scare stories about the end of the world being imminent. At exactly the same moment, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a group of power company executives, EU officials and academic researchers will discuss the best way to ensure that the lights stay on in Europe at a time of climate crisis, rising electricity costs and creaking power-grid infrastructure. Here's the rub - decisions taken at the Brussels meeting might make Professor Bell Burnell's assurances look catastrophically foolish.

Not that the Brussels executives plan to bring about the much-hyped 2012 apocalypse that the Mayans are said to have predicted. But scientists have warned that tweaking the power grids in Europe and America could make them a little more likely to usher in the end of western civilisation.

Making power systems more efficient entails operating them at higher voltages over ever larger areas. This minimises losses of electrical energy (grids lose just over 7 per cent of their power output during transmission). However, it also makes the grids much more vulnerable to the vagaries of the sun.

Our star might be 93 million miles away, but it can certainly make its presence felt. In 1989, six million Quebeckers spent at least nine hours without electricity because the sun had melted the copper wiring in the state energy company's transformers. The outage happened when a solar flare - a gob of plasma ejected by the sun - hit the earth's magnetic field. The impact induced a catastrophic current surge in Canada's electrical networks.

Electricity grids that cover whole countries act as extremely efficient antennae, creating and channelling huge currents if the earth's magnetic field is provoked by the sun's ejections. The higher the voltage a grid carries, the more efficient the channelling.

Darkness falls

That is why experts worry about China's plans to implement a low-loss, 1,000-kilovolt grid. It is twice the maximum voltage of the US grid, and therefore twice as vulnerable to solar ejection events. Earth's magnetic field normally acts protectively to confine the effects of solar storms to high latitudes, but these kinds of high-efficiency grid open up the possibility of blackouts happening everywhere.

In 2008, a Nasa committee reported the worst-case scenario for the US grid. It warned that a not-unprecedented solar hit could leave 130 million Americans without electricity for more than a year. It could take four years to recover fully, during which time there would be little or no way to run basic services such as water delivery and health care. The likely cost - $2trn in the first year alone - would make Hurricane Katrina look like a storm in a teacup.

It is 150 years since the sun last hit us that hard, but never say never, professor. We are approaching a peak in the sun's activity: the 11-year solar cycle will reach a maximum in the first half of 2013. And who knows what efficiency-improving tweaks might be made to our grids before then?

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 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide