Stopping Smoking

In the next few hours large numbers of people around the world will be united by a common desire to stop smoking. Many good intentions will be mapped out for the new year.  There will be those who decide to go for the big bang, having their “last cigarette ever, ever” on New Years Eve. Most however will see the personal cost of this as too great and opt for a phased withdrawal.

To achieve this some will try to adopt a low-tar bridge away from the more toxic high-tar tobacco dependency. Others will adopt a strategy of mitigation where they chart a future of declining dependence with monthly targets for the consumption of reducing numbers of cigarettes. They may attempt to support their efforts by wearing nicotine patches, or chewing special gum. Some will go for a more radical lifestyle change encompassing healthy eating, exercise and alternative treats funded from the money saved on cigarettes.

Of course there will also be those smokers who do not intend to stop at all. Those that understand completely they are increasing their risk of cancer dramatically but don’t care. Their addiction to tobacco being so great they genuinely cannot face a world without it.

Some will engage it a bit of self-deceit colluding with the now bankrupt blandishments of the tobacco industry that have moved on from attempting to sell doubt about the health impacts to the extolling of smoking as an expression of individual liberty.

There will be those who argue  the problem is so far off and the current impact so limited that it is not worth taking action on something they enjoy so much now. Next year maybe or the year after that, or sometime in the future.

Others may put their faith in medical breakthroughs which lead to a cure for cancer. Obviously they will be hoping the cure comes before they succumb to the disease.

Those opting to continue to smoke will accept they need to focus on strategies for adaptation, e.g. recognising that running for the bus is something they will never do again.

Despite the science of doubt funded and disseminated by the tobacco industry most people now accept they are taking a significant risk with their health by smoking. For many there will be real anguish and sincere intent over the next few days as they wrestle with what the best strategy for them is.

In Paris earlier this month 195 nations grappled with essentially the same problem. How is the world going to stop smoking? Specifically, how can we break our dependence on fossil fuels. The responses were very similar. Some were keen on drastic reductions immediately, particularly those on low-lying islands in the Pacific, most saw this as too radical however.

As among smokers there were those who felt a bridging strategy should be adopted by “smoking” less-toxic natural gas. Then there were those who wanted to invest in alternatives to overcome our need for greenhouse gas-emitting forms of energy.  Most agreed a phased reduction in the use of fossil fuels was probably the best way to quit however there was a deal of uncertainty about how quickly this should happen, how a tally on the number of “cigarettes” smoked would be kept and who was going to lead the way. The balance on all this was effected by the amount of faith people were willing to put in a “moonshot” technology breakthrough to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. If you believe the technology will come in time then you can burn what you want now and suck it up later. Of course the technology might not come and so then you may really have to “suck it up”.

Analogies always break down and whilst there are similarities there are also significant difference between an individual’s struggle to cut their dependency on cigarettes and the collective struggle of the world’s population to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

First, the problem of passive smoking is of a different order of magnitude to climate change. Everyone on the planet is at risk of the impacts of climate change irrespective of whether they individually smoke (emit CO2e) or not. Worse, some, who have smoked a long time, notably the developed nations of the world, have created a problem which is as toxic for  those who have only just started smoking (emerging economies) or indeed, those who only have, the fossil fuel equivalent of, the odd cigar at Christmas (least developed countries).

Also climate change seem a long way off. There are lots of much more pressing problems in the here and now, ISIS; Europe’s economy; migration; the Ukraine etc. Whilst it seems the planet is beginning to show some symptoms they are not seen as portends of an existential challenge. Dreadful as they are, for the people involved, things like the “unprecedented” levels of rainfall causing floods in the north of England this December are in the “awful but manageable” category.

The opportunity to do something about climate change look like it now has a trajectory and timescale similar to the development of cancer in a person. Currently as a planet we are smoking at the rate of around 50 giga tonnes of CO2e emissions a year. Think of it as the equivalent of an individual smoking 50 Capstan full strength a day. If they both continue at the same rate over the next twenty years the outcomes for the individual and the planet are likely to be equally bleak. Action to reduce the amount of CO2e in the atmosphere needs to start now.

Unfortunately, the voices of those denying the reality of global warming still have real power for instance dominating the US Senate. No doubt there will be some who continue to deny the reality of the process at some point in the future from their tropical hideaway at the North Pole. People that espouse these claims now need to be dismissed as extreme, stupid or those whose job depends upon it. Individuals who chose to smoke now do so in the full knowledge they are harming their health. Increasingly the world must realise greenhouse gas emissions have a similar impact.

The real collapse of the analogy between smoking tobacco and burning fossil fuels is the scale of the impact they have respectively. If an individual choses to continue to smoke 50 Capstan full strength a day it ends in personal tragedy for them. If we continue to smoke 50 giga tonnes a year it will end in collective tragedy for the human race. If we are to avoid this we need to find a way to act collectively more rationally than we sometimes do individually.

Stopping smoking requires support, encouragement, substitution, alternatives. It also requires resolution. This year the World’s resolution on stopping smoking has to firm up. The resolutions of nations, so far, made in Paris does not get us there. Stopping smoking is not easy, it really hurts. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will hurt and it will be costly. Politicians alway talk about vision but act on focus groups. If the floods of the past few weeks begin to focus people on how the world’s climate is beginning to change then some collective good might come out of the personal catastrophes they have created.

The issue is too important to leave to short-term politicians keen on a “soundbite solution” today which they undermine by their long-term actions once the news agenda moves on. Parents and grandparents need to think seriously about what kind of world they want their offspring to grow up in. We all need to resolve to stop smoking now. If we fail we risk succumbing to the cancer of climate change.


Unprecedented does not mean unexpected

The word of the moment is unprecedented. First we had unprecedented rain in Cumbria, then unprecedented rain in Lancashire and the latest unprecedented rain is in Yorkshire. In a few days we may well have more unprecedented rain. Everyone knows that we cannot control the weather therefore we can hardly be critical of government when mass flooding is the result of unprecedented rain.

This sounds a bit like the bankers comments about unprecedented debt default in 2007/08. But if your risk strategy is based upon calibrating future risk based upon past events you are always in danger of being caught out by changed circumstances. If default levels were low at times when credit was only provided to people who could afford to repay it one cannot use risk levels based on this when you start giving debt to anybody that asks for it, indeed to many who did not even ask for it.

In relation to the unprecedented rain levels they should not have some as a surprise to any government. Earlier in December 195 countries from around the world got together to talk about how collectively they were going to tackle climate change. Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have provided reports making it quite clear that our weather is now and will be more and more affected by climate change. Earlier this year Committee on Climate Change provided a report to the Government warning of precisely the problems we are now facing. The government chose to ignore it.

If you are told that unprecedented weather is likely to become the norm it is not good enough, once that weather comes, to say it is unprecedented as if this provided an excuse. Governments are supposed to have an eye to the future they should be preparing for what is going to happen not what has happened. The last government was much criticised for “failing to mend the roof when the sun was shining”. Ironic that we now have a government who seems to have done the same only rather more literally.

The truth of the matter is the government were unprepared for events which global, international and national agencies have warned about increasingly loudly for years. Expressions about our hearts going out to the victims of this devastation and the sterling work of our brave emergency services and armed forces does not cut it. This government needs to get real about climate change and recognise that it is going to cost serious amounts of money for sustained periods. The longer we pretend this is not the case the worse it will be in terms of personal upset and disruption and societal cost.

There is one important thing we should not lose sight of and that is the low number of casualties and very low fatalities resulting from these floods. This is in large part a testament to the improvements in weather warnings issued by the met office and Environment Agency. Timely warnings have enabled, in the main, contingency plans to be put in to operation. It is ironic we are so dependent on the micro-forecasting capability of climate scientists whilst we continue to treat the macro warnings with such a cavalier attitude.

In Harms Way

In the current debate about whether or not to bomb Syria, beyond the substantive issue, much has been made about the issue of leadership and particularly the way the Leader of the Opposition tried and failed to whip his party on the vote. His actions have been contrasted with the decisive leadership shown by the Prime Minister.

However on the issue of Syria I am not sure the Prime Minister has exercised the leadership one might want on an issue of this magnitude and urgency.

Everyone seems to agree that the first duty of government is to provide an effective defence of the country. The Prime Minister has made it clear that his top priority in government is the protection of UK citizens. Their physical safety trumps even the obsessive objective of dealing with the deficit.

When considering ways in which to maintain the security of the nation recourse to military action has to be a final resort. Putting our armed forces in harms way is something no Prime Minister should undertake lightly. Indeed Mr Cameron has made this point many times over the past few weeks. The Prime Minister must be convinced that there is a clear and substantial threat to the country that must be dealt with. What is more a threat which cannot be dealt with in any other way than by taking military action.

Given all this you might have thought the Prime Minister would want to act with all urgency to protect the citizens of the UK. Take the issue to Parliament as soon as possible. But no, he did not want to take the matter to Parliament until he was absolutely certain of a majority. But that begs the question what would he have done if no majority looked likely or indeed if he had lost the vote.

No one seems to have questioned why, once he was convinced of the threat, he did not go immediately to the House of Commons to press for the to extension of the war into Syria. Further, if he lost the vote why would he not go to the country. If the threat is grave enough to put soldiers in harms way then should it not be the first first duty of the Prime Minister to secure action as soon as possible.

It could well be said by supporters of the war “Well he got there in the end”. His delay was a carefully devised strategy to get the support he needed and now we have commenced the bombing he wanted. It feels however a bit like an exercise of leading from behind. Wait until the case is won and then go and make it.

I can’t help thinking the Prime Ministers’ very commendable commitment not to put troops in harms way is underpinned by an equally strong commitment not to put his job in harms way either. Even if he believes the country faces a clear and present danger.

Should we bomb Syria?

This is the question of the moment and members of the Opposition have been asked to listen to what their constituents think. This is my view. In essence I think we should bomb Syria. However, only if we are prepared to be engaged in a long and bloody ground war to militarily defeat ISIL. And only if we are prepared to put in the social, political and economic effort that will be required to subsequently eradicate the conditions that created it.

Why should we bomb ISIL?

ISIL certainly take barbarity and cruelty to new heights and this should clearly influence our view of them. However if we adopt the principle that we go to war with those that murder and torture their own, or other states, citizens we are going to be involved in a lot of wars.

An argument put forward in favour of the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein was an evil man. Whilst I agreed with the premise I did not think it was sufficient reason for going to war then, and, despicable though they are, I don’t think it is sufficient reason for going to war with ISIL now.

There is however a fundamental difference between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and ISIL. The former was a vicious, regional bully, the latter want to establish dominion over the world and have an apocalyptic religious view that underpins this. They believe the End of Time is nigh and that they are engaged in a world historic struggle with the Antichrist (broadly the West but specifically the US).

A central strategy to achieve their goal is terrorist attacks which they believe (with good reason) will incite the West to enter a prophesised battle which will result in the destruction of the army of “Rome” (the West) in the town of Dabiq.

These are people al-Qaeda cut all ties with because of their “notorious intransigence”. They are not the type to make a reasoned judgement about whether they can win, they are going to kill people until they establish a global Caliphate or until they are dead.

Britain is in their sites, not just in the long term of the Global Caliphate, but here and now. They will continue to encourage and sustain terrorist attacks in the UK and other Western countries until we engage, which ultimately we will.

Will bombing secure victory?

No. All the military advice seems to be you cannot win a war from the air. The Prime Minister (PM) has intelligence there are 70k troops on the ground already, mainly of the Free Syrian Army but including others and there are Kurdish armed groups to support the effort.

Lets assume the intelligence that there are 70k+ troops is correct, and has not been sexed up in any way, there remains the question of how effective they are. Is there a unified command structure, do they have similar or even commensurate aims?

I suspect there may be some wishful thinking around all this but lets assume that everyone genuinely believes there are sufficient and capable resources on the ground already. That is fine as a starting point however what is “plan B” if this proves to be wrong. There are wildly differing estimates of the number of ISIL troops on the Ground in Iraq and Syria ranging from 20/35k to 100k+.

Even if it is the lowest number one has to keep in mind the single-minded purpose of ISIS underpinned by religious certainty. Certainty, which means death is glorious martyrdom and guaranteed entry to paradise. Even if all of them do not buy into the whole picture they have demonstrated a ferocious fighting capability.

The PM must answer the question what happens if the existing ground forces are not sufficient? What military advice has he had about what happens in a scenario where ISIL gain or maintain their position on the ground despite the move to bomb Syria. We have been using our super smart missiles in Iraq for some time now and it is not clear we are winning that side of the border.

I would be surprised if the Military have not thought through a scenario where the current boots on the ground do no prove up to the job and what alternative strategy they might need to adopt. If they have not I think they are at best remiss.

If we enter this conflict we must accept that there is a real risk that we will have to commit ground troops. I personally think that we have to prepare for that contingency because I think it is almost certain to happen. To be clear I don’t think that changes the decision about whether we bomb Syria however I think it is misleading to even suggest that this is going to be anything other than a very drawn out and expensive war.

What is the plan for after the war.

Let us assume we get to the point where we have militarily defeated ISIL where will we be? Answer, in a mess. When the fighting stops the job of peace making begins. The coalition is a pretty explosive cocktail but when you add in Russia and Iran then even the most optimistic diplomat may throw in the towel. How do you start to build a peace when Russia the US and Turkey have all got different ideas about who the enemy are now.

The question of Syria’s future, more specifically that of Assad remains a fiercely contested issue. Getting agreement about Assad will be a miracle. Agreement on what replaces him will be even harder amongst a range of groupings including forces within Syria, regional and global powers.

The PM’s statement about the post war reconstruction of the area seemed to amount to £1bn commitment of funding and a lot of optimism about talks with regional players, groups within Syria and some parties that we would prefer not to deal with in an ideal world.

What we cannot do is what we seem to have done in previous engagements. Establish some kind of a standoff/ceasefire with a limited amount of shooting, provide for free ish / fair ish elections and then get the hell out as fast as we can. However sick we are after a long and bloody ground campaign we need to remain in the region and we need to participate in the physical, social and most of all economic reconstruction of the area.

This will be immensely difficult as we will have to do it in partnership with local people, and it is very unlikely that those “local people’ will be a homogenous group with a unified picture of what needs to be done and what the priorities are. Some may argue this is impossible and they may be right. However, if we do what we have done in previous wars in the middle east we will only be going home for R&R whilst the regions decends into another crisis.

There seems to be a view that holding elections creates a democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elections are the result of democracies not the cause. Independent judiciaries, a free press, an independent civil society, trade unions, distributed power, a sense of community are key building block that must be firmly established if the out come of an arithmetic process is to have credibility and acceptance.

There needs to be a Marshall Plan for the region which supports economic growth and this needs to be established early and rapidly. Military defeat of ISIL will only be a temporary success if the causes of radicalisation are not addressed. This means working with people in the region to secure a reasonable standard of living and the prospect for that to be improved through sustainable economic growth. This will cost the West a lot of money. However, wars in the region have cost Trillions of dollars in recent years.

We may have to invest as much into the peace as we did into the war. If that helps to stabilise the region it would be a price worth paying.

The picture I have painted may be grim and depressing. It will certainly contrast with the “grave but optimistic” picture painted by the PM. Time will tell which one is right.

It may be asked, given how tough it will be and how uncertain the outcome is it not better to stay away. The region is spiralling out of control and will continue to do so whether we withdraw or not. Its conflicts will spill over into neighbouring regions, Turkey is on the front line at the moment as is Greece. The refugee crisis will get worse and worse.

Bombing Syria is bad. Not bombing is bad. The balance of the decision is fine. Those that are against war however need to be certain that there is a diplomatic route forward. ISIL’s actions, their ideology and their belief in religious certainty make me think they are proof against rational debate. It is only a matter of time before we are forced to engage with them.