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Mount Doom is like LA and the Shire like Lincolnshire, so says a climate model based on author's famously detailed maps
Climate sceptics regularly work themselves into a lather dismissing mainstream climate science as fantasy – but for once they have a point.
A researcher at Bristol University has trained his powerful supercomputer not at predicting the earth's future climate, but on the fictional world of Middle Earth – the backdrop for JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
To reproduce Middle Earth's climate, Dr Dan Lunt, an expert on past climate change, traced one of Tolkein's famously detailed maps, and then effectively "scanned" that into the university's supercomputer.
"For a model to work, all you need is a map of where continents are, and how high the mountains are," Lunt says. The machines at the Advanced Computing Research Centre then crunched the weather patterns of Rohan, Mirkwood, and the rest of Tolkien's world for about six days, or roughly 70 years in the model.
According to Lunt's analysis, the climate around Mount Doom (where Frodo must take the evil ring of power to be destroyed) is like LA – hot, with the volcanic ash creating a similar effect to LA's infamous smog. Meanwhile the Shire, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins' peaceful neighbourhood, is most similar to Lincolnshire or Leicestershire in the UK.
The Shire's climate is also similar to that of Dunedin in New Zealand, he found, suggesting the director of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson chose the wrong locations for filming. "They made a mistake by filming in the north island – they should've filmed in the south island," says Lunt.
Writing under the pen name of Radagast the Brown in a mock paper on the work, Lunt also suggests that:
• Ships sailing for the Undying Lands in the west set off from the Grey Havens due to the prevailing winds in that region.
• Much of Middle Earth would have been covered in dense forest if the landscape had not been altered by dragons, orcs, wizards etc.
• Mordor had an inhospitable climate, even ignoring the effects of Sauron – hot and dry with little vegetation.
But there's a serious point to the exercise, says Lunt,:
"The serious side is that the climate models I used, and those [other models] out there, are actually based on our fundamental understanding of science, of fluid mechanics, fluid motion, the science of convection in clouds, radiation from the sun, and the science of biology. And because of that, they're not just tuned for the modern earth, they can simulate any climate."
Climate models are used to predict what might happen to future temperatures as we pump out carbon dioxide via our factories, cars and power plants, leaving greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at what the UN climate science panel said in September were "unprecedented" levels. The Bristol team fed into that IPCC report with models that largely match previous climate records, a match that "give us confidence in the [projections for] future", says Lunt.
Lunt, who undertook the work in his spare time, admits to being a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan. "I read them a few times as a child," he says, before pausing. "And a few times as an adult, I must confess."Adam Vaughan
The media failed to accurately report facts prior to the Iraq War; climate reporting is failing in similar fashion
"Iraq is developing a long-range ballistic missile system that could carry weapons of mass destruction up to 700 miles." Iraq is progressing towards "dirty bombs that spew radioactivity, mobile bio-weapons facilities, and a new long-range ballistic missile." An Iraqi defector "tells of work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites." It is an "undisputed fact" that September 11 attacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague.
Those claims appeared in mainstream newspapers during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. All those claims were false. The nonexistence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq immediately prior to the invasion and the absence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida eventually became the official U.S. position with the Duelfer Report and the report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
A decade later, those media failures are relevant not only because of the war's six-figure death toll and because the Iraqi per capita GDP has so far failed to return to prewar levels, but also because they remind us that the media, including highly reputable newspapers, can sometimes get things quite wrong.
A similar media failure is arguably under way this very moment with regard to climate change. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with near certainty that human economic activity is responsible for ongoing global warming, and some of the largest insurance companies on the planet have blamed the increase in losses from extreme weather events to climate-related disasters.
This has not kept some newspapers from reporting that Arctic ice is "recovering", a rather adventurous claim in light of the fact that the Arctic has lost 40% of its ice cover since 1980 and that ice extent is now lower than during several millennia preceding 1980. A recent quantitative analysis of climate coverage in the Australian media confirmed that misreporting of the science is widespread.
There are some interesting similarities and differences between the media failures involving Iraqi WMDs and climate change.
One notable difference between pre-invasion reporting on Iraqi WMD and climate change is that, in contrast to the near-hegemony of war-supporting reporting (at least in the U.S.), the public has a broader choice now when it comes to climate change: While there is a large supply of disinformation that threatens the public's right to being adequately informed, there is also no shortage of actual scientific information, both in the mainstream media and beyond.
The diversity of sources empowers the public to select their information wisely, but it also provides a playing field for the dominant influence of people's cultural worldviews or "ideology", which can override even education. People whose core personal values are threatened by possible responses to climate change, such as a price on carbon or regulatory measures, are known to rely on media sources that are more likely to create confusion about climate change than disseminate scientifically accurate information.
Worldviews may also explain another cognitive difference between Iraq and climate, which concerns the asymmetry in the evaluation of evidence in the two cases. In the case of Iraqi WMDs, we now know that the media—and politicians among the "Coalition of the Willing"—used weak and insufficient evidence to call for a pre-emptive war against a largely imaginary risk. In the case of climate, by contrast, a mountain of scientific evidence pointing to a risk far greater than that posed by Saddam Hussein is ignored, and mitigative action refused, on the basis of similar worldviews.
There are also similarities. In both cases, a link can be drawn between misinformation and the likelihood of warfare. Together with colleagues, I reviewed the literature on this relationship in a recent paper using the Iraq War and climate change as case studies. We report a reasonably clear link between the acceptance of misinformation and support for the Iraq War, both before and after military action commenced. In one U.S. study, belief in misinformation—that is, the existence of WMDs—was the most powerful predictor of support for the Iraq war. Belief in WMDs quadrupled the likelihood of support for the war.
There is also increasing evidence of a link between climate change and violent conflict, with a recent study suggesting that the risk of violent conflict may increase globally by upward of 30% by 2050 if human-caused warming continues unabated. The link between climate change and conflict is of a statistical nature and not entirely certain, but it should alert us to the possibility that any further delay of climate mitigation, whether based on dissemination of misinformation or other factors, may cause unnecessary future deaths.
Another ironic similarity is that the same newspapers and the same journalists who beat the war drums a decade ago are now also frequently misrepresenting the risk the world is facing from climate change. After WMDs failed to materialize in post-invasion Iraq, this led to occasional anguish among journalists who regretted that they used "'evidence' now known to be bogus" to push for war. The lethal fallout from misinformation a decade ago primarily affected the people of Iraq. The fallout from misinformation about climate change is likely to affect us all.
Stephan Lewandowsky is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol and received a Wolfson Research Merit Award from the Royal Society in 2013. On Twitter he is @STWorg. His research examines the distinction between skepticism and denial, misinformation, and the role of uncertainty in people's thinking about climate change.
Danish author uses low-ball estimates of climate costs and ignores fossil fuel subsidies
What do the poorest people on the planet - those likely to be the hardest hit by human-caused climate change - need right now?
According to Bjørn Lomborg, the economist and self-titled skeptical environmentalist, what they need are cheap fossil fuels.
It's one of the those arguments that seems so counter-intuitive - so crazy-balls nuts - that it might make some stop and think that it could just be true. But not for long.
Lomborg heads a think-tank called the Copenhagen Consensus Center which, as the name doesn't suggest, is based on the outskirts of Washington DC in the United States.
For a decade, Lomborg has made films, written books and spoken all over the world with a message which has changed only slightly. Humans cause climate change but the economic impacts won't be great and there are other things we should spend money on first.
His two recent high-profile contributions to the climate change debate - again making essentially these same points - came with a speech to Australia's National Press Club and in a column for the New York Times.
Embarrassingly (or at least, I'd be embarrassed if I'd done it), Australia's ABC News24 rolling television programme introduced Lomborg as a "climate scientist" which even he would admit is entirely inaccurate.
But he did have a view on climate change, to what one Twitter attendee's picture suggested was very thin Canberra audience.
Lomborg spoke about a "recent hiatus" in global temperatures (that's the same "hiatus" which has delivered the hottest decade on record and which continues to allow the planet to build up heat). This "does not mean global warming is not real" he said, but then came this.
It does probably indicate that the high temperature increases - the very scary scenarios that get banded around - are much less likely simply because they are not nearly as likely to compare with the findings of the models compared to reality.
This was Lomborg's only genuine venture into climate change science, but is it correct? Does a "hiatus" in one observation of climate change "probably indicate" that computer models that deliver scary numbers are "much less likely" to be right?
Professor Roger Jones, an expert on climate change impacts and risk at Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, says Lomborg is dead wrong.
To show why, he sent me a graph which shows that a computer climate model which recreates a slow-down in surface warming (the one which Lomborg points to) goes on to project 3.5C of global warming by the end of this century.
Jones told me:
Lomborg makes the mistake of assuming that models do not reproduce recent observations because the results are often presented as smooth curves. However, this graph of results from a single model clearly shows a slight cooling between 1995 and 2015, yet warms by 3.5 C by 2100 from pre-industrial temperatures. This is sufficient to effectively destroy coral reef ecosystems, initiate the collapse of large ice sheets and have significant impacts of regional water supplies.
James Hansen, former NASA climate scientist, puts it another way in research published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.Doing moral good
Lomborg often talks about doing "moral good" in the world and he uses the simple metric of money to measure how this "moral good" should be shared out. Where does the most "bang for your buck" come from if you want to alleviate poverty, he asks.
He invariably comes to the conclusion that this bang does not come from the current approaches to cutting emissions.
Instead, he says the world should invest billions in research and development to make renewable technologies cheaper. As he wrote in the New York Times:
But let's face it. What those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future. This is not just about powering stoves and refrigerators to improve billions of lives but about powering agriculture and industry that will improve lives.
Lomborg talks in the article about the 3.5 million deaths which a World Health Organization study has attributed to poor people dying from the indoor pollution caused from the smoke and fumes from the fires they use to cook with.
But the problem of poor people dying from indoor air pollution from cooking over open fires or in crude stoves isn't solved by replacing dung and wood with a fossil fuel.Rather, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, it is the technology deployed.
Remember, plenty of people in rich countries also burn wood in their homes for heat (and because it looks all nice and cosy). They burn this wood using stoves that don't let most of the nasty stuff escape into the room, but rather go up a flue pipe.Low-ball Lomborg
To make many of his arguments stick, Lomborg uses a very low estimate of what's known as the "social cost of carbon" - that is, how much economic damage each extra tonne of carbon dioxide delivers?
He puts this figure at US$5 per tonne, which he says if translated to a price on emissions doesn't drive reductions in fossil fuel use. Except that the $5 figure is at the very, very bottom of a range of estimates that are out there.
For example, the United States Government puts the figure at around US$32. Roger Jones says a recent review of several studies into the cost per tonne of carbon gives a range between $15 and $74.
There are also a number of ways which economists try and arrive at this figure, using different modelling techniques (if you want details, the Yale Forum on Climate Change has a summary).
Also in the US, one economic study has found that even there - in a developed country - the coal industry costs the economy more in impacts from pollution than it gives back in economic gain. The study did not count the costs of the impacts of climate change.Pick your subsidy
Lomborg is also not a fan of solar panels, which he described in an interview on Australia's Radio National as being "inefficient" which he said was "why you have to subsidise them".
Yet neither in the interview, nor in his speech to the National Press Club, nor in his op-ed in the New York Times, does Lomborg consider the more than $500 billion annually in subsidies which the International Energy Agency says is currently going to supporting the fossil fuel industry.
Now, on balance Lomborg sees fossil fuels as a morally acceptable choice for the developing world.
So that must mean that these subsidies fall into the suite of money which Lomborg says is being spent to try and do "good" in the world. Given Lomborg rarely mentions fossil fuel subsidies, we don't know if he thinks these subsidies should go up (which they currently are) or go down.
Early in his talk to the National Press Club, Lomborg said that extreme weather events effect countries in different ways. When a typhoon hits a poor country (he gave the example of Nicaragua) then it had the potential to kill many more people and to "destroy their economy".
When extreme weather hits rich countries, those people have the resources to better cope and recover. So Lomborg accepts that the impact of climate change is disproportionate. Poorer countries get hit the hardest.
But then, when Lomborg talks about the economic cost of global warming, he chooses a globally-averaged figure that ignores this disproportionate suffering.
Lomborg cited a study from his think tank which he said concluded that "until about 2070 global warming is a net benefit to the world."
What are the risks of waiting until 2070 to see if Bjørn Lomborg is right? In my view, they are way too high.Graham ReadfearnBjørn Lomborg
Suffolk University says Beacon Hill Institute had not followed rules and that research plans did not match university's mission
• State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax
The host university of the free marketeer Beacon Hill Institute has repudiated its proposal to carry out research with the express purpose of undermining a regional climate change initiative.
The institute, based in the economics department of Suffolk University, had sought $38,825 to carry out an economic analysis that would aid efforts to weaken or roll back a five-year effort by states in the north-east to reduce carbon pollution, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The proposal from Beacon Hill made no secret of its goal. "Success will take the form of media recognition, dissemination to stakeholders, and legislative activity that will pare back or repeal RGGI," the funding proposal said.
In a prepared statement, Suffolk University made clear it had not been consulted about Beacon Hill's research plans – and would not have authorised the grant proposal if it had been.
"The stated research goals, as written, were inconsistent with Suffolk University's mission," Greg Gatlin, the university's vice-president for marketing and communications, said in an email.
Gatlin went on to write that Beacon Hill had not followed university rules when it submitted its grant proposal, which was presented for consideration to the Searle Freedom Trust, a leading funder of ultra-conservative causes, on Beacon Hill's behalf by the State Policy Network, a coalition of similar ultra-conservative entities.
"The University has existing protocols in place that require approval for all grant proposals," Gatlin said. "The Beacon Hill Institute's grant proposal did not go through the university's approval process. The university would not have authorized this grant proposal as written."
Beacon Hill did not in the end see its proposal funded – a setback for an organisation which has specialised in marshalling economic argument to roll back clean energy programmes in the states.
David Tuerck, the executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, confirmed the authenticity of the document and admitted that the proposal had not been funded by the Searle Foundation.
However, he pushed back strongly at the suggestion that BHI by – defining success according to a specific political outcome – was engaged in lobbying or other inappropriate activity.
"There is never any lobbying," he told the Guardian. "Maybe I need to look up the definition again but lobbying consists of buttonholing legislators and other policymakers to get a particular result on a particular issue and we never do that."
The institute claims on its website to have conducted 16 separate research projects since 2009 on state clean energy programmes, partnering with institutions in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Maine, Michigan, Kansas, Delaware, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and North Carolina.
All arrived at the same broadly similar conclusion: that Renewable Portfolio Standards, or state regulations requiring electricity companies to source energy from wind and solar power were bad for the economy.
Greenpeace said of the effort: "It's a cookie-cutter play to back the American Legislative Exchange Council's efforts to roll back RPS."
In this most recent proposal, Beacon requested $38,825 from Searle to carry out research into the economic impact of the RGGI cap-and-trade system operating in nine states .
In addition to defining success at helping legislators to pare back or repeal RGGI, the proposal noted BHI had offered testimony at state legislative hearings to repeal RPS standards in Kansas.
Tuerck said offering testimony at legislative hearings on renewable energy in Kansas did not fall into that category.
He admitted, however, that the framing of the funding proposal could be seen as political. "Our understanding is that many foundations solicit research in the expectation that that research is going to lead to what they see as constructive policy changes. It was put in there to appeal to them but we maintain that there is a difference in appealing to a granter, using the language we think would be appealing to them, and lobbying."
It also dangles the prospect that its research findings and public relations campaign could prompt Maine's governor, Paul Lepage, to quit the RGGI, as Chris Christie of New Jersey did in 2011, as well as spark possible defections from a similar voluntary cap-and-trade system among midwestern states.
"Given the state's competitiveness problems, Governor Lepage could make Maine the next state to opt out of the cap-and-trade program," the proposal says.
The Beacon Hill Institute, technically an affiliate rather than a full member of the SPN, operates out of the economics department of Suffolk University in Boston. It consists of four full-time staff. Paul Tuerck, its executive director, is also an economics professor at the university and served for many years as chairman of the economics department.Suzanne Goldenberg
• State Policy Network co-ordinating plans across 34 US states
• Strategy to 'release residents from government dependency'
• Revelations come amid growing scrutiny of tax-exempt charities
• Group's plan to eliminate taxes in Maine county
Conservative groups across the US are planning a co-ordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers' compensation and the environment, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The strategy for the state-level organisations, which describe themselves as "free-market thinktanks", includes proposals from six different states for cuts in public sector pensions, campaigns to reduce the wages of government workers and eliminate income taxes, school voucher schemes to counter public education, opposition to Medicaid, and a campaign against regional efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The policy goals are contained in a set of funding proposals obtained by the Guardian. The proposals were co-ordinated by the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level.
The documents contain 40 funding proposals from 34 states, providing a blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014. In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN's summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.
Details of the co-ordinated approach come amid growing federal scrutiny of the political activities of tax-exempt charities. Last week the Obama administration announced a new clampdown on those groups that violate tax rules by engaging in direct political campaigning.
Most of the "thinktanks" involved in the proposals gathered by the State Policy Network are constituted as 501(c)(3) charities that are exempt from tax by the Internal Revenue Service. Though the groups are not involved in election campaigns, they are subject to strict restrictions on the amount of lobbying they are allowed to perform. Several of the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents propose the launch of "media campaigns" aimed at changing state laws and policies, or refer to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings", in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.
The documents also cast light on the nexus of funding arrangements behind radical rightwing campaigns. The State Policy Network (SPN) has members in each of the 50 states and an annual warchest of $83m drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, food giant Kraft and the multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline.
SPN gathered the grant proposals from the 34 states on 29 July. Ranging in size from requests of $25,000 to $65,000, the plans were submitted for funding to the Searle Freedom Trust, a private foundation that in 2011 donated almost $15m to largely rightwing causes.
The trust, founded in 1998, draws on the family fortune of the late Dan Searle of the GD Searle & Company empire – now part of Pfizer – which created NutraSweet. The trust is a major donor to such mainstays of the American right and the Tea Parties as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), the Heartland Institute and the State Policy Network itself.
SPN's link to Searle, the Guardian documents show, was Stephen Moore, an editorial writer with the Wall Street Journal. Moore, who advises Searle on its grant-giving activities, was asked by SPN to rank the proposals in two halves – a "top 20" and "bottom 20". It is not known how many of the 40 proposals were approved for funding, nor which may have been successful.
Moore told the Guardian that he is an unpaid adviser to the Searle Foundation, having been a lifetime family friend to Dan Searle. He said the grant decisions were made by Searle's sons and grandsons based upon the late businessman's "commitment to the advancement of free enterprise and individual rights".
The proposals in the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents go beyond a commitment to free enterprise, however. They include:
• "reforms" to public employee pensions raised by SPN thinktanks in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania;
• tax elimination or reduction schemes in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska and New York;
• an education voucher system to promote private and home schooling in Florida;
• campaigns against worker and union rights in Delaware and Nevada;
• opposition to Medicaid in Georgia, North Carolina and Utah.
SPN's president, Tracie Sharp, told the Guardian that "as a pro-freedom network of thinktanks, we focus on issues like workplace freedom, education reform, and individual choice in healthcare: backbone issues of a free people and a free society."
In its grant bid, the Maine Heritage Policy Center asked for $35,000 to support a "research and demonstration project" that would "release residents from extreme government dependency". It would turn the state's poorest area into what the Portland Press Herald describes in its report from Washington County as "a gigantic tax-free zone".
Dubbed "FreeME", the initiative would eliminate state income tax and sale taxes from residents and businesses until the economic conditions in the county rise to the statewide average. The hole in the county's income from lost tax revenues – estimated at $35m a year by the think tank – would be filled through budget cuts.
Medicaid is the target of a grant proposal coming from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an influential thinktank funded largely by rightwing foundations and corporations including the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, tobacco company Altria and the telecoms giant Verizon. The Texas Observer has investigated the contents of the document and points out that in its request for $40,000 from Searle, TPPF claims credit for blocking Medicaid expansion in the state.
"[S]topping Medicaid expansion is just the first step," the proposal says, adding that the "missing piece to complete our message is an economic forecast" showing how block-granting Medicaid would "bring significant savings" to the state. That information would then be used to garner attention from the media.
The Observer describes TPPF as "one of the most influential state-level thinktanks in the nation". One of its former executives was Ted Cruz, now US senator for Texas, who today is the keynote speaker at the national conference in Washington of SPN's sister organisation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec).
Several hundred miles to the north east in Massachusetts, the Beacon Hill Institute requested $38,825 from Searle to weaken or roll back a five-year effort by states in the region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The institute said it would carry out research into the economic impact of the cap-and-trade system operating in nine states known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
BHI appeared to have already arrived at its conclusions in advance, admitting from the outset that the aim of the research was to arm opponents of cap-and-trade with data for their arguments, and to weaken or destroy the initiative. "Success will take the form of media recognition, dissemination to stakeholders, and legislative activity that will pare back or repeal RGGI," the funding proposal says.
The Beacon Hill Institute, technically an affiliate rather than a full member of the SPN, operates out of the economics department of Suffolk University in Boston. David Tuerck, its executive director, denied the group had engaged in lobbying. "There is never any lobbying," he told the Guardian. "Maybe I need to look up the definition again, but lobbying consists of buttonholing legislators and other policymakers to get a particular result on a particular issue, and we never do that."
But Suffolk University, which hosts the Beacon Hill Institute as a research arm of its economics department, sharply criticised the research proposal to the Searle Foundation. In a statement to the Guardian, the university said the grant bid had not been submitted to the university, as required, and that the university would never have approved the proposal. "The stated research goals, as written, were inconsistent with Suffolk University's mission."
Watchdogs that monitor the work of SPN and other conservative networks in the US said that the centralised coordination of state-level campaigns showed a significant attempt to build local activism into a nationwide movement. Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which issued a recent report on SPN, said that the local identity of the network's members belied a larger purpose. "They appear to be advocating purely local interests but what they are promoting is part of a larger national template to radically remake our government in a way that undermines public institutions and the rights of workers," she said.
The SPN said that its co-ordinating role was justified because local and state issues were increasingly impinging on national politics. "There's no mystery here," Sharp said. "The whole idea of a state policy network is that individual thinktanks can be in communication, share best practices and analysis, and combine their efforts when they see a benefit from doing so."
Some of the grant bids to Searle focus specifically on prominent local politicians the thinktanks hope to influence. The grant bid that emanated from New Jersey, from the Common Sense Institute (CISNJ), another tax-exempt "research and education organization", floats the idea of a campaign to support the efforts of the Republican governor Chris Christie in ending the ability of public employees to claim untaken sick days and vacation leave in their retirement packages.
"Governor Chris Christie has been waging a war to eliminate this practice; and CSINJ would like to provide ammunition," the proposal says. The thinktank plans to produce a "research study" which it would call "Busting the Boat Checks" – an allusion to the phrase Christie uses to denote the watercraft retirees are claimed to buy on the back of sick and holiday leave payments.
The institute conceives a "media campaign" with its aim being the "full elimination of unused sick and vacation leave payouts".
"We believe our study can be used to sway public sentiment further and be used as a brandisher for reform in Trenton," it says.
CSINJ's president, Jerry Cantrell, denied that the grant bid involved any element of lobbying, insisting instead that his group was providing a service that in the past might have been done by the decimated local media.
"CSINJ is an education organization focused on providing the public with facts and the truth. We don't represent any interest besides the folks who are burdened by this practice – the taxpayers," he said.
He said the proposal was focused on the "abusive practice of accumulating sick or vacation day payments over an entire career and using them as retirement bonus. We've seen too many instances of high level individuals working out the door with $500,000-$750,000 claiming to have never missed a day in 30 years of employment."
The proposal from the Illinois Policy Institute for a campaign to deal with Chicago's government worker pensions crisis by switching to 401(k)-style retirement plans similarly focuses on a politician – in this case Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The proposal says that "Mayor Emanuel has privately expressed the need for 401(k)-style changes to truly achieve reform."
The institute plans to "leverage the leadership potential of Mayor Emanuel … as the spark for wider pension changes in Illinois." It adds that "friendly legislators would be welcome to draft legislation modelled on our policy work and work in tandem with Mayor Emanuel to move it forward in the legislative process."
John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, told the Guardian that Emanuel had been "an outspoken proponent of pension reform that includes moving to a 401(k)-style, defined contribution system." He saw no problem with the lobbying that the think tank undertakes.
"We are not allowed to do any campaigning or electioneering, and we don't. We are allowed to spend a significant percentage of our expenditures on lobbying and we are very proactive in lobbying for liberty-based policy, including the urgently needed pension reform. We report our activities accordingly."
Simon Kemp asks what is preventing academics and students going green together given the obvious wins when they do
Earlier this year the National Union of Students (NUS) awarded 25 student unions a share of £5m over two years through the Hefce funded Students' Green Fund to develop high impact sustainability projects for the benefit of local communities and students themselves.
Student unions were only able to win this funding if they were able to demonstrate a strong partnership with their university in their sustainability projects. The Students' Green Fund engages more than 50,000 students which is great, but arguably the greatest potential long-term benefit from the scheme lies in the development of mutually beneficial partnerships between students and academics in sustainability – and beyond.
Students significantly outnumber staff members in all higher education institutions (HEIs), with variability between the different types of universities, for example, research intensive compared to teaching led. As a result, there is a general acceptance that no institution can claim to be a truly sustainable university addressing social, economic, and environmental impacts without the engagement and active participation of the student body.
Yet, until fairly recently, the typical model has been that universities and the academic staff have pursued their own sustainability research, teaching and operational work, while the students have run their own sustainability campaigns in the unions and affiliated societies.
The higher education sector is awash with wonderful examples of academics freely collaborating in and across institutions on high-impact multidisciplinary sustainability projects. Similar stories can be told of businesses and academics working in partnership on sustainability solutions. These types of collaborations have been taking place for decades.
The question is, why have academics and students been so slow to engage in meaningful sustainability partnerships? Is it because academics have been wary of a lack of perceived credibility in working with students rather than with other academics? Is it because the financial rewards from traditional funded research collaborations are clearer, an issue that might be partially redressed through the Students' Green Fund? The higher education landscape is shifting and sustainability might be one of the beneficiaries.
The benefits to academics and universities from working with students on sustainability matters are clear. A recent Higher Education Academy report shows that over a three year period (pre and post tuition fees rises) more than 80% of students consistently believe sustainable development should be actively promoted and incorporated by UK universities. In a higher education world where student satisfaction is paramount, this is an area where partnerships can and do flourish – but how?
The key to academics working with students is having clear benefits for all parties. Sustainability projects can be designed so that students contribute to data collection on a scale that is not possible by lone academics or small research teams. Firstly, the students can gain experience of data collection and training that can enhance their CVs, while improving their sustainability literacy. The combined data set can then be used as part of a solution to a sustainability problem, benefiting the university and/or the local community. Finally, the data and outcomes can be incorporated as part of a wider evidence base that might lead to future research outputs.
One example of the application of this type of approach is the Blackout programme that we run at the University of Southampton. Through this annual event we manage to switch off all non-essential electrical equipment across a whole university on one night. This enormous and logistically challenging process involves accessing every office and common area in every building in the university, recording the equipment, and switching off the non-essential equipment to record the energy use savings. All within a two to three hour period.
A project such as this cannot be achieved solely by academics as they would not be able to complete the enormous task over one evening. It is also impossible from a purely student perspective as it is necessary to have staff with students at all times when entering closed academic buildings, and especially offices.
This is just one example where it is vital to have a true partnership between students and staff for a project to work. It is this form of win-win-win scenario for students, academics, and universities that can lead to meaningful and transformative sustainability projects in the sector.
The future of sustainability in our sector depends upon collaboration. Not in the traditional sense of academics collaborating with other academics, but academics collaborating with students. But is the academic community really ready for this shift?
Share any examples of student-staff partnerships for sustainability in higher education in the comments below.
Simon Kemp is the chair of sustainability action at the University of Southampton – follow him on Twitter @skemp_esd