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Vote for Policies at Birkbeck. Can the internet change voting?

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Vote for Policies gathered inspirational speakers and more than 100 delegates at Birkbeck on the 24th March to discuss whether the internet can change the way we think about politics, specifically the choice between policies and personalities? The views were diverse and the debate excellent.

Vote for Policies founder Matt Chocqueel-Mangan opened proceedings with his own story of how he became engaged in politics and what inspired him to create Vote for Policies in the 2010 general election. Having read all the party manifestoes he decided to create a website that allowed people to more easily compare and contrast party policies so that they could make informed choices at election time.

His own background in technology led him to the conclusion that people weren’t engaged in policies not because of their own failure but because the system is broken. A technologist doesn’t blame the user (voter) if they can’t use the system (politics), they blame usability (elections).

The panel was chaired by Emran Mian, of the Social Market Foundation, and on the panel were Birkbeck reader in politics Dr Rosie Campbell, John Curtice professor of politics at Strathclyde University, Former University of Newcastle Students’ Union President, Vote for Policies crowd funder and entrepreneur Laura Perry, and prolific political blogger and academic Sunny Hundal. Quite a panel.

Each panellist addressed the debate’s subject in different ways with a polite divide between the academics, who saw our institutions as functional but flawed, and Laura who was keen to delete the system and start again.

Rosie gave us the ideal model of citizens armed with facts making rational choices, but using shortcuts such as a politician’s charisma to inform that decision. Vote for Policies was a way into policies as a policy ‘shopping list‘-style of decision-making as ‘not a good thing’ where politics is more about compromise and a basket of policies.

John challenged the premise that personality-based voting is necessarily uninformed voting. In reality, rather than creating more rational choices, the internet amplifies personality. Fundamentally elections are not just about the policy platform of the parties but our belief in the leading politicians’ competence, ability to communicate and negotiate on a national and international stage. He made the excellent point that the an election is about putting trust in someone who can handle an “unknown unknown” in the future, such as a crisis with Russia or another banking crash.

Laura gave the young voters’ perspective. They’re less willing to follow parents or be loyal to one party during their lifetime. Politicians seem inaccessible to most young people and the mainstream media has their own agenda, mainly about maintaining their own influence. To Laura a tool like Vote for Policies allowed her to “get by the spin” and read the parties’ policies in their own words. She then described our current system as crazy, arguing that if you were going to create a political system on a blank sheet of paper you wouldn’t create what you have.

One of her more interesting asides was a dip into technology and big data, and her puzzlement that parties weren’t using the technology available to more accurately target messages at specific groups, which led to the first dissent on the panel. Rosie felt that would be a sad development as politics was about not just our own needs, but the needs of the country.

Sunny opened with the insight that rational debate and politics rarely go hand in hand. He powerfully argued that politics is not driven by rational choices but emotional connection – our “gut feeling”. We reject facts that don’t fit our own narrative and project our own stories onto politicians as we did in 1997 with Blair and the Americans did in 2008 with Obama. He suggested that our politicians are stuck in the era of mainstream press dissemination and ignoring new technology which would allow more engagement with policies. He also made the debatable point that “most people get their information through social media.

Questions from the floor followed and there was a clear view from some of the audience that technology allowed for more direct democracy. This was challenged by Rosie and John with the rebuttal that direct democracy can lead to dystopia – the tyranny of the majority rather than the wisdom of the crowd. The idea of a direct online democracy caused even more concern with the risk that it isn’t the people who decide but a section of the people who decide. The majority of online activity in Scotland supported independence, but voters backed the Union.

Rosie pointed out that many issues were more complicated that a simple yes-no vote and Sunny gave the example of California where people vote for contradictory things such as more public spending and lower taxes.

John gave an excellent argument on why the three main parties are failing with a simple exercise. If you write a paragraph for each of the parties in the next election that explains the vision each party would like to create. This would relatively easy for the Greens, UKIP and SNP, but much harder for Labour, the Conservatives and LibDems. They don’t have a narrative, despite the evidence being they are more different that any election in the last twenty years.

Dr Ben Worthy summarised the debate saying that policies and personalities are bound together. Obama and Google crunched the data now available to win the last two elections, and Vote for Policies puts those tools in our hands. We do live in a new digital and political landscape and the internet amplifies the good and the bad of the current system. The internet is disruptive and part of the political ecosystem now, but it is still in its infancy. At this stage with the printing press there had been no reformation or schisms.

The one word that didn’t come up in concerns about personalities was demagogue – a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. The politics of a popular personality has worrying precedents in human history. The examples of politicians who distort facts (or lie) to suit their narrative, use a supportive media to create a public image that belies extreme political ideology or ignore firm policy commitments once in office are numerous and rising.

We need to make informed choices at elections, but we also need root and branch reform of our electoral system rather than a vote every five years.

You can use the Vote for Policies survey here or access their 2010 data here.

Photo: Khairil Zhafri via Flickr

Further reading:

If public vote for policies, not personalities, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage could lose

Vote for Policies crowdfunding to support ‘sustainable democracy’

If we voted for policies at elections, and not parties, the results might surprise us all

The people’s manifesto

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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