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Eyes off the ball

Photo: Marcus Hand seafarers.jpg
Michael Grey argues that all the time spent on decarbonisation is taking away from immediate issues such as the treatment of seafarers in the pandemic.

It was entirely predictable that in the afterglow of the great Glaswegian enviro-fest, besides questions about whether the final outcome represented more fudge than progress, others should have asked whether the whole circus was a distraction from more urgent and immediate issues facing the world. Was it right that world leaders should be spending their waking hours worrying about square brackets in a climate change document, when the pandemic has not ended its grip on so many of their countries?

 And shouldn’t rather more attention have been paid to the security situation on the border between Poland and Belarus, tensions in the Taiwan Straits and instability in the middle east and Africa, as important folk jostled for podium space in a Scottish arena. No doubt about it, as the virtuous signalled and the activists howled, the significant absentees were getting on on with what they thought was more pressing? COP26 might be important for the long-term health of the planet, and it is heretical to suggest otherwise, but a popular cause among politicians shouldn’t deflect them from practical and immediate problems that won’t go away. You can argue that it did.  

And we might make the same observations about the shipping industry, which arguably has been spending too much time on “decarbonisation” problems that won’t be solved overnight, when there are far more urgent issues that need attention. Despite all sorts of virtuous words about ships’ crews being worthy of “special status” when it comes to quarantine, vaccinations and their needs for leave and relief, in too many countries these worthy statements have not amounted to much. And if regulators and officials see that global attention is focussed on global warming, they continue to believe that the ships will keep on sailing, facilitating their imports and exports, just as they have always done.

 It may be unfair on diligent officialdom, but the chances are that in too many places they will be keener on prosecuting captains whose ships emit too much funnel smoke, than worrying about whether the crew are enabled to get to the airport at the end of their contracts. There will be plenty of attention given to “bio-fouling” problems, and the oil record book, but is there anyone to ask whether there are crew members quietly suffering serious mental problems after months trapped in their steel box for half a year or more and unable to set foot ashore? Seafarers are no different from other people and just like populations in those countries whose governments have decided on policies to eradicate Covid-19 rather than learn to treat it as an endemic disease, they are losing patience.

And amid all the urgent introspection about whether ammonia, hydrogen, methanol or used fish and chip fat will do the business in the future, is anyone asking what the consequences of effective sensory deprivation on a million seafarers is likely to be? Are they likely to be rushing back when and if they manage to get home on leave, and recommend others to their bleak state-imposed lifestyle? I cannot think that they will just dismiss their treatment as an aberration or an unfortunate glitch in their maritime careers, rather than find a more kindly alternative. And what about supply-chain crises – just another on long list of pressing problems that the marine industry won’t solve on its own. We could go on….

You are unlikely to persuade anyone who attended COP26 in Glasgow that their journey (whether offset or not) was not absolutely necessary, but it is maybe important to keep a sense of perspective among the hype. One news item they probably wouldn’t have read on the Clyde was that while their deliberations had been progressing, Russian icebreakers were in action, with some 20 ocean-going ships been trapped off the coast of Siberia by the unexpected early onset of heavy ice. Unpredictable thing, climate.   


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