Economist 12/7/15

  1. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is likely to be passed in Britain early in the new year. It is part of an ongoing attempt to bring down the welfare bill (working-age benefits amounted to £94 billion, or $141 billion, in 2014-15) and reform the system so that work is the best way out of poverty. The focus has been on the bill’s proposal to limit benefit payments for children and to cap the amount that any one family can claim. But it also proposes to change the way child poverty is measured: instead of monitoring income, as now, a series of other measures, such as education and employment, would be used.Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where at least one adult is in work, up from 54% in 2010. Under the new proposals, none of those children would show up in poverty statistics.
  2. Inside the bejewelled Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest place for Shia Islam (pictured, above), a turbaned cleric was leading a delegation of women representing what remains of Iraq’s colourful sectarian make-up. The party included Melkite and Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims and members of smaller religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Mandeans.The inter-faith diplomacy of the country’s Shia ayatollahs has gone almost unnoticed, though it deserves some attention.The access enjoyed by outsiders to the Imam Ali Shrine marks a contrast with many other holy places. Only Muslims may visit Mecca; the Ottoman system of granting permits to non-Muslims was stopped when the Saudis took over the place. Iran restricts non-Muslim entry to Fatima Masumeh, the holiest shrine in its theological centre of Qom.Critics complain that the ayatollahs’ openness has yet to percolate down to their devotees, a charge the clerics say they are addressing.
  3. A year ago, according to America’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the number of miles travelled on the country’s airlines jumped 10% between November and December, before declining 16% over the following two months.According to a study by Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan, picked up by Mother Jones, the average amount of energy consumed per mile, per passenger, fell by 74% on domestic flights in America between 1970 and 2010.There are two main reasons for the drop. First, aircraft manufacturers are obsessed with making their planes more fuel efficient, and they are doing pretty well.Second, flights are fuller than they used to be. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, since 2002 the average flight has gone from 70% of capacity to 85%.
  4. The UNFCCC, an environmental treaty, has been signed by more than 190 countries since its inception in 1992.And after a deal at another such meeting in 2010, they also agree on what “dangerous anthropogenic interference” actually means: global mean surface temperature increasing more than 2°C above that of pre-industrial times. But the history of this limit raises questions about its suitability to save the world.The two-degree maximum appeared initially in papers written by the Yale economist William Nordhaus in the mid-1970s. As “a first approximation” he suggested the world should not warm more than it had in the past 100,000 years or so—the period for which ice-core data were available.Given how little was known about the costs and damages of global warming at that time, Dr Nordhaus admitted that the estimate was “deeply unsatisfactory”.From thence the maximum was adopted by the European Union’s Council of Ministers in 1996; the G8 picked it up in 2009.
  5. A scientific committee is expected to sign off on Europe’s first invasive-species blacklist. Cross-border trade in 37 species will be banned (the list is bound to grow longer as conservationists add more troublemakers). Where it is not already too late to wipe out these alien invaders, EU member states will be required to do so.Europeans are restrained in comparison with other countries. The international list of invasive species—defined as those that were introduced by humans to new places, and then multiplied—runs to over 4,000. In Australia and New Zealand hot war is waged against introduced creatures like cane toads and rats.With a few important exceptions, campaigns to eradicate invasive species are an utter waste of money and effort—for reasons that are partly practical and partly philosophical.Most invasive species are neither terribly successful nor very many cases, a flood of newcomers drives no native species to extinction. One reason is that invaders tend to colonise disturbed habitats like polluted lakes and post-industrial wasteland, where little else lives.

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