Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Climate of Change

It looks increasingly like Donald Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and in my opinion that will be a very good thing. I have written numerous times on this blog about anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming but will restate my conclusions and some of the evidence below to explain why I support Trump's position on climate change.

1. The earth has been warming since the 1600s, when we experienced what is known as the Little Ice Age, and has warmed about 0.85ºC since the mid-19th Century. Temperatures today are similar to those in what is known at the Medieval Warm Period, as shown in the following temperature reconstruction graph.

Reconstructed global temperature past 2,000 years (Loehe and UKMO data)

2. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It makes the Earth habitable for life, and life would not exist on Earth if there was no CO2 in the atmosphere. An increase in atmospheric CO2, all other things being equal, would be expected to lead to an increase in average global temperatures but with a diminishing effect (the physics behind this is explained in the "Into the Laboratory" section of this article). 

3. Mankind's carbon emissions, mostly generated through the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to the CO2 in the atmosphere. The exact extent of mankind's contribution to the increase in CO2 is unknown because we don't know the net natural contribution, but in recent years mankind's total emissions has been roughly equal to the increase in CO2 so many scientists just assume that human emissions account for all of the increase. If this was true then CO2 levels would have been constant prior to the development of human civilisation, which is patently not true as the following graph shows.

Reconstructed atmospheric CO2 levels (100PPM) from various sources

4. Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant. To claim that is to say that all life on Earth pollutes the environment merely by living, which is patently ridiculous. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from around 250ppm to 400ppm since the 18th Century but current CO2 levels are not dangerous. In fact, we are still only a little above the minimum levels of atmospheric CO2 necessary to sustain life on Earth and scientists now accept that rising CO2 levels have led to increased greening of the world, including a net increase in rainforest and a receding Sahara Desert.

5. The current increase in global temperature levels are NOT dangerous to life. Human civilisation flourished in warm periods and geographical areas (such as the Middle East and Mediterranean) rather than in cooler periods and climes precisely because less resources needed to be spent creating shelter and growing food in warmer areas, leaving more resources to be devoted to civilisational advancement.

6. Dangerous weather events are NOT increasing around the world. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer hurricanes and storms than any other decade since modern records began. Total deaths attributed to all extreme weather events globally declined by more than 90% since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events (source: Goklany). Many more people die each year from extreme cold than from heat and therefore an increase in global temperatures is likely to further lower climate deaths. Millions die in the third world every year from toxic heating fuels such as dung and biomass, deaths that would be prevented if they converted to natural gas or other clean fossil fuels.

So what is the point of the international political consensus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? We know that human carbon dioxide emissions won't lead to runaway global warming and that further CO2 increases won't be harmful to life. On the other hand, we can say with certainty that policies that reduce the ability of people in cooler climates to heat their houses will lead to more deaths, and likewise any policies that reduce the ability for people in the third world to shift to less toxic energy sources than they currently use.

I accept, as do almost all scientists, that human activity contributes to changes in the climate, but I think the evidence does not support the proposition that mankind's carbon emissions are the dominant factor in recent increases in global average temperatures. But what about the argument that prudent risk management means we should cut our emissions anyway? Well, a prudent risk management strategy always considers the costs of mitigation and at the moment the costs of mitigation far outweigh the costs of the risk. Eliminating human carbon emissions to stop global warming is akin to amputating your leg to get rid of a muscle ache.

This is why the Paris Accord is bad policy and why I hope Trump' sticks to his guns and withdraws from it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Government legitimises violence

There has been a spate of violent robberies of dairies* in Auckland targeting cigarettes. The store owners blame the huge increases in taxes on cigarettes that have pushed the price to nearly $30 for a pack of twenty. This has made cigarettes almost the equivalent of illegal drugs and predictably has seen the rise of a black market and an increase in robberies and violent crime to supply that market.

The worst thing about this escalation of crime is the Government's reaction to it. National Government MP Nicky Wagner, who holds the post of Associate Health Minister, responded by saying the store owners should stop selling cigarettes "if they feel too threatened" by robbers.

Let us consider the implications of what Wagner is saying. She is implying that the store owners are fair game for violent robberies - if they didn't sell cigarettes, they wouldn't be attacked - and that the Government won't protect them. In other words, the Government is willing to let violence against New Zealanders carrying out a perfectly legal commercial activity continue if it serves some other policy objective, i.e. reducing smoking.

This is disgraceful and something I never thought I would hear from a Government minister in New Zealand. Does Nicky Wagner and her Government not understand the potential consequences of this? When the government is unwilling to protect you against violent crime, and in fact legitimises that violent crime, you are left with no choice - to take the law into your own hands. It is an abrogation of the most basic responsibility of government - to protect citizens against violence - and a recipe for anarchy.

Perhaps Nicky Wagner did not intend to say what she said or was misquoted - if so, she needs to make that clear because this is an incredibly dangerous path she has set us upon.

* Convenience stores in New Zealand are commonly called 'dairies' because they traditionally sold dairy products.

[Hat-tip to blogger Lindsay Mitchell for bringing this to my attention.]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Comey had to go

I almost feel sorry for James Comey. He found himself in a no-win situation, having managed to alienate both Democrats and Republicans and his old and new bosses. I say 'almost' because the situation was largely of his own making. His experience is precisely why law enforcement officers, and public servants in general, should remain politically neutral in their jobs.

Comey began to dig himself a hole with his investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for classified information. He closed the investigation and then reopened it right in the final stages of the presidential campaign, and then promptly closed it again. Those decisions stunk of political interference, or at least influence.

Then it was revealed that the FBI had been investigating the Trump team's connections to the Russians during the election campaign. I have written before about how I think the accusation of a Trump-Putin conspiracy is baseless, if for no other reason than Putin had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a Trump election. In any event, Clinton also had contact with the Russians during the campaign, and there is nothing wrong with a presidential candidate establishing links with important foreign leaders prior to taking office. Even if it is proven that the Russians acted to help Trump win, that is not illegal or even unusual - after all, President Obama tried to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote and did his best in the last Israeli election to stop Netanyahu being re-elected. Besides, nothing the Trump team might have done with the Russians could compare with the dealings Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had with Russian and Kazakhstani interests while she as Secretary of State was approving their takeover of American uranium mines.

Leaving aside the merits of the cases, I think the fact that the FBI was investigating both of the major candidates during the presidential election campaign - and in the case of the Clinton investigation, discussing it publicly - is a very unhealthy state of affairs for U.S. democracy. They say J. Edgar Hoover had an enormous influence on politics during his 37 years as FBI director but at least he had the good sense to play his cards close to his chest. Comey came to believe he was the most important player on the stage rather than someone who should stay in the background. Clearly, the job had got a bit much for him, or he had become a bit much for the job. 

Trump has done the right thing sacking Comey and I am sure Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing had she made it to the Oval Office. The President and the American public need to have confidence in their FBI director and clearly that was no longer the case.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Left-wing view of democracy should not surprise

Yesterday, I participated in an interesting discussion on Chris Trotter's Bowalley Road blog about the health of democracy in the Western world. Chris, who I am sure wouldn't object to being described as an old leftie, wrote in response to a New Zealand Herald columnist who was bemoaning the death of democracy, as indicated by the election of Donald Trump in America, Theresa May in Britain and Bill English here in New Zealand.

I said that democracy was doing just fine and made the point that left-wingers always blame the state of democracy - or some other factor such as 'deplorables', Russian hackers or 'fake news' - for their failures rather than themselves and their philosophy. The fellow who responded to my point said that 'democracy has a bad time whenever bad guys get elected.'

This comment speaks volumes about the real view of many on the left about democracy. They believe, like President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, that 'democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.' In other words, democracy should be allowed to produce only one result - victory for their 'good guy'.

Democracy is by definition a pluralistic system and if there can be only one result, then that is not democracy but a dictatorship. Of course, the worst left-wing dictatorships have always styled themselves in Orwellian fashion as 'democratic republics', so perhaps we should not be surprised when left-wingers in Western democracies reveal that this is also their interpretation of what it means to be a democracy.

Someone in America once said, 'scratch a liberal (in American terms a left-winger) and a fascist bleeds'. So true.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Trump at 100 Days

Tomorrow is the 100-day mark in Donald Trump's presidency and like jouranlists and bloggers all over the world, I am taking the opportunity to provide my assessment on how I think he is doing.

The 45th president of the United States of America certainly set a cracking pace (as I wrote about here) but more recently he seems to be getting bogged down in the swamp he said he would drain. I have looked at a number of his campaign promises in various policy areas and graded them from A+ (completely achieved) to E (has done nothing) and then averaged them to get an overall grade.

Healthcare: He promised to repeal Obamacare, but rather than trying to repeal it he supported Paul Ryan's replacement American Care Act, which was withdrawn when it failed to gain enough support to pass in in the House. His professed approach now seems to be to wait for Obamacare to implode, which is a bit pathetic really. Therefore, he gets a D for this.

Immigration: Repeated knock-downs of Trump's executive orders by the federal courts has meant he has failed to implement his policies in this area, but that is not a bad thing in my view because his policies were ill-advised and poorly thought out. It also shows the American system of government with its separation of powers is working. But in terms of Trump's delivery, he gets a D for this.

Taxation: He has announced tax reforms including lowering rates for companies and individuals, and simplifying the Byzantine system of deductions - so he gets a B-, but maintaining or improving on that grade will depend on follow-through.

Draining the Swamp: He promised to reduce the size of government starting with a freeze on federal hiring, and to stop officials becoming lobbyists after they leave their government jobs. He has signed executive orders to give effect to these policies, so a good start and a B+ for effort.

Reduce Government Compliance: He promised to introduce a requirement for two federal regulations to be elminated for every one introduced. He has signed an executive order stating that two regulations have to be identified for elimination, so, again, a good start and a B+.

Trade: He said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. He also said he would label China a 'currency manipulator'. He has fudged on the first, signed a memorandum to effect the second, and backed down on the third. These were all silly policies in my view but a B- for partial delivery.

Energy: He promised to lift restrictions on fracking and clean coal production, and build the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He has issued executive orders on all of these, so he here he gets an A+.

Climate Alarmism: He said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and stop payments to UN climate change programmes. He hasn't done either yet, reportedly because Ivanka doesn't like these policies, so he gets an E for this.

These are not all the campaign promises he made but they are enough to give an overall grade for his commitment to delivery. The average is a C+, which is not brilliant but probably better than most presidents achieved after just 100 days in office.

So what grade would you give Donald Trump for his performance so far?

Monday, April 24, 2017

The irony of the Washington science march

Albert Einstein once said, "Genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops."

The participants in the so-called March for Science in Washington DC over the weekend should heed the great man's advice. I am sure they missed the irony of a protest march in the US capital against political interference in science. It is obvious from photographs of the march (such as the one below) that many of those present had a political agenda that has nothing to do with maintaining objectivity in science. They were marching to force their views on everyone else and that doesn't make them right, it makes them thugs, and thuggery has no place in science.

Marching against political interference in science!
Science, unlike politics, is not a matter of opinion and it doesn't matter what the consensus is. The scientific method works by challenging the consensus. The oft-quoted 97% figure of scientists supporting the consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is factually wrong (which I wrote about here and here), but it wouldn't matter if the figure was 100%. Scientific breakthroughs are usually made by individuals or small teams of scientists challenging the consensus, often years after the science is considered settled.

Over the weekend we also had the ridiculous sight of Bill Nye, the self-titled "Science Guy", criticizing CNN for including Dr William Happer in a discussion about climate science. Bill Nye is an television personality who made his name hosting a science programme for children. He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree but has never worked as a scientist. William Happer, on other hand, is one of the top physicists in America, having been a full professor at both Columbia and Princeton, and he is responsible for the invention of adaptive optics, the technology that allows telescopes to adjust to disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere when imaging space. Happer has been outspoken on AGW and as a scientist whose specialist field includes the properties of the Earth's atmosphere, he ought to have more credibility on the subject than Nye. The fact that Nye would have CNN deny a voice to Happer and provide a one-sided platform for his own beliefs, says a lot about Nye.

The most delightful part of the Einstein quotation above is that he went on to say to his students, "Stop nodding your head." Einstein didn't want people agreeing with him, he wanted to be challenged. He understood that you cannot claim to be on the side of science if you wish to shut up those who disagree with you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Governments' use of data is scary

The answer to poor government is always more government, at least amongst those who are part of the Leviathan. New Zealand's National Government says it is driven by values of 'personal responsibility' and 'limited government' and Prime Minister Bill English has talked a lot about reducing state dependency and targeting services to those in highest need. He has been explicit about how he plans to do this, most recently in his statement to Parliament in February in which he said, 'the Government will this year further improve the way in which data is used to underpin decision making through initiatives like the Integrated Data Infrastructure.'

The Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) is a big database held by Statistics New Zealand that receives feeds from many government and some non-government organisations, including the Ministry of Social Development, Inland Revenue, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Police. There is a belief that the data in the IDI is anonymous but that is not true. The database uses a common identifier to link the records from the different agencies and, although sufficient personal information to readily identify the person is not usually provided to third parties, the IDI records are linked to real people.

I have had a great deal of experience in the use and protection of information both in the private and public sectors and I believe many people in government have little idea of the risks involved in the aggregation of data. Even if we accept that government agencies are good stewards of people's data (and, as I show below, the evidence is that they are not), the IDI opens up this data to almost anyone who wants to use it. There is an application process but few checks on those who apply. I do not believe those responsible understand the power of technology available to mine and de-anonymise the data and have little appreciation of how it might be used.

An overseas example of the risks is the United Kingdom's experience with care.data, a National Health Service initiative to aggregate health and social care data and make it available for research purposes. Soon after the initiative was launched in 2013, it was rumoured that private sector organisations such as insurance companies were de-anonymising the data to reveal whether customers were withholding information on pre-existing conditions and risk factors such as mental illness. A report into the risks concluded that 'the current care.data program is highly problematic in its flawed protection of patient anonymity, an unsuitable opt-out system, unclear criteria for accessing the collected health data, and the risk it poses to the trust between patients and general practitioners.'

There are many other examples of the lack of adequate protection for individual data in government, including here in New Zealand. The 2012 revelation that Ministry of Social Development's self-service kiosks could be used by anyone to access confidential details of at-risk children is just one example. I have personally seen other examples of significant security flaws in agencies' information systems that have not been revealed publicly. But the risk is not confined to the information falling into the wrong hands - there is also considerable scope to link the wrong data to the wrong person. Statistics NZ admits that 'some records can be linked incorrectly or the link could be missed'. I am sure I don't need to spell out the implications of a law enforcement agency using incorrectly linked data.

I think governments' increasing aggregation of personal information and policies of allowing almost unrestricted access to it, are dangerous and unnecessary. I accept that there is the potential to deliver services to people more effectively by better understanding their needs - after all, this is exactly what Amazon and every other online merchant does - but the risks with governments misusing the information are far greater. The worst Amazon can do is to try to sell you something you don't want, but if the government draws the wrong conclusion from the data, it could destroy your life.

I think it would be better to rethink the role of central government in providing many of the services for which it believes it needs aggregated data. People in need can be better served by local service providers that are closer to the people requiring the services, using information collected from the individuals concerned and those in the community who understand their needs better than any central government agency. The more government tries to manage and target the services it delivers through centralised aggregation of information, the more intrusive into all our lives it needs to become and the greater the risk of wholesale misuse of the data. Central government is always a blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with the problems in individuals' lives and trying to build a sharper sledgehammer is not the answer when what is needed is a scalpel.