Posted by: bmeverett | February 27, 2015

The New York Times Still Doesn’t Understand Science

The New York Times had another troubling article on climate change last week by reporters Justin Gillis and John Schwartz entitled “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher”. The article raises concerns about the climate research conducted by Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Soon has argued that solar energy, rather than anthropogenic carbon emissions, is primarily responsible for observed temperature variations in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Times reveals that some of Dr. Soon’s work was funded by grants from Southern Company, a major coal-burning electric power company, and by the Koch brothers. On the surface, the Times is asking a legitimate question about whether such funding is ethical and appropriate. The reporters, however, are not satisfied with a straightforward, factual piece. The paper just can’t pass up an opportunity to advance its overall climate agenda.

Here’s how the article starts, “For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.” The article falls afoul of two fundamental fallacies.

The first is that “climate deniers” are an organized group of political hacks, dishonest scientists and their fossil fuel company paymasters, working together and coordinating their activities to undermine legitimate climate science. In this sense, climate denial supposedly has a single organizational identity and any dent in its armor undermines the credibility of the whole enterprise. We assume, for example, that members of the White House staff develop a political strategy to meet their objectives, that they speak from a common script and that their public statements are carefully coordinated. When Josh Earnest or Susan Rice speaks publicly, we can be reasonably sure that their views and actions reflect President Obama’s wishes.

However, neither “climate deniers” nor the “fossil fuel industry” is an organization. There are, of course, various industry associations, such as the American Petroleum Institute, the American Gas Association and the National Mining Association which do represent companies in their various industries. The views of these companies on climate change, however, are all over the map. Shell and BP, two of the largest oil companies in the world, have been publicly supportive of both the catastrophic climate hypothesis and of strong government actions to reduce carbon emissions. The Times article cites Southern Company, a major coal-burning electric power company, as the funder of Dr. Soon’s work. This may well be so, but other power companies have very different views. Duke Energy, for example, a major electric utility in the Carolinas states that they are “committed to finding new ways to confront one of our industry’s biggest challenges – global climate change.”

The implication of the Times article is that undermining the credentials of one scientist somehow calls into question what the paper sees as a coordinated effort. The article includes a photo of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a long-time opponent of efforts to decarbonize the economy. The caption is “Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, praising scientists like Dr. Soon.” What does “like Dr. Soon” mean? Are the reporters claiming that all scientists who oppose the climate agenda must be unethical like Dr. Soon or that Senator Inhofe praises unethical scientists?

I have been studying climate change policy for nearly 20 years, and I was only vaguely aware of Dr. Soon. His arguments have never been a central part of the climate policy critique.

The second major fallacy is the Times usual mischaracterization of science. Climate change is a hypothesis: increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will cause temperatures not only to rise but to accelerate with catastrophic results, including rising sea levels, loss of cropland, the spread of disease and others. This hypothesis can be evaluated only by testing it against empirical evidence. If atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase by x, then y will happen. In other words, the ability to make predictions is the key to science. The Times, on the other hand, argues that scientific questions are determined by “consensus”. Therefore, the number of scientists supporting the hypothesis determines its validity. By implication, if you can undermine the credibility of an opponent, then the number of “real” scientists opposing the hypothesis is reduced.

Here’s an interesting analogy. Let’s assume that you are the captain of your high school debate team and that you have successfully competed your way to the state championships. The championship round will address the proposition “The Earth is flat”, and your team will be arguing the affirmative. Just prior to the debate, you discover that the captain of the opposing team does not in fact attend the school he is representing, but was brought in as a “ringer.” You bring this clear violation to the attention of the debate organizers who immediately disqualify your opponents, allowing you to bring home the trophy and enjoy your victory parade.

This is all well and good, but you need to bear in mind that the disqualification of your opponent has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Earth is flat. In my analogy, this doesn’t really matter because nothing of substance is at stake in the debate. Suppose, however, that a victory for the affirmative team in the debate would result in a tax surcharge of $10,000 per family to build a fence on the edge of the world to keep people from falling off. Now there are real stakes to the debate, and your success in disqualifying your opponents will have serious adverse consequences for the society.

This problem highlights why we use science and not “consensus” as a mechanism for resolving scientific questions. The “scientific community” is wrong on many issues at any given point in time. The problem is we don’t know which ones until we apply the scientific method – testing hypotheses against evidence. The Times just doesn’t seem able to grasp this distinction.

Posted by: bmeverett | February 21, 2015

The Keystone Pipeline on The Blacklist

One of my favorite shows on television is “The Blacklist” on NBC. The premise of the show is that Raymond “Red” Reddington, a former spook turned good-hearted master criminal, helps the FBI track down the world’s worst criminals, those on the FBI’s Blacklist. Red, played by James Spader, is a wonderful mix of amiability, sophistication, compassion, menace and violence. His motives are always unclear, but combine a sense of criminal self-interest with social responsibility, a kind of modern-day Robin Hood. Most of the villains on the Blacklist are really, really bad, including cyberterrorists, organ thieves, mass murderers and assorted psychos. The most recent episode, which aired February 12, adds to the list of horrific criminals one of the Left’s favorite bad guys.

The plot of the episode is as follows. A CIA agent masquerading as a priest in Uzbekistan is captured by a shadowy terrorist group called the SRU, under the leadership of a man named Ruslan Denisov. But wait. It turns out that the terrorists are actually a local human rights/environmental group fighting against (you guessed it!) an American oil company. Twenty-five years previously, a corrupt Soviet-era Uzbek politician had enriched himself by giving a sweetheart deal to Anecca Oil Corporation to build an oil pipeline in Uzbekistan. Since its construction, the pipeline has been leaking toxic chemical like mad, killing hundreds of local citizens and causing massive outbreaks of cancer. Rather than fix the problem, Anecca, with the active connivance of the CIA, has used its massive corporate power to cover it up. No worries, Red makes sure that the Company’s criminal malfeasance comes to light. At the end of the program, Red explains that Denisov may be temporarily imprisoned by the Uzbek authorities for his actions, but he will ultimately emerge a hero for having chased the American company out of the country, to be replaced by (get this) a French oil company which will presumably operate the pipeline responsibly.

I’m sure this scenario seems perfectly plausible to a generation of Americans taught by their schools and by Hollywood that US corporations should be lumped together with terrorists in terms of the harm they do in the world. I understand that this show is fiction, but fiction often informs or reinforces people’s views of the world, so let’s consider whether this plot makes any sense. I have six separate criticisms.

First, pipelines are not particularly difficult to build and operate. Leaks do occur, but operators have extensive high-tech systems to locate and repair leaks very quickly. It’s no more in their interest to build faulty pipelines than it is for Boeing to build airplanes that crash. The episode’s premise is analogous to an engineering company that builds a bridge that periodically fails and dumps cars into the water. People know how to build bridges, and their operators take extensive care to maintain them. There are some leaky pipelines in the world, such as the Soviet-era pipelines moving natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe, but these are generally operated by corrupt and inefficient state companies, rather than private companies, which tend to take care of their assets.

Second, pipelines in and of themselves are not generally desirable investments for oil companies. Most integrated oil companies, like ExxonMobil or Shell, see pipelines as simply a way to move their oil and natural gas to market. It’s the oil production that makes the profit, not the delivery system.

Third, in this Blacklist episode, Denisov says, “Almost 25 years ago, my country sold an American company – Anecca Oil – the rights to build a pipeline from Tashkent to the Andijan Region. The price was absurd. The Uzbek people received a fraction of the value.” Oil and gas production often involves “producer surplus” also called “economic rent”, i.e., a revenue stream in excess of the cost required to provide a market return to investors. Virtually all oil and gas contracts are structured to give the investor an acceptable return with all the producer surplus going to the government. Pipelines almost never involve economic rent. It’s tough enough just to ensure sufficient revenue to keep the pipeline operating and provide a basic return to the owners. These are not big revenue streams for host governments, any more than a bridge or a road would be.

Fourth, in my forty years in the oil business, I have never seen a case where a government official gave an oil company a “sweetheart” deal in return for a bribe. Such an action would quickly become obvious, probably to the press and the public but at the very least to all the other corrupt officials in the government. The normal mechanism for stealing oil and gas revenue is to give the oil company a deal on commercial terms which can stand up to public scrutiny and then to steal or divert money out of the national treasury. Such theft is much easier to accomplish, particularly in autocratic countries, since such diversions of funds can more easily be hidden. Furthermore, this system allows other corrupt officials to get their share of the funds, so the oligarchs are all satisfied with the arrangement. It’s also worth noting that governments can easily change the contract if they conclude that the terms are unfavorable. Oil companies don’t like this, but there’s often little they can do. Forced “renegotiation” of contracts has occurred recently in Russia, Venezuela, Kazakhstan and even in the United States.

Fifth, one of the FBI agents says about the massive fatalities and illnesses caused by the pipeline leak, “No company can ignore this. It’s bad for business.” The other agent replies, “Only if someone can prove the truth. Anecca spends a fortune on lobbyists to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Seriously? Denisov can organize a violent band of Uzbek terrorists to try to force Anecca to clean up the mess, but they can’t pick up the phone and call the New York Times? Anyone who believes that lobbyists can keep the Times from reporting an anti-corporate story has never read the paper. How did BP do in hiding the Deepwater Horizon disaster from the press? How about Union Carbide and Bhopal?

Red himself sums up the story line when he says, “Somewhere 6,000 miles away, a group of bean-counters in a board room did a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that these people aren’t worth the cost of responsibly maintaining their pipeline.” Here you have, folks, the anti-corporate view in a nutshell: American corporations are run by people who would kill for a buck. There are, of course, corporate malefactors, but business people are highly representative of the society as a whole and no more inclined to practice unethical self-interest than other segments of society, like government, entertainment, sports, academics, the press or the clergy.

I have no insight into NBC’s motives in airing this episode, and it may be pure coincidence that this story line appears right when Congress has sent the Keystone Pipeline authorization to the President. You can decide for yourself.

Posted by: bmeverett | September 14, 2014

Friedman Watch 9-9-14

I try to read all (or almost all) Thomas Friedman’s columns in the New York Times. I rarely agree with him, but every once in while, he writes a column that’s so bad that it just cries out for a reply. His September 6 column, entitled “Leading from Within” definitely falls into that category.

Mr. Friedman’s thesis in this piece is that the United States can combat ISIS and Vladimir Putin with two powerful actions: allow US oil to be exported and impose a carbon tax. He is way off base on both counts.

Let’s take oil exports. I agree with him fully that the US should allow the free export of crude oil and refined products. Doing so would eliminate some logistical bottlenecks inside the US and allow the US economy to reap the full benefit of the crude oil we produce. For decades now, many Americans have mistakenly believed that keeping oil in the US helps American consumers while sending oil oversees benefits foreigners. We saw this problem when the Alaska Pipeline opened in the mid-1970s. Alaskan crude was not a good quality fit with West Coaster refineries, and the sensible solution would have been to export Alaska oil to Japan and replace it with imported crude into the Gulf Coast. That proved politically impossible, and the companies were forced by law to bring the crude oil around to the Gulf Coast at significant additional cost. American consumers paid the difference.

This action was costly and unnecessary. American consumers care about the price of fuel and the potential for market disruption. There is a single global, integrated oil market with a unified price structure. Producers supply oil to the market, and consumers buy from the market. It doesn’t matter where your oil comes from. If Saudi Arabia collapses, the global price of oil will increase and all consumers will feel the impact, whether or not they happen to be purchasers of Saudi crude.

Mr. Friedman’s expectations from lifting the oil export ban are unrealistic. He quotes Andy Karsner, CEO of Manifest Energy, as saying “Let’s lift that export ban and have America shaping the market price in our own interest.” Producing additional oil is a great boon to the US economy, but we are hardly in a position to shape the world oil market. In 2013, the US produced about 10 million barrels of oil per day (MBD), up about 3.2 MBD since the low point of 6.8 MBD in 2007. That energy boom has created unexpected jobs, profits and tax revenue for the US. Over that same period of time, however, global oil demand has grown by about 4½ MBD from 82.4 to 86.8 MBD. US oil consumption has declined by about 1.8 MBD over that same period from 20.7 to 18.9 MBD, but we still have to import 8.9 MBD or 43% of our needs. Every barrel of oil exported from the US will have to be replaced by a barrel of imported oil. This trade may result in some sensible logistical cost savings, but they will be small when oil prices are around $100 per barrel.

The US has gone from producing 8½% of the world oil market to 11½%. That’s great, but it hardly puts us in a position to control world oil prices, particularly when the Middle East still produces one-third of the world’s oil supply. Mr. Friedman expects that lifting the export ban could reduce oil prices to $75-85 per barrel, resulting in a “draining of our enemies’ coffers”. A slight logistical shift in the destination of US oil supplies would have a negligible impact on world oil prices.

Mr. Friedman’s second proposal is a carbon tax that “puts a predictable premium on carbon, ensuring that we unite to consistently invest in clean energies that take us beyond fossil fuels, increase efficiency and address climate change.” Good luck with that. As discussed many times in this space, no politician in his right mind would impose a carbon tax high enough to induce a real change in the capital stock or in the way people use energy. So far, carbon taxes in Europe, the Northeast United States (The “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative”) and all the bills proposed in Congress would set carbon taxes sufficient to shift money from the private sector to the government but way below the level necessary to effect real change. Fossil fuels have no competitors in terms of cost or performance. Setting carbon taxes high enough to push fossil fuels out of the market would shut down the economy.

Mr. Friedman thinks he can compensate for the adverse economic impacts of carbon taxes by slashing income, payroll and corporate taxes. Seriously? Mr. Friedman is clinging to the naïve notion that our elected officials in Washington spend their time thinking about what’s best for the country. What they are in fact thinking about is how to extract the maximum amount of money from the electorate to allocate to favored constituents. Our Congress doesn’t do “revenue neutral”.

The problem with Mr. Friedman’s grandiose schemes is that they promise way more than they can deliver. If this is a weapon to be aimed at ISIS and Putin, it’s just another pea-shooter that will convince our adversaries that US politics is all about rhetoric and appearances and not about substance. This is exactly the wrong answer.

The idea that building a successful political/military coalition “starts with respect earned from others seeing us commit to doing great and difficult things at home that summon the energy of the whole country…” is ridiculous. Charles de Gaulle famously said, “France has no friends, only interests”. An understanding of that fact should be the core of our foreign policy.

Take Turkey, for example. The Turks sided with the Germans in World War I because they expected the Germans to win. They paid a heavy price for that mistake with the loss of their empire and sat out World War II as a neutral country. Today, Turkey is torn between the secular, modernist urban traditions of Mustapha Kamal and the more traditional Islamist view, which seems now in the ascendency. The current Islamist government of Turkey plays this game carefully as a major supporter of Hamas while remaining a member of NATO. None of this has anything to do with shared values or whether Turkey likes the US. They are simply picking winners. Remember that in 2003 the Turks refused to let coalition forces enter Iraq from the north which would have made our attack much easier.

How about Qatar? The US has made a major commitment to this small feudal sheikhdom by locating key military facilities there. While the Qataris are happy to have our protection and our money, they are also active financial supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and ISIS. Qatar host an office of the Taliban in Doha. The Qataris will always support the winners. If they are not sure who’s going to win, they’ll support everybody.

The Saudis have now agreed (maybe) to provide a base for training forces to fight ISIS. Wonderful. The US has treated Saudi Arabia as a friend for the last 70 years because they are the world’s key oil exporter. During this time, the Saudis have done nothing whatsoever to support US interests. The Saudi royal family has a deal with their Wahhabi extremists allowing the princes of the Saud family to keep most of the oil money and live in unimaginable luxury. In return, the Wahhabi clerics run Saudi Arabia with the brutal hand of Sharia law, making average people miserable. Everyone in the West, including myself, was shocked and disgusted by the video-taped beheadings of three westerners in recent weeks. Remember, however, that the Saudis carry out public beheadings not only for murder and rape but for crimes such as apostasy, blasphemy and witchcraft. Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia are subject to capital punishment for holding a Catholic mass. Sexual misconduct can be punished by stoning to death. These are the people who will help us to vanquish ISIS’s ideology?

The Middle East is a tough and mean neighborhood. The consequences of political failure can be a hangman’s noose or worse for you and your family rather than just a premature retirement from public life. As a result, Middle East politicians have an exquisite sensitivity not to those with whom they share values but to those expected to win. The United States can form a winning coalition against ISIS and Vladimir Putin by making clear that the US intends to win and that countries on the wrong side of the conflict will pay a price, while those who side with us will reap rewards. Coalition partners will be few and far between when the US shows ambivalence about the effort. The idea that the US can generate a stampede of support from Middle Eastern regimes by making the ineffective symbolic climate change gestures so beloved of the American left is simply embarrassing.

Posted by: bmeverett | August 15, 2014

Israel and Hamas

This blog is usually devoted to energy issues, but I feel compelled to weigh in on the situation in Gaza, partly since events in the Middle East have a substantial impact on the international oil market, but also because the public debate on events in Gaza seems to me terribly distorted and destructive. In my course at the Fletcher School, I emphasize the importance of precise language in formulating arguments. Unfortunately, politics often encourages people to do the exact opposite. Rather than add to the polemics on Gaza, let me offer a few comments on the language of this debate.

Let’s start with the term “cycle of violence”. If you Google “Gaza, cycle of violence”, you’ll get 174,000 hits, including quotes from people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Time magazine, the Nation, The Drudge Report, and on and on. The term has no clear definition, but implies two parties stubbornly and irrationally angry at each other and caring about nothing other than inflicting pain on the other. By implication, breaking the cycle requires nothing more than one party replacing emotion with rationality and offering a hand in friendship to the other party. This situation may pertain to neighbors squabbling about their property line, but it does not apply to Gaza.

A quick reading of history shows that Israel, far from provoking the Palestinians in Gaza, made one of the greatest peace gestures in the history of the Middle East. In 2005, Israel voluntarily turned control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, abandoning the Jewish settlements and physically evicting the Israeli settlers who refused to leave. Israel expected – or at least hoped – that the Palestinian residents of Gaza would take the opportunity to engage in peaceful pursuits, like growing the local economy and improving their living conditions. Instead, in 2006, the residents of Gaza elected Hamas to govern them, thereby in essence declaring war against Israel.

The discussion of the Gaza situation in the western press strangely seems to exclude any discussion of who Hamas really is. This omission may result partly from a common, but powerful assumption of the political left that all foreign policy debates can be resolved through negotiation, that all parties have legitimate grievances that need to be respected and that splitting the difference is the solution to all trans-national issues. But is Hamas, formally known as “The Islamic Resistance Movement” really an organization with legitimate grievances that can be reconciled with Israel’s right to exist? Hamas’ Charter, which you can find at http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/www.thejerusalemfund.org/carryover/documents/charter.html?chocaid=397 suggests otherwise. A few observations on the Charter.

First, Article 11 states that Palestine is an Islamic “waqf”, a term referring to property given to Islam in perpetuity for religious purposes. The grant of land for construction of a mosque would be an example. This article states that, since the grant is “in perpetuity”, no party has a right to give away any part of it. To do so would be to give away the birthright of future generations of Muslims, for whom no one can speak.

Second, Article 13 states that “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” In other words, negotiation is inherently unacceptable.

Finally, Hamas’ charter makes clear that its war is not about Palestine alone, but against Jews universally. Article 7 states that Allah’s promise to Muslims cannot be fulfilled “until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”

These provisions are so startling and so clear that Hamas can be regarded as a legitimate negotiating partner only if you haven’t read the charter or don’t attribute any significance to it. This is precisely the mistake that Britain and France made in dealing with Hitler in the 1930s. In Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out his objectives in stark terms. I suspect that the Western powers just didn’t want to believe what Hitler was saying. Negotiations turned out to be not only futile but damaging, since Hitler was given the opportunity to grow in strength and improve his tactical position. When the Munich agreement was signed in September, 1938, Czechoslovakia had a large, well-equipped and well-trained army in fortified positions. Germany had not yet completed its Siegfried Line in the West and did not have the ability to fight a two-front war. Munich solved all these problems for the Nazis with catastrophic results.

Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia seem to me to be good examples of a “cycle of violence”, where there are no good guys and ancient hatreds overwhelm any interest in peaceful dispute resolution. Russia’s attack on the Ukraine, on the other hand, involves a predatory state seeking control over an innocent victim. China’s absorption of Tibet in 1950 was a blatant invasion, not a “cycle of violence.” Hamas differs from Russia and China only in its relative military weakness and not in its intent. The “cycle of violence” model just doesn’t work in Gaza.

The second puzzling term is “the international community”. President Obama often refers to the “international community” as though its approbation grants legitimacy while its disapproval is an unacceptable burden for any miscreant state to bear. The press often seems concerns about the reaction of the “international community” to what Israel is doing in Gaza. But what exactly is the “international community”?

The United Nations currently has 193 members, but only about two dozen are true democracies whose governments can claim to speak for their people. Most UN member sstates are governed by mafia-like elites. Fifty-six UN members – about 30% – are Muslim states who reflexively condemn Israel no matter what happens. The UN cannot speak to the morality of actions by the US, Israel or any other country.

Since nobody really cares what Chad or Yemen thinks about the morality of US or Israeli actions, the term “international community” has essentially come to mean Europe. During the Iraq War of 2003, the American press regarded Europe’s disapproval of the US effort as an important if not definitive indication that our actions were illegitimate. Since a number of European countries, including the UK, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, participated in the US coalition in Iraq, somehow the French and Germans became the true voice of Europe and of the “international community.” France and Germany are entitled to act as their national interest dictates, but they are hardly in a position to serve as judges of the morality of anything.

Europe is currently struggling with its own historical anti-Semitism, particularly in France, and with growing numbers of angry and unassimilated Muslims in their midst. Their anti-Israeli sentiments seem far more related to these issues than to an objective assessment of what Israel is actually doing in Gaza. Why should Israel or the US pay any attention at all to what Europeans think?

My final issue is over the term “self-defense.” In both municipal law and international law, self-defense is an inherent right to commit violence against aggressor who is posing an imminent threat to life or limb. The person or country asserting a right of self-defense has an obligation to take reasonable precautions to avoid harm to innocent bystanders. The right to survive, however, grants the self-defender wide latitude in choice of means. To people like President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and the Europeans, however, Israeli “self-defense” seems to require that no innocent civilians be hurt under any circumstances. In other words, Israel has a right to survive, but only if it can do so without hurting anyone.

This has never been an accepted principle. In fact, during World War II, the United States and Britain argued quite explicitly that the right of self-defense included the right to inflict massive damage on the enemy’s infrastructure, including not only military installations, but factories, railroads, power generation and residential communities. We further argued that enemy civilian deaths were a regrettable, but acceptable side effect of winning the war, since the consequences of losing would have been catastrophic.

Israel’s efforts to save civilian lives have been extraordinary, from text-messaging and leaflets to “door-knocker” explosives designed warn Gazans of impending attacks. Gaza has a population of about 1.8 million, and about 1,800 civilians have reportedly died in the most recent fighting. In other words, despite bitter fighting in a dense urban environment, 99.9% of Gaza’s civilian population has been spared. By comparison, Germany suffered 2-3% civilian casualties during World War II.

It’s clear that civilian deaths in Gaza would have been substantially lower than even these small numbers had Hamas not encouraged and/or forced Gazan civilians to remain in the line of fire, even when given advance warnings of specific attacks. Who then takes the blame?

We have an analogy for this situation in US municipal law. Let’s say two people rob a bank, take hostages and come out of the bank with automatic weapons blazing at the police. The police are obligated to take reasonable precautions to avoid shooting hostages or bystanders, but their primary obligation is to stop the bank robbers. Otherwise, they are providing potential criminals with a template for getting away with crimes. Under federal law, and the laws of most states, the bank robbers can be charged with second-degree murder if a police officer shoots a bystander during the incident. Why? Because the law reasonably argues that the bank robbers, not the police officer, started the chain of events which led to the bystander’s death and are therefore responsible for the consequences. This seems to me to be the correct analogy in Gaza. Hamas is the instigator of the war and therefore bears the responsibility for all the consequences that follow, provided only that Israel exercise reasonable care with civilian lives, which it has clearly done.

The situation in the Middle East is critical. We have one and only one true ally in the region – Israel. We need to keep a clear focus on what’s actually happening there and not get diverted by the sloppy use of language and the distortion of logic. Describing the situation as a “cycle of violence”, demanding European approval and redefining the concept of self-defense just muddy the waters. What we need is a clear policy of destroying Hamas, just as we destroyed the Nazis. Nobody wanted a cease-fire in Europe in 1944, and we shouldn’t want one in Gaza now.

Posted by: bmeverett | July 21, 2014

Everett-Moomaw Climate Change Debate

On July 15, my friend and colleague Bill Moomaw and I debated climate change before the Fletcher School’s GMAP students. GMAP is a distance-learning degree program, but the students come together for two weeks at the end of the program for discussions and presentations.

Bill’s positions and mine haven’t really changed much over the last few years, although the audience is different each time. There’s no systematic way of gauging the results of the debate or the reactions of the audience, but here’s a run-down of what happened.

We agreed to address three component parts of the issue.

The first topic was the state of climate science. Bill offered three arguments: (a) physics itself tells us that expected levels of carbon emissions will cause a catastrophic greenhouse effect, (b) scientists all agree, as evidenced by a complete review of the literature and (c) recent reports, such as the National Climate Assessment, reinforce this consensus. In reply, I argued that: (a) the press portrays the discussion as “Is climate change real?”, while in fact the real problem is whether climate science can make any meaningful predictions, (b) the climate system is too complex and poorly understood to predict catastrophe (or any particular outcome for that matter) with any confidence and (c) science requires empirical support, not consensus.

The second topic was the cost of carbon mitigation. I argued that there are some cheap carbon mitigation measures, like planting trees, but that the easy steps are too small to matter. To bring about the massive emissions reductions demanded by climate activists would entail major damage to the economy. Bill argued that significant carbon reductions are possible at low cost. He offered as an example his fossil fuel-free house in Williamstown, Massachusetts which uses solar and other technologies for heating and cooling and has provided him with an exceptional return on his investment. He also noted the major substitution of natural gas for coal which has occurred without any major economic dislocations. In rebuttal, I noted that his house was heavily subsidized by the rest of us, who did not share in the benefits, and, furthermore, that natural gas substitution has occurred because gas-fired power plants are cheaper than coal to build and operate. Solar and wind, on the other hand, are much more expensive.

The final topic was what to do. Bill offered the usual climate program of renewable energy, efficient buildings and international negotiations to bring other countries on board. I argued in contrast that the steps he is proposing would have virtually no impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations and that the worst outcome would be to spend massive amounts of money for no results. I suggested that an honest assessment of the costs of stabilizing atmospheric carbon would show a prohibitive cost.

Here are the charts I used in my presentation. Comments welcome, as always.

Climate change debate 7-15-2014 combined

Posted by: bmeverett | June 24, 2014

Fracking and Earthquakes

The May 1 edition of Time magazine included an article by Bryan Walsh entitled “The Seismic Link Between Fracking and Earthquakes”. The first line of the story claims “New research indicates that wastewater disposal wells—and sometimes fracking itself—can induce earthquakes.” Pretty scary, right? Later in the article, Mr. Walsh notes that “Environmentalists who seek to block shale oil development in the Golden State [California] have seized on fears of fracking-induced quakes, and a bill in the state legislature would establish a moratorium on fracking until research shows it can be done safely.” Is this really prudent?

First, a little background. Earthquakes are conventionally measured according to the Richter Scale, which was developed in the 1930s by Charles Francis Richter and which measures the amplitude of the seismic wave generated by the earthquake, in other words the displacement of the earth. Richter set the zero point of the scale at the smallest disturbance that instruments could record at the time. The strongest earthquakes ever recorded, such as the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the 1964 Alaskan earthquake or the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile, measured between 9 and 10 on the Richter scale. The Richter Scale, however, is logarithmic. In other words, the wave amplitude of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake is 10 times the amplitude of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, which in turn is 10 times the amplitude of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and so on. The total energy released by the earthquake varies with the 1.5th power of the amplitude of the wave. Therefore, a magnitude 9.0 quake involves an energy release 31.6 times (10 to the 1.5th) that of an 8.0 quake. Bear in mind that this energy release does not occur at the surface like a bomb, but deep underground. Much of the energy is dissipated downward into the Earth’s crust.

This definition creates an extremely wide scale for measuring earthquakes. For example, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake releases a trillion times as much energy as a magnitude 1.0 earthquake. Here’s a brief guide to the earthquake scale.

The magnitude 9.5 Tohoku Earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 resulted from a shift in the tectonic plate about 40 miles offshore at a depth of nearly 20 miles below the sea floor. The severe shaking and the massive tsunami that followed killed 15,000 people, destroyed over 100,000 buildings and damaged another million or so, including several nuclear power plants. This event was a true catastrophe, but it required an energy release of about 2.5 billion tons of TNT – equivalent to detonating a substantial share of the US thermonuclear arsenal all at once.

The magnitude 8.0 earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906 released the energy of a single large thermonuclear weapon. This event was severe, but the devastation resulted as much from the poor quality construction of the city’s buildings and massive fires as from the quake itself.

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti measured 7.0 on the scale, killing over 100,000 people and destroying the flimsy infrastructure of much of the country. The energy release of this quake was about 500,000 tons of TNT –equivalent to a small thermonuclear bomb. In addition to the poor quality of buildings and overcrowding of the populace, the damage was intensified by the proximity of the epicenter, which was only 16 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince and only 8 miles underground.

In August, 2011 a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit the Washington DC area. This was one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit the US east of the Rocky Mountains, and involved an energy release of about 15,000 tons of TNT – about the size of the Hiroshima bomb. There were no casualties and only a modest amount of property damage – including cracks in the Washington Monument that closed the structure for nearly three years.

So far, we are discussing events that can, under some circumstances, cause serious damage and loss of life, particularly in crowded areas. Smaller earthquakes, however, are rarely so serious.

Quebec and Ontario suffered a magnitude 5.0 quake on June 23, 2010. The quake, equivalent to the detonation of 500 tons of high explosive, had an epicenter about 35 miles from Ottawa at a depth of about 10 miles. Although the effect was felt for hundreds of miles, there were no casualties and little property damage other than a few cracked windows. Most of the disruption caused by the earthquake resulted from indirect effects such as closing schools, suspending public transportation for inspections and overloaded phone lines.

I personally experienced two magnitude 5.0 earthquakes in Los Angeles. In both cases, the effects were so subtle that they were difficult to perceive. In one case, we were on the 11th floor of a hotel, which seemed to sway slightly. People on the first floor of the structure were unaware that anything at all had happened. In the other case, our door latch rattled a bit, which I originally attributed to the wind blowing through the window.

Magnitude 4.0 quakes involve an energy release equivalent to about 15 tons of TNT – about the size of the largest conventional bomb dropped in World War II. Such quakes are fairly common. For example, the world experiences on average one earthquake each year of magnitude 8.0 or higher and about 10,000 per year between magnitude 4.0 and 4.9. When such quakes occur in the US, the press generally reports that the local population was aware of the quake and occasionally frightened by the sensation, but that there were no casualties or property damage.

A magnitude 3.0 earthquake is generally described by those who feel it as similar to a heavy truck driving by. Indoor objects can rattle a bit near the quake’s epicenter, but people outdoors rarely notice the effect at all.

A magnitude 2.0 earthquake involves an energy release equivalent to about 15 kilograms (35 pounds) of heavy explosive, set off underground. Except for people directly above the epicenter of a very shallow event, most people would be completely unaware of an earthquake of this size. As a good benchmark, Seattle fans cheered, shouted and stomped their feet when the Seahawks beat the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football last December. The activity was measured as a Magnitude 2.0 earthquake on the University of Washington seismograph.

A magnitude 1.0 quake is equivalent to the detonation of a stick of dynamite several thousand feet underground. Only under unusual circumstances would anyone be aware of such an event, which could be recorded only on a sensitive instrument. The Los Angeles Earthquake Tracker (which you can find at http://earthquaketrack.com/v/la/recent) generally records about 7 earthquakes in the 1.0-2.0 range every single day.

The zero point on the scale, as established by Richter, is defined as a wave amplitude of one micron (one millionth of a meter) at a distance of 100 kilometers from the event. The energy required for such an event is equivalent to a box of kitchen matches ignited several miles underground.

Using the term “earthquake” without qualification is equivalent to using the term “rainstorm” to describe everything from a sprinkle to Hurricane Sandy. We therefore need to be careful and precise when we discuss the effects of fracking. We should also remember that we are discussing the effects not of hydraulic fracturing itself, but of the reinjection into the ground of the waste water used in hydraulic fracturing.

A number of news outlets, including NBC News, have run stories over the last few months about a possible linkage between earthquakes and waste water injection in Ohio. The strongest earthquake under evaluation was a magnitude 3.9 quake near Youngstown. Based on the scale outlined above, such an event should be classified as perceptible but harmless. Most “quakes” attributed to fracking are in the 1.0-2.0 range. According to the Time article, “In Ohio, officials this month established new guidelines that would allow regulators to halt active hydraulic fracturing if seismic monitors detect a quake with a magnitude of 1.0 or higher.” State governments of course have a responsibility to look after the public welfare. It seems to me, however, that the proper metric is whether fracking causes injury and damage, not whether it causes disturbances that can only be perceived by sensitive instruments. If we are going to regard such events as serious enough to require policy intervention, then we had better be prepared to regulate football fans and the UPS truck driving through your neighborhood.

Perhaps the real point here can be found in the proposed California moratorium on fracking “until research shows it can be done safely.” This bill is typical of the approach environmentalists often use to oppose things they don’t like. Often called “the precautionary principle”, the idea is that nothing should be permitted until proven safe. Sounds fair, but nothing can actually be proven safe. Things can be proven dangerous through a single example of harm directly related to the thing under evaluation. Even hundreds of examples of safe water injection, however, don’t prove that the next case won’t cause a problem. Companies should be allowed to produce natural gas, and mineral rights owners should be allowed to profit from those rights, unless and until a clear threat to public safety has been demonstrated. Otherwise, we will never do anything.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 12, 2014

President Obama’s 1% Solution

President Obama claims that he is now putting in place the first serious US policy to combat global climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants by 30% by the year 2030 compared to the 2005 level. Let’s consider whether that claim has merit.

First, let’s dispense with a couple of bad arguments. Calling the President’s policy a “war on coal” or a “job killer” isn’t helpful. The President’s premise is that climate change poses an existential threat to human civilization, and therefore carbon reductions are necessary. As I have discussed often in this space, this premise is arguable, but let’s stipulate that the President is correct on this point and see if his actions will really help the cause he espouses.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the American electric power sector emitted 2,417 million metric tonnes (mmt) of carbon dioxide in 2005. A 30% reduction would give us an allowable level of 1,692 mmt in 2030. Note once again, the careful selection of a convenient base year. By 2013, US power plant emissions had already declined to 2,053 mmt – a 15% reduction due mainly to the market substitution of natural gas for coal. The EIA projects that, without the President’s new initiative, power plant emissions will begin to rise again, reaching 2,227 mmt by 2030. The President is therefore promising a reduction of 535 mmt (2,227 minus 1,692) or 24% compared to the level expected without the President’s new policy.

How significant is this step? According to the EIA, without the new policy, total US carbon emissions from all sectors are projected to be 5,527 mmt in 2030. The anticipated reduction of 535 mmt is therefore roughly 10%. Climate change, however, is a global phenomenon. Unlike air pollution, which can often be controlled at the local level, the atmosphere does not care where the carbon is emitted. The EIA projects total global carbon dioxide emissions at 41,464 mmt in 2030. President Obama’s power plant proposal would therefore reduce global carbon emissions by just over 1%. As discussed often in this space, the real carbon problem is China, not the US. Even substantial reductions in US emissions would be insufficient to affect atmospheric carbon concentrations on a global scale.

Why would the President make such a modest proposal with such massive fanfare? After all, 1 1% reduction is nothing more than a rounding error. My guess is that the President is targeting three groups.

The first is “low information voters” who don’t pay much attention to politics. The hope is that some of these people will say, “I’ve heard that climate change is a problem, and the President seems to be doing something about it. Good for him.” Personally, I doubt that there are very many people like this, but the White House is probably counting on the fact that many people don’t have the time or interest to look into the issue enough to understand that the President’s proposal is inconsequential.

The second group is “lifestyle” environmentalists who believe that reducing their carbon footprint is an act of civic responsibility, like picking up your trash. These are people who feel a moral commitment to fighting climate change by driving a Prius, using compact fluorescent light bulbs, keeping their thermostat low, buying carbon “offsets”, installing solar panels and supporting municipal wind turbines, but don’t necessarily bother to calculate the actual impact of proposed policies on atmospheric carbon concentrations. In this sense, their actions are aesthetic rather than practical.

There is, however, a third group of more thoughtful and analytical climate activists who do understand the numbers and the likely impacts of various policy measures. Why would these people applaud the President’s 1% solution? The answer was outlined clearly by former Princeton Professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in his June 5 column entitled “The Climate Domino”. Prof. Krugman sees the President’s proposal not as a solution in and of itself but as a catalyst for three-stage global action that could lead to a true solution to the climate change issue.

Stage 1 is the President’s policy. Stage 2, according to prof. Krugman, works as follows, “…it’s fairly certain that action in the U.S. would lead to corresponding action in Europe and Japan.” Stage 3 involves the US, Europe and Japan putting the screws to China. Prof. Krugman claims that “China is enormously dependent on access to advanced-country markets — a lot of the coal it burns can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to its export business — and it knows that it would put this access at risk if it refused to play any role in protecting the planet.” Hence, according to Prof. Krugman, the President’s program can leverage a real solution to the problem.

His Stage 2 and Stage 3 assertions are highly questionable. It’s difficult to argue that Europe has been waiting for American leadership on climate change. The European Union, after all, went ahead and implemented the 1997 Kyoto Protocol even after the US refused to ratify it. Kyoto was an exercise in smoke and mirrors which allowed Europe to claim complete success in meeting their treaty obligations without actually reducing carbon emissions. (For more detail on this farce, see my post “Europe’s Big Lie” of November 18, 2009). Europe then instituted a carbon trading scheme with caps so loose that carbon prices have fallen to laughably low levels. The closing price on June 11 was 5.39 Euros per metric tonne, equivalent to about 7¢ on a gallon of gasoline and hardly sufficient to induce much energy efficiency or technological innovation. German imports of US steam coal have more than quadrupled in the last four years as Germany has begun closing its low-carbon nuclear plants and has discovered that renewable energy cannot fill the gap.

The only reasonable explanation for European behavior is that EU governments are trying to satisfy their environmental constituents without damaging their already weak economies. In a battle between economic growth and environmental symbolism, the economy will always win. Otherwise, elected officials in Europe would find themselves looking for new jobs.

OK, but what if Prof. Krugman is right, and the Europeans rally to the cause? “Corresponding action” by Europe and Japan would presumably mean the same 10% reduction in emissions versus the level expected in 2030. The EIA estimates 2030 carbon dioxide emissions at 4,151 mmt in Europe and 1,215 mmt in Japan. A 10% reduction would therefore be 415 mmt for Europe and 122 mmt for Japan. Added to the 535 from the US, the total reduction would be 1,072 mmt or 2.6% of total global emissions. Still not much to brag about, but what about Stage 3, the full court press on China?

The idea of the US, Europe and Japan pressuring China is a little far-fetched. Vladimir Putin’s drive to dismantle Ukraine poses a serious threat to western security interests. There’s no argument about its “scientific basis” or its potential implications. Furthermore, the threat is greater for Europe than for the US. Even so, the US cannot get Europe to agree on more than weak, symbolic “sanctions” against a few Russian oligarchs. Why? Because Europe relies too heavily on Russian energy imports and is not willing to rock the boat in the face of weak economic growth. Why would we expect Europe to threaten severe economic sanctions on China, which is a larger trading partner than Russia, when the nature of the threat is not even clear? Seems most unlikely, but, again, let’s assume that Prof. Krugman is right. What happens then?

Chinese President Xi Jinping could cave to this pressure and offer to cut his emissions by the same amount as the US and Europeans – 10%. China’s projected 2030 emissions are 14,028 mmt, so their reduction would be 1,403 mmt. Total emissions reductions by the US, Europe, Japan and China in 2030 would thus be 2,475 mmt – about 6% of the global total of 41,464 mmt.

Most climate activists believe that substantial reductions in global carbon emissions are needed to forestall catastrophic climate change. The figure of 80% by 2050 is often thrown around. The year 2050 is politically useful because few if any of today’s senior politicians will still be in office then, so they can’t be held accountable for failing to meet their target. If we are to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050, however, shouldn’t we be showing at least a little progress by 2030? Prof. Krugman’s analysis suggests that global emissions will increase from roughly 32,700 today to 39,000 in 2030 – a 19% increase – rather than the 27% increase without the President’s policy. Instead of achieving an 80% reduction over 36 years (2014 to 2050), we would then have to achieve an 83% reduction over just 20 years (2030 to 2050).

Prof. Krugman claims that “The new carbon policy, then, is supposed to be the beginning, not the end, a domino that, once pushed over, should start a chain reaction that leads, finally, to global steps to limit climate change.” Really?

There’s one last issue here: cost. Some of the reduction in coal use may be achieved anyway through market forces, since natural gas is likely to be less expensive than coal for new power plants for the foreseeable future. The President’s proposed reduction, however, would rely heavily on regulatory (read expensive) actions that would raise electricity bills for consumers and businesses. The US Chamber of Commerce has estimated the cost to the US economy at $50 billion per year through 2030. With about 115 million households in the US, the total cost of the President’s program would be about $7,000 per households ($50 billion times 16 years divided by 115 million).

Prof. Krugman doesn’t dispute the Chamber’s conclusions, but says in a May 29 column entitled “Cutting back on Carbon” that “Remember, we have a $17 trillion economy right now, and it’s going to grow over time. So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!”

$7,000 per household might be cheap if the result were a definitive solution to a real and well understood problem. Given the uncertainties over climate science and the heroic assumptions that Prof. Krugman has to make to make the numbers work, the President’s program looks like nothing more than an expensive Hail Mary pass.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 4, 2014

A Despicable Ad from the American Lung Association

The climate change debate just hit a new low with the latest ad from the American Lung Association, which you can find at:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/04/american-lung-association-carbon-rules-ads_n_5441997.html?utm_hp_ref=politics

Some climate activists argue that anthropogenic climate change will create public health problems, such as an increased incidence of insect-borne diseases and heat stroke. This argument may or may not be true, but in any case, these effects are indirect results of carbon emissions. The ALA ad suggests that carbon is a form of pollution analogous to arsenic, lead or mercury and that “unlimited carbon” will poison the air your baby breathes. This is factually incorrect. Carbon dioxide levels in your baby’s nursery could increase dramatically without any effect whatsoever on your baby’s health.

This ad is way beyond misleading, and the American Lung Association should be ashamed of themselves.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 2, 2014

Friedman Watch 6-2-14

Everyone holds some views which are more or less contradictory, and struggling to reconcile those views is a constructive and intellectually important part of life. The right starting point for this process is recognizing that your views do conflict and avoiding the trap of forcing them to fit together when they really don’t. Thomas Friedman has been struggling for a very long time with his mutually exclusive opinions on democracy and totalitarianism and writes periodic columns attempting to reconcile these ideas. I first pointed this out in my post of January 17, 2010 in which he expressed admiration for the Chinese leadership who can spend their time doing the right things instead of worrying about getting elected. Mr. Friedman is at it again in his May 24, 2014 New York Times column entitled “Memorial Day 2050.”

In this piece, Mr. Friedman bemoans the fact that the American public is insufficiently motivated to follow his advice on climate change because they are “skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life”. Heaven forbid that voters be skeptical of a pundit who instructs them on what to believe. Mr. Friedman is overjoyed to have found a new and creative solution to this problem in the form of a recommendation by a young Dutch philosopher named Thomas Wells. Mr. Wells is a post-doc fellow at Erasmus University in Rotterdam who suggests that a certain bloc of votes, say 10%, be reserved for “trustees” who would take the interest of future generations into account in the democratic process. According to Mr. Wells, those interests include “decarbonizing the economy” and the trustees would be “nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks”. In other words, the Ford Foundation and Friends of the Earth get extra votes to offset the provincialism and short-term bias of the peasantry, who could care less about their children and grandchildren.

Apart from the oxymoron of non-partisan think tanks with voting power and the absurdity of charging environmental organizations with understanding the future (cf. the population bomb, acid rain, global cooling, The Silent Spring, alar, ethanol, etc.), the logical problems with this line of thinking should be obvious. Mr. Friedman starts out with the premise that he has acquired some eternal truths, particularly the link between fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change. He has thought these issues through and is absolutely convinced of the correctness of his thinking. Therefore, by definition, people who disagree with him must be flawed in some way. They are perhaps not very bright or motivated by selfish considerations or, in Mr. Friedman’s latest criticism, “preoccupied with the demands of daily life” and therefore unable to think clearly. This is the root premise of totalitarianism.

Lenin was the first to put into practice the idea of a small group of right-thinking people (The Vanguard of the Proletariat) seizing power and exercising it on behalf of the people. Since the people had limited consciousness (“clueless” in today’s parlance), smart people would rule in such a way that the broad masses would eventually enjoy utopia and be grateful. The first task for the vanguard, of course, was to eliminate the people’s enemies, and somehow those in power never got beyond that stage.

Democracy, however, is a powerful moral idea, and even Lenin was careful to create a veneer of democracy. He spoke of “democratic centralism”, i.e., a system in which anyone could voice his opinion until Lenin had made up his mind. Then everyone had to shut up and do as they were told. Lenin’s state was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. China is called the People’s Republic of China. Iran is called the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and not the Pitiless Dictatorship of Kim Jong Un.

Virtually all countries try to present a democratic face to the world. Iran, for example, holds periodic elections, but only among candidates pre-approved by the unelected rulers. The idea is that people should be free to choose, but only within a narrowly defined range of possible outcomes. This seems to be exactly what Mr. Friedman has in mind. Americans should be allowed to vote, but certain outcomes, i.e., decarbonization of the economy, should not be at issue. If, for example, the American electorate is divided 50/50 on what to do about climate change, the 10% special voting rights for right-thinking people would create the proper majority. What would happen if 90% of the population voted against Mr. Friedman’s views of appropriate climate change action is not clear.

I suspect that if you had asked Lenin privately, he would have admitted he had no interest in democracy, which he regarded as purely tactical. He wanted certain outcomes from the political process, and he was bound and determined to get them one way or another. It seems to me that it’s time for Mr. Friedman to abandon his effort to have it both ways. He really doesn’t believe in democracy. He believes in getting his way. A statement to that effect would at least have the virtue of honesty, something sorely lacking in “Memorial Day 2050”.

Posted by: bmeverett | May 19, 2014

More on Carbon Reporting

On May 3, I posted an extensive comment I offered to a discussion paper prepared by the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB). The comment prompted an email exchange with Dr. Jarlath Molloy, the Technical Manager of the CDSB. I’ve copied the exchange here for my readers. To me, Dr. Molloy’s commentary demonstrates the difficulty of having a constructive exchange of views on climate change, but you can make up your own mind.

May 6, 2014
To Bruce Everett
I note your recent comment on our proposals for reporting on Carbon Asset Stranding Risks. I have moderated the comment, given the nature of your post.
You specifically ask “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?” You can simply say just that in a comment in the same section.
Regards,
Jarlath Molloy

May 6, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Hope you are well. I’m not sure I understand your email. Are you saying that you would like to replace my extensive comment with the simple, one-line question “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?”?
Regards,
Bruce Everett

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
To clarify, we will review and consider your comment in the normal way once the consultation is complete. If you want to engage constructively and/or establish a discussion on the merits of the text, I suggest you keep your contribution concise and on-topic. Anything else will be moderated.
Regards,
Jarlath

May 7, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Thanks for the clarification. I would certainly disagree that my comments were either off-topic or not constructive, but, under the circumstances, I withdraw my comment.
You have offered a 10,000-word discussion paper that makes comprehensive and highly debatable assertions. If you want to have a true discussion about these important issues, you need to allow your commenters the opportunity to make an equally comprehensive reply. You cannot have a debate in which one side gets 30 minutes to present and the other side gets 10 seconds to respond.
Best regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
Perhaps you have misunderstood my previous email. If you believe that there are highly debatable assertions in the text, the consultation platform is specifically designed to allow users highlight, review and comment on these.
We welcome all comment and my earlier suggestion was that to get the most out of the process, you should avoid long comments dealing with multiple issues, as they are less likely to be considered by other users.
The consultation platform has worked very well for other organisations and we encourage you to look again and be a little more specific in your review.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Climate change is a complex topic and doesn’t lend itself to a set of short, disjointed comments. For example, your discussion paper starts out with the assertions that there is a 2 degree C permissible temperature increase, that we know how much carbon would cause such an increase and that we therefore know what the allowable “carbon budget” is. Those statements determine how to evaluate CASRs and what fossil fuel companies should do in response. A comment such as “I disagree with this.” is not useful to the conversation.
The only useful response is to make a complete and interconnected argument, which is what I have attempted to do. I have offered a comment, which lays out the argument as I see it. I can’t see how my comment is either unconstructive or off-topic, but it’s up to you whether to accept it or not.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
To reconfirm, it is not the case that your comment was accepted/rejected. Like all comments, it will receive due consideration at the review stage. It did not fit the parameters of the consultation platform and what we are trying to achieve with it, so it is just no longer visible there. It will be made public in the same way as all others, at the end of the process.
Our experience with the recent GHGMI review of the ISO standards (using this consultation platform) was that users were quite able to review and comment on lengthy documents, adding supporting / dissenting opinions with appropriate justifications, as appropriate.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Maybe we are just misunderstanding each other. Your initial email suggested that my comment was non-constructive and off-topic and would therefore be “moderated.” I have my own Blog, and I understand that “comment moderation” is a way of eliminating spam and inappropriate (hateful, profane, etc.) commentary. Nobody wants a serious discussion filled with “Buy cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals now!”. I interpreted your email as saying that I should either extensively rework my comment or it would be rejected. If that’s incorrect, what did you mean by “moderate”? Did you mean that you would edit my comment? Surely not.
I understand that many documents are worked in the way you prefer. It’s a useful technique to get from 90% agreement to 100% agreement, when all the basic terms of reference and key arguments are agreed among the participants. Although the Climate Community (and your discussion paper) claim that this is true for climate change, it is not. Hence the need for more extensive and comprehensive commentary.
I know you are very busy, and I don’t want to take up more of your time. I have offered you a comment, which I regard as relevant and constructive. Please use it as you wish.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
Yes perhaps moderate was a poor choice of phrase. It might be more accurate to say my intention is to actively manage the process to ensure we make the most of the opportunity to establish a dialogue on the specifics in the text. This is entirely separate to longer submissions which we also welcome on/offline.
Your claim of a lack of consensus is not supported by the evidence; see Cook et al. 2013 and Oreskes 2004 for two journal articles which spring to mind. The discussion paper highlights just a small number of the many growing calls for this issue to be addressed, by leaders in the global financial and investment area. You are entitled to disagree with the international expert consensus on these issues, but I didn’t notice any evidence cited to the contrary in your comment.
I now regard this query as closed.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
As noted, I have made my comment, and you are free to use it or not as you wish.
Not so fast, however, on your second paragraph. First of all, scientific issues are not resolved by expert consensus. Science concerns the testing of hypotheses against empirical evidence, not asking scientists to express their opinions. The catastrophic climate scenarios, the 2 degree “limit” and the “carbon budget” are based on computer models that do not match the empirical evidence and have never been able to predict anything. As Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman once said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
The two sources you cite don’t help your point. Naomi Oreskes’ essay is first of all 10 years old. Second, she reviewed papers to measure their conformity with “the scientific consensus” without being clear about what that meant. Was the consensus that some warming is anthropogenic? Most warming? All warming? Was the consensus that future warming will be catastrophic? Might be catastrophic?
Cook’s study did not meet even the minimal conditions for sound analysis. His team reviewed the abstracts of about 2,000 journal articles on climate. Without actually asking the authors, he deduced from the abstracts whether the authors agreed with the assertion that observed warming was primarily caused by human activity. He included in his 97% consensus (1) the articles which explicitly stated that humans are the primary cause of warming, (2) the articles that stated that human activity caused some warming without saying how much and (3) the articles that implied that human activity caused some warming without saying how much. It turns out that most of the articles in the 97% were in category (3). This of course does not even address the issue of whether future warming will be catastrophic, a conclusion that requires additional major and questionable assumptions.
I think your comment made the point that these issues cannot be addressed by short, pithy sentences.
Regards,
Bruce

May 8, 2014
Hi Bruce,
A quote from Upton Sinclair has been in my mind in recent days when reading your emails: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” I don’t expect that your views will change in response to anything I might say, even if I highlight the relevancy of the precautionary principle. However, I find the means by which you articulate those views as somewhat puerile. For one thing, generalising the entire “Climate Community” – and by this I take it you include all those working on climate science, impacts, adaptation, mitigation, as well as those focused on various related policy issues – is quite vacuous. Indeed, comparing the climate community to an ill-informed and misguided anti-vaccination campaign is illogical.
As entertaining as all this is, unfortunately it is not my day-job to critique your straw man arguments.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
I’m disappointed that you would turn an exchange of views into a personal attack. You do not know me and have no basis to question my motivations or my integrity.
In response to your points, I use the term “Climate Community” to denote people who believe that catastrophic climate change is likely without a major restructuring of the global economy. This term is not pejorative in any sense, and I use it only because most of the people I know who hold that view use that term to describe themselves. I avoid at all cost emotionally charged terms like “climate alarmists” or “climate extremists”, since I respect the people who disagree with me.
Second, I never compared the Climate Community to the anti-vaccine crowd. I was using an analogy to raise the question of how corporations should properly respond when asked to report on a risk that they do not regard as serious. It seems to me that this issue is critical to the discussion you are promoting.
Regards,
Bruce

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