13 March, 2018

Matt Ridley-I can't get too much of this guy!


march 12 2018, 12:01am, the times
My cure for Disease X? A bit of positivity

matt ridley

Doom-mongering about a hypothetical threat to humanity is a symptom of people’s tendency towards pessimism

‘Deadly new epidemic called Disease X could kill millions, scientists warn,” read one headline at the weekend. “WHO issues global alert for potential pandemic,” read another. Apparently frustrated by the way real infectious diseases keep failing to wipe us out, it seems that the nannies at the World Health Organisation have decided to invent a fictitious one.

Disease X is going to be a virus that jumps unexpectedly from an animal species, as happens from time to time, or perhaps a man-made pathogen from a dictator’s biological warfare laboratory. To be alert for such things is sensible, especially after what has happened in Salisbury, but to imply that the risk is high is irresponsible.

No matter how clever gene editors get, the chances that they could beat evolution at its own game and come up with the right combination of infectiousness, lethality and viability to spread a disease through the human race are vanishingly small. To do so in secret would be even harder.

I fear the only effect of the WHO’s decision could be to cause unnecessary alarm and damage public confidence in the very technology that brings more effective cures and vaccines for known and unknown diseases. It also feeds our appetite for bad news rather than good. Almost by definition, bad news is sudden while good news is gradual and therefore less newsworthy. Things blow up, melt down, erupt or crash; there are few good-news equivalents. If a country, a policy or a company starts to do well it soon drops out of the news.

This distorts our view of the world. Two years ago a group of Dutch researchers asked 26,492 people in 24 countries a simple question: over the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population that lives in extreme poverty

1) Increased by 50 per cent?

2) Increased by 25 per cent?

3) Stayed the same?

4) Decreased by 25 per cent?

5) Decreased by 50 per cent?

Only 1 per cent got the answer right, which was that it had decreased by 50 per cent. The United Nations’ Millennium Development goal of halving global poverty by 2015 was met five years early.

As the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling pointed out with a similar survey, this suggests people know less about the human world than chimpanzees do, because if you had written those five options on five bananas and thrown them to a chimp, it would have a 20 per cent chance of picking up the right banana. A random guess would do 20 times as well as a human. As the historian of science Daniel Boorstin once put it: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Nobody likes telling you the good news. Poverty and hunger are the business Oxfam is in, but has it shouted the global poverty statistics from the rooftops? Hardly. It has switched its focus to inequality. When The Lancet published a study in 2010 showing global maternal mortality falling, advocates for women’s health tried to pressure it into delaying publication “fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause”, The New York Times reported. The announcement by Nasa in 2016 that plant life is covering more and more of the planet as a result of carbon dioxide emissions was handled like radioactivity by most environmental reporters.

What is more, the bias against good news in the media seems to be getting worse. In 2011 the American academic Kalev Leetaru employed a computer to do “sentiment mining” on certain news outlets over 30 years: counting the number of positive versus negative words. He found “a steady, near linear, march towards negativity”. A recent Harvard study found that 87 per cent of the coverage of the fitness for office of both candidates in the 2016 US presidential election was negative. During the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, 80 per cent of all coverage was negative. He is of course a master of the art of playing upon people’s pessimism.

This is a human susceptibility and one that is open to exploitation. Even while saying that they would prefer good news, subjects in a subtle psychology experiment in Canada who were told to choose and read a newspaper article while waiting for the “experiment” to begin in fact “chose stories with a negative tone — corruption, setbacks, hypocrisy and so on — rather than neutral or positive stories”. Financial journalists have been found to report rising financial market indices with declining enthusiasm as rises continue, but falling ones with growing enthusiasm as the falls continue. As the Financial Times columnist John Authers said: “We are far more scared of encouraging readers to buy and ushering them into a loss, than we are of urging them to be cautious, and leading them to miss out on a gain.”

That is one reason for the pervasive negativity bias that afflicts the public discourse. Humans are loss-averse, disliking a loss far more than they like an equivalent gain. Such a cognitive bias probably kept us safe amid the dangers of the African savannah, where the downside of taking risks was big. The golden-age tendency makes us remember the good things about the past but forget the bad, with the result that the present seems worse than it is. For some reason people sound wiser if they think things are going to turn out badly. In fiction, Cassandra’s doom-mongering proved prescient; Pollyanna was punished for her optimism by being hit by a car. Thus, any news coverage of the future is especially prone to doom-mongering. Brexit is a splendid example: because it has not yet happened, all sorts of ways in which it could go wrong can be imagined. The supreme case of unfalsifiable pessimism is climate change. It has the advantage of decades of doom until the jury returns. People who think the science suggests it will not be as bad as all that, or that humanity is likely to mitigate or adapt to it in time, get less airtime and a lot more criticism than people who go beyond the science to exaggerate the potential risks. That lukewarmers have been proved right so far cuts no ice.

Activists sometimes justify the focus on the worst-case scenario as a means of raising consciousness. But while the public may be susceptible to bad news they are not stupid, and boys who cry “wolf!” are eventually ignored. As the journalist John Horgan recently argued in Scientific American: “These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism.”

21 February, 2018

Electricity prices declined for forty years. Obviously that had to stop.

Here’s is the last 65 years of Australian electricity prices — indexed and adjusted for inflation. During the coal boom, Australian electricity prices declined decade after decade.  As renewables and national energy bureaucracies grew, so did the price of electricity. Must be a coincidence…
Today all the hard-won masterful efficiency gains of the fifties, sixties and seventies have effectively been reversed in full.
Indexed Real Consumer Electricity Prices, 1955-2017. Graph.
Indexed Real Consumer Electricity Prices, Australia, 1955-2017.
For most of the 20th Century the Australian grid was hotch potch of separate state grids and mini grids. (South Australia was only connected in 1990). In 1998 the NEM (National Energy Market) began, a feat that finally made bad management possible on a large scale. Though after decades of efficiency gains, Australians would have to wait years to see new higher “world leading” prices. For the first years of the NEM prices stayed around $30/MWh.
But sooner or later  a national system is a sitting duck for one small mind to come along and truly muck things up.
Please spread this graph far and wide.
Thanks to a Dr Michael Crawford who did the original, excellent graph.

19 February, 2018

The Darling River-Letter to the Australian (unpublished)

Your headline "When the river runs dry, cry for the future" (The Weekend Australian-February 17-18),
could have more positively read "When the river runs dry, pray for rain!" If there had been no upstream irrigation extractions when river heights allowed, the lack of subsequent rain in the massive Darling catchment would still result in the absence of flows now being experienced.
David Boyd

18 February, 2018

Murray Darling Plan-Disallowance Motion-Leyonhjelm Spot-On.

​Hansard​ 13.02.18

Senator LEYONHJELM: I'm tempted to vote in favour of this disallowance. What holds me back is that I'm not sure if New South Wales and Victoria would, in fact, stand by their decision to walk away from the plan. But I wouldn't be too upset if they were to walk away from the plan, because the plan is deeply flawed. It requires social, economic and environmental issues to be equally balanced in terms of managing the water in the Murray-Darling Basin. However, the problem is that only one of those three—environmental issues—is seriously taken into account.

The plan arose in the context of the millennium drought, the most severe drought for 100 years. It prompted panic about climate change and it led some to conclude that droughts were the new normal, that it would never rain again, that water would always be scarce and the environment was facing catastrophe. 

Sensible people knew otherwise. Droughts always end, and, in 2010-11, that happened. There was widespread flooding and the recovery of wetlands. Birds bred enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferated, and life carried on as it always has. Dorothea Mackellar's Australia—'a land of droughts and flooding rains'—was never better demonstrated.

During the drought, this plan was devised—first by the Howard government and then by the Rudd-Gillard government. Its intention was to remove water from agriculture in order to save the environment. The details were negotiated during the Labor government period against a background of panic over the drought, state bickering over water sharing, and the threat to Labor from the Greens. As a result, the plan was one per cent science and 99 per cent politics.

The plan calls for the return of 2,750 gigalitres of water to the environment, to be obtained both by buying back water rights from farmers and efficiency measures. There is a further 450 gigalitres to be returned, subject to certain conditions. Water rights have been bought back from farmers in southern Queensland, the northern basin area, New South Wales and Victoria, and a small quantity from South Australia.

In 2015 and 2016, I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of the plan's implementation. We held hearings all over the country. What we found was that the loss of irrigation water in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria was having a very profound impact on rural communities. Farms that previously grew irrigated crops—fruit, cotton and pasture for dairy cows—were now growing dryland crops or running a few sheep. They required far fewer inputs—machinery, fertilisers, seeds and so forth—and, as a result, those input suppliers were the ones who were missing out and their workers. 
The farmers who sold their water were fine, but everybody else who benefitted from those farmers and those farms being active were really suffering. Workers moved away from towns. Communities had fewer people. There were fewer children in schools, volunteer firefighters weren't there and there were fewer customers in local shops and so on.

What we also found was that there's very, very poor understanding of the plan. There's this almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water—just add water and it will all be okay. It doesn't really matter whether it's in the right place, in the right quantities or at the right times—just add water was pretty much what we heard. The fact is, of course, that too much water in the wrong place can do more harm than good.

There is another factor, which nobody seems to be addressing, and that is the river at the moment, in particular the Murray River, is running pretty much right up to the top of the bank. More water added to it, as the 450 gigalitres extra would do, couldn't be carried. The river could not carry that amount of water. Nonetheless, it is often heard that unless that water is added some sort of environmental disaster is going to occur.

I struggle to see why this was ever a South Australian issue, particularly in relation to the Northern Basin Review. The northern basin is all about the Barwon-Darling rivers. The amount of water from those two rivers that ever reach South Australia, or even join up with the Murray at Wentworth, is tiny—on average, across all years, six per cent. It's a tiny amount. It wouldn't matter if irrigation stopped in the entire Queensland and New South Wales areas, where it currently occurs; there would be very, very little additional water ending up in South Australia.

The other problem is: when it does end up in South Australia, what's it used for? It's not as if irrigation in South Australia has been suffering. It ends up in Lake Alexandrina. Lake Alexandrina is kept artificially fresh. It is not a natural freshwater lake. It is an artificial freshwater lake. Large amounts of water, an estimated 900 gigalitres, evaporate in Lake Alexandrina. 

Here we are taking fresh water, which could be used for agriculture, away from what were thriving rural communities—used for irrigation and so forth to produce food and fibre—and it is running down the river and ending up in South Australia to be evaporated. It's an absolute travesty. If that plan were to blow up and not be re-established unless on more sensible terms, I, for one, would not really mind.

The other issue is South Australia's water supply; it was never in doubt. There is plenty of water for Adelaide. There is plenty of water for South Australia. In fact, there is a guarantee in the plan of 850 gigalitres—more than enough. I am hugely sympathetic to those poor farmers in northern Australia, in Queensland, and in northern New South Wales, who, in the Northern Basin Review, have lost their water. I'm immensely sympathetic to them. 

Taking more water off them, which would occur if this review were not implemented, would be an absolute tragedy. I will be voting against the disallowance, but, if I thought that voting in favour of it would blow up the plan then that's where my vote would be going.

10 February, 2018

Cheer Up!

Apocalypse Not

Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.CreditMicheline Pelletier/Sygma, via Getty Images
In 1919, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines offered a dire warning for the future. “Within the next two to five years the oil fields of this country will reach their maximum production, and from that time on we will face an ever-increasing decline.”
Nearly a century later, in July 2010, The Guardian ran a story with an ominous headline: “Lloyd’s adds its voice to dire ‘peak oil’ warnings.” Citing a report by the storied London insurer, the newspaper warned that businesses were “underestimating catastrophic consequences of declining oil,” including oil at $200 a barrel by 2013, a global supply crunch, and overall “economic chaos.”
I thought of these predictions on seeing the recent news that the United States is on the eve of breaking a 47-year production record by lifting more than 10 million barrels of crude a day. That’s roughly twice what the U.S. produced just a decade ago, and may even put us on track to overtake Saudi Arabia and even Russia as the world’s leading oil producer. As for global production, it rose by some 11 percent just since the Lloyd’s report, and by almost 200 percent since 1965.
Call it yet another case of Apocalypse Not. In his fascinating new book, “The Wizard and the Prophet,” Charles C. Mann notes that President Roosevelt — Teddy, not Franklin — called the “imminent exhaustion” of fossil fuels and other natural resources “the weightiest problem now before the nation.” Prior to that, Mann adds, there were expert forecasts that the world would soon run out of coal. Later on, the world became fixated on the fear of running out of food in the face of explosive population growth.
The wizard and the prophet of Mann’s title are, respectively, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the former the agronomist widely credited as the father of the Green Revolution, the latter the founder of what Hampshire College’s Betsy Hartmann calls “apocalyptic environmentalism.”
“In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem,” Mann writes. “Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from than earth than it can give. If we continue, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, perhaps including our extinction.”
In our own day, people like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have made careers saying more or less the same thing. This is a world where the clock is permanently set at two minutes to midnight, and where only a radical transformation of modern society (usually combining dramatic changes in personal behavior along with a heavy dose of state intervention) can save us. Above all, the Vogtians say, we need less: less consumption, less stuff, fewer people, and so on.
Borlaug and the Borlaugians take a different view. It’s not that they see environmental threats as bogus: The world really would have suffered catastrophic famines if Borlaug hadn’t developed high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. Oil is a finite resource, but whether reserves last 50 or 500 years will probably depend less on overall supply than on technologies to extract and use those reserves more efficiently.
The same goes for climate change, which will not be helped by some centrally planned, Chinese-style “Green Leap Forward,” but by a multitude of technological advances that in turn require a thriving capitalist economy to fund, develop, commercialize and make affordable. The foolish idea that capitalism is the enemy of the environment misses the point that environmentalism is itself a luxury that few poor countries can adequately afford. If you doubt this, contrast the air and water quality in New York City with that of any similar-sized city in the developing world.
I fall in the Borlaugian camp. That’s worth noting because one of the more tedious criticisms by the environmental left is that people like me “don’t care about the environment.” But imputing bad faith, stupidity or greed is always a lousy argument. Even conservatives want their children to breathe.
It also misses the point. As Mann notes, Borlaugians are environmentalists, too. They simply think the road to salvation lies not through making do with less, but rather through innovation and the conditions in which innovation tends to flourish, greater affluence and individual freedom most of all.
There’s also this: So far, the Borlaugians have mostly been right. To the extent that starvation is a phenomenon of recent decades — as in places like North Korea and Venezuela — it is mainly the result of gross political mismanagement, not ecological disaster. Peak oil keeps being defeated by frackers and deepwater explorers. As my colleague Nick Kristof recently pointed out, by most metrics of human welfare, the world keeps getting better with every passing year.
If environmental alarmists ever wonder why more people haven’t come around to their way of thinking, it isn’t because people like me occasionally voice doubts in newspaper op-eds. It’s because too many past predictions of imminent disaster didn’t come to pass. That isn’t because every alarm is false — many are all too real — but because our Promethean species has shown the will and the wizardry to master the challenge, at least when it’s been given the means to do so.

06 February, 2018

Climate Change-Putting it in Perspective

A Climate Of Crisis: America In The Age Of Environmentalism
History News Network, 4 February 2018

“Denier!” It has become the epithet of choice among climate change activists to malign those who dissent from the prevailing consensus [says] Patrick Allitt, author of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism. The term, inherently political, is almost exclusively limited to two groups of people: Holocaust deniers and climate change skeptics. When used against the latter group, the implication is that questioning the accuracy of a scientific study is like questioning the historical reality that Nazis murdered 6 million Jews. Is the position of a climate change skeptic as meritless as someone who denies a well-documented genocide?

Patrick Allitt, a professor of environmental history at Emory University, is of the position that the response to climate change has been disproportionate to the scope of the problem. Is he a denier, as his detractors would suggest? No, Allitt insists. He says he believes in the overwhelming array of evidence that shows that the climate is changing and that this has serious implications. Where Allitt departs from the herd is that he does not believe climate change is catastrophic; rather, he believes that the benefits of industrialization outweigh the perceived harms of climate change.

In A Climate of Crisis Professor Allitt explores the history of American environmentalism since World War II and highlights the progress that the United States has made in solving its environmental issues. As Allitt explains, the “United States is far less severely polluted than it used to be, it uses energy more effectively, and it is actively responding to the new environmental challenges as they arise.” However, according to Allitt, this progress has been attached to a culture of alarmism within in the environmental movement where the problems are amplified and the solutions are simplified.

Allitt argues that the history of American environmentalism is filled with repeated alarms that later turned out to be false. In the 1960s there was a great alarm that overpopulation would lead to mass famine and death for millions in the developed world, a false alarm according to Allitt. In the 1970s warnings about the exhaustion of oil and other raw materials were echoed by scores of environmentalists, with the claim that by 2000 we would run out of vital resources, which Allitt cites as yet another false alarm. Allitt argues that both of these cases, much like climate change today, were described in catastrophic rhetoric, which was disproportionate to the severity of the issue.

What could be behind this phenomenon? Allitt believes it is all about votes, noting that “in a democracy it’s important to motivate voters, and using crisis rhetoric is a good way of doing it.” As a historian, Allitt believes it is important to look beyond the rhetoric and to recover a sense of balance and perspective. Unlike the environmental causes of the past, Allitt contends that the hysteria and overreaction characterize our response to climate change and that this can have unintended consequences which may end up burdening the potential victims of climate change, future generations.

Climate change, as Allitt explains, is unique in that it has no immediate constituency and the beneficiaries of climate change abatement are not easily identified. As such, Allitt is reluctant to commit large resources to the solution of long-term problems, which may or may not benefit a generation that does not yet exist. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people still die prematurely because of remediable problems like contaminated drinking water and smoke inhalation, Allitt argues that governments’ commitment of vast resources to the issue of climate change is misplaced.

With all that said, Allitt is adamant that he believes climate change is a serious, yet manageable issue that should be addressed. According to Allitt, we are less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because “we are so much more knowledgeable than we were before and have so many more ways to respond.”

How should we respond to climate change? Allitt suggests that we should carry on with research connected with reducing greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing economic growth in the process. Why is economic growth such a central concern? Allitt argues, “the creation of wealth enables societies to respond to severe environmental challenges and that only wealthy societies have active environmental movements.”

Industrialization is, as Allitt puts it, “the source of salvation to populations throughout the world” and the benefits of it needed to be weighed against its adverse impacts on the environment.

In Allitt’s view, one of the biggest misconceptions regarding climate change is that it is a recent phenomenon when, as he explains, “climate change has been a fact of life throughout earth’s history, and not just since the Industrial Revolution.” Again, Allitt acknowledges that industrialization contributes to climate change, but emphasizes, “Industrialization is only one of the causes.”

Are the other causes of climate change a matter of settled science? Allitt does not see climate change through the lens of “settled science” which he suggests is a misnomer.
Our understanding of climate change has been shaped, in large part, within the last half of the century with studies and experiments from a range of scientific disciplines including meteorology, astronomy, oceanography, and paleo-climatology. As such, Allitt believes that looking at climate change as matter of settled science is actually ahistorical. Allitt explains that science is “constantly developing and changing, with each new generation of scientists contesting the findings of their predecessors, and occasionally starting over by subjecting familiar data to new interpretive paradigms.”

Back in 1500, the idea that the earth was the center of the universe was also “settled science.” Additionally, Allitt points to the early 1900s when the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxons was settled science,but later generations of scientists challenged that orthodoxy and, eventually rejected it outright. The history of every science shows the same kind of process. Given the dynamism of science, Allitt argues that it would be “extraordinarily anomalous if climate scientists said to one another: All these issues are now settled, and there’s nothing more to be done.”

24 January, 2018

Australia Day and the Republic

Yesterday I attended a debate under the auspices of the Centre for Independant Studies on the subject of changing the date for Australia Day. One of the speakers in favour of making a change was Peter FitzSimons, Chair of The Australian Republican Movement. During the ‘question and answer’ segment it occurred to me to ask Peter if he thought it would be a good idea, if a change was to be made some time in the future, to make it effective from Australia Day-26th January. Thus providing yet another reason for keeping Australia Day on 26th January.

I didn’t get the opportunity to do this publically, but did so in private discussion afterwards. He did not seem to be opposed to the idea. In discussion he challenged me to declare my position on the issue of  Australia becoming a republic. I gave him my stock reply saying  that I was a “minimalist republican”. By that I mean that we should change nothing except the formality of “rubber stamping” by the Queen of the Australian Government’s decision on who should be appointed Governor General.

In other words, we should retain “Commonwealth”  (not Republic) of Australia. The method of choosing who should be GG should remain as is (we don’t want a campaigning politician to be our Head of State) and the title should be GG not President. I conveniently overlook any legal hurdles or dealing with the position for State Governors, but where there is a will there is a way.

In my view we should take extreme care in changing the Constitution and doing anything that endangers what is acknowledged as one of the world’s most successful democracies. However, I do think the referral to the Queen is an anachronism in the modern Australia.

On reflection, I fear that the debate has become excessively polarised. Those who want the change have over-played their hand and “Republicanism” in Australia has become seen as major change supported by those of “left wing” political inclination. In the current vernacular I wouldn’t brand myself as a Republican. I would simply like to see  what I, possibly in my constitutional legal ignorance, is a minor change, the impact of which should not be overstated. And there is no hurry.

During the recent England/Australia Ashes cricket series I had the pleasure of attending the Test matches in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney. All good contests, all won by Australia. England was supported by their very own Balmy Army and I much enjoyed their surprisingly good rendition of "Jerusalem" to begin each day's play. Their repertoire included "God Save YOUR  Gracious Queen" with particular emphasis "long may she reign OVER YOU!  Accompanied by finger pointing and an implied sense of  ridicule. I think that says it all. My long dead anglophile Mother would be ashamed of me!