Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 in Review - More Delusion and a Dose of Reality

Two Thousand and Fifteen has been an interesting year.

Internationally, we've seen a shattering of some myths - the most striking example being that terrorist incidents perpetrated by people shouting Allahu Akbar are 'nothing to do with Islam'. This has been asserted ad nauseum by so-called world leaders such as Obama, Cameron and Hollande after every attack by Islamic terrorists in recent years, including following the murders of those who worked for the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the patrons of a Jewish supermarket in Paris. But by the end of the year the body count from the Islamic terrorist attacks at a Paris sports stadium, a concert venue and several cafés was so large that these dishonest deflections were wearing a little thin even amongst those for whom 'diversity' triumphs any concept of objective morality. France's Socialist president, Francois Hollande, grew a backbone and launched airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria, whereas Barack Obama did a Neville Chamberlain, achieving 'peace in our time' with the evil Islamic regime in Iran.

The only world leader who consistently showed backbone was Vladimir Putin, shrugging off criticism of his support for Ukrainian separatists to take charge in Syria by supporting President al-Assad's fight against ISIS. A bomb that brought down a Russian airliner was ISIS's retaliation and Turkey and Russia nearly came to serious blows after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November.

Socialism seemed to be on the rise again around the world. The Greeks voted in a Socialist government led by Alexis Tsipras and subsequently voted 'no' in a referendum on whether they should pay back their debts. Reality dawned later in the year when Tsipras went to the polls again to gain a mandate for his newly-negotiated debt repayment plan. 

Meanwhile in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist MP who had never held any office in his party, was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, and in the United States, the only credible alternative candidate to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2016 US presidential race is the former Socialist Party stalwart, Bernie Sanders. The Australian Liberal Government defenestrated Tony Abbott in favour of the oleaginous Malcolm Turnball and Canadian voters followed suit by ousting their sound but uncharismatic prime minister Stephen Harper in favour of the impeccably bien-pensant Justin Trudeau and his left-wing Liberals.  On the other hand, the awful Chauvistas of Venezuela and Kirchner of Argentina were defeated.

Scientifically, we saw some significant advances including liquid water found on Mars and the fly past of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft with its stunning images of that most remote world. There were signs of yet another mysterious particle from the Large Hadron Collider and the human epigenome (the molecular switches that can turn on or off individual genes in DNA) was mapped. But we also saw the triumph of pseudo-science in the signing of a global agreement to limit global temperatures to 2℃. Two hundred King Canutes and tens of thousands of their fellow travellers flew into shell-shocked Paris to delude themselves into thinking they can control the the world's climate. Good luck with that, fools!

I don't follow New Zealand news very much because most of it is of the 'village pump' variety - quaint and unimportant - but the biggest stories here were the Rugby World Cup win by the All Blacks and John Key's quixotic referendum to change the flag. More important in terms of New Zealand's future was our signing of the TPP free trade agreement involving 12 countries including the United States. 

In the blogosphere, while I wasn't personally as regular with my posts as I would have liked to have been, my favourite bloggers were as prolific as usual. I particularly enjoyed Lindsay MitchellPeter CresswellMark Steyn, James Delingpole and Thomas Sowell this year. I was sad to see Mark Hubbard signing off this week - I trust this does not mean he has surrendered to the forces of darkness in the Fortress of Legislation. To all of you on the rational side of the debate, keep up the good work.

All that remains is to thank those who read my occasional posts, the few who commented, and those generous folk that linked to me from their blogs. Merry Christmas (in the most secular sense of that phrase) and a very prosperous 2016 to you!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reaction to San Bernadino Shooting is Revealing

The reaction to the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, last week was almost as horrifying as the killing spree itself. I learned about the incident as was I was talking to a senior civil servant I have been working with recently and he immediately muttered something about, "right-wing gun nuts." This guy was, like most senior civil servants, an avowed leftie and it was obviously wishful thinking on his behalf because even at that stage the facts indicated that this was no run-of-the-mill (if one could use that expression in this context) mass killing. It was known there were at least three heavily armed offenders dressed in body armour and driving a large SUV, facts that suggested it was an organised, military-style attack. I responded by betting him it was Islamic terrorism and it gives me no pleasure to have been proven right in the days since the attack.

The comments of this civil servant were echoed throughout the left-wing media here and in the United States and the anti-gun lobby, including President Obama, jumped in with calls for stricter gun laws. Of course, calling for a ban on gun ownership in response to a case like this is about as pathetic as calling for aircraft to be banned in the wake of 9/11. Yesterday Obama changed tack and made a speech in which he conceded this attack really was terrorism.

The response of left-wing commentators and politicians to this incident says a lot about their moral ambivalence. In the leftist view, a mass killing by a right-wing nut job is bad, but a similar incident by a Muslim in the name of his faith is not so bad. We see this double standard all the time - it is bad for Israeli soliders to respond to rocket attacks on their cities by targeting Hamas strongholds in Gaza but okay for Obama to order drone strikes on civilian targets in Waziristan. In their view it is not the act itself or the degree of innocence of the victims that makes mass killing moral or immoral - it is the political views of the perpetrators.

We should not be surprised by this moral ambivalence because that is at the heart of the collectivist philosophy. The rights of the individual are subservient to the will of the majority and therefore the idea of any absolute human rights is alien to them. Even the right to life is relative - leftist lives are worthy, but right-wing nut jobs do not deserve to live.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Climate Change Primer

I don't write here much on the subject of climate change. This is in spite of the fact that I am keenly interested in the topic and it was climate change that really got me started blogging. The reason for my reluctance to return to the topic will be obvious to anyone who has been active in the public debate, but given the significance of the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) being held in Paris, which has been hailed as the greatest gathering of world leaders in history, I thought it was time I returned to the subject and explained in layman's terms what all the fuss is about.

Around eight years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a prominent New Zealand scientist about the question of anthropogenic global warming and he urged me to read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had just been released.

At the time I was pretty neutral on the issue and I wanted to trust the authors of the report - after all, they were supposed to be experts in the field - but as I started to delve into AR4, I began to have some concerns about what I was reading. While I am not a scientist, I studied maths and statistics at university and climate science is more about these fields - analysing past trends and making predictions - than anything else. There is a bit of physics involved and this is entirely incontrovertible - Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, first suggested in 1896 that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to global temperature rises. The scientific disagreement (and there really is a lot of scientific disagreement - 97% consensus claims notwithstanding) is really in two areas - the extent to which increases in CO2 will drive a relative increase in global temperatures, and the extent to which carbon emissions from human activity are responsible for the CO2 increases. Let us deal with the second of these two issues first.

Carbon in the atmosphere is measured very accurately these days. The most reliable measurement is done by the Nasa Earth Observatory on the top of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii. It has been taking accurate measurements since the 1950s, during which period atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from around 320 parts per million to around 400 ppm. Prior to this, the record is less accurate but other sources suggest the atmospheric carbon dioxide content increased from around 270ppm in the mid 19th Century, and some ice-core records suggest CO2 levels rose from as low as 220ppm in the 18th Century (which would indicate the trend started well before there were significant fossil-fuel emissions).

The scientific claim that humans are causing the increase is based on chemical analysis of the composition of the carbon in the atmosphere, specifically the change in the ratio between the quantity of the isotopes of Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. Biological sources such as trees contain more Carbon-12 so a measured decrease in the Carbon-13/Carbon-12 ratio in the atmosphere means the source of the emissions is likely to be biological. A major source of biological carbon emissions is, of course, the coal, oil and gas extracted from the ground and burned by humans, but there are also natural biological emissions from swamps, forest fires and the like. Further evidence that the increase is caused by humans is derived from the fact that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in recent years roughly equates to the sum of human carbon emissions. 

It all seems perfectly logical to assume that mankind is causing the increase in carbon emissions until you consider that carbon in the atmosphere has never been constant and in fact there is strong evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to similar levels to today during earlier periods in the Holocene (up to around 12,000 years ago) and much higher than current levels in prehistoric eras. Some scientists have provided evidence that over long time periods increases and decreases in atmospheric CO2 tend to follow rather than lead corresponding changes in temperatures. Others have provided evidence that the changes in the C-13/C-12 ratio do not correlate with mankind's carbon emissions either geographically (i.e. the greatest increases are not over industrialised areas such as North America and Europe) or with seasonal cycles of human carbon output (e.g. increased fossil fuel use in cold climates during winter).

The other issue is whether anthropogenic carbon emissions will cause the sort of temperature increases that are predicted by some scientists and politicians. This depends on the effect of what physicists call 'forcing'. Scientists agree that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not on its own produce an increase in temperatures anything close to the maximum level predicted in the AR4 report (6.6℃ by 2100). This predicted level of increase arises from computer models that multiply the warming effect of carbon dioxide by other factors, the most important of these being an increase in cloud cover. But the effect of increased cloud cover is known to be both positive and negative in terms of temperature increases. Water molecules in the upper atmosphere act as a greenhouse gas but clouds also reduce the amount of the sun's radiation reaching Earth thereby tending to reduce temperatures. Many scientists believe that increases in carbon dioxide will have a diminishing, not an increasing, impact on global temperatures.

The best indication of the likely future increase in temperatures is provided by the past increase. Average global temperatures have increased about 0.76℃ since the mid-19th Century - around 0.05℃ per decade. The rate of increase went up in the last few decades of the 20th Century to about 0.13℃ per decade but temperatures have been largely static since 1998. A reasonable worst case scenario is that the rate of increase in the late 20th Century will soon resume, which would mean we will see a 1℃ increase over the entire 21st Century. To put that in perspective, the total increase in temperatures from the Little Ice Age around the year 1600 to the present day is probably about 2℃. This period has seen the greatest increase in human life expectancy and quality of life in the history of our species, something that some historians ironically credit in part to the warmer climate.

Is this issue, as President Obama and the Pope are claiming, the greatest threat facing mankind? I certainly do not think so. Weapons of mass destruction, epidemic diseases, religious fundamentalism, even collisions with objects from outer space are probably greater threats to our civilisation. So why has this become the biggest issue of our time? Well, answering that question is probably another whole blog post.