Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An artistic blunder

Years ago, I returned home in a rage after seeing Amadeus. Surely Mozart could not have been that silly, vapid child Peter Schaffer had made him out to be.  So I re-read Mozart's letters, and the light dawned - Schaffer's interpretation was perfectly valid.  Wolfgang may have been a genius, but he was never a pompous ass.

In November I went to see the Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain.  I was overwhelmed by his sheer ability with paint, and the way in which he captured the very essence of light.  There were pictures at which one could stare for hours on end, reveling in their grandeur. There were tiny watercolours, with human figures the size of ants, but still they were captured in rapid motion.  And there were the wonderful seascapes, with storms rendered far more faithfully than anything those great Dutch and Flemish painters ever managed to achieve.

So when Mr Turner appeared on our screens, I hurried to see it, returned in a rage, read Turner's biography. and penned a hate letter to the director, Mike Leigh. Leigh is an English director of minor films which seem to be known chiefly for their slow pace and serious character (his enemies call "serious character" "bloody gloominess").  

Gloom reigned supreme in his Mr Turner. There were scenes when the Turner painting was captured in some latter-day views of Britain, and long lingering was felt merited.  After the third such trick, the idea, which was not very original in the first instance, palled - or do I mean "cloyed"? For the rest, a few scenes showing that the old man still had some life in his veins were meant to provide the story line on which the whole was knitted together. They didn't. Timothy Spall provided a gout-ridden grumpy old man as Mr Turner.  I am sure the character was the creation of Leigh - Spall is too good an actor to fall for such a travesty without a fight.

And travesty it was.  When I got home, I immediately read two or three different biographies.  The picture that emerged was of a simple, uneducated man whose genius took him far and wide and enriched him with knowledge and wisdom such as he could never have gained had he finished his schooling. There were many stories of his love of young people - Leigh's Turner was positively anti-juvenile. The real Turner was a man with a natural charm - Leigh's Turner  could best be described as a curmudgeon. In life, Turner had loyal, lifelong friends; in Leigh's film, one woman was the extent of his human contact. Turner could sketch with extraordinary facility; Leigh's Turner drew carthorses with crayons. Turner travelled widely; the audience at this film could have been forgiven for thinking he never passed Margate,

If there had been some sort of plot, the whole might have been forgiven.  As it was, one was left with the feeling that, having won a bucket load of cash from the lottery, the director felt he could throw a mess of pottage in the public's face and satisfy his sponsors. He shouldn't have, and he didn't.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why the risks of climate change have been engineered away

One of the greater challenges we engineers face is telling our clients that their dream project doesn’t work.  If it costs too much, they usually accept our advice with ill grace.  Sometimes, it is technically impossible. Then they have great difficulty in believing us.  For instance, few will accept our advice that the ideal of creating a low carbon world within our lifetimes is probably not achievable.

The evidence that a low carbon world within our lifetimes is an unachievable dream is clear.  In 1998, the then developed nations signed the Kyoto Protocol, which placed legally binding commitments on them to reduce their emissions below 1990 levels. Global emissions in 1990 were 22.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).  Fossil fuels made up 88% of the primary energy supply. In 2012, when the first Kyoto commitment period came to an end, global emissions were 34.5 billion tons, over half as much again as in 1990, and fossil fuels made up 87% of the primary energy.  So much for legally binding commitments!

Of course, the developing nations did not foresee the rapid development of China.  That put paid to the Kyoto ambitions.  Recently, there has been much cheering about China’s offer to start reducing its emissions after 2030.  It is perhaps not as encouraging as at first appears. Today China emits nearly 10 billion tons; business-as-usual until 2030 will see its emissions rise to nearly 18 billion tons.

And if the development of China was overlooked, then the possible similar surge in India’s emissions seems to have been forgotten. India has rejected outright any similar offer to reduce its future emissions, citing the need to develop its economy before it can take such a step. Today India emits about 2 billion tons; by 2030 it is likely to be emitting over 5 billion, and rising rapidly.

So the dream appears unachievable.  The question is then whether it will turn into a nightmare.  There are many who claim that a higher carbon world will be wracked by disaster. In this scenario, the seas will rise, storms will rage, drought will strike, and the biosphere will disappear. These are the predictions of many climate models. While all agree that the models are not very good, the question has to be asked – Suppose the models are right?

Back to the engineers.  Today, humanity depends on us engineers to provide the defences against the seas, floods, droughts and even fires and earthquakes.  Generally we do quite a good job.  Many people stay warm and dry, have enough to eat and drink, and rarely experience the disaster of fires or earthquakes.  Of course, our solutions come with a cost, and there are some who are still trapped in poverty whom we have not yet found ways to save.  But this is largely a social problem. We engineers recognise that while we can make a contribution, poverty is not something we alone can solve.

If this is the state of the world today, then the disaster scenario predicted by the climate models implies that the defences we engineers have built will be found wanting.  In this case, to address the risks, we need to enquire where the existing defences may be too weak to withstand a fiercer onslaught.   

Will the seas rise and drown our cities?  The Dutch have done a good job of teaching the world how to live normally below sea level, so that is not an insuperable problem.  Will there be greater floods than ever known?  Generally engineers design for a one-in-a-hundred-year flood. If we start to get more than that, we should have some time to improve the design to cope with the new one-in-a-hundred.  Will droughts strike with greater frequency and severity?  Our water supplies are already reasonably robust, and over half our water is used quite inefficiently for agriculture. It seems likely that we could withstand more extensive drought, particularly if supplies can be boosted.

This is the basic message that seems to have been lost in the panic about the risks of climate change – we already have a high degree of resilience against the climate, thanks to generations of engineers working in the service of humanity.  That resilience needs maintenance if it is to continue to provide the desired level of protection. It may need reinforcement if the climate should become more extreme.  But the risks presented by climate change are by no means insuperable. The costs are most unlikely to be as excessive as some doomsayers would have us believe.

Moreover, some of the benefits of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should not be overlooked.  Satellite images show the world greening and deserts retreating. Many European greenhouses are being controlled at over 1000 parts per million CO2, two-and-a-half times atmospheric levels. This has been found to boost vegetable and fruit production very significantly.

So the risks that climate change may prove unduly destructive are almost certainly overstated, while the supposed driver of climate change, carbon dioxide, is proving beneficial to life. The proposed “solutions” to climate change, such as carbon taxes, can now be seen to be the chimeras they really are.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

I thought the title of this was from Euripides - but when I checked, I found no-one knew who first had the thought.  

But I was driven to reflect on the gods driving men mad when reading The Frackers, by a Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman.  It is the tale of the men who changed the face of the world of energy during this century. 

George Mitchell was the son of a Greek goatherd, an immigrant to the US.  He saw the possibility of stimulating the flow of gas from tight rock by a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It worked.  He died in 2013, aged 94, rich, famous and happy. 

Aubrey McLendon was related to old oil and mineral wealth.  He founded a company, Chesapeake, which almost cornered some of the most valuable rights to shale gas.  It grew rapidly to being one of the most valued companies on the stock exchange before gas prices fell dramatically because of over-supply.  McLendon had borrowed to the hilt, had spent as if there were no future, had paid himself as if no-one else had any interest in the profits, and had enriched his family's estate at the expense of the company with no apparent thought of the morality of what he was doing. Then the private equity groups invested in his company, who also had an interest in its profits, recognized that he was destroying the company through his greed, and forced him out with a mere $48 million as a golden handshake.

Tom Ward had been a schoolmate and then a partner of McLendon's.  He was the quiet foil to his extrovert partner.  When Chesapeake grew, he too started showing off his wealth.  However, gas prices fell after Hurricane Katrina, and suddenly the stock underpinning Chesapeake's debt was worth much less.  Ward could not agree to spending more and more to purchase rights. He left to found SandRidge Energy, focusing on the production of gas from conventional sources, not shale, but using fracking to stimulate his wells.  Before long, SandRidge was a stock exchange darling.  When the gas oversupply caused prices to drop again, SandRidge's stock fell out of favour, and Ward lost 90% of his wealth, over $2 billion, in less than 2 weeks. He fought back, even selling some of his own shares to the company at inflated prices, and finding creative ways for the company to fund his family.  Eventually the private equity groups backing the company had had enough of his costs.  He departed with a $90 million farewell gift.

Harold Hamm was the son of a poor Oklahoma farmer.  He was essentially unschooled, but he had a nose for oil.  His country-bumpkin manner fooled many who crossed his path, and he was able to amass huge acreage of rights in North Dakota that eventually turned the state into one of the biggest oil producers in North America.  He also struck it rich in Texas.  In 2012, his stake in Continental Resources was worth $12 billion - yet when he wanted to build his sister a larger house, she would only let him remodel her bathroom. He, however, fell foul of divorce laws, and in October 2014 it was reported that his wife was about to become his ex wife with a possible payment of $18 billion - the richest award ever.

These were some of the main characters in this extraordinary tale.  It had all the makings of a Greek tragedy - whence my turning to Euripides-who-wasn't. What drove these men to seek more and more wealth?  Most people would be content with a few million dollars, enough to keep them fed and housed for the rest of their lives.  But hundreds of millions? Thousands of millions?  Surely this is enough to excite the envy even of the gods.  No wonder they struck back!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A modern King Canute!

So the EU hopes to cut its carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, relative to 1990. By doing so, it hopes to save the world.

The futility of its policies soon becomes clear after a modicum of analysis.  In 1998 the world signed up to the Kyoto Protocol which sought that by 2012 emissions would be less than they had been in 1990.  Instead emissions grew by 55%.

To be true, the EU made some progress over this period. Largely due to the economic downturn after 2008, by 2012 the emissions of the 12 nations who had been members of the EU in 1990 were 7% less than they had been in 1990.  Britain, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy all managed to reduce their emissions, but Spain’s emissions were up by over 40% and Ireland’s, Norway’s and Portugal’s by over 20%. Moreover, Germany’s emissions are due to increase over the next few years as it constructs more than a dozen new coal-fired power stations to replace its nuclear fleet.

But the best measure of the futility of the EU’s ambitions comes from the signal that the world is not turning away from fossil fuels. Every year since 1990, fossil fuels have made up almost exactly 87% of the world’s primary energy supply. 

EU President Van Rompuy is clearly the latest edition of King Canute.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Anyone for a carbon tax?

Our Treasury seems wedded to the idea of a tax on carbon emissions.  In this, they are cheered on by the Department of Environmental Affairs, but the Department of Energy and the Department of Public Enterprises both seem to be having some reservations. If it is proving difficult to finance Eskom, and economically undesirable to hike the cost of power any more, why would we want to increase the power cost yet further in the vain hope of saving the planet?

It all goes back to that proud moment in November 2009, when our State President stood before the world at a gathering in Copenhagen. He offered to reduce our carbon emissions by large amounts provided the developed nations would help with the costs of the reductions.  At the time, it was seen as a noble gesture on our part.  Now, the gilt has fallen from the offer, not least because the anticipated help has been conspicuous by its absence.  The developed nations have come face-to-face with the economic downturn. Saving the planet has moved lower on the list of priorities.

There are three major things wrong with the tax idea.  First, the plan announced by President Zuma wasn’t a plan in the first place.  What he said was:
With financial and technological support from developed countries, South Africa for example will be able to reduce emissions by 34% below ‘business as usual’ levels by 2020 and by 42% by 2025.
This was a scenario from the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios, which was called “Required by Science.” Now scenarios are not plans, they are sketches of what might be possible.  Moreover, science does not require anything; it merely provides a platform for understanding.  But the Department of Environmental Affairs sprang upon the scenario with glee, believing in their zeal that science really had produced a plan out of some magic hat.  With no further thought of the implications of what they were doing, they set about trying to implement something that had every chance of not being possible. The carbon tax is part of their plan of implementation.

The second thing wrong with it is that it is an economic disaster.  Treasury evaluated the impact, and found it made the rich richer and impoverished the poor. Indeed, the impact was hardest on the poorest. To understand why it is a disaster, you need to recognize that there is a very strong relationship between economic growth and the consumption of energy.  To grow the economy, you have to provide more energy. But over 90% of South Africa’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Most of our energy gives rise to carbon dioxide emissions.  So economic growth means more energy which means more emissions.

It is possible to reduce the linkage between economic growth and energy consumption, but this cannot happen overnight.  Nowhere in the world has there been delinkage at the rate that the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios would require – and, note well, the scenarios were long-term to begin with.

It is also possible to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.  Indeed, this is precisely what the Department of Energy’s renewable power programme is designed to do.  But even the latest Integrated Resource Plan Update would not produce the sort of drop in reliance that the Mitigation Scenario would require.

The Department of Environmental Affairs recognizes these problems, so it has come up with a different plan.  It aims to set up a carbon trading platform, which will allow companies that produce carbon in excess of some arbitrary limit (which the Department will set) to buy emission credits from companies which produce less carbon than the limit.  Treasury, advised by a group of would-be carbon traders, has agreed to this ploy. 

There are at least three objections – on Treasury’s own calculations, there is insufficient volume of tradable carbon to support such a scheme; a few industries which have found ways to save carbon have already cashed in on the various pre-existing schemes such as the Clean Development Mechanism; and, most damning of all, it would establish a bureaucracy within the Department of Environmental Affairs which could control emissions and thereby the entire economy at the merest whim. The fact that carbon trading platforms have been a disaster in the US and have cost the European Union billions in ineffective support (and lost VAT) has not been sufficient to persuade either the Department or Treasury that such a scheme is ill-advised. Treasury is doubly culpable in this – the foxy carbon traders showed it how to design a carbon henhouse, a sure-fire way to lose the chickens!

The third thing wrong with a carbon tax is that it would achieve nothing.  There seems to be some sort of zeal in our Government to save the world from a possible carbon hell.  South Africa emits around 1% of global emissions.  Suppose we were to reduce our emissions by a quarter, which would probably wreck our economy for good, the global impact would be absolutely nil. 

It might be justified if the rest of the world had similar zeal, but it demonstrably has not.  The Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005. In the first commitment period, 2008-12, many developed countries agreed to legally binding limits on their emissions. What happened? Well, between 2008 and 2012, global fossil fuel use went up by 8.5%, and the contribution of fossil fuels to global primary energy supply was unchanged at 87%.  Is it worthwhile committing economic suicide to protest the failure of others to observe legally binding limits?

Moreover, with every passing year the whole rationale for reducing carbon emissions is becoming weaker and weaker.  In the past 16 years, emissions have gone up 40%; global temperatures have been stationary.  Indeed, there has been only a short period in our history when the hypothesis that carbon emissions and global temperatures are linked was supportable. That was between 1970 and 1997. Before then, the world cooled as emissions increased, and since then the temperature has not changed.

Instead, a different hypothesis has emerged. This proposes that there will be more extreme weather in a warmer world.  However, it is not demonstrable.  To the contrary, it has been possible to extend many measures back to the late 1800’s. We can now see how extreme the weather was in earlier times.  Even though the world has demonstrably warmed over the past 150 years, there has been no detectable change in the frequency or severity of extreme events.  One of the surprises has been that the world has not become measurably wetter, which seemed very likely in a warmer world.

So the rationale behind a carbon tax is now very weak.  It always was weak.  The idea that a tax will encourage a change in social behaviour is seductive, but a little thought will soon show the flaws.  It was long hoped, for instance, that swingeing taxes on tobacco would reduce smoking, but it had little effect. Other laws became necessary to bring about the desired social change.  Alcohol consumption continues unabated – the annual increase in the sin tax has an imperceptible effect.  At least with tobacco and alcohol, it is possible to cut down on consumption.  Carbon, with its direct linkage to energy and wealth creation, can only be cut back by greater efficiency. Most large users of energy have already done much to improve their efficiency as far as possible.  Further improvement is up against the law of diminishing returns. 

Carbon emissions are therefore inelastic, in economic terms. Adding a cost to energy has an impact on the demand by closing otherwise profitable industries. Jobs are then lost.  It is happening in our economy right now. That is ultimately the reason why there are no grounds for taxing carbon.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wither Palestine?

If I were Jewish, I would disown the state called Israel.  I really dislike the way it treats its own people and its neighbours. In particular, it over-reacts to every slight.  It is like a bouncer high on steroids at the entrance to a low-life night-club. A big, stupid thug who seems to enjoy flexing his muscles and throwing out anyone who so much as glances in his direction.  Those inside are temporarily grateful for his protection, until they come to leave. Suddenly they realize they not only have to pass him safely on the way out, but may also have to run the gauntlet of those revelers whose entrance he prevented.

Just so, Jews living in Israel have to suffer the consequences of the state's over-reaction.  For many years, Israel has stolen land from neighbouring Palestine.  I think the map spells it out:
It was bad enough that Britain walked away from its responsibilities in 1948. The UN had come up with quite a sensible partition in 1947, but Britain refused to accept it.  The result was a rather bloody civil war between Palestinians and Israelis after Britain walked out.  The Arab supporters - Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria - all signed peace treaties, but the best that could be achieved in Palestine-Israel was a ceasefire agreement. The West Bank was nominally in Jordanian control, and Gaza nominally in Egyptian control.

The peace, such as it was, was uneasy. Finally, in May 1967, Egypt, Syria and Jordan prepared for a co-ordinated attack. A pre-emptive strike by the Israeli airforce gave Israel a decisive victory. Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the formerly Jordanian-controlled West Bank of the Jordan River (Wikipedia). In November that year, UN Resolution 242 resulted in withdrawal of Israeli forces from all captured territory in return for a "just and lasting" peace and the recognition of the sovereignty of the various states. Palestine was thus reduced to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  The West Bank is nominally defined by the Green Line established by UN Resolution 242.  Nominally, because in 2006 Israel started to build a barrier about 700km long isolating itself from the West Bank.  This barrier incorporates considerable territory that is nominally Palestinian.  The map below shows a portion of the barrier:
Completed barrier is shown in red lines, dashed red lines show parts under construction, and black dashed lines show planned construction.  The green line is the Green Line, and the mauve blobs show Israeli settlements in Palestine, some of which are already walled off and all of which are planned to be walled off. The crosses mark agricultural gates open at different times as shown by their colour.  (Source, UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Both the West Bank and Gaza are nominally governed by the Palestinian National Authority, which was recognized by Israel in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995.  Since 2007, Gaza has actually been governed by Hamas, which claims to be part of the National Authority.  Gaza is home to nearly 2 million people, which makes its 365 sq. km decidedly crowded.  Israel, however, is in effective control - it controls the borders, the airspace and the coast of Gaza.  The lawyer John Dugard recently argued that this is tantamount to military occupation (Business Day, 4 August).

Now I invite you to consider for a moment what it is like to be a Palestinian.  In the West Bank, some of the best areas of your land are being walled off by foreigners.  In Gaza, you are under military control, jammed into a tiny area insufficient to support its population.  Frustration would certainly be my feeling - how about you?

If I were a young person caught in this trap, I would almost certainly revolt.  I would try to leave - and be frustrated by the border restrictions.  Some of my friends would plan acts of violence; some would carry them out; I might be tempted to join them.  In Gaza, that is just what has happened.  They have been firing rockets into Israel.  Most of the rockets are pretty puny things - the Qassam-3 has a 15kg warhead and a 17km range.  Fired from the north-eastern tip of Gaza, they would barely get a quarter of the way to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Certainly, 15kg of high explosive is more than a nuisance, and the lack of accuracy makes life within range of these things decidedly unpleasant.  But does it warrant the unleashing of warplanes with 50 times the firepower?  Can it possibly justify the targeted destruction of schools?  The use of armed drones to kill children playing on the beach? No, no and no again.
It seems to me that this is part of a long term plan, to take the whole of Palestine for Israel.  The siege of Gaza, the invasion of the West Bank, are merely steps along the path of driving the Palestinians to seek refuge elsewhere. Jews everywhere should renounce the government of Israel, and have its leaders brought before the International Court of Justice on charges of crimes against humanity.

Yes, it is "Wither Palestine?" not "Whither Palestine?"

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Just what IS “sustainable development”?

If there is one thing on which everyone agrees, it is sustainable development.  Yes, we all want development, and yes, we are all as green as each other and want development to be “sustainable”. But when you scratch the surface, you soon discover people talking past each other.  How can chopping down trees, or digging up gold, be sustainable? Suddenly you are guilty of deforestation or the rape of the earth. These are no longer innocent development pastimes.

It is a problem of definition.  Back in 1992, there was a great gathering in Rio, from which all manner of Declarations and Agendas flowed.  Sustainable development was based on the Brundtland concept - it was that which created no harm for future generations. Wonderful stuff, but totally impractical.  Leave the tree in the air or the gold in the ground so that your grandchildren may have trees or gold. Then they in turn will preserve them, so that their grandchildren may have trees or gold. Before you know it, the tree has died or the gold has been washed out to sea. Any benefit mankind might have had is lost. 

So when the great next gathered, in Johannesburg in 2002, they rethought their ideas of a decade earlier.  Now, they decreed, sustainable development was that which balanced social, environmental and economic development. That sounds wonderful.  But mankind likes black-and-white questions.  To ask people to find the right balance between red (social), green (environmental) and gold (economic) is just too complicated.

The result is a focus on just one of the three legs.  There are those for whom the environment is sacrosanct – you cannot possibly want to build more houses round the city, can you?  It would destroy a small wetland/the only known home of a butterfly/a pristine forest (choose one). But others want to build not just a few houses, but a whole village, complete with schools and clinics, because people need somewhere to live, don’t they? And just as the architect puts the final touches to his beautiful garden suburb, along comes the developer demanding office blocks and supermarkets and warehouses and flyovers.  The environmentalist groans and either turns his sights on the next piece of wondrous nature, or fights to have the wetland/butterfly/forest declared sacrosanct. Sustainable development is the loser.

There is a wonderful recent example of this phenomenon at work.  Most South Africans, and certainly all who receive electricity from our national grid, are aware that there is a shortage of generating capacity. There are power cuts, which the individual perceives as a grievous nuisance, and which the economist recognizes as a disaster. Every kilowatt-hour of power lost costs the economy about R75. What else can you make for 50 cents that is worth 150 times more to the economy as a whole?

But there is a little corner of our land where the shortage of generating capacity is not seen as an economic disaster.  It is our Department of Environment Affairs, which chooses this moment to declare that some of our generating capacity is putting too much dirt into the air. Eskom must shut down the power stations to fix the problem. It is not quite irrational for the Department to suffer from this manic focus on the environment, but their actions certainly demand analysis, psychological or otherwise.

It transpires that in a Gilbert-&-Sullivan kind of way, they have a little Act. The Regulations under that Act empower the Department to decree that a pipe may not emit more the X particles per unit volume of air. 

Posed in this way, you can immediately see two difficulties. First, what kind of pipe? Not one that you fill with tobacco, light and stick in your mouth. That is purposely designed to put lots and lots of particles into the air. Do they mean that pipe with holes in its side, stuffed with big lumps of coal, and clouds of smoke billowing into the air? Equally clearly not – that is a traditional polluter, called an mbawula, protected from modern legislation like all declared traditions. No, they mean a pipe belonging to Dirty Industry, because Dirty Industry is obviously the problem – if you have forgotten what sustainable development is supposed to mean.

Secondly, why is X a problem? This actually requires more careful analysis, because it seems obvious that X must be a problem because the Regulations say it is.  Think deeper, and this argument becomes very circular.  And if you go really deep into the question you discover that X is a problem because some American bureaucrat with his own little Act declared that it was. We obviously have to follow the Americans slavishly, don’t we? The American is armed with several roomsful of paper in support of X.  He had argued his case before American legislators like all bureaucrats in a democracy should be made to do. So X is good for America – but is it good for us?

The answer is probably not.  We don’t have years of data and thousands of diligent scientists to create roomsful of paper in support of our Act, let alone a parliament packed with skilled jurists able to hold bureaucrats in check.

What should we be doing, if we care about the environment and our society and development? Perhaps we should adopt a different model, one more in keeping with our status as a developing nation. Let us look to Britain rather than America. After disastrous smogs in the early 1950’s, Britain introduced the Clean Air Act in 1956. It required many industries and homes to burn smokeless fuel. In due course, it established smoke control zones, within which no smoke was permitted, and banned the emission of dark smoke everywhere. No roomsful of paper, just no visible smoke.  And the result was dramatically cleaner air, which was the desired environmental outcome. How simple! How easy to implement! How easy to police!

There is no need to call for straitjackets for our Department of Environmental Affairs.  Their insanity is purely temporary.  Let them sit down at their desks and rethink the way in which we achieve clean air – and sustainable development.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

NOT an April Fool's tale!

I had to wait a day before sharing the following link with you -

It lists 1001 disasters caused by global warming.  A few which caught my eye:
  • Bulgarian brothels closing in winter
  • Grass growing in Antarctica
  • Beer better - and worse
  • Increasingly amorous cats
  • Altering the tilt of the Earth
  • Giant pythons taking over one third of US
  • Haggis threatened (best food to which it could happen, I say)
  • Gorillas dying of indigestion
  • Oysters developing herpes
  • Polar bears going deaf
  • Short-nosed dogs endangered
  • Loss of fire in Tabasco (in Spanish)
  • More witches being executed
These were quite serious reports - global warming is clearly an absolute disaster.  Now you understand why I had to wait a day - if I had written this yesterday, you would never have believed me!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Rethink carbon taxes!

I'm glad the Minister of Finance gave us all some respite in this year’s budget.  For this was the year when he was supposed to be introducing a carbon tax.  However, he first made the proposal back in 2009.  Since then, the world has changed and his original rationale is now looking very suspect.

For instance, internationally the price of carbon has plunged.  The EU, which was particularly strongly committed, has been trying to support the price, and failed (at great cost). So we now have the prospect of taxing something at about twice its actual value.  That suggests that carbon is a very great sin indeed; only sin taxes are higher than the basic cost of what is being taxed.

Internationally, too, nations which have tried to set up carbon limits are abandoning them when faced by reality.  Germany, for instance, has had laudable carbon targets, but the political decision to phase out nuclear power has meant the death of the targets.  This year alone Germany will bring on line some ten new coal-fired power stations, with more to follow.  In Japan, too, the closure of nuclear plants following a re-assessment of the risks in an earthquake-prone land has meant discarding their target to reduce carbon emissions. Japan now faces increasing emissions for the foreseeable future. Carbon targets are far less important than keeping the lights on.

The great efforts of the UN have come to naught.  At Copenhagen in 2009, they reached an Accord, but it was merely noted.  Some elements of the Accord were accepted at Cancun in 2010.  In Durban in 2011, they developed a “Platform for Enhanced Action”. It was hoped to agree something by 2015 for implementation by 2020 – some enhancement! At Doha in 2012, there were grave reservations that few nations were committing aggressively enough to the 2oC target – an understatement, if ever there was one. The 2013 meeting in Warsaw broke up in disarray – those awful developing states were demanding that the developed nations pay for the damage they had caused. Ridiculous! Didn’t they understand it was a global problem?

It is now questionable if carbon is as severe a global problem as was thought five years ago. Emissions have soared, but the thermometer has remained stuck on “warm” – since 1997, according to some commentators. Yes, this decade is warmer than any since we got accurate instruments, but it is not getting warmer still. Meanwhile some of those naughty developing nations, like China and India, are emitting more and more carbon every year. The annual growth in China’s emissions is larger than South Africa’s total output.

Another global phenomenon is the realisation that carbon taxes are not the answer.  They are supposed to cut emissions.  Our official policy is to slow emissions until they reach a peak around 2025, after which they may decline.  But carbon taxes have not been able to stop emissions. Australia tried it, and didn’t like the taste. In eighteen other jurisdictions around the world, the best that can be said is that it has slowed the growth in emissions, not reversed them.  Only in the Canadian province of British Columbia has a carbon tax managed to cut emissions. Only there did the government reduce income tax in direct proportion to the carbon tax. In some countries, carbon emissions have more than doubled since the tax was put in place.  

Even here, some circles of Government are somewhat less enthusiastic than they were five years ago.  Treasury itself has been mulling over the problem which they first identified, that the impact of the tax falls heaviest on the poorest, and enriches the richest.  The Department of Energy, in its November 2013 review of its IRP2010, has found better ways of reducing carbon than a tax.  And it has found a carbon budget, beloved of the Department of Environment Affairs, to be really disastrous – but that is another story.

The Energy review also had difficulty in identifying the impact of higher energy prices on the demand for power.  All of us have felt the impact of the higher prices; all of us have tightened our belts as far as we can. The drop in consumption seems largely to be due to the restrictions on the supply and to the increasing downtime for maintaining Eskom’s power stations.  The stations used to be available 86% of the time; the target is now 80%.

This is an important finding, because the whole thesis underlying the carbon tax is the Pigovean idea that demand will drop if you increase the price.  The trouble is that energy is one of those things that are essential to our lives in general and to the economy in particular.  It is a critical factor of production. You can’t increase efficiency beyond certain limits. Once those limits are reached, reducing the energy means reducing the output.

There are already taxes on our energy.  There is the non-renewable energy levy, and the tax to pay for the additional cost of renewable energy. Neither of these have had any detectable effect on the demand.  In economic terms, the price of energy is not very elastic.  You can see this most dramatically in the oil price.  From the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, the demand grew at 150Mt/a.  In the 1970’s there was a ten-fold increase in price. Since the early 1980’s, the demand has continued to grow somewhat slower at 50Mt/a.  So even a really dramatic price increase will only slow the growth – it will not cut it in absolute terms. If you want to cut emissions, you have to find an alternative technology. We are attempting to do that with our renewable energy programme, but with the best will in the world, we cannot replace our coal-fired power stations overnight.

There is also a growing realisation that the value of energy to the economy is far more than what we pay for it.  The great power crash of 2008 allowed us to estimate the cost of unserved energy – the cost of not having power.  It is about R75/kWh.  I know of nothing else that contributes to our economy over 100 times its cost. That is why taxing it to death is a very poor concept.  So please use the year of grace drop the idea, Mr Gordhan.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Consensus? What consensus?

The American Physical Society has just held an extraordinary meeting. It has a Subcommittee looking at climate change. The Subcommittee found it necessary to understand the IPCC consensus on climate science through a workshop which dived deeply into some of the more uncertain aspects. In doing so, it hoped "to illuminate for itself, for the APS membership, and for the broader public both the certainties and the boundaries of current climate science understanding."

People taking part in the workshop included the great climate modeller, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory; the climatologist Judith Curry from Georgia Tech; the atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen of MIT; and climate scientist John Christy from the University of Alabama. Each of the specialists would be given a chance to address a set of issues drawn up by the APS panel; the panel would ask questions; there would be a general discussion; and they would move on to the next specialist.

I read the 500-odd pages of transcript.  I think there must be something masochistic in the desire to capture every word, even the announcement that cake was served.  But in amongst the reams of dross, there lay gems.  For instance, Santer produced a lovely graphic showing the problems with his own models:

The top half is what the models say should have happened in the upper atmosphere over the past 34 years; the bottom half is what has actually happened.  The "fingerprint"of the human-derived carbon dioxide is annoyingly absent - well, annoying to the modellers.  The tropical hotspot between about 500 and 700hPa pressure just isn't there.  Yet the physics underlying the carbon-dioxide-driven global warming hypothesis is clear - it should be! Sceptic and believer agree on that. Why is it missing?  And why, for that matter, has the Arctic air warmed ?

Christy confirmed the problem:

The dots give the data; the squares the average of the data; and the spaghetti lines show the attempts of 25 different models to show what might be happening.  Clearly, they fail - the pattern of the fingerprint is wrong. Christy spent some time castigating the IPCC for ignoring this gap between data and models.  The IPCC claimed that the data in the upper troposphere, as shown here, was somehow deficient yet, as you can see, the spread of four independent sets of measurements is quite small and the model average is a long way from the measurement average.

Christy also had some fascinating things to say about the "average global temperature". The estimation of this starts with measuring the temperature at a whole lot of points around the globe.  At each point, the daily maxima and minima are recorded, and the average temperature at that point for that day is the average of the maximum and minimum.  

The trouble comes when you consider what happens in nature, when very often inversions occur and cool air is trapped near the surface.  Then you put a few buildings around the place, and the turbulence they cause destroys the inversion layer and the night air is warmer than it would otherwise be - regardless of any heat coming from the building.  

The net result is that when you look at data from areas that have become increasingly urbanised, there is little change over time in the day-time maxima, but the nights steadily warm, and this then gets recorded as "global warming." Again, the IPCC claims to have looked at the "urban heat island" effect, and to have taken it into account, but Christy showed that a significant correction was needed - because of the basic atmospheric physics.

The APS Panel was concerned as to how is was possible that the IPCC could claim greater certainty in the latest Assessment Report AR5 than in the previous AR4.  In particular, the human impact had gone from 90 to 95% 'certain'. Lindzen was sniffy:
Do you still believe there is consensus?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The end of snow?

Today the New York Times ran an extraordinary tale about the end of snow.
"The planet has warmed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s, and as a result, snow is melting. In the last 47 years, a million square miles of spring snow cover has disappeared from the Northern Hemisphere. Europe has lost half of its Alpine glacial ice since the 1850s, and if climate change is not reined in, two-thirds of European ski resorts will be likely to close by 2100."

"The same could happen in the United States, where in the Northeast, more than half of the 103 ski resorts may no longer be viable in 30 years because of warmer winters. As far for the Western part of the country, it will lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen."

Now I knew that glaciers had been retreating, but my glaciologist friends have difficulty in accepting that it is purely thermal.  So while Europe may have "lost half its Alpine glacial ice", global warming wasn't necessarily the culprit.

I also knew that, while the globe may have warmed a bit, it was very difficult to say that a particular part of the globe had warmed - warming is patchy.  Just because the average global temperature is a bit up does not mean that the snow line is in retreat.

So I went to look for the facts, and found that Rutgers University has a dataset showing the weekly area of the extent of the snow in the northern hemisphere over the past 40-odd years:

Can you see the end of snow there? Seems to me variable but without any real trend in either the maximum or minimum. The minimum was a bit ragged until about 1972, but it was the start of the satellite era, so some missing data is understandable.

I cannot wait for this climate farce to end, so that I can return to trusting newspapers like the NYT.  Every time they run a piece bleating about climate change I have to check the tale, and invariably find the science is against them. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The freedom to be wrong

Last night I attended an extraordinary event. A biography of Helen Suzman was launched in the ballroom of the Mount Nelson Hotel. Now a book launch is not normally something to write about, but this was some launch! 
First up to introduce the book was the author, Robin Renwick, or Lord Renwick of Clifton, to give him his full title. He had been British Ambassador to South Africa in the late 1980's, and had played a crucial role in facilitating the transition out of apartheid. He spoke briefly, because he had learned a long time ago that you couldn't keep people from the bar for too long! 
He was followed by Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape, who said some things about Suzman that I will talk about later. She was her usual trenchant self, firm, to the point, and quite brief. Next up was ex-President FW de Klerk, full of bonhomie and rueful of the many occasions when he had been bested in Parliament by Suzman. Then we had Mamphaela Ramphaela, newly welcomed to the DA ranks as Presidential candidate, who was wise and nostalgic in her praise of Suzman. And to round off the list of luminaries, none other than Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who also remembered Suzman warmly. 
But Zille said something which grabbed my attention. She quoted Suzman as saying that she had lived through three ideologies, Nazi Fascism, Communism and Apartheid. Each of them was dominated by its own ideological 'truth'. In every case they fell because the 'truth' carried the seeds of its own destruction, when reality eventually forced its way past the misconceptions. 
She - Suzman - was a liberal, which was not an ideology because no liberal ever lays claim to be the holder of the 'truth'. In a liberal democracy you are allowed to make mistakes, but mistakes get picked up and corrected because there is no perceived 'truth'. Instead there is open debate about what is best for society, and that debate is fostered by freedom of speech and the rule of law. 
I knew Suzman quite well, but I had never heard her advance this. Yet it has a ring of veracity about it. Something gave her the will to fight. For 17 years she was the lone voice of reason. Then, in 1974, Gordon Waddell became the first progressive to join her in Parliament. 
 I remember that night well, because at long last a tiny crack had opened in the rigid facade of the apartheid government. Waddell was no light-weight, and I and another tall bloke were only too keen to put him down when we were so foolish as to raise him up in triumph. There was a car close at hand, and Waddell stood on the roof to make his victory speech - which was interrupted by the officer in charge of voting shrieking "Get off my blerry car!" We had to pay for the repairs to the dented roof. 
 So I leave you with the thought that none of us can lay claim to be right. We can have views, and as long as we have the freedom to express those views, then what is right and just will emerge. But attempts to shut down the debate, by declaring that there is 'consensus' or that is is wrong to publish 'falsehoods' miss the point - today's consensus is tomorrow's mistake. That is one of the things that makes life worth living.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


In the debate about climate change/global warming, there is a lingering question – how can many apparently sensible people question the findings of the IPCC?  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is one of the shining lights in the UN’s collection of bodies. Does it not represent the consensus views of many scientists from around the world?

Sadly, it does not.  But this leads to the question - how do you determine 'consensus'? It is difficult to go round asking people if they agree - you don't know if they are telling the truth, or they may give you misleading answers.  You may slant the question or fudge the answers to get the 'consensus' you desire - which has happened in this sphere recently, as shown by the flaws in the so-called '97% consensus' story.

 I think a good way to test consensus is to see what happen if you keep asking the same question.  Ask a question, see what the response is; ask it again, and see what the response is; ask it a third time, and then compare the responses.  Are there differences over time?  If not, then you have true consensus.

This should be one way in which the IPCC finds consensus.  The drafts of it's Assessment Reports go through three drafts before being published.  Each of those drafts is reviewed by hundreds of reviewers from all over the world.  Comments are carefully logged, and summarised by review editors.  Changes are made in texts and figures. The end result is supposed to represent the consensus view.

The latest IPCC Assessment Report went through the requisite three rounds of drafting. In September 2013, the report was published in final draft, “accepted by Working Group I of the IPCC but not approved in detail.”There was a key diagram in each of the first three drafts.  It showed how the most recent measurements of the global temperatures were diverging from predictions made in earlier Assessment Reports. 

In the first two rounds of drafting, the figure appeared with other figures comparing predictions to reality.  The First Order Draft, Technical Summary, TFE 3 Figure 1, p79 has it thus:-

The black dots represent the different estimates of global temperatures, the various coloured bands represent the predictions, and the grey band is supposed to represent the range of the various predictions.

The AR4 predictions were made in 2007, so by 2012 when the 2011 data was available, everyone was concerned that the measurements were well below the lower range of a prediction made only five years before. There were comments to the effect that this was an important finding, and in the third draft of AR5, the figure was moved up in importance and shown separately as Second Order Draft, Figure 1.4:-

 By time of the Third Draft, the full data for 2011 were available, and most of the data for 2012. When shown on this graph, they confirmed that the AR4 predictions were high.  So you would think consensus had been achieved.  The question as to whether this was a valid representation of the state of the science had been asked repeatedly, and the diagram had been accepted unchanged.  I and many other scientists accepted that there was a gap between what we had thought in 2007 would happen, and what by 2013 had actually happened, and were girding our loins to try to find the source of the problem.

Then September 2013 arrived, and with it the final draft:-:

The Final Draft Figure 1.4 was totally different - the scales had changed; the measurements had been slightly shifted, the predictions had been rebased,and the critical data, the comparison between reality and model, had been buried under a mound of spaghetti, being the output of a whole lot of models.  Now you could no longer see that there was a difference between model and reality, or that the earlier predictions were high. The simple message of the first three rounds of drafting had been lost. Instead somebody somewhere in the IPCC hierarchy had decided that the simple message was unacceptable, and what the scientists had shown with perfect clarity should instead be buried in a diagram of total incomprehensibility.

Governments everywhere had hoped the IPCC would provide them with sound advice. Slowly the truth is coming out - the IPCC would rather bury a simple message with sleight-of-hand than admit to an obvious shortcoming.  Tricky IPICCY indeed!