Friday, December 18, 2015

The Paris "Agreement"

All the excitement, the back-slappings, the hubbub is over, and the 40 000 have jetted back home. COP21 has come and gone. We have now had time to assess all 32 pages of the Paris Agreement.

In spite of the claims about saving the planet, there is little for your carbon comfort. Much of the Agreement has to do with noble intentions: ”Each Party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.” (Article 4.2) Legally binding? No! And wasn't there something about the path to Hell being paved with good intentions?

Much of the Agreement has to do with accounting: “Parties shall account for their nationally determined contributions. In accounting for anthropogenic emissions and removals corresponding to their nationally determined contributions, Parties shall promote environmental integrity, transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability and consistency, and ensure the avoidance of double counting - -.” (Article 4.13) It will be nice to be able to tell how rapidly we are committing carbon suicide (if indeed we are), but it is difficult to see how this is going to save the world.

An issue largely left unresolved is what to do about the big emitters who have emerged since 1992, when the Convention on Climate Change came into being. It is all very well for the Agreement to say “Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention. “ (Article 9.1), but there is no clarity of who is ‘Developed’ and who ‘Developing’. Which category does China fit into? Or South Africa, for that matter?

On the money, the Agreement is gloriously vague: “strongly urges developed country Parties to scale up their level of financial support, with a concrete roadmap to achieve the goal of jointly providing USD 100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation.” (Para IV, 54) In other words, for all the pious promises, S100 billion a year will not be available soon.

You will understand that I am seriously underwhelmed by the Paris Agreement. The fact that it is little more than hand-waving is made clear by Article 28: “1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification - -. 2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt - - of the notification of withdrawal, - -” An agreement from which you can opt out any time you feel so inclined? That’s no agreement!

As the Romans would have put it, “The mountains have been in labour, and given birth to a little mouse.” (Horace)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The hot-air balloon has gone up!

The 21st Conference of Parties has ground to a halt, predictably late. It has produced a 31-page Paris Agreement. It looks very like previous agreements, with much gnashing of teeth over climate threats. It is full of pious decides, also decides and further decides. But nearly all the decisions are about forming new committees, or making progress on earlier decisions. Decisions on real action are conspicuous by their absence, which is probably a merciful release for us all. The basis for carbon-cutting is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDC's. Most nations were urged, after COP 20 in Lima,to dream up ways they could cut their emissions. Many responded. The UNFCCC sausage machine ground up the INDC's and found that by 2030 the world would emit some 55 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, rather than the hoped-for 40 million tons. Note that the INDC's are only intended - there are lots of good intentions paving this particular path to hell. But right at the end, it becomes clear that all this teeth-gnashing has worn the poor molars away: "1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary. 2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal. 3. Any Party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from this Agreement." Some agreement!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Copious Parisian hot air.

I thought you would really REALLY like to know how the Paris talks are progressing. With three days to go to reach a consensus, I have the feeling that consensus is still a long way away: "Each Party shall regularly prepare, communicate [and maintain] [successive] ### and [shall][should][other][take appropriate domestic measures] [have in place][identify and] [pursue] [implement] [[domestic laws], [nationally determined] policies or other measures] [designed to] [implement][achieve][carry out][that support the implementation of] its ###]." I don't like to ask about "###" - I fear it may be something naughty and unfit for readers of this blog. But there it is, in all its triple hash glory, for all the world to see. What will they get up to next? The mind boggles at the idea of 40 000 people descending on poor Paris, to waste each others time in this way. Do they sincerely believe that they can control the global climate? Are they honest in their ambition? Do they really have a clue just how strong Mother Nature really is? Can they possibly be blind to how energy has made this world a better place to live in? Is it credible that the future they seem to believe in will prove achievable within the lifespan of those born today? Slowly the world is coming to the conclusion that violent storms must have stripped the UNFCCC emperors of their clothing - either that, or they were never properly dressed in the first place. Expect more hot air from Paris!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A really bad proposal!

Our Treasury has finally published a draft bill introducing a carbon tax.  They have been talking about it for years, and one would have hoped that had got it right by now.  They haven't. 

Of course, their timing couldn't be worse. The first protest came from the Chamber of Mines, which has requested a delay in the imposition of any carbon tax for five years.  It deserves every support.  

Our actual carbon emissions today are significantly lower than they were expected to be when the tax was first mooted.  The electricity crisis has increased the cost of power, which has made us more energy efficient, so that we are doing a little more with significantly less. Our economy is struggling for lack of power, but we are emitting about 80 million tons of carbon dioxide less than we were expected to do by this time. So any nudge to do more by imposing a carbon tax could well push our economy over the edge.  

Then we do not know what the outcome of the Paris discussions next month will be, but it is extremely unlikely that we will see any agreement of a legally binding nature, so there is no compulsion on us to try to cut our emissions further. 

It is also unlikely that any funds will be committed to assisting developing countries such as South Africa to reduce their emissions. It is eight years since we offered reductions if we got financial help. According to recent submissions by the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism to Parliament, we have received about R200 million in aid, but we have already committed over R260 billion to adaptation alone. Less than 0.1% aid is no aid at all.  I can only conclude that the developed nations are giving no more than lip service to promised $100 billion a year meant to support such activities.  

The draft Bill that has been published for comment has some extraordinary provisions.  For instance, you could be taxed for burning wood, or wood waste, or biofuels. “Oh, but we will give you 100% exemption!” is the response.  Really? How kind. The Bill doesn’t define fossil fuels or pollution.  Yet it treats carbon dioxide, the source of all life on earth, as a pollutant. 

Meanwhile, the evidence that a warmer world will be a disastrous one is lacking – while we hear daily that record X has been broken, an examination of the data for the past 150 years of warming reveals no trends of increasing frequency of anything other than warmer days - but that is just what you would expect in a warmer world.  

We do not need a carbon tax now. One fears that Treasury may need more revenue, but to raise it in the name of saving the world from a disaster of the world’s making is a very bad idea.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How do you tell if it is "extreme"?

There are constant claims that extreme events are becoming more frequent, but when you really dig down, you cannot see any trends even in long-term data.  Of course, the scaremongers claim that it hasn’t happened yet, but their models predict it is going to happen any day real soon now, just you wait! All agree it has been warming for at least the past 150 years.If there were any effect such as the models predict, surely we would have seen it by now? It surprises many, but there is no detectable trend in extreme events in the historical data sets. 

However, it is not quite straightforward.For instance, how do you define an extreme event, particularly with phenomena that are not normally distributed? Do you only have to consider the high extremes,or must you also consider the low extremes? And how many extreme events does it take to determine a baseline, let alone a trend? 

To illustrate the challenges, consider the longest rainfall record we possess, that of England and Wales, which has monthly data back to 1766. The annual totals are close to normally distributed, as shown in the figure. 
A multi-parameter distribution such as a Weibull would do a better job, but we can treat the distribution as normal for the purposes of this exercise. The average annual rainfall is 918mm with a standard deviation of 119mm. 

We would expect 12.5 extreme events in 250 years, if an extreme event is defined as one that exceeds the 95% confidence limits. The figure shows that there are seven such events above the upper limit and four below the lower, or 11 in total, where 12.5 had been expected.
Given the slight skewness of the data and the approximation of normality, the difference is not significant. What is significant, however, is that there is no detectable change in the frequency of the extreme events.Indeed, to detect such a change with any degree of confidence, you would need far more than eleven events or, in the present case, far longer than 250 years. So those who claim we are facing disaster from “climate change” need to reflect on the fact that even with a generous 95% measure of extremeness, it took 250 data points to approximate a baseline.How can we tell if an event is extreme if we have no baseline? 

Is 95% generous? I think it is.Engineers typically design for the 1:100 year event, not 5:100. For really critical structures, they may use the 1:1000 year event. By and large, the engineers have been successful in protecting us against all manner of natural forces.The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo; it had a magnitude of 7.9. The Great Tohoku earthquake of 2011, which caused the tsunami that destroyed the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, had a magnitude of 9.0 and the rebuilt, earthquake-proofed Tokyo was virtually unscathed.

When you hear that the effects of climate change will fall more strongly on poor nations, realize that it is probably true.However, it actually has nothing to do with climate change, and everything to do with some poorly engineered infrastructure in those nations.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Those naughty engineers at VW

“How could they have been so stupid?” is a question I have heard numerous times over the past few days. “How could they not have seen the risks?” “Purposely defeating testing must surely be criminal?”

I think the problem may be deeper than it seems.  Perhaps those clever engineers were too clever.  Perhaps they recognized some things that we need to recognize.  Perhaps they have identified  underlying challenges that need to be faced.

One challenge is the use of language in American law that allows perfectly natural processes to be described as harmful.  For instance, we may think we know what a “pollutant” is, but US law defines carbon dioxide as a pollutant. I’m not certain how they manage to avoid arresting every citizen for breathing, or destroying every plant, but in 2007, the US Supreme Court held that the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] the authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases. Two years later the EPA issued an endangerment finding that "greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare.”

In the same vein, nitrogen oxides, which the VW diesel evidently emits at up to 40 times the legal limit when not being tested, are natural substances, produced whenever there is a wildfire.  Wildfires are part of nature – many fynbos species require fire to propagate. Lightning makes nitrogen oxides.  Many decay processes lead to release of ammonia, which is converted into nitrogen oxides.  And the nitrogen oxides are essential substances for the growth of most plants.  These days we use artificial nitrogenous fertilizers rather than night soil to fertilize our crops.

The perceived problem is that humans produce excessive nitrogen oxides.  So, for instance, nitrogen oxides were supposed to contribute to “acid rain”.  That is an environmental scare about which we do not hear very much these days, because it turned out to be another “sky-is-falling-on-our-heads” problem.  The Germans are particularly aware of the failure of “acid-rain”. They were suckered into spending billions uselessly to prevent Waldsterben – forest death.  They love their forests, and were horrified to think that the “acid rain” might be killing them.  It transpired that the forests were dying of old age, and that the “acid rain” was actually nurturing them. All rain is acid. What happens when rain reaches the ground determines whether the runoff is acidic or alkaline.

A real environmental impact of nitrogen oxides is the “eutrophication” of water. Nitrogen, being a nutrient, can stimulate growth of plants and algae in water systems to the point where the systems become unstable and the whole system dies.  The problem arises particularly from excessive use of artificial fertilizers.  So, for instance, the Mississippi river is a rich source of nutrients and there are frequently dead zones in the ocean at its mouth.

The impact of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere is small.  Human-related emissions come largely from artificial fertilizers, sewerage works and animal feedlots, and to a lesser extent from the burning of fossil fuels. One of the oxides, nitrous oxide, is a potent greenhouse gas, but its concentration is very low, so that its impact is about one-ten thousandth that of the primary greenhouse gas, water vapour. It is also implicated in ozone destruction, but its effect is ameliorated by the fact that other nitrogen oxides help to form ozone at lower levels in the atmosphere.

How severe is the impact of vehicle emissions compared to all emissions, natural and anthropogenic? The EPA says about 40% of all emissions are anthropogenic, 75% of the anthropogenic emissions come from agriculture and only 5% from transport. So transport is responsible for 2% of the total emissions; aircraft, shipping, heavy construction and mining equipment, diesel-electric sets on trains and and the trucking industry are responsible for 80% of that.  So those awful VW diesels were making a small contribution to about 0.4% of the putative problem.

Perhaps the engineers at VW asked themselves some simple questions. How much is it worth spending to help reduce 0.4% of a putative problem? Are the limits set by a US regulator realistic?  Just because you can measure something, does it mean it is a problem? Is something which is predominantly natural a pollutant? Even if it is, when agriculture is the main source, isn’t that where it needs to be addressed?

American law is in danger of threatening all our lives, on the one hand by redefining our language and on the other by conferring power on Government agencies that in many cases have grown so powerful that they can no longer be controlled. These may well be behind the thinking that led the VW engineers to an economic solution to a non-problem.

Note well, I am NOT saying they were right to take the law into their own hands.  But I am saying that VW's reputation would have suffered far less if it and other car manufacturers had challenged the EPA in the court of law when the EPA first proposed its ridiculous limits.  The environment is not something to be protected at all costs. De minimis non curat lex.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

BIG projects

Everyone seems to agree that megaprojects should be avoided.  They are over time and over budget.  On these grounds, we shouldn't undertake them.

This isn’t new.  When I was involved in international construction, my bible was a 1988 study by the Rand Corporation of the problems associated with large civilian infrastructure projects.  Fifty-two projects of a value of over $500 million (1984$) were studied.  Only four came in on budget, and the average cost growth was 88%. In contrast, 18 projects were completed on time and the average time growth was 17%. 

The causes of the  overruns were identified.  Using new technology played a role; lack of familiarity with the construction techniques was another; institutional problems to do with environmental controls, labour practices and procurement restraints also loomed large. It was recommended that much more work went into the head-end design of the project to ensure that these factors were addressed as far as possible.

Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Medupi and Kusile are some of the largest coal-fired power stations in the world.  They are using supercritical technologies that are novel in South Africa. Eskom used to have the construction skills; they were lost over a decade ago when Government decided Eskom should no longer build power stations.  The stations have had desulphurization imposed on them for the most doubtful of environmental reasons.  They have been beset by union problems, which have even involved the destruction of construction equipment. They have had to maximize local procurement, and the acquisition of the major component, the boilers, was the subject of Government involvement.  The project starts were rushed when it was finally realized that we were about to run out of power. All the factors that are known to lead to cost and time growth were present.

So when people complain about the lack of information about our nuclear programme, perhaps they need to recognize that time spent in planning properly is time well spent, and when you are planning, there is very little information available to discuss.  

But above all, our nuclear planners need to read the update on the Rand report - Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies,and Practices for Success by Edward Merrow, available via Amazon.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Do we face nuclear disaster?

 One of the joys of blogging is eliciting comments from readers.  They are not always polite; sometimes they are downright rude, but at least you know they have taken the trouble to read what you have written, and been sufficiently moved to respond. 
Last month I wrote about the Eskom problem, and one of my friends commented that  what I had had to say made sense, but that I needed to consider our nuclear programme.  The cost seemed excessive, and did we have the skills to undertake such a massive project? So I duly thought some more.
We have a good idea how much our nuclear power programme is going to cost. It comes from the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2010). The financial basis was a very thorough study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), who reported a probable nuclear cost of the order of R30 000 to R35 000/kW for a fleet totalling 9600MW, or an overnight cost of R290 to R340 billion. EPRI also gave some estimates for the costs of renewable energy. Those estimates persuaded the Department of Energy to launch its highly successful renewable programme.
The draft of IRP2010 was discussed in open meetings across the nation. During the debate, the antinuclear lobby raised a great fuss about the nuclear cost. When Cabinet finally approved the Plan, it agreed to an arbitrary increase of 40% in the estimate.  Thus today the official estimate is R400 to R475 billion in 2010 Rand.  There is nothing mysterious or hidden about it. It has been widely debated, and modified in the light of the public debate.
Yet this has not satisfied some vocal minorities. They have proposed a figure of R1 trillion.  There is no basis for this estimate.  It is a figment of someone’s imagination. Yet some believe the figure, and criticize Government for not releasing the basis for its own estimate.  In fact, it is the other way round – Government has been open about the way it estimated the cost; the opponents of nuclear power have refused to give any basis for their guess.
Ultimately, however, the price will be that which is recorded in a construction contract.  Until that happens, it is actually pointless to haggle about the estimates – they are estimates, subject to a wide range of assumptions, and they are all we have until the assumptions become realities.
Government wants nuclear for the best of reasons.  One of the few statesmanlike actions of our President was his pronouncement in 2009, at the Copenhagen climate change gathering, that we would cut our greenhouse gas emissions provided we got financial and technical help.  It triggered an avalanche of goodwill and promises of billions in aid. Our nuclear programme is a major part of the war on carbon. This underlaid the IRP2010 recommendations.
It is wrong to assume that Government is only in it for the possibilities of diversion from a huge programme.  Of course, with this Government, any time you get tens of billions of taxpayers’ hard-won funds being spent, leakage is always possible. But this is not something that is exclusively nuclear.  It doesn’t matter what technology we choose. We will need an extra 80 terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy annually by the end of the 2020’s just to cope with our growing population. 80 TWh translates into an average generation capacity of about 9 GW. The capital cost behind an average kilowatt of energy is about R25 000.  Gas, coal and hydropower are somewhat cheaper, nuclear and renewables more costly, but R25 000 is a reasonable average. So 9GW will cost about R230 billion, whatever the technology employed. 
There have been pronouncements of economic doom at the prospect of spending so much.  However, we have committed to funding R200 billion of renewable energy. That is only going to yield about 10TWh per annum – I did say renewables were capital-intensive, didn’t I? Thus far, there have been no suggestions of misdirection of the money spent on the renewables programme.  Perhaps Government can sometimes be trusted to keep its hands out of the till.
The choice of nuclear has been dictated by the desire to reduce our carbon footprint.  Gas would not make such a large impact.  Gas emits less carbon than coal for a given quantity of energy produced, but we have no gas.  Hydropower would be a low-carbon option, but South Africa has no hydro potential. We would have to import it.  There are proposals to develop the Inga project on the Congo, which could potentially yield 200TWh per year, but it is a long way away.
Some people believe that wind or solar could meet our needs.  The problem is that both cost more than nuclear to build.  Using the figures from the EPRI report, wind would cost about R15 000 per kW installed.  However, it only delivers its installed power about 25% of the time, so the effective cost per deliverable kW is about R60 000.  Similarly, photovoltaics cost about R20 000 per kW installed, but deliver the installed power about 20% of the time, so they cost about R100 000/kW deliverable. Other renewables suffer from a similar high capital cost per deliverable kW.
We have managed to fund our renewable energy programme with power purchase agreements, so the capital cost is effectively hidden from the consumer.  But if 10TWh has required R200 billion in capital, then if it were all renewable energy, it would cost  around R1.6 trillion in today’s money to build the 80TWh we need by the end of the 2020’s, a good deal more than the equivalent nuclear programme.
Renewables are supposed to cost very little to run – they get their energy for free.  However, it is easily forgotten how recently the technology has developed.  The first 2.5MW wind turbine, today’s standard size, began operation in 2005.  The faults in the design were such that the company which developed it went out of business in 2012.  It is hoped that our fleet of turbines will last 25 years.  The life of European machines is more of the order of 15 years.  It is argued that they were an earlier generation to designs that were still evolving (which is true), but they were also smaller and therefore less highly stressed than the modern machines. One of the financial risks of the renewables is whether they can repay their capital investment over a shortened life.
Similar remarks may be made about all other renewable options except hydro power.  In contrast, nuclear power has demonstrated a long and predictable life. In many cases, a sinking fund has been established to ensure safe decommissioning. The long life has meant that the sinking fund is more than adequate to fund the end-of-life costs.  This is certainly the case with our own Koeberg.
Government is not being pig-headed in pursuing nuclear.  We need power, and if the power has to be low-carbon, then we have very limited options.  Not having enough energy is disastrous to the economy. Every kWh not delivered when it is needed costs the economy about R75.  We need to add about a quarter to our generating capacity over the next 15 years.  Nuclear can achieve that.

ISIS and all that

One of the great experiences of my life was an exploration of the Middle East.  Seven years ago, in 2008, Angela and I traveled through Jordan, Syria and Iran.  We went to many of the great sites on antiquity.  The three P's, Petra, Palmyra and Persepolis were the greatest, and Palmyra the greatest of the three.

I wrote up our experiences in another blog, and went to look at it again today, to remind myself I wasn't dreaming. And there, indeed, was the pretty temple of Baal Shamaan.

 Inside there was a tree growing that, we told ourselves, would surely one day destroy the temple.
We were wrong - today came the news that ISIS had done the ridiculous, they had blown up this ancient monument, which had survived since 150A.D. One has to ask what they thought they were doing, other than wasting a lot of explosives.  Did the temple offend their sensibilities?  Are they really so sensitive that the workmanship of the ancients makes them feel guilty? Belief is so irrational.

But today also brought the news that the British Embassy in Tehran had re-opened. 
We were privileged to spend a few days there in 2008, and were amazed at its splendid grounds in a park in the middle of the city.  The Brits were asked to leave a few years later, but now they are back. Something ISIS has yet to learn - the more things change, the more they remain the same!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Will Eskom survive?

My phone rang - "Could you come and talk to us?" 

"Who are you?" I replied. 

"I'm a parliamentary researcher," he said.

"Well, what do you want me to talk about?" I asked.

"Should we give Eskom the R30 billion they are asking for. Can you advise us?'

And so it was that I and an economist friend, Rob Jeffrey, found ourselves before the Standing Committee on Appropriations, talking about more money than I usually discuss. We said that if Eskom were truly a business, its shareholders would ask what it intended to do to get out of the mess.  Instead, there has been an awful silence, as if going bankrupt were something to be faced with stoicism.

The end result is that Parliament has managed to refinance Eskom by selling off Vodacom.  Nowhere has there been any discussion of what should be done do avoid a slow, insidious decline into dysfunction. 

We identified a prime cause of the problem as being a disturbed cash flow. This was the result of political demands being made on something that should be governed by economics not politics.  For example, back in 1999, there was the political decision to forbid Eskom to build the next big coal-fired power station.  This was somewhat irrational, because Eskom had both the experience and the skills to build power stations and bring them on line within budget and on time. It demonstrated this definitively as it completed the Majuba power station. Every year for 6 years a new unit came on line on 1 April. Medupi and Kusile have only too clearly shown that the experience and those skills are critically important if you are going to build power stations.

Recently, there has been the decision to require Eskom to purchase coal from some small, Black-owned coal mines at a cost of over R450/t, when the going rate from the large mines is less than R200.  Now there is nothing wrong with providing a subsidy to achieve socially desirable ends, but there is everything wrong in hiding that subsidy within a Public Enterprise. Eskom has squeaked about the cost of coal, Government has thundered about the need to stop exports, and then remembered that coal exports are now one of the things that keep this economy afloat.

There are several other examples of political decisions that have contributed to the destruction of what was once a thriving and efficient business.  It must be stressed that we are not criticizing the political decisions as such – South Africa is a democracy, and we all have to live with our political decisions.  Our concern is that Government has seen fit to load the costs of these decisions on Eskom.  Because it is a business with a huge cash flow, it has been able to carry the costs for just so long.  Now the back of the camel is broken.

This is why we have thought long and hard about what needs to happen to restore Ekom to its historical functionality.  We believe the solution is to identify the parts of the business that should be in open competition, and excise them so that when called on to perform a political function, that function can be properly costed and seen as a subsidy.

It would be simple to create an electricity supply company, responsible for generation of electricity as a national asset.  It would be called ESCO, and would be in open competition with, for instance, the renewable energy generators and the new breed of co-generators that the Department of Energy is fostering.  ESCO would hold the present generation facilities of ESKOM, and it could build new facilities using the sort of financing model employed with such success in the Department’s Renewable Energy programme.  That programme has raised nearly R200 billion against nothing more than long-term power purchase agreements, which will bring us of the order of 8 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electrons annually. R200 billion could buy somewhere between a fifth and half of the nuclear power programme, which would yield between 15 and 40TWh of electrons - cheap at the price.

Equally, it would be simple to create a company to distribute electricity. It would be called EDCO, and it would be in competition with municipalities and others who wished to enter the market. ESKOM already distributes about half of South Africa’s power, so EDCO could readily be set up and have both a significant cash flow and a strong asset base.  It would need to have Government support to enforce collection, but once achieved, the business would be self-sustaining and could yield a reasonable dividend.

There remains the question of how to get the electrons from the generators to the distributors.  We have a national highway that performs this duty.  One of the problems is that it is not presently cost-reflective – it doesn’t matter how far the electrons have to travel, or what the losses are along the way, the cost of transport is nominally the same. There is no apparent cash flow to create a business. The transmission grid is a huge asset, but it needs to expand.  Funding the expansion has been a direct charge on the national purse.

We believe that this, fundamentally, is the reason why Parliament has struggled for nearly a decade to create an Independent System and Market Operator (ISMO).  Eskom already performs all the functions of an ISMO.  We envisage creation of an electricity transmission commission, ETCOM, to buy electricity from ESCO and other generators and to sell to EDCO, municipalities and any other distributors.  Initially ETCOM would take over the transmission assets of Eskom. Its capital requirements would remain largely a charge on the fiscus.  However, it would need to develop a model for the costing of power transmission. Electricity should cost less in eMalahleni, next to the power stations, than in Johannesburg.

ETCOM would initially be a commission, funded from the fiscus.  As its economic model evolved, it might be possible to allow competition into the space.  For example, the ESCO generation unit called Koeberg might contract directly with the City of Cape Town for the provision of power down the City’s own transmission line, who would pay less than for the power they bought from ETCOM, who in turn had transported the power from Mpumalanga. As competition emerged, ETCOM could slowly morph into being a company in its own right.

We see a major role for the National Energy Regulator, NERSA, in regulating this process as it develops.  At present NERSA operates in a difficult morass, particularly with power transmission not being cost reflective.  Trying to price power requires the annual production of a 200-page report. We can foresee it growing its role to the point where licensing new generation facilities or new entrants to the distribution market become more important than the task of trying to cost electricity nationally. It would be far simpler to monitor the costs of the production of power with an identifiable business, ESCO. With EDCO pricing distribution, it would be far simpler to bring under control those municipalities who are at present overcharging to balance their books.

We need a path forward to ensure that Eskom survives. The national investment in refinancing must not become a case of throwing good money after bad. Our model may not be perfect, but we believe it to be rational and to provide an essential element in a debate that is currently not being held. Let the debate begin!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Our nuclear future

On Friday last week, Government finally tabled the nuclear agreements it had reached with Russia, China, France and Canada.  After all the ranting about how we were being committed to a trillion rand without knowing who was offering what, the agreements were a decidedly damp squib.  They laid out the principles for co-operation on matters nuclear, and made no commitments whatsoever.

That does not prevent the nuclear critics from banging on, particularly about the cost.  The official estimate in 2010 was R400 million; an NGO quickly inflated that to a possible trillion. One of the most vociferous of the nuclear critics, Prof Steve Thomas of the University of Greenwich, has recently paid us a visit and stressed his estimate of the possible costs of our programme. One would have thought he would have had enough to do about Britain’s energy policy without telling us what to do with our own.

The simple fact of the matter is that it barely matters what the capital cost of our future nuclear plant will be.  What matters is the cost at which it will produce power.  That is the lesson from our very successful renewable energy programme. The capital committed to that programme now amounts to about R190 billion, approaching half the expected lower cost of the nuclear programme.  Yet it is producing affordable power, at a price which is funding the capital expenditure.

The Department of Energy has cut its commercial teeth with the renewables.  It now seeks to use those teeth on nuclear procurement. Can the University of Greenwich really teach us anything? Britain’s renewable programme has been sustained by huge subsidies, which the new Conservative government has decided to cut.  Its nuclear build programme is ‘interesting’ – it has purchased two reactors to a design that is proving very difficult to build and which is not yet in service, at a very high capital cost. It is currently relying on importing power from Europe and Ireland to balance its grid. Perhaps Prof Thomas’ skills are needed at home.

What few of the nuclear critics will recognise is that our nuclear programme is part of the IRP2010 proposals. These were extensively discussed by everyone who had any interest in our energy future, and finally agreed by Cabinet in March 2012. So the programme is nothing more than was agreed after a very wide-ranging consultation.  It is not something dreamt up to enrich a few politicians - although the risks of that happening are very real.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Jane Austen update

Having been born on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, I have always had a soft spot for Jane Austen. So, wondering what we could do on the evening before Wukkers Day, I spied "Pride and Prejudice" at my local theatre.

The theatre is in a converted house, and the owner, Nicholas Ellenbogen, handcrafted the 80-odd seats. The stage is unusual - there is no exit opposite prompt, and the exit downstage effectively opens onto the street. Idiosyncratic it may be, but it is local and it can be fun. 

Armed with two pensioner seats, we strolled down the road just in time for the curtain rise. Up a short flight of stairs, into the roof, past the light-&-sound man, and there were two seats made just for us. 

The show started gloomily, but soon took off with the arrival of some drunken servants. The lord of the house was away, so they decided to have a play, and the play was to be the story of the lord and his lady - and so we were launched into P&P. 

 I don't think I have laughed so much in years. Certainly at the interval, I needed a drink - to replace the tears that had been flowing down my cheeks! The cast was too small, so everyone doubled up, and there was room for some handsome mops to fill out their numbers. Costume and character changes were lightning fast, and the scene changes were masterpieces of minimalism - a dish of vegetables did for the home, a pair of horse statues for the grand house, and a roll of green carpet for the gracious lawns. There were moments of poignancy, as when Darcy wrote to Elizabeth and she read his letter. The closing scene was one of high drama and comedy all rolled into one. 

Matthew Roberts wrote the play and played just about every role; Hilda Cronje made a very credible Elizabeth, and appeared a true Austen heroine; Cameron Robertson was a moody Darcy; Nathan Lynn did a good falsetto to pull off the skirt role of Mrs Bennett;and Dominique Maher was a sympathetic sister. 

As we walked home under a nearly full moon, my wife remarked that, as the curtain came down, she had been surprised to see how small the cast really was. Such was the energy, the changing of roles, the changing of scenes, that you quite forgot what huge talents you had been enjoying. Who needs a cast of thousands?

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Bureaucrats in Pursuit of the Invisible

On 1 April this year I received an invitation that, at first reading, I was convinced was a joke.  Could I attend a Treasury meeting to consider a proposal to set up a huge bureaucracy to administer the running of all industry? Whatever else I knew about our government and its policies, I could not credit that we had stooped to the folly of central planning.  I had had experience of Russia in its darkest days, when Moscow ran out of lady’s underwear (don’t ask me how I know!). Surely no-one of sound mind would wish to resuscitate that system?

But no, it was not a joke.  Our Treasury had hired some Dutch consultants to advise them on setting up a system to determine Z-factors, “to reward companies that have taken voluntary and early action to reduce their GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

This is eco-colonialism at its worst.  Europe is struggling with its failed carbon trading system, which has cost it billions of Euros in VAT fraud alone. The value of carbon has fallen to less than €7 per tonne, and is not expected to rise until at least 2020.  At €7, not only have those who invested heavily when it was over €20 per tonne lost their shirts, but it now pays to build new coal-fired power stations. According to the Guardian (22-1-2015) “The Exchange Trading Scheme is currently experiencing a glut of more than 2 billion allowances as a result of factors including massive oversupply and recession.” Yet we are buying European services to tell us how to make the same mistake.

The flaws in thinking are manifold.  First, anything South African companies did to reduce their GHG emissions would be lost amidst the surging emissions of other developing countries.  Every year for the past ten years, China’s and India’s carbon emissions have grown by an average of 520 and 90 million tonnes respectively; South Africa’s total carbon emissions in 2013 were 440 million tonnes.

Secondly, the whole of the climate scam is in disarray.  The saturnine head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], Dr Pachauri, has been forced to resign after two scandals, one involving some singularly inappropriate emails to a junior female employee and another in which he went around telling stories about Himalayan glaciers disappearing, and then got a huge grant to study what turned out to have been a non-problem all along. A study of the records of the Global Historical Climate Network [GHCN] has shown that temperatures have indeed climbed during the past century due to human interference – by the staff of the GHCN, which has “homogenized” most of the historical data downwards and much of the recent data upwards.  These adjustments have artificially added about 0.35oC to the reported 0.8oC temperature rise. Just to add to the destruction of the Carbon Causes Chaos theory, global temperatures had been warm but stable for the past 18 years, when theoretically it should have heated by another 1oC. Moreover, the “fingerprint” of climate change, the warming of the upper troposphere faster than the earth’s surface, has not happened.  The much-vaunted Conference of Parties in Paris in November this year seems likely to make even less progress than the 20 such Conferences that have gone before.

All of this means that the rationale for curbing our greenhouse gas emissions is weak at best. In this light we have to ask whether it is sensible to set up a bureaucracy to licence industry. Of course, Treasury has talked of “rewards”, but we would be donkeys to think that such carrots did not come without sticks. The Z-factors would also be there to punish industries that did not reduce their GHG emissions.

The point of licensing industry arises from the Department of Environmental Affairs’ White Paper “National Climate Change Response” 2011. This was based upon the Long-Term Mitigation Scenarios, which should immediately warn any reader that the basis is flawed.  Scenarios explore extreme positions; you can then draw up practical plans between the extremes. The Department’s plan sits firmly on the lower scenario – it is by definition not practical.

The Department intends to define the “desired emission reduction outcomes for each sector and sub-sector of the economy - -.”  It would draw up “Carbon Budgets for significant GHG emitting sectors and/or sub-sectors - -.”  “Companies and economic sectors or sub-sectors for whom desired emission reduction outcomes have been established” would be required “to prepare and submit mitigation plans that set out how they intend to achieve the desired emission reduction outcomes.”

So there would be an Emissions Director within the Department who would have the authority to agree how much GHG the company could emit. As emissions are very strongly related to energy consumption, in practice the Emissions Director would determine each company’s permissible energy use. Because energy is one of the essential inputs to production, the Emissions Director would have control of every aspect of South Africa’s productive capacity.

Fortunately somewhat wiser counsel has prevailed at the National Treasury.  Its 2010 Discussion Paper specifically recognized the problem – “There are two options: an upstream tax at the point where fuels enter the economy, according to their carbon content; or a downstream tax on emitters at the point where fuels are combusted. The administrative costs and complexity of an upstream tax are significantly lower.”

In spite of this, the 2013 Carbon Tax Policy Paper still has a role for the Emissions Director – “The DEA will approve the appropriate emissions factors and procedures - - . “  It will “introduce mandatory reporting of GHG emissions for entities, companies and installations that emit in excess of 100 000 tons of GHGs annually, or consume electricity that results in more than 100 000 tons of emissions from the electricity sector.”  

 It was in the light of this that Treasury decided to ask the eco-colonialists to draw up “benchmarks” and Z-factors against which individual industry emissions could be measured.  Duly a massive (255-page) tome was prepared covering iron & steel, ferroalloys, cement, petroleum, chemicals, pulp & paper and sugar industries. Fortunately, perhaps, it is a case of Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus [1](Horace), because for most industries there are no data of any worth.

So it seems likely that Treasury, when it finally gets round to taxing carbon, will tax upstream rather than downstream.  Administratively this is much simpler.  Environmental Affairs’ desire to establish a carbon kingdom may be stillborn, which is probably no bad thing.  But we are still left with a possible carbon tax. Is it likely to have any effect?

The answer is almost certainly not.  The prices of petrol and diesel have oscillated widely in recent years.  The demand for these fuels has grown steadily in spite of the price changes.  In economic terms, the demand is inelastic.

What this means is that a carbon tax is an exercise in futility. A tax on energy is unlikely to have any impact on our carbon emissions.  Have you seen any fewer 4x4s on our roads since they were taxed in the name of saving the planet?  Have you used much less electricity because coal-sourced power is levied? What is more important – growing our economy or doing our insignificant bit to save the world from carbon chaos?   

[1] The mountains have given birth to a ridiculous mouse.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

How sustainable is development?

The phrase "sustainable development" has become a sort of word-in-itself.  You can't talk about development without adding the word sustainable.

The trouble is that sustainabledevelopment is really undefined.  There have been noble attempts - everyone remembers the Brundtland story:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Great stuff, but completely useless - you can't dig up something to keep your world going, because that means future generations won't be able to dig it up. The resources of the world are finite, right?

Recently I mulled over the paradox that we never seem to run out of non-renewable things like oil, but we are always running out of renewable things like rhinos and whales and fish and elephant.  There has, of course, been a thesis that we should already have run out of oil - it was called "peak oil" and a man called Hubbard who had worked for Shell developed the theory back in the 1960's. 

 However, in 1945 the world had 25 years of known oil; by 1970 we had used up all that oil, but by then had 30 years left. By 2000 we had used up all the 1970 oil, but by then had 40 years left.  Today we have used up 15 of the 40 years, but we have 55 years left.  What gives?

My resolution of the paradox was that, yes, the renewable resources are indeed finite, but the non-renewable stuff is not measured by the resource but by the reserves, and reserves are something quite different.  They depend on price and technology, and technology is the measure of human ingenuity, so the reserve is flexible and potentially expandable, whereas the poor old renewables have to fend for themselves.

In exploring this in a full-blown paper, I was led to separate sustainabledevelopment back into two words, and ask just what was "sustainable" and just what we meant by "development".  When I tried to publish the paper, one reviewer sniffily reported that I didn't understand sustainabledevelopment, which was rather unhelpful, and another made some useful comments about my economics, but complained I had "merely" used some widely available data, so could not recommend publication.  I am still trying to get the paper published, but recognize how truly politically correct sustainabledevelopment has become.

Of course, its political correctness flows from its being blessed by the United Nations. There are regular conferences on the topic.  One, back in 2000, set up six Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. 15 years down the line, it is gratifying to be able to report on the success:
  • Reduce extreme poverty by half - it has been reduced by over 70% already
  • Achieve gender equality in education - achieved by 2012
  • Halve the proportion of the population without access to improved drinking water - bettered; it has been reduced by 60%
  • Reduce child mortality by two-thirds - only managed a 44% reduction by 2013
  • Reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters - only managed to halve by 2013
  • Universal primary education - up from 80% in 1990 to 92% in 2013
In September this year, there will be another such conference.  You would think that, buoyed by the success of the Millennium goals, they would see the merit of keeping things simple.  But no, this is the United Nations.  The September conference is to consider a new set of SustainableDevelopment Goals - 169 in all! Focused it is not. 

My hero, Bjorn Lomborg and his Copenhagen Consensus have tried to offer some prioritization. They have found 18 of the goals which have some hope of giving real value, mainly simple things like improving treatment of malaria, immunising more children against preventable childhood diseases and wider use of family planning.  

But far too many of the 169 are politically correct globspeak:
By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of the culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture's contribution to sustainable development.

As The Economist commented, "Try measuring that!" 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Rhodes's legacy

There was a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the foot of the steps leading to the centre of the University of Cape Town.  He was honoured because he had donated the land on which the University sits.  It is a magnificent site, probably one of the most dramatic sites for any university in the world, nestling under the crags of Devil's Peak with a view across the Cape Flats to distant mountains, with oceans to left and right.
However, Rhodes’ statue has become, in the words of one Stephen Grootes, the “equivalent of a racist swastika.” Worse, he says the Rhodes scholarships “were really set up with the intent of creating more white men like him with the same ideals.” Unfortunately Grootes shows himself to be as bigoted and racist as he claims Rhodes was.  Any reading of Rhodes’ Will shows him to be surprisingly wise, prescient and even pacifist.

For instance, clause 24 of the Will is unequivocal – “No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions.” For 1901 this was an extraordinary qualification – racism was rife at that time.  Five years later a man from central Africa named Ota Benga was exhibited in the monkey house of the Bronx zoo as part of an exhibit on evolution.”[1] No-one who has any sense of history and the way in which what is “normal” can change can fail to recognize that Rhodes was way ahead of his time. Clearly Rhodes did not want to create “more white men like him with the same ideals.”

There is a thesis popular in politically correct circles that Rhodes did not mean “race” when he said “race”.  The thesis holds that Rhodes understood “race” to define other classes of whites like boers. If this were so, then Rhodes was a racist as now understood. 

I think the argument is nonsense.  First, by saying “qualified or disqualified” he made it quite clear that he wanted the scholarships to be fully inclusive.  Secondly, his inclusiveness extended to religion.  We need to remember that anti-semitism was rife at that stage.  Indeed, Rhodes paid £5,338,650 for the assets of Kimberley Central, the largest cheque ever written, so consolidating the Kimberley mine. Part of the deal required Barney Barnato of Kimberley Central to become a member of the Kimberley Club, which up to that time had excluded Jews such as Barnato. So for Rhodes to call on the Trustees to ignore “religious opinions” was as wise as his call to ignore race.

Apollon Davidson quotes Rhodes as saying "I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour." Further, the Rhodes Trustees chose the first Black Rhodes Scholar only five years after Rhodes' death, in 1907, so they certainly did not view "race" any differently. So saying that he did not mean "race" as we understand it, but some politically correct interpretation of his meaning of "race", is absolute nonsense. And just to clinch things, it helps to remember that when Rhodes was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, over 40% of the electorate were non-white - on a qualified franchise, to be true, but enfranchised nevertheless.

Of course, he failed to recognize the potential of women, but he was a man of his times.  Britain only gave a qualified franchise to women in 1918 and full franchise in 1928.

That he wanted men with ideals is undoubted. Clause 23 of the Will says that students “elected to the Scholarships shall not be merely bookworms - -.” Of course, they had to have achieved excellence in literary and scholarly things, and in “manly outdoor sports.” They had to show qualities of “truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.” Above all Rhodes sought “moral force of character and instincts to lead” because he believed this would guide the Scholar “to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.” 

The Scholars have borne out Rhodes’ hopes.  The list of past Scholars includes a host of household names, many of whom have attained the peak of academic excellence, or become leading jurists and scientists.  Among them there is, of course, Bill Clinton, 42nd US President, and the forthcoming election may well have a Rhodes Scholar candidate for US Presidency, Bobby Jindal, who was conceived in India, imported into America in his mother’s womb, and is presently the Governor of Louisiana.  I know of no other scholarship which has had such a history of success in identifying future leaders of the global society.

But I was really struck by Rhodes’ foresight when I came to a late codicil. “I leave five yearly scholarships at Oxford - - to students of German birth, the scholars to be nominated by the German Emperor - -. The object is that an understanding between the three great powers will render war impossible, and educational relations make the strongest tie.”  This in 1901?  Victoria was still on the throne, and her nephew was the German Emperor. Yet Rhodes foresaw even the possibility of war between the nations, and took such steps as he could to strive for peace. 

Perhaps after all the rage over his duplicitousness towards Lobenguela, Rhodes’ basic pacifist instinct can be recognized.  How else can one understand Lobenguela’s Bayete salute at Rhodes’ burial?

So yes, the Rhodes statue is a reminder of the excesses of colonialism, and that leaves traces of anger even today.  But no, he did much that was good and for that he needs to be remembered.  Move him near the grave of the first Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Sir John Carruthers Beattie.  It is a peaceful spot in the woods, just off the track that Rhodes used to ride on his way to the prominence where his Memorial now stands.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

A departy?

When I first left school, the section of the school magazine devoted to past pupils suddenly became of more interest.  There was a fascination in seeing who was marrying, who was fathering, and even who was dying. There was a section devoted to those who had attained the great age of 80 during the past three months.  In the 1950's, the list of surviving geriatrics was three or four names.  Today it spreads over pages.  It is a graphic indication of how our life expectancy has increased during my own life.

The result is that these days I get invited to more and more 80th  birthday celebrations.  Last night it was time to cheer an old friend, but the cheer was decidedly dampened by the announcement that ten days ago he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, that the cancer had metastasized, and that he had only days to live.He was there, looking pale and on a crutch because his sense of balance had been affected, but he greeted us all. Eighty close friends sat down to dinner in his home, after snacking our way through a mountain of oysters.  The wine flowed freely - his wife is a true connoisseur of good vintages - and the talk was loud.

Then the speeches started, and they were wonderful. His wife of 30 years spoke of the exciting times they had had together.  His eldest stepson produced some of the finest quotes from the ex-editor's writing, and made an interesting observation - in days past, the elderly usually  lived with their family, and death was a familiar experience, while sex was something unspoken and behind closed doors.  Today, sex is out in the open, and the elderly die in old-age homes so the young never experience it at close hand!

Then it was the turn of our 80-year old host to speak.  He used a microphone, but his voice was firm and strong.  He told us of his early life, of being tortured by his schoolmates whenever he spoke English in a predominantly Afrikaans area.  He told us how, when he was 10, images of the German concentration camps displayed in the window of a Jewish shop in his country town turned him into a hater of Fascism.  When he was 15, the story of a Russian escaping from a Stalinist prison camp in Kamchatka turned into a hater of Communism.  These two stakes in the ground had defined his political positions all his life.

His early life in Fleet Street had led to a series of alcoholic adventures.  He expressed his heartfelt thanks to the kind, warm people of Alcoholics Anonymous who had taken him in, dried him out, and returned him to life.  He told of returning to a career in journalism, of being given editorship of a prestigious daily and the public disturbances that followed his appointment, of his time as editor of the largest weekend paper with a circulation of over a million, and how he had successfully annoyed virtually everyone at one time or another. He closed by thanking us all for coming to his party, and he was certain that this was the last time he would see us.  Then he moved around the room, talking to each in turn, saying farewell.

I found it incredibly moving - so much so that when someone asked me how I felt about the party, I could only respond with a neutral "Most interesting!" He snorted.

But having had an opportunity to sleep on the matter, I have come to grips with the sadness of impending loss of an old friend.  I think it was a marvellous occasion.  How often have we thought at a funeral how limited was the picture of the dead one's life - this time we had had a picture from the heart and it rang with glorious truth.How often at the wake after a funeral had we reflected that the dead one would really have enjoyed the party - this time, he had.

I think there should be more celebrations like this.  We need a word to describe them.  Would "departy" fit the bill?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The dangers of television

I rarely watch television.  We have a set at home. Once I tried to turn it on and failed.  I told my wife.  She said "Oh! I tried it three weeks ago and it didn't seem to be working then." It was repaired, but still gets little use.

When there was excitement about the State of the Nation Address, a friend, knowing of my telephobia, kindly invited me to join him and a political friend in observing the great ceremony. We sipped generous gins-and-tonic as we steeled ourselves for the event, and tried to get enthusiastic as the cameras showed dignitaries strolling self-consciously up the red carpet.  Finally the State President arrived in a very ordinary-looking van with what I presume were bullet-proof windows. After all the fancy black cars and 4x4s, it was something of a shock to see the presidential carriage so apparently modest.

Inside Parliament, there was a measure of chaos.  Various factions were chanting away -"Pay back the money" - "We love Zuma" - "Bring back the signal." The last became the operative call for a while, until the Speaker told Parliament's Secretary to turn off the jamming device and allow Members to talk to the outside world.

Finally, the State President rose to speak.  Soon, he was interrupted by an Economic Freedom Front speaker, asking a question in terms of one of the rules of the House.  The Speaker did not respond with a ruling on the rule, she merely informed him that the question was inadmissible.  This brought the leader of the EFF to his feet, to object to the effect that the rule cited by his fellow allowed a question, and that the Speaker's response was wrong.  Things soon got out of hand, with the Speaker ordering the Black Rod to escort the two EFF members from the House, them refusing to go (which was, in point of fact, breaking a rule of Parliament, to leave when so ordered by the Speaker) and the Speaker then calling in security to enforce her ruling - and the screen went blank, the goons stormed in, the whole of the EFF was bundled out, Zuma sat roaring with laughter at the spectacle, and the screen returned. (I later watched a video taken from the public gallery to find out what actually happened when the broadcast was censored).

Thus to the first real question - why was the whole of the EFF group removed?  The Speaker had only called on two of its members to leave. The remainder had every right to be there.  

When proceedings resumed, members of the Democratic Alliance were on their feet.  Who were these goons? Were they members of the police?  Neither the Speaker nor the Secretary of the Council of Provinces (who was joint chair of the meeting) would answer the direct question.  Finally the Secretary said she could not tell from where she sat whether or not they were police, and that was enough for the DA to walk out, joined by some other parties.  

Thus to the second real question - what were the police doing in the House, as seems most likely?  The police force is part of the executive arm of government, and have no place in the legislature.

The affair got under way again, this time with a half-empty house.  A member rose - Chief Mangosuthu Buthulezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and he was allowed to make a rather rambling speech about what had happened being a disgrace.  The remaining members cheered, but was Buthulezi criticising the behaviour of the opposition or that of the government?  What he said could easily have applied to the latter.

Finally Zuma was allowed to finish his address.  He stumbled badly along the way, at one stage reading "1" as "I" before realizing his mistake.  Throughout he smiled and joked, and given the seriousness of what had just happened, I came to the conclusion that he must have been taking some form of tranquillizer.  Only a "happy pill" could have produced such a reaction in such awful circumstances.

Afterwards, I watched an interview with the leadership of the DA.  The most telling comments came from that latter-day Margaret Thatcher, our own Helen Zille.  The rules of the House had been broken in ways that showed clearly that the executive had absolutely no respect for democratic institutions. Others had broken the rules, too, but this did not excuse the executive for its breaches of the constitution.  If you wanted to seek the origin of the executive's intransigence, you need look no further than the president, who had broken rule after rule in his pursuit of power. The nation is clearly in a very bad state.

I did not sleep happily that evening. It comes from watching too much television.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The problems that belief can cause

Unfounded beliefs can cause awful tragedy.  The Americans fought a disastrous war in Vietnam because they believed the Vietnamese were in league with the Chinese communists.  Years and thousands of wasted lives later, they found out that the Vietnamese and the Chinese had been at odds for a millennium. And Blair's belief in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had Britain joining the Americans in wrecking Iraq, again with countless thousands of dead.

Of course, the moment you start to consider the futility of religious wars, the folly of ill-founded belief becomes only too obvious.  But I am more concerned with beliefs that are at least demonstrably on the shakiest of grounds.  In particular, those where there is good science to establish a strong base for disbelief.

Of course, I immediately recognize the problem in that weasel word "good." How do you tell good science from bad?  The philosopher Karl Popper is my favorite source for answering this question.  In essence, one of his strongest tests is that a good scientific finding is one that is independently replicable. If I scientist tell you non-scientist that I did X and Y was the result, and I also tell you how I did X, and you follow my recipe and Y happens, then you have a strong basis for believing that X causes Y. That is good science.

Of course, we may not have established the true basis for the link between X and Y, but at least we have a working hypothesis on which to found further questions.  And by linking a whole body of questions and their testable answers, we can build a world view that possesses a strong logic.  Armed with such a view, the need for belief in answering new questions weakens.

We may ultimately find that the link between X and Y is fortuitous, and that there is a better answer which improves our world view.  That, of course, is precisely what happened when Einstein linked mass and energy and overthrew Newton's view of the world which had directed our thoughts for over 200 years. But Newton's world is still taught in our schools, because it answers many of our day-to-day questions with adequate precision.

However, today there is a new problem. Bad science can give rise to disastrous beliefs.  There is an excellent example in the bad science of one Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published a paper in the prestigious Lancet claiming a link between inoculation and bowel disease which in turn caused autism in children.  It was bad science, because it turned out not to be replicable. Wakefield was eventually charged with fraud and found guilty, while Lancet withdrew the paper.

However, many felt that the risk of inoculation causing autism was unacceptable, and refused to have their children inoculated.  Seventeen years later the results are becoming apparent.  From America comes news of children being "sent home from school. Their families are barred from birthday parties and neighborhood play dates. Online, people call them negligent and criminal. And as officials in 14 states grapple to contain a spreading measles outbreak - -, the parents at the heart of America’s anti-vaccine movement are being blamed for incubating an otherwise preventable public-health crisis." (New York Times 30 Jan)

The human tragedies that the fear of inoculation has caused are innumerable.  There are the parents whose child contracted whooping cough, and with whom they had to sit day and night for nearly four months as their child fought for breath. They could not understand that the vaccine would not work once the disease had been contracted. There is the young mother who had consciously decided that the risks of the vaccine were so great that she should do without, then contracted rubella and gave birth to a blind, deformed child. There is a reaction building, and doctors are refusing to help parents who neglected to have their children inoculated. Perhaps America will slowly come to its senses.

If it is not replicable, it is not good science. Inoculation is eminently replicable - it may have slight side effects, but the risks of the side effects are minuscule compared to the risks of the infectious diseases it prevents.

We have to speak out against bad science.  It can cause beliefs that have tragic consequences.   Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of climate pseudoscience. Billions of dollars are being diverted to prop up a belief system that daily is becoming more irreplicable. It is even going so far as to change historical data to try to convince us that the world is warming faster than before:
 (Thanks to Josh and WUWT)

The "adjustments" turn out to be in exact multiples of tenths of a degree, for reasons that no-one can explain. All are downwards in the early years, thus making the apparent warming greater than it would otherwise be.  And these are the "official" figures from the Global Historical Climate Network, the basis for all the fears about climate change.  Bad, bad science, with predictably tragic consequences.