Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How green WAS my valley!

We are all "green." We love nature. We will do all we can to save it from being ravaged by mankind. But there is a problem. As Einstein remarked Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,” roughly translated as "The Good Lord may be subtle, but He is not malicious."
This should be a warning that you must at all costs avoid being what I call a "galloping green." There is no point in plunging ahead when you think you have spotted a problem. Just remember, there is always a simple, straightforward solution to virtually every problem, and that solution is invariably wrong. You have to think before you act. Gut feeling for nature could do damage, not solve the problem!
There is a wonderful example in the latest Nature journal, http://www.nature.com/news/gridlock-over-italy-s-olive-tree-deaths-starts-to-ease-1.19939. Down in Puglia, the heel of the boot which is Italy, some olive trees started dying.  The plant pathologists identified a foreign bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, as the culprit. They recommended uprooting the infected trees and everything within 100m of it.
But the local green movement was against this.  They "knew" all about diseases of olive trees, and were not going to allow 1 000 year old specimens to be uprooted. They chained themselves to the infected trees to prevent them being taken down; they went to court to stop the "massacre." They convinced the Puglian judge that the problem was fungal, not bacterial, and that they were expert in handling olive trees attacked by fungi.  The judge believed them.
And so the problem has spread through the whole of Puglia, some 200 000ha of olive groves, and is moving steadily north.  It has taken six months, but the judgement has been reversed - probably not too late to save the rest of Italy's crop. 
But Puglia is doomed, dead trees everywhere.  And the bacterium seems to have spread - to coastal Spain, across the Adriatic to Greece. All because the tree huggers thought they had the answer. Sometimes one thinks green is the colour beloved by the Devil himself!

The pseudo-disaster of dropping the Paris Accord

There has been an outcry over the American decision to renege on the Paris Accord.  Indeed, one professor went so far as to describe it as a “deeply immoral reprehensible act.”
Yet no-one who read President Trump’s speech can have been left in any doubt that there were sound economic reasons behind his decision. “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 according to the National Economic Research Associates.  This includes 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. . .”  “the Paris Accord … includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund — nice name — which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries all on top of America’s existing and massive foreign aid payments.”
When you realize that  China is America’s greatest trading rival as well as being a ‘developing country’, you can understand the American reluctance to send it aid.  
The good Professor even suggested America could not “opt out of the laws of physics.” Again, it is clear that he is ignoring large sections of what President Trump actually said. “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100.  Tiny, tiny amount.  In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from … America's expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.”
The people who are ignoring the laws of physics are those on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  They are interpreting the laws of physics in such a way as to attempt to convince us that climate catastrophe is just round the corner.  It clearly isn’t.
None of their longer-term predictions have come true. The Arctic ice didn’t disappear in 2010. The greenhouse gases have shot up in this millennium, but the thermometer has barely budged.  The actual records of rainfall show no significant global trends, and there is a statistically insignificant drop in the number and violence of cyclones.  Yes, it’s got warmer – which mean that fewer old people die in winter.  Yes, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so plant life is flourishing and the planet, seen from space, is measurably greener.
Our Professor claims “The effects of climate change will hit … poorer communities … more than the rich.”  What he overlooks is that the Paris Accord in effect asks nations to avoid fossil fuels, even though for many they are the cheapest and most effective primary sources of energy. China is building some 200GW of new coal-fired power stations; India is building nearly 600GW; Africa has 120GW planned; and Pakistan, which has long relied on hydropower, is building 60GW. Even Germany, practically the home of renewable energy, has recently built 10GW of coal-fired power. For comparison, South Africa’s total capacity is about 45GW.
Yes, renewable energy is now on a cost parity with many other sources of energy; but renewable energy makes up only a tiny fraction (<2%)of the world’s energy supply and is already proving more difficult to distribute than the dispatchable sources. So it is the Paris Accord that will impact poorer societies, not climate change – particularly as the Green Climate Fund appears a dead duck.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The scourging of the denialist

It is a remarkable phenomenon, that if you say you doubt that human beings have much of an influence on the climate, you are treated as a kind of pariah. In the US, for instance, a very nice, intelligent woman called Judith Curry has recently walked out of her academic post. She has merely expressed doubts, and has done so clearly and honestly for a number of years.  I have watched several hours of videos of her addressing professional societies and government bodies, and have been struck by her ability to communicate her doubts succinctly and openly. Yet she has been vilified by many of her colleagues, struggled to find funding for her research, and had her students unfairly criticized in turn.

There was the infamous case of two American physicists, Soon and Baliunas, who wrote a review paper, summarizing the literature on global temperatures around 1400CE. Review papers are generally uncontroversial; they merely pull together a range of findings by other people. Soon and Baliunas dug up some 200 peer-reviewed studies of medieval temperatures, the great majority of which found that it had been significantly warmer than it is today. Wine in Scotland, tropical fruits in Rome, worldwide such evidence of the Medieval Warm Period.

However, a group who depended on the human warming hypothesis had produced a graph which failed to show any such period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had seized on their graph to show unprecedented warming in the 20th century. The graph even acquired a name - the Hockey Stick.  The inconvenient review had to be killed! And killed it was.  By the time the dust had settled, even the journal which had allowed the review to appear had disappeared.

Just to make matters worse, the Hockey Stick showing no Medieval Warming Period was found to be faked.  The underlying mathematics had been wrongly applied, and there had been reliance on the width of tree rings to estimate the historical temperatures - but the tree rings went the wrong way when measured against modern temperatures.  So the modern tree-ring data was deleted, and replaced with the temperature record.  As scientific chicanery went, it has few equals.

A few years ago, the SA National Energy Association [SANEA], local representative of the World Energy Council, did me the honour of awarding me their Energy Award. Shortly after that they had a presentation at one of the monthly meetings in Cape Town from a True Believer from Johannesburg. What he had to say was highly questionable, but in the few minutes after the meeting there was no time to ask the really searching questions. So I asked the SANEA Secretary if he could find me a slot to respond to the highly charged material the True Believer had presented. At all the meetings, there were requests for future topics and speakers, so I felt the request was perfectly reasonable.
Three years down the road, I am still waiting. 

There's none so deaf as will not hear.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The end of the year

2016 has not been the best of years - that is generally agreed. The Middle East has been really bad - I recall visiting Syria a few years ago, as shown in some of the first blogs here.  The people were friendly and good looking, the food was great, and Aleppo was an exciting city in the midst of rejuvenation. And Israel has seen fit to use the nearby chaos to grab some more Palestinian territory, potentially adding more fuel to the fire.

And then there have been the political shocks. Britain's decision to leave the European Union was the first. I started out thinking it was a good idea as I learned more about the Union and the gross bureaucracy in Brussels, but as the vote drew near, I changed my mind because of the implications of leaving. Then there was the US Presidency, and amazement that the system could not find candidates of real calibre. The final choice is "interesting", and it remains to be seen if his obvious deficiencies will be overcome by the expertise of his support team. The one ray of light for me is what I would call greater realism about environmental issues. It is just not true that we face catastrophe from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and policies designed to save us from the putative disaster are very expensive and most unlikely to have any detectable effect. 

Then in South Africa there has been the growing dysfunction brought about by corruption. The Gupta saga just grows and grows. Zuma should no longer be president - I can no longer refer to him as President Zuma, because he does not deserve the honorific. The longer he stays, the greater is the damage to the ANC, which is the only good side of the story. The local elections this year gave early warning that the next national election is likely to see the ANC majority slashed. The local elections also have given the DA the opportunity show that it really can govern.  The accounts for 2015 tell the true tale - in the Western Cape, under the DA, some R30 million was poorly spent or went missing; in Gauteng, under the ANC, the figure was R4.5 billion. To put that in perspective, Gauteng lost the Western Cape's annual loss every two days! 

But there are rays of light in the world. One of them is the war on poverty. As Johan Norberg wrote in a recent issue of Sp!ked "At the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, the world’s countries set the goal of halving the 1990 incidence of extreme poverty by 2015. This was met five years ahead of the deadline. And even though the world population grew by more than two billion between 1990 and 2015, the number of people who live in extreme poverty was reduced by more than 1.25 billion people." Today, slightly fewer people live in extreme poverty than in 1870, in spite of the massive increase in population. 

Linked to less poverty is a growth in energy consumption.  I have a serious paper being reviewed, which links energy consumption to life expectancy. Below a certain level of per capita energy use, life expectancy at birth is less than 50 years; above about four times that consumption, life expectancy is over 70.  So if you want, for example, India to start cutting its carbon dioxide emissions, you are in effect asking many of their population to accept an early death. I don't think all the agreements in Paris or elsewhere are going to work.

At the other end of the scale, of course, is the phenomenon of the super rich. They are not many in number, but they hold an inordinate proportion of the world's wealth. Great is the gnashing of teeth over their very existence. Yet ultimately wealth is not a moral issue - it is merely the provision of opportunities.  There are only so many things an individual can accomplish, so many meals a day s/he can eat, so many guests on so many superyachts, and then - -? After that, what you do can be good or bad, which is where the morality comes in. And by and large the super rich try to do good - the Gates Foundation, the Rhodes Trust, the numerous Carnegie philanthropies are part of a long history. To me, it is obvious that their spending must trickle down - or where else must the funds have been found to lift millions out of extreme poverty?

There is great fixation on the Gini Coefficient, a ratio between the richest and poorest fractions of the population. South Africa is regularly cited as being really bad, but if you take our 18 million on social support into account, we are perfectly normal. One study I made this year looked at drivers for Gini. I couldn't find any, but there was a slight preponderance of openly socialist societies at the lower end of the Gini's, and rather more capitalists at the higher end. But there were socialists at the higher end, too, and capitalists at the lower. There is insufficient Gini data to show how it changes over time, but the reduction in poverty must surely mean a lowering. I can only conclude that we should worry unduly about differences in wealth - making sure everyone has enough is more important. 

So for 2017 I wish for a growing economy, both locally and globally. 2016 has been a real bad year; 2017 can only be better.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The stupidity of a carbon tax

Treasury is the one institution of Government that we have come to trust in recent months.  Why on earth does it want to sacrifice that confidence in pursuit of a hare-brained scheme, one in which its own words will “reduce the economy’s average annual growth rate” (Business Day, 10 November)? If it has its way, “household consumption falls by 0.23 percentage points, employment falls by 0.07 percentage points, and real wages fall by 0.2 percentage points.”
This is the best of a series of outcomes from a model of carbon taxes that Treasury has built.  I seem to recall some recent models, which proved beyond all doubt that Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the USA.  Do we have confidence that Treasury’s model has any greater predictive ability?
For a start, let us look at what Treasury hopes to do. “The modelling results suggest the carbon tax will have a significant effect on reducing SA’s greenhouse gas emissions.” That would be surprising. Remember we have had a carbon tax on large cars for several years – statistics show the 4x4 market growing strongly. Wherever you look in the world, it is the same.  India introduced a Rupee50/t tax on coal in 2010 and increased it to Rupee100/t in 2014.  Since 2010, its emissions have grown by over 600 million tonnes CO2. In 2012, Australia introduced a $A23/t carbon tax; by 2014, emissions had fallen by only 2.5% and the damage to the economy was enough to bring down the government (and remove the tax). So it is unlikely that the tax will have any significant effect.
That begs the question as to whether our greenhouse gas emissions constitute any problem at all.  Our total emissions are a little over 400 million tonnes a year – India’s emissions have grown by 600 million tonnes in five years, while China’s have grown by over 1 100 million tonnes at the same time. If Treasury’s tax resulted in our emissions falling by 2.5% (about 10 million tonnes), it would be less than the measurement error in India’s or China’s emissions.
But Treasury argues that “ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement emphasises the reality that we will have to prepare to operate in a carbon-constrained economy - - .” Really?? The Paris “Agreement” is no agreement as normally understood. It asks us to state our intentions. If those intentions are not met, we can shrug our shoulders and come up with some new intentions.  And if anyone says they are cross with us for not living up to our intentions, we can walk away with nary a grey hair. Treasury’s ‘reality’ is rather like the 3D-movie reality – lift your head a little, and the illusion disappears. We have just cast off the iron shackles of the International Court of Justice; the silken threads of the Paris Agreement can brushed aside.
As always with taxes, you have to check the detail.  The carbon tax is no different.  All those little job losses, all that slowing of our growth, “will result [from] a modest tax rate - - - during the first phase of the carbon tax, up to the end of 2020.” Thereafter the tax rate increases, growth slows even further, there are more job losses, real wages fall further. Should Treasury not be worrying about us South African citizens, rather than trying to show the rest of the world that we want to play the carbon charade? Where are our priorities?
Something Treasury avoids discussing is the complexity of the system for collecting the proposed tax.  Every emitter (and there are thousands) will have to set up a measurement system to quantify its tax liability, and have an additional audit system to verify the measurements. Government will have a policing function, to make certain that all the emitters are in the tax net, and then there will be an army of assessors calculating the tax due against rules that change annually.  The rules include rebates for specific sectors and all manner of other fiddles that arise when you are trying to tax something so pervasive in nature. 
It also avoids discussing the other carbon taxes we are already paying.  In addition to the tax on large vehicles, there is a renewable energy levy and a tax on electricity generated from coal – these two add about 6cents/kWh to the price of coal-generated electricity. Then there are the liquid fuel taxes themselves, one of the largest contributors to the fiscus, and a tax which was originally set up to pay for road maintenance.  The carbon tax proposals come with a suggestion that there might be a VAT reduction, but remembering what happened to the fuel tax helps to understand the games Treasury can play.
Treasury now has a job to do, to restore our confidence in their operations.  We really don’t need a tax that will reduce the economy further, that will shrink household consumption, that will cost jobs, and that will reduce real wages – and achieve next to nothing.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A world-class voice

For much of my life, I battled to understand grand opera.  Finally I took the trouble to follow the libretto of Boheme, and it all became much clearer.  The marriage of drama and music could enrich both. It took another twenty years and the skills of the New York Met Opera to convince me that Wagner was not just extended noise. The arcane level of the drama did not help - but I got there in the end. So now opera is one of the loves of my life.

Unfortunately one can also have too much.  The diet is rich, and if not served just right it can pall. For instance, I have seen numerous productions of Carmen, and one of the most memorable was a balletic version with a statuesque blonds as Carmen and a little man called Juan as Don Jose. In the closing act, he fought too vigorously with her, she gave him a really good klap that sent him reeling. He finally produced his knife and seemed to use it with real intent!

So when Cape Town Opera announced that they would repeat a production of Carmen first done several years ago, I was somewhat hesitant - but, what the hell, Bizet's music is so gorgeous that even if the rest was boring, I could just revel in the sound.

It started with an "interesting" execution which, we slowly worked out, was Don Jose getting his comeuppance. The first act wasn't bad, although the action seemed to pause from time to time, and Don Jose should have been executed - he looked more like a corporal from the First World War trenches. 

But then things got exciting.  DJ's girlfriend, Michaela, turned up, wowed the guard, and managed to put real meaning into "scampering off." The girl was good looking and could act.  But she also had a voice, and she had hardly opened her mouth when I turned to my partner and asked "Who on earth is that?" A soprano with a glorious range, high musicality, perfect phrasing and a vibrant sound that could fill the Artscape auditorium effortlessly.

Her great aria in the third act,"Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" ended on a pianissimo that faded to nothing - except the audience leapt to its feet and everywhere there were cries of "Brava!" It was a truly electrifying moment.

This was Noluvayiso Mpofu, who is still learning stagecraft at the Opera School, so she has a career of years ahead of her. She came second in the recent international Belvedere Competition, involving some 600 young singers from all over the world. What a privilege it was to hear such talent, and to be certain that in a few years you will be able to treasure the moment when you first heard that voice. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Philosopher's stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 21 Image: Wikipedia

Philosopher’s stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 21 Image: Wikipedia

For thousands of years, some of the most intelligent men alive sought such things as the Philosopher’s Stone, which could turn dross into precious metal; the elixir of immortality; and the alkahest or universal solvent. The searches were in vain. The world needed more than a magic wand.

There is nothing inherently wrong in belief. Belief is only a hypothesis in search of a demonstration. The history of science is replete with the beliefs of great, wise men who struggled to understand Nature. Aristotle’s four elements, fire, earth, water and air, ruled chemistry and medicine for thousands of years. Eventually, careful measurements showed that fire had no mass, that earth was composed of elements, that life did not spring from water, and that air was a mixture, not a substance in its own right.

Alchemy was universal. Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jew all pursued it. A mere 350 years ago, there were still hopes that the philosopher’s stone, the origin of all matter, might be found. Today, there remain several societies of alchemists. Belief in belief dies hard.

In November 2015, a cabal of latter-day necromancists, sorcerers, soothsayers, wizards, witches, mavins and shamans gathered in Paris. They claimed to have discovered a wondrous formula, which would allow adjustment of the average temperature of the earth. It mattered not that every test of the formula to date had proved a failure. All that was required was a twitch here, a stirring there, and the bubbling cauldron that Earth had become would revert to the quiet simmering that characterised the perfection of life.

What was most important was that every nation on earth should commit to the belief. This they would do by making Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. If the total of these Contributions was large enough, then global warming would become global cooling, and we would all live happily ever after.

This latter-day cabal has even set up a system of selling indulgencies. If you sinned by failing to meet your Intended Contribution, you could wish away your excess with Carbon Credits. The present generation of omniscients seems to have missed the fact that indulgence-selling led directly to the Reformation. For the rest of us, reformation is long overdue.