Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nick Hurd responds to Lawson; Green Articles That Can't Rebut Lawson #3

This is the first in my series of articles about climate change articles that can't rebut Lawson in which the original piece deserves serious consideration. Hurd is better briefed than Franklin and less insane than Bunting. I'll ignore his little 'you're so superficial' quip at the beginning and jump straight into the main article.

"The modern policy maker, faced with an overwhelming scientific consensus about the scale of risk attached to carrying on as we are cannot afford to be quite so complacent. Lawson finds it convenient to ignore the fact that every molecule of carbon stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years.

This inertia in the climate system means that if we wait for greater certainty onwhat the scientists are already telling us, then the bigger and more expensive the adaptation challenge is likely to get. The next twenty years will be critical because it is in this period that the big investment decisions will be taken on our energy infrastructure. Get this wrong and the scientists tell us that we will be locking ourselves into a serious problem."

That the challenge of adaptating to climate change is set to rise is rather obvious from the fact that it is currently pretty much zero. However, that does not necessarily mean that paying a different cost, that of curbing emissions, now is necessarily a better idea than paying the cost of adaptation in the future. What did Lawson say which could be construed as rejecting the idea the costs of adaptation would accrue over the long term?

One other thing to note: Every generation we roughly double in wealth. We also see technological advances which allow us to do new things. While the costs of responding to climate change may rise our ability to respond to it is likely to increase as well.

"At the extreme end of the risk spectrum, the focus on adaptation alone becomes ridiculous. How is India supposed to adapt to the melting of the Himalayan water source? How does China adapt to the potential loss of one third of her grain production? At that stage people will adapt by moving, which is why Climate Change is a security issue as much as anything."

"At the extreme end of the risk spectrum" is the classic environmentalist ruse to conflate something science expects to happen, the moderate changes Lawson discussed, with the ones that it has hypothesised possibly could happen. At the extreme end of the nuclear profileration risk spectrum a nuclear bomb goes off in London and millions die. At the extreme end of the asteroid risk spectrum the planet is hit by an asteroid and we all die. If we use this risk to justify a 1% doctrine approach we could quickly freeze human progress in a vain effort to frustrate the possibility of our society being destroyed.

"Lawson is understandably silent on both the short term and long term cost of his strategy but the message from the more rigorous Stern Review is that over time it is likely to be significantly higher than taking action now to try and stabilise our emissions and so mitigate the risk of dangerous climate instability."

How was Lawson silent on the long and short term costs? He spent some time discussing the costs of adapting and defending agriculture, combating infectious disease and making the point that combatting these is eminently possible. Putting numbers to these is the work for a new, genuinely rigorous, research effort. His point was that Stern had not given sufficient weight to the idea that humans might respond actively to many changes in climate.

"Lawson argues that there is no point because it will add too much to our energy bill. That position ignores the high probability that the cost of fossil fuel based energy is likely to go up over time anyway because the world is well on our way to exhausting reserves. It ignores the fact that for many importers of energy (including the UK) the issue of security of supply is now a major issue, so why not try and become more self-sufficient? In short reducing our dependence on fossil fuels makes sense irrespective of climate change risk."

This is logic that I have seen from Liam Fox and which is initially plausible, however, it has serious weaknesses. Essentially the problem of declining fossil fuel reserves is one we can expect the market to respond to very effectively as an increase in a factor price is pretty much a classic scarce resource problem. Problems with the security of supply are reflected pretty reasonably in the price of fossil fuels as the relationship between news from the Middle East and the price of oil attests so these are also problems the market can internalise. The idea that replacing steadily rising energy prices with a rapid rise is good policy is utterly absurd; it clearly makes the process more difficult for the economy to adapt to.

This implies that whereas the response to climate change has to involve government artificially raising the price of energy in order to attempt to account for externalities such as climate change the response to declining fossil fuel reserves is probably best left to the market.

In fact, the logic that falls in emissions will have to happen regardless of climate change policy helps those who are arguing against attempts to curb emissions as it establishes that fossil fuel emissions are essentially a short term problem as market incentives will create a solution to emissions in the medium to long term as part of its response to declining fossil fuel reserves. This is the Kuznets Curve in action and argues for the redundancy of attempts to use government power to curb climate change not their good sense.

"The technology is basically in place today to help us move to a low carbon economy. The problem is that it is relatively expensive now but Government has the power to make that technology cheaper by facilitating roll out at scale. They have the power to create new market opportunities by requiring higher energy efficiency standards of the products we use and incentivising us to make the low carbon choices."

This could be argued for almost any technology. We could all drive cars with satellite navigation more cheaply if government taxed cars without satellite navigation and so that the numbers using sat nav increased and economies of scale kicked in. The problem, as I set out in my response to Franklin, is that this suffers from the standard weakness of state planning in the economy; government is bad at picking winners in technology and is as likely to wind up subsidising a bad choice as increasing the pace at which a good one is deployed.

"Lawson says there is no point because the USA, China and India are not prepared to play ball. He ignores the significant economic opportunity in being at the vanguard of this new investment frontier. He has nothing to say about the benefits of greater energy efficiency to the UK Economy. He ignores what is actually happening below federal level in the USA where progressive Governors and Business leaders push the Superpower into a more engaged position. He ignores the real concerns that India and China have about pollution and access to water which are forcing them to revaluate the issue."

The pollution bit could have been lifted from Franklin. Here's what I said in response to it the first time:

"China's pollution problem is a matter of having industrial plant sited too near, or in, major cities and is a legacy of a planned economy and has nothing to do with CO2, which is not an element in the clean/dirty air equation."

As for access to water. The difficulties accessing water in China are largely a result of Maoist incompetence. Restoring the balance is being undertaken as an engineering challenge and there is no sign the Chinese see tackling global warming as a part of their response.

That's the end of the substantive matter of Hurd's article. He hasn't rebutted Lawson but has inadvertently highlighted many of the reasons why the market and business as usual might produce less carbon dioxide emissions than Stern, who builds his model on rising emissions intensity of economic growth, expects.

Milton Friedman has died

This is only just filtering onto the wires but it would appear that Milton Friedman died during last night at the age of 94. He was a truly brilliant man and all thinking people will miss his towering presence.

My first experience of his work was reading his account of the Great Depression; it was as much of a revelation to me as it was to the literature when it was first published. It has the mark of truly great thought in that it was never dogma and has not prevented other thinkers moving on but in being surpassed it has not been eclipsed.

I think, in the end, the best tribute to Friedman is in his work. Free to choose is a decent place to start. Unfortunately, the full version of free to choose that was on Google Video, and contained the look into Hong Kong and the association of economic and political freedom, appears to have dissapeared but there is still this wonderful extract available on YouTube:

Also, this from the end of the series:

Update: David Friedman's response is so much more eloquent than mine.

Casino Royale

I am a big fan of the new Bond. Out go the homages to Roger Moore's camp disgrace and in comes a genuine edge.

The on foot chase scene at the beginning was reminiscent of the incredible Tony Jaa running and jumping chase scenes in Ong Bak. The romance was far more convincing than the old James Bond pantomime. While the gadgets have been fun in previous films I didn't miss them in this one. New Bond is a big improvement.

However, while the new Bond has such huge potential, Casino Royale is not a good film. The problem is that it is missing the most important ingredient in a thriller, an engaging central conflict. As we are never introduced to the real bad guy we are never given anyone who seems a worthy foe for Bond. Le Chieffre's strategies (I won't go into detail to avoid spoilers) all seem vaguely petty rather than the work of a real evil genius. Without a convincing threat to provide a proper test of Bond's abilities he can never really shine and the tension is never at the level it should be.

If they can get the script right for the next installment and create a genuinely engaging enemy Craig's bond could become truly great.

Porgy & Bess

This was really, really good. I'm not the only one who thinks so: Paul Taylor for the Independent is absolutely gushing about this show. I've never been much of a fan of musicals and this is the first I've seen which hasn't felt a bit childish. The music is, as expected, incredibly good, they've really let the musical influences, jazz in particular, shine through the songs. The acting was first rate. There was genuine emotion to the story; Taylor is right that it really earns the term "electrifying".

I must confess that I haven't seen it as an opera so I can't really comment on how successful the transition has been but it worked so well as a musical something must have gone right.

If you see one show this winter...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Punishing South Korea

This article over at the New York Sun blog demonstrates clearly the flaws in the "with or us against us" school of international relations.

Essentially the South has said that it will not be taking any significant new action to contribute to the intercepting of North Korean ships suspected of moving nuclear weapons materials. Freedman dislikes this as the logic that "American troops are defending South Korea and they won't support us in halting Kim Jong Il's nuclear proliferation?" is apparently unacceptable. His solution is to punish the South Koreans by threatening to remove US troops.

This would have two concrete harms even if we only ever threatened to remove troops and did not actually remove them:
1) It undermines the deterrent power of the US military by making it appear that we might not necessarily defend the South Koreans if the North attacked. I.e. they might assume US troops would just leave if they came under fire.
2) It would heighten concern about an attack in the South, as their defences would appear weaker, and make it less likely they might stand up to the North.

It would also be a bad idea from our perspective if they were being terribly robust with the North. If we do need to search North Korean vessels this has the danger of creating an international incident. Now, if such an incident involves Americans and makes the North Koreans want to lash out there is little they can do. If that incident involves the South Koreans, on the other hand, they have Seoul within range of their artillery. As such, threatening the South Koreans into being robust with the North is entirely misguided. We want the North Koreans to see as little connection between the people they are fighting and the civilians of Seoul as possible. There are plenty of ships capable of searching North Korean transport available to us; there is no need for the South Koreans to prove their loyalty by providing us with theirs.

The same goes for other actions against North Korea whether military action or economic sanctions. The plan with the highest probability of a good outcome which doesn't involve massive civilian casualties is one that has the least involvement from the South Koreans. At this point the best position for our friends in South Korea to take is to play the sunshine policy good cop to the Western bad cop. Only in economic sanctions is this less clear thanks to the South Korean involvement in the North Korean economy but even here it is probably best if their responsibility is as diluted as possible.

Some states are expected to, and should be judged, by what they contribute to an alliance; Britain, France and Germany, for example, should be judged by what they contribute. For others that is manifestly not the right criteria, Israel, Taiwan and South Korea are states that we defend because it is right and their contribution to any objective but their own survival is not how they should be judged.

The Problem with the UKIP

In response to my piece on the politics of climate change DK lamented that I would not join the UKIP. The main reason I will not do so is that I don't think we should leave the EU. However, I will leave more details on why I am not in favour of leaving the EU till another day as I'd rather focus this post on the reason why, even if I did support leaving the EU, I wouldn't support the UKIP as a way to advance that agenda.

If you are in Germany it would make sense to vote for the UKIP. After the election a coalition would be formed and at that stage you could triangulate the right wing coalition closer to your position. In the UK it doesn't quite work that way, instead, a vote for the UKIP can only work as a vague threat to irrationally hurt the Conservatives even if that means the, more pro-EU, Labour party gets in. This is likely to do as much harm as good for the Better Off Out case within the Conservative party as it removes euronihilists from the debate and upsets the broad mass of loyal Conservative members which causes them to think more negatively of those who wish to leave the EU.

Moderation between the parties goes on in both electoral systems but in Germany that moderation is supposed to happen after the election, when everyone has voted for their parties and the politicians get together to form the policies of a coalition, whereas in Britain it happens in the debate within and outside the parties before the election. The resulting compromise is resolved into manifestos and the parties then offer, at least theoretically, coherent sets of policy to the electorate. I think the British system is preferable as it means that when people vote they know what they're voting for. This should allow for far greater accountability as that manifesto can more effectively form a benchmark against which governments can be judged. Also, it encourages the public to understand that their politicians will have to moderate between different views and leads to a less polarised and angry politics.

I'm not telling those who support leaving the EU they should put up and shut up but that forming a new party is not the way to change the debate. Set up pressure groups, write articles, make your case and change the existing parties. The Conservative Party is not Cameron, it is not the parliamentary party but it is a coalition of members of a broadly conservative disposition. If you think the case for leaving the EU is so strong surely it must be possible to convince these people? If you do not think this is possible then either you need to improve your case or your cause is a hopeless one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Anthony Lane for the New Yorker on Casino Royale

It sounds like Casino Royale is aiming to do for Bond what Batman Begins did for Batman; make it edgy again. This is probably for the best as Bond films were starting to look a little stale even if the box office numbers remained solid. We'll see how audiences respond to an edgy Bond, there isn't as clear a case for change as there was for Batman but it should restore some artistic credibility which is a risk but offers the possibility of a more glittering future than that of new episodes in a series whose formula was set some time ago.

Anthony Lane's review, which I found via the American Scene, is a good one if you want to get excited about the film.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Soumaya Ghannoushi on the BNP and MI5

Large secions of Soumaya Ghannoushi's piece over at Comment is Free do not really need rebutting as they are simply statements of the blatantly obvious like "hating people of a certain religion is somewhat similar to hating people of a certain faith". This does not mean that it warrants similar regulation of things like speech as there is a far greater danger of stifling legitimate criticism of religion. Other parts of this article do warrant a response.

"We are witnessing the emergence of a new type of hatred, where religion and culture overlap with race and ethnicity. The climate generated by the war on terror - stoked further by the inflammatory speech on Friday of the MI5 director general Eliza Manningham-Buller - has allowed the far-right to redirect its poison of exclusionism from specific racial minorities to specific religio-racial minorities: from the black and Asian, to the Muslim black and Asian."

Nick Griffin has been trying this line for some time. What has made it slightly more effective isn't MI5s statements of a couple of days ago but the fact that we have had terrorist attacks and others convicted of plotting to carry out far worse attacks. Blaming the messenger in Manningham-Buller is utterly backward. Instead, blame the terrorists who have made the BNPs rhetoric sound plausible to more of an otherwise relatively tolerant people.

"With the tragic events of 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombings, the threat of violent groups such as al-Qaida, and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, an explosive political climate was born. In this context, a dangerous language emerged, one that moves smoothly from race to religion, from terrorism to Islam, from al-Qaida to Muslims. The dominance of this discourse is such that it is no longer necessary to explicitly link these terms together. It is sufficient to invoke fanaticism, violence and extremism for Islam and Muslims to spring to mind. Today we have slid further towards the explicit and direct association of Islam and Muslims with all that is "wicked", "vicious" and dangerous."

Pretending that there isn't a violent threat isn't going to cure this. It would have an effect similar to Napoleon's pretending the army advancing on his right at Waterloo was that of a subordinate when it was actually the Prussians; in the short term that's fine but when people find out they tend to be angry. When attacks happen it is better that people do not think the possibility of them was hidden from them by an elite which thinks it knows best. Far better to have a frank debate with the truth of the threat out in the open.

"On the day that Griffin was cleared, Manningham-Buller delivered a public speech on the terror threat. Instead of the secrecy and discretion we are accustomed to from the intelligence services, the head of MI5 seemed to metamorphose into a politician. We cannot undermine the seriousness of the threat, but these statements are certain to be exploited by numerous media and political players. The MI5 director general insisted she knew of 30 major terror plots. If that is the case, why haven't the plotters been arrested, and why did she give credence to patently unreliable surveys suggesting 100,000 British Muslims supported last year's London bombings?"

Police work involves gathering evidence and then making a conviction. Of course MI5 could just drag them off the street but I doubt that "Liberty" would be impressed; they might not come to Ghannoushi's demo.

As for the surveys being "patently unreliable", why? Because they are inconvenient?

This article was a classic example of a Guardianista using the BNP as an excuse to clamp down on legitimate debate and the frank discussion of important issues.

Sometimes the French redeem themselves so spectacularly...

It's often easy, as a conservative, to get a little dismissive of the French with their combination of preening pretension to leadership in global politics combined with small minded protectionism and a fear of economic change which is slowly killing their nation's strength. However, despite all this, they have moments of such utter brilliance you have to forgive them. The wine, food and general taste go without saying. However, they also have moments like this from 1978:

A reminder that the French, at their best, get the spirit of the West better than anyone. Utterly reckless with a taste for quality (the car is a Ferrari) and an artistic flourish at the end. This video builds over time so definitely don't stop watching till you're at least half way through when it stops using relatively open roads and becomes truly hair raising. For more details on the story behind this video take a look at the post I've lifted it from over at A Very British Dude.

The Politics of Climate Change

As may be becoming clear I am feeling increasingly convinced of the case that curbing our emissions in order to stop or reduce climate change is a bad idea. It would appear that I now have a side in the climate change debate; responding to the well evidenced, but still uncertain in scale and nature, trend that man is contributing to a global warming by adapting to it rather than attempting to control it.

However, choosing a side presents new questions because it would appear my side is losing. There is now no mainstream voice in UK politics which stands in opposition to the consensus behind Kyoto-plus. This should clearly be a cause for the Conservatives if any party, however, those who blame the Tory position on Cameron have missed the point. I was struck by this when I saw Iain Duncan Smith in the 18 Doughty Street commentary on their interview with John Howard. When Howard's rejection of Kyoto came up Duncan Smith simply wrote the difference off as a consequence of European versus Australian norms. There is no mainstream voice within the Conservative party willing to challenge the green agenda openly and, as such, Cameron's commitment to a Kyoto-plus solution to climate change is essentially unchallenged. If we had a different leader we would not have a different policy on this although we might talk about it a lot less.

This lack of political opposition to the Kyoto-plus climate agenda is a result of public opinion. Iain Dale reports a Times survey of top business leaders which found 81% in favour of fighting the threat of climate change with taxation. If the current skeptics of climate change are not succeeding in convincing even those enterprisers at the head of business then they have no hope of convincing the broader population. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that even those who are not in favour of green taxation rarely get particularly angry about it. As a result the environment, as I predicted earlier in his leadership, has functioned as a very effective dog-whistle for Mr. Cameron, building his reputation for being nice and acceptable to the middle class, while costing him little in broader terms. This means that environmentalism is an even stronger political case than the raw numbers imply.

Of course, the strong form of environmentalism as advanced by people like Monbiot cannot win, people will not give up the horizons the 20th century has opened to them, but that does not preclude a costly, Kyoto-plus, solution which appears to be where the current consensus is taking us. That our fiercest enemies are more angry at current policy than we are does not necessarily indicate a victory; that Respect polls poorly does not mean that we have won the fight against statism.

I think that the current strategies deployed by skeptics of Kyoto and other attempts to avoid global warming tend to follow one, or several, of three strategies which are intellectually useful but cannot win the public debate:

Firstly, hey oppose climate change curbing schemes as a violation of free trade, free market or other principles and argue that these, while they may help climate change will be more broadly harmful. Frum, in a recent post on the stem cell debate in the US, highlighted why this is ineffective when he wrote about how the right tends to lose when it pitches principles against visibly suffering or otherwise emotive people.

In global warming you have a big emotive threat promising many losers along with current threats to big cuddly polar bears set against harms to rich, industrial "polluters". This disparity could be compensated for if, when people wrote describing the harms of taxing energy-intensive industries, they took care to point out that the people who will wind up paying most for a tax on carbon will be Northern manufacturing employees whose jobs dissapear to parts of the world where energy is not similarly taxed. A tax on emissions necessarily acts to kick the parts of the UK economy which are down and this will have human consequences.

Secondly, many attack the science behind IPCC or other reports and the science behind climate change; the classic example of this is Bjorn Lomborg. This is an important contribution to the intellectual debate over climate science but is a poor strategy for winning the public debate over the proper policy response. As the public, quite sensibly, has a limited patience with climate science they will make the decision based on the heuristics available to them such as the availability heuristic (discussed on this blog before). As this is a big public issue it is widely covered in the media and this frequency convinces people it must be true.

Finally, there is the argument that there really is nothing we can do. This is quite an easy argument to make as it is made for the skeptic by the alarmists daily in the pages of the Guardian. All that is needed is to take these arguments to their logical conclusion. The reason that it is less effective in the public debate than this would suggest is that it requires an admission of helplessness which is electoral poison. Admissions of uncertainty or a lack of omnipotence never look good when matched against even a slight possibility of success.

The problems skeptics have in this debate are similar to those I experienced trying to argue against the minimum wage at LSE. Arguing that the minimum wage is illiberal achieved little to no effect, liberalism is, sadly, dead in the populace at large even if it is still the language of the elite. Equally, arguing the ineffectiveness of the minimum wage makes little to no difference; point out that the minimum wage will make someone's situation worse and they'll just tell you how bad their situation is as if that was a rebuttal. What I found effective was a third option: discussing negative income tax style policies as support for those in work. This is a distinctly right wing response and takes better account of economic incentives. Offering this meant that I was no longer arguing 'against' the poor and the emotive advantage of the left was lost to them.

For the climate change debate there would seem to be three important alternatives that the skeptics can promote:

The first is to emphasise the market driven reduction in carbon intensity. A lot of Franklin's arguments about how it could be profitable to reduce emissions highlight why energy intensity has been falling and should continue to at quite a rate, this wasn't helpful to his case but it can be taken as an unintentional part of the human response to global warming that does not involve artificially increasing the cost of energy.

The second is to focus on specifically adapting to some of the concrete harms of climate change, for example flooding and malaria. In Britain this will probably add up to putting extra investment into our coastal defences, the policy of conceding to erosion in certain areas probably needs to be reconsidered. However, in the Third World, where the consequences will be more severe, it is a solid case for international aid to assist with the adaptation, both through assisting with the establishment of superior coastal defences and through both existing methods to combat malaria, DDT, and new ones, the vaccine that GSK and the Gates Foundation are working on.

The third is to think about some of the more outlandish solutions Lawson highlighted. Mechanisms to respond if some of the scenarios envisioned by those predicting a climate change apocalypse. This would be a genuine precautionary principle for an event that we shouldn't expect but which could spring at us. While many of these schemes lack plausibility they share that with the threat they are designed to offset; the match is good.

These strategies offer a genuine right wing response to climate change. They should be the focus of any campaign to unsettle the use of climate change as a tool to drive an agenda fundamentally hostile to liberty and human progress towards an ideal of overcoming the restraints biology and our surroundings have placed upon us.