Archive for June, 2004

Some trivial impressions from Israel

June 30th, 2004 1 comment

I’ve spent the last five days in Israel, at a summer school on the Economics of Risk. Judging by the wrtings of visitors who’ve spent a similar amount of time in Australia, I ought by now to have formulated both an incisive analysis of Israeli society and a comprehensive plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t done either, but I do have a few rather trivial observations to make.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Terra Nullius

June 27th, 2004 24 comments

I’ve read a number of recent articles the burden of which is that the doctrine of terra nullius was a straw man invented by Henry Reynolds (sorry no links, but Christopher Pearson in the Oz states the point and lists others).

My own memory is that this doctrine was enunciated, both in name and in substance, by Justice Blackburn in a major case about 1971, which wasabout the beginning of Reynolds academic career. I’m prepared to believe that I’m wrong about the name, but I can’t see how the substance of Blackburn’s decision could have a basis significantly different from what we now call the doctrine of terra nullius . Maybe Ken Parish or some other well-informed person can set me straight.

Update: Commenter Dan has all the relevant info, so read the comments thread. Blackburn actually used the phrase “desert and uncultivated” which is taken in all the subsequent discussion to be synonymous with terra nullius.

My conclusion: Pearson and others are talking nonsense. The Blackburn decision made the validity or otherwise of the terra nullius doctrine a vital concern. Reynold’s research showed that this doctrine was not asserted as part of the British claim to sovereignty over Australia. Of course, the evidence can be read in ways more favorable to a terra nullius view, but there’s no sense in which this view was a straw man invented by Reynolds for the purpose of demolition.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Saving the Murray

June 26th, 2004 1 comment

From my current distance, I can only make a preliminary assessment of the “historic” agreement on the National Water Initiative. But, from what I’ve seen, there’s no good news here. The issue of what costs would be borne by irrigators when allocations were reduced was not clarified in the initial announcement. The new announcement makes it clear that virtually all costs will be borne by governments. That would be fine, if the announcement included new money to pay for this. But as far as I can see, the $500 million that has been announced is the same money that was announced a year or so ago.

This means that the environmental allocation will be no more than the 500GL previously announced which is clearly inadequate. So the agreement may be historic, but not, as far as I can see, in a good way.

I’ll post more on this when I return from my travels and have time to examine the outcome in detail.

Categories: Environment Tags:

A snippet on the Charter of Budget Honesty

June 25th, 2004 5 comments

At a tactical political level one important issue arises from the provisions of Clause 29 of the “Charter of Budget Honesty”, under which either party may request costings of their election programs from the Departments of Finance and Treasury. Obviously Labor will come under pressure to seek such a costing, pressure to which Kim Beazley succumbed last time around.

Although it’s hard to predict the politics in advance, Labor would probably be better advised to get an independent costing from a consultancy like Access Economics[1] before issuing its policies. Government pressure to submit policies to Treasury and Finance could be the occasion for an attack on the politicisation of the Public Service.

fn1. Just after I wrote this, I read an interesting story in the Fin, regarding large-scale illegal downloading of information from the computers at Access, much of it allegedly ending up in the hands of rival consulting outfit ACIL. An apparent target of the exercise was to determine whether Access was costing Labor’s promises, and, if so, to get hold of the costings. (Thanks to reader John Warburton for alerting me to this).

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Down to Gehenna

June 24th, 2004 5 comments

I can remember discovering, with something of a shock, that Armageddon was a real place (modern Megiddo). So, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find out today that Gehenna is the name of a valley near Jerusalem, bearing no obvious marks of being on the road to eternal damnation. I also got to see Golgotha and Mount Zion – I don’t think my reading of Biblical allusions will be quite the same after this.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Do bloggers make a difference?

June 24th, 2004 9 comments

In the light of pieces like Trevor Cook’s in the Fin recently, I was beginning to think blogs were making a difference for the better in the mainstream media. But the fact that the Oz can run an op-ed piece on gun control by discredited ex-academic John Lott suggest that a lot more remains to be done.

Lott has been exposed in every possible way by bloggers (of all political persuasions and none) as a liar, a fabricator, and even as an Internet cross-dresser[1] (for the gory details visit the indefatigable Tim Lambert). Yet not only is he still sitting in a cosy billet at the American Enterprise Institute, but newspapers are apparently still willing to publish him. Clearly bloggers have a lot more work to do. Ken Parish takes on the job of demolishing Lott’s latest piece of nonsense, as does Tim Lambert.

fn1. Having said all this, it’s necessary to confront the ad hominem issue. A logical argument doesn’t become invalid because it is put forward by a liar. But an Op-ed piece about an issue like gun control can’t consist exclusively of abstract logical argument. The arguments have to be given some factual basis. And any piece written by Lott should come with a warning, “Do not accept any factual assertion in this article”.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Where will the next bin Laden come from ?

June 22nd, 2004 49 comments

The latest atrocious murders committed by Al Qaeda raise a number of thoughts for me, as does the swift killing/capture of those apparently responsible for the murder of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.

First, however bad the crimes that have been committed in our name, nothing that has yet been revealed comes close to the gratuitous evil of Al Qaeda. That shouldn’t be taken as an excuse, or a reason for playing down such crimes; in the presence of such an enemy its more necessary than ever to keep our own hands clean and to be seen to do so. But nothing should be taken to mitigate the guilt of the Al Qaeda terrorists or to suggest that there is any possible compromise that can be made with them.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

On the road

June 22nd, 2004 7 comments

I’m off today on my long-planned trip to Jerusalem and Paris. Posting will be intermittent (not, I hope, nonexistent),so feel free to use this post to start up any new discussion you like.

For those who want something to chew on, Ken Parish has returned to the fray with a series of excellent and thought-provoking posts. This one manages to move effortlessly from Gen X to economic growth in China and there’s also a discussion of Latham’s values.

Update My connections are working OK so far, but then, I’ve only got as far as Brisbane airport

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 21st, 2004 29 comments

Time as usual for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic. My suggested discussion starter on a cold (8 degrees!) winter morning: Which Australian city has the best climate? Which has the worst?
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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Poverty and income gaps

June 20th, 2004 34 comments

A couple of readers have written to me suggesting it would be a good time to post about poverty and income inequality. First, I’ve been alerted to this story by Miranda Devine saying that the tragic house fire in Sydney a couple of days happened because the family couldn’t afford blankets. It’s often been asserted that poverty is an out-of-date concept, but there is still plenty of absolute deprivation in modern societies. There’s some evidence onhunger in the US here. Although I don’t have the data handy, the proportion of the population living below the US poverty line (based on a PPP conversion) is actually slightly higher in Australia than in the US – much higher in both countries than in most developed countries. Of course the biggest problems are those of indigenous Australians (from Devine’s report, this includes the family in the Sydney tragedy) but there’s nothing to be complacent about more generally. And there’s no justification for looking only within Australia. We can ignore poverty in the world as a whole if we choose, but that doesn’t mean the world will choose to ignore us.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Guns, smoke, global warming and Microsoft

June 19th, 2004 52 comments

If you’ve spent any time around the blogosphere, or looking at thinktank websites, you’ll be aware that the following opinions tend to go together:

* widespread ownership of guns saves lives

* tobacco smoke is harmless (if not to smokers then to anyone who breathes it second-hand)

* global warming is a myth

There’s not too much mystery about this. The kinds of characteristics that would encourage the adoption of any one of these beliefs (make your own list) obviously encourage the others. What’s surprising to me is how frequently, at least among thinktanks these opinions are correlated with support for Microsoft, and, more particularly, denunciation of open-source software.
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Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

Licensed to kill

June 17th, 2004 17 comments

According to this report, the man who killed two students and wounded five others in shootings at Monash Uni a couple of years ago is “not guilty due to mental impairment”. It’s a pity those responsible for giving him a license to own four guns didn’t inquire into his mental state first.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

More Fed Fellow Fun

June 16th, 2004 5 comments

I’ve been enjoying a visit from my friend and co-author Simon Grant for the last couple of days. We’ve been working on fairly abstruse aspects of the economics of uncertainty, though with an eye to practical applications to issues like an analysis of the precautionary principle.

However, we downed tools this afternoon when it was announced that Simon has been awarded a Federation Fellowship. This is only the second such Fellowship in Economics, mine being the first.

Obviously, I’m very happy about this, and particularly about the fact that it will bring Simon back to Australia (he’s currently at Rice university in the US).

Categories: Life in General Tags:


June 16th, 2004 5 comments

The success of Eurosceptic parties like the UK Independence Party, which advocates British withdrawal from the EU, has contributed to generally negative coverage of the recent EU Parliamentary elections. Although I disagree with UKIP, I think its success is a good thing.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Cut and run ?

June 15th, 2004 23 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion in the comments threads over my (implicit) endorsement of Latham’s view that Australia should pull ground troops out of Iraq by Christmas. This is a reversal of my earlier “we broke it, we own it” view, and therefore requires some explanation. My change of heart has arisen for two main reasons.

First, facts on the ground. For a variety of reasons, the occupation is deeply unpopular among Iraqis and this unpopularity extends to any government installed by the Americans. The Interim Governing Council was pretty thoroughly discredited within a short time of being appointed. The new interim government has some things going for it, such as the international recognition implied by the UN resolution, but the reality that US advisors are calling the shots will emerge pretty quickly. Three months would be an optimistic estimate of the likely honeymoon. From what I’ve read that would also be the minimum time needed to hold an election (perhaps with an imperfect electoral roll) and generate a government that would have some more durable legitimacy. I expect such a government would not support continued occupation, at least on present terms, but if it did, there would be time for Latham to reconsider the policy. There’s no reason why we should accede to US wishes to defer elections into 2005 in the futile hope that better results would be obtained in this way.

Second, the illegality of the original war has been compounded by the Administrations willingness to tear up international conventions on torture. It’s clear by now that responsibility for torture goes all the way to the top and that the most horrifying examples, such as setting vicious dogs onto naked prisoners, threatening (and perhaps actually torturing) children in order to extract co-operation from their parents, and so on, were part of a set of policies approved at high levels. Despite initial denials, for example, it’s now been admitted that Sanchez approved the use of dogs. Of course, since thousands of Iraqis have been through the US detention system, and have been released to tell their story to family and friends, the policy has helped to inflame hatred of the occupation. But even if it was effective, it’s something we should have no part of. Nothing short of wholesale resignations and criminal prosecutions of senior military and civilian officials could justify our continued involvement with this occupation.

As this discussion implies, I’d prefer a direct confrontation with the Administration, backed up with the threat of an immediate withdrawal (and. conversely, a willingness to see things through under better conditions). But no Australian government is ever going to do anything like that.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 14th, 2004 25 comments

Time as usual for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Following up the holiday theme, I’d be interested to hear suggestions for new and better public holidays.
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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Queen's Birthday Message

June 14th, 2004 10 comments

Like racehorses, Australia’s monarchs[1] all have the same official birthday, normally the second Monday in June (according to today’s Oz, this was based on the actual birthday of George IV III). It’s fair to say that, of all Australian public holidays, this is the one for which the official occasion is most completely ignored. (Labour Day isn’t marked by much, but taking the day off is an observance in itself).
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Where's the money coming from ?

June 13th, 2004 7 comments

The classic problem facing an opposition is that of funding its promises. In most election campaigns, the government has first move by virtue of its capacity to bring down a pre-election budget. The government can snaffle appealing Opposition policies, while leaving little in the way of a Budget surplus to fund any new promises from the other side.

Here are some suggestions as to how Labor could answer the question “Where’s the money coming from”, and fund up to $10 billion in tax cuts and new expenditure
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Becoming the enemy

June 13th, 2004 15 comments

I am still yet to fully absorb the implications of the latest revelations on torture, which are far worse than anything previous (start here and follow links – the news gets steadily worse, until you get to this and this.

As one of the links seems a bit flaky, I’ve attempted to archive it using Furl, a marvellous service with which I’m still in the early stages of experimentation. The archive link is here.

Categories: World Events Tags:

An interesting comparison

June 13th, 2004 21 comments

In view of the full court press being applied by the US Administration with respect to Mark Latham’s promise to pull Australian troops out of Iraq by Christmas, it’s interesting to note that the Dutch government is not subject to similar pressure to “stay the course”, even though it has just announced a pullout date of March 15, 2005, less than 90 days after Latham’s. This is an extension of a previous commitment that expires on June 30, but the government, part of the Coalition of the Willing, sounds more like Latham than Howard.

Dutch troops will leave Iraq in March 2005 as the Dutch government will not renew their mandate after an eight-month extension, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Friday.

“We are linking our stay to the formation of a new government in Iraq,” Mr. Balkenende told a news conference. “Eight months and that’s that …In extraordinary circumstances the mandate could be extended for another 10 days or so after March 15, but in principle the troops will leave on that date”

Meanwhile, the Dutch government has lost ground to the left in EU elections while Blair’s Labor government has lost ground to everybody finishing a dismal third in local elections.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Darfur and the G8

June 12th, 2004 2 comments

The Passion of the Present has a response to the G8 statement on Darfur, from the Globe and Mail. Appropriate intervention by the international community here could save hundreds of thousands of lives at relatively low cost, but action is needed urgently.

Also, here’s a report from the NYT

Update: The EU is funding an observer mission, with plans for an armed protection force, to monitor the latest ceasefire tramadol and glutamate

Categories: World Events Tags:

Riemann hypothesis proved ?

June 11th, 2004 9 comments

According to this report, Louis De Branges claims to have proved the Riemann Hypothesis. If correct, it’s very significant – much more so than the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by Wiles.

It is also, I think, the last of the big and well-known unsolved problems in mathematics, and its nice to see the search ending in success. Some of the other big problems have been closed, rather than solved. The classic problems of the Greeks such as squaring the circle were shown to be insoluble in the 19th century, and the Hilbert program of formalisation was shown by Godel to be infeasible. And the four-colour problem (not a really important problem, but a big one because it was easily described, interesting and very tough) was dealt with by a brute-force computer enumeration.

Almost instant update Commenter Eric points to Mathworld which says “Much ado about nothing”. On the other hand, the same page reports a proof of the infinitude of twin primes which has been an open question for a long time, though not a problem in the same league as those mentioned above.

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

A real bargain

June 11th, 2004 5 comments

For those of you who like end-of-financial year bargains, here’s one that’s hard to beat. The Australian government has a scheme under which it matches donations to certain aid projects on a $3 for $1 basis[1].So if you give $500, the matching funds can bring the grant up to $2000 which is enough to buy books for an entire school in a poor country. In addition, the donations themselves are tax deductible, so if you’re one of those groaning under our top marginal tax rate, the effective cost is only $250.

I got the info on this from PLAN, but a lot of other organisations have access to the same scheme. In addition to PLAN, I’ve always found Oxfam/CAA to be pretty impressive, but there is a wide range of worthwhile options.

I found this info on the Ausaid website. In particular, if all the funds allocated to this program aren’t spent by June 30, they’ll go back to consolidated revenue. So if, like me, you think that aid to the world’s poor ought to have a higher priority in the budget, you can get a lot of effective leverage from this program. I assume the program will continue next year, and I don’t know what would happen if an increase in donations used up the budget allocation early in the year, but it couldn’t hurt to try. Maybe the government would be shamed into allocating more money.

fn1. There’s an “up to” in there, which always rings alarm bells when you’re looking at bargains, but it does appear that the full 3:1 amount is available in most cases.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Disputed terminology

June 10th, 2004 2 comments

Via Eugene Volokh, I came to this Boston Globe piece by Jeff Jacoby, who complains that the term “partial birth abortion”, when used in news stories, is normally surrounded by scare quotes, with the explanation that this term is used by opponents of abortion, but disputed by supporters. Jacoby complains about liberal bias here and says, among other thing “when reporting on the same-sex marriage controversy, they should observe that “what critics call ‘homophobia’ — a term promoted by gay and lesbian activists — is not recognized by medical authorities”

As far as I can recall, I’ve never seen the word “homophobia” used in a news story in a major newspaper, other than in quotes, usually direct, but occasionally indirect (“activist X is concerned about homophobia”) Certainly I’ve never seen it used as if it referred to a recognised medical condition analogous to, say, claustrophobia. I looked in Google News and the recent uses I could find were all either in direct or indirect quotes, opinion pieces (including reprints of Jacoby!) or in publications such as Gay Times and Alternet, which don’t claim to be unbiased. Can anyone point to examples that would support Jacoby?
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Sinclair Davidson rediscovers the Laffer hypothesis

June 10th, 2004 13 comments

In today’s Fin (subscription required), Sinclair Davidson, author of a recent Centre for Independent Studies monograph on income tax, restates the hypothesis[1] , most famously associated with Arthur Laffer, that governments could reduce revenue by raising tax rates. He claims that his own calculations have revealed that revenue would be maximized with a marginal tax rate of 35 per cent.

Does the CIS endorse this claim? I don’t recall seeing it in the monograph. But the article refers to Davidson as the author of the CIS monograph, and this piece is associated with a broader campaign by the CIS on this issue, which has included a number of policy monographs and opinion pieces, including a recent attack on me by Peter Saunders. In the absence of some specific disclaimer, I think it’s reasonable to take this piece as part of the CIS campaign[2].

I commented previously that the Davidson monograph represented an alarming lapse in quality control on the part of the CIS, but I’m now coming to think that the problem may be more systemic.

fn1. It is common to refer to the Laffer curve, but the idea behind the curve is obvious, and had been observed by many writers before Laffer. Laffer’s justified claim to fame is the assertion that the US in the early 1980s was on the declining section of the curve. This was one of the arguments supporting the Reagan tax cut. Of course, revenue fell after the Reagan tax cut and Reagan partially reversed it.

fn2. Of course the CIS doesn’t have an official set of policy positions. But it seems reasonable to speak of a CIS viewpoint and to regard Davidson as being representative of that viewpoint as regards tax policy.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Bremer's last trick

June 9th, 2004 7 comments

Juan Cole is spot-on, as usual

The Guardian reports that US civil administrator Paul Bremer signed an order Monday banning Muqtada al-Sadr and his lieutenants from running for elective office for 3 years because of their membership in an illegal militia. Muqtada and his lieutenants rejected this decree and said that the CPA and the caretaker government had no right to make such decisions.

Bremer’s action in excluding the Sadrists from parliament is one final piece of stupidity to cap all the other moronic things he has done in Iraq . The whole beauty of parliamentary governance is that it can hope to draw off the energies of groups like the Sadrists. Look at how parliamentary bargaining moderated the Shiite AMAL party in Lebanon, which had a phase as a terrorist group in the 1980s but gradually outgrew it. AMAL is now a pillar of the Lebanese establishment and a big supporter of a separation of religion and state. The only hope for dealing with the Sadrists nonviolently was to entice them into civil politics, as well. Now that they have been excluded from the political process and made outlaws in the near to medium term, we may expect them to act like outlaws and to be spoilers in the new Iraq. (emphasis added)

I can only agree glucophage package insert

Categories: World Events Tags:

Elect the Governor-General !

June 9th, 2004 8 comments

Governor-General Michael Jeffrey has been criticised, again, for political comments, this time backing George Bush against Mark Latham. Such criticism, in my view, is obsolete. Although he was more subtle about it, Jeffrey’s predecessor-but-one, William Deane made his disagreement with some of the more brutal policies of the current government pretty clear. The attempt to restore the status of the GG as an impressive nonentity was tried with Peter Hollingworth, and failed miserably. Next time around, not surprisingly, Howard chose to play it safe and appoint a Liberal party loyalist.

The real problem is with the GG position itself. It is now inherently political, but the appointment is entirely in the personal gift of the PM. This is most unsatisfactory, particularly when a change of government produces a situation where the GG and PM are of opposite parties. Under our current system, this will produce increasing pressure for the GG to resign when the government that appointed him/her loses office.

The only adequate remedy is direct election. A directly elected GG (or President) would be free to speak out on public issues from time to time, while maintaining a primarily ceremonial role. The case for direct election would be even stronger if we became a republic, but it’s overwhelming in any case.

Hat tips: The title of this post is from a book by David Solomon and Ken Parish revived the idea a while back.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Risk and Reagan

June 8th, 2004 20 comments

Since the obituaries and eulogies for Ronald Reagan have now been read, I think it’s reasonable to take a critical look at his historical contribution. It’s often argued that Reagan accelerated the end of the Cold War by raising US military expenditure, thereby forcing the Soviet Union to increase its own military expenditure and crippling its economy. I think this argument has some plausibility in relation to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, though not in relation to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe[1].

So granting that this analysis is correct, should Reagan be praised. For the argument to work at all, the buildup must have raised the probability of nuclear war, unless you suppose (improbably) that the Russians were absolutely convinced of the peaceful intentions of the West and responded to Reagan purely to build up their own offensive capability[2]. Let’s suppose that the annual risk of war was raised by one percentage point. Then over the eight years Reagan was in office, there was a cumulative 8 per cent chance of a war that would certainly have produced tens of millions of deaths, probably billions and possibly the extinction of the human race. Against this, the early collapse of the Soviet Union produced benefits (mixed, but still positive on balance) for people in the Soviet Union, and perhaps also a reduction in the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war in the period since 1990. These benefits are small in relation to the potential cost.

As I’ve argued previously, if you think that a good policy is one which, in expectation, has good consequences, Reagan’s policy fails this test. On the other hand, standard accounts of consequentialism say that a good policy is one that has good actual consequences. If you accept this, and the assessment of the facts given above, Reagan’s historical record looks pretty good.

fn1. It had been obvious for many years that these governments were sustained only by the threat of Soviet military intervention. Gorbachev still had the military capacity to intervene in 1989 (in fact, on the argument presented above, the Russians had a bigger military than they would have had if Reagan had not been elected), but he chose not to do so. As soon as this became evident, the Communist bloc governments collapsed.

fn2. As an aside, in debate at the time, it was widely asserted that the Soviet government was actively planning an attack on the West, to be undertaken if Western defences could be weakened sufficiently. Has the collapse of Communism produced any archival or similar evidence on this? I would have thought that the Warsaw Pact countries would have had to have had a fair degree of involvement, and, since they are now in NATO, there would be no reason to keep any secrets.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 7th, 2004 19 comments

Time as usual for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic. Since some commenters have been getting heated in recent weeks, let me remind everyone of my policy requiring civilised discussion and no coarse language, and raise the discussion starter: Does coarse language make for a coarse culture?
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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

BB on CC

June 7th, 2004 30 comments

h6. A guest post from Brian Bahnisch on global warming and climate change

On the weekend I decided to revisit the topic of anthropogenically caused global warming and consequent climate change after renewed debate on this site (Parish backs Kyoto) and elsewhere. What follows is some of what I found.
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Categories: Environment Tags: