Talking Point Whack-a-Mole (1997 edition)

Debating science with the postmodernist right is that their position is not so much a worldview as a collection of talking points. As regards passive smoking, for example, I don’t suppose anyone seriously believes that breathing cigarette smoke is harmless. But since all good rightwingers oppose regulation to restrict smoking, and are (mostly) unwilling to simply come out and say that nonsmokers should put up with the risk associated with other people’s smoke, they cling desperately to the occasional wins they have had such as the Osteen decision in 1998 (a court judgement, later overturned, critical of an even older report by the US EPA).

As this example illustrates, these talking points are just about impossible to kill. People like Andrew Bolt are still going on about the 1997 Oregon petition, in which a lot of people (about 1 per cent of whom had any more relevant qualifications than I do) agreed with a misleading statement sent out by a lunatic-fringe thinktank, and were then quoted as ‘scientists who reject global warming’. But delusionism on the science of global warming is pretty much dead, even if it maintains a zombie existence in the columns of the Sun-Herald and the fringes of the blogosphere. The main line of argument now is that, granted that global warming is real, we should do nothing about it, at least for the next few decades.

So, another talking point from ten years ago has surfaced. The factual basis is that, back in 1997, the US Senate passed, by 95-0, the (non-binding) Byrd-Hagel resolution, which stated that the US should not sign an agreement at Kyoto unless it included emissions targets for developing countries. Later that year, the Clinton Administration went ahead and negotiated the Kyoto protocol without first-round targets for developing countries, but did not submit it for ratification.

This ten-year old vote is being cited today, most recently in the Shergold report (the PMs Task Group on emissions trading) as evidence that the US will never ratify Kyoto, or, more generally, an agreement that imposes more stringent requirements on developed countries like the US than on China and India. This isn’t quite as silly as Andrew Bolt quoting the Oregon petition, but it isn’t a whole lot better.

It’s reasonable enough to cite Byrd-Hagel as evidence that, as of 1997, the US Senate was unlikely to ratify an agreement like Kyoto. But ten years is a long time. Even if the Senate had never addressed the issue again, it would be a bit silly to refer to this vote as conclusive evidence on how Kyoto is viewed today. But in fact, of course, the Senate has addressed the issue again. In 2003, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which called for caps on emissions of greenhouse gases was defeated by 55-43, with strong opposition from the Bush Administration.

43 votes is a long way short of the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. On the other hand, the Senate looks a lot greener after the 2006 elections, and could be even more so after 2008. And a determined Administration, especially a newly-elected one, can usually swing a fair number votes. Maybe the US will ratify Kyoto after Bush goes, and maybe not. Either way, the evidentiary value of a non-binding resolution passed ten years ago is close to zero.

Howard and history

Inevitably, after 11 years in office, Howard’s dramatic intervention in indigenous communities is going to be judged on his past history. The question is, which history. He has made a couple of moves, like introducing gun control after Port Arthur (over the objections of many of his own, or at least the Nationals’ supporters) and intervening in East Timor (against the will of a significant segment of the foreign policy establishment) that show him at his best, responding to an obvious need. Those are the precedents he’d like to draw on.

Against that, there’s children overboard, the $10 billion water plan earlier this year, the Iraq war and his long history, going back twenty years or more, of playing to racist sentiment when it seemed politically appealing. Until I see evidence that this proposal has serious planning behind it, and, equally importantly, serious money (unmet needs amounting to billions have already been pointed out) I’m putting the latest move in the latter category.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Last charitable appeal for 2006-07 – update

As the end of the financial year is approaching, it’s a great time to give charitable donations. I’ve used up all the gimmicks I could think of for the Great Australian Shave appeal, so this is going to be a bog-standard fundraiser. I’m giving $500 to Oxfam as my last donation for 2006-07. Anyone who would like to be part of a collective effort can announce their donation in comments, or (if you’re modest) in email to me. I’ll post a running total until 30 June. Give to whatever charity you choose, and whatever amount you can manage.

Thanks to some generous donations from readers, we’re up to $800. There’s still time to get in with a donation and make Peter Costello cough up his share.

Thatcherism after Blair

While there will doubtless be plenty of discussion of Blair’s contribution on his departure, it might be more useful to take a step further back and re-evaluate Thatcher. When Blair took office, he was generally seen as offering Thatcherism with a human face. Thatcher herself was generally seen,as a successful (counter-) revolutionary and aspirants to the Tory leadership were still competing for her mantle.

Ten years later, the picture is quite different, superficially at least. Brown seems much more Old Labour than Blair, and Cameron is eager to be seen as anything but Thatcherite.
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New on the RSMG blog

There’s lots of important and interesting stuff on the RSMG blog.

First up, RSMG is hiring. More on this soon.

Nanni takes a sceptical look at peak oil (more precisely the claim that market failure prevents impending peak oil from being reflected in prices) and notes the news that China has overtaken the US in CO2 emissions.

Most interesting is a post with links to a piece The Economist making, yet again, the point that most of the cheap options for reducing CO2 emissions are in the area of energy conservation. There’s a nice graph, which I’ve reproduced over the page.
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The myth of “The Myth of the Paperless Office”

The “paperless office” is one of those catchphrases that gets bandied about for a while, only to disappoint and eventually be used in a purely derisive way. As Wikipedia says, it has become ‘a metaphor for the touting of new technology in terms of ‘modernity’ rather than its actual suitability to purpose’. The death of the phrase was cemented by a 2001 book, by Sellen and Harper “The Myth of the Paperless Office”. This book wasn’t a snarky debunking but a fairly sophisticated analysis, pointing out that a sensible analysis of task requirements could allow a significant reduction in paper use. Here’s a good review from Kirk McElhearn. But it was the title that stuck. No one would ever again refer to the paperless office with a straight face.

Six years later, though, looking at my own work habits, I find that I have virtually ceased to use paper, in all but a couple of marginal applications.

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