How much does it cost to save the planet?

There’s been quite a bit of discussion here and elsewhere about the cost of large (60 per cent or more) reductions in CO2 emissions. A lot of people are intuitively convinced that since everything we do uses energy, large reductions in energy use can only be achieved at the cost of large reductions in living standards. Economic analysis says the opposite. Typical estimates of the cost of such reductions are in the range 1-3 per cent of income for the world as a whole. Australia is more energy intensive, and ABARE (by no means biased low on this kind of thing) gives a range from 1.7 to 3.4 per cent for plausible scenarios. Only by rigging the game could ABARE get the high estimate of 10 per cent, quoted by Howard a while back. And even a 10 per cent reduction in income, by 2050, would not actually be noticeable against the background noise of macroeconomic and individual income fluctuations. On plausible projections, it would mean average income would increase by 110 per cent instead of 120 per cent.

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One endless Rathergate

The rightwing blogosphere, with assistance from the usual MSM types like Howard Kurtz has spent the last week or two trying to discredit a soldier, Scott Beauchamp, who wrote a “Baghdad Diary” for The New Republic, which included various examples of casually callous behavior on the part of US soldiers (nothing on the scale of Abu Ghraib or other proven cases).

For the wingers, this is a continuous pattern. Before this, there was a flap about a report that failures by contractors were resulting in troops in the field not getting adequate food. Before that, it was the Jamil Hussein case, a months-long brawl with AP arising from a report by a stringer about attacks on mosques. Before that, it was reports from Lebanon of ambulances being hit by Israeli fire. And so on.[1] There’s too much of this to try and give comprehensive coverage, and I’m not interested in debating the details, but a search on Instapundit will usually get you started.

The Beauchamp case fits the general pattern pretty well. First, the wingers claimed that the Diary was a fabrication and that “Scott Thomas” was the creation of a writer who’d never been near Iraq. Then, when it became evident he was a real person, they rolled out the slime machine to discredit him. Then they engaged in amateur forensics to discredit particular items in his account (acres of screen space have been devoted to the question of whether the driver of a Bradley fighting vehicle can run over a dog). Then they got to the central point – true or false, material like this is bad for the cause and shouldn’t be printed.

All of this, of course, is an attempt to replicate the one undoubted triumph of the blogospheric right, Rathergate. For those who somehow missed it, Dan Rather and CBS fooled by a bogus memo purportedly from Bush’s National Guard commander, and Rather eventually lost his job as a result.

As I said, I’m not interested in, and won’t debate, the details of these stories. The main question is: How anyone could imagine that this kind of exercise can have any value?
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The Haneef fiasco

Now that the charges against Dr Haneef have been withdrawn and the urgent need to keep him in maximum security seems to have evaporated, it’s worth thinking about how this mess came about. Everyone involved in managing this case (with the exception of Haneef’s defence counsel) has made an awful mess of it.

In the case of the police, I think it is a case of stuffup rather than conspiracy. One more or less unchangeable characteristic of police forces is that, once they have someone in the frame for a crime, they focus on getting a conviction, and are very unwilling to stop and consider alternative hypotheses. In Haneef’s case, they began with a fairly routine investigation of someone distantly linked to the British terror attacks and found their man at the airport with a one-way ticket out of the country. From that moment, I’d say, the police were collectively convinced of his guilt and unwilling to listen to explanations or alibis. This is not really surprising – police must listen to lots of bogus alibis and false explanations, which it’s their job to demolish. That’s the way the police work and that’s why we have defence lawyers and a legal presumption of innocence.

The Labor Opposition similarly hasn’t covered itself with glory, though in fairness it was faced with what was pretty obviously a deliberate political trap. Still, it should have been possible to make this clear, saying that support was given on the assumption the government was acting in good faith, and withdrawing that support when it became apparent the whole thing was at best, grossly mishandled and at worst, a setup.

The real blame, though, lies with the government and particularly Kevin Andrews. Whatever advice he received on Haneef’s visa, it should never have been used to override the decision, made in a criminal proceeding, to grant bail. As has now become clear, Andrews could have made the same decision to cancel the visa without using it to lock Haneef up. His action was characteristic of a government that’s been in power too long and has become excessively used to getting its own way. And of course his implied assurance, now discredited, that there was a lot more to the case than the initial, rather tenuous charge, is characteristic of a government that’s used to telling lies and getting away with it (children overboard, WMDs, AWB etc). Those who’ve served as enablers and excusers of this behavior (including quite a few commentators and bloggers) share the blame for the latest episode.

Leaving aside the unfair treatment of Dr Haneef and his family, this episode has done grave damage to Australia’s national security, which depends critically on the capacity of ordinary Australians to trust those who make decisions of this kind. Given the ethos of “never apologise, never resign” that governs such matters nowadays, it seems certain that these powers will remain in the hands of people who cannot reasonably command our trust.

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.

Plateau oil

I’ve spent a fair while talking and thinking about the Peak Oil Hypothesis, and a couple of thoughts have struck me. Looking at the data, graphed below, the big increases in oil prices in the last five years or so seem to have done nothing to call forth additional supply. And for the last couple of years, output has actually declined. In that sense, it looks as if those pundits who claim that oil output has passed its historical maximum may be able claim vindication.

On the other hand, the term “peak” tends to imply a steep ascent, followed by an equally steep descent. Looked at on a time scale of several centuries this will be about right. But, year to year, the pattern is better described as a plateau with a slight downward slope.

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Another Word for Wednesday Repost: Conservative

Conservative: As an antonym to ‘progressive’, the term ‘conservative’ is affected by many of the same confusions.

First, a conservative may be one who, like Burke, believes that that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid, top-down and rationalistic.

Second, a conservative may emphasise obligations to society and community rather than, or as a counterbalance to individual rights . Since societies and communities tend to change more slowly than individuals, this is broadly consistent with the first definition. Closely related to this group are conservationists, who seek to conserve the natural environment often at the expense of short-term benefits to individuals.

Third, a conservative may defend more specific traditional institutions such as monarchy or private property.

Fourth, the term ‘conservative’ is used as the official name of some right-of-centre political parties and as a general descriptive term for right-of-centre politics

Given a historicist belief that history inevitably flows in a given direction, defined as ‘progressive’, a conservative is one who seeks to halt or slow down that flow. Assuming further that the trend of history is towards the political left, all these definitions fit together pretty well. Even in this case, a conservative of type 3 must gradually adjust to lost ground. A contemporary supporter of absolute or even limited monarchy in Australia and the UK would not be a conservative but a reactionary.

As with ‘progressives’, though the big problems emerge when the trend of history changes. Consider, for example, the role of trade unions. As long as trade unions were growing in power, conservatives of all types could join in resisting this trend. But now that unions are in decline, there is a sharp conflict between different types of conservatives.

On any abstract definition of conservatism, it’s clear that conservatives should support trade unions. They are traditional institutions dating back to the 19th century and beyond, they endorse conservative values of community solidarity and they are under attack primarily because they are seen as an obstacle to radical change. And of course this attack is being led by Conservatives in the sense of definition 4 and, to a lesser extent, definition 3.

However, whereas the problems with the term ‘progressive’ are, in my view, so severe as to render it useless as a description of political views, this is not true of ‘conservative’. The absence of any monotone linear trend does not invalidate conservatism in the sense of the first definition. Rather it strengthens it. If the policy trends of this decade may be reversed next decade, then in makes sense to move slowly and to distrust impressive-looking theoretical blueprints.

Having witnessed a massive reversal of policy trends in my own lifetime, and having been on the losing side for most of the past few decades, I am now a conservative in the sense of definition 1. I hope that, should the tide of policy debate turn in favour of social democracy once more, social democrats will avoid the hubris that characterized the Left before the 1970s and the Right thereafter, and will favor slow and careful change based on broad social support.

Update Coincidentally, Stephen Barton at Online Opinion has a piece headlined “Conservatism is not evil, stupid nor ignorant – it’s just misunderstood. ” Since he starts by quoting a member of Margaret Thatcher’s radical free-market government, he clearly does not refer to conservatism in the sense of definitions 1 and 2, despite the obligatory nods to Burke and Oakeshott. Rather he lists a number of conservative politicians and activists and asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t “evil, stupid nor ignorant’, characteristics he instead attributes to people on the other side like Clinton, Whitlam and Keating.