The culture war: time to mop up

Both before and since the election, commentators of the centre-left, including me, have pronounced the end of the culture wars that have dominated a large stream of Australian political commentary for the past fifteen years or so (for a further sample, here’s Polemica and LP). These pronouncements have not been well received. Rather, in the manner of this (according to family legend) distant relation of mine, those on the losing side have taken the view that news of their defeat is a deceitful ruse de guerre.

In a tactical sense, this is all to the good. With no share of political power anywhere in the country, the culture warriors can’t do any actual harm, except to the conservative side of politics. So, there’s an argument that they should be encouraged, rather than persuaded to give up the struggle. But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to encourage vitriolic debate about side issues, while letting the big questions be settled by default. In relation to climate change, for example, as long as the delusionist and do-nothingist culture warriors dominate one side of the debate, serious discussion about questions like how best to combine adaption and mitigation will be drowned out.

So, it seems like a good idea to survey the culture war and consider what can be done about it.

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A big win for the planet, and others

The outcome of the international climate talks in Bali has been a huge win for the planet. Given the participation of the Bush Administration, we were never going to get firm short-term targets in the agreement of this round of negotiations (except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world). But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

* Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions
* Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table
* Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation
* Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.�

There are of course, some individual winners too, of whom the most notable is undoubtedly Al Gore. His intervention, correctly blaming the US Administration for the lack of progress at the talks, and putting effective pressure on its remaining allies, the governments of Canada and Japan, made it clear that the political price for a failure would be paid by the US, and that those who backed Bush now would find themselves alone in the near future.

Kevin Rudd has also been a big winner. Until his election, Australia, as the only other significant country not to ratify Kyoto, was Bush’s most important supporter. After the switch, Australia was able to pursue a negotiating strategy which sometimes seemed to accommodating to the US, but ultimately produced an excellent outcome.

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Blogging knols and wikis

After reading lots of discussion of Google’s knol initiative, I finally got around to actually looking at the example screenshot, which is about insomnia. Naturally, I was interested to look at the competition provided by the Wikipedia article on the same topic.

The Wikipedia article starts with a cleanup-needed tag (maybe Google’s choice of example topic wasn’t accidental in this respect), but doesn’t look all that bad. What’s startling is that wiki and knol disagree on some fairly basic points.

The knol, written by Rachel Manber states, without citation, that insomnia affects about one in ten US adults, which I would guess to be about 25 million people. Wikipedia says ’60 million Americans suffer from insomnia each year” and supports this with a link to the NIH which says “About 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time, which leads to even more serious sleep deficits.” . This WebMD article says “In a 1991 survey, 30-35% of adult Americans reported difficulty sleeping in the past year and 10% reported the insomnia to be chronic, severe, or both” again consistent with Wikipedia. It looks as if the knol introductory sentence should have stated “chronic or severe”.

There’s also disagreement over classifications of transient, acute and chronic insomnia. The knol classification is purely on duration, while the Wikipedia article offers a rather confusing mix of duration and causative indicators. A quick search of the web suggests that there’s lots of different definitions out there.

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The 75 per cent solution: tourism

A lot of discussion of climate change is based on the implicit or explicit premise that, since we use energy in everything we do, and most energy is derived from carbon-based fuels, large reductions in CO2 emissions will require radical changes in the way we live. Some people welcome this prospect, but most do not.

Having looked at this problem in various different ways, I’m convinced that this premise is wrong, and that quite modest changes, many of which would follow more or less directly from the imposition of a suitable cost on CO2 emissions, could achieve large reductions in emissions. I’ve argued this at the macro level, based on demand elasticity estimates, and also at the micro level in terms of road transport. I thought it might be a good idea to attempt more micro estimates and, while I was visiting Cairns last week, my thoughts naturally turned to long-distance tourism.

So, this is hoped to be the first in a series where I consider the question: Could we reduce emissions in a given sector of the economy by 75 per cent in a way that wouldn’t substantially change the services delivered by that sector?

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The future of coral reefs, if any

A report in the Australian summarises an article in Science, stating that coral reefs are unlikely to survive the next few decades. The meeting I went to in Cairns had a marginally more optimistic view. If we can drastically reduce other pressures such as overfishing and nutrient pollution, reefs might be sufficiently resilient to recover from bleaching events and other consequences of global warming.

All of these pressures act cumulatively. Bleaching kills corals, excess nutrients encourage the growth of algae which prevent new corals from establishing themselves and overfishing removes herbivores that eat the algae. A big reduction in nutrient and fishing pressure might offset the more frequent occurrence of bleaching events.