Catalyst teaches the controversy

I was at the gym just now and they had a rerun of a Catalyst story from October on the alleged climate change pause, presented by Anja Taylor. It was appalling. It started off correctly attributing the 1998 peak in warming to El Nino (with a shot of Richard Morecroft).

Next there was an unnamed speaker, suggesting that this presaged a permanent El Nino . This obvious straw man (it’s called the Southern Oscillation because it’s cyclical) was presented as if it represented the view of mainstream science, but the transcript attributes it to “reporter”. Clearly, Taylor was unable to get any vision of an actual scientist making this claim.

Next, four denialists (Monckton, Paltridge, Newman and Curry) and an editorial intervention from Taylor asserting the “pause” as a reality, with some super-shoddy graphs. Then a flashback to Climategate.

After this setup, things got gradually better. Some real scientists were brought on, and we eventually reached the conclusion “All things considered, there’s been no global warming pause”. But anyone watching the program would conclude that the sceptics had a pretty strong case.

The problem is that this kind of “teach the controversy” approach is utterly inappropriate for a TV science program. In this case, the problem is (as the program admits) that the majority of the time is given to a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, so few that Taylor had to give air time to two non-scientists and one who has gone emeritus. But even on a topic where scientists are actually divided, a 15-minute TV segment isn’t going to help clarify the issues.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is typical of Catalyst nowadays. I used to think it was just Maryanne Demasi, but obviously the producers want to present “he said, she said” controversy. It’s time for the ABC to pull the plug.

Consequentialist arguments for deontological positions

Thinking about various interchanges on the Internetz, a great many have the frustrating property that, while they appear to be couched in consequentialist terms, some or all of the participants are defending claims that they actually hold for deontological reasons[^1]. For example, a follower of Pythagoras (who, apocryphally, forbade the eating of beans) might appear in a discussion about beans and claim that we shouldn’t eat beans because
* they cause flatulence
* bean production is environmentally destructive
* the bean industry is dominated by exploitative multinationals
The problem for someone seeking to counter these arguments is that, even if they are all refuted, the Pythagorean will not agree that it is OK to eat beans.
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Sandy Hook and Peshawar

A couple of news items that struck me recently

* Two years after the Sandy Hook massacre, a US Federal Appeals Court has ruled that people with a history of mental illness have a constitutional right to gun ownership.

* In the immediate aftermath of the Peshawar massacre, a Pakistani judge granted bail to the alleged planner of the Mumbai massacre, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, a leading figure in the (military-backed) Lashkar e-Taibi terrorist group.

Obviously, these decisions were neither aberrational nor the product of a legal system divorced from any social context. Rather, they reflect deeply ingrained views in the societies from which they emerged. Beyond that point, I don’t have a lot to say, but I’ll be interested to read the views of others.

The fossil fuel crash of 2014

Among the unforeseen (by me, at any rate) events of 2014, the collapse in the price of crude oil may be among the most significant. Prices have fallen from more than $100/barrel in mid-2014 to around $60/barrel today. This follows a more gradual fall in the price of coal. The thermal coal price peaked at $140/tonne in 2011 and has now fallen to around $70/tonne. Prices for metallurgical coal and iron ore have also collapsed.

What should we make of this? The big questions are
(i) to what extent does the price collapse reflect weak demand and to what extent growing supply
(ii) will these low prices be sustained, and if so, what will be the outcome.

The answer to the first question seems to be, a mixture of the two, with some complicated lags. Strong demand growth (briefly interrupted by the GFC) produced high prices which made new projects appear profitable. Now the projects are coming on stream, but demand has weakened. Since both demand and supply are inelastic (not very responsive to prices) in the short run, a moderate oversupply produces a big drop in prices.

Coming to the second point, if we are to reduce emissions of CO2, a necessary precondition is that the price of fossil fuels should fall to the point where it is uneconomic to extract them. Current prices are below the level at which most new oil and coal projects are profitable, so, if they are sustained, we can expected to see a lot of project cancellations and closures (this is already happening with coal to some extent).

The big question is whether sustained low prices will lead to a recovery in demand. There are at least some reasons to hope that it won’t. There’s pressure to reduce coal and oil use coming from many directions, so, even at lower prices, I doubt that we will see a surge in investment in new coal-fired power plants* or a return to oil for uses like heating.

So, the hopeful scenario is one in which the abandonment of new projects brings us the long-awaited advent of Peak (or rather Plateau) Oil and Coal** in the not-too-distant future, giving time for policy to push the global economy in the direction of decarbonization.

* Someone will doubtless point to the case of Germany. But as far as I can tell, the plants that have opened recently were commissioned around 2006, and most proposals made since then have been abandoned.

** Of course, gas is a different story, partly because there is no global market. Gas prices are rising in some places (Australia, for example) and falling in others as trade expands.

MMT and Russia

Whenever I post anything about taxation and public expenditure, it’s a good bet that someone will pop up in the comments section to claim that, according to Modern Monetary Theory, states that issue their own currency don’t need taxation to finance public expenditure. That’s a misunderstanding of the theory, but it’s proved hard to explain this. The current crisis in Russia provides a teachable moment.
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Tell ’em they’re dreaming

The title of a piece in Inside Story on nuclear power in Australia. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think it’s feasible in any relevant time frame (say, before 2040). I don’t expect nuclear devotees to be convinced by this (I can’t think of any evidence that would have this effect), but I’d be interested to see someone lay out a plausible timetable to get nuclear built here sooner than my suggested date.

To clarify this, feel free to assume a conversion of both major parties and the majority of the public to a pro-nuclear position, but not to assume away the time needed to generate a legislative and regulatory framework, take proper account of concerns about siting, licensing and so on.