23 January, 2015

Lord Ridley-A Strong Dose of Common Sense


CCNet 22/01/15

Matt Ridley: A Lukewarmer Against Dogmatism

The polarisation of the climate debate has gone too far

The Times, 19 January 2015

I am a climate lukewarmer. That means I think recent global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue but I no longer think it is likely to be dangerous and I think its slow and erratic progress so far is what we should expect in the future. That last year was the warmest yet, in some data sets, but only by a smidgen more than 2005, is precisely in line with such lukewarm thinking.
This view annoys some sceptics who think all climate change is natural or imaginary, but it is even more infuriating to most publicly funded scientists and politicians, who insist climate change is a big risk. My middle-of-the-road position is considered not just wrong, but disgraceful, shameful, verging on scandalous. I am subjected to torrents of online abuse for holding it, very little of it from sceptics.
I was even kept off the shortlist for a part-time, unpaid public-sector appointment in a field unrelated to climate because of having this view, or so the headhunter thought. In the climate debate, paying obeisance to climate scaremongering is about as mandatory for a public appointment, or public funding, as being a Protestant was in 18th-century England.
Kind friends send me news almost weekly of whole blog posts devoted to nothing but analysing my intellectual and personal inadequacies, always in relation to my views on climate. Writing about climate change is a small part of my life but, to judge by some of the stuff that gets written about me, writing about me is a large part of the life of some of the more obsessive climate commentators. It’s all a bit strange. Why is this debate so fractious?
Rather than attack my arguments, my critics like to attack my motives. I stand accused of “wanting” climate change to be mild because I support free markets or because I receive income indirectly from the mining of coal in Northumberland. Two surface coal mines (which I do not own), operating without subsidies, do indeed dig coal partly from land that I own. They pay me a fee, as I have repeatedly declared in speeches, books and articles.
I do think that coal, oil and gas have been a good thing so far, by giving us an alternative to cutting down forests and killing whales, by supplying fertiliser to feed the world, by giving the global poor affordable energy, and so on. But instead of defending the modern coal industry I write and speak extensively in favour of gas, the biggest competitive threat to coal’s share of the electricity market. If we can phase out coal without causing too much suffering, then I would not object.
Besides, I could probably earn even more from renewable energy. As a landowner, I am astonished by the generosity of the offers I keep receiving for green-energy subsidies. Wind farm developers in smart suits dangle the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds per turbine on my land — and tens of turbines. A solar developer wrote to me recently saying he could offer more than a million pounds of income over 25 years if I were to cover some particular fields with solar panels. Many big country houses have installed subsidised wood-fired heating to the point where you can hear their Canalettos cracking. I argue against such subsidies, so I don’t take them.
I was not always a lukewarmer. When I first started writing about the threat of global warming more than 26 years ago, as science editor ofThe Economist, I thought it was a genuinely dangerous threat. Like, for instance, Margaret Thatcher, I accepted the predictions being made at the time that we would see warming of a third or a half a degree (Centigrade) a decade, perhaps more, and that this would have devastating consequences.
Gradually, however, I changed my mind. The failure of the atmosphere to warm anywhere near as rapidly as predicted was a big reason: there has been less than half a degree of global warming in four decades — and it has slowed down, not speeded up. Increases in malaria, refugees, heatwaves, storms, droughts and floods have not materialised to anything like the predicted extent, if at all. Sea level has risen but at a very slow rate — about a foot per century.
Also, I soon realised that all the mathematical models predicting rapid warming assume big amplifying feedbacks in the atmosphere, mainly from water vapour; carbon dioxide is merely the primer, responsible for about a third of the predicted warming. When this penny dropped, so did my confidence in predictions of future alarm: the amplifiers are highly uncertain.
Another thing that gave me pause was that I went back and looked at the history of past predictions of ecological apocalypse from my youth – population explosion, oil exhaustion, elephant extinction, rainforest loss, acid rain, the ozone layer, desertification, nuclear winter, the running out of resources, pandemics, falling sperm counts, cancerous pesticide pollution and so forth. There was a consistent pattern of exaggeration, followed by damp squibs: in not a single case was the problem as bad as had been widely predicted by leading scientists. That does not make every new prediction of apocalypse necessarily wrong, of course, but it should encourage scepticism.
What sealed my apostasy from climate alarm was the extraordinary history of the famous “hockey stick” graph, which purported to show that today’s temperatures were higher and changing faster than at any time in the past thousand years. That graph genuinely shocked me when I first saw it and, briefly in the early 2000s, it persuaded me to abandon my growing doubts about dangerous climate change and return to the “alarmed” camp.
Then I began to read the work of two Canadian researchers, Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. They and others have shown, as confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, that the hockey stick graph, and others like it, are heavily reliant on dubious sets of tree rings and use inappropriate statistical filters that exaggerate any 20th-century upturns.
What shocked me more was the scientific establishment’s reaction to this: it tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. And then a flood of emails was leaked in 2009 showing some climate scientists apparently scheming to withhold data, prevent papers being published, get journal editors sacked and evade freedom-of-information requests, much as sceptics had been alleging. That was when I began to re-examine everything I had been told about climate change and, the more I looked, the flakier the prediction of rapid warming seemed.
I am especially unimpressed by the claim that a prediction of rapid and dangerous warming is “settled science”, as firm as evolution or gravity. How could it be? It is a prediction! No prediction, let alone in a multi-causal, chaotic and poorly understood system like the global climate, should ever be treated as gospel. With the exception of eclipses, there is virtually nothing scientists can say with certainty about the future. It is absurd to argue that one cannot disagree with a forecast. Is the Bank of England’s inflation forecast infallible?
Incidentally, my current view is still consistent with the “consensus” among scientists, as represented by the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The consensus is that climate change is happening, not that it is going to be dangerous. The latest IPCC report gives a range of estimates of future warming, from harmless to terrifying. My best guess would be about one degree of warming during this century, which is well within the IPCC’s range of possible outcomes.
Yet most politicians go straight to the top of the IPCC’s range and call climate change things like “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” (John Kerry), requiring the expenditure of trillions of dollars. I think that is verging on grotesque in a world full of war, hunger, disease and poverty. It also means that environmental efforts get diverted from more urgent priorities, like habitat loss and invasive species.
The policies being proposed to combat climate change, far from being a modest insurance policy, are proving ineffective, expensive, harmful to poor people and actually bad for the environment: we are tearing down rainforests to grow biofuels and ripping up peat bogs to install windmills that still need fossil-fuel back-up. These policies are failing to buy any comfort for our wealthy grandchildren and are doing so on the backs of today’s poor. Some insurance policy.
To begin with, after I came out as a lukewarmer, I would get genuine critiques from scientists who disagreed with me and wanted to exchange views. I had long and time-consuming email exchanges or conversations with several such scientists.
Yet I grew steadily more sceptical as, one by one, they failed to answer my doubts. They often resorted to meta-arguments, especially the argument from authority: if the Royal Society says it is alarmed, then you should be alarmed. If I want argument from authority, I replied, I will join the Catholic Church. “These are just standard denialist talking points” scoffed another prominent scientist, unpersuasively, when I raised objections — as if that answered them.
My experience with sceptical scientists, many of them distinguished climatologists at leading universities, was different. The more I probed, the better their data seemed. They did not resort to the argument from authority. Sometimes I disagreed with them or thought they went too far. I have yet to be convinced, for example, that changes in the output of the sun caused the warming of the 1980s and 1990s — an idea that some espouse. So for the most part, I found myself persuaded by the middle-of-the-road, “lukewarm” argument – that CO2-induced warming is likely but it won’t be large, fast or damaging.
Then a funny thing happened a few years ago. Those who disagreed with me stopped pointing out politely where or why they disagreed and started calling me names. One by one, many of the most prominent people in the climate debate began to throw vitriolic playground abuse at me. I was “paranoid”, “specious”, “risible”, “self-defaming”, “daft”, “lying”, “irrational”, an “idiot”. Their letters to the editor or their blog responses asserted that I was “error-riddled” or had seriously misrepresented something, but then they not only failed to substantiate the charge but often roughly confirmed what I had written.
I have seen bad-tempered polarisation of scientific debates before, for example during the nature-nurture debates of the 1970s and 1980s between those who thought genes affected behaviour and those who thought upbringing was overwhelmingly important. That debate grew vicious. What caused the polarisation, I realised then, was not just that people on one side read the articles they agreed with, reinforcing their prejudices, but something more. They relied on extreme distortions of their enemies’ arguments, written by self-appointed guardians of the flame on their own side, so they were constantly attacking straw men.
It’s the same here. Most of the people who attack me seem to think I am a “denier” of climate change because that’s what a few hyperventilating bloggers keep saying about me. It’s not, of course, true. It’s these flame guardians who polarise such debates.
The most prolific of them is a man named Bob Ward. Although employed at the London School of Economics, he is not a researcher or lecturer, but policy and communications director, somebody whose day job is to defend the climate orthodoxy in the media. Some might call him a spin doctor. It appears to me that he feels compelled to write something rude about me every time I publish on this topic and although his letters to editors are often published, he throws an online tantrum if they are not. He is hilariously obsessed with my peerage, lovingly reciting my title every time he attacks me, like a Bertie Woosterish snob.
As an example of playing the man and not the ball, Ward and Lord Deben, chairman of the government’s official committee on climate change, are both wont to mock the fact that my Oxford DPhil thesis in 1983 was on the behaviour of birds. Good luck to them but I notice they don’t mock the fact that the DPhil thesis of Lord Krebs was also on birds, earned in the very same research group as me: the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. Lord Krebs is the chairman of the adaptation subcommittee of the committee on climate change.
John Krebs, a fine scientist and superb lecturer, was the internal examiner of my thesis, which he praised at the time, after telling me to correct a couple of silly mistakes he had spotted in the calculation of a probability result. I did so. Imagine my surprise when he recently told several separate people (who reported it to me) that I should not be listened to on climate change because my DPhil thesis, all those years ago, contained mathematical errors. Lord May even used this argument against me in a debate in the House of Lords: that because I got a number wrong in a calculation 31 years ago, I cannot ever be right again. This is the kind of hilarious thing that happens to you if you come out as a lukewarmer.
Talking of the committee on climate change, last year Lord Deben commissioned an entire reportto criticise something I had said. Among other howlers, it included a quotation from the IPCC but the quote had a large chunk cut from the middle. When this cut was restored the line supported me, not Lord Deben. When I pointed this out politely to Lord Deben, he refused to restore the excision and left the document unchanged on the committee’s website. Presenting quotations so they appear to mean something different from what they do is quite a sin in journalism. Apparently not in Whitehall committees.
I suppose all this fury means my arguments are hitting home. If they were easily demolished they would demolish them rather than try to demolish me. Many of the things that I was abused for saying have since proved to be right. I was one of the first to write an article in the mainstream media (in The Wall Street Journal in 2012) arguing that the latest data supported much lower estimates of climate sensitivity (the amount of warming induced by a doubling of carbon dioxide levels) than those being assumed by the models used by the IPCC.
This produced the usual vituperation online from about a dozen high-profile science commentators with nothing better to do. Since then four papers (the latest being this one) have appeared in the scientific literature, authored by very prominent climate scientists, giving low estimates of climate sensitivity, some even lower than I had said. I am waiting for my critics to acknowledge that my story was sound.
I have never met a climate sceptic, let alone a lukewarmer, who wants his opponents silenced. I wish I could say the same of those who think climate change is an alarming prospect.

12 January, 2015

Snowy Scheme

As my readers know I have often questioned whether the management of the Snowy Scheme has sufficient emphasis on its original water conservation objectives compared with the apparent focus on hydro electricity generation. In late November I had the opportunity of joining a Snowy Hydro conducted tour of the Scheme which concentrated on the Northern end (Tumut/Murrumbidgee), as distinct from the southern (Murray) end.
It was a fascinating experience and whilst I remain no expert, I am gaining a better understanding of the scheme itself from an engineering perspective and how Snowy Hydro manage it in accordance with the requirements of their shareholders and the agreements which govern the management. I must say I come away with great admiration of both. The Scheme is a master piece of engineering and I was most impressed with the management and general efficiency of Snowy Hydro. That is not to say that I don't still harbor views that the management of the scheme has lost sight of its original prime objective of water conservation for irrigation. I do, but that is not the fault of Snowy Hydro.

Snowy Hydro shareholders are the Governments of NSW, Victoria and Australia. It makes its money from hydro electricity generation, not irrigation water and these shareholders require it to maximise its earnings which, it seems to me, it does very well. Amongst many other things, the agreements which govern its operations require it to make minimum releases of a little over 1,000GL per annum to both the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Interestingly about half of this water once flowed east to the sea. In my view it could do considerably more in the water conservation area, but that would be in conflict with its shareholder's requirements.

Much of this relates to the timing of releases and among other things, the need to keep airspace in Blowering Reservoir so that water can be released when the demand for peak load electricity is strong.

The tour had a nostalgic aspect for me. When I was a school boy at Canberra Grammar I spent many holidays with the Miners family at Adaminaby. They held some Kiandra snow leases and I had several trips on horse back with pack horses taking livestock to and from the high snow country. One of the leases was Happy Jack's and I spent some nights camped at the Happy Jack's hut. I was thus delighted to see when we received the itinerary for the tour that the first stop after Jindabyne

Happy Jack's Dam. The scenery above
Eucumbene Dam was magnificent
and for me the fact that one of our guides who I mostly travelled with was  Charlie Litchfield, a member of a well known local family who new the country and landholders backwards, was a real bonus. There was much reminiscing.
At the time of my school boy visits the Snowy Scheme was under construction and I well remember the houses being moved from the old Adaminaby to the new town site, before the old town area was flooded by Eucumbene Dam.

Suffice to say it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative trip.

27 December, 2014

Food for Thought

The Harvard Business Review recently ran an interview with Robert B. Shapiro, chairman and CEO of Monsanto, on the subject of sustainability.


Sustainable development is the term for the dual imperative—economic growth and environmental sustainability—that has been gaining ground among business leaders since the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. 


As Shapiro puts it, “We can’t expect the rest of the world to abandon their economic aspirations just so we can continue to enjoy clean air and water. That is neither ethically correct nor likely to be permitted by the billions of people in the developing world who expect the quality of their lives to improve.”


The interview with HBR editor-at-large Joan Magretta, discusses how Monsanto has moved from a decade of progress in pollution prevention and clean-up to spotting opportunities for revenue growth in environmentally sustainable new products and technologies.


HBR: Why is sustainability becoming an important component of your strategic thinking?


Robert B. Shapiro: Today there are about 5.8 billion people in the world. About 1.5 billion of them live in conditions of abject poverty—a subsistence life that simply can’t be romanticized as some form of simpler, preindustrial lifestyle. 


As many as 800 million people are so severely malnourished that they can neither work nor participate in family life. That’s where we are today. And, as far as I know, no demographer questions that the world population will just about double by sometime around 2030.


Without radical change, the kind of world implied by those numbers is unthinkable. It’s a world of mass migrations and environmental degradation on an unimaginable scale. At best, it means the preservation of a few islands of privilege and prosperity in a sea of misery and violence.


Far from being a soft issue grounded in emotion or ethics, sustainable development involves cold, rational business logic.


Current agricultural practice isn’t sustainable: we’ve lost something on the order of 15% of our topsoil over the last 20 years or so, irrigation is increasing the salinity of soil, and the petrochemicals we rely on aren’t renewable.


Most arable land is already under cultivation. Attempts to open new farmland are causing severe ecological damage. So in the best case, we have the same amount of land to work with and twice as many people to feed. It comes down to resource productivity. You have to get twice the yield from every acre of land just to maintain current levels of poverty and malnutrition.


Now, even if you wanted to do it in an unsustainable way, no technology today would let you double productivity. With current best practices applied to all the acreage in the world, you’d get about a third of the way toward feeding the whole population. 


The conclusion is that new technology is the only alternative to one of two disasters: not feeding people—letting the Malthusian process work its magic on the population—or ecological catastrophe.


We don’t have 100 years to figure that out; at best, we have decades. In that time frame, I know of only two viable candidates: biotechnology and information technology. I’m treating them as though they’re separate, but biotechnology is really a subset of information technology because it is about DNA-encoded information.


How does biotechnology replace stuff with information in agriculture?


Shapiro: We can genetically code a plant, for example, to repel or destroy harmful insects. That means we don’t have to spray the plant with pesticides—with stuff. Up to 90% of what’s sprayed on crops today is wasted. Most of it ends up on the soil.


If we put the right information in the plant, we waste less stuff and increase productivity. With biotechnology, we can accomplish that. It’s not that chemicals are inherently bad. But they are less efficient than biology because you have to manufacture and distribute and apply them.


I offer a prediction: the early twenty-first century is going to see a struggle between information technology and biotechnology on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other. 


Information technology is going to be our most powerful tool. It will let us miniaturize things, avoid waste, and produce more value without producing and processing more stuff. The substitution of information for stuff is essential to sustainability. 


B.t. Cotton. In ordinary soil, microbes known as B.t. microbes occur naturally and produce a special protein that, although toxic to certain pests, are harmless to other insects, wildlife, and people. If the destructive cotton budworm, for example, eats B.t. bacteria, it will die.


With products like B.t. cotton, farmers avoid having to buy and apply insecticides. And the environment is spared chemicals that are persistent in the soil or that run off into the groundwater.


The Roundup molecule has smart features that contribute to sustainability. It is degraded by soil microbes into natural products such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water. It is nontoxic to animals because its mode of action is specific to plants. Once sprayed, it sticks to soil particles; it doesn’t move into the ground-water. Like a smart tool, it seeks out its work.

How do you react to the prospect of the world population doubling over the next few decades? First you may say, Great, 5 billion more customers. That is what economic development is all about.


That’s part of it. Now, keep going. Think about all the physical implications of serving that many new customers. And ask yourself the hard question, How exactly are we going to do that and still live here? That’s what sustainability is about.

The Coal Seam Gas Industry

Quite the clearest, balanced description I have read-

World-first export LNG bonanza poised to set sail

Gas bonanza poised to set sail
Methane Rita Adrea enters Gladstone Harbour yesterday to take on the first shipment of LNG gas from Curtis Island. Picture: Murray Ware Source: Supplied
AUSTRALIA’S export liquefied natural gas industry on the east coast has begun with a large ship berthed in Gladstone Harbour filling up with the first batch of LNG made from coal-seam gas in western Queensland.
The British Gas-owned Methane Rita Andrea is bound for Asia when it leaves Gladstone in the next few days, its final destination depending on who is willing to pay top dollar for its liquid cargo.
Australia exports about 24 million tonnes of LNG worth about $14 billion from the North West Shelf off Western Australia, but what is happening in Queensland is a world first: converting coal-seam gas to LNG for export.
Combined, the two industries, one off the west coast and the other one the east coast, have the potential to make Australia the biggest exporter of LNG .
The federal government has forecast that LNG exports could rise to 80 million tonnes by 2018, valued at $60bn.
The new Queensland industry promises much. A 2013 study claimed it would deliver $22bn in revenue to the state government through royalties and payroll tax and $162bn in revenue to the federal government over the next 20 years.
The BG plant is the first of three $20bn plants being built at Curtis Island on the northern shore of Gladstone Harbour that will convert the coal-seam gas to liquid natural gas. The other two are set to come on stream in the next year.
While the output of the other two plants will largely be sent to specific destinations, BG is a large spot trader and already sends ships into Asia carrying liquid natural gas. The specific destination of the Methane Rita ­Andrea will be guided by which buyer needs the LNG next week.
The construction of the three giant plants has led to 40,000 people being employed; after the construction phase tapers off, the industry estimates it will employ up to 18,000 in long-term jobs.
The industry looms as Queensland’s economic saviour. At a time when coal prices are down and the coalmining industry is shedding jobs, the arrival of the coal-seam gas into liquid natural gas industry is forecast to lift the state’s economic growth from 2.5 per cent this year to 5.75 per cent in 2015-16, taking Queensland from one of the slower growth rates to the fastest.
It is also an industry that many see as putting groundwater in farming areas at risk and possibly contaminating much of Aus­tralia’s most productive farmland.
So far, about 5000 farmers have signed access agreements with coal-seam gas companies that will allow the companies to place wells, many only the size of a basketball court, on the farmer’s property. There are 6000 wells on Queensland’s western Darling Downs, but as the industry grows, more wells will be drilled as others dry up — in total, there could be up to 40,000 wells sunk in the gasfields around Chinchilla and Roma over the next 20 years.
The movement of Australian gas into the global market will also push up domestic gas prices. People overseas are prepared to pay more for gas than in Australia, so local prices will also rise.
Gas has been running through the specially-built pipeline from the gasfields to Gladstone for about a year, and once it reaches Gladstone, it is placed in what is effectively a giant freezer and converted to liquid form for transport. When it reaches the other end, the process is reversed and the liquid is heated until it turns into gas again.
A spokesman for BG Group, which came into the industry when it took over Queensland Gas in 2008, said the mechanical testing of the plant had finished and the storage tanks were yesterday being cooled, ready to produce and store sales LNG.
“This is done by cooling the gas to -162C. The process reduces the gas by about 600 times its original volume, making it easier to transport economically over vast distances. There remains work to do, but we are on schedule to start loading LNG into the first ship to carry a cargo from Curtis Island.”
It’s taken about 10 years to get the industry to this point, after coal-seam gas was seen as a far more environmentally friendly fuel source than coal as its greenhouse gas emissions are considerably less than coal.
The original proponents of an export coal-seam gas industry were all Australian companies, but all have partnered with large overseas energy giants to make the projects viable.
The opposition to the industry has come together under the banner of Lock the Gate, and its president, Drew Hutton, said there had been an unseemly haste to push the industry.
“In years to come, people will look at the decisions made now and the way we’ve sacrificed good farmland and water for an industry which has such a limited ­future,” he said.
“Coal-seam gas, like coal itself, will end up as a stranded asset as people realise that the future is in renewable energy … what we’ll see in the next 20 years is the ­impact on the underground water supply, which will put at risk some of our best farming land.”

18 December, 2014

Christmas Greetings and 2014 Review

Once again we use the "late and easy" way by conveying our Christmas greetings electronically. Gail and I sincerely wish all our friends a very happy Christmas and a healthy and successful 2015.

Not sure that I want to bore you with our health issues and somewhat mundane activities over 2014, so will strive for brevity as I did last year. However, the year did have its highlights-

  • an enjoyable, albeit sad, weekend in Bourke in May to mark Swire's final withdrawal from the agricultural industry, following the sale of the Barwon/Darling River cotton farms,
  • the removal of my colostomy bag and closure of the stoma in June,
  • various Tandou events during the year culminating in a fascinating Snowy Hydro conducted tour of the Snowy Scheme in November-see my Blog,
  • election to Chairmanship of the McGarvie Smith Institute in mid year,
  • August saw the loss and funeral of our very good Walcha friend Sue Archdale, after the bravest fight with cancer that one could ever see; a brief visit to the ever impressive Australian Cotton Conference, a trip to Gunnedah with son Mike for AgQuip, and 2.5 weeks at Moololaba,
  • a great five days in Adelaide last week for the India Test Match,
  • two excellent school reports for our two eldest grandchildren-Mike and Georgie's- Charlie and Heidi- followed by Charlie's election yesterday as School Captain of Mosman Primary,
  • the diagnosis yesterday of what can most simply be described as a very large hernia below where the colostomy was closed, which will almost certainly involve further surgery to repair; the good news is that there is no sign of cancer.
Sorry if I have offended anyone by not including something that they thought was important!