Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stupidity rules the climate change roost

So, we are to have a "review" of the anthropogenic climate change question with selected "international experts" sponsored by the ACT party, and our Emissions Trading Scheme will be delayed in the meantime. A formal agreement between ACT and National says that a select committee on climate change will:

“...hear competing views on the scientific aspects of climate change from internationally respected sources and assess the quality and impartiality of official advice.”

Rodney Hide, leader of the ACT party, has said,

"Al Gore is a phoney and a fraud on this issue and the emissions trading scheme is a worldwide scam and a swindle."[1]

Mr Hide’s mind is clearly made up, and his agreement with National implies that public servants are providing biased advice. When he says that the emissions trading scheme is a scam and swindle, is he accusing officials of promoting a scam? Whom will Mr Hide select as “internationally respected sources” when he wants a particular outcome?

"Laughable" doesn't really do this justice. Rodney Hide is pursuing a small slice of the popular vote in a way that is not only damaging our credibility, but will cost us dearly financially and hurt the environment - three blows against the nation from just one incredibly stupid, ill-informed ACT policy.

A recent report in New Scientist pointed out that the world is more than meeting its Kyoto commitments, so the line that, "nobody is meeting their commitments and so it will all be scrapped" is just ignorant bullshit. If we fail to meet our Kyoto commitments we will have to pay - billions of dollars most likely.

The "review" has undermined potential investments in new forests that reportedly run into 100s of millions of dollars, i.e.: 10s of thousands of new hectares of forest that could be soaking up CO2. If we don't plant more forests now, then during the 2020s when the 1990s plantings are harvested we will pay for a huge hole in our national carbon accounts.

The idea that ACT, in cahoots with the "Climate Change Coalition" - Owen McShane et al. - have the inside story on climate change in the face of years of careful research by responsible scientists is manifestly stupid, and that a responsible government would allow such a small dog tail to influence policy in such an expensive, damaging way, implies a whole extra layer of stupidity.

[1] NZPA | Tuesday September 2 2008, reported in the National Business Review

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It’s often the people issues that make forestry difficult

At the NZ Institute of Forestry’s annual conference last month we traveled into the Manawatu to see for ourselves erosion that plagues hill country farmers and doubly plagues dairy farmers in the Wairarapa every time there is a flood. After the last flood taxpayers provided more than $200 million to help clean up the mess. About 175,000 ha of the Manawatu needs afforestation, according to the New Zealand Empirical Erosion Model that John Dymond showed us. We also heard Frank Brenmuhl, Chair of the Dairy Farmers of NZ, proclaim that “somebody had told him” he needed 17% of his farm converted to trees each year in order to produce greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral milk. His plea was that farmers had no viable alternative but to continue emitting GHGs, and that they would “never” go along with the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The amount of forest required by dairy farmers to comply with the ETS is open to some dispute, but “17% of their land each year” seems to be inflated by a factor of around 30 if total greenhouse gas neutrality is the goal. In addition, the ETS, as currently constituted, would not require Mr Brenmuhl to be fully GHG neutral until 2025, and so to initially comply with the scheme a very small investment in forestry would be required. In fact, he could use a small portion his dairy receipts to finance a joint venture with a hill country farmer to afforest eroding land, thereby allowing both of them to meet ETS commitments while reducing the likelihood that dairy farmers on the flats will need another bailout from taxpayers. Technically this seems clear enough.

The problem is, how do we enable the joint ventures to happen? To illustrate why this is such a difficult issue, consider another part of our field trip in the Manawatu. We passed several blocks of radiata pine plantation, and our guides almost invariably said that the forests had been planted because either someone had died or someone’s marriage had broken up, necessitating the liquidation of their farms. Forestry companies apparently accompany calamities like the grim reaper in these farming communities. The same communities have critically small schools, rugby clubs, and social networks that they feel are threatened by an ever growing blanket of radiata pine. One of the Horizons Regional Council employees was “ordered out of a valley” by local residents when he was trying to help them plan afforestation on eroding hill country. Some of the hill farms reputedly make negative rates of return on capital, but it is the lifestyle that matters.

Helen Moodie of the Landcare Trust presented a moving account of her interactions with farmers, including plenty of hints about how to work with the farming community in positive ways. We often get it wrong, it seems. In recent email correspondence, Mike Halliday, a former President of the NZ Farm Forestry Association said, “…you need to be careful with the tone of any response, in my experience (about 40 odd years of SLM) - and one of the reasons I didn't attend your recent conference - the Institute tends to display a rather patronising, 'we know what’s best for you' view on land management, that doesn't go down well with the poor struggling peasants who can't afford to put a new roof on the shed.”[1]

Yes, it is the people issues that make forestry difficult, and in saying that I’m pointing the finger at us – foresters. Congratulations to the organisers of the conference for bringing together such a diverse cross-section of the land management sector. The lesson for foresters is that it’s all very well to believe we know how things might work out technically, but we have to make a greater effort to understand where other people are coming from and consider their views when we try to help. Maybe Landcare Trust could do the enabling and forestry consultants could provide technical advice later, if and when the need for it is accepted by landowners.

[1] Reprinted with Mike Halliday’s permission

Friday, February 29, 2008

"Smacking" is not "good parental correction"

So, if it crosses the 10% of registered voters barrier, we in New Zealand will be asked in a citizens initiated referendum:

"Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

The referendum question implies that smacking can be part of "good parental correction", and we wouldn't want to outlaw "good parental correction", now would we? How ironic that this is in the same category as the proverbial leading question, "When did you stop beating your wife?".

How ironic also that the second question asks, "Should the Government give urgent priority to understanding and addressing the wider causes of family breakdown, family violence and child abuse in New Zealand?" when the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act resulted from exactly that urgent priority and sought to remove a legal loophole that allowed child bashers to get away with it.

The word "smack" is a euphemism for violence against children. If I "smacked" my neighbour I would be rightly subject to prosecution for assault. If a child "smacked" another child, that child would be called a bully. It is inconsistent for parents who agree with laws against assault and who oppose bullying to think that they have a right to bully and assault their own children.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Climate change: Don’t just leave it up to scientists (hang on, I’m a scientist!)

Decisions about our responses to climate change need to be distinguished from scientific hypothesis testing.

Some people point out that there are uncertainties in global climate science and argue that we should not act until the matter is clarified. Science thrives on debate, and we should welcome questions about what we think we know. The debate has shifted in the past few years, with fewer people suggesting that global climate is not changing, and more discussion about whether the observed change is affected by our activities or only by other factors.

Scientific statements are almost always associated with uncertainty, but does this make them so unreliable that we shouldn’t act in response to them? It is reasonable that our responses should depend on both the degree of uncertainty and costs associated with alternatives.

When action requires a lead time, there comes a point when you have to act or risk wearing negative, irreversible consequences. You have to make an interim assessment of the arguments of those who claim that something is happening versus those who are trying to refute it. In accepting a claim for the purposes of acting, you are not saying with absolute certainty that the claim is true, you are simply recognizing that waiting for certainty and consensus is an unattainable luxury. Given how argumentative we scientists are, certainty will be available after the predicted events have, or would have, actually occurred, and even then we’d be arguing.

Imagine that thousands of the best astronomers in the world had worked intensively on the issue of whether a particular asteroid was going to hit the earth and had argued their findings line by line with government representatives who wanted to avoid the cost of trying to do anything about it. Suppose also that with current technology for diverting asteroids we had to decide now whether to act on this advice or not. Even if there was a small number of astronomers claiming that the asteroid was not going to hit, we could simply not afford to hold off action until the debate was finally resolved to the satisfaction of all astronomers. The best way to think about this issue is to imagine explaining our decision to someone after the asteroid impact. How much sense would it make to say at that point in time: ‘well, a group of the best astronomers in the world deliberated on this issue and decided that the asteroid was going to hit, but we decided to go with a handful of skeptic astronomers who were arguing against it and delayed acting until the issue was resolved.’?

It is similar with climate change. All scientists agree that there are uncertainties associated with climate change, but they differ as to its degree. Generally those considered to be “skeptics” think there is more uncertainty than do the majority of climate scientists, including those who wrote reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC writers believe that we understand enough about global climate to be able to state that humans are contributing significantly to climate change by emitting greenhouse gasses, to the extent that they can assess the likelihood of different levels of temperature increase. They also believe that we need to act quickly if we wish to avoid it. Never the less, like all good scientists, they qualify their conclusions with statements about the likelihood of being wrong.

Climate change and meteorite impacts differ in that the former involves a lower level of understanding about the processes, but if climate models accurately reflect key processes then current conditions affecting the likelihood of climate change can be stated with greater confidence than those affecting meteorite impacts.

Climate change, whether anthropogenic or not, may cost us dearly. The Stern report suggested that climate change might result in a 20% reduction in global per capita consumption. Assuming that recent climate change was mostly due to greenhouse gas emissions, Stern further claimed that the cost of a satisfactory response might be a 1 % reduction in per capita consumption. According to the BBC news:

Tony Blair said the Stern Review showed that scientific evidence of global warming was "overwhelming" and its consequences "disastrous". (BBC news, 31 October 2006)

The Stern report said nothing new about the science of global warming, so what did Mr Blair mean? While Stern offered no new science to decision makers, he greatly clarified the stakes for humanity if the science is right. No doubt that was why Mr Blair welcomed his report. We need to distinguish between the science and the decision whether or not to react to the likelihood of anthropogenic climate change.

Paul Duignan[1] makes this point well. Scientists place a very demanding standard of likelihood on their assertions, so that chances of being wrong have to be at most 5% before results are labeled “significant”. Duignan argues that using this high standard of likelihood is fine for basic science, but it is inappropriate for decisions about whether or not to act to mitigate climate change, given the stakes clarified in the Stern report. He says that scientists may not be sounding the alarm loudly enough. Another way to think about this is to contrast scientific decision making with that of engineers. Unlike scientists, engineers use a very low standard of likelihood when designing a structure, often over-engineering by a factor of five to ensure that the structure doesn’t fail. They understand the difference between increasing certainty about being right versus increasing certainty about being safe. In a sense, if the majority of climate scientists are right, we are designing our future climate, and if we choose to do nothing then it is unlikely to be a safe construction. Given the stakes identified in the Stern report, the cost of mitigating climate change is lower than the likely cost of assuming that the majority of climate scientists are wrong and a relatively small minority comprising contrarians are right.

[1] Duignan, Paul, Unorthodox use of raw conservative climate change estimates, Article in Preparation 2008