Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Our Planet - Part 1 Climate Change

Global Warming. The Green Energy Revolution. Pollution. Save the Planet. Climate Crisis. There's a lot of people interested in energy and the impact of climate change so I decided to write my op-ed in a series of posts with my take on the whole issue. I'm going to cover many issues, is anthropogenic climate change real? What are Governments to do? Is the world going to end? Is it a crisis? Is humanity doomed and is it too late? Will Wind and Solar be our saviors? What about Nuclear? I'm going to take a rational view of it all and will leave the drama to others. If you like good stories, conspiracies or artistic interpretations then please stop now because you will be disappointed with the rest of the article.

One of the first subjects I wish to tackle is Climate Change and whether it is influenced by the recent activity of humans. This will help define future articles. Historically we know that the Earths Climate has been erratic for millions of years through scientific research, undergoing ice ages and warm periods. There have been various factors that have contributed towards these changes. We know that the energy emitted by the sun has varied over time, in fact it has slowly been getting warmer for millions of years. We know the Earth rotates the Sun on an irregular orbit that varies every 800 years or so. We also know that our atmosphere; be that water vapor, CO2 or other gases have influenced its temperature. Also the albedo of earths surface is a great factor, how much light radiation is absorbed or emitted. The main point to illustrate is that the climate of our planet is complex. Many factors have contributed towards its changing climate.

The real question many want to know is how much of a role does CO2 play? Unfortunately climate change has been poiliticised by both the right and left. One groups denies that CO2 plays any role and believe climate change and the recent warming observed on Earth is a conspiracy to enable government to take over our lives. On the other hand groups of people have decided that the recent global warming would spell imminent disaster and have exaggerated the claims of the recent warming. According to Al Gore the Arctic should have gone by now and sea levels should have submerged half our land mass but alas nothing near that has happened. I will come back to the politisation of climate change, suffice to say it is diluting the opinion that really matters, that of scientists who dedicate their lives to this field of study. Public opinion has been tragically informed by politics and peoples personal agenda, not the scientific evidence.

So what is the evidence? Well to cut short before I go into all the details CO2 is one of the causes of climate change and is heating our planet. People are impacting climate change by burning historic stores of CO2 and emitting it into the atmosphere. Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and I will detail why that is the case.

The first fact to get out of the way is does CO2 heat up the planet. Since the 19th Century, scientists have known that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and have proved it is. What does this mean? You ask most people who are 100% sure of what climate change is I bet many still can not simply explain how CO2 causes warming. In a nutshell its where sunlight travels through our atmosphere, initially it travels at a wavelegth that is not absorbed. When it hits our planets surface heat is emitted at a different wavelength and bounces back towards space. At this wavelength it is now in a range where CO2 can absorb its energy and in effect trap heat, like a blanket on a bed. This process is undisputed and every scientist is in complete agreement with how this works. If anyone disagrees that CO2 can not trap heat then they haven't looked at the science and are pushing a political belief.

The real disagreement comes in how much of a part CO2 plays in heating up our planet, so lets take a look at some of the arguments. Unlike many proponents of global warming in the general public who follow it blindly without actually understanding any of the arguments I will take on some of the common objections against climate change. It is by no means a comprehensive list but I do want to tackle some of the main objections.

"We haven't had warming for the past 15 years"
This is a common argument used, however if we look at the data and some other factors that effect temperatures we can explain this myth. First if we look at the points at time the data is taken with the high in 1998 and the low around 2013. It just so happens that 1998 was a very warm year globally while 2013 or there abouts was a cool year. Many factors effect global temperatures and 1998 was a year when the solar cycles and the el nino/la nina effect went into full effect to heat the planet. Science has explained this and we know from its findings that the sun has a solar cycle where sun spots will be more potent in some years then others. The el nino/la nina effect explains how the seas surface temperatures can greatly effect temperatures on the planet. Along with these factors places like China and India have undergone huge industrialisation which has resulted in an increase in pollutants such as aerosols in the upper atmosphere that have reflected much of the Suns heat. However even with all these factors the temperature still hasn't gone down as we would expect. They have been stable and I now believe all these factors will go into reverse and we will see raising temperatures over the next 10 years. In 2015 and 2016 it already looks like the trend is reversing with temperatures on the rise.

Scientists look at long term trends and moving averages and don't cherry pick data points on certain years to support their theories. The data points above are like someone taking a relatively warm day at the start of February and then a relative cold day at the end of the February that has a lower temperature and concluding that we will not get summer this year as the trend has gone down. Just like our short term weather system is complex and thus hard to predict we know over the long term it will get warmer as the year will goes on. There will be lots of short term fluctuations but it doesn't mean the scientific theory of seasons has collapsed. Just like taking a couple of data points a decade apart doesn't mean the warming trend has revered.

"I've noticed no warming"
Just because you think the planet isn't getting warmer doesn't mean anything when we look at the various measurements. Many have sensationalised Climate Change to say we will have tropical weather here in the UK or will be living in water-world or the seas will boil soon. Most of this is just click bait as changes in global temperatures are a slow process. The recent changes have been very fast by historic standards, however most of us will not notice a couple of degrees warming over 50-100 year period.

And just because it currently appears to be a slow process doesn't mean this trend won't accelerate. Once temperatures get warmer then feedback loops can develop. As the seas warm it in turn warms up our planet and also releases CO2. As the ice caps melt then the Planets albedo of the surface absorbs the suns heat rather than reflecting it. As more CO2 builds up in the atmosphere more heat becomes trapped causing more heating and feeding back on other cycles. There are many other factors that complicate the process meaning we are unsure how fast temperatures will continue to rise.

"The Antarctic ice is increasing"
Scientists can again explain why the ice in the Antarctic appears to be increasing. Whats really happening in fact is that the ice and snow on land is melting. The ice on land is fresh water and as it goes into the sea it dilutes the salt water in the sea thus lowering its freezing point causing more of the sea to freeze due to this factor. However Scientists know this apparent "gain" in ice and snow is only short term. Once most of the ice and snow has melted on land then net ice will begin to retreat as the sea water becomes more salty once more thus lowering the freezing point. This point also ignores the other two significant ice sheets in Greenland and the Arctic which are melting faster and on net, the ice and snow is decreasing more than the antarctic is increasing.

"Greenland ice is increasing"
Like many of these myths, there is a nugget of truth. On the high parts of Greenland the ice and snow is increasing however on lower land the ice is melting and disappearing, again at a greater rate, thus on net its disappearing.

"We are going to have an Ice Age"
As recent warming trends have been suspended for the past decade or so, many media outlets and non scientific commentators have stated that we are on the cusp of a new ice age. But the Scientists do not agree, in fact many of them predicted this current pause. Many actually thought temperatures would fall, the fact that they haven't or not in any meaningful way means the warming we are getting is very real. As explained above climate is complex; Solar cycles, sea currents, pollution all have an affect (there are many other factors, our climate is complex). All are now reversing and with CO2 the planet will resume its rise in temperatures.

"Periods in our planets history were warmer"
While it may be true a lot of those periods were when we were not around. The so called "Medieval warming period" has been exposed as data manipulation. Basically someone took a temperature graph of the past thousand years or so and compared it to now and concluded that temperatures were warmer. The only problem with the graph is they took the current point in time to be 1950 basically ignoring some of the most dramatic warming of the later part of the 20th Century.

"Scientist are pushing a flawed theory to save face"
If this were true then what we are really saying is that science is no different to religion in that it has a dogmatic approach to the real world and ignores new facts and data that come to light. Examining history illustrates that Science is the complete opposite. It encourages critical thinking and enables individual free thought. There isn't a democratic process that wins out or theres some "shady" conspiracy theory of a "science establishment". Good ideas win out regardless of the persons background or past writings. When Albert Einstein published his 1905 Special Relativity paper many in the science community rejected it. Here was a patent clerk who in his own free time wrote a paper that dared to question 250 year old Newtonian Mechanics. I mean the guy wasn't even part of a physics department. So why was it accepted? Because great scientists read it and agreed with the calculations and mathematical proof that was presented. This in turn then was proven through later scientific experiments and observations and we now know that Newtonian mechanics generally works, however once matter approaches the speed of light we need Einsteins modifications to help explain what happens.

The point is Science doesn't care of a failed theory, it is constantly evolving and changing as we understand more of how things work. Now people will say well science has been wrong before it could be wrong again with climate change. It could be, however the overwhelming evidence that science has accrued through hundreds of independent researchers has concluded that humans are causing the recent temperature changes. With the above analogy regarding Einstein, we have now formed classical Newtonian mechanics and if anything would change it would be a slight modification like Einstein did, eg the temperature only rising 0.1 of a degree rather than 0.2 of a degree. The temperature is still going to rise if we go on our current trajectory. All the Scientific papers and writings now conclude the same thing. There are a small number of skeptics as to how much influence humans are having on climate change, however they all agree that CO2 causes warming and agree humans are the main cause in its increase. They focus on other theories; cloud cover, solar activity, evapo-transpiration. However they don't deny that CO2 increases are fine and we can ignore this completely.

If you still believe its a cover up then it would have to involve thousands of independent Scientists all colluding or coming to the same results. It would rely on not one Scientist breaking ranks however again with the Einstein example this simply isn't true. Great thinkers constantly come along and challenge the consensus. Then there is always the persistent myth that because Scientists are funded by Government then if they don't support Anthropogenic Global Warming it must be to protect their funding. In reality the opposite is true, if a Scientist were to "debunk" the narrative of Climate change then they would become an instant celebrity, become eternally famous and charge thousands of pounds for speaking at events. The majority of scientists are skeptical by default, driven by truth and observable facts; not by politics.

"We are facing imminent danger"
The green movements and pro-government type movements don't help the science. Instead of stating clearly that it's a slow process that will take decades for the ice to fully melt at the Arctic and for the temperature to rise a few degrees they dramatise it with stories of imminent collapse. Al Gores infamous film "Inconvenient Truth" (the title has become a complete irony) where he stated the ice caps would melt in the next decade. Well the decade came and went and the ice caps are still here.

It also doesn't help that many of the Global Warming movement can't actually describe the process or points I've raised above. Instead of engaging in a rational conversation they turn it into an emotional blackmail contest or do virtuous signaling of how good they are and other people are just evil or are in the pockets of big oil. When asked what has caused the recent temperature pause, rather than explain the reasons it has almost become a religious conviction with very little rational debate or points that I have listed above. The problem with this style of debate is that its just turned off a lot of people to engage in accepting Global Warming. I used to be a skeptic for this very reason, the fact that you see all these people say we are killing the planet and the world is going to end unless the Government does something to me was just as bad as the conspiracy stories. I ignored all these people however, kept an open mind and went off and read and listened to people who have informed opinions, ie the experts. Not politicians, not the media, not political commentators or social commentators. I went to the people who have dedicated their lives collecting the data and working things out using the rational Scientific method. In truth people with lots to say generally have nothing of use to say. They talk the talk but have no idea of how to walk the walk. People who are do'ers are generally the more retiring, quiet ones who crack on and get things done. So always be skeptical of people with lots to say and try to be a master of all trades; education, hospitals, railways and climate change. These people have never worked or specialised in any field thus have badly informed views. People who work their field for decades are the ones who know whats really going on.

So in recent years the debate has been distorted by politicians, the media and various political activists who are pushing a political agenda. People are told its a conspiracy of Government to increase their powers. Or the planets oceans are going to boil in the next decade. Or CO2 levels are just fine, to the opposite end of the spectrum that CO2 is to be treated as some sort of toxic poisonous substance (remember CO2 is Carbon and Oxygen which are vital for life, its plant food). Each new claim means ever more outlandish remarks are made in order to rebut the other sides story.

I've gone into some of the details on this topic but this is not even scratching the surface. If you are skeptical (as you should always be) then I encourage you to read more on this topic and go out there and find other pieces of information. However be suspicious of media, sensational blogs or political views on the topic. Look at what the Scientists are saying and dig into some select details that they outline.

While Anthropogenic Climate Change is real do not worry. Its going to take many decades to actually cause us grave concern. I also believe people will solve it and overcome all the issues be that from reducing CO2 levels or terraforming and coming up with new technologies to provide us with clean energy. Once a planets stake is at risk then the ingenuity of people will shine through. In future posts I will go into what we can do. Who will solve it? Governments? Entrepreneurs? Scientists? What options do we have? Are there so called green technologies we can use? We do have options that don't involve turning out the lights. We must also bear in mind that fossil fuels are not evil and should not be demonised, they have enabled prosperity like never before. They have allowed us to master our environment and create living surpluses like never before. It has led us on a great path of scientific and engineering discovery by freeing up people from laborious work to concentrate on hard problems. These same people will find alternative energies that reduce our need for fossil fuels and enable further prosperity and if needed will come up with ways to mitigate rises in CO2. In later posts I'll go into more detail.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Privatisation Myths

We're all Capitalists. In that I mean even people who bad mouth Capitalism, people who talk about its supposed inherent evil or how it degrades human beings; even these people don't want to abolish the market economy. They like choice and consumer sovereignty with the ability to buy goods under their own free will. Most people believe markets to be superior to Governments in producing goods and services and accept this supposed "necessary evil". Every once in while along comes a story of how the market has failed to deliver compared with the Government. Recently it has been stories of the Railways, the National Health Service or the prisons in America with the recent news that the US Government has decided to cut back on private prisons. For many people who believe our lives should be controlled by a central Government this is seen as yet more evidence of market failures and that we need more central planning by the state.

Before examining the details of the various cases we first need to define what Capitalism and markets are. In a nutshell they mean people acting under their own free will and co-operating with one another under voluntary actions. There is no force or coercion involved. No one can make you buy an iPhone, rather Apple have to persuade you to buy one. Its our voluntary actions that enable a more prosperous and peaceful society. Under such a system Apple are subject to the rules of the market. If they charge too much for their products competitors can come in and produce similar ones. If their quality suffers then competitors can offer consumers alternatives. If they fail to innovate then other companies that do innovate can steal market share. All these companies actions are judged by individual consumers deciding what goods and services they wish to buy. They decide be it as an ethical decision, an economic decision, a technical decision or hundreds of other reasons on whether to purchase an Apple product. We all have complete sovereignty and autonomy to choose. Likewise the company also has complete freedom in what they produce. This may be good products, it may be bad products, it can be complicated, it can be simple; but consumers will ultimately decide what will be produced. They have the funds to spend freely under their own free will. Companies not only supply consumers with what they currently consume but constantly offer new products in what they believe consumers may value.

So if we look at the private prisons for example how does this work. Private prisons are not private, they are paid for by tax money. Consumers have no say in how prisons should be run, be that laws they can choose to live by or protection agencies or insurance premiums. Instead the Government takes money from the consumer and a few bureaucrats get to spend that money how they see fit. We would all find it absurd if instead of us all paying for our own cars, our own TVs or our own smartphones that we instead got the Government to levy a car tax and we let a few politicians decide what cars they were going to buy everyone. This is exactly what happens in many cases of so called "market failures" or "privitisation failures". There is no market in the first place as there is no consumer. The consumers have been replaced with a bureaucrat who forces consumers to pay a lump sum to them, then the Government worker spends that money as they see fit. In many cases this results in what is known as crony capitalism where businesses no longer operate based on the needs of the consumers but operate to lobby a few privileged politicians as to how to spend the money. Companies have no incentive for example to control costs or raise quality as they are no longer answerable to consumers and are only answerable to politicians so just lobby them. The marketplace has been removed. When Governments do this they remove the power people have and give it to big business and big Government. Capitalism protects the little person as the original definition stated above, all individuals have complete sovereignty and autonomy over their decisions. It's taxation and Government once more that has failed in this so called "market failure".

Another key component is the rules by which market actors work by. For example in the definition of Capitalism above, myself, as a consumer has control of what I deem to be of good value. I may buy a car with no air conditioning as summer may not be too hot for me. I may buy an older car as I don't want to take care of it. I may not buy a sports car and opt for a bland, functional family car as it meets my current needs the best despite it having half the rate of acceleration which I may not value. The point I'm making is consumers decide what the rules are. They determine what is valuable to them. Companies also help define the rules. Maybe they spot a gap in the market and decide to offer something that they believe consumers may want. Like when Apple came up with the iPhone and companies such as Nokia, the then giants of mobile phones dismissed it. Again companies are free to offer whatever they like and consumers ultimately decide if it is good. With the private prisons example companies and consumers don't set the rules, again its the Government that sets the rules. The Government determines who goes to prison, how long they are sent there for, what sort of punishment there should be. They mandate how prisons should operate and what legal means of punishment or rehabilitation are available. Governments have created the record high incarceration rates. They control the laws, the police, the courts and legal system. Companies can't come in and offer alternative prison systems, alternative laws, alternative law enforcement techniques as they have to abide by the monolithic and monopolistic institution which is a Government. Again consumers have no say in this. Only the Government can approve or licence a new product therefore the rate of innovation grinds to a halt. Apple didn't ask permission when they disrupted the mobile phone market they just went ahead and did it.

A great example of this is Netflix. Originally they went to what was then the largest rental movie company in the world; Blockbuster. The founders tried to sell the concept of selling films through the internet however Blockbuster rejected it and sealed their fate. Now Blockbuster is gone because consumers no longer valued their products meanwhile Netflix went it alone and prospered because they met the needs of consumers but didn't have to ask permission from established players. When they did ask for in effect a blessing they were rejected so they just created a service they thought consumers would value and consumers as individuals decided they did like the new model. So in this example if Blockbuster were the Government and had complete control of the movie rental business do you think we would have Netflix now? I highly doubt it as the Government would have rejected the very concept and consumers would have been deprived of the product. A platform that now enables consumers to get their entertainment without leaving their armchair. They pay a flat monthly fee, watch whatever they want, whenever they want, on demand, 24x7.

We can apply all the above to other aspects. If we look at the Private Finance Initiative with the National Health Service what do we have? We take money from the consumer in the form of taxation, the Government then spends this on services they believe the consumer wants. In reality big business then "delivers" healthcare, again under the various Government rules. There is no consumer demand as services delivered are selected by a small number of people in Government. Smaller companies are excluded from such a process as the big providers have monopoly share as only they can lobby politicians. Again its Crony Capitalism (which is a misleading term in itself as there is no capitalism in action here, the term derives from the fact that people falsely believe that this is Capitalism). Worst part is when supposed free market supporters defend such an arrangement. They defend PFI stating private companies delivering public services is a good thing. As a Libertarian and a firm believer in Capitalism I reject such a view as this results in many cases a worst outcome then if Government had just delivered the service themselves. Big business know its taxpayer money and decide to cream off as much money from the Government as possible as they don't have to deal with consumers but only have to butter up a few politicians now and then. As its not directly politicians money they don't care about the deal they strike or if it is in the interests of the consumer. All they care about is a good headline in the newspaper or placating the process to further their own private interests.

Railways are another classic example. People argue for their nationalisation but what exactly are they asking for? The tracks, the signals, the stations, the timetables or the regulations that govern all this? All of that is already nationalised. The only private part are the carriages on the track and guess what? The Government again decides to offer monopoly rights to companies on select routes, basically companies who can offer the most money to operate a line thus excluding smaller more innovative companies. These companies can't compete on an alternative infrastructure for example as they would need buy the land for the routes, build the tracks then make various planning applications with the Government to allow them to do such a thing (Government would just reject this as its competition to their existing monopoly). Meanwhile the Government has all their track maintained and paid for by tax money which is always guaranteed with consumers having a say. Its no wonder the hurdles for a market to offer an alternative is so large. The same people who want to nationalise the railways argue its a scandal that it costs less to get a plane ticket than to buy a train ticket and use this for a case for nationalisation. It barely needs a shred of critical thought to contradict this line of thinking. Airfares are so cheap because last time I checked Governments were not as involved as they are in the railways. It was the deregulation ie getting the Government out of the airline business in the 80's and 90's that made air travel so cheap. In fact Europe now has some of the lowest airfares as companies across the world can compete on many routes. Contrast this with the US where domestic fares for similar distances are around twice the cost in Europe. Why? Because the Federal Government mandates only US based airlines can operate domestic routes. Again its the Government messing things up. No market failure, just a bunch of Government failures.

Capitalism is all about consumers setting the rules. Not Governments, not even businesses. Companies are servants to the public. The above examples are not the first and won't be the last of how people still don't fully understand Capitalism. Capitalism is only when consumers have free control of what goods and services they wish to buy as individuals and have their own money to do so. It also only exists when companies are free from interference from Governments to offer whatever they want to the market. Not following strict Government edicts, or being told what they can and can't do. Capitalism will always lead to more abundance compared with Government Planning, only an intellectual could ignore that. However I'm not even going to debate that aspect. Why private vs public? Its the moral case. Capitalism allows all of us as individuals to decide what we value in our lives. Central Planning gives a few elite bureaucrats that control and will never have your interests at heart. True Capitalism is giving power to the people. Nationalisation is stripping power from the people and giving it to the Political elite.