Thursday, June 02, 2011

Beware Malthusians in reasonable clothing

The green critics of population control are just as misanthropic as their condom-promoting opponents. The "consumption bomb" just replaces the "population bomb"

The ambient jazzy, folky music - possibly nicked from a nearby Starbucks - had been turned to mute. The lights were dimmed. And the effect was near instant. The postgraduate-dominated audience under-populating the Bloomsbury Theatre in London was finally settling down in glum anticipation of ‘My vision for the future’, the first public event of ‘Population Footprints’ – a ‘UCL and Leverhulme Trust conference on human population growth and global carrying capacity’.

So, given this current cultural climate, in which it’s almost conventional to view the propagation of the species as an act of self-destruction, what the audience was probably not expecting was the opening gambit of Fred Pearce, environment consultant for the New Scientist, author of Peoplequake, and, most important of all, someone who doesn’t think population growth is much of a problem. ‘We are defusing the population bomb’, he declared. There was no booing. But there was no applause either.

Not that Pearce would mind, of course. He seems to be enjoying making a name for himself as the debunker of overpopulation hype. A few weeks ago, for instance, he took on no less a source of procreation anxiety than the United Nations Population Division (UNPD). The problem for Pearce was that in 2009, the UNPD had estimated that the global population, currently just under seven billion, would reach nine billion by 2050 before levelling off. At the beginning of May, however, it revised its predictions. Now global population was not only going to reach nine billion by 2050, but it was going to keep on rising until it reaches over 10 billion by 2100.

Pearce was not convinced that there was much evidence to support such a revision. In fact, as he points out in Nature magazine, current world population and current global fertility rates are actually lower than the UN predicted they would be at this stage two years ago. So why, contrary to actual population trends, does the UN now envisage a further rise in future fertility rates? None of this makes sense, argues Pearce: women are now having half as many babies as their grandmothers and world fertility has fallen from 4.9 children per woman in the early 1960s to its current level of around 2.45. The only way the UN can come up with such groundless population projections is by assuming that many developed countries currently with fertility rates well below the replacement level of 2.1 will suddenly start, contrary to all expectations, to produce more and more children. As Pearce observes, this assumption has simply been imposed on to the modelling system. Hence the revision ‘looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis’.

All of which sounds like a rational voice amid the cacophony of overpopulation doom-mongering. This is surely a good thing, right? What could be better than an award-winning science journalist and author calling out the prophets of overcrowding?

The problem is that while Pearce is correct regarding the population-hyping models used by the UNPD, he has not come to destroy the Malthusian core of green-tinged thinking; he has come, whether he knows it or not, to save Malthusianism, not damn it. Save it, that is, from its overexcited champions who see the threat of ‘catastrophic’ population growth as a stick with which to beat people the world over into prophylactic-using submission.

As Brendan O’Neill has argued before on spiked, what sets Pearce apart from his birth-controlling fellow travellers is that he is savvy enough to know that the Malthusian enthusiasm for population control has a thoroughly horrific history. His eighteenth-century master, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, had nothing but contempt for the proliferating (and increasingly radicalised) lower classes. Malthus thought destitution and starvation were happy correctives to there just being too damn many of Them. The late nineteenth century saw a rise in the popularity of eugenics, a surge that culminated in some of the nastiest proposals and practices of the twentieth century. In every case, these Malthus-referencing, population-fiddling ideas have exemplified man’s inhumanity to man. And no wonder. Interpreting social and economic problems, from unemployment to food shortages, in terms of human reproduction means that the solutions must also take a biological, naturalised form - whether that’s contraception, sterilisation or extermination.

Pearce knows this. He knows that the current vogue for the idea of overpopulation has the potential to be bad PR for environmentalism. As he admitted last week, the notion of ‘global carrying capacity’ does have a tendency to turn into Third World bashing. Enter United Nations special adviser Jeffrey Sachs, whose recent response to the UNPD’s revised population projection for Nigeria captured Pearce’s fear: ‘It is not healthy’, Sachs said, adding: ‘Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family.’ The reported retort from one Nigerian woman was completely understandable: ‘[The UN] should try to advise the government how to make the lives of Nigerians better, not telling Nigerians not to have children – that is not their business.’ Or take the comments of two university health lecturers in America who lamented of Africa: ‘even Uganda — with one of the highest numbers of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa — is projected to almost triple its population by 2050’. That AIDS can be seen as a population check, albeit an unsuccessful one, is testament to the willingness of the demography-obsessed to see anything that limits population numbers as a Good Thing.

So, seeing human reproduction as the source of social and economic problems, as an increasingly vociferous number of people in the West do, means that population and reproductive habits become the locus of the solution. And as Pearce recognises, this is an approach that historically has had ugly results. But Pearce does not really jettison Malthus. He just wants to excise the bits that would make even the meanest liberal choke on their organic leeks, you know, the bits that are a bit racist, a bit cruel, a bit, well, illiberal. And this is the point that he performs his sleight of hand: he flips his Malthusian emphases, from the number-of-people side of the equation to the other, number-of-resources side. Hence his doom-mongering comeback at last week’s event: ‘we haven’t even begun to defuse the real threat – the consumption bomb’.

That’s right; it’s not that there are too many people, it’s that there are too few resources. The limits that the unabashedly Malthusian ascribe to population are ascribed by the surreptitiously Malthusian to resources. It doesn’t seem to matter that the supposed limits to resource-use have been transgressed time and time again by advances in human productivity, from the discovery that coal could be used not just for jewellery but for energy creation, to the so-called ‘green revolution’ in agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s. For Pearce, as with the environmentalist cohorts he wants to save from open Malthusianism, socio-economic limits appear so natural that the only future he can envisage is one in which we adjust to those limits. Or as he put: ‘It’s the world’s consumption patterns that we need to fix, not the world’s reproductive habits.’

The thing is, we - human beings - are not the problem. In fact, I’d confidently wager that we’re the only species on the planet capable of coming up with solutions. And by solutions, that does not mean sacrificing either a portion of our number to misery and death or demanding that another portion of humanity restricts its material aspirations. For those are not solutions, they are the products of the exhausted consciousness of an elite that cannot envisage the future except in terms of decline and disaster.


British charity is wrong about food prices

Questioning Oxfam is a bit like questioning Bambi. But if its claims risk creating hunger, they need to be addressed. In its new report, Growing a Better Future, Oxfam pleads for more government intervention to alleviate rising food prices. It predicts food demand will increase by 70% by 2050, and food production only by 1% by 2020. Throw in global warming and you've got enough cataclysmic predictions to make a few headlines.

Predictions linking scarcity to calamity are old hat – the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth report springs to mind. As a good Catholic boy I was taught this by my Religious Education teacher in school. (I also know all about the ringing success of Julius Nyerere’s communist villages from the same source.) The Limits to Growth predicted the imminent collapse of life on earth because of rising demand and no production increase. Sounds familiar? It even came up with years in which certain raw materials would run out. Didn’t you know that oil ran out in 1992? Today’s report by Oxfam proves that doomsday neo-Malthusianism has not gone away.

Contrast the prophets of doom with the progressive optimism of free marketeers. Leaving people free leads to ever greater inventions, ever increasing production, and an ever improving standard of living for the multitudes. And yes, it applies to food production, too.

The free market feeds the world. Market prices are key: when food prices go up, people switch to alternatives or re-arrange their priorities; and investors are incentivised to increase production. It is the best method to allocate scarce resources in the most efficient manner for the greatest number of people. Yes, it is as simple as that.

Drought? The market ships the food. Poverty? The market produces cheap food in abundance. Increased food prices? Entrepreneurs all over the world jump on the band-wagon and increase food production to make some money, which makes the price go down.

Oxfam believes government intervention can do better. State intervention in food production has been tried before – in Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, where it was not exactly a roaring success. But when interventionists are on the attack no historical facts must stand in the way. Oxfam pleads for more state aid to small farmers. They seem uninterested in such trifles as economies of scale or efficiency. But they should be: relying on small farmers to provide the world with food guarantees worldwide hunger.

The Oxfam report calls for transparency in commodities and regulation of futures markets. But futures markets are precisely where farmers can insure themselves against a bad harvest! Commodities markets are where enterprising individuals take risks and make or lose money in the business of providing food when and where there is demand. Multiple producers guarantee that there is never a monopoly.

The report calls for controls on the fluctuation of prices. Price controls have never worked, and always create shortages: producers are simply not incentivised to produce anymore. Price controls dry up supply and create a black market where the poorest are even worse off.

However, on one point Oxfam is right: it wants to end policies promoting bio-fuel. This is a form of government intervention which subsidizes one sector, energy, at the expense of another, food. This state intervention should indeed be abolished, so we can return to the only successful method to feed the world: the free market price mechanism.

It’s sad that people whose business it is to alleviate hunger and poverty hark back to the failed interventionism of yesteryear. There is an alternative: freeing up people by introducing free foreign ownership, allowing free trade, and abolishing all agricultural subsidies.


Global Warming Has No Significant Impact on Disaster Losses, Study Finds

Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth bombarded audiences with image after image of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, and drought, creating the impression of a world in climate chaos. Gore blamed the alleged upsurge in extreme weather on global warming, that is, mankind’s sins of emission. One of Gore’s mighty pieces of evidence was a dramatic increase insurance payments for weather-related damages. As he writes in his best-selling book of the same title:
Over the last three decades, insurance companies have seen a 15-fold increase in the amount of money paid to victims of extreme weather. Hurricanes, floods, drought, tornadoes, wildfires and other natural disasters have caused these losses [An Inconvenient Truth, p. 101].

Seeing is believing, right? The problem, of course, is not merely that correlation (warmer weather/bigger losses) does not prove causation. More importantly, the economic data depicted in the chart have not been adjusted (“normalized”) to offset increases in population, wealth, and the consumer price index.

Consider this fact: More people today live in just two Florida counties, Dade and Broward, than lived in all 109 coastal counties from Texas to Virginia in 1930. Florida’s population grew by more than 17.5% in the past decade alone and today is 48% larger than in 1980. There’s tons more stuff in harm’s way than there used to be. No wonder damages are bigger than in the good old days!

Most studies that “normalize” economic loss data find no evidence of a trend towards more violent or destructive weather. Here, for example, is a chart from a study on normalized hurricane damages by Pielke, Jr et al. 2008:

Figure description: U.S. hurricane damages, 1900-2005, if all hurricane strikes had hit the same locations but with year 2005 population, wealth, and consumer price index

A study published earlier this year in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Bouwer, L.M. 2011. Have disaster losses increased due to anthropogenic climate change?) examines 22 previous studies on the oft-asserted link between climate change and weather-related damages.

Here’s what the researcher, Laurens M. Bouwer of the Institute for Environmental Studies in the Netherlands, found:
All 22 studies show that increases in exposure and wealth are by far the most important drivers for growing disaster losses. Most studies show that disaster losses have remained constant after normalization, including losses from earthquakes (see Vranes and Pielke 2009). Studies that did find increases after normalization did not fully correct for wealth and population increases, or they identified other sources of exposure increases or vulnerability changes or changing environmental conditions. No study identified changes in extreme weather due to anthropogenic climate change as the main driver for any remaining trend.

Bouwer concludes:
The studies show no trends in losses, corrected for changes (increases) in population and capital at risk, that could be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, it can be concluded that anthropogenic climate change so far has not had a significant impact on losses from natural disasters.

CO2Science.Org has an excellent review of the Bouwer study. On a related issue, World Climate Report reviews a recent study finding no long-term increase in the number of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes over the past 130 years. The apparent increase in storm frequency turns out to be an artifact of the data, that is, a product of the increase in spatial coverage and accuracy of hurricane monitoring systems.


Renewable energy is a thing of the past

Michael Lind (Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation) has written an article about the U.S. and world energy future that everyone - particularly our political decisions makers - should read. He makes a convincing case for the assumption that conventional wisdom about our energy future is completely wrong.
The arguments for converting the U.S. economy to wind, solar and biomass energy have collapsed. The date of depletion of fossil fuels has been pushed back into the future by centuries -- or millennia. The abundance and geographic diversity of fossil fuels made possible by technology in time will reduce the dependence of the U.S. on particular foreign energy exporters, eliminating the national security argument for renewable energy.

And if the worst-case scenarios for climate change were plausible (which they are not), then the most effective way to avert catastrophic global warming would be the rapid expansion of nuclear power, not over-complicated schemes worthy of Rube Goldberg or Wile E. Coyote to carpet the world’s deserts and prairies with solar panels and wind farms that would provide only intermittent energy from weak and diffuse sources.

The mainstream environmental lobby has yet to acknowledge the challenge that the new energy realities pose to their assumptions about the future. Some environmentalists have welcomed natural gas because it is cleaner than coal and can supplement intermittent solar power and wind power, at times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. But if natural gas is permanently cheaper than solar and wind, then there is no reason, other than ideology, to combine it with renewables, instead of simply using natural gas to replace coal in electricity generation.

Without massive, permanent government subsidies or equally massive penalty taxes imposed on inexpensive fossil fuels like shale gas, wind power and solar power may never be able to compete. For that reason, some Greens hope to shut down shale gas and gas hydrate production in advance. In their haste, however, many Greens have hyped studies that turned out to be erroneous.

In 2010 a Cornell University ecology professor and anti-fracking activist named Robert Howarth published a paper making the sensational claim that natural gas is a greater threat to the climate than coal. Howarth admitted, "A lot of the data we use are really low quality..."

Howarth’s error-ridden study was debunked by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and criticized even by the Worldwatch Institute, a leading environmentalist organization, which wrote:

"While we share Dr. Howarth’s urgency about the need to transition to a renewable-based economy, we believe based on our research that natural gas, not coal, affords the cleanest pathway to such a future."

All energy sources have potentially harmful side effects. The genuine problems caused by fracking and possible large-scale future drilling of methane hydrates should be carefully monitored and dealt with by government regulation. But the Green lobby’s alarm about the environmental side-effects of energy sources is highly selective.

The environmental movement since the 1970s has been fixated religiously on a few "soft energy" panaceas -- wind, solar, and biofuels -- and can be counted on to exaggerate or invent problems caused by alternatives. Many of the same Greens who oppose fracking because it might contaminate some underground aquifers favor wind turbines and high-voltage power lines that slaughter eagles and other birds and support blanketing huge desert areas with solar panels, at the cost of exterminating much of the local wildlife and vegetation.

Wilderness preservation, the original goal of environmentalism, has been sacrificed to the giant metallic idols of the sun and the wind


Greenland Ice Cap’s Melting Not Unusual

If a slightly longer perspective is used

The Greenland Ice Cap covers 660,000 square miles and is the second largest body of ice in the world [A distant second to Antarctica]. It probably formed a little over 100,000 years ago. Its thickness is usually more than a mile and at its thickest almost two miles. Clearly it is important to monitor it to understand mankind’s effects on our planet, especially when we observe that the largest increases in temperature in recent decades are observed in Arctic regions. If all the ice were to melt sea level would rise by 24 feet.

You don’t have to look far to find popular accounts of the life and times of this vast ice sheet and suggestions that it is melting at a record rate. The ice caps Wikipedia entry is especially unbalanced and alarmist.

A recent paper by Xavier Fettweis et al is interesting in that it has studied near surface melt on the Greenland ice cap since 1979 (when the first satellite-based data became available) comparing two models with microwave observations. When snow melts the percentage of liquid water increases and increases its microwave emissivity. The microwave temperature observed by a satellite is snow temperature multiplied by the emissivity. Fettweis et al says the results are consistent and can be used to extend models before the satellite era.

Looking in detail at their simulations one is struck by several things. One model of ice sheet melt (their Fig 2) looks a lot like HadCrut3 with 1998 being the hottest year, followed by two much cooler years and then a rise to a rough plateau.

Their fig 8 shows the trend in the melting that they say is increasing. Their line is said to show (at the 99% confidence level) a trend in the cumulated melt extent from about 8 million sq km in 1980 to about 18 million sq km in 2010.

The researchers say that the melt recorded in the years 1998, 2003, 2005, and 2007 is unprecedented. However there is more to this data.

Firstly, I note that there have been no ‘unprecedented’ melt rates since the widely reported warm year 2007. Four ‘unprecedented’ years in nine years (1998 -2007) and then none in the following three since is interesting. Let’s see what 2011 will bring. Is this the start of something or an episode?

Considering their figure 8. Melting was higher than the 1990s and the 1980s, but we need to look on a longer timescale. The 1960 figure is 1.4 million sq km and that might itself not have been the highest as it is possible it was declining at the start of the data. Looking at the graph the recent rise might be counterbalanced by a fall in the earlier part of the data. The start of the trend line is 1979 (presumably the start of satellite-based data) but I would maintain that there is no trend between 1972 – 1996.

That the ice melt extent was declining in 1960 was the conclusion in a previous paper by Fettweis et al showed that the high surface mass loss rates of the Greenland Ice Cap in recent years are not unprecedented when looked at over the past 100 years. The mass loss rates in the 1930s are likely to have been more significant than current rates.

It has been suggested by some that a cynic would use such figures to cast doubt on some people’s assessment of the effect of anthropogenic global warming. It is surprising to me that some seem to think that in matters of such importance a cynical viewpoint is unscientific!

Also, Frauenfeld et al 2011 is an interesting paper that has attracted much discussion. It says that the total extent of Greenland ice melt has been increasing over the past three decades with the greatest melt extent observed in 2007. However they found that the recent period was shorter in duration than a period of high-melt lasting from the early 1920s through to the early 1960s. Although the greatest melt extent in the past 226 years occurred in 2007 it was not statistically significant from 20 other melt years between 1923 – 1961.

So, is the recent decade unusual in the recent life of the Greenland Ice Sheet? The answer is either no, or suggestions to the contrary have not been proven.


Australia: Prominent State politician under fire for disrespecting Warmist scientists

THE state government's whip in the upper house, Peter Phelps, has been accused of likening scientists to Nazis in a speech to Parliament.

In an address attacking global warming, Dr Phelps said it should not be forgotten that "some of the strongest supporters of totalitarian regimes in the last century have been scientists". "We should not be so surprised that the contemporary science debate has become so debased," Dr Phelps, pictured, said. "At the heart of many scientists - but not all scientists - lies the heart of a totalitarian planner."

He once compared the former army officer and federal Labor MP Mike Kelly to the guards at a concentration camp. Dr Phelps was chief-of-staff to the then special minister of state Gary Nairn in 2007 when he accused Mr Kelly of using the Nuremberg defence, like the guards at the Belsen concentration camp.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Dr Phelps quoted an unidentified writer whom he described as "speaking about the rise of Nazism" and its similarity to "scientists agitating for a scientific organisation of society".

Dr Phelps then went on to say: "One can see them now, beavering away, alone, unknown, in their laboratories. "Now, through the great global warming swindle, they can influence policy, they can set agendas, they can reach into everyone's lives; they can, like Lenin, proclaim what must be done."

The Greens MP John Kaye said Dr Phelps had created "a massive political headache" for Barry O'Farrell. "The Premier can either dissociate himself from the remarks made by his whip in the upper house or forever be a party to the most virulent science-denying libel yet seen in the climate debate," Dr Kaye said.

The Labor MP Luke Foley said Dr Phelps had not learnt from his earlier mistakes. "In the 2007 federal election campaign, Peter Phelps became an infamous figure nationally when he compared Mike Kelly to a Nazi concentration camp guard," Mr Foley said.

"The then Howard government was forced to apologise for Dr Phelps's outrageous comments but he hasn't learnt his lesson and he's back, likening scientists who report the facts on global warming to Nazi propagandists."

Dr Phelps last night denied he was likening scientists to Nazis. "This is not an issue of Nazism or Communism but an unhealthy relationship between scientists and governments that can lead to totalitarianism," Dr Phelps said.

A spokesman for the Premier declined to comment.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here


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