Friday, January 04, 2019

Your guess is as good as theirs

Jeff Jacoby

WONDERING WHAT SORT of winter Americans are in for, The Wall Street Journal last week checked the 2019 edition of the venerable Old Farmer's Almanac, which is published each year in Dublin, N.H. It predicts a mild winter with "above-normal temperatures almost everywhere" this season.

To confirm that forecast, the Journal also checked the equally venerable Farmer's Almanac based in Lewiston, Maine. It warns of that Americans should expect "teeth-chattering cold, plentiful snow" and a "chilly, wintry mix."

They can't both be right. Yet each almanac is confident in its predictions, and each claims a high rate of accuracy. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. It sounds like the endless parade of experts, insiders, and pundits who routinely predict the future, and routinely get it wrong.

The other day Politico rounded up a handful of the least prescient political predictions of 2018. Among them: Huffington Post reporter Matt Fuller's prophecy that Joe Crowley would be the next speaker of the House, Carnegie Endowment scholar David Rothkopf's assurance that the US embassy would remain in Tel Aviv, and CNN journalist Frida Ghitis's forecast that President Trump's approval rating would crumble to just 25 percent. In fact, Crowley lost his seat in Congress to political neophyte Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the US embassy was relocated to Jerusalem, and Trump's approval rating remains above 40 percent.

It's not only weather and politics that prognosticators botch. Financial predictions are notoriously unreliable. A research paper released this year by the International Monetary Fund documented the decades-long failure of economists to spot a looming recession until it was already well underway. "Treasury yields have been forecast to rise every year for the past decade," noted the Wall Street Journal in November 2017, "yet they have gone down more often than not."

From military predictions to technological predictions to sports predictions, when experts foretell the future, it's always safest to assume they're wrong. And just as that's true of short-term predictions, it's also true of long-term predictions.

On Jan. 1, 1901, at the dawn of the 20th century, the editors of The Boston Globe surveyed the international scene and assured its readers that "the rise of Germany" posed no cause for concern, since "of all the nations she is probably the least corrupted by the lust of conquest." In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association published "Toward the Year 2018," an anthology of predictions by a dozen "eminent leaders" of where the world would be 50 years in the future. A few auguries they got indisputably right — several contributors accurately foresaw a world in which computers and information technology would play a key role. But many of their predictions — from man-made hurricanes used as weapons to anti-gravity cars — were laughably off-base.

It isn't being snarky or arch to stress how inept experts are at predicting the future. It's being prudent. Because they are deeply knowledgeable in a particular field, experts are more prone than others to view the world through a too-narrow lens, assuming that the current trends they understand so well are indicators of what is to come. Their expertise reinforces their confidence in their own analysis, blinding them to contrary data or disconfirming evidence. That helps explains why those who knew the most about the Soviet Union, for example, didn't foresee its collapse in 1991. Or why judicial experts, such as constitutional-law professors and former Supreme Court clerks, aren't very good at predicting how the high court will rule.

In the 1980s, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked 284 political experts to make roughly 100 predictions of future events, and to assign a degree of probability to their forecasts. Two decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, Tetlock was able to analyze the accuracy of the experts' predictions. What he discovered was that they hit the mark only slightly more often than if they had guessed at random. Non-experts who keep up with current events by regularly reading the newspaper, concluded the New Yorker in a review of Tetlock's study, "can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote."

That's worth keeping in mind as 2019 gets underway, and from every quarter self-assured sages and savants materialize to tell you what to expect. As you listen to their smart, persuasive, credible prophecies, just remember: Most of them, most of the time, will be wrong. (You can take my word for it. After all, I'm an expert.)


Trump EPA to Repeal Another Obama Admin Anti-Coal Regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency published its proposed revision of the Obama administration’s carbon dioxide emission standards for new coal power plants in late December. The Obama standards effectively ban investment in new coal generation—a policy Congress never approved and would not pass if put to a vote. EPA’s proposal will help restore the separation of powers and safeguard affordable energy for American consumers.

In more technical terms, EPA is proposing, under the Clean Air Act, to revise the agency’s 2015 determination that partial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the best system of emission reduction (BSER) for new coal units. A CCS system uses various technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deliver the emissions for storage in underground geologic formations.

Since new coal power plants are already more costly to build than new natural gas combined cycle power plants, and CCS increases both capital and operating costs, the Obama rule powerfully deters investment in new coal generation.

EPA now proposes that the best system of emission reduction is the most efficient commercially-viable coal boiler combined with best industry practices. New coal power plants would have to meet a standard of 1,900 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour rather than the current more stringent standard of 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour. To put those numbers in perspective, just one megawatt-hour is about as much electricity as the average American home consumes in three and a half weeks.

EPA’s proposal is based on an updated analysis of the cost and geographic availability of carbon capture and storage. EPA finds that CCS-based emission standards are “exorbitantly costly” and not “achievable” in all parts of the country, providing the justification for a new rule replacing the Obama standards.

Although carbon capture systems can substantially increase power plant construction costs, EPA is most concerned about the increase in operating costs. In deregulated markets, where units with the lowest operating costs are the first to be “dispatched,” CCS power plants would likely go to the back of the queue, rendering them uncompetitive or even unable to recover their capital costs.

Geographic constraints compound the problem. Clean Air Act performance standards must be “achievable”—a term determined by case law to mean achievable “anywhere in the country” by the “industry as a whole.” However, EPA finds, the significant water consumption requirements of most CCS systems make them “prohibitively expensive” to deploy in arid regions of the country.

In addition, the only two utility-scale CCS power plants in existence—Petra Nova in Texas and Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan—depend financially on the sale of carbon dioxide for use in nearby enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations. Many potential sites of new coal power plants are not near oil fields. For that reason, too, CCS-based emission standards are not “achievable.”

In a press conference on the proposal, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated: “By replacing onerous regulations with high, yet achievable, standards, we can continue America’s historic energy production, keep energy prices affordable, and encourage new investments in cutting-edge technology that can then be exported around the world.”

Critics instantly declared EPA’s proposal useless because the agency expects “few, if any” new coal power plants to be built in an era of cheap gas. But Wheeler and EPA are not trying to guarantee a market for coal generation. Rather, they seek to rescind an unlawful regulation that blocks investment in new coal capacity regardless of how market conditions evolve.

Critics also claim the proposal would exacerbate climate change because the proposed CO2 standards are less stringent than the Obama standards. That complaint conflicts with the first one because the potential number of new U.S. coal power plants that might be built under the revised standards is too small to significantly increase U.S. emissions or have any detectable climatic effects.

What both criticisms overlook is that hundreds of new coal power plants are being built overseas, especially in Asia. Access to efficient U.S. coal technology might help limit developing countries’ emissions. More importantly, if U.S. firms are free to compete in the global marketplace for advanced coal technologies, they can bring affordable energy to millions of people, helping them live healthier, more prosperous lives.

Developing future technologies is far more likely if the U.S. coal industry itself has a future. The prior administration’s unrealistic and unlawful standards—for both new and existing coal power plants—were tantamount to a regulatory death sentence.

Consumers are best served when economic competition rather than bureaucratic machination picks energy-market winners and losers. EPA’s proposal will advance that principle in law and national policy.


Ninth Circuit Hands Trump A Big Win Against Youth’s Global Warming Lawsuit

The Trump administration’s battle against a global warming lawsuit brought by 21 youths will continue into 2019 after a federal court handed the government a big win over the holiday season.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in a Dec. 26 ruling largely missed by major media outlets.

The court granted DOJ’s petition for interlocutory appeal that decreases the chances of the climate lawsuit going to trial anytime soon.

The three-judge Ninth Circuit panel is the very same one that in March 2018 ruled against Trump administration petitions for a writ of mandamus, which allows a higher court to overrule a lower court before a case is decided.

Environmentalists handling the case on behalf of youth activists immediately filed a petition asking the District Court of Oregon to restart trial proceedings in light of the appeals court ruling.

“The bottom line is, this case is ready for trial, and should not be held up by further appeals,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the activist group handling the climate lawsuit.

“The government has used the power of their office and the depth of taxpayer coffers to waste precious time and resources to avoid trial in this case, and now the court has capitulated with little scrutiny,” Olson said in a statement.

Our Children’s Trust filed suit against the federal government in 2015 on behalf of 21 youths, aged 11 to 22, arguing their right to a “stable climate system” was being violated. The suit asks the court to order the government to issue laws and regulations to fight global warming.

The government should move “to ensure that atmospheric CO2 is no more concentrated than 350 [parts per million] by 2100 … to stabilize the climate system,” reads the group’s legal complaint.

The youth lawsuit is just one of a handful of global warming lawsuits being brought before state and federal courts in recent years as environmentalists, Democratic politicians, and trial lawyers turn to the courts to advance the climate agenda.

Youth activists, however, base their legal reasoning on the idea that the “public trust doctrine” also requires the government to ensure a “stable climate system.”

Many legal experts are doubtful activists will succeed in getting the courts to force other branches of government to push climate policies.

The U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled in 2016 the youth plaintiffs had standing to sue, which was reaffirmed by the Ninth Circuit in March.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the youths’ climate lawsuit could proceed in November 2018 after initially granting the Trump administration’s request to stay the climate lawsuit.

However, the Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion also stated the reasons the Ninth Circuit rejected the Trump administration’s petition for mandamus relief were “to a large extent, no longer pertinent.”

Ninth Circuit Appeals Judge Michelle Friedland claims in her four-page dissent the lower court only approved the Trump administration’s appeal is because it “felt compelled” to by the Supreme Court’s November opinion.

“We could then resolve any novel legal questions if and when they are presented to us after final judgment,” Friedlander wrote in her dissent, which argues the climate lawsuit should go to trial.


New York Times Praises Greenie Nut Who Killed Himself To Save Earth

The New York Times has treated one man's deranged act of self-immolation as some sort of noble sacrifice worthy of reverence.

Earlier this year, radical environmentalist David Buckel demonstrated his love for planet Earth by lighting himself on fire in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in order to set an example in the fight against climate change. In a suicide note, the 60-year-old gay rights activist said his use of fossil fuels to immolate himself was to make a point about what humans are already doing to themselves.

"Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result," Buckel wrote in his note. "My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death."

In an obvious ploy to somehow articulate his derangement as something poetic, Buckel likened his death by inferno to that of Buddhist monks who would self-immolate to protest China's occupation of Tibet. "This is not new, as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see,” he wrote. "Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard."

For its annual "The Lives They Lived" obituary, The New York Times treated Buckel's destructive act of intense misanthropy with such reverence that it's practically impossible to tell if they wished others followed in his footsteps: ​

In Buddhism, which Buckel studied with his characteristic deliberateness, self-immolation can be a kind of communication. "To burn oneself by fire," the activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in a 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, “is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” In his own letter, Buckel wrote about Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule because "no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see."

The obituary then describes the life Buckel lived as being "saintlike" and whose final moments could be interpreted as "an incandescent act of speech."

For years, Buckel sought to negate the harm he caused with a continual turning of windrows [a composting technique] and recycling of water, until these measures came to seem inadequate.

One challenge with climate change is that the problem is so large it cannot be grasped. What can be grasped: A healthy man with a satisfying career and a loving family — a man who lived an almost saintlike life of helping others — died in a painful way in a public park in Brooklyn, abruptly reducing a unique living system to ash. Buckel appears to have seen his final moments as an incandescent act of speech.

As noted by LifeNews, The New York Time's reverential treatment of Buckel's suicide stands in sharp contrast to the media guidelines from the World Health Organization about reporting on suicide victims. "Glorifying suicide victims as martyrs and objects of public adulation may suggest to susceptible persons that their society honors suicidal behavior," says WHO. "Instead, the emphasis should be on mourning the person’s death."


Australia: New Queensland coal mine to hire 350 workers

MORE than 350 workers will be hired at a new coal mine in Central Queensland in the latest sign of a resurgence in the state’s resources sector.

Fitzroy Australia Resources is gearing up to recruit the workers for its Ironbark No 1 coking coal mine 35km northeast of Moranbah.

Queensland’s surging coal and LNG sectors will fuel record Australian resource and energy export earnings this financial year.

Coal, both coking used to make steel and thermal used to generate electricity, is expected to overtake iron ore as Australia’s largest resource and energy export.

Fitzroy is partnering with employment company SES Labour Solutions to recruit and train the workers for the mine, which is the first development from a suite of assets acquired from Brazilian mining giant Vale in 2016. Fitzroy also purchased the neighbouring Carborough Downs mine and Broadlea project from Vale.

Fitzroy chief executive Grant Polwarth said the partnership with SES would help “de-risk” the development of Ironbark No 1, which will share major infrastructure with Carborough.

Operations at the underground greenfield mine, which will be able to produce six million tonnes of coal a year, is expected to start in the first quarter of 2020.

It is expected to provide opportunities for 160 contractors in the production phase and up to 350 operational staff.

“Employing some 350 new Fitzroy personnel is very exciting for our business and the region, and it comes with both great opportunity and challenges,” Mr Polwarth said.

SES Labour Solutions executive general manager Nathan Sharpe said recruitment for the new roles will begin at end of this year, with half of the workers to be new to the industry.

“Because this is a new mine, this is an opportunity to build a culture from the ground up,” said Mr Sharpe, a former Wallaby captain.

“There has been a certain amount of automation in underground mining, but workers need to have team working skills as they have to rely on each other in what can be a dangerous environment.”

Mr Sharpe said Queensland’s resources sector was experiencing a buoyant period helped by solid commodity prices.

“Most of the major commodities are priced at a good level, and resources companies are investing in assets that they were not previously looking at mining,” he said. “They can now plan for the future.”



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