Monday, December 28, 2009

Is China the new America?

In the good old days, back at the end of the last millennium, the coming century was supposed to be the New American Century. The neoconservatives of the "Project for a new American Century (PNAC)" boldly held forth in their signature document, Rebuilding America's Defenses, that globalization behooved the US to institute a Pax Americana, (re)armed to the teeth. This was in September 2000. If only the American public could be persuaded to spend the money. All that was required was "some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor". A year later, on September 11, 2001, President Bush was to write in his White House diary; "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today."

Ten years later the PNAC website, is defunct, its domain name for sale. It's topics though can still be seen on Google, like fragments of a dream; "A neoconservative organization supporting greater American militarization, challenging hostile governments, advancing democratic and economic freedom, ..." In December 2009, after the turbulent Copenhagen environmental conference that saw China, not the US, calling the shots, it is widely held that China is the new America.

Since 9/11 the US has spent more than $850 billion on the Iraq and Afghan wars, plus $12.8 trillion bailing out businesses following the vaporising of its own economy. On the credit side it reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2.2% in 2008. China on the other hand increased its GHG by about 11% in 2008 and has earned 60 trillion since 2000.

So what can we expect from China? Some have been arguing that it's time for people to take charge of policies covering science, technology and the environment, and this may be possible in a democracy. But China isn't a democracy. More like wage slavery, of which western "greed is good" advocates can't get enough. Should democracies refuse to trade with China until it is liberated? Fat chance.

Will the people of China turn away from their autocratic regime? Perhaps, but not tomorrow. After all, Machiavelli said "one of the most efficacious remedies that a prince can have against conspiracies is not to be hated and despised by the people". And did not Jackie Chan, star of Rumble in the Bronx and Shanghai Noon say "we Chinese need to be controlled." In fact Chinese society has been managed continuously longer than any other, and world-wide respect for its gift of Yin and Yang endures.

Hmm. Wasn't it China that decreed families can only have one child? That policy has roughly halved their birthrate since the 1980s. China's GHG emissions have increased 120% since 2000, compared to 13% for the US. Pointing fingers at developed nations as a rationalization for not curbing emissions is the easy way out, and an un-Chinese activity. Other nations did not force China to curb its birthrate, China made that tough choice all on its own. Halving GHGs could be done the same way.

How about it, China? Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
(video - China demands apology at Bali)
Escaping the progress trap

Friday, December 18, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference - Power to the people.

Before hightailing it out of Copenhagen on Friday Dec. 18 2009, ahead of the snowstorm that was to smother Washington in the coming hours, President Obama met the press, to share his position on climate change. Environmentalists were underwhelmed – to put it mildly – by the cautiousness of his remarks. Such even-handedness may play well with globally vested interests, and disappoint anyone seeking a sharp turn toward the survival of the fittest. That's the humans.

I wasn't in Copenhagen but thanks to the magic of the Associated Press Climate Pool Twitter, I was able to track down Obama, at Facebook's White House Live page which pointed me to the actual White House Live page where the press conference was streamed in real time. I for one was surprised to hear Obama say; "Ultimately this issue is going to be dictated by the science, and the science indicates that we're going to have to take aggressive steps in the future." With all due respect, I felt that tossing the ball into the court of science was not such a good idea. It has been in their court a lot, and look what happened. So I clicked back over to the Facebook White House live page, which allows one to enter comments.

I typed in; "Way forward will be dictated by science? We're in this mess because science dictates. Time for people to dictate to science." Then Matt from Germany commented that this was stupid, it would be awesome for science to dictate but does not, because unfortunately most countries have democracies, and thus continue polluting and trashing the planet.

Ouch. Then I typed in; "@Matt: in fact, having democracy is a fortunate thing and could allow people to take charge of science, technology and policy."
Chris from Texas then weighed in; "It could if people would realize that and get their head out of their a.... for once."
Matt fell silent. By now the Copenhagen Press conference was on YouTube and I listened intently for something concrete, and heard about progress. It sounded well-worn so I commented again at the White House Live page quoting the President; "Our hope is...that by beginning to make progress and getting the wheels of innovation moving that we are in fact going to be in a position to solve this problem" — actually this has been true for a long time. Innovation would be for those in power to be shown, forcibly and democratically, that they themselves will be compromised by not solving this problem.

By that I meant voting with a majority of 80-90 rather than one or two percent, and I was also thinking of the London politicians who failed to act on cholera until 1858, when the infectious stench from the Thames became unbearable within the houses of Parliament. My next riposte would have been; "Progress is not progress unless at the same time, we learn how it affects the planet" but four hours later no-one had responded to my innovation comment at the White House Live page. Oh well.

The environmentalists at that point in the evening were labelling the Copenhagen conference a potential Brokenhagen and Flopenhagen – due to the lack of deadlines and emissions targets.

But wait. Maybe the policymakers have learned something. After being skewered by the scandal of leaked emails and falsified climate data, and with my constant harping about the folly of letting hard empiricism, rather than good judgment, determine policy – perhaps Obama and company are wise to hedge their statements.

It gives the rest of us a golden opportunity to take charge of science, technology and policy.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Global warming and the trouble with data.

In the current brouhaha about fudged climate data I actually haven't seen or heard the TV experts mentioning glaciers. To be honest, I haven't been to check on the glaciers but I have faith that the photographs haven't been photoshopped. The obvious status of the glaciers: significant shrinkage. The arctic ice is in fact melting. The snow cover on Kilimanjaro and many other peaks is receding. Without glueing myself to every channel 24/7, I have faith that a few TV pundits must have mentioned the glaciers, but why quibble?

The trouble with data is that when science requires absolute statistical, quantifiable fact as definitive proof that a hypothesis is true, or false, it places itself on a pedestal where its position is precarious. Like Tiger Woods. When someone fudges the data, the hypothesis is weakened or discredited entirely. Science itself is discredited, and this is something that Science should work to avoid. At any cost one might say, because there is no coinage that will reverse damage to life and nature due to misjudged climate change. On the other hand, preventive measures and their results will be tallied and appreciated. Does it offend the principle of scientific parsimony that I just said climate change instead of global warming? Does parsimony matter to those whose ice floes are vanishing, or those whose islands are being submerged?

So what if the greatest evidence of global warming is circumstantial? In law, compelling circumstantial evidence is considered a reliable guide in forming good judgment when empirical, quantifiable evidence is unavailable. Do they count every single body before they convict agents of genocide? No. Indeed there usually is plenty of empirical evidence. But if, hypothetically, the trials were based on absolute numbers, would errors in data absolve the accused? What if Solomon had based his timeless decision exclusively on hard data rather than good judgment? An innocent life would have been lost. If faith in 'compelling circumstantial evidence' was good enough for Solomon, it's good enough for the permafrost. And for you.

Think about it. If, generations from now, victims of environmental degradation put suspects on trial for the effects of climate change, and the accused get off because the numbers don't add up, would you really like to be in the shoes of those wishing the case had been less scientific?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cause global warming? Yes we do.

Beyond a reasonable doubt.

The global warming problem brings to light several issues which may represent the Achilles heel of Science. Who says we need absolute, conclusive, evidence-based proof of cause and effect before taking action? Science. And policymakers who believe that if they base their decisions on science, their derrières are covered.

However, climate change may be the thing that blows their cover. Firstly, while the ups and downs of global temperature have been cyclical over the ages, the recent sharp increase has been unprecedented. Second, the steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions by humans has also been unprecedented. Quite enough of a link — or evidence-based proof — to make governments act prudently if they valued their Earth more than their tax revenue. It seems they don't.

The problem is that for self-preserving policymakers, the strict scientific method is preferred. If you can neither independently verify results, isolate the phenomenon from all other factors nor repeat the test, the hypothesis falls apart. The perfect rationalization for doing nothing.

But we the people need action. What if we viewed damage to the environment, often knowing, willful and premeditated, as a crime rather than collateral damage in the quest for riches? Then, as in the courts, we could hold our rulers to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. It may may not have been proven in a laboratory that humans contribute to accelerated global warming and climate change but it is true, beyond a reasonable doubt.

I may be judging science too harshly. There are branches that weigh a multitude of factors and make decisions that are not guaranteed to be successful. In medicine for example, it is routine for doctors to evaluate a patient's array of complex conditions against any number of possible treatments and gamble on a procedure that may save a life.

And wouldn't you know, that kind of science is good enough for policymakers. It gave Ted Kennedy an extra year of enviable life. Countless others benefit every day from scientific decisions based on judgement rather than mere data. So why not base decisions about saving the planet on legal or medical experience rather than the petri dish alone?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Were the wizards of Wall St. blinded by their own light?

Is the current financial crisis indicative of a progress trap? Were the wizards of Wall St. blinded by their own light? It's a profoundly complex issue, and too early to call. However, in searching for clues there are some useful pointers. The Markit company was founded in 2001 to provide information on the newly deregulated Credit Derivatives market, and their publication Markit Magazine offers expert, though slightly ambivalent, insight. They are optimistic that the future will see improvement. Andrew Cavenagh, writing in the Summer 2008 issue, is frank in explaining the weakness of two "smug" assumptions. One is that the global credit market was large and resilient enough to absorb shocks without permitting structural damage to the credit system. The other is that the "exponential growth of securitisation worldwide" provided a reliable, cheap source of funding that allowed lenders to risk sub-prime mortgages, knowing that the risks would then be passed on to the larger credit market as derivatives. Also known as "repackaging toxic debt".

This is a huge market where quantity has counted more than quality. Reading further in Markit magazine it remains difficult to tell whether lessons will be learned. One would expect that swift regulation would end the tendency to trade in financial instruments that have been increasingly abstracted from real assets. According to Lehman Brothers (now defunct) in The Lehman Brothers Guide to Exotic Credit Derivatives "The credit default swap is the basic building block for most ‘exotic’ credit derivatives". However, reports that the SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said on Sept. 23, 2008 that "Neither the SEC nor any regulator has authority over the CDS (credit default swap) market, even to require minimal disclosure," and that should be addressed "immediately". At year-end, this remains unregulated, with some critics citing fear of worldwide derivatives market disruption. Didn't this already happen? If the U.S. sub-prime practices caused global shockwaves, surely U.S. regulation would be entirely appropriate.

If you thought it ended at exotic swaps, think again. Financiers trade options on swaps, and the term for that instrument is - you guessed it, "swaptions". Denise Bedell, of Markit magazine, writes in the Winter 2008 issue: "we can still learn lessons from past crises that can help guide the success of current efforts and curb the length and severity of the present turmoil." Tellingly, a sidebar to her article has a history of US financial crises, beginning 1819 and repeating the same mistakes to the present. A recurring feature of these crises is loss of credit to the average citizen, of consumer confidence and jobs in what we now refer to as “Main Street”. These issues are getting secondary consideration, but leaders can address them regionally without waiting for international coordination.

I would conclude that if the global community was behaving differently from, and more pragmatically than the U.S., we might not fall into the trap of being too clever for one's own good, and salvation may come from other nations. There are many of those and some must have their feet on the ground, so I too am optimistic.

Andrew Cavenagh the markit magazine – Summer 08: One change that seems certain to result from the debacle is that institutions that originate mortgages – or any other types of loan – will no longer be allowed to sell on the entire risk to the capital markets. It is hard to imagine that some of the reckless sub-prime lending that occurred in the US would have happened if the lenders had been obliged to keep the “assets” on their balance sheets. 

Denise Bedell Winter 2008 – the markit magazine
Bedell, in Learning from the past quotes a credit analyst as saying "the current bailout packages we are seeing are proving absolutely necessary in order to stop the complete crisis of confidence. With the packages, they have the crash trolleys out and have applied the defibrillator so the patient is at least alive. So now the global economy needs to be nursed back to health." The remarks of a senior equity capital markets banker are also quoted: "They will do whatever it takes to succeed, they will repair the credit markets, and if the current packages aren’t enough then they will throw another log on the fire."