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?