Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thinking logically about Trident

Mary Dejevski writes in the Independent today (The nationalists, the whistleblower and a chance to think about Trident, p 28, 19 May) hopes that the scrutiny of Trident will go beyond the specific complaints made by the courageous whistleblower, William McNeillie. If only we could hope for such scrutiny.

Here is the ultimate question about Trident:

Is there a greater than zero probability of its being fired?

If the answer to that question is an unqualified no, then we can safely continue with it, although there are questions about its cost and the potential for accidents, but these downsides can be balanced by Trident's effect in raising the threshold at which nuclear weapons states will declare war on us.

If the answer is yes, there is a chance that it could be fired, then we must abandon the whole idea of nuclear deterrence, and work intensively to ensure a global ban on all such WMD.

There is a cast iron reason for this: if the consequence of the breakdown of a system is infinitely destructive, it is reasonable to use that system if and only if the probability of its breakdown is zero.

Any examination of the history and structure of nuclear deterrence will quickly conclude that there is a greater than zero chance of deterrence failing.

In that case, Trident will be the trigger for, or part of, a global nuclear holocaust, with all 17,000 being fired or destroyed in their silos. That will destroy human civilisation - an infinitely negative consequence.

That being the case, we must put an end to the Trident programme. If between them the SNP and William McNeilly have started a radical, logical reappraisal of nuclear deterrence, they will have done the whole world an immense favour.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Lukewarmer's climate hypothesis is falsified

Science doesn't do proof, it works by refuting false hypotheses.

The hypothesis of the climate "skeptics" is that increasing CO2 will not have a serious effect on our planet's climate and weather.

This can be refuted.

For purposes of discussion, their hypothesis needs to be given some parameters, so let us, for the sake of convenience, talk about the effect of doubling the level of atmospheric CO2 from the 1750 level of 280 ppm to 560 ppm, which will happen about 2100 if we continue with business as usual. A baby born today will be 85 years old in 2100.

A fairly simple physical calculation, based on the known physics of the interaction of the CO2 molecule and energy, concludes that a doubling of the level of CO2 will cause an increase in surface temperature in the region of 1.1C +/- 0.1C.

This increase will kick off the Three Babies, a set of positive feedbacks (together with some negative feedbacks) that will further increase the temperature at the planet's surface.

It is the magnitude of this further increase that is critical.

The "skeptics", now termed "lukewarmers" offer the hypothesis that the eventual temperature will settle down at less than two degrees C above 1750 levels.

Now hypotheses about the future cannot be tested experimentally, but a proxy for these predictions can be used: climate sensitivity. This is an indicator of how much the planet's surface temperature (call it T) increases to after any increase in heating equivalent to that caused by a doubling of CO2.

The lukewarmers claim that CS lies between the bounds of 0-2.5.

How does that figure compare with all the other work that has been done on the subject?

Take a look at this:

This represents an awful amount of work on climate sensitivity, looking at the problem in many different ways. Note the vertical blue bands: they indicate the likely eventual temperature, falling between 2 and 4.5.

Recall that lukewarmers hypothesise that equilibrium temperatures will settle at somewhere between 0-2.5. (note that there is an overlap at the 2-2.5C mark. Note that this overlap itself also invalidates the lukewarmer position of "no serious harm").

In any other area of science, this amount of work, crossing and recrossing the field, repeating the work, looking at it from different angles and different methodologies, the matter would be regarded as settled, and certainly not to be upset by a handful of studies, using a very basic computer model, which come to different conclusions.

The old joke about "Little Jimmy is the only one who is in step*" comes to mind.

But climate science is different, because its conclusions have an impact on the immensely rich and powerful fossil fuel industry.

There is very clearly a clash between the lukewarmers and the evidence produced from many other sources. The lukewarmer conclusion is based on a few studies of recent years. These studies are weakened by the limitation of their methodology; it is clearly dangerous to try to extrapolate from a few years to a much longer time. The fallacy of the Biased Sample applies.

It is the case that the evidence offered by the lukewarmers is refuted by all the work that have been previously made.

It is also the case that their highest projections are more likely to be correct. A T raised to at least 2.5C is at the top of their range of possibilities, but close to the median of the bulk of studies. 2.5C is serious. Skeptics make a big deal of uncertainty in the science, but uncertainty cuts both ways. Their range includes 2C, and that in itself is not a comfortable place to put our descendants, but they have no guarantee that the error bars may not stretch to 4C and more.

Remember also that the doubling of CO2 is not the end of the story. If we continue to burn fossil fuels, the levels of CO2, and the impacts, will continue to rise. Remember also that there is huge inertia in the system, so that even when we stabilise the levels of CO2, the impacts will continue to work, and through positive feedback loops, will continue to grow.

Here you can listen to James Hansen arguing that the 2C target is not safe, because it commits the planet to significant sea level rises. Wheat production is going to be affected adversely in a warmer world.

It is clear that the lukewarmer effort to delay any action on decarbonising the global economy is irrational and foolish. Their evidence base is limited and biased, and incompatible with a large body of science. The area of overlap between what the lukewarmers accept and what the main body of science accepts cannot in any way be said to be safe. The uncertainties implicit in their own evidence opens the gate to dangerous impacts on earth's climate.

In short, the hypothesis of the lukewarmers, that man made CO2 will not seriously harm our climate, is incompatible with the known facts. It is falsified.

*at a school parade, Jimmy is out  of step. His mother sees it as him being the only one in step.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Migration - let's get to the source of the problem


The humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea, with boatloads of migrants adrift, dying of hunger and starvation, illustrates the futility and inhumanity of addressing the migration problem symptomatically. We have to tackle the root causes of migration on a global basis. There are four causes of migration: war, human rights abuses, poverty, and environmental degradation. In this instance, human rights abuses are the most important.

The Rohinga are a complex problem. They are effectively stateless, denied  citizenship and persecuted in Burma, their home country.  They are rejected by Malaysia, their preferred destination as a Muslim country. In WW2 their behaviour to some of their non-muslim neighbours was not good. This is a massive problem: there are 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma, and 120,000 -10% of the total - have emigrated in the past 3 yrs.

The historical roots of their predicament are complex, and go back at least in part to the days of the British Empire, when we moved Rohingya from Bengal to Burma for workforce reasons.

This fact, as well as our colonial past in Burma, gives the UK a responsibility to help to resolve the crisis. But sadly we have no moral leverage. The Coalition Government cannot criticise Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for refusing to help, because it has taken a similar position to with regard to the migrants crossing from Libya to Italy. In defiance of the laws of the sea, we (or rather, the UK Government) withdrew from the Italian operation to rescue drowning migrants, reasoning that eventually, if enough of them drowned, the word would get back to the source, and people would stop putting to sea. For this strategy to work efficiently, it would require the Government at very least to take photos of drowned bodies and publish them, with the back story,  in newspapers and on TV in Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and Mali. We may ask why they have not done so.

So the UK has no moral authority to advise Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand to change their "pushback" policy.

What is needed therefore is for the international community to bring pressure, and donate support, for Malaysia and its neighbours, in the name of humanity, to take in the unfortunates who are at sea right now. Next, the UN needs to press Burma to give the Rohingya citizenship, and to stop the human rights abuses being perpetrated on them. The National Lead for Democracy, Aan San Suu Kyi's opposition party in Burma, has called for the Rohingya to be given citizenship.

Easier said than done: but it must be done, and, eventually, will be done. The problem is that this kind of action in the UN always comes about with glacial slowness, as the media gradually unfold the picture, so that ordinary people begin the press the politicians, who eventually instruct the diplomats to begin to work in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to bring pressure onto Burma. All it takes is for one member of the UNSC to decide that its bilateral trade or military relations with Burma to be more important than any humanitarian considerations for action in the UNSC to be set back for years.

This has got to change. The UN's way of working has to be updated.

First, the veto in the UNSC must be abolished, and the reason for its abolition must be given as Putin's abuse of his veto to prevent action being taken to stop Assad of Syria from destroying his own nation.

Second, The UN has to change its stance from being reactive to proactive. It must cease from coming to each crisis on a basis of "Oh my goodness, what is going on here, and what, if anything should we do about it?" Instead, the UN needs to lay down a set of rules that apply to how governments should work.

Rules are important, because rulers are in many ways like toddlers: they want to manipulate the rules to their own advantage in every situation. Only when they find that the rules cannot be bent  will they start to recognise that they have to behave as part of a larger society. Rules have to be applied with consistency, without fear or favour, if they are to work. These principles are based on sound and universally accepted psychology. There is every reason to apply them within the United Nations.

Only two rules are required:
Rule 1: The purpose of government is to protect the rights and well-being of all who live within its borders.
Rule 2: If Governments fail in their duty, there will be a tariff of consequences which become increasingly severe according to the degree in which the regime is failing.

A certain amount of complexity is involved in setting out the details of a tariff, but the basic principle is clear. If a ruler is setting off on the well-defined path towards dictatorship, a set of sanctions targeted on the president and the ruling clique will be applied consistently. Conversely, if the human rights performance of the regime improves,  the sanctions will be removed.

This will not be easy to achieve. Resistance will come from many quarters, from established dictators, from wannabe dictators like Putin, and also from decent, established UN diplomats who believe that the world in which they operate is the best of all possible worlds.

This is a formidable opposition. On the other hand, we face a more than formidable problem in migration, not only in the Andaman and Mediterranean seas, but worldwide. We only need to remind ourselves of the human misery, the tragedies being played out on the seas, to realise that we cannot go on as we are. We have to progress beyond dictatorships and the self interest of blinkered regimes towards a world in which behaviour is governed by universal rules, and governments know that their duty is to protect the people who live within their borders. We have to address the root causes, not just the symptoms of migration.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Should we despair in the face of this Tory victory?

Is there room for hope, politically?

A few years ago, I made a choice to be optimistic, to believe that it is possible for mankind to pull out of the political and economic nosedive that we are in, to come back to earth in a safe landing.

If we give way to despair and pessimism, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; we cannot take action, we become depressed and passive.

So I chose to be positive, to look for the reasonable solutions to the many problems that we face, which is what most of this blog is about.

But in common with many thousands of others last week's election result has tipped me into depression.

What hope is there for us, politically?

OK, the Green Party maintains its slow and steady progress. We got a bigger vote than ever before in percentage and absolute terms. Caroline Lucas kept her seat with an increased majority, a fact that many of all parties agree was one of the very few pleasant results last week. But it is too slow. Under proportional representation the Greens would have 25 MPs. As it is, we have one.

We are looking at the monstrously disproportionate results of our clapped-out electoral system, where 24% of the electorate deliver 34% of the vote which delivers 51% of the MPs which delivers 100% of the power to an ugly little regime of small-state ideologues who are determined to punish the poor and dispossessed even harder than before and sell our national assets off cheap to their corporate chums who will run the country into the ground for the sake of their own profits.

This ridiculous FPTP electoral system will not change short of sustained rioting in the streets, because the Government of the day is elected by FPTP and the Labour Opposition colludes unforgivably with the Tory Government in defending the indefensible.

The electoral system is one major block to progress, The other is the state of the media. Out of every 4 newspaper readers, 3 are reading right wing newspapers. Of TV stations, Murdoch owns Sky, and the BBC has make a sickening lurch to the right since 2010. Channel 4 is reasonable at the moment, but is prone to making awful propaganda in films like the Great Global Warming Swindle.

The massive failure of the media as a block is demonstrated by the way the media-led election "debate" excluded discussion of climate change, corruption and fracking. This despite one of the "major" parties having a policy of repealing the Climate Change Act.

To a small extent, social media compensate for the inadequacies of the corporate media, but social media is subject to its own vagaries (see the influence of conspiracy theorists and global warming deniers), and at present is too small to counterbalance the huge influence of the corporates.

In short, democracy in the UK is hobbled by an undemocratic electoral system and a deeply biased media.

Is there any room for hope in terms of peaceful democratic politics? It is difficult to see any, rationally. But we should not give up hope yet. Hope and despair are like the weather; they change. Today it is cold, cloudy and wet. Tomorrow, the sun will shine. Today we are in the grip of a false individualistic ideology, but Truth cannot be held back forever. The truth is that we are social animals, and we do need to look after our life support systems. If we cling on, hope against hope, these two truths may, in the end, give us political hope.

The Exmoor Valley's Answer

This valley, brilliant now in May sunshine
has raised generation after generation
of sturdy children, knowledgeable of
what is to be ate, and what is not.

Strong-legged along old winding lanes
each with some favourite corner
where in one bright and drowsy afternoon
Nature strikes their heart, and theirs alone

as one leaf, one stone,
one flashing grain of silica
captures their mind
anchors it in the One

until, unless they die, they grow to lusty adulthood
and chase and kiss and marry and
raise more, all feeding off
the soft rich valley soil

that's still there, thinner now maybe
maybe the buds and butterflies are less
and more and more needs feeding to the soil
to win the food, but still

Wave after wave; young, parents, old
and passed away. The rich green valley
churns them steadily; they're good folk
hard-working for their food, they dance and sing.

And every few years, the military come
and tell their stories, show off their uniforms
and spirit away, playing their pipes and drums,
some young men to the wars.

A few come back, that long look in their eyes
that absence; others more clearly missing
and arm, a leg, and eye, a mind.
Others do come back never.

They leave a dank cold shadow across their lover's life
someone who might have been; a husband,
one who does not flare up in nightmares
doesn't lash out for no good reason

one who was taken by the wars
and there are hot dark tears
and sadness clothes a young maid's life
and anger, always at the back

deep and unspoken. 'Why did he have to go and die?'
and always that wave of common sense,
chorus of voices everywhere
'There always will be wars'

Tearing at her still persistent inner voice
Why did he have to go and die?
And still the valley says
“I'll raise your young, over and over, wave after wave

I'll give enough for you to eat,
and what's left over, goes to market.
Won't that do for an answer?”

Maybe not

Richard Lawson
Exmoor 12/05/15