Lori Heine, R.I.P.

 | 

Lori Sue Heine, a beloved contributor to Liberty, died on July 8 at her home in Phoenix. She was 56.

A native of Phoenix, Lori graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988. She spent much of her life in the insurance industry, but several years ago struck out on her own, working from home on individual projects. Her first contribution to Liberty, "Preaching to the Unconverted," appeared in our May 2010 issue. She was very popular with our readers.

I last heard from Lori in response to messages I sent on June 20 and 22, asking whether she was writing anything for us. She replied in the early morning of June 24: “I'm working on some notes right now for another essay. It should be ready in a few days.” She added that she taking some medication that wasn’t going right: “I've spoken with the doctor and she's prescribing something different. Hopefully it will be an improvement. I expect to be back on track now.”

When you read Lori's essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

In her latest article for Liberty she had criticized presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, pointing out aspects of his ideas that no one else seemed to have noticed. On July 3 I sent her new evidence of his folly, congratulating her on being right. The next day she wrote to me: “I agree. Buttigieg is a couple crab puffs shy of a pu-pu plate. This is shaping into a very entertaining Democratic race.” She mentioned “the circus of amusement,” and wished me a happy Fourth of July.

That message was the last I received.

If you go to Liberty’s Search function and type her name, you’ll find about 80 contributions — a remarkable legacy. Some are responses to items in the news, some are answers to perennial questions, but each of them is as fresh as the day it was written. Lori had the knack of showing how immediate issues are connected with universal principles, and of illustrating universal principles by vivid pictures from ordinary life. When you read her essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

I used the terms “independent” and “personal,” but they aren’t good enough. It’s easy to be independent and personal if that’s all you want to be: just adopt the edgiest position you can, and announce it in the first words that come to you. Lori wouldn’t dream of doing that. She labeled her works “essays” (“Essay #3,” “Essay #5”) because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth. Each was an intellectual experience, ripening toward the moment when it could be given its most appropriate name. Yet as you read it, its shape came through right away, clear and sound as a crystal vase.

Lori required very little editing. Good copy is delightful to any editor, but I was particularly interested in Lori’s responses to the few edits I made. She considered them carefully, accepting most but often going beyond them, sending the work back to me with brief but important additions and alterations. They weren’t just fine tunings; they were ways of setting things right at the moment while embarking on the next journey of thought and feeling. It was as if there were one great essay that was always growing out of her experience. When I’d write to her asking whether she might have something for Liberty, she usually replied, “I’ve been thinking . . .”

She labeled her works “essays” because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth.

Maybe a crystal vase isn’t exactly the right metaphor, although it’s close. Lori’s essays were shapely, but they weren’t intended to be ornamental; she wanted them to hold water, and they did. Before she sat down at the keyboard, her concepts had already passed a serious examination; then, as the keyboard clicked, they were rigorously interrogated and ruthlessly disciplined. When she was finished, I’m sure she sat back and said, “I think that’s good!” When she started her next essay, I’m sure she said, “I think this will be better!”

Bill Merritt, also a distinguished contributor to Liberty, has said of Lori: “I never met her and didn't know her outside of the pages of Liberty but sometimes one comes to feel like he knows a writer, and I'd come to really admire her, not just for her words, but for the largeness of her . . . soul, for lack of a better word.”

Lori’s political ideas expressed that generous soul. She was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly. Her most common argument was that both Left and Right have it wrong; their idea of reality is severely constricted, and being so, is blind to at least half the world and its opportunities. For ignorance, prejudice, self-conceit, and meddling she had a noble scorn, but her goal was to persuade both Left and Right, and Libertarians too, that they should grow out of those things. She thought that when they did, they would find that life was good. To paraphrase another literary eminence, she thought they might achieve a just and lasting peace among themselves, and with all others.

As a lesbian Christian, active in the Episcopal church and in gay environments in which libertarian opinion is uncommon, Lori had many opportunities to practice what she preached. She seized them. Detesting the sentimentality and hypocrisy of modern liberals and Progressives, just as she detested the social bigotries of many modern conservatives, she declined to participate in the rituals of any tribe; yet she stayed in there, making good arguments, trying to find common ground, and when not finding it, refusing to have a fit, stage a scene, or make contemporary social life any more miserable than it was already. I believe she was always — to use the military metaphor — left in possession of the field.

Lori was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly.

Now I will speak more personally. The news of Lori’s death was devastating to me. During the years of our association I had come to depend on her, in several ways. Most obviously, I looked forward to the writing that she regularly, and generously, provided to Liberty. She wasn’t “on contract,” but every three or four weeks, an essay would turn up in my mailbox. If more weeks passed and I hadn’t received an essay, I wrote to her, saying that I knew she had something cooking — and she always did. Something savory, too.

But I didn’t rely just on her writing. I relied on her. Lori was one of those great libertarians — Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, R.W. Bradford — who delighted in staying up late at night to converse about things that mattered, in a way that mattered: wittily, knowledgeably, and with all of the self engaged. That’s what she did for me, online, during the many late nights of messages that she and I sent back and forth. Often our conversation was about popular culture and our impressions and memories of it — “Wonder Woman”! — and about life in Gay America. Often it was about people’s attitudes to politics and the strange experiences that a normal, rational person (Lori) had in her journey through our weird National Conversations. And often the dialogue turned to religion. Lori was devoutly but unostentatiously religious. As a fellow Episcopalian, I treasured her sharp insights on Christian customs and beliefs, and on the social environment of our church and other churches. I didn’t just treasure them. I looked forward to them, laughed over them, and loved them.

Again, I found that Lori was willing to back her opinions with her daily life. A vigorous opponent of political correctness, she refused to reciprocate the hostility of the politically correct. An advocate of individualism, she made her own decisions and took absolute responsibility for them. A lover of her country, she embodied, in her thoughtfulness and candor, the true ideals of citizenship. A lover of liberty, she gladly granted others not only freedom but also tolerance and understanding. A thinker, she also knew how to write. What more can you want? Only that Lori should still be with us.

In September 2018, Lori’s book Good Clowns was published. It is available from Amazon.




Share This


Nuclear Power: Again, Why Not?

 | 

Those who believe that manmade climate change threatens civilization, and even nature itself, with imminent death should be clamoring for more nuclear energy production, which releases no greenhouse gases. I wrote this recently as part of a longish essay about my nonexpert citizen’s skepticism regarding climate change. I speculated that one reason for the fact that there is no closing of the ranks around nuclear energy is that it’s reputed to be dangerous, especially in view of the possibility of radiation leaks. I also argued that, in spite of this ill fame, it’s difficult to find anywhere evidence of much health damage caused by radiation.

This information scarcity makes it difficult to assess the reasonableness of the widespread avoidance of nuclear energy production. Almost everyone who expresses an opinion dislikes it or is mistrustful of it. Voicing the objection that these unfavorable attitudes are not rooted in evidence either raises the eyebrows of disbelief or triggers the silent charge that you have not looked hard enough (which may, of course, be true).

Soon after writing the essay I just mentioned, I read a new book overflowing with anti-nuclear evidence that moved the hand on my clock some — only a little, but enough — to be worth discussing. The book is Kate Brown’s A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. In any case, if I don’t discuss it, others will, from a predictably laudatory angle, I would bet.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages.

Brown’s thesis is that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident released more radioactivity, in more places, for longer than the official sources allow, and that many more people’s health was affected, and much more severely, as well as more lastingly, than is openly acknowledged.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages (“tribunal” for “tribune,” “amass” for “mass,” “bales of hay,” for “bales of wool,” to “curate” for to “examine,” “Judenrein” for “Judenfrei”). Although she is a Soviet expert and a reader of Russian, for several pages (p. 184 and on), she confuses perestroika (“deep societal reform” or “restructuring”) with glasnost (informational “opening,” in the sense of increased transparency). And despite the fact that Brown is a tenacious, assiduous, even a formidable, researcher in the service of her thesis (more on this below), several major defects detract from the persuasiveness of her book.

First, Brown is not a neutral investigator, or even a journalist, but unambiguously an activist who hates nuclear anything. Perhaps as a result, she pretty much treats every dissenting voice as part of a long-lasting conspiracy involving Soviet authorities (national and local — no surprise), major UN agencies, and several US federal agencies, to conceal the scale of the ill effects of radiation exposure, as well as the intensity and duration of such exposure. This is not completely unbelievable. I myself think that the deadly climate change narrative is supported at once by local, national, and international government actors, although not within the context of a conspiracy but of a passively shared perception.

But Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging. When she adds the International Red Cross to her already rich mix of plotters, my willingness to suspend disbelief vacillates. I don’t see how it cannot. As she continues, it crashes. The main international organization that cites large numbers of radiation victims following the accident is Greenpeace. But Brown herself honestly describes Greenpeace’s attempt to collect data in the Soviet Union as a fiasco.

Second, and possibly fatally for her, Brown straightforwardly imputes increases in mortality and morbidity in the vicinity of Chernobyl to a rise in radioactivity in the region following the reactor’ meltdown. She does this without benefit of baseline estimates regarding either radioactivity or health conditions before the accident. This is a major defect, of course: you may not impute a rise in Y to a rise in X if you cannot demonstrate a rise in X. In a roundabout way, she admits in several places that she cannot demonstrate a rise in radioactivity around Chernobyl or, in fact, anywhere at all, following the accident. She argues — persuasively if you disregard the rest of her book — that hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the ’50s and ’60s had so overwhelmingly loaded the atmosphere with radioactivity that it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the comparatively modest radioactive emissions from Chernobyl specifically. (See, for example pp. 244–245, for the radioactive saturation following American tests.)

Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging.

But it seems to me that if you are unable to measure a rise in X, there is no point in trying to blame it for a rise in Y. And if you believe that X causes Y and you cannot link an actual increase in Y even to an identified increase in X, you may not claim much about anything. Brown thus finds herself in the impossible situation of trying to demonstrate rigorously that something that she argues cannot be assessed (increase in radioactivity) is the cause of something that she loosely measures or that remains unmeasured (rises in illness and in mortality reasonably traceable to radiation exposure).

Third, like many writers with a cause, Brown devotes no attention to possible negative evidence, to evidence against her thesis. She has nothing to say about situations where there should be an excess of pathologies and of mortality — according to her implicit model that enough exposure to radiation must result in noticeable excess morbidity — but none appears. The book is written a little like a scholarly article in which contradiction is pretty much expected, even guaranteed, from other knowledgeable sources, as part of a social process. But for this book, it’s not, for reasons I develop below.

Some of the book’s tangible findings seem defective as soon as you perform a little comparison around them. For example, Brown deals abundantly with rates, including accident rates, of course, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. But she seldom provides absolute numbers, which alone can tell us how much the rates matter. (If I read that the annual rate of suicide among churchgoing southern black grandmothers of five has increased by 100% in one year, I should ask whether it’s gone from 10,000 to 20,000, or from two to four, or even from one to two.) When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand: “eighty new thyroid cancers among 2.5 million Belarusian children . . .” (p. 250). Obviously, that’s hundreds of tragedies for parents and relatives and for the sick children themselves, but it’s not a massive epidemic. Perhaps it’s no more than a counting error.

Here is an indirect but reasonable comparison of orders of magnitude: in 1990, the rate of child mortality for Russia was 2.15% (“Child Mortality,” Max Roser, Our World in Data, May 10, 2019). Applying this rate to Brown’s 2.5 million children gives us a raw number of children’s deaths from all causes of about 54,000. I am sorry, but 80 out of 54,000 is not a big surplus. This comparison assumes that Belarusian children's death rate from all causes after Chernobyl is similar to Russia’s in 1990. This does not seem farfetched. Furthermore, the 80 thyroid cancers Brown reports probably did not all result in deaths, which makes the raw number of 80, blamed on accidental exposure to radioactivity, look even smaller.

When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand.

More strangely, the author treats what I believe is her best causal evidence with near indifference. She mentions in passing two large studies of nuclear plant workers conducted in Europe, in relative openness and under favorable European conditions — studies that convincingly link exposure to radiation to several pathologies (p. 294). To reach skeptics like me, that research should have been presented at the beginning of the book, rather than near the very end. Since it was not, I have to wonder what’s wrong with this research. (It’s probably nothing, but am I expected to confirm the research myself?)

Even the best evidence that Brown collects herself seems relegated to a near afterthought. She reports that the health statistics for areas affected by radiation remain normal-looking until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, when higher figures begin to show up. It’s as if a lid had been removed that constrained the truth. However, there are other possible explanations for this sudden change and its coincidence with the end of Soviet power; Brown spends little time discussing them.

In spite of its serious structural defects, in spite of its inadequate treatment of intriguing data, I am not able to dismiss Manual for Survival . . . not entirely. The main reason is that I am one of those who secretly suspect (against orthodoxy) that a large enough accumulation of anecdotal evidence ceases to be merely anecdotal.

If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected.

Brown has performed huge amounts of both field research and archival research, spread over what seems to be 25 years, or even 30 years. Her perseverance is exceptional. Thanks to the quality of her narrative, the reader easily gathers that much of her work was done under adverse conditions, physically and politically. (The thought crossed my mind that I would want Brown on my side in any bar fight.) But, as I said in an opening paragraph, Brown is an activist. She seems to understand the scientific endeavor, but science isn’t her main business. It’s difficult to imagine anyone checking her numerous sources, except perhaps a scholar funded by the nuclear industry. The hire would pretty much have to be a Ukrainian with a very good command of English, because a high proportion of the book references are in Russian, or even in Ukrainian. It’s not going to happen. No one is likely ever to check all her sources — not even a principled sample of her sources, not even a handful.

Yet, I am thinking, a portion of her alarming assertions is probably true, and official sources probably underestimate the health damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected. The health lessons that Chernobyl has for today are still necessarily limited. The accident happened in connection with a primitive nuclear technology and under the rule of a political system that was routinely both criminal and mendacious. Since Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor core at Fukushima melted down in the worst possible context of a natural catastrophe. Dissimulation of the health consequences of the Fukushima disaster was unlikely in the relatively open Japanese society. Radiation leaks took place in the midst of a population especially sensitive to such dangers. And yet, not much appears to have happened to anyone’s health that can be linked to radiation.

So, Manual for Survival has moved the needle a little for me — not much, but some. The best way I can express it is this: I would still advocate the replacement of nearly all coal-fueled energy production plants with nuclear plants. I would probably refrain from the same recommendation in connection with relatively clean natural gas plants. That’s because there is no doubt that coal burning pollutes in several ways, irrespective of the reality of the climate change narrative. Natural gas is so clean by contrast that it may not be worth it to take even the slight and poorly demonstrated health risk that may be associated with accidental radiation exposure in order to avoid burning gas.

Her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union.

Of course, if someone whom I thought qualified reviewed Brown’s multiple sources and pronounced them mostly adequate, I would revise my judgment again about the safety of nuclear energy production.

In the end, her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union. The primitive technologies and the incompetent and weak sociopolitical controls of Chernobyl are gone for good. There is a segment in Steven Pinker’s well-documented Enlightenment Now (2018) about both the disadvantages and the overwhelming advantages of nuclear power (pp. 144–150). Why, even climate-change-fixated National Geographic shows a few signs of coming around! Though not many signs: see the short feature on nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, in the March 2019 issue.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future," by Kate Brown. Norton: New York, 2019. 432 pages.



Share This


Tiananmen Revisited?

 | 

I fear that China is about to crack down on Hong Kong and retake the airport by military force. A crackdown is what it did in June 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, which they did after a long period of protests during which the government did nothing. China’s leaders finally lost patience and crushed the protests by force. Their descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”

I have just read a piece by Minxin Pei in which he argues that a Tiananmen-type crackdown would cost the government of China too much.

“Hong Kong’s residents would almost certainly treat Chinese government forces as invaders, and mount the fiercest possible resistance,” Pei writes. “The resulting clashes — which would likely produce high numbers of civilian casualties — would mark the official end of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, with China’s government forced to assert direct and full control over Hong Kong’s administration.”

Tiananmen's descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”

And that, Pei writes, would cause “an immediate exodus of expats and elites with foreign passports” and of Western businesses, with a “collapse” of Hong Kong’s economy.

I lived in Hong Kong for three years. It was a long time ago, and I may be on shaky ground when I argue with Minxin Pei, but it’s difficult for me to picture the Hong Kong people putting up “the fiercest possible resistance” to the Chinese army. The Hong Kongers are not a military people; they are an unarmed, commercial people. When I was there, they were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much? And if Hong Kong’s youth have embraced ideology and activism, what difference can it make now?

Hong Kong was a British colony during most of the 20th century. It had an odd mixture of freedom and capitalism under British common law but with no democracy. The time to have taken to the streets and occupied the airport was in the early 1980s, when the deal to give Hong Kong 50 years of a separate system under China’s sovereignty was being negotiated between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain, though it’s doubtful that China would have let them keep it. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.

When I was there, the Hong Kongers were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much?

The protesters in Hong Kong want control of Hong Kong by the Hong Kong people. China’s leaders cannot afford to give them that, and they won’t.

Either the protesters give up and leave the airport, or the Chinese Army forcibly evicts them. Either way, they lose.

What, then? If the Chinese army takes the Hong Kong airport and says, “Order is restored, back to work!”, will the Western businesses leave? Maybe a few. The crackdown in Beijing in 1989 created bad publicity all over the world; it caused tens of thousands of Chinese students to stay in the United States, and it kept tourists away from China for a while. It cost China billions of dollars. But look what it bought: no domestic opposition for 30 years. For China’s leaders, it was worth the cost. My bet is that they’ll do it again.

If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.

Long term, the biggest question about Hong Kong has been whether its system will remain distinct from China’s or whether the two systems will begin to merge. If China cracks down, an answer to that question will begin to take shape — and it won’t be one the Hong Kong people want.

And what of the United States? Will Donald Trump impose economic sanctions on China? That bolt has already been shot, for all the good it’s done.

I fear the Hong Kong people are on their own.




Share This


Climate Change Denier, Part 2

 | 

In Part I of this two-part feature, Jacques Delacroix began his review of problems with the public presentation of climate research. He continues now.

* * *

Sins Against the Spirit of Science

Now, some objections that have to do with the logic of the overall scientific endeavor. Many or most individual studies of climate change may be well or even perfectly designed. However, there is also an implicit design to the macro endeavor. I mean the large set of scientific studies as arranged in the collective minds of a semi-educated media — their own synthetic presentation of the relevant scientific enterprise. The latter is, of necessity, what most citizens must consume, lacking time and expertise to do anything else. The implicit but very clear design of this synthetic presentation is fatally flawed, impossibly unscientific, lacking even in simple logic.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce and thus become honestly blinded. To circumvent the regrettable consequences of such love, of such blindness, science invented the diabolical practice of double-blind peer reviewing.

To put this briefly: strangers who remain anonymous throughout, strangers who may be ill-disposed or inimical to the findings the author reports, are put in charge of judging the merits of his submission. In respected journals, those referees are given license, are even encouraged, to devastate the submission, to look for hidden defects, for covered-up bias, for anything they want. Often, the first thing they do is check for faulty design. The knowledge that this could happen to your piece, to your baby, tends to make you prudent, even if it never actually happens. The results of such savagery are not always perfect; some bias does survive. But in general, the results of research that has gone through this savaging process are considerably more trustworthy than those that have not.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce.

Yet the overarching endeavor of climate change research, the way many research items are put together, the way that most affects decision making, does not benefit from this kind of scrutiny. Although each and every one of the studies that feed into it may be competently reviewed, the general endeavor is allowed to continue with bad design. I’ll explain.

Suppose I am a medical researcher testing a new fever-abating drug. I design an experiment thus: I will take so many feverish patients’ temperatures, administer the medication, and determine that if the patients’ temperature falls after they take the drug, the drug is effective. And if the patients’ temperature rises, I will also consider the drug effective. Should that happen, you would know I was doing something wrong. You would tell me that I had to choose. The drug may have no effect but, if it has one, it either raises or lowers temperature. In general, you can’t have it both ways.

I first heard from the media, including the highbrow media, that rising (manmade) hothouse gases —including CO2 — caused global temperatures to rise. It was called “global warming.” I recognized a familiar causal form: The more X, the more Y. That’s at the heart of the scientific endeavor, of course. Then, I heard on the occasion of several extreme winters somewhere or other that it was also true that the more hothouse gases, the lower the temperatures. I recognized the other familiar form. The more X, the less Y. If memory serves, that’s when “global warming” was replaced by the term “climate change.”

I did not bat much more than an eyelash at the juxtaposition of the two propositions: the more X, the more Y and, the more X, the less Y. That’s because these opposite relationships occur in nature (and also in society), arranged sequentially: If it’s cold in the morning, when the ambient temperature rises, I feel increasingly comfortable; past a certain point, however, as the temperature keeps rising, I feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Then, I was told that rising hothouse gases caused an unlimited number of categories of unpleasant meteorological events judged to be extreme by the unreliable yardstick of individual living memories (almost never with even a simple recourse to easily accessible archives such as those found in local newspapers). At that point — where I am now — the overall representation of aggregate alleged findings looks like this: The more X the more Y, and the more X the less Y, and the more X, the more W, and the more Z, and the more X, the more anything that’s objectionable to believers — all this, without apparent limit.

When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

I don’t know for sure if the absurd model above is true to what duly authorized scientists in the relevant disciplines would say. I wouldn’t know how to go about ascertaining this. And frankly, it’s not my job. I am only an alert, fairly well-informed consumer of this sort of information. I can’t even go to the general authority, the IPCC, for an answer. If I don’t understand this organization’s prose when it’s explicitly trying to communicate with laymen (see above, Part 1, under “Lack of Clarity”), surely I can’t explore abstract issues in its scientific reports.

By now, HCC apologists, I have lost faith in your capacity to do simple logic. That’s true no matter how many ad hoc explanations you mention to explain deviations from the starting proposition (the more hothouse gases, the warmer the globe becomes) in addition to the absurd expansion of the overall model I just described. I become especially worried if you seldom discuss this apparently faulty logic. When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

Measuring: The Thermometer Problem

Here is another simple but serious technical problem: in science, as when installing draperies at home, it’s very bad practice to switch measuring devices, or measurement procedures, in the middle of the job. That’s because different instruments may give different measurements in ways you don’t know. Take the medical experiment described above. Suppose you take the patients’ temperature rectally before administering the medication, and then take their temperature in the armpit at the end of the period of observation. Anything wrong? The former reading may be systematically higher or lower than the latter.

I have seen serious research published in a respected science magazine (not a scholarly journal) where annual temperatures are measured by reading tree rings (no objection) for most of the 19th century, and by reading scientific instruments from early in the 20th. Anything wrong, this time? Any reason to be suspicious? Surely tree rings are available for the 20th century. Tree ring-based measurements for that period could have been presented side by side with measurements produced with high-tech tools. I mean tree-ring measures in addition to them. It could even have been done in a footnote, or in a technical appendix, or on the magazine’s website, online, to save trees.

Arbitrary Period Sampling

Finally, still in the bad science category; this bad science may be performed mostly by nonscientists who report on what they think are scientific findings; I wouldn’t know. There is a problem of period sampling that plagues public declarations on global warming specifically. It’s conceptually difficult for most people, so don’t feel bad if you don’t grasp it, and just skip this section and move on. This part is not indispensable to the overall demonstration of the weakness of the HCC narrative.

It’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period.

The February 7, 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal — not usually a trumpet for the HCC narrative — has an inside page (A3) feature titled, “2018 Was Fourth-Warmest Year Since 1880.” That’s according to data from two federal bureaucracies “which track annual climate change” (“climate” not just temperature?) affirms the article. The feature includes three images covering three different time spans. I have to ask: Why is “fourth warmest” significant? And, especially, why since 1880? What’s special about that year? What would be the ranking of the year 2018 since 1890? Since 1860? Since 1990? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Why not since 1879? What would be lost in the demonstration by choosing this seemingly arbitrary year?

The logic problem is this: give me reasonable variation in the thing being observed and give me enough possible periods of observation, and I can create an impression supporting almost any assertion. The number of separate periods of observation available between 1800 (an artificial date for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and 2019 veers toward infinity. It’s like this: 1800–1801, 1800–1802; 1802–1803; 1800–1850; 1800–1851, 1852–1873, beginning of 1800 to mid-1800, and so forth. Let’s now limit ourselves to ten-year periods of observation, for some imaginary legitimate scientific reason. The number of resulting periods now available is reduced, but it remains very large, like this: 1800–1809; 1801–1810; 1802–1811, 1803–1812, etc.

With such an abundance of periods of observation to pick from, and with vagueness about what constitutes a record, it’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period. This looseness allows for massive cherrypicking: “Hottest year in two years, in three years, in the four years between ___ and ___.” What would happen if a contrarian cherrypicked the coldest years for some period of observation chosen to optimize the impression that global temperatures are actually dropping? I myself lived through the two coldest hours in central California in 30 years. Should I contend it’s relevant to something or other? How long does a period of observation have to be, to make it legitimate? Can it be chosen any old way? Is the answer to both questions: whatever suits my purpose?

Well, here we go, from the Wall Street Journal again: “For the first time in at least 132 years, the temperature didn’t hit 70 degrees in downtown Los Angeles, in February.” Global cooling at work! (“California’s Weather Cycles,” unsigned editorial, March 4, 2019.)

It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything.

Of course, the images accompanying the February 7 Wall Street Journal feature — though they are difficult to read together or in conjunction with the story — lend the whole thing an appearance of seriousness, of scientificity (I know I just made up this word; it deserves to exist.) A normal reading of the whole newspaper item by a normally intelligent but normally busy citizen will add some credence to the oft-repeated assertion that there is overwhelming evidence in support of the climate change narrative. It shouldn’t; it doesn’t; it’s just anecdotes until demonstrated otherwise.

I have no objection in principle to declaring contrary events meaningless, like this: the accumulation of CO2 gradually raises global temperatures in the long run. A few extremely cold weeks in the American Midwest in winter, 2018–2019, are just glitches that don’t undermine the validity of the general statement above. Someone has to make the declaration explicitly and also consider publicly the possibility than an extremely hot summer in the US in 2008, or in another year, may likewise be just a glitch — and that the hottest summer on record seems to have occurred in 1936, before the accumulated emission of CO2 was much advanced. I would even expect some respectable spokesperson to contradict aloud the multitude of untrained voices clamoring that two hot summers necessarily prove that climate change, etc.

Missing Links?

Sometimes I wonder if there may be somewhere a piece of research of good quality asserting that most climate scientists are skeptical that there is significant climate change, or that it’s caused by human activity, or that we need to worry about it right now. If there happened to be one such piece, would I know about it? I am pondering the likelihood that it would come to my attention without my actively looking for it. There is a good place to look: the contrarian website Watts Up With That. The website is presented on Wikipedia in mostly derogatory terms. Why would that be? Seekers of balance may be outnumbered and not be able to keep up with “crowd” contributed changes in the relevant Wikipedia entry or entries, changes that nearly anyone can effect. Note that this scenario does not require a conventional conspiracy, just plural enthusiasm.

I also ask myself what is the probability that such a piece of research could actually be published in any refereed journal, with all the advantages such publication confers in terms of credibility. I have to ask, for two reasons. The first is that refereed journals have a well-documented anti-negative bias. Other things being equal, a submission that claims that something happens has a better chance of making it through the refereeing process than one that announces that, on the contrary, nothing of the sort happens.

I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced.

Here is my second reason to doubt: I suspect there exists a well-established, high-brow, politically correct orthodoxy that makes it difficult to consider, process, and finally accept even a very well-constructed scholarly paper denying the reality, source, or importance of climate change. It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything. This is true even when they don’t object to the reasons for which the retraction is requested. (See, for example, “Confirmation Bias Hurts Social Science,” by Robert P. George, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019, A15.)

I spent 30 years in American academia. I have witnessed there the construction of intellectual orthodoxies from their earliest beginnings. I have suffered from some of them (not much), and I may have benefited from one. It happened in and around the discipline of sociology — which has a reputation for being soft, it’s true, though it’s a reputation that has not been much deserved for 30 years. I am not pointing here to the kind of cynical publication conspiracy I evoke elsewhere but to smaller, more tacit cultural movements within academic subspecialties. Such orthodoxies regularly emerge spontaneously and aboveboard. They do not require bad consciousness from believers. Some may even be inherently virtuous.

So, if I were not a skeptic, I would have to believe that given its scarcity in scholarly journals there is no good research on the other side of the HCC narrative divide regarding the credibility of all, or even of part, of this narrative. Is this possible, I ask? It seems to me that to raise the question is to answer it. This section is somewhat subjective. I don’t expect it directly to change anyone’s mind. It’s useful to raise the issue though. At least it can hurt no one, except the devout.

Unused Usable Metrics

I wrote above of the importance of proper measurement and of the possible suppression of non-conforming information. The two ideas blend with respect to the matter of uninterrupted series of measurement going back a long time that are readily available but seem mysteriously absent from the public discussion of climate change.

Little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations.

One of the most dramatic features of the HCC narrative is the purported rise of the ocean. In the past five years, a good consumer of news, I have seen two sorts of very different expressions of the assertion. One is the kind of imagery in which a guy in a loincloth stands up to his belly in seawater while telling us that he used to help his father when he was a kid grow taro exactly where his feet are now placed. (Seen in the old and lovely French television series “Thalassa”; it was taking place in some remote island in French Polynesia.) The second kind of measure related to the rise of the ocean with which I am familiar involves esoteric satellite metrics.

I dismiss the first kind of testimony out of hand because I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced. I hold the second kind in high regard, but it’s the sort of superstitious regard that was in the hearts of the first New Guineans who saw an airplane. I am incompetent to judge myself, and I don’t know what or who is competent, to vouch for those measurements. And no, I don’t suspect a monstrous plot to feed us false and alarming measurements. I suspect instead a great deal of collective self-indulgence if the measurements are the least bit ambiguous. (And wouldn’t they often be ambiguous, I inquire — naively, to be sure?)

I also have some conceptual trouble with the impression that little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses (me) how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations. After all, it does not happen in my bathtub, or not for long. (Yes, the close proximity of references to “unwashed” and to “bathtub” is deliberate.)

Against this background, I have to ask why no one appears to be using the obvious to make the rise of the ocean obvious to rational nonspecialists like me. Here is a practical case in point. The English Channel and the North Sea are lined with nations possessing a long maritime past associated with an age-old economic dependence on fishing. Still today, thousands of small boats on both sides of the Channel go up and down entirely according to the tides. The same boats spend a significant portion of each year resting on muddy or sandy harbor bottoms during many low tides. In spite of the construction of convenient deep-water marinas everywhere, many pleasure boat owners, and some fishermen, still find their movements in and out of harbors constrained by a complex tide regimen. Until recently — in my lifetime — all boats in that region except the biggest naval ships were so constrained. Approximately the same situation prevails in the Baltic (which I don’t know as well). I am told it’s also true of Japan, of course. It’s probably the same on much of the Chinese and Korean coastlines facing the Japanese archipelago.

Almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

All the societies I mentioned have one thing in common besides their maritime positioning. They have all included fair numbers of literate people for a thousand years or more. Accordingly, in those with which I am a little familiar, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, there are detailed written records going back hundreds of years about conditions affecting the movements of boats and ships. These include water height on given dates at tight spots, which are largely the same as today. In some harbors, on both sides of the Channel, large iron spikes in seawalls mark record high tides.

This is all easily usable material and also convenient of access. To exploit it requires only inexpensive, low-tech methods (comparable to reading annual temperatures from tree rings). It would seem to be perfect raw material for many graduate students in search of data. The exploitation of individual records would not even need to be coordinated to contribute to our understanding. And finally, any such endeavor would have the immense advantage of being intuitively clear to ordinary, alert people. It’s mysterious why none of this seems to have been undertaken. Perhaps it’s considered superfluous to be clear to the rank and file on this issue also.

But maybe the kind of studies I long for have actually been done, and they escaped my attention. If that’s true, I must ask why? I explained above, when presenting my credentials, that I am literate, very interested, and well connected to the media. If I failed to notice such intuitively accessible research, how many other, responsible parties also did? Whose fault?

Partial Solutions Missing

HCC narrative advocates seldom propose reasonable partial solutions to the greenhouse effect that do not require government intervention or any sort of centralization of power. Also, almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

HCC believers do diffusely promote a handful of tiny personal solutions that have the merit of making individuals feel virtuous but that cannot make a dent on disasters of the magnitude they predict. Those include, for example, biking to work (I don’t knock it; it’s good for the bikers; it helps to alleviate traffic congestion), and buying electric cars. (I understand that these are marginally less polluting than contemporary internal combustion vehicles, when you take into account the processes by which electricity powering them is produced.) When it comes to big, non-government global-level efforts, I hear only silence.

Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation.

I am wondering, for example, how difficult it would be to plant two additional billion trees each year (20 billion in ten years). Supposing that half survive after two years, the world would still have an additional ten billion CO2 reducers. Any semblance of success would probably create a salutary contagion to repeat the process. Perhaps this number, ten billion, is too low to make a difference, but some number of trees must be able to mitigate the existing CO2 emissions, or begin to. I don’t know what the number is, but I am sure that every little bit helps and that trees are cheap. A Swiss scientist, John Christian, claimed recently that 1.2 additional trillion trees would absorb all (current) emissions. If half the current residents of the earth (roughly) each planted 15 trees every year, we would be there in 20 years, without major transformation of society, or mass impoverishment (but this assumes that CO2 emissions were kept at the current levels). It all seems feasible, if there’s enough space available. The same Swiss author affirms that there is. I couldn’t check.

Whatever would be a useful number, I am also certain that planting billions can be done in a decentralized manner, even on a personal basis, in the absence of a permanent organization, without resorting to the coercive power of government. Individuals, including schoolchildren, households, clubs, affinity groups, could do it on their own and at their own pace. Billionaire philanthropists would be glad to pay for the saplings, I think. (They would cost about a quarter each, wholesale.) Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation, because everyone likes trees. A single family in Brazil planted more than two million trees in eight years.[1]

Globally, there are plenty of vacant lots, urban rooftops, roadside paths, rights-of-way (such as abandoned railroad tracks), and other unused land available for planting. Most of the US, most of Canada, much of South America, most of Australia, and most of Russia are nearly empty. Not all of this land is already covered by forest, and the density of trees could be improved in much of it. Even China, even Japan have mountainous areas unsuitable for agriculture, some not already forested. In some developed, old industrialized countries, such as France, close to major CO2 pollution, former agricultural land is quickly returning to wilderness. (In about 80 years in the 20th century, French forests increased by 50% as a result of the abandonment of agriculturally marginal lands. {B. Cinotti, Évolution des surfaces boisées en France: proposition de reconstitution depuis le début du XIXe siècle [1996].) Spontaneous reforestation in such areas could simply be helped along by volunteer actions. The same is true for other parts of Europe. Remember that if HCC is really global, trees planted anywhere at all are somewhat helpful. We might also try to open a worldwide subscription, a vast GoFundMe to purchase and maintain more expensive nut and fruit-bearing trees. NGOs could give them outright to villagers in the Sahel without otherwise intruding in local affairs. This enterprise would get us a two for one: less CO2 globally, and a rampart against further desertification locally.

My own skepticism about the HCC narrative would not prevent me from subscribing to such pleasant, optimistic, and joyful endeavors. (I would hope there would be a humble “Delacroix Grove” somewhere, of course.)

It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here.

I raise the idea of planting trees because we have now nearly forgotten that CO2 is also plant food. It’s common knowledge and (as far as I understand) still undisputed that trees can consume large quantities of CO2. Strangely, I almost never hear this fact mentioned anywhere in my casual, haphazard following of diverse media. The only time in several years when I have come across the idea that rising temperatures and especially rising CO2 levels are both separately beneficial to plant food production was in an item apparently smuggled into the pages of a small (circulation 45,000) conservative weekly, the Washington Examiner. (“Scientists: CO2 the ‘miracle molecule’ key to feeding the world,” February 26, 2019.)

It’s a mystery why the kind of proposal exemplified by my tree planting scenario has not already been pushed vigorously. I am thinking of the likes of National Geographic, which never publishes a single issue lacking some sort of catastrophic climate prediction. It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here, or unless climate change is relevant to something else, something I can only guess at. The list of potential nongovernmental remedies to increasing CO2 emissions appears endless to me. Why doesn’t it seem to occur to Green activists? Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

What’s Going On?

Of course, I have been asking myself what accounts for the viciousness, the ludicrousness, the gobbledygook, the inconsistencies, the bad faith, and the plain deceitfulness, which the social movement that has grown around the HCC narrative demonstrates so frequently. The attachment to bad scientific presentation and, to some extent, to bad scientific practice by those who ought to know better perplexed me for a long time.

For several years, I told myself that the Green opinion current was made up of amiable, foo-foo headed treehuggers, plus some disappointed or disoriented leftists. When they started to make demands that governments should impose big, significant restrictions on nonbelievers — on everyone, indeed — I thought they would eventually go away. I scoffed at Al Gore’s crude, mendacious movie An Inconvenient Truth. But some around me treated it with complete seriousness. As the Green voices became increasingly shrill, I began to get a sense of déjà vu. I realized little by little that I had been there before, perhaps even twice.

Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

When I was growing up in France, in the ’40s and ’50s, the French Communist Party regularly pulled more than 20% of the votes in legislative elections. It was always the first, second, or third largest party. Communist leaders were everywhere in the newspaper and on the radio. My family’s aspiring middle-class apartment block was next to a blue-collar block where everyone was a Communist, a fellow traveler, or else kept quiet. Of course, I went to elementary school with children from that block and I knew some of their parents. Truth be told, in many ways they were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of the Communists lived by faith alone. Looking back on them, it seems to me that eight out of ten Communists were naive True Believers (I use the words as Eric Hoffer did in his book by that title [1951]), vaguely hoping for a better life and for abstractly defined “social justice” They put their faith in Comrade Stalin, and in his dwarfish deputies in their own country. The cult of personality was out in the open, unabashed, and it borrowed openly from familiar forms of religious devoutness. (Some of my neighbors even lowered their voices piously when they mentioned His name.) They thought that soon, very soon, France would become a fair society, as the Soviet Union already was.

Of every ten Communists whom I knew or knew of, one was a determined and cynical seeker of power, and another was in transition. The Communists, in the papers, on radio, and on the street, treated viciously those they considered their class enemies (not me, for sure). Their faith in the Soviet Union and in the forthcoming Communist utopia was ludicrous. They seemed to speak two languages. Their everyday language was normal; I mean that it was like mine. Yet when they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

There were even evening Party schools that young adults attended, just to be able to understand the esoteric language of “dialectical materialism.” Some just pretended. Attendance at the schools was a requirement for good Party standing. In their second language, the Party-Marxist talk, they made no sense whatsoever. But then, neither I nor most of my friends understood Mass Latin.

The Communists always left some things out of their description of the Soviet paradise, small things such as famines, mass arrests, and concentration camps. (The latter were well known already in the ’50s.) When confronted with contrary facts, they first insulted viciously; then they just lied. It appears that the lies were enough to stop sufficient numbers of followers from asking further questions. The French Communist leadership came and went, but there was never any grand moment or reckoning. Unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself (under Khrushchev), the French Party never said, “We were wrong on this and that.” Communists and fellow travelers had such influence on attitudes and language (same thing in the long run) that by the time I was 18, being overtly anti-Communist constituted a kind of social death. Only two brave French public intellectuals stood firm throughout (Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel).

In many ways the Communists were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of them lived by faith alone.

The Communist Party as a political force eventually almost disappeared through attrition, leaving behind little left-wing parties composed of those who had parted company at various times, and of those who were excluded for ideological sins. The remnants of the Party and its leftovers keep re-supplying a foul residue of vague and murky statism. They have been poisoning the French political discourse ever since. In the current (2018–2019) “yellow vests” crisis in France, participants are even unable to voice their demands in other than vulgar Marxist terms. I believe the French Communist Party and its offshoots destroyed long ago the conceptual vocabulary the protesters would now need.

Of course, French Communists — adopting Karl Marx’s shameless claim — contended that their analysis (of society) was “scientific.” (Scientism had long been a source of holiness.) The scientific pretension was their quick path to inexorability. Incidentally, they believed and declared that their actions would save not only themselves but the whole of humanity. (Little philosophical problem here: the victory of communism is inevitable, but our deeds are necessary to its victory. This probably requires a little muscular persuasion.) I believe, however, it never even crossed their minds to affirm that their actions would save Mother Earth herself. They were a backward lot, you might say.

The HCC narrative promoters promise us worse than hell on earth, the end of earth itself — if we don’t take on an emergency-basis step that entails a massive enlargement of government relative to the rest of society, and an increase of several orders of magnitude in the coercion applied to ordinary people. The solutions proposed also constitute a kind of drastic deindustrialization. They would cause large-scale impoverishment in the prosperous countries and a diminished likelihood that poor countries would ever achieve the prosperity of currently advanced ones. The only political processes imaginable to implement the key propositions associated with the HCC narrative involve a hefty form of authoritarianism and the suppression of dissenting forces, as well as a fair degree of popular participation. That’s a textbook definition of fascism, of course. (Maybe, see my “Fascism Explained.”) This is not a difficult guess, as the process is observable already in attenuated forms in several countries.

The authoritarianism I forecast does not come out of my imagination. The impeccably democratically chosen Chancellor Merkel decided pretty much on her own that Germany must abandon the production of electricity from fossil fuels within a few years, starting immediately. She also decreed the rapid closure of nuclear plants. She could do all this in spite of predictable hardships the decisions would entail because a large fraction of German public opinion was already persuaded of the imminent danger global warming posed. (The discussion of the dangers of nuclear energy had been closed long before.) Chancellor Merkel’s decisions trod on minorities of opinion in a manner reminiscent of the crushing of the religiously unorthodox everywhere. (To be fair, she did not propose to burn anyone at the stake.) The moral weight of electoral majorities, and even of simple pluralities, was in this case sufficient to begin the dismantling of the admirable edifice of centuries of German effort and ingenuity.[2]

When they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

In its most extreme manifestations, the HCC narrative and its policy implications look like the latest avatar (but not the last avatar, surely) of the same strand of authoritarian collectivism that appeared before as Communism, and in various other brands of Fascism. And like the narratives of these other millenarian social movements, the HCC narrative has a pronounced religious character.

New or Old Cult?

The parallel between the climate change movement and Christianity has been drawn many times, by me and others. After all, the movement has its dogma, a hatred of heretics sometimes bordering on the murderous, repeated attempts to remand heretics to the “secular arm” — government — for legal punishment, and a strong sense of individual sin. It also traffics constantly in apocalyptic imagery.

But I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion. It harbors no idea of individual redemption, it has no Messiah, and, certainly, it entertains no nonsense about God becoming human and thus exalting Man. Its deity does not heed the prayers of the faithful, but yet demands from them complete and exclusive submission. It does seem to respond to incantations (in the mass media). It craves sacrifices. When I see two middle-class parents each towing a toddler in tiny trailers behind their bikes, near blacktop-level, at night, sharing the street with old men in trucks, I think Moloch, I think Baal. The stern but caring God of the New Testament is nowhere to be seen. And Jesus seems to have gone home early.

Note, please, that if all the HCC models are factually correct and if all the predictions they entail are also, it does not negate the religious character of the corresponding movement. It’s just that the more obviously true the HCC statements of all kinds are to ordinary people, the more superfluous is the religiosity attached to the movement.

Where Do I Stand?

In the end, am I deeply convinced that there is no climate change caused by human activity that demands quick solutions?

I am not. I am not convinced of anything, at this point. All it would take is exposure to one good document, to several good discussions, preferably ones with an overall design that does not betray basic logic, to make me fall off the high stool of my skepticism. The discussions would have to be principled, along traditional lines, fairly respectful of the presentation of opposite viewpoints. They would incorporate no insults and no condemnations of a quasi-religious nature. They would take place in the local vernaculars of ordinary educated people rather than scientific and pseudoscientific jargon. I must admit that I fear it may be too late to hope for any of this, because so many careers are at stake. I would like to be wrong, though.

I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion.

Even a single good book, a clear, well organized book, would do it for me. But the last good books I read on environmental issues are old. One is Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (2012), which does not directly address the HCC narrative though it has much to say about climate. The other is the statistician Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). Lomborg currently accepts the main tenets of the HCC narrative but he agrees with almost none of what the movement presents as its unavoidable policy implications.

Concretely, it would take two or three steps to undermine my skepticism.

First, I would have to become convinced that the earth has been warming abnormally, based on all that we know of past temperatures. I am not even convinced that it has been warming abnormally in recent years — because of a few inconvenient scattered facts. One is that Greenland was warmer during the 1000–1200 period than it is now. I gleaned this by reading the same environmental activist and serious intellectual Jared Diamond. Here is what I gathered from his best-seller, The World Until Yesterday: the Norse settlers of Greenland ate significant quantities of beef. Now, it seems to me that there were only two possible sources for that beef. Either they imported mature cattle for butchering from Iceland or from Norway in large numbers, in their little boats, or they raised cattle right in Greenland. The first explanation I discount as technically and economically untenable. So the Norse evidently raised cattle in a part of the world where you could not do it now. You could not because Greenland is too cold to produce the hay necessary to feed cattle during its long winter season. Greenland was warmer then than it is after nearly two centuries of big human CO2 emissions. I am pretty sure Norse peat fires were not at fault.

Second, one would have to demonstrate to me the likelihood of a causal link between CO2 emission and warming. I am too moderate to ask for actual proof. Fairly tight coincidence in time between the two variables — with the purported cause preceding the alleged effect — will not kill my skepticism outright, but it will give me pause. Of course, no trick, no hockey stick! All the data available must be used, or a good reason provided as to why they are not. The consequences of not using all data available must be carefully and frankly explored and explained.

If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!”

In the above, substitute any reasonable variable connected to the climate for “warming” or “temperature,” if you please. “Frequency of extreme weather events” would be conceptually fine with me but I warn you it’s a can of definitional worms! It’s the kind with which HCC advocates have not been dealing too well as a far as I am concerned.

After accomplishing the above, HCC narrative promoters must provide some verifiable metric prediction that’s truly dreadful if they want me to even consider the possibility of adopting any part of their lethal agenda of authoritarian deindustrialization. I warn you, HCC militants: if you warn me that average global temperature will be 2 degrees centigrade higher in 50 years, I won’t care. If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!” You are demanding of this citizen something extremely alarming. Your admonitions have to be irresistibly alarming.

I would also be more likely to pay attention if the bright features of climate change were mentioned more often. It would be nice if those who did it were famous exponents of HCC. It would be even nicer if they had scholarly credentials. (I can imagine teams made up of one scholar and of one famous, trusted media person.)

Finally, it would help the credibility of HCC declaimers if, once in a while, they reached out and made a public example of the myriads of enthusiastic, ignorant fools who at all times babble irresponsibly and without foundation about climate change.

Oh, and I almost forgot, no more of the kind of vicious insults historically associated with religious fanaticism!

Been There?

Filling my mind with any sense of urgency is going to take some doing anyway, because of past experiences. I was a young adult in the good old days of the Club of Rome and of Paul Ehrlich’s glory. The first published The Limits to Growth in 1972, promising us a series of calamities, and especially of famines, if we did not change our ways radically. We did not. Global food production increased radically instead. The consensus of the Club of Rome was if anything more impressive than the HCC consensus. It included just about everyone who counted — scientists, of course, other kinds of scholars, business decision makers, prominent politicians.

Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

The entomologist and mite specialist Ehrlich (also a Nobel Prize winner, but not in anything related to climate disciplines) had earlier also promised famines, due to overpopulation. His 1968 book The Population Bomb began with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” (Emphasis mine.) Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

Ehrlich was wrong; the Club of Rome was wrong. The former continued his distinguished academic career at Stanford University pretty much as if the facts had proven him right and the earth had swallowed hundreds of millions of victims of hunger. The Club of Rome is still in existence. It’s a well-funded, apparently respected organization.

Of necessity, dire predictions pertaining to global warming ensued. According to AP’s Peter John Spielman, in 1989 a senior UN environmental official declared that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000”! (“Notable and Quotable: Warming.” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2019, A17.) I observe with interest that in that early case, the time allotted to remedy the situation did not even reach 12 years; it was only 10.5 years!

That previous apocalyptic narratives with an environmentalist inspiration were wrong, that no one stood up to apologize, does not prove that the current HCC narrative is also wrong. Still, experience should inspire intellectual prudence. Given those past fiascoes — in addition to the enormous stakes involved — rigorous, critical scrutiny is in order. The more esoteric the topic, the more removed from the average citizen’s competence, the more exigent must one be with respect to the general credibility of the exponents of the narrative. Collectively HCC narrative activists have low credibility, in my estimation. That’s why I think there is no reason to worry right now. The HCC narrative still bears watching, though, just in case proponents of the HCC narrative clean up their act and turn out believable. But using the very numbers that they, the HCC proponents provide, it’s still hard to see how all human CO2 emissions together, plus cow burps and flatulence, can do much damage to our atmosphere, compared to your medium-size volcanic eruption, or even to three consecutive above-average El Niños.

How About You?

I mean you, supporters of the human-caused disastrous climate change narrative, you who assess the evidence supporting the narrative as overwhelming, you who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

I believe it’s up to those who would upend our pretty good civilization to persuade me, without appeal to the sort of quasi-religious abracadabra we left behind in the 18th century. I refuse to put to sleep my rationality and even my common sense before unverifiable claims of expertise. I also don’t want to be forced to master arcane areas of the physical sciences just to be able to stop my government from doing something irreversibly destructive. That’s not too much to ask.

You who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

Personally, I would like to walk away from the messy and often acrimony-inducing issue of climate change. I can’t afford this luxury because I am afraid that someone is going to do something with it that’s incredibly stupid and harmful to me and mine.

P.S.: If you are attracted to the minutiae of climate research and if you want a reliable source of detailed, quantitative, scientific contrarian information about the HCC narrative, you may wish to visit this blog. That outfit has posted a globe displaying a number of graphs summarizing much climate information, including some severely at variance with the popular version of the HCC narrative. And Wikipedia in French (for some reason) has published a list of credentialed experts who have expressed skepticism about HCC. I have not checked its credibility; I probably wouldn’t know how. The list includes Nobel winner Gary Becker of the University of Chicago.


[1] Somewhere in India, 1.5 million volunteers are supposed to have planted 66 million trees in one hour. That would be 660 million in ten hours, or in one hour by 15 million volunteers. I don’t know if the story is true; it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records. If it is true, it makes my proposal look ridiculously humble.

[2] No one should lament too much the fate of the German populace shivering in their cold dark houses as a result of Chancellor Merkel’s suddenly decreed switch to so-called “renewable energies” (i.e., minus nuclear). In 2018, the German government discreetly began buying electricity from plants across its southwestern border. The French plants there are powered by coal. One may thus add official hypocrisy to the list of virtues associated with the implementation of an HCC inspired agenda.




Share This


Take Me to Your Libertarians

 | 

Just when I was in despair about the world’s declining interest in libertarianism, my hopes have been revived.

Patrick Byrne, a libertarian billionaire, has made news by announcing that he developed a relationship with a woman named Maria Butina, a Russian who is now in an American prison for having failed to register as a foreign agent. According to journalist Sara Carter,

Butina . . . told Byrne, that [Alexander] Torshin, the Russian politician who [sic] she had been assisting while she was in the U.S., had sent her to the United States to meet other libertarians and build relations with political figures. She repeated to him numerous times that she was not a spy, even when he directly asked her.

Whether she was a spy or not, the idea is flattering to libertarians, as is the interest purportedly taken by the American government in such doings. According to Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll,

At some point prior to the 2016 election, when Byrne’s contact with Maria diminished or ceased, the government asked and encouraged him to renew contact with her and he did so, continuing to inform the government of her activities. Byrne states he was informed by government agents that his pursuit and involvement with Maria (and concomitant surveillance of her) was requested and directed from the highest levels of the FBI and intelligence community.

Well, there you have it. Libertarians are more interesting than they think. Do you know who your friends really are?




Share This


Did Anyone Ask for an Encore?

 | 

July 30. Another debate among ten Democrats: more of the same, piled higher and deeper.

Bernie Sanders, the white-haired Vermont Castro, was at it again, promising to save the exploited Americans. If Elizabeth Warren was for canceling 95% of student debt, Bernie was for canceling all of it. Bernie’s “Medicare for all” was really for all, whether they wanted it or not. And when challenged by Representative Tim Ryan on whether he could assure union members in Michigan that their government benefits would be as good as the private ones they have now, Bernie said his plan would cover medical, dental, and vision benefits with no copays, no deductibles, and no premiums.

Free medicine!

“You don’t know that,” Ryan said.

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable.

“I wrote the bill,” Sanders said snippily. Later he grumbled, “I get a little bit tired of Democrats who are afraid of big ideas.”

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable. The oil companies, he said, were criminal. When asked about his socialism, he dodged the question, but if you listened to his words you could hear it. He declared, “For 45 years the working class has been decimated.” He said he would “take on the greed and corruption of the ruling class.”

Working class. Ruling class.

Closest to him was Elizabeth Warren. Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” she dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism. Instead, she bragged about taking on the giant banks. She promised “big structural change.”

Warren said her “green industrial policy” would provide $2 trillion for “green research.” She said this would “create 1.2 million industrial jobs,” many of them right there in Michigan and Ohio. Industrial jobs. Nobody jumped on her for this.

Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” Warren dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism.

Warren argued that US trade policy had been written “by and for” the multinational corporations. “We’re going to negotiate our deals with farmers, union people, and human rights advocates at the table.” Of foreign countries, she said, “Let’s make ’em raise their standards before they come to us and want to sell their products.”

I recall Bill Clinton breezing into the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999 and insisting on putting labor and environment into trade agreements. I remember the reaction of the Pakistani delegates. They didn’t want it. They resented it. They thought of it as a rich country making impossible demands of them in order to placate rich, overfed workers. Later Obama did get some labor and environmental stuff into trade agreements, but the critics said they didn’t amount to much. I never investigated this, but was inclined to believe it because the only standards other countries would be likely to accept would be ones that didn’t amount to much.

Essentially, Warren was proposing to put people in trade negotiations who were interested in other causes — to subordinate the trade between A and B to the political demands of C. This is not a proposal of someone who cares about trade or the rights of people to engage in it.

When several of the candidates denounced tariffs as taxes, Warren said that modern trade agreements are not mostly about tariffs, but about corporate claims to profits. She didn’t say “intellectual property,” but that’s what she was talking about: movies, music, software, biotechnology. She spoke as if ownership of these things were a concern to corporate bosses only, and not to the Americans who created them. She made her position clear: She was not going to protect any of this stuff.

Buttigieg said “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties.

Another issue was reparations for slavery — an idea I believe would be as deeply unpopular as busing. Only a handful of the Democratic contenders were for them — no surprise there — but no one denounced them. For that matter, no candidate dared denounce any “progressive” idea about race. Sanders was asked why he opposed paying reparations in cash. His answer wasn’t too clear — he was not comfortable with the issue — but it seemed that he wanted any such money to be spent by the government rather than by private citizens.

Marianne Williamson, the candidate of “deep truth telling,” was asked how she decided $500 billion was the morally correct amount of racial reparations. Her answer was that it was the politically possible amount; the morally correct amount was larger.

Others made bows to the Left without embracing the particular idea. Pete Buttigieg made a point of saying, “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” and I wanted to ask, “everything?” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties. Beto O’Rourke insisted that America’s wealth was built on the backs of slaves, but he’s another white guy, and from an old Confederate state. It is obvious to me that race relations have improved a whole lot in my lifetime, but nobody said that.

In the June debates, O’Rourke had annoyed me more than any of the others because he kept dodging the moderators’ questions. Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it. On July 30 O’Rourke did it again. He also said “in this country” a lot. I had never taken notice of that phrase before Liberty editor Stephen Cox groused about it in a column last year; but since then it has been a fly in the ear. In his closing statement, O’Rourke said “in this country” at least three times. He also used the word “winning” over and over in describing a political campaign in Texas, which he lost.

Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it.

O’Rourke is a no-hoper, which pleases me a lot, as does the coming exit of the touchy-feely Marianne Williamson. Some of the other no-hopers I liked a little better. John Delaney said he would get America to “zero carbon” by 2050 — an imaginable time, at least — through technical innovation, creating a “market for carbon capture,” and “investing in people and entrepreneurs.” It was grandiose stuff, but even using the word “entrepreneurs” was notable in this crowd. Another no-hoper, Hickenlooper, said again that he had no interest in a “Green New Deal” that would offer everyone a government job — and I noted that none of the others came to the defense of guaranteed government jobs. Amy Klobuchar said again that she had no interest in handing out free college tuition to rich kids. But these are all no-hopers, and soon will be gone, along with Tim Ryan and Scott Bullock.

Of this group we will have Sanders and Warren, and maybe Buttigieg for a while.

* * *

July 31. Two and a half more hours. Since June, nine hours of Democrats.

It was some relief that the final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America. Joe Biden, no doubt mouthing a line prepared by his consultants, said of America and Donald Trump, “We love it, we’re not leaving it, we’re here to stay and we’re certainly not leaving it with you.”

Biden and Kamala Harris resumed their fight. In June Harris attacked Biden for having opposed forced busing sometime in the last century. Perhaps realizing that moving school children around like pieces of furniture is not a popular idea, Harris opposes it now. Yet, she said, “The vice president has still failed to acknowledge that he was wrong to take that position at that time.” And why was busing a better idea then? She didn’t say, and Biden, having had a whole month to defend his opposition to busing, didn’t dare. Instead he said Harris had been attorney general of California for eight years and had had done nothing about the “segregated” schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America.

On medical insurance, Biden hammered Harris because her plan would allow private coverage for only 10 years, and then ban it. Harris hammered Biden because his plan would leave out 10 million Americans. That’s 3% of the population — and which 3% is it? The poor? Medicaid covers the poor. The old? Medicare covers them. Who, then? Criminals? Rich people? People between jobs? Illegal immigrants? No one explained this.

I didn’t like Kamala Harris. She seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her. I liked it when the Girl Scoutish Tulsi Gabbard accused Harris, former attorney general of California, of putting “1,500 people in jail for marijuana offenses.” Harris was quick to tell other candidates that they had their facts wrong, but she didn’t contradict Gabbard. Of course Harris is for marijuana legalization now; she is as progressive as she needs to be.

Regarding immigration, Biden was asked about the 800,000 illegals who were deported in the first two years of the Obama-Biden administration. If you cross over illegally, he said, “you should be able to be sent back.”

Most of the candidates were not for sending illegals back. Bill DeBlasio asked Biden whether he had used his power as vice president to try and stop the deportations — a question that opened up a pit to fall in on either a yes or a no. Biden was careful not to answer yes or no. One of his responses was, “If you say you can just cross the border, what do you say to the people around the world standing in line?” That’s a reference to people around the world who have filed the papers to immigrate to America and are waiting their turn under their country quota. I know people who waited 10 years, and they have no sympathy for “queue jumpers” who climb over the wall and insist on being admitted immediately.

Kamala Harris seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her.

Andrew Yang, the man with no necktie, was still pushing his nutty idea of giving everyone $1,000 a month. I recalled a documentary about open heroin use in Vancouver, B.C., where the drug addicts all line up on Welfare Wednesday to get their checks from the Canadian government. (It’s on YouTube.) Other than that, I rather liked Andrew Yang. He’s upbeat, and he’s from the private sector. He argued that tying medical insurance to employment makes it harder to start companies, harder to hire, and harder to switch jobs. Decouple insurance from work, he said, “and watch entrepreneurship recover and bloom.” At least this man knows and cares about the process of creating real work, which so many of the other Democrats do not.

Yang also said the most sensible thing that evening about climate change. Jay Inslee had insisted, “We have to act now. We have to get off coal in ten years,” and the other candidates promised this, that, and the other. But Yang pointed out that carbon dioxide is a global problem, and that America is only 15% of it. Every politician offering a big plan assumes his big plan will work. Yang’s unpolitical answer was, “Start moving our people to higher ground.”

If Biden had said this, it would have been a sensation. When Yang said it, nobody cared.

Well, Yang will be gone soon enough, as will the windbag de Blasio, who bellowed twice that he would “tax the hell out of the wealthy,” and Cory Booker, who enunciates as if he’s talking to someone partially deaf, and Kirsten Gillibrand, whose every statement was about women, and Julian Castro, who can’t make up his mind whether he lives in the land of opportunity or the land of “Americans who are hurting.”

And at least seven of them said “in this country” at least once. Buzz, buzz, buzz.




Share This

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.