Quotulatiousness

April 17, 2014

Nevada standoff and the rule of law

Filed under: Environment, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:25

I haven’t been following the situation in Nevada between the armed forces of the Bureau of Land Management and the armed citizenry in support of rancher Cliven Bundy, but while my sympathies normally go toward the individual rather than the state, this case doesn’t appear to be clear-cut (and Bundy is clearly in violation of the law to some degree). Kevin Williamson seems to be in the same general state of mind:

Deserts always feel like my natural habitat, and I am very fond of them. That being said, I have, for my sins, spent a fair amount of time in Clark County, Nev., and it is not the loveliest stretch of desert in these United States, or even in the top twelve. Protecting the pristine beauty of the sun-baked and dust-caked outskirts of Las Vegas and its charismatic fauna from grazing cattle — which the Bureau of Land Management seems to regard as an Old Testament plague — seems to me to be something less than a critical national priority. At the same time, the federal government’s fundamental responsibility, which is defending the physical security of the country, is handled with remarkable nonchalance: Millions upon millions upon millions of people have crossed our borders illegally and continue to reside within them. Cliven Bundy’s cattle are treated as trespassers, and federal agents have been dispatched to rectify that trespass; at the same time, millions of illegal aliens present within our borders are treated as an inevitability that must be accommodated. In practice, our national borders are a joke, but the borders of that arid haven upon which ambles the merry Mojave desert tortoise are sacrosanct.

[...]

The relevant facts are these: 1) Very powerful political interests in Washington insist upon the scrupulous enforcement of environmental laws, and if that diminishes the interests of private property owners, so much the better, in their view. 2) Very powerful political interests in Washington do not wish to see the scrupulous enforcement of immigration laws, and if that undercuts the bottom end of the labor market or boosts Democrats’ long-term chances in Texas, so much the better, in their view.

This isn’t the rule of law. This is the rule of narrow, parochial, self-interested political factions masquerading as the rule of law.

If we are to have the rule of law, then, by all means, let’s have the rule of law: Shut down those federal subsidies and IRS penalties in states that did not create their own exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — the law plainly does not empower the federal government to treat federal exchanges identically to state exchanges. And let’s enforce the ACA’s deadlines with the same scrupulosity with which the IRS enforces its deadlines. Let’s see Lois Lerner and a few hundred IRS employees thrown in the hole for their misappropriation of federal resources, lying to Congress, etc. — and let’s at least look into prosecuting some elected Democrats for suborning those actions. And if you want to get to the real problem with illegal immigration, let’s frog-march a few CEOs, restaurateurs, and small-time contractors off to prison for violating our immigration laws — and they can carry a GM product-safety manager and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration executive under each arm. Let’s talk about enumerated powers.

H/T to Jon, my former virtual landlord, for the link.

April 1, 2014

Losing a debate? Demand that your opponents be locked up!

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:57

Not, I’m afraid, an April Fool’s Day story:

Finally, someone has come up with a way to settle the debate over climate change: Put the people on the wrong side of the argument in cages.

A writer for the website Gawker recently penned a self-described “rant” on the pressing need to arrest, charge and imprison people who “deny” global warming. In fairness, Adam Weinstein doesn’t want mass arrests (besides, in a country where only 44% of Americans say there is “solid evidence” of global warming and it’s mostly due to human activity, you can’t round up every dissenter). Fact-checking scientists are spared. So is “the man on the street who thinks Rush Limbaugh is right. … You all know that man. That man is an idiot. He is too stupid to do anything other than choke the earth’s atmosphere a little more with his Mr. Pibb burps and his F-150′s gassy exhaust.”

But Weinstein’s magnanimity ends there. Someone must pay. Weinstein suggests the government simply try the troublemakers and spokespeople. You know, the usual suspects. People like Limbaugh himself as well as ringleaders of political organizations and businesses that refuse to toe the line. “Those malcontents must be punished and stopped.”

Weinstein says that this “is an argument that’s just being discussed seriously in some circles.” He credits Rochester Institute of Technology philosophy professor Lawrence Torcello for getting the ball rolling. Last month, Torcello argued that America should follow Italy’s lead. In 2009, six seismologists were convicted of poorly communicating the risks of a major earthquake. When one struck, the scientists were sentenced to six years in jail for downplaying the risks. Torcello and Weinstein want a similar approach for climate change.

This is a great standard for free speech in America. Let’s just agree that the First Amendment reads, “Nothing in this clause shall be considered binding if it contradicts legal practices in the Abruzzo region of Italy.”

The truth is this isn’t as new an outlook as Weinstein suggests. For instance, in 2009, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman insisted that “deniers” in Congress who opposed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill were committing “treason” while explaining their opposition on the House floor. (That same year, Krugman’s fellow Timesman Thomas Friedman wrote that China’s authoritarian system was preferable to ours, in part, because it lets “enlightened” leaders deal with climate change.)

March 29, 2014

Nate Silver … in the shark tank

Filed under: Environment, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

Statistician-to-the-stars Nate Silver can shrug off attacks from Republicans over his 2012 electoral forecast or from Democrats unhappy with his latest forecast for the 2014 mid-terms, but he’s finding himself under attack from an unexpected quarter right now:

Ever wondered how it would feel to be dropped from a helicopter into a swirling mass of crazed, genetically modified oceanic whitetip sharks in the middle of a USS-Indianapolis-style feeding frenzy?

Just ask Nate Silver. He’s been living the nightmare all week – ever since he had the temerity to appoint a half-way skeptical scientist as resident climate expert at his “data-driven” journalism site, FiveThirtyEight.

Silver has confessed to The Daily Show that he can handle the attacks from Paul Krugman (“frivolous”), from his ex-New York Times colleagues, and from Democrats disappointed with his Senate forecasts. But what has truly spooked this otherwise fearless seeker-after-truth, apparently, is the self-righteous rage from the True Believers in Al Gore’s Church of Climate Change.

“We don’t pay that much attention to what media critics say, but that was a piece where we had 80 percent of our commenters weigh in negatively, so we’re commissioning a rebuttal to that piece,” said Silver. “We listen to the people who actually give us legs.”

The piece in question was the debut by his resident climate expert, Roger Pielke, Jr., arguing that there was no evidence to support claims by alarmists that “extreme weather events” are on the increase and doing more damage than ever before. Pielke himself is a “luke-warmer” – that is, he believes that mankind is contributing to global warming but is not yet convinced that this contribution will be catastrophic. But neither his scientific bona fides (he was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder) nor his measured, fact-based delivery were enough to satisfy the ravening green-lust of FiveThirtyEight’s mainly liberal readership.

March 28, 2014

Putting the WHO global pollution death figures into perspective

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:56

James Delingpole agrees that the most recent WHO report on deaths due to pollution is shocking, but points out where the press release does a sleight-of-hand move:

Even if you take the WHO’s estimates with a huge pinch of salt — and you probably should — that doesn’t mean the pollution problem in some parts of the world isn’t deadly serious. During the 20th century, around 260 million are reckoned to have died from indoor pollution in the developing world: that’s roughly twice as many as were killed in all the century’s wars.

Here, though, is the point where the WHO loses all credibility on the issue.

    “Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said.

    “WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives,” Dr. Dora added.

See what Dora just did there? He used the shock value of the WHO’s pollution death figures to slip three Big Lies under the impressionable reader’s radar.

First, he’s trying to make out that outdoor pollution is as big a problem as indoor pollution. It isn’t: nowhere near. Many of the deaths the WHO links to the former are very likely the result of the latter (cooking and heating in poorly ventilated rooms using dung, wood, and coal) which, by nature, is much more intense.

Secondly, he’s implying that economic development is to blame. In fact, it’s economic development we have to thank for the fact that there are so many fewer pollution deaths than there used to be. As Bjorn Lomborg has noted, over the 20th century as poverty receded and clean fuels got cheaper, the risk of dying of pollution decreased eight-fold. In 1900, air pollution cost 23 per cent of global GDP; today it is 6 per cent, and by 2050 it will be 4 per cent.

But the third and by far the biggest of the lies is the implication that the UN’s policies on climate change are helping to alleviate the problem.

March 16, 2014

David Friedman responds to William Nordhaus on global warming costs

Filed under: Economics, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:40

At his blog, David Friedman links to a recent New York Review of Books article by William Nordhaus (itself a response to a Wall Street Journal article) which argues for economic action to address the impact of global warming:

His final, and possibly most important point, is based on his own research, which he complains that the WSJ article is misrepresenting. He starts with a correct point—that it is the difference between benefit and cost, not the ratio, that matters. He goes on to summarize his conclusion:

    My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. A look at Table 5-1 in my study A Question of Balance (2008) shows that the cost of waiting fifty years to begin reducing CO2 emissions is $2.3 trillion in 2005 prices. If we bring that number to today’s economy and prices, the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

What he does not mention is that his $4.1 trillion is a cost summed over the entire globe and the rest of the century. Put in annual terms, that come to about $48 billion a year, a less impressive number. Current world GNP is about $85 trillion/year. So the net cost of waiting, on Nordhaus’s own numbers, is about one twentieth of one percent of world GNP. Not precisely a catastrophe.

I suggest a simple experiment. Let Nordhaus write a piece explicitly arguing that the net cost of waiting is about .06% of world GNP and see whether it is more popular with the supporters or the critics of his position. I predict that at least one supporter will accuse him of having sold out to big oil.

[...]

The future is very much too uncertain to have confidence in estimates of what will be happening fifty years from now — for an extended demonstration, see my Future Imperfect. If we follow Nordhaus’s current advice and tax carbon now in order to slow warming, it may turn out that the costs were unnecessary or even counterproductive. We may be spending money in order to make ourselves poorer, not richer.

I conclude, on the basis of Nordhaus’s own figures and without taking account of my past criticism of his calculations, that he has his conclusion backwards. The sensible strategy is to take no actions whose justification depends on the belief that increased CO2 produces large net costs until we have considerably better reason than we now do to believe it.

March 13, 2014

It’s not just your imagination – this is a truly terrible winter

Filed under: Cancon, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:46

In Maclean’s, Michael Friscolanti and Kate Lunau round-up the tales of cold weather misery from across the country:

From coast to coast, Canadians have done everything they can to survive this winter of discontent. The Old Man arrived early and never let go, unleashing a harsh brew of bone-chilling mornings, wicked gusts of wind and collective pleas for mercy. We learned a new scientific term — “polar vortex” — and felt it, firsthand, on our fingertips. It’s been so bleak that, as of early March, 92.2 per cent of the Great Lakes were covered in ice, the most since 1979. On March 1, Regina broke a 130-year-old record for that day’s temperature: -36° C, with a wind chill of -53° C. In Kenora, Ont., where all-time winter lows have wreaked havoc on its maze of underground pipes, the city is in the midst of a two-week boil-water advisory.

In Toronto, where the mercury also nosedived to the lowest point in two decades, the city surpassed its record for consecutive days with at least one centimetre of snow on the ground: 89, as of March 7, and counting. No town, though, amassed more white stuff than Stephenville, N.L. (population 7,800). The winter isn’t even over, and the seaside community has already been hammered with more than two metres (the same height, for the record, as Michael Jordan.) “In December, it snowed 26 days,” says Mayor Tom O’Brien. “The snow kept coming and coming. It wasn’t one big wallop.”

[...]

GDP fell by 0.5 per cent in December, a dip triggered almost entirely by the pre-Christmas ice storms that rocked Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Canadian retail stores reported their biggest one-month drop in a year. And in a spat that garnered significant headlines, the country’s two main railways — CP and CN — blamed “the harshest winter in 60 years” for their inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain sitting in bins across the Prairies.

Economists are fairly confident the gloomy numbers will eventually pass, like winter itself. By the second quarter, they say, the season’s losses will be almost entirely recouped, with the North American economy picking up significant steam on its road to recovery. But that rosy economic outlook glosses over a much frostier reality: This winter for the ages will cost Canadian cities untold millions in extra snow-clearing, pothole maintenance and other infrastructure repair bills that have yet to arrive. In this era of climate change — when scientists expect severe bouts of weather to become the rule rather than the exception — the past few months have provided a disturbing glimpse of the overwhelming costs to come.

[...]

In Toronto alone, the ice storm cost the public purse more than $100 million; throw in Hamilton and the rest of the GTA, and the liability climbs to $275 million. Point to any Canadian city these days, and it’s hard to find one that won’t be digging deeper into its pockets to pay for this brutal winter.

In Edmonton, potholes are already such an epidemic that the city is teaming up with the University of Alberta engineering department to figure out ways to make roads more robust in chilly conditions. (Last year, the City of Champions paid out a record $464,000 to motorists whose cars were damaged by craters.) In Chatham, Ont., one winter pothole went so deep, it revealed the city’s original yellow brick road. Down the highway in Windsor, councillors were forced to commit an extra $1 million to their snow-removal budget — by early January. And in Niagara Falls, the unbearable cold triggered 42 water-main breaks by the end of February, more than half the total of the entire year before.

February 26, 2014

Carl Sagan and when warnings about a new ice age switched to global warming instead

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

As a youngster, Robert Tracinski was a huge fan of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series. It was a formative experience for him, yet he found that Sagan’s concerns about global warming were not convincing … because those warnings were actually antithetical to his larger message:

It might seem strange to say it, but I am a global warming skeptic because of Carl Sagan.

This might seem strange because Sagan was an early promoter of the theory that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are going to fry the globe. But it’s not so strange when you consider the larger message that made Sagan famous.

As with many people my age, Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos, which aired on public television when I was eleven years old, was my introduction to science, and it changed my life. Cosmos shared the latest developments in the sciences of evolution, astronomy, and astrophysics, but its real heart was Sagan’s overview of the history of science and the distinctive ethos behind the scientific method. Sagan returned again and again to one central theme: that the first rule of science is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of one’s wishes or preconceptions. He spoke eloquently about the Ancient Greek Pythagoreans and their attempt to suppress the facts about “irrational numbers” that didn’t fit their theory. And he spoke admiringly about the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, who started out pursuing a theory in which the planets move in circular orbits reflecting the ratios of the perfect Pythagorean solids — and ended up being driven by the evidence to reject this theory and discover completely new laws of planetary motion.

I didn’t end up becoming a scientist, but I absorbed Sagan’s basic lesson and have tried my best to adhere to it in my own field: follow the evidence wherever it leads.

But this can be a difficult rule to follow. It is easy to spot the unexamined assumptions of others, but harder to root out your own prejudices. A few years ago, while watching Cosmos again for the first time in 25 years, I was reminded that Sagan did not always practice what he preached, and his error sheds light on the global warming theory’s original sin against science. It is a sin that has only gotten worse and which explains the scandalous state of today’s debate over global warming.

[...]

This is a bit of a cultural time capsule, preserving the precise moment at which scientific alarmists were switching from warning about a new ice age, in the 1970s, to warning about runaway warming.

February 23, 2014

Winter storms uncover a “Welsh Atlantis”

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:54

A story in the Express about waves from recent storms having uncovered a previously unknown ancient forest on the shores of Cardigan Bay:

Gales stripped the sand from a beach at Borth in Ceredigion, West Wales, revealing the remains of a 6,000-year-old forest.

A picture of the same spot taken before the storms shows a strip of pristine sand.

The ancient oaks and pines date back to the Bronze Age.

They were discovered by Deanna Groom and Ross Cook from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

Miss Groom, a maritime archeologist said: “The site around Borth is one where if there’s a bad storm and it gets battered, you know there’s a good chance something will be uncovered as the peat gets washed away.

“It’s regularly monitored and that’s why we went to have a look there again now to see if anything new had emerged.”

The ancient remains are said by some to be the origins of the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a mythical kingdom now submerged under the waters of Cardigan Bay.

It has been described as a “Welsh Atlantis” and has featured in folklore, literature and song.

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

Update: Elizabeth also sent a link that shows that ancient oak stumps aren’t the only things being uncovered by the waves:

The latest hazard caused by this winter’s devastating storms and floods has been revealed by police — unexploded bombs.

The storms that have ravaged and reshaped parts of the British coastline have led to the discovery of wartime shells long-buried on beaches.

There are also fears that flooding along the Thames will erode riverbanks, leading to the discovery of bombs dropped on the area by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

Police say that high tides and huge waves have either exposed devices or brought them closer to the surface.

Further storms and flooding are expected today as a new front moves in from the Atlantic. The Met Office has issued three severe rain warnings and gusts of wind are expected to reach 70mph.

The Environment Agency also still has 48 severe flood warnings issued across the UK following what the Met Office has described as the wettest winter on record.

Now walkers are being urged not to touch unidentified metal objects but to alert police to their finds instead.

In South West England and West Wales, which bore the brunt of the storms, six devices have been handled by bomb disposal units in six weeks.

The Navy’s Southern Diving Group said it had received a 20 per cent increase in reports of unexploded bombs since January.

A 100lb Mk XIX Second World War British anti-submarine mine was found by surfers at Watwick Bay, Haverfordwest, while a rare First World War German mine surfaced on a beach near the popular Cornish resort of Newquay.

David Friedman looks at the “missing heat is going into the deep ocean” claim

Filed under: Environment — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:20

David Friedman is an economist, so of course he doesn’t claim to be a climate scientist. He can, however, do math and examine numerical evidence … which doesn’t seem to support the most recent explanation for the pause in global warming:

One claim I have repeatedly seen in online arguments about global warming is that it has not really paused, because the “missing heat” has gone into the ocean. Before asking whether that claim is true, it is worth first asking how anyone could know it is true. A simple calculation suggests that the answer is one couldn’t. As follows …

Part of the claim, which I assume is true, is that from 90% to 95% of global heat goes into the ocean, which implies that the heat capacity of the ocean is 10 to 20 times that of the rest of the system. If so, and if the pause in surface and atmosphere temperatures was due to heat for some reason going into the ocean instead, that should have warmed the ocean by 1/10 to 1/20th of the amount by which the rest of the system didn’t warm.

The global temperature trend in the IPCC projections is about .03°C/year. If surface and atmospheric temperature has been flat for 17 years, that would put it about .5° below trend. If the explanation is the heat going into the ocean, the average temperature of the ocean should have risen as a result above its trend by between .025° and .05°.

Would anyone like to claim that we have data on ocean temperature accurate enough to show a change that small? If not, then the claim is at this point not an observed fact, which is how it is routinely reported, but a conjecture, a way of explaining away the failure of past models to correctly predict current data.

February 16, 2014

Winter ice approaching modern record on the Great Lakes

Filed under: Cancon, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:43

In USA Today, Eric Lawrence talks about the ongoing cold weather’s impact on the Great Lakes:

“In the last one to two weeks, we’ve seen rapid accumulations on Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan,” said Jeff Andresen, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s geography department who also is the state climatologist.

The ice cover on the lakes increased from 79.7% to 88.4% just in the past week, putting the region close to the record of almost 95% set in February 1979, according to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

The extensive ice cover has had some interesting and positive effects, like shutting off lake-effect snow, making it sunnier in portions of states near the lakes and limiting evaporation, which could help boost lake levels.

And the ice cover could help delay the spring warm-up — good news for farmers as it helps keep certain crops, like fruit trees, dormant longer and less susceptible to freezing early in the growing season — Andresen said.

Conversely, it’s bad news for the shipping industry, whose vessels can’t go anywhere when the ports are frozen solid.

The winter of 2013-14 also is shaping up to be one of the five coldest, at least in Michigan’s recorded history, Andresen said, although it’s still early to say for certain.

“We haven’t seen many winters like this that are cold from beginning to end,” he said, noting that this is the fourth consecutive month that is colder than normal. “It has been an extraordinary winter, and the ice cover is a manifestation of that unusually cold winter.”

He cautioned that temperatures forecast in the 40s next week could hurt the chances to break an ice-cover record.

Is it climate change or is it just weather?

Filed under: Environment, Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:28

Ant O’Fearghail has developed a useful model to help you determine if a particular situation is caused by climate change or if it’s just ordinary weather:

Climate change or weather

February 13, 2014

Flooding in Britain – call for the Witchfinder Floodfinder General!

Filed under: Britain, Environment, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:13

Rob Lyons asks who is to blame for the current flooding in Britain. The answer may be … nobody:

Floods in the UK are getting worse. There’s not much we can do it about it. It’s caused by climate change, which in turn is caused by human beings. It’s payback time.

There you go. In one paragraph, I’ve saved you having to read British newspapers or watch British TV news for the next few days. Of course, the recent flooding is a nightmare for those affected. It’s also a dream for lazy TV news editors who want to plonk their reporters in front of some interesting backdrop offering trite statements about a human-interest story. But the discussion about the causes of the floods and whether we can – or should – do anything about them is rather more worrying than TV’s dumbed-down ‘news values’.

[...]

A briefing published by the UK Met Office earlier this month highlights just how unusual the weather is at present. ‘Although no individual storm can be regarded as exceptional, the clustering and persistence of the storms is highly unusual. December and January were exceptionally wet. For England and Wales this was one of, if not the most, exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years. The two-month total (December + January) of 372.2mm for the south-east and central southern England region is the wettest any two-month period in the series from 1910.’ It’s the conveyor belt of stormy weather, rather than any particular individual event, which is causing the problems. The ground is already soaked and rivers are already high; further rainfall has nowhere to go but out on to the flood plains.

However, a quick look at the Met Office briefing shows that while rainfall in southern England in January was very exceptional, it is hard to glean any particular overall pattern – other than that rainfall is very variable.

January rainfall, southern England, 1910-2014. Source: Met Office

January rainfall, southern England, 1910-2014. Source: Met Office

Indeed, just two years ago, Britain was in drought. Consecutive winters of below-average rainfall had left water companies enforcing restrictions on supply. Then the heavens opened, and it seems to have barely stopped raining since. So how on earth did the head of the Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, conclude that while there was ‘no definitive answer’ to what caused the storms, ‘all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change’? Indeed, Slingo is not alone in her assessment. The prime minister, David Cameron, said in January that he ‘suspected’ climate change was behind the floods. Labour leader Ed Miliband declared that climate change was sure to bring ‘more flooding, more storms’. Yet less than a year ago, scientists were assuring us that climate change would lead to more droughts in the future in the UK.

January 28, 2014

The last Frost Fair on the Thames

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:29

The famous river doesn’t freeze as it did during the Little Ice Age, so the very last Frost Fair was held in 1814:

Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, Feb'y 4th 1814

Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, Feb’y 4th 1814

It is 200 years ago since the last “frost fair” — an impromptu festival on a frozen Thames, complete with dancing, skittles and temporary pubs. Could such hedonism be repeated today?

Londoners stood on the Thames eating gingerbread and sipping gin. The party on the frozen river had begun on 1 February and would carry on for another four days.

The ice was thick enough to support printing presses churning out souvenirs. Oxen were roasted in front of roaring fires, drink was liberally taken and dances were held. An elephant was marched across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge.

It was February 1814. George III was on the throne, Lord Liverpool was prime minister and the Napoleonic wars would soon be won.

People didn’t know it then but this “frost fair” — a cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave — would be the last. In the 200 years that have elapsed since, the Thames has never frozen solid enough for such hedonism to be repeated.

But between 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze at least 23 times and on five of these occasions — 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789 and 1814 — the ice was thick enough to hold a fair.

Update: Over lunch, I was reading Correlli Barnett’s Marlborough and came across this description of the onset of winter in 1708-09 (and a frost fair that the BBC didn’t list):

And for Europe too the coming of a Whig administration in England was a fateful event. The Whig leaders were hot for the exaction from Louis XIV of ‘no peace without Spain – entire’, without any compromise whatsoever. Yet in the winter and spring of 1709 even such inflated war aims began to look practicable. Before the Duke at last closed down the Oudenarde campaign in January 1709, long after the normal time for going into winter quarters, he had retaken Bruges and Ghent. And the siege of Ghent witnessed the onset of an enemy even more terrible to France than Marlborough. In the last days of 1708 cold of unimagined bitterness closed on Europe like a trap. At Ghent the sentinels of besieged and besieging forces alike were frozen to death at their posts. And this was only a beginning: after a short and deceptive thaw in January, the cold set in like another ice age, the people of Europe cringing month after month under a bruise-coloured sky heavy with snow. On the frozen Thames at London Bridge there was an ice fair; a little city of booths and stalls stretching from bank to bank, and bonfires twinkling across the ice in the polar gloom. From Brussels Marlborough was reporting to Heinsius in February:

    The continuall snow as well as hard frost will, if it continues, kill al the cattel of this country and bee very inconvenient for our garrisons, for even in this town we have no forage but what we bring dayly by carts …

The port of Harwich was ice bound; so were the Dutch ports. There were ice floes in the Channel. Even the mouth of the Tagus at Lisbon was frozen. It was fortunate indeed that the Duke had not carried out his post-Oudenarde plan to invade France, or his army might now have been lying somewhere between Abbeville and Paris, with seaborne supplies cut off by ice, and dependent for subsistence on what it could find in the French countryside.

And in France, already impoverished by war as she was, famine had come in the wake of frost. The cattle died; the vines split. In the towns and the country the starving wandered in search of food in ragged, despairing packs. The very fabric of French society seemed in peril from the effects of the cold.

January 24, 2014

Government subsidies that make flooding worse

Filed under: Britain, Environment — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:51

Chris Edwards on the oddity of an EU subsidy that inadvertently makes it more likely that floods will be worse:

… Britain has been suffering from river flooding, and a Daily Mail article explains how subsidies are a key culprit: “Thought ‘extreme weather’ was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm.”

The author is a liberal environmentalist, but his piece illustrates how liberals and libertarians can share common ground on the issue of government subsidies.

The article describes how forests in the upstream areas of watersheds can mitigate floods. However, there “is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment … that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation.’ Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

In the United States, we’ve got our own environment-damaging farm subsidies. We’ve also got the Army Corps of Engineers, which the Daily Mail could be describing when it refers to British policy: “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour.

Another foolhardy thing, in the long term, is government subsidizing people to rebuild after devastating floods … in the same location that is just as likely to be damaged in the next flood. If you can’t get property insurance without getting the government to force insurers to offer it, you’ve probably built in an area that you shouldn’t have. A lot of the perception that major storms are more dangerous now than fifty years ago is that a lot of buildings are being erected in areas where storm damage is more likely to occur.

January 13, 2014

The GMO debate – “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

Nathanael Johnson says he has taken more abuse over his articles on genetically modified organisms than anything else in his writing career. And he says he learned something from his research: that it actually doesn’t matter at all.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

The point is that even if you win, the payoff is relatively small in the broad scheme of things. Really, why do so many people care?

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