Monthly Archives: March 2016

Ban DHMO!

I want to bring your attention to a dangerous chemical present in our environment. Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) was used extensively by the US in Vietnam, and the soil in many parts of Vietnam still has heavy concentrations of it. Although little publicity has been given to it, many US military bases keep large stocks of this chemical on hand and have underground distribution systems for it. DHMO is used in both nuclear arms factories and chemical weapons plants.

DHMO is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and exposure to it kills thousands of people every year. Prolonged exposure to its solid form can cause severe tissue damage, while exposure to the gaseous form can cause severe burns. DHMO has been used as a riot control agent in some parts of the world.

DHMO is a major component of acid rain, and contributes to global warming via the greenhouse effect. It has been found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in North America today, and is frequently found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients. But the occurrence of this deadly chemical nowadays is global, and it has even been found in Antarctic ice. Much of our food supply is contaminated by DHMO. Items found in the produce section of your local supermarket frequently contain traces of it.

Although DHMO can have severe environmental effects, industrial companies routinely dump it into rivers and lakes. The impact on wildlife from environmental DHMO can be extreme, and its presence often makes otherwise fertile farmland unusable.

Have I scared you yet? Don’t worry, the chemical formula for dihydrogen monoxide is H20, otherwise known as water. Dihydrogen  monoxide is just the formal chemical name for water. Read what I’ve written again, but this time substitute the word water for DHMO, and you’ll find that  everything I’ve said is perfectly true, just pitched to sound scary. I’ve put in a lot of phrases to which most people will react negatively, such as nuclear arms factories and chemical weapons plants. Do they use water in these places? Sure they do – in the washrooms. Did the US use it in Vietnam? Well, they made coffee and took showers while they were there.

It isn’t difficult to write scary stuff like this and, unless you have the technical background to see through it, it can be difficult dismissing it for the nonsense it really is. The reason I’ve written it here is because governments and other organizations often use scare stories like this. If you manage to scare people, they are likely to run to you for help and agree to any measures you put forward.

Climate change is a good example of this. Unless we reduce our carbon dioxide output the world is going to heat up uncontrollably, there will be mighty tempests and scorching deserts, mass extinctions of wildlife, wars, famines and general assorted disasters. Do as your wise and noble government tells you, and with their inspired leadership and guidance we might all just survive, albeit with much higher taxes. Of course you mustn’t question any of these predictions, in case the whole facade falls down, so anyone who does so will be called a climate change denier and cast into outer darkness.

The hockey stick graph that appeared in the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was pivotal to this scaremongering. Hockey stick graphThis graph purported to show that global temperatures were constant for a thousand years until the twentieth century, when there was a dramatic increase. The most charitable thing we can say about this graph is that it was generated using questionable statistical methods on a cherry-picked set of data. Despite the fact that it was completely at odds with a vast mass of historical data, and was even belied by data published in the first IPCC report, shown below for comparison, it suddenly became the focus of world-wide alarm on global warming. School classrooms had simplified copies of the hockey stick graph pinned up on their walls and children were taught that our industrial civilization was destroying the world.1000 year climate changeThis scaremongering didn’t happen spontaneously. It happened because influential people decided to use the hockey stick graph as a climate change scare story. Some people will support such actions, saying that they are for a good cause, and surely there is no harm done if the result is that we focus even more on tackling climate change. But this is a circular argument. What these people are saying is that they know that man-made climate change is a threat to the world (how they know is never stated – divine revelation?), so therefore any exaggerations and untruths that are promulgated by the-powers-that-be are justified. And of course the fact that more and more people then become worried about climate change as a result is justification for making even wilder exaggerations to force greater efforts upon us …

To quote Björn Lomborg,  This argument is astonishingly wrong. Such exaggerations do plenty of harm. Worrying excessively about global warming means that we worry less about other things, where we could do so much more good. We focus, for example, on global warming’s impact on malaria – which will be to put slightly more people at risk in 100 years – instead of tackling the half a billion people suffering from malaria today with prevention and treatment policies that are much cheaper and dramatically more effective than carbon reduction would be. … But the worst cost of exaggeration, I believe, is the unnecessary alarm that it causes – particularly among children. Recently, I discussed climate change with a group of Danish teenagers. One of them worried that global warming would cause the planet to “explode” – and all the others had similar fears.

Putting fears about exploding planets to one side, even the fears about malaria caused by global warming are unfounded. They are just another scare story. Malaria is not a tropical disease, it is a poverty disease. Mosquitos breed in swamps and wetlands, and once these are drained the mosquito population largely disappears. Malaria was endemic in Britain in Shakespeare’s time, except it was called ague in those days. Shakespeare mentions it often – This is some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague, The Tempest, Act II Scene 2.

One of the worst outbreaks of malaria ever recorded occurred in Russia during its civil war in the early 1920’s. Archangel, just south of the Arctic circle, was particularly badly hit, which does rather call into question the ‘tropical disease’ theory of malaria.

Scaremongering is a major tool of governments and many environmental NGOs. The next time your friendly neighbourhood government tells you that the world is going to come to a nasty end unless we … (fill in the blank, but don’t forget it always includes more taxes and regulations), just say to yourself dihydrogen monoxide!

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Yes Minister

The US has had the same President for nearly eight years. What has he achieved that any other run-of-the-mill President might just as well have achieved? What difference has he made?

Canada has just elected a flamboyant new Prime Minister. What are the odds that Canada will be significantly different at the end of his time in office?

What both countries have in common is the fact that everything their politicians want to achieve must be implemented by, and indeed filtered through, entrenched bureaucracies. Bureaucracies have their own imperatives, their own agendas, and they possess a massive inertia which makes it difficult for any politician to alter their course.

Bureaucracies are best thought of as living organisms. Like any other organism, they exist for their own sake, and their driving imperatives are self-preservation and growth.

Civil service bureaucracies rarely attract entrepreneurial types, but rather people for whom security is a primary consideration. Some years ago, I had a young man working for me in the private sector who left for a lower-paid civil service job because, as he said, they offered a better pension scheme. This, at age 25. The thought of the diminishment or dissolution of their department, resulting in them having to find another means of earning a living, fills them with a numb horror. They know of no other life, cannot conceive of working for another organization. The thought of striking out on their own would occur to very few of them. A threat to their jobs is an existential threat.

Rising through the levels of a civil service bureaucracy  to a senior rank will not provide a path to wealth, except in very corrupt societies, but merely a comfortable life followed by a guaranteed pension. What it will provide, however, is power, or at least the illusion of power. Yours is the hand that crafts the regulations that every citizen must follow or face sanctions, yours is the hand that disposes of large swaths of the taxpayers’ money, yours is the voice that whispers in the shadows to politicians. Unfortunately, the power goes with the job, and is not owned by you personally. Being a senior civil servant is rather like being a Catholic priest. You can tell everyone how to organize their sex lives, you just can’t have one yourself.

Bureaucracies as entities which seem to exist for no particular reason are nothing new. Charles Dickens parodied (or perhaps only slightly exaggerated) them with his Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, first published in 1855. While its function was never quite made clear to the reader, the Circumlocution Office was intended to represent the British Treasury Department in real life, which even at that time was a byword for poor organization. At one point in the book, the Minister responsible for the Circumlocution Office justifies its activities to Parliament in terms of the number of memoranda it produced in the previous year, rather than any actions it might have taken for the benefit of the nation.

The 1980’s BBC series Yes Minister offered a humorous but probably all-too-true picture of how a political leader can be subverted by a bureaucracy anxious to maintain the status quo. In one particularly telling scene, senior bureaucrats in the (fictitious) Department of Administrative Affairs are discussing the role of their Minister. It is forcibly impressed on the more junior and idealistic members of the Department that, in the eyes of the senior bureaucrats, the Minister’s role has nothing to do with policy or indeed guiding the Department in any way. His role is seen simply as their breadwinner at the Cabinet table, ensuring as large an appropriation as possible for the coming financial year.

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Getting things done in a dictatorship is not usually a problem. The Dictator gives orders, and if those orders are not carried out promptly, someone gets shot. The rest of the underlings very quickly get the message and start falling over themselves to carry out the boss’s orders. In democracies, however, things are a little different. Any decisions made by a President or Prime Minister rely on a civil service bureaucracy to implement them, and if the bureaucracy doesn’t like those decisions, it has a whole range of ways to subvert them, from foot-dragging to creative misunderstanding. It takes a very forceful and persistent leader to get things done in such circumstances.

In the US, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) was implemented with all the savoir-faire and élan of a hippopotamus trying to roller-skate. Surely in this day and age it could have been done better. One has to wonder whether it was deliberately sabotaged by a bureaucracy that liked things just as they were and had no wish for change.

Canada has recently seen this happen. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was thrown out in the recent election, and one of the contributory factors was that the civil service bureaucracy feared and loathed him. Harper tried hard to get the bureaucracy to do things his way, and the bureaucracy rebelled.

In place of Stephen Harper, Canada has elected Justin Trudeau, who is a public relations dream. He is charismatic and photogenic. He is largely adored by the younger generation because he has the same priorities as they do, such as legalizing marijuana. He is highly visible, never missing a photo opportunity.

So when does he find time to deal with the mundane details of running the country?

The short answer is that he probably doesn’t. Unlike the previous incumbent, Stephen Harper, who actually tried to run the country, and consequently incurred the whole-hearted enmity of the civil service, Trudeau floats on a cloud of charisma and leaves such uninteresting details as trade policy and tax reform to the bureaucracy, which is just how they like things to be.

Bureaucracies, by and large, prefer the status quo. Their ideal for the future is that it should not be a great deal different from the present. On this basis we can expect that Canada will remain in an administrative time-warp for the remainder of Trudeau’s term of office. Although no doubt various bold new measures will be proposed by the Trudeau government, you can expect to see them stifled, smothered and generally emasculated as they filter through the bureaucracy. I predict that not much of any significance will be achieved by Trudeau’s government.

Help, help, the Arctic is melting!

In a previous post I talked about the desirability, nay the necessity, of ascertaining the facts, as opposed to regurgitating the current politically correct viewpoint. So let’s do this with regard to the melting of Arctic ice.

It is easily verifiable that the extent of ice cover in the Arctic is less than it was twenty years ago. No argument on that point. The immediate knee-jerk response of the climate change lobby is that this is entirely due to human activity, and in particular the combustion of fossil fuels.

Perhaps. But the intelligent response would be to ask “has this ever happened before? Is the present melting a unique phenomenon, or is it something that happens as a result of a natural climatic cycle? Will the Arctic freeze up again, regardless of what the human race does?”

To begin with, we know that the same concerns about Arctic warming were raised over ninety years ago. In November 1922 the U.S Monthly Weather Review, a prestigious journal published by the American Meteorological Society, contained a report from the US Consul in Bergen, Norway, saying “The Arctic seems to be warming up. Reports from fisherman, seal hunters and explorers who sail the seas about Spitzbergen and the eastern Arctic, all point to a radical change in climatic conditions, and hitherto unheard-of high temperatures in that part of the earth’s surface.

The article goes on to say “Ice conditions were exceptional. In fact so little ice has never before been noted. … Many old landmarks are so changed as to be unrecognizable. … At many points where glaciers formerly extended far into the sea they have entirely disappeared.

It would appear that Arctic melting is not a new or unprecedented phenomenon, since it was remarked upon nearly a century ago. Furthermore, in order for us to be remarking on Arctic melting today, there must have been a freeze-up between then and now. (Since melting occurred in the 1920’s, we would hardly be remarking on it today as a new phenomenon if there had not been a freeze-up since then.) This seems to indicate that Arctic melting comes and goes.

One result of Arctic melting is that the maritime route across the Arctic Ocean linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, known as the Northwest Passage, may become navigable. Will this happen?

The answer to this question is, yes it probably will, because it’s happened before. Some seventy years ago the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St Roch sailed the Northwest Passage both ways. In 1940-1942 she sailed across the Arctic ocean west to east, and in 1944 made the east to west return trip. During the period 1944-1948 she again patrolled Arctic waters.

The St Roch was not a 30,000 ton nuclear-powered ice breaker, but was instead a 300 ton wooden schooner. Granted, she was a tough little boat designed for Arctic conditions, but she had no ice-breaking capability, so there must have been open water for her all the way. However, nobody took much notice at the time because this happened during World War II when people had other things on their minds.

Were these open water conditions exceptional? Going forward about fifteen years, the US submarine Skate navigated underwater in the Arctic Ocean in August 1958. It made numerous surfacings including one at the North Pole in clear water. While plenty of ice was visible, submarine had surfaced in open water, which seems to indicate that the ice cover was somewhat patchy at that time.

Later on, in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the Arctic froze up again. The current generation of senior Arctic scientists all began their careers in this time frame, so their personal experience has always been that the Arctic is an unbroken expanse of ice. Then, starting sometime in the 1990’s, the Arctic began unfreezing. Ice cover, particularly with satellite imagery to record it, visibly decreased over a period of ten to twenty years. Yikes, they said, this is unprecedented (at least it’s never happened in our experience) – it must be due to global warming.

Even the most dedicated global warming proponents generally concede that there would have been very little man-made global warming in the 1920’s, so it’s difficult to ascribe the documented Arctic warm-up at that time to human causes. Furthermore, the period when the Arctic froze up again, beginning about 1960, was just when man-made release of carbon dioxide really got into its stride. Having the Arctic melting when there isn’t much CO2 being produced, then freezing again when there is doesn’t fit too well with global warming theory.

Another problem with the global warming theory is that while Arctic ice cover at the North Pole has been decreasing, Antarctic ice cover at the South Pole has been increasing. In fact, it has never been so high since satellite measurements began in 1979.

So here is an alternative theory. Both Arctic and Antarctic ice come and go for their own good reasons in a multi-decadal freeze/thaw cycle, regardless of human activity. I’m not going to speculate as to what causes this freeze/thaw cycle, merely to say that the observed facts seem to support its existence.

Does this fit with what we know of other historical events? We know that Arctic melting was noticeable in 1922 and occurred again in the early 1990’s, so let’s assume the freeze/thaw cycle is 70 years in extent, from warm peak to warm peak. Since 1944 seemed to be about the middle of the period when the Arctic Ocean was navigable, let’s assume this was a warm peak in the cycle, so the previous cold peak would have occurred half a cycle (35 years) earlier, which would have placed it around 1909. There would then have been another cold peak 70 years earlier than this, in 1839. We also know that the Franklin expedition, which set out in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage, came to grief because its ships became locked in the ice. If our assumptions are correct, the expedition would have taken place shortly after the 1839 cold peak when the ice was at its maximum extent, so it is not surprising that the ships became icebound.

I must admit that the math is rather shaky, because of the uncertainties in the actual length of the freeze/thaw cycle and the dates of the warm and cold peaks, so I do not offer this as proof of any kind. I merely say that it seems to fit the hypothesis of a freeze/thaw cycle approximately 70 years in extent.

On this basis, incidentally, the most recent warm peak would have been in 2014, in which case we can expect freezing, and hence increased ice cover, to become noticeable 10 to 15 years from now, say in the latter half of the 2020’s. Anyone intending to invest large amounts of capital in Northwest Passage shipping should take note.

So these are the facts. If your climate change dogma requires you to believe that the current Arctic warming is an unprecedented event caused by fossil fuel consumption, then do so, but be aware that the facts do not altogether support you.