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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.

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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.

Just give me the facts

There comes a time in your life when you look at what seems to occupy the thoughts and passions of your fellow beings, and you ask “why?” Why do people do the things they do, say the things they say, believe the things they believe?

At such times I am reminded of the words of Robert “Stranger in a Strange Land” Heinlein, expressed through his fictional character Lazarus Long:

What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell”, avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future, facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

 Climate change seems to be occupying the thoughts and passions of my fellow beings at this time. But what are the facts? Disregard the politically correct thing to say, forget about sententious political leaders telling us the science is settled, what are the facts?

Let’s take an oft-quoted example of climate change. Superstorm Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012, is frequently held up as an example of climate change. This, supposedly unprecedented event, is what we are going to see in the future, only more so. Repent ye, O ye SUV-driving sinners!

But what are the facts? Was Superstorm Sandy unprecedented, or was it just another of those unfortunate meteorological events with which the human race is plagued from time to time, climate change or no climate change?

If you go to Google, or your search engine of choice, and type in List of New York hurricanes, you will find a Wikipedia article listing the hurricanes which have hit the New York area since the 17th century. There are 84 in the list, which may not be exhaustive since the earliest data is probably incomplete. Highly destructive events such as Sandy have occurred in the past roughly twice a century. The last one prior to Sandy was Hurricane Edna in 1954, and prior to that was the so-called Long Island Express of 1938, which resulted in 60 deaths (Sandy’s death toll was 53).

Similarly destructive hurricanes occurred in 1894 and 1821. The 1821 storm appears to have been more violent than Sandy, although exact meteorological records were not available at this time. While fewer deaths were recorded than for Sandy, the population of New York at that time was only a few percent of the present-day population, so it is likely that if the 1821 storm occurred today the death toll would be much greater.

The facts seem to say that Superstorm Sandy was just another meteorological catastrophe that New York experiences from time to time, regardless of any human activity. So why the insistence that it is a harbinger of climate change?

The appropriate question here is cui bono – who profits? To whose advantage is it to claim that any and all unpleasant weather events are the result of our planet’s climate being changed by human activities, and in particular by the consumption of fossil fuels? Let us count the ways.

To begin with, there is the green energy industry. Since the year 2004, more than two trillion dollars has been spent worldwide on green energy, mainly wind and solar. The industry consists not just of companies that manufacture wind turbines and solar panels, but other companies that supply raw materials and components, banks that provide financing, and so on. Furthermore, this two trillion relates only to the power generation side, and does not include money spent on non-fossil fuel alternatives such as electric cars. Now ask yourselves how much of this tsunami of money would have been spent if the terms global warming and climate change had never entered our consciousness. Money talks, and two trillion roars.

Next there are the politicians who inform us with great earnestness that the world is doomed – doomed! – unless we mend our ways, and only by electing them can policies be put in place to save the world. This does make a rather effective campaign slogan: vote for us, or the world is doomed. Encouraging a fervent belief in human-caused climate change is their path to power.

Then there are the academics and civil servants for whom research into climate change and administration of various climate change-related measures have enabled them to create little, and sometimes not so little, empires. For them, climate change means a comfortable sinecure with generous funding and access to lots of perks, such as travel to international conferences. Disavowing climate change would mean being cast out into the cold.

Last but not least are large numbers of environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) for whom doom-laden scenarios are central to their money-raising efforts. It’s difficult to raise money from a wide audience when all you have to say is that the lesser spotted piddlewarbler appear to be in decline in Northern California. Telling them that  the world is doomed unless they contribute is much more effective.

Between the green energy industry, politicians looking to their next election, their various acolytes in academia and the public service, and all those ENGOs, we are subject to a constant drumbeat of exhortations about climate change. But why are people so eager to listen? Why are people so ready to believe?

I think the answer is that while we have created a wonderfully affluent world, we have allowed a gaping spiritual void to open up in our lives. At this point I expect most of my readers to roll their eyes upwards and say ‘he’s going all weird on us’, but think about it for a while. Our lives are a mad whirl of consumption, driven by storm winds of advertising. Do you have the latest and greatest smartphone? Get one today! New clothes, new cars, houses, holidays, gadgets – the list is endless. Yet at some point even the most rabid of shoppers will feel a need to ask themselves whether there is anything in life beyond the mere acquisition of material goods.

Whether we admit it or no, we all of us have this need for reassurance of our worth, of our place in the greater scheme of things. I call this a spiritual need, although you can call it by whatever psychobabble term is currently fashionable if you wish. A generation or two ago, peoples’ spiritual needs were fulfilled fairly well by belonging to and attending a church, but most of us don’t do this anymore. Because of this unfulfilled need for reassurance, people today have a far greater propensity than in previous ages to support any cause that is skilfully sold to them.

Climate change, whatever its merits, has been sold to us in a very skilful manner. Yes, it tugs our heartstrings with images of the imminent demise of cuddly little animals, yet it doesn’t seem to require any uncomfortable lifestyle changes on our part. Just sell that gas-guzzling car and buy a fuel-efficient hybrid. (But you were going to do this anyway.) Replace that inefficient old fridge with an up-to-date one (which makes your kitchen look so much better). Put most of your garbage into a recycling box (which takes perhaps an extra five minutes per week). You’re making lots of money, so the fact that taxes are constantly creeping upwards isn’t too noticeable (and if you’re not making lots of money and are being squeezed by rising taxes, the mainstream media isn’t really interested in you, when all is said and done).

Climate change however comes with a good cop/bad cop routine. I’ve just described the good cop part. The bad cop part is that if you disagree with it in any way you will be made to feel as if you were walking through a hospital operating theatre in muddy boots. Terms such as ‘denier’ will be hurled at you, and you will be told that you are jeopardizing your grandchildren’s future. And yet, one has to wonder, if climate change and all its desolate scenarios are so self-evident, why the need to sanction dissenters in this way? Could it be that the high priests of global warming are afraid of dissent?

Fear of dissent is usually a sign that the belief system has shaky foundations. More on this later.