Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blacked Out

I've managed to persuade Blogger to sort of black me out. We're all outraged of course by the "guilt upon accusation" copyright law about to come into force in New Zealand. That's section 92 of the Copyright Ammendment Act for those keeping track. See more here.
Update:Blackout now over. Russell Brown has a good discussion of the issue here. And Dean Knight begs to differ.

What on earth is going on with the Australian ETS?

As was noted by several in the NZ blogosphere, Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan recently referred the Australian Emissions Trading Scheme (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) to a lower house finance committee. Since the committee was tasked with considering whether an ETS was the correct policy response to climate change, and given that the committee was to report after the Government had previously stated the measure would be passed, everyone took this to mean that the CPRS was very much on the back burner.

Almost immediately the Government was stating that this was not the case. By the end of the week the move, a ploy to reduce the power of the Senate and back the opposition into a corner on climate change policy, had been reversed.

Dennis Atkins, who is pretty much the only person worth reading in Brisbane's Courier Mail, has a very good analysis of what on earth was going on here.

Atkins frames this issue in terms of the chaotic state of affairs in Canberra currently, with an enormous stimulus package going through Parliament in the week of the worst natural disaster in Australia for at least a hundred years. This is on top of Rudd's notorious work rate and instincts for micromanagement.

All of this was happening in what is now a permanent state of semi-chaos in Canberra. Ministers and public servants are stretched to breaking point, too much is being asked with too-tight timelines and ridiculously minor decisions are not being made until they are ticked by the office of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Swan's letter to Economics Committee chairman Craig Thomson sailed through this monster mash and it was apparently not given the attention it deserved, allowing a form of words too open to mis-interpretation.

Now the politics of the CPRS is clearly far from settled. Apparently the big mining companies have only recently realised the implications of the scheme for their businesses since the shine went off the global economy. As a result the Government is coming under vastly increased pressure from business interests.
There's plenty of bark left in the emissions trading dog, as an increasing number of companies and their representatives in Canberra have been telling ministers in recent weeks and will continue to do in the weeks and months ahead. While Wong repeats the mantra that carbon reduction cannot be put on the back burner because of the global financial crisis, business is not so sanguine.

Mining companies - especially those representing coal interests - have been laying what are said to be some alarming numbers on ministers' desks, highlighting job losses and potential mine closures.

On the other hand strong ETS advocates are increasingly willing to oppose the proposed scheme as being too weak. Some are even willing to go back to the drawing board and investigate a carbon tax, as in this open letter by 10 very eminent economists.

In his article Atkins also emphasizes that the Government will certainly struggle to get this bill through the Senate. The Greens oppose the scheme as too weak, and the Liberals oppose the current measure as too onerous. The Nationals are likely to oppose regardless.

Once again we are hearing that the Government may be willing to go to a double dissolution election over this issue. So the politics of the Australian ETS still have a lot of life in them yet!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Natural Party of Government in New Zealand

For the second half of the 20th Century National regarded itself, rightly one has to admit, as the natural party of Government in New Zealand. It did this, so far as I can tell, by representing the values of a certain kind of ordinary New Zealander and providing, so far as it could, good governance.

No party can hope to be the natural party of Government and stand for an awful lot. No party can be the natural party of Government without discovering a pragmatic and opportunist streak a mile wide. Sometimes it will seem that the natural party of Government is ready to use all means necessary to hang onto power solely for its own sake.

Helen Clark's enormous political achievement was to mount a credible claim on behalf of the Labour party for the mantle of natural party of Government in the new century. But after a single term in Government, that is all it is, a challenge.

It seems pretty clear now that John Key doesn't just want to be PM, he wants to lead the natural party of Government in New Zealand. This despite whatever advantage MMP voting may have handed to Labour in this regard.

This will require him to marginalize the idealists and ideologues and he seems willing to do that. It will require him to file the edges off his Cabinet's partisan enthusiasms, and he seems ready to do that. It will also require him to build lasting partnerships with other parties and he's definitely shown he's ready to do that.

In spirit I very much agree with Jordan Carter. We are seeing a very effective counterattack from John Key's government on this territory. (Although the idea that an agressive market liberal government would be National "reverting to type" seems too focussed on certain historically anomalous aspects of the most recent National government. I would argue that typically National has not stood for much, and the danger is precisely that they may be able to achieve this again, while forming a historic alliance with Maori politicians that could allow them to regain the electoral advantage even under MMP.)

I have this picture of John Key going off to the beach over summer with a copy of "Kiwi" Keith Holyoake's biography.

He had a pretty good holiday and it's keeping the smile on his face as he over-rules his minister and increases the minimum wage. When he goes to Waitangi to be jousled by youths and bossed around by Titewhai Harawira he's still smiling. Thoughts of his holiday are definitely keeping the smile on his face when he dances around with the drag queens at the Big Gay Out.

Being so approachable, so available, and such a good sport. It all seems of a piece with Holyoake down at the train station looking for lost luggage:
As Prime Minister he lived a few hundred yards from Parliament's gates and insisted on listing his home phone number in the directory. Gustafson records that on one occasion someone rang to report their luggage missing at Wellington railway station and the Prime Minister walked down to help look for it.

Key wants to be PM for a long time and it's going to be hard to stop him.

To answer Jordan's question:

Question is: where's the left? Do you lot agree with my view, of steely pointless pragmatism? Or do you think there is a Douglas ghost ready to ooze out? Or some combination? Or another answer altogether?

The "ghost of Douglas" won't be oozing anywhere if John Key has anything to do with it.

Finally -- surely the big question for Key this year is should he have been out getting himself a "stimulus package" rather than reading biographies on the beach?

Where Next? Conservatism is Dead

You really do have to read Sam Tanenhaus's essay by this title in the New Republic. It's a brilliant account and analysis of the rise and fall of movement conservatism in the U.S.

In the tumultuous history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement's first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then "condemned" by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movement's first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right's next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the "draft Goldwater" campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the insurgent challenge by Goldwater's heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan's crusade positioned him to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative "revolution" that remade our politics over the next quarter-century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory.

Today, the situation is much bleaker.

Tannenhaus hopes that the final demise of Bush will create a new opportunity

There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism--a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.

His view of authentic conservatism he regards as Burkean

What passes for conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke, who, in the late eighteenth century, set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the "organic" unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies. In his most celebrated writings, his denunciation of the French Revolution and its English champions, Burke did not seek to justify the ancien regime and its many inequities. Nor did he propose a counter-ideology. Instead he warned against the destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics, beginning with its totalizing nostrums.

And he is not blind to the fact that the Democrats have just elected a guy who seems to fill this sort of description.

In the end, movement conservatives got the war they wanted--both at home and abroad. It ended, at last, with the 2008 election, and the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.

As always the Atlantic bloggers are essential reading. Andrew Sullivan is of course a dissident conservative of long standing and concurs at length here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that, to hear Tanenhaus and Sullivan tell it, it would appear that many of us lefty pinko social democrats are classical conservatives too.

This is a conservatism that has militancy and radicalism, not liberalism, as its antitheses. It seems to say very little about specific policy, but a lot about how to think about policy. Martin Luther King was despised by the right-wingers of his time, but by these lights, he was likely more conservative than the people who opposed him. Moreover, Obama would be, almost certainly, a conservative. As, I think, would I.

But party coalitions are built around issues these days--not ways of thinking about issues. It's more policy, than philosiphy. Like I said, in that Burkean sense, I don't have much problem calling myself conservative. I just happen to be pro-choice, to believe government should, and can, help people, to be pro-science, and perhaps most importantly, to have a visceral disdain for bigots and people who try to manipulate bigots to suit thier ends. That goes for small town elitist, gay-bashers, and Mooslim haters.

Where Next? Kevin Rudd and the Historic Role of the Social Democrat

The Murdoch press in Australia has been in a tizzy over Kevin Rudd's seven thousand word essay on the global financial crisis in the Monthly. It declares neoliberalism dead and gives a call to arms for social democrats.

I was struck by this warning about the possible rise of various kinds of extremism if social democratic governments fail to make progress.

Social-democratic governments across the world must rise to the further challenge of developing a practical policy response to the crisis that rebuilds shattered economic growth, while also devising a new regulatory regime for the financial markets of the future. This is our immediate challenge. But if we fail, there is a grave danger that new political voices of the extreme Left and the nationalist Right will begin to achieve a legitimacy hitherto denied them. Again, history is replete with the most disturbing of precedents.

But much of the rest of the analysis is, by now, fairly conventional. The politics of tarring the Liberals with a "failed ideology" is too good to resist though of course.

Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times. It fell to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rebuild American capitalism after the Depression. It fell also to the American Democrats, strongly influenced by John Maynard Keynes, to rebuild postwar domestic demand, to engineer the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and to set in place the Bretton Woods system to govern international economic engagement. And so it now falls to President Obama's administration - and to those who will provide international support for his leadership - to support a global financial system that properly balances private incentive with public responsibility in response to the grave challenges presented by the current crisis. The common thread uniting all three of these episodes is a reliance on the agency of the state to reconstitute properly regulated markets and to rebuild domestic and global demand.

The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the global financial crisis unfolds and the hard impact on jobs is felt by families across the world, the pressure will be great to retreat to some model of an all-providing state and to abandon altogether the cause of open, competitive markets both at home and abroad. Protectionism has already begun to make itself felt, albeit in softer and more subtle forms than the crudity of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Soft or hard, protectionism is a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression, as it exacerbates the collapse in global demand. The intellectual challenge for social democrats is not just to repudiate the neo-liberal extremism that has landed us in this mess, but to advance the case that the social-democratic state offers the best guarantee of preserving the productive capacity of properly regulated competitive markets, while ensuring that government is the regulator, that government is the funder or provider of public goods and that government offsets the inevitable inequalities of the market with a commitment to fairness for all. Social democracy's continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time.

Economic crisis to delay U.S. carbon trading?

In more recent comments Chu is open to considering a carbon tax, rather than cap and trade, a good thing perhaps.

More importantly perhaps he seems to indicate that the current economic crisis will delay either cap and trade or other carbon pricing mechanisms.

He said that while President Obama and Congressional Democratic leaders had endorsed a so-called cap-and-trade system to control global warming pollutants, there were alternatives that could emerge, including a tax on carbon emissions or a modified version of cap-and-trade.

Dr. Chu said reaching agreement on legislation to combat climate change would be difficult in the current recession because any scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would probably cause energy prices to rise and drive manufacturing jobs to countries where energy is cheaper.

“The concern about cap-and-trade in today’s economic climate,” Dr. Chu said, “is that a lot of money might flow to developing countries in a way that might not be completely politically sellable.”

Chu Back to Speaking His Mind

It's great to see Nobel Prize winning physicist and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu back to speaking his mind. Here from an interview in the L.A. Times he discusses the effects of reduced snow-pack on California.

In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent. Well, let me tell you what California does when there's a two-year in a row 20 percent decrease in snow pack: They water-ration.

Q: So you're looking at a scenario of permanent water rationing?

CHU: No, you're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California.

You may have noticed that during his confirmation hearing he walked back an earlier comment that coal was his "nightmare", describing it only as a bad dream, (NYTimes) but maybe one only needs to be circumspect in front of the Senate committee?

In the L.A. Times interview Chu presents the case for action against climate change despite uncertainties in our knowledge. He has a particularly good analogy to the dangers of old electrical wiring.

Carbon dioxide is a global problem. The cost of the carbon emissions are things that, number one, won't show up immediately in one year, or even in 10 years. They have begun to appear. The real costs are hard to estimate because we don't know to what extent, how bad it's going to get, in all honesty. There are projections... You can make a best guess on what might happen. I prefer - there are people who say, since we're not sure, we really shouldn't do about it - I think, in my opinion, a more measured way of dealing with this is, it's all about the risk, the potential risk, the downside risk of not doing something, or maybe doing it in a very moderate way.

The analogy I like to use is, suppose you buy a house, and then in the inspection, the structural engineer says, well, this House is a fine house, but understand, you have to rewire the house, because it's an old wiring and there's a chance of an electrical fire. It's going to cost a lot of money, but you should rewire... So you get an estimate of whether you really need to rewire the house, or whether you can go another, safely for another 20 years or 10 years. Suppose, just pretend, that the next person comes and says, essentially, I think the wiring is shot. I can't guarantee if it's going to be this year or five years from now, but you run the risk of an electrical fire. So now you have many options. You can continue to shop for the answer you want: your house is safe. Or you can say, I know the solution.... let's pretend it's $20,000, a lot of money, that's going to come out of your budget, an you can't - you're going to have to forgo a lot of other things. You could say, well, I could just get better fire insurance. You're probably not going to do that. Because there's a chance the house could burn down when you're asleep and your kids are asleep in the house. So eventually, you might be led to say, if there's a 50 percent chance my house might burn down in five years, I better do the rewiring. Then you have to bite the bullet. No one is telling you there's a 100 percent chance this is going to happen.

Finally this

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

Given what I have heard about the workrate Chu expects, I wonder if some at the Department of Energy will be in for a period adjustment also.

U.S Coal Reserves

I've noted before that people such as David Rutledge at Caltech and the Energy Watch Group believe that economically extractible world coal reserves are enormously overstated. Rutledge believes the situation is sufficiently serious that it will ultimately limit CO2 emissions to below the IPCC scenarios.

The EWG has emphasized the enormous writedowns in recent years of coal reserves by many countries, who have been motivated to look into the matter by declining coal production.

Climate Progress notes that the United States Geological Survey have finally joined this trend. They have done a thorough analysis of a single coal field that provides 37% of U.S. coal production.

Coal reserves are the portion of the recoverable coal that can be mined, processed, and marketed at a profit at the time of the economic evaluation. With a discounted cash flow at 8 percent rate of return, the coal reserves estimate for the Gillette coalfield is 10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total) for the 6 coal beds evaluated.

In 2006 production at the Gillette coalfield was 436 million short tons or 4% of the economically extractible resource. Unsurprisingly then that the National Research Council is calling for research into the size of reserves.

It is clear that there is enough coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030, and probably enough for 100 years, the committee said. However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years.

The report recommends a federal-state-industry initiative to determine the size and characteristics of the nation's recoverable coal, with the goal of providing policymakers with a full account of these reserves within 10 years. The initiative should be led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, states, and industry, and will require additional funding of approximately $10 million per year.

The group Clean Energy Action has just released a pessimistic report on U.S. coal.

In an extensively resarched report using publicly available data, Clean Energy Action member Leslie Glustrom says "we were quite shocked to find that most of the coal in the United States is buried too deeply to be accessible in large quantities or at reasonable prices."

Assumptions about the cheap price of coal figure critically in utility planning decisions including the option to choose renewable energy to generate electricity.

She documents that US coal supplies are not in the 200 year range as commonly assumed, but more likely in the 50 year range. Key supporting data includes a US Geological Survey report - Open File Report 2008-1202 - indicating that only 6% (or about 10 billion tons) of the original coal resource in the Gillette Coal Field of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming is economically accessible.

Expansion of Nuclear Power in Europe

The combination of aggressive carbon emission reduction targets and concerns about the security of gas supplies from Russia is driving a pretty rapid expansion of nuclear power in Europe.

The Swedes have just repealed a law requiring them to phase out nuclear power and seem likely to join the list of countries building new plants.

Several European countries are opting for nuclear energy and there is concern about the reliability of Russian-supplied fuel after Moscow's gas dispute with Ukraine last month.

Poland wants its first nuclear plant by 2020 and Britain decided last year to replace its ageing nuclear reactors and create new sites. France has ordered its 61st nuclear generator and Finland is building the largest reactor in the world, which is expected to open in 2011.

Sweden has some of the most ambitious greenhouse-gas targets in the world and plans to become carbon neutral by 2050. It wants to abolish fossil fuels as a heating source by 2020 and use half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

"The nuclear phase-out law will be abolished," a government spokesman said yesterday. "The ban in the nuclear technology law on new construction will also be abolished."

As Larvatus Prodeo notes, even the enormous cost blowouts we associate with nuclear power are not dampening enthusiasm in Finland.