Software Patents and Software Copyrights


Some readers will be surprised to learn that as of 2019, despite the rise of Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and despite decades of the explosive growth of Microsoft and Apple, the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to decide whether software is patentable, instead deciding every software patent case on narrower grounds. It is settled and statutory that software is copyrightable, but the test for copyright infringement and the extent of copyright protection are questionable.

Here I will explore a Law and Economics Approach to questions about whether and to what extent software can be protected by patent or copyright.

One might ask why it would even be questioned whether software can be patented. After all, patent law protects technology, and software is technology. However, patent law was created in the 19th century and solidified in the 20th, and the paradigm of patent law, in which its legal doctrines make sense, is to protect a physical device with a specific structure and physical elements of the object arranged a certain way. Patent law protects structures and elements, not functions or features. Also, patent law has always held that abstract ideas are not protected. Every invention it dealt with during its formative era was a physical invention. One thinks of the cotton gin as a good example of an early achievement of patent law. Lastly, patent law evolved for investigations in physics, biology, and mechanical engineering in which scholarly research led to lab experiments that yielded inventions — all of which was very expensive and hard to duplicate, although productive of discoveries that greatly benefited society.

The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to decide whether software is patentable, instead deciding every software patent case on narrower grounds.

Software does not fit this paradigm. Software is an abstract idea with no physical existence essential to its operation. The same software can usually run on any hardware, so hardware is not necessary to it conceptually. As such, it should not be, and is not, patentable. Software patent attorneys recite hardware in patent claims to try to create a jurisdictional nexus in the physical world, but this is merely a legal fiction. What makes software profitable is usually its features and function, not how the elements of its source code were structured. It is black letter law that you can patent structures, but not features.

Software generally takes preexisting computer program language syntax, software frameworks, software OS features (operating systems), SDKs (software developer kits), and software APIs (application programming interfaces, a set of syntax for software systems to interact with other software systems), and uses them to do new and useful or extraordinary things. All software essentially uses the same sort of syntax, such as logical and arithmetic operations and conditional statements and loops and variables, and the same framework features, such as user authentication and database reads and writes, and merely rearranges these into new and useful features for end users — a calendar, for example, or photo sharing, or music playing. Front-end designs, such as what web pages or apps look like, usually take a set of given elements (colors and shapes or rounded corners or shadows or progress bars) and find new ways to arrange old components. Software engineers usually do not reinvent the wheel.

Software development is relatively cheap, does not require lab research, and does not rely on academic research. Indeed, a person could, in theory, learn how to code by reading books and, for no more than the cost of buying a laptop, use a free, open source framework to write software that made millions of dollars. Essentially anyone can learn to code, and scientific or mathematical skill of academic caliber are not requisite. Contrast the knowledge of biology or electrical engineering that is required to patent a drug or a microchip.

The paradigmatic Silicon Valley startup is three 20-year-old computer science majors who hack around one night and make some software and release it — whereupon it snags 2,000 users in a matter of weeks. The inventors raise a million dollars of venture capital, promote the product, get a million users, and get acquired for a billion dollars. That story resembles that of Instagram and many other “unicorns” (the slang term for a software startup valued at over a billion dollars). These young people who know code at a very high level and get very rich from it are called Silicon Valley Geniuses.

Software is an abstract idea with no physical existence essential to its operation. As such, it should not be, and is not, patentable.

In contrast, the paradigm for a patent is a lab that spends a ton of money on Ph.D. researchers who are looking for a cure for cancer. This lab must have the promise of a patent to justify the millions spent on research that may ultimately strike out. For this reason, trying to fit software into patent law is like trying to fit a square per into a round hole. The round hole did not expect and was not designed for a square peg.

Again, the abstract idea doctrine of patent law holds that abstract ideas and scientific principles are not eligible subject matter for patents. On the basis of the abstract idea doctrine alone, software is not patentable, and arguments that hardware gives it physical existence is a legal fiction. The actual statement of the software in a computer programming language does physically exist as bit values in computer memory or instructions in a processor, but language expression is copyright subject matter, whereas inventions are patent subject matter. Software, considered as an invention, is simply an idea implemented by a computer or device.

There is a path forward from this impasse: register software patents, but give them special rules. This path is especially attractive because it does not require new legislation and all the lobbying and hand-wringing that come with a political process, but it is more honest than legal fiction. The abstract idea doctrine should simply be retired as a patent doctrine that failed to keep pace with the evolution of technology. The abstract idea doctrine can be replaced by a distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, which is a plausible distillation of the abstract idea law, wherein software patents that yield practical knowledge, as opposed to merely theoretical knowledge, can be patentable subject matter.

But this leaves the question of what software should be patentable.

There exists a certain basic set of patentability subject matter requirements that every patent lawyer knows: novelty, nonobviousness, utility, adequate disclosure, and claims defined by a specification. The key is two patentability subject matter requirements, as interpreted by Law and Economics. First, a patent must be novel. Second, it must be nonobvious.

There is a path forward from this impasse: register software patents, but give them special rules.

From a Law and Economics point of view, monopolies are horrible, because they raise prices and stifle competition. Yet a patent is a 20-year monopoly on an invention. So why grant a patent? A patent is a trade whereby society gives a monopoly to an inventor in return for his disclosing his invention, which then becomes part of the knowledge possessed by society. For this trade to be justified for society, the benefit to society of acquiring the knowledge must exceed the loss from higher prices during the monopoly. Novelty and nonobviousness are two guarantees of this. If the knowledge is not new, society has no need to buy it, because it already possesses it. The underlying intent of the nonobvious requirement is that other inventors would be unlikely to invent the same thing during the 20-year life of the monopoly, because otherwise society could gain that knowledge without paying out a full 20-year monopoly, even if society might wait five years for the invention to be disclosed by other inventors. This analysis replicates the patent law doctrine that combining old parts into a new configuration is not patentable unless the new whole is more than the already known sum of its parts. If A, B, and C are already known, then combining them into ABC might be new, but if there is no new knowledge above what was known from A, B, and C before, then society does not gain any new knowledge and has no reason to award a monopoly.

From this we arrive at a new test for whether a unit of software should be eligible for a patent: the Silicon Valley Genius Test. A patent should be awarded for something that a Silicon Valley Genius does not already know and could not figure out and is unlikely to think up during the next 20 years.

The Silicon Valley Genius knows every element of source code syntax and every feature already available to end users, so a new combination or configuration of those, absent something new that he does not know, will fail the test. The invention must be innovative and creative enough that, even with actual billions of dollars as motivation, the real geniuses of Silicon Valley are not likely to invent it within 20 years. The Silicon Valley Genius is smart, he is a genius, and if something could make a profit and could be cobbled together from the prior art, he will find a way to make it. But to pass the test, the knowledge involved must be new to the SVG. It must look like a lightbulb turning on in his head. After all, he is the representative member of society who actually gains the knowledge disclosed in the patent and is able to monetize it after the monopoly ends.

The Silicon Valley Genius Test is a very high standard to meet, but from the Law and Economics point of view there is otherwise no real reason to grant a patent — because real Silicon Valley Geniuses do exist in large numbers with venture capital funding and low development costs, so they will likely discover whatever the invention is and society will get it at a lower cost than by paying a monopoly. It is conceivable that most software patents would be struck down under the SVG test. Yet that would be the correct result, lowering prices by busting monopolies while only paying for true genius inventions that benefit society most.

From a Law and Economics point of view, monopolies are horrible, because they raise prices and stifle competition.

As with any test, we arrive at this question: how to pass it? Any inquiry using the SVG test must begin by identifying what is the knowledge that society gains in return for the proposed monopoly. From a Law and Economics point of view, if society does not take a profit on the trade of knowledge for monopoly, a patent should not issue. We can ask what new knowledge about how to do or accomplish something the disclosure teaches, and without which it may be merely theoretical knowledge, not practical knowledge. Having identified practical knowledge, we then ask whether an SVG knows or will soon know this.

The SVG test can demonstrate this in several ways. Expert testimony from real established SVGs can be taken on the issue of whether they think this would be novel and nonobvious to SVGs. Polls and surveys and focus groups can show the knowledge to groups of 20 to 100 SVGs plucked from Silicon Valley or the talent pool of software developers and ask them to vote on whether they have seen this or they think someone would have thought of this within the next 20 years. And there can be a factual analysis of the prior art to see if the patent is merely a reconfiguration of old known elements into new features, which is essentially not even novel, let alone non-obvious.

Prior art analysis should not be limited merely to academic scholarship and published patents. It should look to the documentation of every computer programming language, framework, and API, as well as analyzing the source code in every repository of free open source software, such as GitHub.

Now let’s look at copyrights. The Copyright Act defines software as a literary work, and courts have developed a test for software copyright infringement that is essentially the Hand Test applied to source code. The Hand Test, named after Judge Learned Hand, is a popular test for deciding idea-expression dichotomy issues in a copyright infringement case. The idea-expression dichotomy is a copyright doctrine that holds that literary expression is copyrightable subject matter, but ideas (and facts) are not.

It is conceivable that most software patents would be struck down under the Silicon Valley Genius test. Yet that would be the correct result.

Let us be honest: it is a legal fiction that a computer program is a literary work. As with patents, software doesn’t really fit the mold. But let us consider a computer program and take seriously the position that it is a literary work. A computer program, in the copyright sense, is a unit of source code. Source code is composed of words, written in a computer programming language, that tell a computer what to do (leaving aside the detail that it is compiled to machine code, which is a series of ones and zeroes loaded into the processor, and the machine code is what actually tells the processor what to do). So it is text written in a language, and could be protected under copyright like any book or article.

But what makes software special, and what makes people want to protect it, is precisely the thing that normal literary works lack: technological functionality and computer operational execution. If the basis of software copyright is that software is a literary work, then it should be protected as a literary work. Assume that an author writes a short story. Under the idea-expression dichotomy, copyright could protect literal copying of her words and also her voice, her style, her idiom, and the details of her plot and story and characters, although not the abstract ideas of her plot or her character archetypes. Copyright would also not protect the effect her story might have upon her readers.

Now assume that a chef writes a recipe in a cookbook. Literal copying of the cookbook would be copyright infringement, but when chefs use it to bake cakes, copyright would not normally give the author ownership over the cakes or any right to infringement damages. Selling pirated copies of a cookbook could lead to legal remedies, but baking a cake would not. If one chef buys a cookbook and bakes a cake and sells slices which compete against the author's cakes, absent some contractual license as a condition of buying the book, that is not copyright infringement.

I believe that copyright should protect the literary aspect of source code: its word choice, style, and idiom, the voice of the author as a writer of software, and any structural extensions of such, but should not protect functionality, which is properly within the scope of patent, not copyright. If the cake itself, or the reader enjoyment, is not copyright infringement, neither should be any source code elements, to the extent that they have an effect on computers.

Selling pirated copies of a cookbook could lead to legal remedies, but baking a cake would not.

A doctrinal basis for this position exists within the idea-expression dichotomy, which holds that where the copyright is the only possible expression of an idea, or one of a small finite set of potential expressions, then it merges with the idea and is a defense to infringement. From this we may infer the Functional Merger Test, which holds that features and functionality are facts about what software does or are simply ideas, and that where functionality merges with the expression of the source code under Merger Doctrine, the functionality is an idea for purposes of the idea-expression dichotomy, and the software as a functional entity cannot be protected.

Some examples may help to explain this. Assume that a feature requires software source code to take user input ten times in sequence and each time compare the input to a value, outputting a message if and only if the messages match. Assume that this must be done in one specific programming language. There is probably a small finite number of syntactic ways to do this. Declaring a variable, putting user input into it, comparing it to a string literal, and using a loop to do this ten times would suggest certain syntax to an SVG who was, for example, experienced in Java, or in Python. How to code this naturally emerges from the function or feature that is the end goal. The expression has therefore merged with the idea under Merger Doctrine, because there is either only one or a discreet finite number of expressions that is capable of correctly expressing the non-copyrightable idea.

Where the copyright would spoof a patent and grant a de facto monopoly on a technology, which Merger Doctrine in copyright law explicitly rejects, there should be a defense to copyright infringement. But the same argument would apply to most software copyrights, in the absence of actual copying of source code or the use of someone else's source code verbatim without permission. Languages, frameworks, SDKs, and APIs have a finite set of syntax to accomplish common jobs, and any common feature, or any feature conceivable by combining or reconfiguring known components, will suffer this syndrome of any one solution necessarily resembling other solutions. Writing source code takes a lot of work and investment, and copyright properly protects unauthorized use or literal verbatim copying of source code, but all copyright infringement litigation that comprises or touches upon functionality must fail, under Functional Merger Doctrine, because ideas are not copyrightable subject matter and the copyright would grant a monopoly on the idea and therefore the copyright is invalid to the extent that it is directed at protecting functionality. A software writer’s voice, style, and idiom could be protected, but these have no financial value, so enforcement would be rare.

To extend the cake hypothetical: assume that the recipe calls for flour, sugar, chocolate, eggs, butter, and honey. Assume that the chef writes the recipe in a cookbook and publishes it. What if it is impossible for another chef to write a recipe for that cake without using those six words: flour, sugar, chocolate, eggs, butter, honey? To judge infringement, one might try to grade the text on the scale of abstract idea to specific expression. But that would not be my approach. If the copyright would grant a monopoly on noncopyrightable subject matter, namely the cake, then there should be no infringement. There does not even need to be any deep analysis to find infringement. The copyright itself should be held invalid to the extent that it owns the cake recipe.

A software writer’s voice, style, and idiom could be protected, but these have no financial value, so enforcement would be rare.

By contrast, the current test for software copyright infringement seeks to remove all unprotected elements and then be left with the core structure and elements of the software, which other software can infringe if there is substantial similarity. This is essentially a version of the Hand Test for copyright infringement. The Hand Test posits a spectrum or continuum of the idea-expression dichotomy with unprotected idea at one extreme end and full protection as 100% expression at the other end. The judge applying the Hand Test then hears arguments and draws an arbitrary line and points to an arbitrary spot on the spectrum, above which is “protected” and below which is “idea.” Judge Hand famously said that no judge can know where he should draw the line, and no judge ever will, and the Hand Test is as much an acknowledgement of an arbitrary decision as it is an actual test applied by a judge. The copyright software infringement test inherits all the flaws and weaknesses of the Hand Test, with the decision of what to protect being arbitrary, unpredictable, and without rigorous rational justification. The test removes unprotected elements to find what is protected, but absent a test on top of it, this is circular reasoning: an element was removed because it was not protected, and it was not protected because it was removed.

In a novel you can have the plot in general (say, forbidden love), plot details (forbidden love between young Italian nobles), and fully defined textual detail (Romeo and Juliet). You can have a spectrum on which you begin with Romeo and Juliet, then move to their story but with different names, then not in Italy, then not in the Renaissance, then they aren’t from warring families but just from groups that hate each other, then they don’t both die at the end, and you can then arrive at just the abstract idea of forbidden love with a tragic ironic ending. To analyze whether West Side Story would infringe Romeo and Juliet (which could have been a real case, if copyrights had been started centuries ago and never expired), a judge would need to look at every point on the line from idea to expression, choose an arbitrary point, then assess whether West Side Story contains enough of the protected elements of Romeo and Juliet to infringe.

In contrast, source code is fully defined, and every item of syntax and every code structural organization and source code design exists only for the purpose of achieving a result; so there are really two discreet entities, the source code on the one hand, and features and functionality on the other hand, and there is no spectrum or continuum between them. Current software copyright law applies a Hand Test Romeo and Juliet approach instead of the either-or, all-or-nothing approach that I am recommending.

My position is that the test for software copyright infringement should be that literal copying or the unauthorized operational and actual use of source code by infringing hardware is liable but any allegation of infringement of non-identical source code fails, to the extent that it would protect (and grant a monopoly on) features or functionality. A Law and Economics analysis of infringement sheds light here.

Judge Hand famously said that no judge can know where he should draw the line, and no judge ever will, and the Hand Test is as much an acknowledgement of an arbitrary decision as it is an actual test.

Writing source code costs money: resources are consumed to pay the salary of the software developers while they write the code, and to hire coders who are technically competent to do so. By granting a copyright, copyright law gives the authors a monopoly on the source code and its usage for the life of the copyright, so that they can recover their investment. If infringers come along and sell copies of the source code, they can make the same revenues as the author but without the cost of authorship, and are hence stealing the money paid to make the source code. Copyright law properly prices the cost of creation into the sale price of the software, so that the purchaser pays the cost of its creation by the manufacturer (plus whatever profit the market will bear).

On the other hand, assume that someone writes source code that has a specific feature, and someone else writes a second computer program in the same computer programming language, implementing the same feature. The task, and the available syntax, defines and specifies certain optimal ways of coding the feature, so the second person's software ends up substantially similar to the first software. The first person sues for copyright infringement. The software is substantially similar, but damages are not for recovering the author’s cost of writing source code; instead he is trying to own the feature. This grants a monopoly and raises prices and eliminates the second person as a competitor and a substitute in the marketplace. The difference in price between what the software would cost in a world with price competition between the first and second persons, compared to what the software costs with the monopoly, is the amount of economic surplus that society loses by granting the monopoly.

It may or may not be economically efficient for society to grant a monopoly in return for technology, but to the extent that it does, patent law is the regime that does so. The details of patent law have been carefully calibrated by Congress to consider the costs and benefits of monopolies paid by society in return for technology given to society, both in eligibility and in duration of the monopoly, and copyright law should not be doing this. Judges have explicitly recognized that copyright law should not usurp patent law in Merger Doctrine cases, and the Functional Merger Doctrine for software copyrights will correctly eliminate infringement for features and functionality.

Software is not poetry, and one does not write it for beauty.

The Functionality Merger Doctrine is confirmed both by logic and by pursuit of the Law and Economics question: why is the copyright owner suing for infringement?

A lawsuit costs money, and the litigant must expect to get more out of it than what he spends, or as a rational economic actor he would not choose to litigate. If literal copying or unauthorized use of source code happens, and if his cost of having made the source code exceeds his loss through litigation, then he can gain something, the protection of his investment. Otherwise, if he sues, and only nonfunctional elements are protected, he gains nothing, because purely stylistic elements of source code have no financial value. Software is not poetry, and one does not write it for beauty. He would not sue unless he could monetize his lawsuit, for which he would have to take some of the money made by the functionality away from the competitor he sues. From a Law and Economics point of view, something must make the money to pay the damages, otherwise they would be unfunded.

Thus, absent literal copying, no software copyright infringement litigation would ever be initiated, unless it was to attack competing functionality in different yet similar source code, which is precisely what copyright as a literary work of authorship should not protect, and which is within the scope of patent, not copyright. Functional Merger Doctrine can eliminate all such lawsuits.

The test for whether software copyright infringement should be found will follow this inquiry: did literal verbatim copying of source code or actual unauthorized use of source code by hardware occur? If yes, copyright infringement. If no, there must be a presumption that the plaintiff seeks to protect functionality and must fail, rebutted by a showing that the asserted protected elements are nonfunctional — for example, voice or style.

It is a legal fiction that software is not an abstract idea for the purposes of patent law, and it is a legal fiction that software is a literary work.

Return to the example of the chef. Assume that the recipe says, “Mix flour, butter, eggs, chocolate, honey, and sugar; then bake.” If some publisher reprints this text in a rival cookbook, that is theft of the text as a literary work of authorship. But a chef cannot say the recipe without using the six words that name the ingredients, so they merge with the functionality. Now what if someone copies the structure, listing savory ingredients first and sweet ingredients last? Could the chef sue for infringement then? Scholars and judges may think this is a tough question, but really it is easy. Who cares in what order the ingredients are listed?

No lawsuit will ever get funded unless it is to protect something that makes enough money to pay the legal fees — in software, functionality. So the Functional Merger Doctrine test will apply and answer this question. The chef owns the cookbook but not the cake. No one cares about the recipe; people only care about the cake and what it tastes like. A chef’s recipe is the perfect analogy for software, because source code is a set of instructions that tells a computer what to do, and the functionality, the cake, is the operation of the computer executing that set and series of instructions, which does or accomplishes something useful. (It is interesting to wonder whether a chocolate honey cake would be surprising and unexpected enough to deserve a patent, although as a mere combination of already known elements it probably should not.)

To conclude: it is a legal fiction that software is not an abstract idea for the purposes of patent law, and it is a legal fiction that software is a literary work. But, lacking the political and legislative will to reform and create a new regime for software, we must make patent and copyright law work for software, through tests that are better suited for it. The Silicon Valley Genius Test and the Functional Merger Doctrine Test are clear, bright line tests that are easy for judges to use and that will clean up and refine the law of intellectual property for computer source code.

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The Urgency of Climate Change


On June 30, at a climate change meeting in Abu Dhabi, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exclaimed, "Every week brings new climate-related devastation . . . floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms." This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — exceeding a hellish 400 ppm in 2017. The world must “act now with ambition and urgency,” he implored.

Journalists, liberals, and frightened children agree, as does every one of the more than 20 Democrat candidates who have entered the 2020 presidential race. They adamantly believe that climate change is an “existential threat” that is already hitting key tipping points. Climatologist Michael Mann (the inventor of the famous Hockey Stick curve) “has urged governments to treat the transition to renewable energy with the equivalent urgency that drove the US industrial mobilization in World War Two”. By some estimates, fossil fuels must be eliminated in 12 years. Sensing a lack of urgency, students in over 100 nations walked out of their classrooms last March, in a global “Student Climate Strike” to protest climate inaction. News anchor Chuck Todd devoted an entire edition of NBC’s Meet the Press to how climate urgency can be explained to the American people.

This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — now exceeding a hellish 400 ppm.

Not long ago, climate havoc was less urgent. “Change” wasn’t expected to become catastrophic until the latter half of the century. As late as December 2015, when the Paris climate accord was signed, few cared that horrendous polluters, such as China and India, promised only trivial emission reductions. There was ample time for journalists to explain the urgency of climate change. Experts now, however, tell us that the increased frequency and intensity of extreme climate events is already underway, and that only bold, multitrillion dollar programs such as the Green New Deal (GND) can end the weekly assaults.

But why has the frequency and intensity of “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms" increased so much, only recently? The Global Circulation Models (GCMs) that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Let’s say that a group of economists created an economic model designed to predict future inflation rates. And let’s say that they insisted that all future US monetary and fiscal policy be based on its predictions. But what if every time the model was tested, its predicted inflation rate was three times greater than the observed rate? After a few years of observed failure (if it took that long), most people would tell the economists where they could stick their model. And those who promoted policies based on its predictions would be ridiculed as clowns and morons.

The Global Circulation Models that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Not so in climate science world. The denizens of that bizarre kingdom are praised for their shoddy tools. Indeed, they have been encouraged, with profligate research grants, to create more and bigger GCMs. Since 1988, when James Hansen first sounded the catastrophic global warming alarm, climate scientists have relied on such models. Hansen’s initial model predicted a warming rate of 0.35C per decade. Other climate scientists jumped into the climate modeling business, and over the ensuing decades built a suite of at least 102 models — all of which estimated temperature increases similar to Hansen’s torrid rate.

The growth of climate temperature estimation science gave rise to climate event attribution science — the blaming of fossil-fuel combustion for any event that climate change fretters believe could plausibly result from the implausible temperatures predicted by the GCMs. And for most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

Except that empirical evidence for urgency does not exist. The temperature predictions of the GCMs are no more accurate than those of the fictitious economic model above. The only difference is that the latter model would have been discarded decades ago. The GCMs are still in use, heavy use, despite a gaping discrepancy between the theoretical temperatures that they estimate and the empirical temperatures that are observed. Its existence has been known for years. Many peer-reviewed studies (e.g., here, here, and here) have identified and measured its magnitude. In his 2019 paper Falsifying Climate Alarm, John Christy compared the temperature trends estimated by GCMs (102 of them) to the actual trend observed by satellites and radiosonde balloons. Over the period from 1979 (when satellite temperature measurements first became available) to 2017, the average trend produced by the models was 0.44 o C per decade, three times the observed trend of 0.15 o C per decade.

For most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

One would think that journalists such as Chuck Todd would welcome climate scientists such as Christy to their newscasts. They might discover that climate urgency is, well, not that urgent. Imagine the scoop: “GCMs Exaggerate Global Warming by Factor of 3, Need Fundamental Revisions.” Unfortunately, climate scientists such as Christy are treated as heretics, who should be given no opportunity to disturb the grist. “The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We're not going to give time to climate deniers,” pontificated Mr. Todd. This is tantamount to discovering that the actual inflation rate is 3%, then writing a front-page story based on the rate predicted by the faulty economic model: “Inflation Soars to 9%, Devastating Consumer Purchasing Power.”

And so it goes at the climate urgency mill. Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported. It is only the attribution of climate havoc (to fossil-fuel consumption) that has increased in frequency and intensity — a development that dramatically escalated with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, nearly rupturing climate urgentometers with the 2017 US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Climate change enthusiasts around the world cringed at estimates of the additional quantity of CO2 that would spew from the US into earth’s ever-thickening, heat-trapping atmosphere. In a speech at NYU immediately prior to Mr. Trump’s announcement to withdraw, Mr. Guterres warned that the US would suffer “negative economic, security and societal consequences.” Forbes agreed with the assessment, stating, “While the rest of the world moves to invest heavily in renewables, implement carbon reduction technology, and alter consumption habits the United States runs the risk of losing its competitiveness in the global marketplace.” “China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short,” snarled an Inside Climate News headline. The US became the climate villain. Climate urgency became exponentially more urgent. Climate destruction became weekly.

Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported.

But is any of this urgent, or even true? Have Chuck Todd and his ilk bothered to check readily available empirical evidence? After all, science can only be confirmed by observation. If, for example, they consulted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s detailed list of hurricanes, they would quickly discover that there is no upward trend in frequency or intensity. In her June testimony before a US House committee on climate change, climate scientist Judith Curry noted: “Of the 13 strongest U.S. landfalling hurricanes in the historical record, only three have occurred since 1970 (Andrew, Michael, Charley). Four of these strongest hurricanes occurred in the decade following 1926.” She further stated, “Recent international and national assessment reports acknowledge that there is not yet evidence of changes in the frequency or intensity of hurricanes, droughts, floods or wildfires that can be attributed to manmade global warming.”

And let’s not forget climate-related death, the ultimate measure of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. According to the International Disaster Database, during the last century, the number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today. Furthermore, when population growth (which quadrupled during the period) and more aggressive reporting in recent decades (to receive more disaster-relief aid) are taken into account, this impressive decline appears dramatically steeper. A time series plot would produce a hockey stick curve flipped over, “proving” that rising levels of atmospheric CO2 saves lives.

On September 23, the leaders of the rest of the world will come to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City, “with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.” Mr. Trump will no doubt be excoriated and nations such as China and India will be praised for their climate leadership, snatched from a derelict US, with its suffering economy.

The number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today.

But the US economy has been booming — with rapid GDP growth, rising wage rates, and historically low unemployment. The “heavy investments in renewables” made by the rest of the world are, thus far, a bust. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 2005 to 2017, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6,040 million metric tons, an increase of 21%. In stark contrast, and to the dismay of journalists and politicians who have been telling us that America has let the rest of the world down, US energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 861 million metric tons, a decrease of 14%. And for climate enthusiasts who are placing their planet salvation hopes on early goal attainment, the report noted that “growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2017 was led by China, India, and other countries in Asia.” Perhaps Mr. Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

It’s difficult for people other than liberals and schoolchildren to view climate urgency as anything but a hoax. Most people tend to slow down, if not stop, when they sense that they are being deceived — when the stories they are being told do not match what they observe. True, Americans observed the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that struck in 2017; but they also observed the absence of a single major hurricane landfall in the 11 years prior.

If solar panels and windmills were cost-effective, we would see them everywhere. We see them almost nowhere. They supply less than 1% of the world’s energy. They provide this minuscule quantity because, after decades of technological advances (praised and celebrated by the news media) and decades of taxpayer-funded subsidies (currently in the US, $129 billion annually, without which both industries would go out of business tomorrow), they are too costly and inefficient to compete with other forms of energy. The next time a Democrat candidate promotes the GND, he should explain the urgency of replacing our cheapest sources of energy with the most expensive. Or how he expects to get to 100% solar and wind in 12 years, having taken 50 years to get to 1%. When a journalist uses the next flood or drought to explain the urgency of climate change, he should explain how, in those halcyon days of the 1930s, when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was less than 300 ppm, floods claimed 436,147 lives. Or how the droughts of the 1920s claimed 472,400.

Perhaps Chuck Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

Climate change urgency has led to the hasty development of schemes to curb the rise in global temperature — currently predicted to exceed 4C by 2100. Controlling the earth’s climate, of course, requires an enormous quantity of money. The GND solution would build a near-zero carbon national electricity grid (115 million acres of solar panels and windmills to eliminate electricity generated by fossil fuels), replace air travel with a high-speed rail system and internal combustion vehicles with electric vehicles, retrofit all buildings to meet high energy-efficient standards, and much, much more. Its total cost has been estimated to be as high as $93 trillion. An exhaustive economic study by Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute found that the electricity generation component alone would cost more than “$490.5 billion per year, permanently, or $3,845 per year per household.”

And for the proponents of the GND to believe that it will work, an enormous quantity of conceit and arrogance is also required. But let’s say that the GND succeeds — that it is executed flawlessly and meets all of its emission reduction goals. Then, notes Mr. Zycher, its effect on end-of-century temperature reduction is calculated (by an EPA climate model) to be somewhere between 0.173°C and 0.083°C. That is, $93 trillion of climate urgency will have absolutely no effect. All of that requires an enormous quantity of stupidity.

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Never the Same Again


Hong Kong ranks among the freest societies in the world. Not only economically, but socially it is a very liberal place. It was marinated in British ways until 1997, much longer than Singapore and other colonies. Then China took it over as a special administered region, which according to the agreement with the UK meant that it was only nominally to be under Chinese control for the next 50 years. It was possibly the only colony in which a vast majority of citizens did not want the British to go.

For most of the past 22 years, China has been easy on Hong Kong, despite the fact that the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes, if it wants to. This alone is enough to generate fear and hate among the people of Hong Kong. It does not help that they are conscious and made aware every day by the hordes of visiting tourists from China — through what are seen as their rather less sophisticated ways, their rudeness and misbehavior — that a far less developed country of China controls one of the richest societies on the planet.

Nouveaux riches from China buy properties in Hong Kong, driving up prices, their children take up slots in good schools, and they put buying pressure on edible goods, such as milk powder, etc., that have a high risk of being adulterated in China. Or at least this is what the people of Hong Kong think.

The People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes.

China has built ultramodern infrastructure in the region. It is now possible to cross the sea from Hong Kong to Macau using the world’s longest bridge, which is 55 kilometers long and cost a whopping $19 billion to build. Bullet trains now run from the heart of Hong Kong to Shenzhen in a mere 15 minutes for a cost of $10, and to Guangzhou in a mere 50 minutes. Shenzhen and Guangzhou are cities that were the fountainhead of the Chinese economic miracle when Deng Xiaoping made them the places for experiments in free-market capitalism in 1979.

The area adjoining Hong Kong continues to be the heart of Chinese manufacturing. It is a hive of energy, activity, progress, and optimism unlike anywhere else on the planet. In many ways, technology is more customer friendly in East Asia than it is in the West. The enormity of this can be appreciated only by those who visit. I often go to China, where I hold a long-term visa, and I go to Hong Kong often enough that I am allowed to pass the immigration eChannel that its citizens use, without a need to talk with any officer.

I am extremely fond of China, and see it as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society. Culturally and economically, it has been on a rapid upward trend. Chinese today compete with the best in the world, and their creativity has been unleashed. In many areas of research, Chinese organizations produce more quality and quantity of output than any other country on the planet, including the US. The reading habit is increasing rapidly among Chinese. There are tens, perhaps hundreds, of Chinese cities whose downtowns look more modern than those in the most developed parts of the world.

China owes a lot of its growth to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, countries that were able to channel both Western technology, adapted for Chinese culture and language, and Western investments. China became successful by copying Western technology and often improving on it, something that I, unlike others in the West, see as a massive achievement — because copying is not all that easy, as is demonstrated by the failure of the other Third World countries to do the same. China owes its gratitude to the West for enabling this.

I see China as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society.

Time has moved on, and gratitude has faded, or perhaps it never existed — the concept of national gratitude hardly exists outside the West and Japan. And China’s egocentric president Xi Jinping has inserted his thoughts in the constitution of China, declared himself a lifetime president, implemented a tyrannical social credit system, and taken a heavy-handed policy toward neighboring countries. In his overconfidence, he appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

Xi has likely surrounded himself with yesmen and with others too fearful to speak. His arrogance and his distance from the ground realities are weaving a web of entanglements for China. Xi has helped to accentuate a sense of nationalism among Chinese. Out of jealousy and an inferiority complex, Chinese nationalists act big-brotherly toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, both highly developed societies. But in a country where face value is very important, where the central government is the key stabilizing force, and where decisions once taken cannot be easily reversed, Xi cannot afford to look weak. In a country of 1.39 billion people, this has created a massive systemic risk.

Unfortunately, by fuelling nationalism, by engaging in trade war with the US — a war that could have been avoided had he agreed to play fair — by being heavy-handed in contrast to tilting toward the rule of law, and by constantly interfering in Hong Kong, Xi is making China unstable, and at best seriously retarding its progress.

In his overconfidence, Xi appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

When in 2014 Xi tried to influence Hong Kong’s electoral process, massive protests arose. Today, Hong Kong again finds itself in the crosshairs of China. The new protests, enormous and intense, are against China’s attempt to institute a law enabling extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. Xi miscalculated. The protestors have come to conclude that China wants — by hook or by crook — to incorporate Hong Kong fully into China, something the people of Hong Kong are very paranoid about.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The people of Hong Kong lack conditioning in fear-based control. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

According to the agreement that China had with the UK, it was to keep Hong Kong politically independent until 2047. But Xi cannot keep his hands off the golden-egg-laying goose. He and nationalist Chinese fail to understand that Hong Kong under the party’s control will no longer be Hong Kong, and will break one of the major channels of progress for China. But if he has to pull back, the reverberation will embolden those elements within China that want democracy. This is a lose-lose interference — because democracy would be a disaster for China.

Let me explain.

Across the spectrum from the Right to the Left, the people of Hong Kong tend to like the West. Many would have preferred to be continued to be ruled by the UK. They fly the Union Jack or the American flag to show their affiliation. The central theme organizing the protestors is a desire for a democratic process, unrestrained by China.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

But despite their liking for the West, a large number of people in Hong Kong exist in situations that would not be approved of in the West. Live-in maids who must stay away from their families in Indonesia and the Philippines, lower-class workers who must share a small room, often with the same bed shared among those working in shifts — many examples are possible. They all go against the sensitivities of the egalitarian forces in today’s West. Of course, these people exist because they get a better deal in Hong Kong than they would have where they grew up. Insisting that they get better working conditions would only mean that they would not have a place in Hong Kong and would be forced to stay in their home countries. Life is tough, but the free market offers them the best deal.

Democracy, by igniting populist forces, will destroy this arrangement. Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business — the kind of interference that gets socially generated in a democracy — will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

Hong Kong has no minimum wages. And, interestingly, wages in Hong Kong go down when the economic situation requires. No doubt there is a huge underclass. In a democratic system, the underclass will vote for economic egalitarianism, exactly what will destroy Hong Kong’s free market — damaging the underclass the most.

But anyway, it is impossible to see Hong Kong becoming democratic. China won’t let that happen. China cannot even afford to find a compromise, for losing face would mean nationalists going against the government, destabilizing China.

Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

The need of Xi and China not to lose face means that this situation can no longer be disentangled. Given Xi’s constant interference, democratic desire in Hong Kong is going to stay. Several of my friends living in Hong Kong are seriously contemplating moving to Singapore. I myself am investing in property companies in Singapore, but I feel sad that, irrespective of which side wins, Hong Kong will never be the same again.

I go to China often. Chinese people are clearly fearful of discussing politics in the open, often even among friends. I like the fact that they are politically not active and focus on their own circle of influence. They lack the sense of entitlement. They also lack political freedom (which often translates into a sheep expecting the fox to steal from another sheep), but they enjoy social and economic freedoms. Unlike in other poor countries, women walk around feeling mostly safe.

If Xi now gives in, even partially, to the demands of Hong Kong protestors, it will embolden those demanding democracy in China. But a democratic China would be a disaster. It would create entitlements among its people, waste their resources on political activism, and introduce short-term-minded politicians and outright goons to power. Stability would be replaced by political infighting, and with that would also go whatever liberties there are. Measuring liberty is subjective, but I cannot think of a poor country that offers more liberty than China. I certainly feel far freer in China than in India — although the Chinese generally dislike Indians.

Whatever happens, Hong Kong will no longer be the same Hong Kong. Nor will China be the same China. And Xi is responsible for the mess, and for creating massive systemic risks against stability within China. I am a big fan of China and hope it finds a way out. But in retrospect, China would have been much better off never acquiring Hong Kong.

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Climate Change Denier, Part 2


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

* * *

Sins Against the Spirit of Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring: The Thermometer Problem

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

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

Arbitrary Period Sampling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Links?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unused Usable Metrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partial Solutions Missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Going On?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New or Old Cult?

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

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

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

Where Do I Stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Been There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How About You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Did Anyone Ask for an Encore?


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

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

Free medicine!

“You don’t know that,” Ryan said.

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

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

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

Working class. Ruling class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We're All Turning Into Trust-fund Babies


No cause is so noble that it won't attract fuggheads (Niven’s Law #17). Which, naturally, brings me to Peter Buttigieg.

Now I don’t want to refer to anybody who holds such an august position as mayor of a middle-sized city in Indiana as a fugghead, but it’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still, I think Hizzonor is onto something with his talk about national service.

I know the arguments in opposition; they’ve been well made right here at Liberty — that universal service, whether mandatory or just customary, is a form of slavery. And I yield to no one in my admiration for Lori Heine and Stephen Cox, both as to their talents as writers and the acuity of the thinking that illuminates their writing, but I believe they’re missing an important point about slavery. And citizenship, for that matter. To start with, I don’t think universal service has anything to do with slavery.

It’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Nobody would accuse the citizens of ancient Athens of being slaves. That’s what they had slaves for. The citizens ran the place and elected their leaders and debated in the agora. Some headed up schools of philosophy during business hours, and spent their spare time embarrassing people in the street by asking questions the people couldn’t answer. Socrates was famous for that. He also put in a lot of time in national service. In his case, the infantry. Heavy infantry hoplites fitted out with up to 30 kilos of armor, greaves, shield, spear, sword, helmet. Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties. Close to 30 years: two in training, others disputing against Potidaeans, then Boeotians, and then Spartans.

Here’s why we Americans should care: it was the philosophers who did the fighting, not the slaves, because slaves weren’t citizens, philosophers were, and military service was a badge of citizenship. Even a philosopher who questioned pretty much everything else never asked whether his talents were best suited to the infantry. I don’t know what reasons a middle-aged Socrates would have given for picking up all that gear and heading off to battle time after time, other than that it was his duty as a citizen, but here’s a list of reasons why I think Americans should do national service.

1. The Islam Principle (also applies to academics who can’t get it out of their heads that somewhere, someplace, communism will actually work, members of Kool-Aid cults, people who’ve spent 30 years in psychotherapy, and those who think Hillary Clinton should have another go at the presidency).

Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should. There’s a principle in psychology that the more it takes to obtain something the more valuable that something is. Also in economics. You can see this in what people give up to become Muslims: alcohol; bacon; companionable relations with the other sex; the right of women not to be dehumanized by having to wear special costumes when they step out of the house; the right not to dissipate one’s wealth on overpriced trips to Mecca . . . I could go on. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know it’s the sense of community that Muslims derive from mutually suffering through this nonsense that gives Islam the strength to resist the otherwise universal solvent of Enlightenment values.

2. Everybody needs a little skin in the game. Not only are Americans not required to serve in our military; 44% of us don’t even pay federal taxes. But we all expect the military to protect us. We expect air-traffic controllers to keep our planes from bumping into things. We expect the FDA to keep our food from killing us. We expect interstate highway bridges not to collapse beneath us. We expect our harbors not to silt up. We expect . . . oh, you get the point. The 44% of us who don’t pay for any of this, and the 93% who never serve in the military, expect it as much as everybody else.

It’s moral hazard. It’s easy come easy go. It’s welfare queens, rentseekers, and trust-fund babies.

3. The Eisenhower Principle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the military as an institution. One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be, and that’s not a bad thing for our civilian leaders to know from personal experience.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should.

Ike didn’t drop the bomb in Korea, and he didn’t drop it all over again when the Red Chinese were threatening Quemoy and Matsu, even though just about every general he talked with was hounding him to do just that. He knew enough about the military, he knew enough about strategic thinking and, especially, he knew enough about military leaders not to be bullied into doing the wrong thing. I’m not saying every candidate for president should be a five-star general, but I am saying that having leaders who’ve spent enough time in the military to know not to take military people too seriously might save a lot of us from some serious incineration down the road.

4. To know, know, know them is to . . . well, if you don’t love all of them, at least the ones you dislike you dislike because they’re jerks. Here’s another principle in psychology: You’re scared of people you don’t know.

In the military you do know them. You know them because you live in a big room with them. I was a white boy from the suburbs of Atlanta bunking with tough, rural whites; a guy who claimed to be connected to one of the New York crime families and might well have been; a guy from Mississippi who said his family were Druids who’d immigrated to America in the 1700s; sharecroppers; northern whites with hideous, aggressive accents who looked like they stole things; a lawyer; a cowboy who called everybody “partner”; a campus cop from the University of Colorado who’d let himself into the room containing photos from Project Bluebook and came away convinced that flying saucers were real; an African-American chemist who went AWOL and never came back; Chicanos who didn’t want us to eat grapes; ghetto blacks who called each other “nigger” and probably had knives to back it up; and an Eskimo. It all seemed very strange.

One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be.

It’s remarkable how that changed. By the time I got out of the army we’d become relaxed around each other and funny. We were loud and raucous and sang along with the Righteous Brothers or Creedence or Waylon and worried about what our girlfriends were up to but, mostly, we just wanted to go home . . . all except the chemist, who may have already been home for all anybody knew. I came to admire some, I never liked all of them, but I liked most of them, and I liked some of them a lot. And the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t like because I didn’t like them personally, not as representativesof something or other I’d never met. It’s not just our leaders who need experience in the military; it’s our people who need experience of America.

5. It makes one hell of a gap year (or two). I’m not going to say that I enjoyed every moment I was in the army. There were times, and plenty of them, I would gladly have been almost anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I did it. I wasn’t even sorry at the time.

For a young man who’d done nothing more exciting than sit in school and keep his mouth shut while people talked at him, the army scratched a primordial itch. Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell, and the faster I ran and the louder I yelled, the better they liked it. The army gave me a gun to shoot and things to throw that blew up. It sent me to a strange foreign place and gave me a boat to drive. That was fun and interesting and exotic. There were strange foreign people along the river banks and in sampans, and they were interesting and exotic, too. Sometimes, I got to throw things in their direction that blew up and, other times, they tried to blow me up. I can’t say all that was fun, but I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home. And I was glad of that. I especially wasn’t anything like the people who never went, and I’m even gladder about that. I was stronger and more mature, and had seen some of the world and had a pretty good sense of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and it didn’t have much to do with what the people who wanted me to sit at desks and be quiet thought I should do. And I’m most glad about that.

6. It would put a stop to store clerks thanking you for your service. Not that this annoys me, exactly, but these thank yous never seem to reek of sincerity. Now, I’m the last one to argue that Home Depot should discontinue its discount for veterans. Ten percent off goes a long way on big-ticket items. It’s just that the store clerks who thank me don’t know whether I ran a typewriter at Fort Dix or a patrol boat on the Saigon River, which doesn’t make me feel like I’m being thanked for anything I specifically did. Mostly the thankyous come across as smarmy, and hints at some kind of psychiatric sugar-coating for people who either feel smug about not having been in the army or secretly wish they’d had a bit more adventure when they were young. At bottom, I’m just not persuaded that anybody should be thanked for serving in the military. Nobody thanks you for paying taxes. Or sitting on a jury. Or voting. Those are duties that come with citizenship.

Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell.

I’ve been running on about the military, as if that were the only way to accomplish any of this; but, of course, it’s not. For one thing, the military couldn’t accommodate that many people, and God save the republic if it tried. There are plenty of other things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

7. Life is better when you’re the landowner. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was at an overlook at Bryce when this old guy got out of his car and walked over and admired the trail leading down into the canyon. The trail was wet and sloppy and stuck so thoroughly to your boots from late-season snow that it was like trying to walk in glue, and boy did that old guy love that trail. When he was a teenager he’d been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and he’d built it. “That trail, right there.”

Sixty or so years later he still came to visit it sometimes. His trail, the one we were looking at. That trail, right there. His wife stayed in the car and harrumphed. She’d been through this before. And she’d never been in the CCC.

There are plenty of things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Bill? Bill? The CCC? Really? Enough with this collectivist talk.

But I don’t see it that way. It seems to me I’m talking about responsibility, which is as far from collectivism as you can get because collectivists don’t take responsibility for anything, least of all the country they live in. Collectivists expect the country to take responsibility for them. We’re the libertarians. We’re the ones who take responsibility. We take responsibility for ourselves. We take responsibility for the people we care about. And, at least if you’re me, we’re the ones who should take responsibility for our country as a whole . . . because if we leave it up to the collectivists we’re not going to have a country. At least not a country any of us would want to live in.

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Climate Change Denier


Part I

As the climate change End Time-ism appears to grow inexorably, I keep reading and hearing good debunking attempts. Most don’t do me lasting good, however, because they require me to know, or to gain knowledge of, rudiments of physics, and of other sciences of which I am mostly innocent. It seems to me that it’s not right, that it’s not fair even, that deciphering these technically expressed instances of skepticism must be a distraction for the average citizen, as it is for me.

After all, when I take my car to the repair shop, I don’t really have to know much auto mechanics. Similarly, I don’t study dentistry before I choose a dentist, or entrust myself into his hands. And when I had a pacemaker put in, there was no requirement that I know where the surgeon planned to place it, or why. Nevertheless, everything went fine. Both my heart and my car run well, and my teeth are in reasonably good condition for my age.

Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects.

Incidentally, the American citizenry has maintained for 230 years a fair version of representative government. We achieved this in spite of (or because of) the paucity of individuals with advanced political science degrees in our midst. We relied mostly on our ordinary intellectual and moral faculties. What I personally bring to all these crucial choices of a car mechanic, of a dentist, of a heart surgeon, of a president, is intuition fed by experience, sometimes a capacity for quick reasoning, a willingness to apply elementary logic to new situations, and all-round skepticism. I am pretty fair at assessing others’ credibility, thanks to my possession of a good detector of what they would call in French caca de taureau. I suspect that other ordinary citizens do more or less what I do. Specialized training should not be required to make the most important choices imaginable.

We Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. I think we still don’t want to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects. They have to convince us rationally that their positions are right. Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

So it seems to me that there exists, upstream from scientific debunking, another potential critique of the general doctrine of apocalyptic climate change, one that relies on the same basic skills we use in everyday life. It seems to me also that skeptics who allow themselves to be drawn into the debate on specialized scientific grounds are falling into a kind of trap. I mean, for example, discussions of sunspots and controversies about the speed with which glaciers melt. By now, the dogma of climate change is so deeply and widely established, so many resources have been expended and continue to be expended to support it, so many careers are at stake in the media, in politics, in science, and in academia, that the only effective strategy of skepticism must start with a loud comment that “the King is naked.” I try to do this below.

Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

A word of warning: at several points, my own comments may seem overly technical, thus betraying my self-awarded mission. I ask you to believe that they only seem technical. This essay, like most of my writing, is not intended for the technically trained but for the intelligently ignorant.

Although I am trying to reach a more general position, I have learned from several examples of climate change skepticism with a libertarian point of view. I am thinking, for instance, of “Global Village Idiots,” by Steve Murphy, and of Murphy’s vivid discussion of mindless and aberrant climate-change blaming, “Butterfly Police.” Others have commented on the astounding contortions climate change reformers perform to push their policy proposals. The Paris Accord would be an example. It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement it although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway. As Robert H. Miller has said, “But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power.” (All in “Climate Change Wars.”)


The subject of this essay is the current idea of human-caused climate change. By this I mean the narrative that describes the global climate as changing more or less permanently, as a result of human activities, with severe adverse consequences for people and for the world itself, in magnitudes requiring immediate attention.

At the heart of this narrative is the so-called “greenhouse effect,” the release of gases that amplify the warming of the earth by the sun. Singled out among such gases in the versions of the narrative presented in mass media is carbon dioxide (  CO2).  

It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement the Paris Accord although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway.

Some other gases are also said to be responsible for the greenhouse effect, including methane burped and passed by cattle, but CO2 is usually considered the most worthy of attention. I am not sure if anyone makes the case that this gas is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, or if it’s singled out because it’s the most convenient to manipulate (to decrease), or if it’s emphasized for some other reason.

My Credentials

I have previously discussed various forms of irrationality surrounding the climate change narrative. (See the list of links that follows this part of the essay.) Now it’s time for me to be more thorough than I have been so far. It’s also time to gather in a single essay the several sources of my skepticism. This isn’t going to be pretty! Here are my nonspecialist qualifications toward this endeavor.

I know as much about the physics of weather as the average observant person who pays attention to the daily weather forecast. I may know slightly more, because I was a sailor for 50 years, which implies an interest in winds and tides. Probably none of this adds up to much.

In addition, as a result of living for a long time, I know a lot about viciousness, ludicrousness, gobbledygook, inconsistencies, bad faith, and plain old deceitfulness. For 30 years I was a teacher, a good observation point. A few years in the graduate program of an expensive university gave me clear ideas about what constitutes good scientific design in general, and also about sampling. Finally, I gained from my past occasional service as a referee for American scholarly journals an exquisite sensitivity to measurement issues. Because of the malevolent inquisitiveness linked to the same past scholarly activity, I am keenly interested in what should logically be there but isn’t — what for all the world ought to be there but can’t be found. You tell me there is an elephant in a dark room; I grope for a trunk. If I don’t find one after reasonable effort, I begin suspecting there is no elephant. Then I ask myself why you told me there was an elephant in the room, when there is not.

I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime.

Excuse me if it sounds like bragging, but I think that’s quite a bit. Reminder: I am still innocent of “climate science,” whatever that is.

Let me add that I am a retired citizen and that I have much more time to remain informed that most other citizens. I do it routinely. I follow the media and I read daily. I travel on the internet, in two languages. I do it for six or seven hours a day. This is not by way of boasting. I am just building up the case that if something important escaped even my attention, other, less well-situated citizens are likely also to remain unaware of it.

The Scope of my Skepticism

My skepticism is only about global warming and more, generally, about the human-caused climate change (HCC) narrative as described above. I am much in favor of clean water and of pure air but for other reasons. Incidentally, I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime. I also think plastic trash in the ocean is a disgrace, but it’s a problem that could be solved at little cost: just make the discarded plastic valuable so that it either will not be thrown away or will be collected if it is. As for energy sources, I am taken by the sheer elegance of power production from sun, wind, tides, and waves. I also like the potential of the first two to separate individuals from the grid more or less at will. And it’s true that my wife and I, both old, don’t often need more than a hundred miles of transport autonomy. So I would sort of wish electric cars well, if only they did not require so much in public subsidies, a kind of admission of failure.

If you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period.

If I were young and starting off in life, I would do my best to give myself an energy-efficient house with some ability to produce power. That’s because I dislike both waste and dependency on public organizations, especially on organizations that are excused from competing in the market place.

So, all in all, I am not one of those who miss the good old days of LA smog, chemical rivers, and filthy beaches. I am acutely aware of the general economic problem of externalities: if you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period. Finally, and before the question arises nastily, I want to affirm here that I am not on any Big Oil payroll, at least, not yet. (I keep hoping though.) But I am casting a wide net in this essay. It’s possible that I am factually wrong on something or other. Please, draw my attention to any error of fact. I will be gracious and even appreciative.

The following is a systematic catalog of the reasons I am skeptical of the HCC narrative and the corresponding political agendas.

Breaches of Decency and Common Sense

The word “denier” was chosen deliberately to stigmatize skeptics like me by evoking “Holocaust deniers.” It refers to those who maintain that the mass assassination of Jews during World War II never took place. Holocaust deniers are underinformed, deliberately so in most cases, semi-literate, intellectually stubborn, and anti-Semitic. I am none of the above. This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

I have to ask myself what would prompt such viciousness? Have I encountered it before, either personally, or in my broad reading? I have. More on this later.

“But,” other people ask me, “how can you deny the reality of climate change when 98% [or 95%, or 97%, same thing] of “climate scientists” agree that it’s real?” Between the lines: “Who TF do you think you are?”

This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

Well, there is not a single instance, in the whole history of the world, of a survey returning 98% “Yes.” None; you can check for yourself.

There must be some confusion here with the presidential election results in some central African republic. If indeed, there were a 98% consensus, by anyone about anything, there is no way we would know about it. To be able to state this, you would have to:

  1. rigorously define the whole relevant population (in this case, I imagine, climate scientists, worldwide);
  2. actually circumscribe, delineate the population;
  3. gain access to all of it, or to a random sample of it;
  4. administer a clear and unbiased questionnaire that produces near zero unusable responses. (Or actively remedy the problems that unusable responses and non-responses pose for correct inference.)

Do the calculations in your head: suppose the survey produces 10% unusable responses, an excellent, low result by any standard. How then do you treat the 2% of disagreeing responses that are one-fifth of that figure?

The reality is worse than this. The published scholarly paper link from which the 98% figure (or 9X% figure) seems to come is referenced below in Note 1. The article admits to a whopping 86% nonresponse rate. Out of 8,457 persons identified as climate scientists whom the authors contacted, only 1,189 provided usable responses. Of those, nearly all said they believed in human-caused climate change. That’s the source of the 9X% figures. The question remaining is: what do the 86% who did not respond think of HCC? That’s a big 7,268 scholars whom the article’s authors, on their own, using their own freely chosen criteria, had determined to be real climate scientists.

The nonresponders cannot simply be considered irrelevant. Suppose that 20% of them, 1,454, are firm “deniers” who have not responded because they are gun-shy, suspicious of an ideological trap, or simply too busy to respond. Suppose further that the remainder, 80% of nonresponders, actually have no opinion. The percentage of those who have an opinion and believe in climate change is now 1,189/1,189+1,453 = 45%, instead of the astounding 98%, 97%, or more, when nonresponses are ignored.

There is no reason to think the survey sample is representative of the whole population from which it is drawn.

Now, obviously I chose nonresponding deniers to be 20% for my own demonstration purposes. I don’t know what the percentage of deniers among nonresponders is, any more than the authors of the study do. It might be much less than 20%; it might be zero percent. The percentage of deniers among those who are not represented in the article might also be much higher — 97%, or even 99%. I don’t know, and, again, the article’s authors don’t know either. It’s plausible that the percentage would be high, because of a common positive bias among survey responders in general. Those who are on the positive side of the answer to a survey question appear generally more motivated to answer than those who are on the negative side. So the climate change skeptics could easily be underrepresented among those who responded.

There is worse. The original 8,457 climate scientists contacted are, in fact, a sample of an unknown population of real, credentialed climate scientists that may be much larger, possibly several times larger. It’s a sample arrived at in a principled (and even ingenuous) manner well described in the article, but it’s not a random sample. There is no reason to think it’s representative of the whole population from which it is drawn. Thus, one conceptual problem piles up on top of the others.

The authors could have easily avoided this latest, unavoidable criticism. They could have simply asserted that the number 8,457 — all those contacted — constituted the whole relevant population. That would have avoided my second criticism of their sampling method. The fact is that they did not. I am guessing that they did not because they wanted to stake a much broader claim than their data legitimately allowed. What other explanation is there?

Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

Here is the real finding expressed in traditional, nontriumphalist scientific manner: >97% of a possibly biased (possibly grossly biased) sample of a nonrepresentative sample of a loosely defined population of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

I don’t fault the authors’ craftsmanship at all. They worked well with what they had. I blame their conceit, (or their unexamined zeal) and even more, the conceit of their nonscientist followers. Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

The consumers of percentage-based pronouncements should always ask forcefully: “X% of what, exactly?” An earlier article in the respected peer-reviewed Organization Studies claims that fewer than 40% of geoscientists and engineers agree that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Change the population of reference, change the percentage! (“Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change,” Lianne M. Lefstrud and Renate E. Meyer, November 19, 2012.) That study was performed in oil-rich Alberta, which may, of course, have affected it. Other extraneous factors may have affected other surveys, in opposite directions.

One more issue of credibility with statements of the form, “9x% agree . . .”: someone — not necessarily me — has to have access to the list of all actually surveyed, someone relatively neutral, or better, someone a little hostile, to check that the list is clean, that it does not include, for example, 40% high school dropouts, 10% environmental activists with no scientific credentials, or all the mothers of the researchers and their activist friends. Normally, this kind of scrutiny is performed by scientific journals and by the referees or reviewers they appoint. (If you are not familiar with the way in which scholarly and scientific journals work, see my didactic essay on the subject.)

If there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

I don’t know whether this precise degree of scrutiny has occurred in the survey we are examining, although the article of reference was apparently published in a peer-reviewed journal. My own limited experience says that only somewhat hostile reviewers can be solidly expected to perform thoroughly the kind of verification I describe above. And, no, I am not accusing the authors of cheating. I just think, again from experience, that one tends to be indulgent toward what confirms one’s viewpoint. I know this from having been brutally yanked back to reality by several peer reviews during my own research career.

As it is commonly used in the non-scholarly big media and on social media, the widespread appeal to a 95%, or 97%, 98 % consensus is simply ludicrous.

This is one of the many cases in which the rotten apple in a barrel concept may apply: if there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

It’s tempting to move on. But by the way: science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin. (See his struggle against the consensus of his day in Adrian Desmonds and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution [2009].)

Lack of Clarity

Next, I will try to do my homework about what should happen, on a proximate basis, practically, to a belief in the HCC narrative. The semi-official spokesorgan for the climate change movement seems to be the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC or IPCC for short). That organization publishes periodic reports — some of them stained by little scandals. (Once, a photographer was found to have inserted his uninformed but firm opinion about the speed of glaciers melting in an allegedly scholarly summary.) I took the trouble on one occasion to read in its entirety the special summary of an IPCC report aimed at government decision makers. It was incomprehensible. I take the position that whatever I don’t understand will not be understood by most (or any) members of my city council. (Why, the former mayor is a former student of mine!) But those are the very people to whom the summary is addressed. I don’t know why the directive summary for decision makers was so poorly written, whether because of incompetence, or for some other reason. (Hold that thought.) At any rate, it was gobbledygook, exactly where clarity should have been expected.

Science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin.

The IPCC document is not an isolated case of opaqueness in HCC communications. In fact, it’s routine. HCC partisans habitually speak with the thick tongue of mornings after. Take the term “renewable energy.” It implies that barring the adoption of some restrictive HCC-driven environmental agenda, humanity will run out of natural gas, of petroleum, of coal, in some foreseeable future. None of this is true, of course. We have seen known reserves of petroleum grow prodigiously in our lifetimes, even as we were burning oil with abandon. And why would the modifier “renewable” be used at all, if not to imply forthcoming shortages?

Inconsistencies and Bad Faith

I believe that if I hate the way something is done, hate it so much that I want everyone to stop doing it whatever the cost, hate it so much that I am willing to use force to stop them from doing it, then I am first morally obligated to try to promote other ways of doing things.

So climate change advocates tell us that the greenhouse effect — fed by human produced CO2 — will raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Many add that this will happen very soon, that there is extreme urgency. Well, it turns out, there is a sure way to produce unlimited amounts of energy — including electricity to power electric cars — that results in zero CO2 emissions (none). I refer, of course, to energy produced by nuclear plants. The French have been getting more than 80% of their electricity that way for 50 years. Japan’s share was about 40% until 2010. A detailed record exists for both countries. So, climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants. In every locale, at the state and city level, they should be insisting on a simplification of many of the superfluous regulations that now obstruct such expansion. They should even demand the elimination of some of those regulations that currently make building nuclear plants artificially expensive. They are not doing this, to say the least.

The vague, and in fact seldom well expressed, objection is that nuclear energy is dangerous. That belief used to be plausible; it’s not anymore. The worst has happened, and nothing happened. Three Mile Island did not amount to much, although a good, dramatic movie was shown at about the same time (The China Syndrome). The Fukushima plant was hit in 2011 with one of the worst of unexpected forces: a full blast tsunami. The resulting nuclear accident did not amount to much in terms of fatalities, or in terms of anything. (“The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and World Health Organization reports that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident”: Wikipedia.) Many people confuse the death toll from the nuclear plant with that of the tsunami itself — deaths by drowning, for example. That’s wrong, but I have not noticed any HCC advocates condemn the confusion. Maybe I missed it.

Climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 33 serious incidents, total, for the whole world, since the beginning of nuclear energy production. The seriousness of only two merited its highest score of seven. The first was Chernobyl, naturally. The second was Fukushima, where this highest score seems to have been given by the Japanese government, for somewhat bizarre reasons. The plant itself was put out of commission, but the tsunami alone would have probably done that. Evidence of specifically nuclear damage, as opposed to destruction from flooding and the physical force of the tsunami, is hard to find.

Even the Chernobyl accident turns out, even on superficial examination, not to have been what it was cracked to be. Sixty-three people died directly from the accident. Beyond the 63, estimates of additional deaths, of deaths above and above the expected, of deaths above the number from the natural death rate, vary widely enough to cause me to dismiss out of hand the methodologies involved. Thirty-three years after the event, I see no evidence that anyone died of radiation effects. The large area around the entombed Chernobyl plant, prudently evacuated by the Soviets at the time of the accident, remains uninhabited by humans. It’s now the largest de facto game preserve in Europe. Animals of all kinds thrive there. Does this tell us anything about the safety of that area for homo sapiens?

Would you guess that nuclear safety techniques have improved since 1986? Since the demise of the shaky Soviet Union? That’s a good bet. But while you’re computing the few nuclear-related deaths caused by the Three Mile Island accident, the destruction of the Fukushima plant by a tsunami, and the Chernobyl disaster, you may want to consider how many deaths are due to the production of energy by other means, in amounts equal to those produced by the nuclear plants just mentioned. Would these traditional modes of energy production cost fewer or more lives? How many more or fewer? I am thinking coal, petroleum, natural gas. I am also curious — and open-minded — about the comparative lethal dangers of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. In the meantime, even France is making confused energy production choices under the influence of the HCC narrative. (“La France fait de mauvais choix technologiques,” by Gérard Kafadaroff and Jean-Pierre Riou.)

Offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy.

Questions regarding the absence of nuclear solutions to alleged climate problems are worth asking, unless you care little or not at all about intellectual and moral consistency. Yet public figures identified with the climate change narrative are nowhere to be found when it comes to opining on the desirability of nuclear power. It makes me think that they are gravely flawed intellectually, or that they wish for something other than a reduction in CO2 emissions, or that the reduction of CO2 emission is only a means to some other end. Their absence in this matter is a major reason why I don’t trust HCC experts. At the very least, some of these experts should appear in the same media they inhabit day in and day out and explain, like this: “Some people think that nuclear energy production is a solution to global warming because it emits no greenhouse gases. However . . .” Their failure to appear, the fact that rank-and-file believers do not ask that they appear, makes me see the whole movement as existing in bad faith.

Failures to Intervene on the Side of Virtue and Reason

Bad faith is also demonstrated by omission. When loud voices insist that the world is going to come to an end in about 12 years unless we take radical measures, no audible contradiction comes from the HCC side. (Correct me if I am wrong; I will publish the contradiction right here, in bold letters.) When a newly-minted politician of no particular intellectual distinction affirms that we must eliminate jet-plane travel within 30 years or at least not much later, the silence of responsible HCC advocates is deafening. When multiple declared presidential candidates of the largest political party join her publicly . . .

More prosaically, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t read or hear in the media absurd and unsupported pronouncements attributing this or that untoward event to “global warming” or to “climate change.” Once I even heard a television weather reporter blame climate change for an (imaginary) increase in the frequency of . . . earthquakes. OK, this was on the international francophone television channel TV5 but, so? The HCC narrative seems to me to have further advanced toward uncontested truth in France and in Belgium than in the US. That might explain its mindless audacity. I paid much attention afterwards, and I think no correction was ever made on TV5. So, somewhere in West Africa, there may be some alert school kids who watch TV5 to improve their French and are now affirming that climate change causes earthquakes.

Before such stupidity, I expect climate scientists, the real ones with scholarly credentials, to reach down from their ivory towers to administer contradiction. They must know that unsupported and unsupportable statements like these give their cause a bad name among the thinking and the rational. They may not be able to do it often; transgressions of this kind are daily and probably worldwide. Yet offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy. If they don’t, it suggests to me that they don’t care to persuade the thinking and the rational. It might be that after a certain point, persuasion becomes irrelevant because there are other means, forceful means, to achieve their desired ends. Their inaction makes me suspicious.

Climate change narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar.

I am aware of only one case when contradiction was actually meted out, when a climate scientist with scientific credentials reached down to try and straighten out the record. In 2007, when Al Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize, the media made next to nothing of the fact that it was awarded jointly with the UN International Panel on Climate Change. One little known scientist from IPCC, maybe piqued for being left in a dark corner while Gore was bathing in the limelight, wrote a brief, timid, mildly corrective op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That’s it! Some readers may have noticed other corrective interventions that escaped my attention. I would like to hear about them, too.

And by the way, HCC narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar. Just my opinion but, ask around.

Omitting the Good

The climate change narrative includes other striking sins of habitual omission. But there is little doubt that if the various scenarios linked to climate change — global warming specifically — are correct, some good things will follow, in addition to the bad ones. This matters, because rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions. Two significant such omissions come to mind.

The first concerns shorter polar routes linking Europe and East Asia to each other and to North America, as ice melts near the North Pole. This means cheaper transportation, cheaper goods and, besides, a decrease in fuel consumption and therefore an abatement in CO2 emissions! I think this has already happened. It seems worth the occasional mention.

Rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions.

The second omission is warmer temperatures, which would undoubtedly ensure that the global area where cereals can mature will push northward. More wheat, for example, will be grown in Canada and in Siberia. This will mean more food and cheaper food. Perhaps it will even delay the moment when we must stop raising cattle because of their gross gas-processing manners. The warming of northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere may also give humanity some agricultural flexibility. Areas where cereals are grown under conditions favoring CO2 emissions might be retired, to the benefit of new areas, less favorable to them. Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification. That they omit to mention the good side of the same coin looks simply like another form of bad faith.

And then there is the simple fact, which the moderate environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg pointed out in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, that many more people die of the cold than from the heat.

It would be fine for HCC publicists to omit the favorable stuff about global warming if we had a real adversarial debate going on. We don’t have one because the climate change proponents overwhelmingly insist that there is no opposite side, that there is only their side, and elsewhere there is simply a mass of uneducated, illiterate imbeciles who are probably also evil (“deniers”). After all, 98%, or 97% of climate scientists, etc. . . .

Deviousness and Nonchalance

And then, there is what looks like cheating and is at least devious. Let me say first that so many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest. So I am less interested in describing the liars and cheats than in gauging the response to dishonesty — or cutting corners, or manipulating data, or concealing data — of what has become, deliberately or not, a social movement.

Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification.

In 2009, hacked (stolen) emails sent by climate researchers at the University of East Anglia seemed to show coordinated attempts to suppress adverse research by deniers, by mere skeptics, and by simple rivals. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University were also implicated. See, for example: “From Phil Jones [University of East Anglia] To: Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University). July 8, 2004: ‘I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!’” [Emphasis mine.]

About more suppression, see: “Climategate 2.0: New E-Mails Rock The Global Warming Debate,” by James Taylor, in Forbes, November 23, 2011. There was also an unexplained mass destruction of data, including publicly accessible data, after questions were raised about findings on which they may have been based; this, although keeping the same data involved little or no cost: “Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.” A government-supported outfit admitted to having thrown away a large amount of climate data because of a “lack of storage capacity.” This prevents others, of course, from trying to duplicate their findings.

Here is an articulate summary of what an alert and critical layman could have read about what came to be known as “ClimateGate” — I mean a literate interested person with no training in physics or related fields, a citizen, like me: “What’s Up with That”: “Men Behaving Badly — a Short Summary for Laymen.” See also another work by the same author, and yet another by Fred Pearse, in the British center-left Guardian. Note: Pearse was also sometimes a debunker of the climate change debunking.

So many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest.

So, it looked for all the world as if there were an international conspiracy of people with real scientific credentials — not publicists — to censor and to steer research in ways supportive of the HCC narrative. Soon, prestigious associations of scientists, their own universities, and some respected scientific journals responded by reaffirming the reality of climate change without, however, explicitly denying the apparent cheating or condemning the apparent cheaters. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded: ‘based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway . . . it is a growing threat to society.’”

After following this complicated story for 15 years, I am left with the impression that no one with any public intellectual credibility has addressed the following: however correct many of the HCC findings are, no matter how real global warming may be, top climate researchers did repeatedly violate scientific and academic norms, as well as basic individual ethics. This speaks, of course, to future credibility, to the post-scandal credibility of the scientific basis of HCC.

Ten years earlier, another climate scientist and his colleagues had produced a striking graph showing an abrupt and dramatic rise in temperature for the period more or less from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today. Thus, the “hockey stick”: from left to right, flat, flat, flat, and then steeply up (to the right side of the graph, the last hundred years or so). He excluded available data for the period immediately preceding his period of observation. Had those data been included — extending the period to earlier times — the graph would have represented global temperature change over time as a sort of shapeless U instead of the striking “hockey stick.” The resulting graph might still have been interpretable as supporting the HCC narrative, but much less spectacularly than the hockey stick. It would have made more room for honest doubt. The alternative graph, with full data, could have been used in the way graphs are intended: to make information readily available to others — including the untrained — so they may make up their own minds. For a hostile view of the hockey stick, read: “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” Christopher Booker, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009. “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with the Climategate whitewash,” says Booker.

The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s.

The scientific transgression involved in the hockey stick graph is a subtle one, but the relevant rule is clear: researchers are supposed to include all the relevant data available, or they must say why they don’t. If they don’t follow this rule, they must at least signal clearly the existence of data they exclude so that others may try alternative formulations. (See note 2 below.) In their rebuttal of the widespread criticism accompanying their initial report, the chief creator of the hockey stick and his colleagues published a response with more complete data — through an interview with Chris Mooney of The Atlantic. The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s. They insist nevertheless that they were right all along.

The graph entitled “Reconstructed Temperature” (which uses several measurements) in the Wikipedia entry, “Hockey Stick Controversy” shows about the same thing.

This, the most relevant Wikipedia entry, gives wide coverage to the associated issues and it is abundantly referenced (to mostly scientific journals). It gives an impression of scholarly thoroughness. It must also leave the noncommitted reader with the view that after much back and forth, the controversy has now disappeared, to the benefit of the hockey stick creators’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, the last, concluding sentence in this long Wiki entry reads as follows: “Marcott et al. 2013 used seafloor and lake bed sediment proxies to reconstruct global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, the last 1,000 years of which confirmed the original MBH99 hockey stick graph.” (Italics mine.) So, the data before 1012 do not support the hockey stick graph? Pretty much the suspicion I started with.

The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data.

None of the above demonstrates to me that there is no HCC. There is however an unfinished controversy, a healthy debate around complicated issues of statistical analysis and of even more difficult issues of measurement. I think it’s far from over. The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data. They thereby drew unwanted attention to themselves and to their alleged conclusive findings. Why they would have adopted such a cavalier attitude toward good practice is anyone’s guess, but the fact makes this citizen consumer of such news suspicious.

Neither instance of academic nonchalance proves anything in itself, but both give us the right to wonder whether they are the tip of a giant iceberg of intellectual dishonesty. Personally, I can’t put these stories to rest because the critical examination by the legitimate upper scientific establishment was too weak, given the implied tremendous policy stakes. I feel as if the relevant credentialed persons had just closed the door instead of cleaning the room.

If the watchdogs are doing their watching indulgently, why should I — who am unable to perform my own watching — believe that what is being watched is legitimate?

The article continues in Part II.


1. “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: To cite this article: John Cook et al (8) 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 024024 (7pp). I thank my friend and FB friend Vernon Bohr for the link.

2. I have performed this kind of longitudinal research myself. My old coauthored sociology articles on the history of the Irish press and of the Argentinean press would have shown different things, and possibly more interesting things if we had had the luxury of deciding which years of observation to include, which to exclude. Instead, we performed statistical operations on all data available, from the very first newspaper to be published in each country. This proper inclusion might have cost me tenure! No regrets here though; both articles were published in one of the best journals available (Jacques Delacroix and Glenn Carroll. "Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland," Administrative Science Quarterly, 228:274-291(1983); Glenn Carroll and Jacques Delacroix, "Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach," Administrative Science Quarterly, 27:169-198 (1982).

My postings on climate change:

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Muzungus in the Mist, Part II


The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.

Part II: The Lone Cyclists

Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.

The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.

Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.

By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.

Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”

More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.

Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.

* * *

We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.

The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.

That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.

November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.

We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.

The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.

The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.

The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).

If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.

It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.

Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.

Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.

We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.

His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”

He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.

My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.

Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.

Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.

Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.

* * *

The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.

By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.

The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.

Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.

The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.

The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.

At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.

Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.

Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.

But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”

To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.

Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.

In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.

The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.

* * *

Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.

Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.

On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.

On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.

Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.

The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.

At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.

Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.

Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.

A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.

Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.

On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.

The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.

Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.

Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).

Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.

The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.

By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.

In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.

Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.

After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.

Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.

* * *

The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.

Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.

We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.

Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”

As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.

Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.

Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”

But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.

The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.

But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.

Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.

A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.

* * *

Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.

After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.


It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.

1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.

2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.

There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.

3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.

4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.

5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)

The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.

As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)

After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.

6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”

Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.

But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.

Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.

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In Hong Kong, Carrying Signs


The news from Hong Kong reminds me of lyrics of a song from my youth — “a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs.” Except it wasn’t a thousand on June 9, 2019. It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

Imagine one-seventh of the population in the city closest to you, out on the street demanding that legislators not pass a law concerning extradition of criminal suspects.

Years ago, I lived in Hong Kong. I was among the Hong Kong Chinese for three years. They were hard-working, versatile, street-smart. Proud, too. They regarded the British as weakened by the welfare state, the Singaporeans as rigid, and the Middle Easterners as religious fanatics. The Hong Kong people were not hotheads. They did not yell and shake their fists at one another in public, like the Italians. They did not go on strike for inscrutable reasons, like the French. They were not like the Indonesians, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and won, or the Filipinos, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and lost. The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans. They didn’t have a flag that was really theirs or a real military, either. When I got there in 1989, they had no political parties, though they were about to create one.

It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

The first piece I ever wrote for Liberty (as R.K. Lamb, in the March 1990 issue) was about Hong Kong, where I was living along with 40,000 or so American expatriates. (More than double that, now.) The territory was governed by the British. They had cut a deal with China to turn it over in 1997. They hadn’t asked the Hong Kong people about that deal, and China hadn’t asked, either. On its face, the deal seemed all right. Under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” China had agreed to let Hong Kong retain its legal system for 50 years, until 2047.

In those days 2047 was an unimaginably long time away, and 1997 was coming up. The question was, how was “one country, two systems” going to work? The Hong Kong press — one of Asia’s freest — was reassuring. Things would be fine. China has promised to let us be! Outside the spotlight, Hong Kong professionals were quietly “voting with their feet,” emigrating to Australia, Canada, the United States, and several countries in Southeast Asia.

I didn’t think “one country, two systems” was going to work. In 2006, I wrote a piece for Liberty admitting that I had been too pessimistic: China had done better by Hong Kong than I thought it would.

Overall it still has — so far. I have to give China credit for that.

The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans.

Milton Friedman had proclaimed in his Free to Choose TV series that Hong Kong had more economic freedom than any place on earth. The Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both of which annually survey economic freedom, verify that it still is. But an economy requires a foundation of politics and law, which Friedman well knew. Hong Kong’s legal foundation was, and is, British law, which is a product of centuries of the politics and history of the people of England. When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.” The Hong Kong people had worked hard to build their prosperity, but they hadn’t built the system of law that supported their personal and business freedom. They had inherited it. If they wanted to keep it after 1997 they were going to have to fight for it, and I wasn’t sure whether they would.

Well, they have. Whether they will prevail is another matter.

The British never gave the Hong Kong people political freedom, meaning the right to vote out their government and institute a new one. The handover in 1997 gave the people only a limited vote. They formed a number of “pro-Beijing” and “pro-democracy” political parties. In the 2016 elections, the pro-democracy parties got 36% of the public vote and the pro-Beijing parties (a weird mixture of pro-communist and “patriotic” business conservatives) 40% of the public vote, so the pro-democracy parties do not have a claim to rule. Hong Kong’s political system makes that nearly impossible anyway. Of 70 seats in the unicameral legislature, half are elected by public vote and half by the union federations, the chambers of commerce, the lawyers, the teachers, the social workers, and other “functional constituencies.”

When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.”

For more background, take a look at the Council on Foreign Relations report “Democracy in Hong Kong.” Under this hybrid system the pro-Beijing parties have held on to their majority for 22 years. Hong Kong’s chief executive has never been elected by the people; the current executive, Carrie Lam, was chosen by a select group of 1,200 Hongkongers acceptable to Beijing. The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

On to the current matter. I am no expert; I haven’t lived in Hong Kong since 1993, and I haven’t followed the story as it has been building these past four months. I have done my catching up on the Internet.

According to a report in the Irish Times, the matter began in 2018 with a 19-year-old Hong Kong man who went to Taiwan with his 20-year-old girlfriend, who was four months pregnant. The man returned alone and admitted to police he had strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, and dumped it near a subway station. Under an extradition treaty, the man would have been extradited to Taiwan for trial for murder. Hong Kong has extradition treaties with some 20 jurisdictions, including the United States, but not Taiwan and not China, the sovereign power over Hong Kong.

In February 2019 the Hong Kong government said it needed to remedy this problem by amending its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. The changes would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite a person to a non-treaty jurisdiction. This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

The Hong Kong government says not to worry. The proposed law stipulates that no person can be extradited for the expression of political views, for a political crime, or for a political motive; that no person can be extradited in a case of double jeopardy or any crime for which the sentence is less than seven years; and that if there is a possibility of a capital sentence the destination country must promise not to impose it. (Hong Kong does not have the death penalty. China does.) The law says that any person extradited has the right to appeal to Hong Kong courts, and can be extradited only if the chief executive agrees.

I’m no lawyer, but on its face the proposal seems all right. The law is strong in Hong Kong. The courts have been good. And yet a million people are in the street. The story, I think, is not about what the proposed law says. It is about the fear of how such a law might be used, and the political consequences of its passage. The people of Hong Kong remember what China’s government did in 1989 to the protesters at Tiananmen Square, and they still do not trust the Chinese state.

One group that has come out against the law is the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. This is notable. The AmCham is not Human Rights Watch. It represents US corporations, which are primarily interested in commerce. But commerce and human rights are connected in ways AmCham is quite aware of. In its public statement, AmCham expresses the worry that “the new arrangements could be used for rendition from Hong Kong to a number of jurisdictions with criminal procedure systems very different from those of Hong Kong — which provides strong protections for the legitimate rights of defendants — without the opportunity for public and legislative scrutiny of the fairness of those systems and the specific safeguards that should be sought in cases originating from them.”

This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

What recent reasons are there to worry? Martin Lee, the Hong Kong lawyer who founded the territory’s first political party, wrote a piece for the Washington Post, naming some of the reasons. In 2017, mainland agents abducted Chinese Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has not been seen since. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers were taken; one of them, Lam Wing-kee, was forced to make a televised confession.

“Why were these people abducted?” Lee wrote. “Because there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and China. There is no extradition law because there is no rule of law in China, where the Chinese Communist Party dictates who is innocent and who is guilty. For the same reason, the United States has no extradition arrangements with China (though it does with Hong Kong).”

Lee wrote, “The Hong Kong government is poised to pass an extradition law that will legalize such kidnappings and threatens to destroy Hong Kong’s free society . . . Beijing could extradite Americans in Hong Kong on trumped-up charges . . .”

I remember Martin Lee from my time in Hong Kong, and later, when he came through Seattle and I interviewed him. Lee is an old-time liberal, dogged to the point of ouch. He sometimes cries wolf when the wolf doesn’t come — that is, he imagines things that don’t happen — but a smart lawyer may imagine various futures in order to protect his client. And that would be the Hong Kong people. They are worried about what might happen.

What to do, if you're China? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now.

And think about what the world looks like from their shoes. They have 28 years left of “one country, two systems.” After that comes one system — China’s. In 2047, Hong Kong’s British law goes away.


Put yourself in the shoes of the Communist Party of China. You really didn’t like Deng Xiaoping having to grant that pushy Englishwoman, Margaret Thatcher, “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong’s system is alien, bourgeois-liberal, British. You want it to go away. You want Hong Kong to be Chinese — fully. But if Hong Kong’s British-derived law survives intact up to 2047, millions of Hong Kong people will demand that you extend their system for another 50 years. You don’t want that. You want to make sure that never happens.

What to do? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now. You stop any expansion of the number of publicly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, and you do not allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be publicly elected — ever. You don’t have to say “ever”; you just have to drag your feet, wave your arms, declare emergencies, make excuses, whatever it takes, to make sure full elections don’t happen by 2047.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically.

You also want to cut holes in the Hong Kong legal system — with a public security law, or a law requiring political content in public education, a law that allows you to extradite criminals to China, etc. The extradition law can promise not to grab anyone for political offenses, but some person decides what those are. And if people like you get to choose that person, then you’re fine.

As a Communist, you want to chisel away at Hong Kong’s British law until by 2047 it’s not worth anyone fighting for.

Defenders of China will say I am making things up, and they will be right. I am imagining things. I believe that’s what the Hong Kong people are doing — imagining their future.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically — that after 50 years, China would be enough like Hong Kong that the people living then could work things out. Economically and socially China has already changed a lot. Politically not so much — and the years tick by.

Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping cut the “one country, two systems” deal 13 years before Britain’s lease on Hong Kong was set to expire in 1997. They needed to do it then because Hong Kong people, and foreigners also, had to have some assurance about life after 1997 so they could make business investments, take out mortgages, start careers, and decide where to live their lives.

Thirteen years before 2047 is 2034. That’s a milepost to think about. And it’s coming up.

Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

Most readers of Liberty live in jurisdictions in which the great political questions are settled. We argue over the remaining issues, and occasionally work ourselves into a lather about them — imagining that the next election is the most important in our lives, that Barack Obama is going to usher in socialism, that Donald Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, or that Bernie Sanders is going to hoist the red flag. It’s fun, you know, and some of the issues are important, but it all pales before the political questions faced by the people of Hong Kong.

Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Liberty that I thought the Hong Kong people had failed to take charge of their political future, being “too busy in Mr. Friedman’s capitalist paradise, making money.”

Not anymore. The Hong Kong people don’t have the British to protect them or anyone, really. Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

How did the song go? “A thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’.”

Damn right, hooray for their side.

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Four Theories about the Great Depression


More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Industrial Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as by Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.

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