With the Climate, Some Things Are Uncertain, Some Not

I attend a local Anglican church in a middle-class suburb of Sydney. As is common these days, most congregants are of an age. Churches were allowed to open in New South Wales some weeks ago, albeit with social-distancing rules and sans singing. Hymn singing along with playing wind instruments is well known, apparently, among epidemiologists advising governments, to speed transmission of the dreaded virus. And no, before you ask, no evidence has been adduced.

Who needs evidence to back scary talk? Make it scary enough and people are too busy worrying to think for themselves. In any event, in the mind of the church, St Paul (Romans 13:1-5) dispels any thought of rebelling against civil authorities. Yes, but how about Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nelson Mandela? Weren’t they right to rebel, you might query? Never mind, that’s a story for another day.

Currently only half the congregants have returned. Evidently, the other half remain too scared to return. This is not surprising. Most will have been brought up on public broadcasting and remain umbilically attached. Funded wholly by tax payers, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, as media watcher Gerard Henderson (The Sydney Institute) often observes, is a conservative-free zone. Its staff-elected director aside, the government appoints the board, but the board has never, ever, shown itself to be anything other than the very model of a toothless tiger. A green/left staff collective runs the ABC. Alarmism is its forte, stirring grievances among supposed oppressed minorities its specialty.

For years climate alarmism has taken centre stage at the ABC. A hot day for the weatherman or woman is code for climate change. On the other hand, a cold day is just a cold day. Unusually, spring snow fell in parts of south-eastern Australia in late September. Nothing to see there. Incidentally, I’ve just clicked onto the ABC website. The first story I see is titled: “Human evolution and climate change.” Safer for one’s state of mind not to venture beyond the title.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the highest temperature yet recorded in Australia was 50.7 C at Oodnadatta Airport on 2 January 1960. Incidentally, the third highest was in January 1939. The people at my church wouldn’t know that and would have no interest in finding out, I suspect. Thus, I often have to put up with prayers on Sunday to save the environment from mankind. And, in this tremulous Age of Covid, prayers for those afflicted by the virus, which they have been taught by the ABC to regard with the same trepidation as the imminent apocalyptic collapse of ecosystems.

What about children dying of cancer, I whisper under my breath. But death, has become focussed on ‘the invisible enemy’ or, as I saw in my morning paper in a letter from a group of learned physicians living in premier Daniel Andrews’ fiefdom of Victoria, ‘the silent enemy.’ The virus is both invisible and silent. Who knew? What an extremely clever virus is this?

What I particularly notice about those about me at church is a lack of questioning on the issues of the day. My doubts about climate change or the virulence of the virus or, for example, about the factoid we have in Australia (and in the schools) that part-Aboriginal children were ‘stolen’ from their families, are met with absolute incredulity. I believe they think I’m simply eccentric and to be treated kindly (they are Anglicans after all) but condescendingly.

But, let me issue a challenge. Who is self-reflectively questioning in these days of sharply divided opinions? I spent some time some years ago, when I still could stand mixing with those on the left, with a chap who was at the time vice president of Australian Skeptics. I challenged him as to why he wasn’t the least bit skeptical about the received view on climate change. He was gracious enough to issue a mea culpa but remained obdurate; totally without doubt when it came to his certainty that mankind (personkind in Canadian English) is overheating the world.

In case you think I am picking on the Left -- which I admit to often doing -- I meet with a group of conservative friends each Friday morning over coffee. They are equally certain that CO2 is not heating the atmosphere to any material extent. One short-circuits the argument by denying that the recorded increase in CO2 has much, if anything, to do with burning fossil fuels in the first place. I believe I heard Richard Lindzen, or maybe it was another well-known skeptical climate scientist, express a similar view on a YouTube video, so I assume it isn’t outlandish. You notice I say assume because, really, I have no idea.

This brings me to a point. How can we be certain that we are right, particularly on matters outside of our expertise? Obviously, I am not referring to religion where faith is the defining arbiter. Take climate change.

Do I personally know, absolutely, and without possibility of error, that man-made CO2 is not destroying the planet? After all, David Attenborough and Prince Charles think it is; not to mention Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and lots of other people, some of whom might actually have expertise in climate science. I believe I can say with certainty that the alarmist position is unproven. Thereafter, my opinion tends to be on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond doubt.

However, all is not lost in equivocation. Sometimes it's cloudy and the sun always goes down in the evening. The wind doesn’t always blow. Renewable power based on these two sources is therefore intermittent and unreliable. Of this, there is no doubt. Batteries cannot fill the gap. Of that there is also no doubt. If there were, I am sure Michael Moore (Planet of the Humans) would have said so. What this means is that wind and sun power need back-up; mostly, in practise, from coal, gas, or nuclear.

And, the more the wind and sun feed power to the grid, the more back-up is needed. And that, to speak colloquially, is the bleeding obvious. It is one thing to have the wind become still when providing about 7 percent of power, as it did on average in Australia in 2019. Quite another, if in the future, in green dreamland, it is providing 37 percent and more.

It is no accident that South Australia, the state relying most on wind and Tesla batteries, suffered blackouts in 2018. Blackouts have been avoided since by sourcing power, as needed, from Victoria which still has coal power. South Australia has none. The option of sourcing interstate power will progressively diminish as coal-fired power stations (providing 56 percent of the electricity supply nationwide) are demolished. Nine have closed in the past ten years. Of the twenty-four remaining, only six are less than twenty years old. One of the oldest, Liddell in the Hunter region, coal country in NSW, is scheduled for closure in early 2023. This, in a land which is the second largest exporter of thermal coal. Someone, somewhere, must be burning it?

Down Under

It says a lot about the mess we’re in that prime minister Scott Morrison (15 September) threatens to build a government-owned gas-fired power station, unless one or other of the electricity-generation companies replace Liddell with enough dispatchable power to keep the lights on. Gas in coal country you say? Well, that’s as good as it gets. And, of course, instructively, gas better backs up intermittent wind than does coal. Wind calls the tune.

My friend Rafe Champion, among other pursuits, is an avid wind watcher; while cautioning that “wind watching can be time-consuming and habit-forming.” He takes on the onerous task of informing any half-receptive politician he can find, that it isn’t the average amount of wind power delivered to the grid over any period of time that counts, but the minimum amount. Obvious, when you think about it, as the demand for power must be met continuously. Not so obvious to the political class.

It would be nice if those diametrically opposed on global warming could at least agree, if there is a problem, that wind and sun won’t solve it. Then we could put aside differences and work on effective (least-regret) solutions, which would likely include HELE-coal power, gas and nuclear. Alas, differences can’t be put aside. I need to go back to religion.

Faith, as I said, is the final arbiter when it comes to religion. In the final analysis, it is not subject to non-transcendental arguments. It is evident that renewable energy has become totemic of the new ersatz religion of climate change -- aka saving the planet from human pollution. Its dogma lives loudly within climate alarmists, the Extinction Rebellion crowd and the like; and, of course, within the ABC. Questioning the dogma is heretical. My fellow parishioners who listen to and/or watch the ABC need to understand that while high priests are indeed at its helm, their line can’t be traced to the Apostles.

Antipodean Covid Craziness

I have heard and read suggestions that having sex with someone outside of one’s own household would be safer if both parties refrained from kissing or, to take it a step further, even wore masks throughout the encounter. I suppose it could be made to work. I simply don’t want to speculate on bizarre sexual practices. Instead I will stick to the more mundane matter of federalism in the age of Covid-19, with reference to the Australian experience. That’s bizarre enough for anyone.

All governments in Australia, the federal government and state and territory governments have responded to the pandemic in exactly the same way as have most governments around the world. Though I’d say, together with New Zealand, Australian governments take the cake for overreaction. I say that because the Covid death rate in Australia (and New Zealand’s is much lower still) is a figure to die for, so to speak, if you are European or North American.

When I last looked (19 September) the death rate in Australia was 33 per million population. Compare that with the UK’s 614, the USA’s 615, Sweden’s 580 and, even, Canada’s 244. Incidentally, this relatively benign outcome is due to geography and fortuitous circumstances; dumb luck not brilliant management.

Nonetheless, it was commonplace some months ago to be presented with a comparison of Australia’s death rate with that of Sweden, with an accompanying admonishment that there but for lockdowns goes Australia. That canard no longer plays, as Sweden’s daily death rate has since plummeted. But for a time, the Swedish model, once so admired by the Left back in the day, was held up in the Australian media as a blight on mankind.

In fact, as we now know, or should know, this virus runs a course of causing a significant number of deaths among the aged and sick before running out of steam as it comes up against those who are less susceptible. That pattern is evident across all northern hemisphere countries – even the United States once you adjust for a later ramping-up phase in some states. The degree and extent of lockdowns would not confound the null hypothesis that they make no difference.

I know, the null hypothesis way of approaching science is yet another example of white privilege having its a wicked way. But there it is. I probable suffer from unconscious bias in favouring the scientific method and, perforce, can’t do much about it because, well, its unconscious.

South Dakota is my favourite point of comparison. No lockdown. Death rate 226 per million. New York, locked down, death rate 1680 per million. Of course, these kinds of state-by-state comparisons, which take no account of circumstances, don’t mean much. And yet, on their face, they provide no comfort at all to those who favour the absurd strategy of locking-up healthy people, destroying their businesses and livelihoods, in a largely forlorn attempt (witness aged-care deaths) to prevent ailing people getting sicker. And, to boot, they provide a segue into the benefits and costs of federalism.

The benefits of federalism are that political decisions are more attuned to the needs of those they affect and, potentially, that competition between states to retain and attract businesses and workers tends to keep them honest. Covid has made one particularly large cost evident: state sovereignty can make it impossible to pursue a consistent national strategy to deal with pandemics.

Unlike America’s, Australia’s federalism doesn’t have the advantage of being competitive. In fact, it is anti-competitive. States ceded the power to levy income taxes many decades ago. Their general income comes largely via the federal government through GST collections. But these are distributed not on the basis of where they are collected but in accordance with the relative economic performances of the respective states. The more poorly a state performs, the more GST revenue it receives. Work that one out. California could only dream about it, I suppose.

Unfortunately, while there are no competitive benefits of federalism in Australia, the costs of handling the pandemic have been huge. Early in the piece, prime minister Scott Morrison set up a so-called ‘national cabinet’ of himself, the six state premiers and two territory leaders, with the laudable objective of coordinating national strategy. What a complete and utter fiasco it has been.

Basically, they have been able to agree that things should open up when it is “safe” to do so. Beyond that it is every man and woman for themselves. The federal government pays all the bills, or most of them, while being effectively powerless. To wit, it can't let people into the country if the states won't have them. Therefore, we have a North Korean policy of restricting citizens from leaving the country, because, usually, they will want to come back. It can't get cafes open and kids back to school if the states don't agree. It can't get state borders opened despite the Constitution guaranteeing (ostensibly?) free interstate movement. In all of this, there is a standout recalcitrant state.

Dan Andrews, the Covid King of Oceania.

The Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has conducted himself and his state in exactly the way you would expect of a hard-left despot. Incompetence on the one hand; authoritarianism on the other. And, to emphasise, the Prime Minister can do nothing about it.

In Victoria, everyone is locked inside their homes for most of the day with a curfew from 8 p.m., now graciously moved to 9 p.m. as daylight saving time approaches Down Under. A curfew! Meanwhile, the federal government feeds money to the unemployed. As the world has seen, pregnant women and grannies are handcuffed and marched off for daring to breach any of the myriad confining rules. One heavily pregnant lady was harangued by two policemen and an accompanying soldier (who had the good grace to look shamefaced) for daring to rest on a park bench while engaging in ‘allowable’ exercise. Evidently some cops are getting in touch with their inner Stasi -- inevitable, when socialists are loosed from constitutional constraints. Hmm, didn’t I mention, c.10,000 BLM feeble-minded stooges went unpunished when ‘protesting’ back in June, while cops knelt.

Victorians attempting to escape Melbourne to regional areas within Victoria are fined $4,957. Why not $5,000? Well, I suppose they've picked up pricing tips from used-car salesmen. Police operate around-the-clock checkpoints (Checkpoint Charlie springs to mind). If mum and dad are in the car, each will be fined; apparently kids and dogs will get off scot-free. Did this new offence of daring to drive beyond 5 kilometers from home go through the Victorian parliament? Of course not. It is all done by diktat under an emergency powers law.

"Dear Leader" Dan, let me aptly call him, has recently succeeded in having these emergency powers extended by six months. And who gave him the casting vote in the upper state house? Samantha Ratnam, of the Greens Party, hurried back from maternity leave. Whenever villainy is afoot, spot complicit Greens.

And don’t think enough is enough. Legislation has been introduced that will, if passed, create thought crime. Under this legislation officers will be appointed (no qualifications required) to assess whether those ordered to isolate will really do so. If an authorised officer “reasonably believes that a person is likely to refuse or fail to comply with a direction made the by the Chief Health Officer,” then the culprits will be locked up tout de suite for what they intend to do. Shades of Minority Report in Dan’s socialist state of Victoria.

You should note that the onerous lockdown in Victoria follows an outbreak of cases in June stemming almost wholly from one hotel quarantine misadventure. Poorly controlled, the infection spread inside and outside the hotel. Among other failings, apparently some security guards, appointed for their claimed indigenous identity rather than their expertise, fraternised a little too intimately with hotel guests. It was not reported whether they wore masks. But I assume not.

The upshot has meant that deaths in Victoria (80 percent inside aged-care homes. What’s new?) have dwarfed those in other states. Nevertheless, the death toll per million in Victoria, at 113, is half the rate in South Dakota. The different approach to tackling the pandemic isn’t to do with the virulence or otherwise of the virus. It is to do with politics.

Speak to conservatives and almost to a man and woman they believe that the reaction to Covid-19 has been grossly overblown; that the costs of lockdowns have not nearly been properly taken into account. Yet almost all governments have overreacted. By implication, this sadly shows how little conservatism now influences public policy. And why should it. The latest Newspoll (16-19 September) shows 62 per cent of Victorians supporting their Dear Leader.

When I look across the Australian political landscape, I see governments whether of the left or ostensible centre-right buying into the global warming agenda. And differing only in their degree of panic in responding to Covid. Federalism makes it worse by allowing the nation state as a whole to be hijacked by its least enlightened constituent parts.