Saturday, March 31, 2012

OAS and GIS Cuts Are a Travesty

The Harper's government's first majority budget is being portrayed as some kind of "moderate" or "compromise" budget because it doesn't gut as deeply as the wingnuts in Harper's caucus and Canadian wingnut welfare think tanks like C.D. Howe, Fraser and the Candian Taxpayers Federation have been calling for.   Good job moving the 50 yard line of moderate centrism, wingnuts.  The US political playbook continues to work here.  Canada's "paper of record" the Globe and Mail, calls the budget "prudent."   It's not.  It's a travesty that seeks to reduce the deficit on the backs of poor (future) seniors by delaying eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Suppliment (GIS) retirement income programs (and very little attention is being paid to the GIS cuts, even though they're actually more disturbing). 

Everyone younger than 54 has just had approximately $12,000 in OAS ($6,000/yr) and potentially another $12,000 in GIS taken away from their retirements.  That's $24,000 in 2012 dollars, of course by the time people aged 53 hit 65, assuming 2% inflation, that figure is over $30,000.  The people who qualify for GIS are of course those least able to sustain the loss of this income, and particularly so at age 65, where the potent mix of health issues and workplace age discrimination mean it will be particularly hard for these seniors to find paying work.  There are just only so many Walmart greeter jobs, and for even those you have to be in reasonable health to work them.

Let's be clear that people receiving GIS are poor pushing on destitute.  The income cutoff to receive GIS in 2012 is just over $16,000.  That figure doesn't include OAS benefits, but CPP payments (which max out at about $12,000 a year anyway) would count.  However not everyone qualfies for CPP and you don't necessarily get the maximum depending on your work history contributions to the program.  Also, the numbers aren't trivial, in 2011, over 1.6 million Canadians received GIS

The arguments for the OAS changes are the usual stew of mistruths and tendenicious rationalizations:  People live longer ("People" here meaning: "middle to upper class" people; working age poverty has a dramatic effect on life expectancy), there's more retirees per worker than when these programs were created, the boomer bulge (you can safely ignore anyone citing this since boomers are cynically exempted from this cut) and so on.  For GIS, there are no good arguments for cutting it, as this progressive economist notes.  In general, I don't buy any of these arguments, for this basic reason:  Canada today is a much wealthier country than the Canada that created OAS in 1951 under Liberal PM Louis St. Laurent. 

OAS is Completely Affordable if We Want To Afford It

A little math here:  Canada's GDP per-capita in 1970 was $4047 (using 1970 dollars).  I couldn't find a figure for 1951, but 1970 is far enough back and yet modern enough that we had most of the same modern safety net programs in place, and found them evidently affordable at the time.  Using the bank of Canada's inflation calculator that leads to a figure of $24,282 in 2012 dollars.  Canada's actual 2010 GDP per capita?  $46,236.  That's 1.9 times higher even after the biggest recession since the Great Depression.  We're almost twice as wealthy as a society than our 1970 cousins.  According to this, we may actually be more than twice as wealthy (not sure how the difference emerges).  Why could those 1970 Canucks afford OAS but not us?   
This is the Big Picture 

All the sophist minutia about the number of seniors per working age Canadian, the deficit, the percentage of the federal budget this stuff eats and stats on how long people live after 65 cannot withstand this basic fact.  Yes, you can persuade me that OAS will become modestly more expensive as a percentage of our GDP in the coming years, but not that it isn't, at a very fundamental level, affordable.  We're simply allowing this government to make the choice not to afford a decent and humane retirement for all Canadian seniors.  We decided more than a generation ago that leaving seniors in poverty was unacceptable (in fact income programs for seniors pre-date the Great Depression in Canada).  How can we afford this?  Clearly there are people who can pay more taxes.  The answer really is that simple.  Raise the taxes of those who are doing best, who are far wealthier than their 1970 peers were and maintain this basic social intergenerational compact.  We don't need another complicated neoliberal four letter (RRSP, TFSA etc) Rube-Goldberg scheme.  Tax the people with the most money and ensure the poorest seniors aren't left relying on foodbanks and soup kitchens. 

I'm also not moved by arguments around what our OECD/First World peers are doing with pensions.  Neoliberal dogma has infected the whole rich world, and a bunch of other neoliberal government unwilling to tax the rich appropriately to maintain the social contract are just proof the problem is very big, not that reducing retirement guarantees is some kind of hard economic necessity. 

I am looking for the two main opposition leaders to promise to overturn this decision.  Ian Welsh likes what he is seeing from Mulcair on this, so I'm optimistic.  Rae perhaps cannot make promises given that he is supposedly only the interim leader, but NDP supporters should pressure Mulcair and when it comes time to pick a Liberal leader, voters in that process should ask the candidates to commit to reversing this.  It doesn't have to be this way. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

US Gun Rights Proponents Shouldn't Cite Canada and Switzerland

I'll paraphrase something I've encountered in US gun rights debates from time to time:
Look at Switzerland and Canada!  They're awash with guns but have low crime rates, this proves guns in the hands of responsible law abiding gun owners are not a problem.
It is true that Canada and Switzerland have relatively high numbers of guns in civilian hands.  And while this point may be useful in arguing against some kind of total gun ban, that's really fighting a straw man.  If the US was to import the gun laws of Canada or Switzerland wholesale, US gun control groups would be ecstatic with joy and the NRA would lose their minds.  Canada has very strict rules on ownership of handguns and makes it nigh impossible to own a fully automatic weapon of any kind.  It's almost unheard of that anyone gets the exemption permit under the Criminal Code to carry a loaded handgun for self-defence.  Yes, Canada has lots of rifles and shotguns, but it's very evident that in the real world most violent crime committed with guns is done with handguns or guns small enough to conceal easily.  Long guns do present risks, like suicide, unintentional shootings and domestic violence issues, but rarely does anyone rob a liquor store with a rifle.  Still, Canada requires licenses to acquire even long guns and places legal restrictions on how they're stored when not in use.

Switzerland is a whole other case.  Famously, the Swiss give military style fully automatic assault weapons to all military members to keep at home.  Let's think about what that means in the context of US gun laws:
  • Every one of these guns is registered to its owner by virtue of being issued and owned by the Swiss military.
  • Every one of these soldiers undergoes military training on how to safely use, store, carry and shoot that specific weapon.
  • Every recruit to the military is actually put through physical and psychological screening to ensure they are mentally and physically able to perform the duties of defending Switzerland.  Additionally, not everyone drafted/recruited makes it through basic training.
  • The soldiers are not issued ammo for this weapon, and, outside of wartime, can only acquire ammo for it at a licensed range, and the ammo has to be used at that range.  
  • These people are in fact soldiers, and their use of these weapons subject to much stricter military laws and laxer prosecution standards than is typical for civilians.
  • There are legal rules about the transport of these weapons, generally only to and from licensed ranges or duty locations.
  • Once they leave the Swiss military they are permitted to keep the weapon if they want, but it is converted to semi-auto and again the ammunition remains restricted.
This arrangement is often portrayed as "every Swiss male has a fully automatic weapon at home" which clearly is not the case.  Signficant numbers of Swiss males are excluded for physical (like say having very poor vision which isn't something that even comes up in context of US gun laws but really should - if you can't see well enough to know what you're aiming at, how can you possibly use a gun responsibly?) and more importantly psychological reasons.  You also have to pass a variety of handling and aptitude tests to prove you are able to handle that weapon safely.  Would the NRA ever get behind forcing US would-be gun owners to undergo anything like this?  When they already oppose requiring criminal background checks for guns sold at gun shows, it's hard to imagine them supporting psychological screening and extensive training requirements.

Even outside the military context, Swiss civilian gun laws are far more restrictive than most US states (perhaps all now in the era of DC v Heller).  Obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon requires both identification of a specific danger or threat to the applicant, and again passing a handling/aptitude test.  The NRA and associated ideological allies on the gun lobby have been pushing "shall issue" laws that require State authorities to issue such permits to anyone who applies (typically excepting only those with felony convictions). 

Finally there is also the rather important topic of the much stronger social safety nets found in Canada and Switzerland as compared to the US.  Given the long established links between crime and poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunity, these factors cannot be ignored.  If you want to use Switzerland or Canada to prove that it is possible to have a relatively peaceful, stable and safe society that also has significant numbers of guns, fine, I can buy that.  But it doesn't do anything to show that the presence of guns is helpful to those ends, merely that they are not necessarily fatal to them.   Nor do I see many US gun proponents arguing for a better US social safety net, or other measures to ensure actual economic opportunity for the historically crime plagued impoverished communities.    If you're going to cite Switzerland's gun laws, are you also going to look to their universal health care system?  Or their highly state subsidized university tuition levels?   The point here is that Swiss and Canadian gun laws exist in the context of those societies and analysis that tries to completely divorce them is liable to go wrong.  Of course, I think many gun proponents are being disingenuous or at least willfully ignoring this kind of context, because they usually don't just argue that Switzerland or Canada prove it is possible to have low crime rates and high gun ownership rates, they often argue that Swiss and Canadian crime rates are low because of high gun ownership rates, which is just completely unfounded and a classic post hoc fallacy.

For gun control advocates, my advice would be that if a gun advocate brings up Switzerland or Canada, embrace it and ask them to support importing either country's gun laws to the US.  The reality is the only states comparable to the US when it comes to gun laws are really failed states like Somalia where it is effectively a free-for-all. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

AGW's 7th Claim

There is a seventh claim I should mention, one that is not strictly a matter of science, but tied directly to the case for action on AGW:

7) A rapidly warming planet is generally bad for most living things on that planet.

The effects of global warming vary tremendously from region to region and certainly the much greater resources available to people in the rich/developed/first world mean that the impacts will be much less serious for them.  The simple idea here is to understand that most living beings are adapted (or evolved) to life in a particular set of circumstances.  Changing those circumstances makes survival more difficult.  Something like 1 billion people live on or with less than $1 per day.  How much safety line do such people have to adapt to changes in their mode of survival?  If the plants you used to eat don't grow, maybe there's some other food source that will grow, or maybe you can move somewhere to grow that plant again, but figuring this out takes time and money, which you don't have.  Moving is going to be a big problem anyway because most of the best livable land is already occupied.  Animals are even worse off because they have no capacity to understand the problem and consciously adapt.  Evolution will be no help in a timespan anyone should consider useful, if thousands of species go extinct this century, evolution won't replace them for millions of years  (Keynes' "long run" quip comes to mind here).  Even for people in the rich world who can survive the extra floods and droughts, having much of the world warring for water or arable land isn't going to be good for the global economy, and it's pretty likely at least some of the violence will spill over into Europe and North America in the form of terrorism or fears of nuclear proliferation. 

In fact, #7 remains true even if you still deny #4 (that humans are responsible for the warming).  Even a "naturally" warming planet will have these effects, and if deniers were sincere, many of them would support measures to prepare for some of these effects.  Where exactly are the majority of Bangladeshis going to go when the rising ocean floods their mostly sea-level country?  Where are millions of people in South Asia going to get drinking water when the glaciers are too small to provide enough melt water to feed the rivers?

You do often find deniers who admit the planet is warming, but deny that humans are the cause, and yet I cannot recall them supporting harm alleviation measures.  In fact, quite the reverse, one of the denial-sphere's most famous people is Bjorn Lomberg, who up until quite recently took the position that global warming was real, humans are the cause, but it wasn't worth solving, and other problems are more worthy of our attention.   He, of course, remained in good standing among denialist circles despite his acceptance of the basic AGW science because he agreed with them on the most important issue for deniers:  We must do nothing about it.  This is all that is required by deniers.  Whatever sophist path you take to that destination is fine, just ensure your end conclusion is "nothing needs to happen now or soon."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

AGW is not an "Extraordinary Claim"

In response to my last post, an anonymous commenter writes:
Um, what is this denial 'case' you refer to anyway? I don't think the deniers have a case, they don't need one. Remember, its the alarmists who are making the claims of future catastrophe, it is up to the alarmists to support those claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and so far that hasn't been delivered. Its easy being a denier, all one needs to do is pick holes in the alarmists evidence. But deniers aren't really making any claims, they don't have a case that I am aware of, they don't require a case. So what is their case again?
It is true that the normal rules of logical discourse require those making the claims to back those claims with proof.   What this commenter is doing is moving the goalposts.  Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) has been backed by reams of research into multiple lines of evidence, independent verification and has made many predictions borne out by later evidence.  Climate Change is quite plausibly the single most deeply studied topic in the history of human scientific endeavour.  The Theory meets all the usual criteria (testable predictions, etc) to be a sound and widely accepted scientific capital "t" Theory, which is precisely why it is nearly universally accepted in the relevant scientific communities.  But deniers simply assert that the evidence isn't good enough, and that they aren't satisfied based on some never explained asymptotically unreachable standard of evidence. 

To answer this person's last question, when someone makes a claim and then provides evidence for it, the onus is now on the sceptics to explain why the evidence is unacceptable.  What is the denier case against the evidence presented?   In attempting to make such a case, deniers present us a bunch of charlatans, kooks and crooks who make relentlessly mendacious, specious and fallacious arguments where they misinterpret the data, cherry pick and derive trends from short term local maxima.  As the video shows, deniers put together a petition of 30,000 "scientists" who oppose the consensus, but it turns out very few of these people are actual scientists of any sort, and even fewer of them are scientists in a relevant discipline.  They sometimes deny the planet is warming, and other times they agree it is warming but assert that humans are not responsible.  They often claim the whole notion is a giant fraud, yet strangely publish absolutely no original climate research which could show this.  After all, if the planet really isn't warming, or it is but there is some other better (and natural) explanation for it, some original research could blow the whole AGW "fraud" wide open.  Al Gore and the IPCC don't have a monopoly on sending up weather balloons and drilling ice cores.   But really, the Oregon petition fraud is par for the course for deniers.  When Senator Inhofe (who has his own infamous fraudulent list) and Viscount Monckton are your leading lights, one really must ask why no more credible opponents to AGW have appeared? 

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"

As a matter of pure logical reasoning, I'm not convinced this old dictum is actually correct.  I'd say that extraordinary claims require ordinary proof, the way any other claim requires.  You should assess the evidence in and of itself, not in relation to how "extraordinary" you find the basic claim.  Your bias that something is unlikely to be true should not impact your view of the evidence.  Sometimes men bite dogs.

The bigger problem here is that nothing about the basic case for AGW requires an "extraordinary" claim.  There is no Quantum Mechanical weirdness.  No magic or miracle.  It doesn't hinge on proving the existence of the Higgs-Boson nor are scientists attributing this to Dark Matter or String Theory.   Here's the basic claims required for AGW to be generally correct:

1) The composition of the atmosphere of a planet impacts its dominant climate conditions, most particularly its average temperature.

This is really quite intuitive.  It's easily provable by just looking at Venus, which, despite being signficantly further from the Sun than Mercury, has a hotter surface temperature due to the Greenhouse effect of its carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. 

2) Changing the composition of a planet's atmosphere will change its climate.

Again, intuitive; give Mercury a CO2 atmosphere and it would be much hotter than Venus.  Give Mars an atmosphere as thick as Earth's and it might be warm enough for human habitation.

3) The composition of Earth's atmosphere has changed, with a significant increase in the concentration of certain gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide.

This is a simple matter of measurement, which has been done every way imaginable, and including drilling miles-thick ice cores from the Antarctic icesheet, we have hundreds of thousands of years of atmospheric composition records.  In fact, even though this claim is not extraordinary, we have what I would call "extraordinary" proof of it.

4) Human activity is primarily responsible for the increase in measured concentrations of these gases.

Some deniers simply assert without foundation that the planet is simply too big, and the atmosphere too immense for humans to significantly affect it.  They call it "arrogance."  First, consider that scientists believe prehistoric bacteria were responsible for the ancient shift from a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere to an oxygen rich one (which made animal life possible).  We know that algae today are responsible for a great percentage of the oxygen output in the atmosphere.  If single celled organisms can impact the atmosphere, why can't 7 billion humans employing giant machines do so?

The most obvious reason for attributing this to humans is the obvious and direct correlation between measured CO2 levels and the rise of industrialization, and the massive increase in burning of carbon intensive fossil fuels.  Just as a simple matter of diagnosing the cause of any phenomena, the first thing you look at is "what changed?" when comparing it to the situation before.  There is no other known phenomena that could plausible explain the increase in greenhouse gas levels.  We checked into the volcano angle, and it's a dead end.  Beyond that, we can in fact tell the difference between CO2 that was released by burning fossil fuels, and "natural" CO2 from decaying plant matter or the like, by looking at the levels of certain atomic isotopes in the gas.  We're not just guessing or deducing that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere is from us, we've measured.  When it comes to methane, it is even easier, since methane doesn't stay "methane" for very long in nature as UV rays break the molecules, so whatever is up there has to have been released recently (and yes, methane released by cows is part of "human activity" since our demand for meat is what mostly controls the number of domestic grazing herd animals in the world).

5) The average global temperature is increasing.

Climate deniers are fond of saying "the climate has always changed, it will always change, nothing new here" as one of their favourite denialisms, which says that even they find the idea that the Earth's average temperature might change over time to be un-exceptional.  Once again, this is a simple matter of measurement.  Going back using human records, tree rings, select fossils and those ice cores, we have a very long record of Earth's average temperature.  Even if one wants to rely solely on direct living human measurement of the past couple centuries, the trend is unmistakable.

6) The greenhouse effect is the primary cause of the observed warming.

So we have a phenomena observed, and it requires an explanation.  The Earth is evidently getting warmer, why?  There are, in the abstract, a number of possible causes to this.  Everything from increased output from the Sun to cosmic rays to changes in Earth's orbit have been proposed, studied and discarded as explanations.  The remaining sole plausible explanation is that the change to Earth's insulation system (the atmosphere) has altered the planet's energy absorbtion rate.  What is extraordinary about this?  Any child who has walked on dark pavement in bare feet understands that different substances get hotter or cooler in the sun.  The idea that invisible gases in the air have a similar effect is probably beyond the intuition of most children (and most adults) but it remains real, and something we can empirically demostrate in labs.  A transparent vessel filled with CO2 left in the sun will get hotter than one filled with normal air.  The physics and chemistry of why this happens are more complex (the propensity of these gases to absorb the reflected solar energy in the form of infrared light the planet gives off which otherwise would get vented into space), but the reality of the phenomenon can be repeatedly demonstrated. 

In fact, given that we can observe the increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and understand this "greenhouse effect" thing, the question could never be "Are greenhouse gases warming the planet?" but only "how much are they doing so?"  This idea is so obvious to scientists, that it was proposed back in 1896.  Even then people who understood the relevant physics could look at our already prodigious carbon output, and ask what the eventual impact would be on the global temperature.

In summary, when you accept that a planet's climate is strongly correlated to the composition of its atmosphere, that Earth's atmosphere has been rapidly increasing in CO2 and MH4 levels, that Earth's average surface temperature has increased, that the rise in CO2 and MH4 levels are the only plausible explanation for the increased temperature, and that humans are the only plausible source of the increased levels of these gasses, then you have AGW.  We can still debate particulars about how much warming how fast from a given amount of CO2, the impact on polar ice and glaciers, the effects on hurricanes, droughts and floods, but the basic premise is there, it flows logically from a series of very provable and reasonable claims and which hold up well under a very intensive search for evidence about them.

It is fair to demand people making factual claims provide suitable evidence, but it ceases to be fair when you set impossible standards of evidence and hide behind ill defined and shifting objections that are not internally consistent to justify refusing to accept the proposition.  This is what deniers do, and it's why I call them "deniers" and not "sceptics." 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Emptiness of the Climate Denial "case"

Just excellent.  A reformed climate denier gives a talk on the subject of the contrarians, exploring the various techniques for maintaining the unsupportable belief that human activity is not dangerously warming the planet:

I'd add that I am still waiting for one of the big denier groups to sue Al Gore, David Suzuki, Michael Mann or the IPCC like they have threatened to do so often.   Please, sue!  I can't wait for the discovery motions.  I'll put the contents of say, the CRU's private emails up against what came out just from the Heartland Institute's document leak any time.  We've seen the dirty laundry of leading climatologists, and it wasn't dirty.  The wealthy interests who fund the climate denialism industry don't even want us to know who they are, never mind their behind the scenes strategy and planning documentation. 

Meanwhile, 30,000 people mostly without climatology credentials signed a petition, a creationist  Republican Senator and cult member has a big list of scientists who supposedly question the consensus, and a fake member of the UK House of Lords who claims to have cured Graves' disease doubts the consensus.  Denialists, these are your champions.  The longer you cling to this, the more embarassing it will be to eventually be forced to admit you've been wrong.  It's pretty damn embarassing already.  Galileo, my ass.  Scientists mocked alchemy and phrenology too, and guess what, they were right.