“Insane” ≠ “insensé”

Macron did not just call Trump crazy.

The Guardian, today (my emphasis):

Noting that Trump had also pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accord – another commitment of the Obama administration – Macron said such frequent changes in the US position on global issues “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term”.

Did Macron really mean to call Trump’s policies insane, that is crazy, indicative of a serious mental disorder?

No. Gratuitous insults to a head of state you want things from are stupid and counter-productive, and Macron is not a fool.

I’m sure that he was self-translating “insensé”.

The online Larousse dictionary  gives the meaning as:

Qui n’est pas conforme au bon sens, à la raison : Projet insensé.

The correct English is therefore “senseless”. That’s still rude, but not a personal attack.

Macron’s English is very good, though not quite as good as he thinks. My French is excellent - not boasting, just a fact, I worked with it for 32 years. But neither of us are immune to mistakes, especially of nuance, and most especially of nuance in hard words. Consider the minefield around “nigger”: now completely taboo for non-black English speakers, but I understand acceptable ironically between black friends. Foreigners wouldn’t guess that French “con” is somewhat less offensive than “pute”, while the reverse is true of their English equivalents.

There is a good reason why the interpreters and translators who work for foreign ministries, embassies and international organisations are highly paid and equal in status to administrators. It is very hard to get translations of sensitive material exactly right, and Google Translate is not there yet by a long chalk. *

* Google Translate suggests the literal and meaningless “pas par une longue craie. The fixed phrase “loin s’en faut” does the job, but I don’t know a more picturesque idiom. It has the advantage of the disapproval of the stuffy and idle Académie Française.

Getting biofuels wrong, wrong, wrong

The European Parliament is about to decide whether to stop counting forest biomass as a “green fuel”, that is, fuel having no global warming impact, and restricting that status to residues and wastes. This is important because their current rules do not assign a carbon cost to whole trees harvested for fuel and burned.  The theory behind the current rule is that the tree got its carbon from the air, but it’s deeply absurd; coal got its carbon from the air too. Forests store a lot of carbon, and putting it into the atmosphere is very much like burning fossil fuel; trees may be replanted and then may be allowed to regrow and recapture carbon, but for the decades that takes, the carbon from the harvest is in the air warming the planet.

Do you live in the EU? Know people who do? Find your MEPs here and give them a heads up, as the authors of the letter at the bottom of this page have done. This is important.

Popper and Kahneman visit an Indian coal mine

Indian coal offers a nice moment of Popperian falsfication.

Daniel Kahneman has a simple explanation why we don’t think things through: laziness. It’s no work to rely on the sloppy, but fast and efficient, Hare mental system, using short cuts and stereotypes to get a response that is, under the current US President, good enough for government work. Rigorous thought is hard.

Karl Popper offered a short cut through the hard part that is still rigorous: falsification of hypotheses. One false prediction and you’re out. A nice idea, but it rarely works. You can save almost any hypothesis with tweaks, including Ptolemaic astronomy. So it’s back to comparing the best shots of the competing hypotheses, hard work again.

Just occasionally, life presents us with a simple Popperian test. Here is one I spotted, on the recondite but important subject of Indian coal burning. There are two entrants. Goliath is the IEA, a stuffy but reputed intergovernmental policy and data shop in Paris. David is IEEFA, a small energy policy think tank in Cleveland.

IEA: India’s coal consumption will more than double by 2040. (IEEFA pdf, page 1.) The source is presumably the IEA World Energy Outlook 2017, paywalled; it’s not in the free summary. See also this IEA FAQ:

The positive IEA outlook for coal demand through 2020 is based in part on growth in India and Southeast Asia that will more than offset structural declines in Europe and the United States.


The headline to the chart understates the predicted change: growth will be trivial after next year. This means that India’s overall carbon emissions may stabilise in less than a decade, assuming the electric transition goes as fast in transport as the government plans.

Who’s right? Continue reading “Popper and Kahneman visit an Indian coal mine”

Are carbon emissions rising again?

Yes in 2017, but I think it’s a Chinese blip.

Yes, according to the top-ranked people at the Tyndall Centre, as reported in a string of journal reports, the key letter here. They predict global carbon emissions will rise 2.0% in 2017, after three years on a plateau. They do not offer a prediction for 2018, but are not optimistic.

(Chart from here.)

Is there any reason to change the plateau story? Is the rise a blip or a sign that emissions growth has resumed? For my money, a blip. Let’s look at the detail. Continue reading “Are carbon emissions rising again?”

Catalan follies update

An unsympathetic homage to Catalonia.

The absurd and tragic Catalan crisis (earlier comment here) lurches forward.

  • The secessionists called for yet another referendum on October 1. This was declared illegal beforehand by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The central government made a hamfisted attempt to block it, with scattered violence by the national police. (Casualty totals here, on a Catalan website. Does not look like Tien An-Men or Kent State to me.) The unionists stayed home: the secessionists “won” the recorded vote  by 93%, but with turnout of only 43%.
  • On 10 October, Carles Puigdemont, the President of the regional government, sort-of declared independence in a speech to the Catalan Parliament (which has a thin secessionist majority), treating the referendum result as a mandate, or self-executing, or something. He immediately suspended it “for a few weeks” to call for “dialogue” with Madrid, on Catalan terms, mediated by outsiders. (Offers to referee the knife-fight have not been forthcoming).
  • Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, seized on the opening to demand that Puigdemont clarify whether he had declared independence or not. He hasn’t clarified at all, so Rajoy is going ahead with selective suspension of parts of Catalonia’s regional autonomy under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Crucially, he has secured the support of both the Socialist PSOE and the reformist Ciudadanos parties for the move, leaving only Podemos (hippie reformists) and the regionalist parties opposed. The Senate will surely approve the suspension on Friday.

If you are scoring this as a match, Rajoy lost points by the failed and violent attempt to stop the referendum taking place, but Puigdemont lost them back by the non-declaration. A deadline of a year would have been a serious threat, and an immediate declaration would at least have been brave. As things are, it looks as if he chickened out at the last moment.

Meanwhile, a trickle of companies moving their legal headquarters outside Catalonia has turned into a flood: 700 by October 16. Rajoy initially encouraged this but is now alarmed by the success and reversed track. Standard & Poor’s suggest a recession in Catalonia is on the way – that’s before the chaos of a real attempt at independence.

What happens now? Continue reading “Catalan follies update”

Kiwi election

The New Zealand election: cheap, efficient, and rational

I happen to be in New Zealand just now, and the Kiwis went to the polls last Saturday (September 23). The right-of-centre National Party won a near-majority of seats and only needs to secure two more votes from the minor parties to form another government. I actually predicted this, but didn’t get around to posting before. You can trust RBC bloggers implicitly, right? Right?

A few points for Americans, Brits and other outsiders.

An electoral system designed by adults
New Zealand has a unicameral parliament, filled by the “mixed-member proportional” system, aka “Additional Member”. This gives electors a dual vote for party and constituency candidate. The 71 constituency MPs are topped up from party lists to give proportionality. It’s the sort of scheme you get if you ask dispassionate Vulcans to suggest something, which is more or less how the Germans got it, and later the devolved assemblies for Scotland, Wales and London. So you tend to get moderate coalition governments. (The disadvantage is that you give too much leverage to small parties that can often act as kingmakers, instead of freezing them out completely as FPTP does.) All four of the main parties have been in and out of government in the last decade. Even the populist, anti-immigration “New Zealand First” party is a very genteel version of the type. Can you see the Front National, UKIP or Trump’s GOP including in their health policy a proposal to “increase longitudinal data collection in health like a perinatal database”? That’s as wonkish as the stuff HRC was sneered at for.

Helping voters vote
New Zealand is worried about the participation rate in elections: the time before it shockingly fell below 80%. Voting is not compulsory, as in Australia. USA 2016: 55%. Unlike the US, New Zealand is doing something to make voting easier. They have trialled early voting kiosks in shopping malls, covering a range of nearby constituencies. Instant registration? Naturally. Paper ballots? Naturally. There are automatic recounts and reconciliation with the electoral roll, so the definitive results take two weeks. It’s a good system, but nothing exceptional. It’s the USA that is the outlier, sticking to a worm-eaten, discriminatory, corrupt, profligate and inefficient electoral system out of Hogarth.
BTW, part of Lu’s Brazilian family have happily settled in New Zealand. They aren’t naturalized but have permanent resident rights. They were allowed to vote. And why not?

Democracy on a budget
Expenses for the seven-week campaign are capped by law. Counting the flat allowances for parties, constituency candidates, and the unequally distributed allocation for broadcasting airtime, the most the National Party at the head of the list can spend is NZ$5,091,260. The total costs of all 12 parties, many of them tiny no-hopers, must be in the area of NZ$25m, or US$18m. That’s to elect the government for a country of 4.4m people and an area similar to Colorado. The special election in Georgia for a single Congressional seat cost over $30m.

What health policy?
A big yawn. Nobody wants to change a system that’s working well. The parties put health well down the list of issues: the campaign has been about immigration, housing, transport infrastructure, and taxes. This disinterest is entirely normal. Campaigns in the UK feature the NHS, but it’s all about funding levels not the principle. Once you fix healthcare, on any one of half-a-dozen statist systems, it stays fixed. Here are the health pages on the parties’ platform websites: National Party, Labour, New Zealand First, Greens. See if you can find anything radical.

Death of a Salesman

The late Tony de Brum’s moment of glory.

Tony de Brum, the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands (pop. 53,000) has died.

He will be remembered for one thing only. But it was a big thing, and de Brum was the hedgehog. I’ve told the story before. In the closing days of the COP 21 conference in December 2015 that negotiated the Paris Agreement on climate change, there was still a big gap between the developing countries and the rich ones.

The G77 alliance of developing countries, led by China, India and South Africa, was demanding more and more language on differentiated responsibilities, to the extent of effectively going back to the disastrous Kyoto principle that only rich countries had to cut; more finance than the $100 bn a year promised in Copenhagen; and language on loss and damage that was unacceptably strong to the rich countries. However, the alliance was divided on the 1.5 degree aspiration, with the big four – China, India, South Africa and Brazil – against it.

This opened the door for a well executed diplomatic wedge.  Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands took the lead (at somebody’s suggestion, no telling whose) in forming a “coalition of high ambition”, including many of the G77 plus the EU, the USA, Canada and Australia. In effect, the rich countries offered 1.5 degrees to split the G77 and isolate the big four. The poor countries on their side had to drop the demands on differentiation and finance; on loss and damage, the difference seems to have been split – but crucially with no admission of legal liability (Decision, paragraph 52). Before the end, Brazil jumped ship too. Their troops having deserted to the enemy, China, India and South Africa folded, and the way was open for the deal.

It is most unlikely that de Brum thought this up. He was not otherwise known as a Talleyrand, far from it. When he attended a meeting of the IMO, the UN organisation responsible for shipping, he was surprised to find that his country’s delegation had been taken over by the Virginia corporation that manages, and takes most of the loot from, his county’s vast shipping registry. On grounds of complexity and cui bono, the prime suspect for the Paris coup is Todd Stern, the wily and experienced US envoy. De Brum’s role was as the front man, the harmless guy everybody likes, the salesman. Don’t despise that: and de Brum was not a mercenary but fighting for his tiny country’s vital interests. It took a lot of commitment, nerve and chutzpah to face down China and India, and de Brum’s held to the end.

As it recedes into history, the Paris COP21 is emerging as one of the key moments in postwar history, on a par with the launch of the Marshall Plan or the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The inclusion of the 1.5 degree C target took far more knowledgeable observers than yours truly by surprise. Its role in the whole deal is to shift the Overton window: 2 degrees is no longer the wild upper limit of ambition, but the reasonable compromise that sensible men build into their calculations. The next steps in climate diplomacy will all be about whether to go firm on the harder target. There certainly won’t be any change in the easier one. Tillerson has conceded there are no actual US proposals for Trump’s promised “renegotiation” on the table, and if they were, they would be ignored.

A good man. RIP.

No end to winning

The Leaders’ Declaration from the just-ended G20 summit in Hamburg runs to 14 pages of dense diplospeak prose, 5,311 words. Can anyone point to a single line that is a win for US diplomacy? If there had been one, Trump would have claimed it.

Or in any of the 14 other documents “agreed” at the same time? Here they are, confirmation that German industriousness extends to paperwork. Site link if you feel up to it.

Agreed Documents

  1. Hamburg Action Plan
  2. Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth
  3. Hamburg Update: Taking forward the G20 Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda
  4. Annual Progress Report 2017
  5. G20 Action Plan on Marine Litter
  6. G20 Africa Partnership
  7. G20 Initiative for Rural Youth Employment
  8. High Level Principles on the Liability of Legal Persons for Corruption
  9. High Level Principles on Organizing against Corruption
  10. High Level Principles on Countering Corruption in Customs
  11. High Level Principles on Combatting Corruption related to Illegal Trade in Wildlife and Wildlife Products
  12. G20 Initiative #eSkills4Girls
  13. Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative
  14. G20 Resource Efficiency Dialogue.

The media are concentrating on the one glaring defeat for Trump on climate. As I predicted last December, the other 19 have gone their own way:

We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States of America announced it will immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution and affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs. The United States of America states it will endeavour to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in their nationally-determined contributions.

The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible. We reiterate the importance of fulfilling the UNFCCC commitment by developed countries in providing means of implementation including financial resources to assist developing countries with respect to both mitigation and adaptation actions in line with Paris outcomes and note the OECD’s report “Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth”. We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation … blah blah.

The US threat to help other countries backslide on their Paris commitments is empty. Even Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey refused to show any solidarity with Trump and signed on to the strong G19 statement, a major win for Merkel. There is no mention of North Korea, a major and immediate US headache, in the Declaration. Nor of Syria and Iraq. (The price was forgetting about the 2009 pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, no date given then or subsequently. It’s still there on page 12(!) of the ”Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth” annex, but the action has shrunk to token peer review. This suits Merkel, who does not want to pick a fight with her SPD coalition partners on a coal phaseout, so the German policy of continued dithering is now officially the world consensus.) [Update: Turkey is joining Russia in delaying Paris ratification, probably to get leverage with the EU. Unlike the USA, Turkey is building coal as well as renewable generating plants.]

Why did Trump fail so completely? It not just or even mainly because he’s thick. Continue reading “No end to winning”

Trump makes more enemies

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are mad at Trump.

President Donald Trump has annoyed another lot of people. Not the defenceless PM of Montenegro or the President of Mexico or the Pope or the Mayor of London, but the commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran. Following Wednesday’s terrorist attack in the centre of Tehran  including the Parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomenei, Trump thought this was an appropriate comment:

States that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

The Guards are not happy. Reuters reported this statement (my italics):

The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards promised retaliation on Islamic State - the militant group that claimed responsibility - and its allies.

“Let there be no doubt that we will take revenge for today’s attacks in Tehran, on terrorists, their affiliates and their supporters,” Brigadier General Hossein Salami was quoted as saying by state media.

They blame Riyadh – but also Trump.

“This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the U.S. president (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists. The fact that Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they were involved in the brutal attack,” a Guards statement said.

The conspiracy theory would normally be unbelievable but with Trump you never know. “Go ahead, take the ayatollahs down a peg”? You also need to believe that Saudi responsibility for ISIS goes beyond the general toxic programme of funding Wahhabi and Salafist preachers all over the place to operational links to ISIS. Since al-Baghdadi’s modest programme includes exterminating the Saudi monarchy along with Iran’s apostate ayatollahs, this does not seem likely.

The Pasdaran is a complete parallel ideological military, with land, naval, air and missile units. The nearest analogy would be Himmler’s Waffen SS late in the Second World War, or Stalin’s NKVD troops. Its total strength is said to be 125,000, plus a 90,000 strong militia of probably limited military value. Still the Pasdaran has real aggressive capabilities in its 5,000 Marines and a similar number in the special ops Quds Force. If they choose to go after Trump personally, they can.

We can cross fingers that cooler heads will prevent an assassination or kidnap attempt, which would probably spark a full-grown war that Iran cannot afford. But there are plenty of lesser ways of damaging Trump personally that do not affect vital US interests. How hard can it be for a saboteur to to make a hotel unlettable, with food poisoning or rats? Or to wreck a golf course with a couple of jerrycans of gasoline and Roundup? A more elegant way would be to hire delinquent boys to release hundreds of moles on the greens. The joke is no doubt rather too Cambridge.

Ashurbanipal’s Library, a drama in three acts

The urgent restoration of an ancient library in Mosul.

Ashurbanipal was a conqueror and warlord on the grand scale, and in his long reign (668-627 BCE) extended the Assyrian empire to include even Egypt. Assyrian treatment of the conquered was brutal, and included massacres, flayings and population transfers. Three kings later, a coalition of rebels led by Babylon destroyed the kingdom.

Assyrian cuneiform tablet, British Museum

But he was a cultivated and multilingual man and assembled possibly the world’s first great library. The British Museum has 30,000 fragments of cuneiform tablets taken by Layard, and that must be only a fraction. Persian traditions hold that the relics inspired Alexander to build his own, a project taken forward after his death by the Ptolemies at Alexandria.

Under Saddam Hussein, archaeologists hatched a plan to recreate a research library at Mosul University under the title of Ashurbanipal Library.  It would be focussed on archaeology. The British Museum agreed to supply copies of all its collection. The plan moved ahead slowly after Saddam fell. A campaign was launched by the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Cairo, another ambitious revival, directed at universities in the Arab world. Call this Library 2.

This is what Mosul University looks like today.

Credit Reuters

ISIS of course burnt the idolatrous library before the artillery and rockets got to work. The people in Cairo are relaunching the library campaign, though I couldn’t find anything on their website.

The archaeology research centre is a nice idea and I hope it moves ahead again. But what the students need tomorrow is a basic working library in all fields: science, languages, technology, medicine, law …. While the fighting on the East bank of the Tigris was still going on, students and professors were working to clear the rubble and start teaching again. The website is back up (only in Arabic). This determination deserves practical support. ISIS was a threat to all of us, and the people of Mosul paid very heavily for its destruction.

This does not look like a case where individual donations can be useful. It needs at least sponsorship from university departments and schools prepared to assemble a starter library in their discipline, plus expert input from librarians and IT people, and an operational fund from a government or billionaire. And tact as well: the university is in the Arab world, and that will be the language of instruction. Perhaps along with Kurdish? You see the problem.

Ashurbanipal Library 3 can be the one that sticks.