Europe’s future will be muddled

merkel cameron hollande

An uncomfortable alliance

Here’s a short, provocative and interesting piece on the past, present and future of Europe by Anthony de Jasay on the Library of Economics and Liberty. It was written before the current debacle in Cyprus, but the conclusions – that Europe will muddle on for the foreseeable future through an increasingly uncomfortable alliance between the UK, France and Germany – will, I think, hold true. At least for now.

Anthony de Jasay, “A Triangular Europe: Three Incompatible Conceptions.” March 4, 2013. Library of Economics and Liberty. 27 March 2013. <>.


Are hurricanes really getting more frequent?

huricane picture

Will we be seeing this kind of thing more often?

I hear a lot of people saying that the weather is getting more extreme as a result of climate change. Fair enough. However I’ve heard this view stated as an opinion that the we are also witnessing more and more hurricanes too, an opinion which is often presented as direct proof of the negative effects humans are having on the planet. In fact I heard this very opinion repeated several times only last week on a recent BBC Radio 4 program discussing the environment and climate change.

Take this example too from the recent Earth Hour project homepage: “Our towns and cities are already facing the staggering costs of weather driven to extremes by climate change, and the resulting power outages, flooded roadways, shuttered businesses, and damaged homes are becoming more and more frequent” (my emphasis).

There’s no denying the terrible havoc caused by hurricanes and big storms. But check that end phrase they’ve thrown in. Hmmmm.

So if the consensus says that we are getting more frequent hurricanes as a result of climate change, I want to ask a simple but disruptive question: is that true?

Where to start?

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea. I had half-baked opinions, but no facts. I didn’t want to just search the internet randomly either – who knows what kind of weird stuff and crackpot ranting is out there on blogs (and yes, pot-kettle-black, let’s move on), so I decided to start off by seeing what the IPCC itself has to say on the subject.

Here are the surprising statements I found. As ever, the truth is more nuanced than the headlines might suggest.

What follows are the key findings taken from the 2012 IPCC summary report for policymakers on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters”.

  • Models project substantial warming in temperature extremes by the end of the 21st century.

So the temperature range of hot spells and cold snaps will increase at both ends of the scale. Worrying as this is, it is not about hurricanes. Next.

  • It is likely (by which they mean more than a 66% probability) that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe.

So if I understand that correctly, it’s going to rain more in some places. OK, this is not about hurricanes either, next.

  • Average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely to increase, although increases may not occur in all ocean basins.

Right, here we go. So maybe some storms might be stronger, but possibly not everywhere. So if there are storms which hit land (those on the sea bother no one) they might be stronger than normal. Not good. Keep going.

  • It is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged.

So climate change is predicted (> 66%) to have no effect on the frequency of big storms. In fact, the frequency of big storms might even decrease. See that? Decrease. Isn’t that interesting! Let’s see if there’s anything else in here.

  • There is medium confidence that there will be a reduction in the number of extratropical cyclones averaged over each hemisphere.

Notice the word reduction here again, as in less, not more. Next.

  • There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration.

So if it’s not raining more where you are (see above), it’ll probably be raining less. Again, not about hurricanes. Next.

  • Projected precipitation and temperature changes imply possible changes in floods, although overall there is low confidence in projections of changes in fluvial floods.

“Imply possible changes” is a bit wooly, but that’s because it seems they don’t really have any reliable data on this subject. Chances of river flooding remain the same however. As interesting as this is, it is not about hurricanes. Next.

  • It is very likely (meaning more than 90% probability) that mean sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels in the future.

The world is getting warmer so sea levels are going to rise. This makes total sense but has nothing to do with hurricanes. Next.

  • There is high confidence that changes in heat waves, glacial retreat, and/or permafrost degradation will affect high mountain phenomena such as slope instabilities, movements of mass, and glacial lake outburst floods.

Interesting, but not relevant to storms affecting people. Next.

  • There is low confidence in projections of changes in large-scale patterns of natural climate variability.

This refers to weather patterns like monsoons, so isn’t relevant.

That’s it. We’re at the end of the line.

So what’s the conclusion here regarding the consensus that hurricanes are becoming more and more frequent?

Well, as ever, there’s both good and bad news. On the downside the storms we get might be more intense and damaging by a small degree, but on the upside there may well be less of them.

Given that, how come so many people still seem to think that big storms (meaning hurricanes / cyclones / typhoons etc.) are getting more frequent as a result of climate change, when even the IPCC itself says that this isn’t the case? Is it lazy journalism, or what?

The point of this enquiry is not to deny the obvious effects of climate change, or that man isn’t having an effect on the climate, it’s just to show that sometimes it’s worth digging down to the facts and asking those disruptive questions in order to challenge commonly held assumptions. If we are to have a sensible debate about climate change, then it has to be one based on facts and current scientific consensus, not fantasy. The alternative of an assumptions-led debate doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run.

As a friend of mine once said, we need more constructive disruption, and less corrosive assumption.

Most of us peeps is creeps

Radiohead Creep

When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sang the lyrics, “I’m a creep / I’m a weird-o / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” on their break-through (and breath-taking) song “Creep”, I felt like he had something special to say to me. I connected. So here’s the news. It turns out he was talking about all of us. At least all of us living in the western world anyway.

I first read about the WEIRD acronym (which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Haidt reports that, “in 2010 Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”. [They] pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are [WEIRD]. They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalisations about human nature.”


Which arrow is longer? That answer might now depend as much on where you ask, as well as how.

This is how it works. We conduct a lot of social and psychological experiments in the West – a culture which takes as its cornerstone a belief in individualism and individual freedom – and then use the results to draw universal conclusions about human nature. Trouble is that these results often don’t often stand up to scrutiny in cultures where people prioritise groups and communities ahead of individuals. Which, by the way, is probably the majority of the way the rest of the world works.

So where does that leave us? Well, with a large batch of experiments that might need a rethink, as well as the whole bunch of assumptions about human nature that we’ve drawn from them. Experimenters will need to learn to get off campus more when looking for people to test their theories on too, and probably look at even getting out of their continent. Until then, we might need to put some of those generalisations we have about each other on hold.

The Pin Factory


Economics is Fun Series – Part 3 – Specialisation

More great stuff from the Adam Smith Institute. This week Madsen Pirie looks at specialisation and mass production, picking up on both the Wealth of Nations and the genius of Eli Whitney in the process.

Here’s Adam Smith himself on the benefits of specialisation:

This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and, lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Want more? Watch the previous episode on price.

Why taking a break is good for you


what is a weekend - maggie smith - downton abbey

Excessive application, during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together is, in most men, naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force, or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations