The Wicked Son

Happy Earth Day!

This will be the last Passover-inspired blog. As in the previous two blogs, I will try to close the gap between a very ancient tradition and present and future needs that are compatible with the objectives that we have set for ourselves. This blog will be posted on Tuesday, April 22. On this date we celebrate both Earth Day and my wife’s birthday. One of the best presents that we can give to the world on Earth Day and to my wife on her birthday is to try to shift our bad behavior. People who would be considered Wicked Sons by the Hagaddah will have to try to modify their habits to closer to those of Wise ones and in the process to make the world a better place for all of us. Public education, in its true sense of educating the public, is probably the best vehicle to help us achieve such a modest goal. Fortunately, a group of top entertainers and journalists are trying to achieve this through exposure to commercial television. This blog will go through some of my initial personal responses.

About 8 months ago (August 6, 2013) I responded in a short comment to an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “A Republican Case for Climate Action.” The article, which was written by four prominent Republicans with extensive governmental background on environmental issues, included strong advocacy for national and international steps to mitigate climate change. I made the prediction there that the article would be a game changer in the political dispute on the topic. I was wrong. While the political dispute has continued, I haven’t read or heard anybody who referenced the Op-Ed. My editors made the comment that it would be much more effective to attach such comments by way of a Letter to the Editor, as that format was devised by the papers to serve just such an objective. I take my editors’ advise to heart.

Recently, I had the opportunity to respond: more than a week ago, an Op-Ed in the New York Times appeared in anticipation of a new Showtime series of “Years of Living Dangerously.” The piece was written by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger and published on April 9, 2014 under the title Global Warming Scare Tactics.” Here are the first three paragraphs:

OAKLAND, Calif. — IF you were looking for ways to increase public skepticism about global warming, you could hardly do better than the forthcoming nine-part series on climate change and natural disasters, starting this Sunday on Showtime. A trailer for “Years of Living Dangerously” is terrifying, replete with images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods. “I don’t think scary is the right word,” intones one voice. “Dangerous, definitely.”

Showtime’s producers undoubtedly have the best of intentions. There are serious long-term risks associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from ocean acidification to sea-level rise to decreasing agricultural output.

But there is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

Following my instructions, I immediately followed up with a response. Here is the full letter:

To the Editor:

Please find enclosed my submission to the “Letters to the Editor” section of the New York Times.

Re: “Global Warming Scare Tactics by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger” – Op-Ed April 9, 2014.

The point that Nordhous and Shellenberger raise in their piece goes way beyond this particular Showtime series (Years of Living Dangerously) of which they were only able to see the trailer (The 1st episode is already available on “Showtime on Demand”). It speaks to a much more general method of warning for any impending future disaster that requires immediate preventive actions. In climate change the requirements are more stringent because the required mitigating actions are global and thus require collective political decisions. The authors are absolutely right – in that it is necessary to keep in mind the psychology of the viewers.

The Scientific American just commented on a poll conducted by Stanford researchers, who found that – based on 21 surveys of almost 20,000 people in 46 states – the majority of Americans (in both Red and Blue states) believe that: temperatures are rising, human actions are part of the cause and government action is needed to limit greenhouse gas emission. That said, fewer than half of the polled residents in almost all states believe that global warming is extremely important to them personally.

Most people do not see the inherent contradiction in the attitude that a collective disaster will leave them untouched. A credible method of mass communication, such as the coming Showtime series, will at least keep the conversation going and buy time for the much slower educational efforts to bear fruit. Bless all involved.

I received the standard acknowledgement from the Times, stating that they are being swamped with letters (more than a 1,000 a day) so if I am not notified within a week about acceptance for publication, I am free to do as I wish with the letter. Since the deadline has passed, the letter is now under my full control. Yesterday (April 16) four responses showed up in the Times. As my wife commented, I shouldn’t take the rejection personally because my competition apparently included people who are much more famous than I am, and all of them expressed similar reservations to mine.

Since the Op-Ed was published, the first episode showed (there are 8 more to go). It included three segments; one of these segments focused on the droughts in Texas and California, and was narrated by Don Cheadle. In California they believe that climate change is an important contributor to the cause, while in Texas they believe that it is an act of God. So Cheadle is going to Texas to follow and interview Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric Scientist and a devout evangelist. Harrison Ford is the narrator of the second segment, which focuses Indonesia’s burning of the rain forest to make room for palm trees to produce palm oil, and the government’s complicity in this exercise. The third segment is narrated by Tom Friedman, and tries to correlate the civil war in Syria with the severe drought that started at approximately the same time.

It is obvious from their piece that Nordhouse and Shellenberger don’t understand the series or its aims. The series was not designed to frighten but instead as a call to action. Since the required action is global and collective and requires political action, the series represents one of the best available tools to reach the widest possible audience. A well designed web site complements the TV viewing.

Let’s get back to Passover and some definitions. My letter to the Times mentions a Scientific American piece, which shows research that most Americans – in both red and blue states – believe in man’s contribution to climate change.  While most view this as being a result of our heavy use of fossil fuels, the majority also believe that climate change will not impact them personally. Such an attitude fits perfectly with the Haggadah’s description of a Wicked Son, and how to deal with him:

What does the wicked one say? “What is this service to you?” He separates himself from the responsibility. And because he does so, be honest with him and tell him: “This is because of what Adonai has done for me, when he took me out of Egypt.” Emphasize you and not him, because even if he had been there, he would not have been worthy to be redeemed.

The story is part of the story of the four sons: in addition to the Wicked one we have the Wise one, the Simple one, and One that does not know how to ask questions. The corresponding passage about the Wise one goes as follows:

What does the wise one say? “What are these testimonies, laws and statutes that Adonai, our God, commanded you?” You should teach him the laws of the Passover: We do not finish eating with the Afikomen at the Passover seder.

Many have taken this to mean that a wise person must be able to acquire knowledge, and then use that to interpret the world around him.

Throughout the ages, the Four Sons have acquired rich symbolic interpretations. A good example of this is David Mamet’s book: The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hatred, and the Jews. Hopefully, the Showtime series will succeed in converting many Wicked Sons to Wise ones.

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Problems for a Contemporary Joseph

I am writing this blog one day before Passover. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the blog will be posted on Tuesday, April 15, the day of the 2nd Seder. Using Joseph as my timely hero is still permissible. Unlike the previous blog (April 8, 2014), which focused on an uncertain past, this blog will focus instead on an uncertain future. As it was written, Joseph’s achievement was predicting (based on interpreting God’s enlightenment in the form of Pharaoh’s dreams) the upcoming variability of food supply and rearranging the system accordingly: storing food in the good years to be distributed in the bad years.

If such an enlightening force were to show up today, what would be his/her job description? It would have to include preparing an infrastructure to adapt the world for a changing climate. The climate is changing at a human pace that has, and likely will continue to result in rising temperatures, sea level rise, and a rising variability of droughts and floods. This has/will also contribute to water stress, and therefore agricultural stress – mainly in the poorest parts of the world. Therefore, the job would also require alleviation of this water stress through energy-intensive desalination. In order to mitigate human-driven climate change, we need to go through energy transition; replacing predictable energy sources with highly variable ones.

The job description would also necessarily include drastic changes in the ownership distribution of the infrastructure, the regulatory structure and the price that each of us pays for energy and water. It would not take long for a contemporary Joseph to conclude that the best way forward would be to scrap the entire system and start from scratch to tailor the system to the uncertainties of the future. This would probably not work, however, because those with vested interests in the status quo will always fight with all their might to prevent such a thing from happening – in this case, by denying the uncertainties of the future. If we retain our democratic systems, the present fight in the USA over Obamacare will look like child’s play.

As usual, I will try to move from inflammatory generalities to some details. The necessary steps need to be taken – not in the ill-defined future, but now. The changes to the infrastructure of moving energy and water are already in motion. The fact is that the infrastructure is not suited to such changes, and they are already having their impacts.

Two weeks ago, when I discussed President Obama’s visit to California to offer a bit of help and sympathy in dealing with the recent drought, I included his quote:

Obama joked about the lengthy and incendiary history of water politics in California, saying, ‘I’m not going to wade into this. I want to get out alive on Valentine’s Day.’

He could have said the same thing about the history of water and energy policies throughout the entire country. Since the impact of climate change is not local but global, I will focus on the present situation in the United States, as well as the challenges that the world is facing as developing countries try to reach the status of developed countries. As we go along, in this blog and in future blogs, we will realize that many of the issues are global and that the job description of contemporary Joseph would have to go well beyond national boundaries to encompass the world.

In terms of the energy infrastructure, I will focus on the electrical grid. My main source of information about the electrical grid is a report that was compiled by MIT scientists. The report was issued toward the end of 2011 and is part of a series of reports that examine the infrastructure changes that need to be implemented as part of a strategy toward more sustainable energy sources. These reports include “The Future of Nuclear Power” (2003), “The Future of Geothermal Energy” (2006), “The Future of Coal” (2007), “Update to the Future of Nuclear Power “(2009), “The Future of Natural Gas” (2011) and “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle” (2011). I have no doubt that these reports would be a required reading for our contemporary Joseph. The scope of changes that need to be implemented can be best accomplished by understanding the present situation.

The following Appendix of the MIT report (mentioned above), which heavily “borrowed” from the Department of Energy’s publications, explains the history of the electrical grid system in the US, giving us a better perspective on the here-and-now.

Thomas Edison introduced the first electric power system in New York City in 1882. This direct current (dc) system initially served 59 customers in the Wall Street area at a price of about $5 per kilowatt hour (kWh). It operated at 100 volts and mainly supplied electric lights. By the end of the 1880s, many cities had similar small central stations that each served only a few city blocks.

To the extent that the industry was regulated, city governments performed this function. City governments also became major customers for street lighting and trolley services and could extract various concessions in exchange for the right to string wires. Soon, they also became owners. By 1900, municipally owned utilities accounted for about 8% of total U.S. generation. Vigorous debates about the relative merits of government- and investor-owned utilities continued in the U.S. through the 1930s, when federal policies were established that today still favor government-owned and cooperative utilities.

The transformer was first demonstrated at scale in Germany in 1891. This innovation enabled the use of relatively high-voltage transmission capable of carrying alternating current (ac) power overlong distances with relatively low losses. In 1896, George Westinghouse began the hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls, transmitting significant power to Buffalo, New York, more than 20 miles away. This inaugurated the practice of locating generators at some distance from load centers and linking them by high-voltage transmission, then using transformers to lower the voltage delivered to ultimate customers.

Since then, engineering research and the development of new materials have enabled the use of ever-higher voltages. In the U.S., ac lines with voltages of up to 150 kilovolts (kV) were in place by 1910, and the first 245 kV line was commissioned in 1922. The invention of the transformer and high-voltage lines allowed private utilities to expand beyond municipal boundaries and take better advantage of economies of scale. Such expansion compounded problems with municipal regulation and led to state regulation of investor-owned electric utilities, generally with the utilities’ active support. This trend began with the establishment of regulatory commissions in Wisconsin, Georgia, and New York in 1907. By 1914, 30 states had regulatory commissions, and today all states and the District of Columbia have them.

Vertically integrated, investor-owned firms— performing generation, transmission, and distribution as the sole provider within designated service areas—emerged as the dominant model. States enabled these firms to charge prices that allowed them to cover their costs.

… This evolution was politically rather than technologically determined. Because the U.S. political system was highly decentralized until at least the 1930s and most electric utilities operated within a single state, state regulation was the politically natural successor to supervision by municipal governments. In a different political context, in England local utilities were unable to expand for political reasons, and the system remained highly fragmented until a 1926 law mandated the establishment of an integrated nationwide grid. In the U.S., due in part to strong faith in private enterprise over the first three decades of the 20th century, the relative importance of publicly owned utilities declined during this period.

… The federal role in the electric utility industry began in 1906, when legislation authorized the sale of surplus power from federal irrigation projects, giving sales preference to municipalities. Navigable waterways had been under Federal jurisdiction since the early 19th century, and the Federal Water Power Act of 1920 both codified federal powers over navigable waterways and established the Federal Power commission, later the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to issue hydroelectric power licenses.

… The Federal Power Act of 1935 empowered the Federal Power Commission to regulate the wholesale transmission and sale of electric power. The Rural Electrification Act of1936 established the Rural Electrification.

Our contemporary Joseph will also find that presently (as of 2011) more than 20% of the World (close to 1.5 billion people) lacks access to electricity. Due to the larger prevalence of mobile phones than corresponding electrical grids, these 20% who lack access are fully aware of how life can be improved with access to electricity, and they are trying hard to get it. Joseph will find out that the way they are deciding to get access to electrical power has major impacts on all of us. We badly need Joseph’s wisdom to help with this transition.

It is not surprising that the ways in which the poorest people in the world are currently trying to gain access to electrical power closely resemble the ways in which we got our own access more than 100 years ago. Hopefully, a new Joseph can teach all of us how to learn from the experience. In future blogs I will try to draw some parallels between power and water infrastructure in the developing world with the earlier experiences of the developed world.

 

**As always, I welcome your feedback to my blog. I check my comments section regularly — please let me know what you think; start a discussion about one of my posts; tell me how you heard about Climate Change Fork. It’s always nice to hear if you like my blog, but I much prefer actual interactions.

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Waiting for Joseph

In a few days, my family, together with Jews all around the world, will start celebrating Passover with the Seder meal (Seder in Hebrew means “order”). Meanwhile, I assume that following recent tradition, President Obama and many on the White House staff will join in the celebration. The events that we celebrate are described in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus and involve the emancipation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

The Bible is not a history book and the early parts of the bible do not describe historical events that can be independently corroborated. Here is what Wikipedia shows as its origin:

Since the nineteenth century, most scholars have agreed that the Pentateuch consists of four sources which have been woven together. These four sources being combined together to form the Pentateuch sometime in the sixth century BCE. This theory is now known as the Documentary Hypothesis, and has been the dominant theory for the past two hundred years.[6].

The assembly of the Pentateuch is believed to have taken place in the Persian period about 2,500 years ago. This means that the books now stand on their own as a central focus of all three monotheistic religions.

During the Seder we read the Haggadah (“tell” in Hebrew) and pass the stories down through the generations.

The Haggadah briefly describes how the Israelites came to be in Egypt and how they were enslaved there, but the story is described in much greater detail in the book of Genesis. Joseph, the son of Jacob, played a decisive role in the beginning of this process. Here are two paragraphs from the King James Bible translation that describe the role that Joseph played in Egypt at the time:

33Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

34Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

35And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

36And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

37And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants.

38And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?

39And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:

40Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou

47And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.

48And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same.

49And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.

For me, this Seder is an opportunity to do more than thank God for freeing my ancestors from slavery at an uncertain point in a distant past. It is also an opportunity to thank God and the few surviving American soldiers from units associated with the American 30th division that saved me, my remaining family, and 2,500 other Bergen-Belsen inmates from a very uncertain future by intercepting the train that was transporting us from Bergen-Belsen to the Theresienstadt concentration camp that was further from the front line. The liberation took place on April 13, 1945. First Seder this year falls on the evening of April 14.

Going through the chores of buying some of the Passover necessities, my mind kept drifting to Joseph – not for the reasons that he was promoted to the second most powerful man in Egypt a few thousand years ago (again – we don’t have an independent source for this information except for the Bible) – but for his parallels to present existential needs. By all accounts, our current needs bear a great deal of resemblance to those he is written to have encountered in Egypt.

As written, he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that seven bad years would follow the seven good years. Based on this knowledge, he was able to regulate the lands’ production over the good years and the bad years, and save Egypt from starvation during the bad years.

A pattern of seven good years and seven bad years, however, is very easy periodicity to handle (especially if you can accurately predict such periodicity).

Here is one of the main findings of the new IPCC 5th report of the Working Group II that was just published, as presented in the highly readable Summary for Policy Makers:

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.14

The variability that Joseph was able to interpret for the Pharaoh was simple and predictable in today’s terms – easily handled by storing some products in the good years to be used in the bad years. By today’s understanding, weather – even without human intervention – is notoriously chaotic, meaning that its very high sensitivity to initial conditions can produce almost random final results. It is chaotic both in terms of temporal and spatial distributions. As the IPCC makes absolutely clear, human influence amplifies the variability considerably. This manifests itself in the water cycle in terms of floods, droughts, and extreme weather events. It is also apparent through both extreme heat events and record-breaking low temperatures (such as those many of us experienced during this last winter).

To regulate the increased variability, we need a “super Joseph” to help us adapt global networks of energy delivery (power grids) and water delivery to deal with these changes on a global scale. The next few blogs will focus on where we are on these issues.

Update: A new article about desalination in The Poughkeepsie Journal, written by two graduate students at Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy, mentions my work on the subject. You may remember one of them, Emily McCarthy, for her questions in my post on March 11th, 2014 about my Bard CEP talk.

As always, I welcome your feedback to my blog. I check my comments section regularly — please let me know what you think; start a discussion about one of my posts; tell me how you heard about Climate Change Fork. It’s always nice to hear if you like my blog, but I much prefer actual interactions.

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Hamlet in California

For the last three years or so, we have observed (and in the case of many, lived through) the California drought. During the last week, we waited for news about the mud slide in Washington State with 25 confirmed dead (some identified and some –as of yet –not) and a score still missing. Spring is just beginning, bringing with it the expectations of heavy floods after a winter with record snow. Yet, for many, the central question is – climate change or not climate change? The appropriate Shakespearian continuation seems to be “Weather ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”

Let’s go into some more detail:

In mid-February President Obama visited California to offer some help in the non-ending drought that they are facing.

Here is a local glimpse of that visit:

President Obama toured the parched fields of the Central Valley on Friday, assuring ranchers and farmers that he was committed to addressing the effects of California’s drought because ‘what happens here matters to every working American – right down to the food that you put on your table.’

Obama’s administration announced $170 million worth of initiatives to help the valley’s ranchers and people struggling to make ends meet because of the drought…

During a roundtable discussion with ranchers and community leaders in Firebaugh (Fresno County), Obama joked about the lengthy and incendiary history of water politics in California, saying, ‘I’m not going to wade into this. I want to get out alive on Valentine’s Day.’

The bulk of the aid package that the White House unveiled Friday consists of $100 million for ranchers facing livestock losses and $60 million to help food banks in the hardest-hit areas.

From there the President went to Palm Springs to play a few well-deserved rounds of golf on beautifully watered green lawns.

The worsening drought in California will force a first-ever complete cutoff of federally supplied irrigation water to most farm districts throughout the state’s Central Valley heartland this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said on Friday.

The projected 2014 zero allocation to all but a handful of agricultural districts supplied by the federally run Central Valley Project comes three weeks after forecasts of similarly drastic cuts were announced by managers of a separate water-delivery system operated by the state. California grows roughly half of all U.S. fruits and vegetables, most of that in the Central Valley, and ranks as the No. 1 farm state by value of agricultural products produced each year.

On February 25, during a Senate Hearing, John Holdren, the White House Science Adviser, was challenged by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for misleading the public in claiming that the drought is a consequence of anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. The reprimand was partially based on Roger Pielke’s testimony (July 18, 2013). Who is Roger Pielke? As he says in his self-written bio before the testimony, his degrees were in mathematics, public policy and political science and he was a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado.

His “take home points” in his testimony include the following:

  • It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally. It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.
  • Globally, weather-related losses ($) have not increased since 1990 as a proportion of GDP (they have actually decreased by about 25%) and insured catastrophe losses have not increased as a proportion of GDP since 1960.
  • Hurricanes have not increased in the US in frequency, intensity or normalized damage since at least 1900. The same holds for tropical cyclones globally since at least 1970 (when data allows for a global perspective).
  • Floods have not increased in the US in frequency or intensity since at least 1950. Flood losses as a percentage of US GDP have dropped by about 75% since 1940.
  • Tornadoes have not increased in frequency, intensity or normalized damage since 1950, and there is some evidence to suggest that they have actually declined.
  • Drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.” Globally, “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”
  • The absolute costs of disasters will increase significantly in coming years due to greater wealth and populations in locations exposed to extremes. Consequent, disasters will continue to be an important focus of policy, irrespective of the exact future course of climate change.

John Holdren is generally too busy to respond immediately to any climate change deniers, but in this case he was directly challenged by a United States senator, so he chose to respond in detail a few days after his testimony. His detailed response was posted on the White House blog post (the battle of the bloggers). Here are some highlights:

Linking Drought to Climate Change

In my recent comments about observed and projected increases in drought in the American West, I mentioned four relatively well understood mechanisms by which climate change can play a role in drought. (I have always been careful to note that, scientifically, we cannot say that climate change caused a particular drought, but only that it is expected to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of drought in some regions, and that such changes are being observed.)

The four mechanisms are:

  1. In a warming world, a larger fraction of total precipitation falls in downpours, which means a larger fraction is lost to storm runoff (as opposed to being absorbed in soil).
  2. In  mountain regions that are warming, as most are, a larger fraction of precipitation falls as rain rather than as snow, which means lower stream flows in spring and summer.
  3. What snowpack there is melts earlier in a warming world, further reducing flows later in the year.
  4. Where temperatures are higher, losses of water from soil and reservoirs due to evaporation are likewise higher than they would otherwise be.

These lines were the milder parts of the response. The most pointed parts were focused on nailing Pielke for picking and choosing almost all of his quotes, and disengaging them from their original context (go to my last week blog, March 25, 2014 to read more about the role of original documents in argumentations.)

On March 9, an OP-ED in the New York Times, written by Martin P. Hoerlig, a Research Meteorologist at NOAA (National Oceanic and Research Administration) touched on the same topic:

CALIFORNIA is now in the midst of the third year of one of its worst droughts on record. As our planet gradually warms from our rampant burning of fossil fuels, it’s only natural to wonder what role climate change has played in California’s troubles.

The answer is this: At present, the scientific evidence does not support an argument that the drought there is appreciably linked to human-induced climate change…

It resembles the droughts that afflicted the state in 1976 and 1977. Those years were at least as dry as the last two years have been for the state as a whole…

One way of accounting for the combined effects of rainfall and temperature on drought is to examine soil moisture. Long-term soil moisture observations are not readily available, but have been estimated using sophisticated models. The 2012 report on extreme events by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examined the evidence for regional changes in soil moisture since 1950, and made the following assessment for western North America…

The new IPCC report is a long document. It comes as a report of three working groups, with each presenting its own section of more than 1000 pages. Only the first of these working groups reports has been released (it came out late last year), while the second working group’s report is expected any day. Given the sheer volume of the full document, everybody will have plenty of opportunity to fish for whatever sentence fits their unchanging world view. One such relevant quote, taken from the summary of the first working group report, is given below:

Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions (see Figure SPM.8). {12.4, 14.3}

Climate scientists have a common understanding (as explicitly stated by John Holdren in his aforementioned response to Pielke’s testimony) that specific, localized, events can never be claimed to be caused by climate change; one can never claim that such events could not take place in the absence of human contributions. However, a statement that disconnects severe droughts from climate change must therefore by design disconnect climate change from any changes in the water cycle – including floods and other severe weather events. Since most of the serious impacts of climate change manifest themselves through changes in the water cycle, such disconnections, in my mind, are not much different from denying anthropogenic climate change in the first place, no matter the credentials of the deniers.

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Do We Have To Argue? Do We Even Know How To Argue?

A few years ago I was attending an academic retreat. These usually take place somewhere outside the campus and they often involve overnight stay. They are generally organized as a forum in which to discuss an institution’s important policy issues. In this case, the subject of discussion was the changes in the institution’s general education requirements.

During lunch I was sitting near a friend that specializes in the history of the Middle East. Since I grew up in Israel (I hold dual American – Israeli citizenship) the lunch chat quickly drifted to a discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is Jewish and the student population he teaches is mixed. I asked him how he teaches such a controversial topic to a mixed student population who, in most cases, hold fossilized opinions on the topic. Since, among many student populations, climate change is as confrontational as the Middle East conflicts, I was interested in learning his practices. He smiled at me and said: “simple: I rely on original documents.” I shifted the conversation to a different topic because I didn’t want to be confrontational and point it out to him that since he is the one responsible for the selection of the original documents, his teaching is not much different from preaching.

A few months ago, an early, unofficial version of the first part of the 5th IPCC reports was released. Even before the official release of the report, the Heartland Institute released its own report that denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change. They presented it in the same format (if a bit longer) as the IPCC report. I thought that this was a teaching moment, especially because the Heartland arguments hadn’t yet been sliced and diced by the media. I wrote earlier on some aspects of these reports (October 1 and October 15, 2013). The timing was in the middle of the semester; the students read the textbook, and I gave them some quizzes to make sure that they actually understood the issues and were ready for the midterm exam. Among other things, I wanted to test how they would do at arguing the issues. To prepare for the test, we went through the arguments section of the wonderful website Skeptical Science. The site is probably the best available resource for arguments and counter arguments. In the test, I gave the students the assignment of arguing in response to one assertion each from the Skeptical Science and Heartland sites. This section of the test is shown below:

Part B

Some of the deniers’ more popular arguments against anthropogenic contributions to climate change are summarized below (http://www.skepticalscience.com/). Construct a thoughtful, data based, response to one of these arguments.

a.      Climate’s changed before
“Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age.” (Richard Lindzen)
b.      Models are unreliable
“[Models] are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behaviour in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”  (Freeman Dyson)

Part C:
Arguments against the new IPCC recent report came out even before the original report. The two arguments below have appeared recently in http://heartland.org/media-library/pdfs/CCR-II/Summary-for-Policymakers.pdf. Construct a thoughtful, data based, response to one of these arguments.

a.      CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere “greens” the planet and helps feed the growing human population.
b.      Earth has not warmed significantly for the past 16 years despite an 8% increase in atmospheric CO2, which represents 34% of all extra CO2 added to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

They didn’t do well. I decided, therefore, to devote a significant portion of the remainder of the semester to practicing argumentation on these kinds of issues.

Well, since argumentation is an “academic field,” but is not my specialty, my logical response was to call on some experts for help. The first department that I approached was the Department of Speech Communication Arts and Sciences. The present Chair is a friend and the previous Chair was arguably the best debater on campus. Unfortunately, the previous Chair had already retired by then and the department doesn’t have anybody to teach argumentation. They have asked a lawyer on campus to give the course on argumentation (this is supposed to be their bread and butter). I knew that argumentation in law is not the same as arguing on climate change but I decided to try getting through to him. He didn’t respond to my request. Next, I tried Philosophy – I went through their course offerings – no argumentation. Our college has a very good forensics club with a national reputation. I asked about the faculty adviser to the club, but found that there wasn’t one. Fortunately, I had an Honors College Physics major that took a course with me on climate change and was member of the forensics club, and asked her to come to my class to teach the students how to argue. She did a great job.

At this junction, I decided that learning how to argue and how to construct a decent argument should be an important objective of the course that deserves classroom effort.

As I have mentioned before (March 18, 2013) I am now using Team Based Learning (TBL) to teach my class and find this method to be very effective. In the lingo of this methodology teaching relevant argumentation can count as “application.” The class is already divided to teams of 7-8 students each. I gave every team one of the Heartland arguments and asked them to construct opposing and supporting presentations for the arguments and present them to the class toward the end of the semester. A few days later I got an email from one of the teams telling me that all of them fully agree with the Heartland argument. I asked them to try harder. They did, and since they had to divide the teams into those students presenting the supporting arguments and those opposing, by the end of the semester, we reached a more or less balanced positioning. But the balanced positioning didn’t convince anybody. Something was missing here and the semester was coming to its end. It became clear to me that I was unintentionally ending with the same strategy for arguing controversial issues as my history friend had been using to teach the Middle-East conflicts – a biased selection of observations.

In the case of Heartland and the IPCC, their findings are shown as conclusions to detailed full reports that are more than 1000 pages long. Obviously, none of the students read these reports in their entirety (they took the arguments in both cases from the provided “Summaries for the Policy Makers”), so they took the claims in the arguments on both sides to be equally valid.

This semester I decided to repeat the exercise with somewhat different rules. Every time that students need to make an argument, they are advised to refer to the three basic cycles shown below. As far as I know, none of these are controversial. Please stay tuned for the results.

Arguments:

Deniers vs. Believers – try to convert the opposing group to your side.

Elements:

  • Refute the premises of the other side
  • Support your own premises
  • Comment on the methodology of argumentation

Carbon CycleEnergy CycleWater CycleIn the next blogs I will focus on causal relation between the drought in the Western US and climate change as a case study to explore.

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Publishers

My book, Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now was published in the early summer of 2011. I wrote it as a textbook for the general public, and it was used mainly for general education – both in my school and a few other schools. Some members of the “general public” with no special background in the sciences also bought and read it. I was not, for obvious reasons, able to follow this audience closely and became aware of that only after they contacted me.

Like many other books and articles on contemporary issues, the book was out of date the moment that it came out. I wrote about the obvious reasons for that in a previous blog. (October 22, 2013). The sale figures were decent for such a book – decent enough for my publisher to approach me during the spring of 2013 to start talking about a second edition. We met, started to exchange ideas and contacted people that have used the book.

During this summer, however, while I was traveling abroad, I got an email from my publisher saying the following (any identifying words omitted):

I am terribly sorry about the long, long delay in getting back to you with a decision about your proposed plan to revise your book, Climate Change.

As I believe xxxxx and I have both let you know in recent weeks, the owner xxxxxx has been reviewing our editorial strategy going forward.  As a result, a decision has been made by xxxxxxxxx will from this point on be focused exclusively on what we call “collections” publishing:  groups of 20-40 small concise monographs organized around a particular engineering topical theme aimed at primarily upper level undergraduate and graduate level college students.

So this means that I will not be publishing any more stand-alone books, particularly for professional/reference use.  Moreover, I have been asked to not pursue any revisions of our currently published books.  That latter directive may, perhaps, change in the future.  But for now, I will have to decline a new edition of your book.

I was obviously upset but I accepted that it was a business decision. I changed my focus, starting on the demanding task of trying to pass the publishing torch. Because of the relative complexity of the efforts required to find a new prospective publisher, I have decided that the search will proceed serially; one publisher at a time, to eliminate the possibility of wasting precious publishers’ time in case of overwhelming enthusiasm to take on the job.

First, I approached a well-known publisher that I thought would be receptive. I received this response (again omitting identifying marks):

Thank you very much for forwarding this material and explaining your plans for a second edition of your textbook on the science of climate change. Although the topic is very much of interest to us and the book appears to offer an excellent introduction to the subject, it is not a fit for xxxxxxxx textbook program, which focuses on graduate level texts.

I wish you the best of luck in finding a suitable publisher for the new edition of the book. Thank you again for the chance to consider it.

Since this reason was basically identical to my existing publisher’s new changed business plan, the response made me think more generally about “graduate level texts” for highly interdisciplinary programs.

I have some experience in this business. I founded and directed (for 13 years) the Environmental Studies program at my school, which involves the participation of 14 departments. I also recently developed an interdisciplinary graduate course (Master’s level) called “Physics and Society.” The objective of the course is to engage students to apply the advanced quantitative skills that we teach our majors to broader societal issues. We used the following formal rationale to justify the course:

Rationale: “Physics and Society” is now a forum of the American Physical Society with its own publication; the most prestigious Physics journal – “Physical Review Letters” – includes a “catch all” section titled “Soft Matter, Biological and Interdisciplinary Physics.” A “typical” article in this section is titled “Environmental Versus Demographic Variability in Two-Species Predator-Prey Model” (prl – 2012- by Ulrich Dobramysl and Uwe C. Taber). Last year (2012), a new division of the American Physical Society was formed that is dedicated to Climate Change. The new division is the “Topical Group on the Physics of Climate” (GPC).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Physics (among other definitions) as: “science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe.”

The goal of physics is to formulate comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all discernible phenomena. With 7 billion people (October 2012) and growing, humans have become part of the physical environment. For most of our graduate students, the Master’s is a terminal degree that should lead to job opportunities. The objective of the course is to explore career opportunities beyond the usual boundaries of textbooks that include human activities.

The anchor throughout the semester was a selection from periodic reports issued by agencies such as the United Nations (IPCC) and the US National Intelligence Council that attempt to predict the future of the world and define activities necessary in the present to optimize the prospects of such a future. Typical driving forces that are estimated in such reports include the following:

  • Population growth
  • Economic growth
  • Income distribution
  • Governmental practices – power distribution
  • Environmental impact
  • Climate change
  • Science & Technology
  • Energy
  • Water
  • Food

Throughout the course, students adopt specific driving forces to perform a technical quantitative study of topics such as Gini coefficients (Income Distribution), tipping points (Climate Change), climate sensitivity (Climate Change), demographic distribution (Population growth), and frequency of extreme events (Climate Change). Class work is dedicated to the mutual dependence of the forces, again searching for issues that might benefit from attention of physicists.

Samples of Required Reading include:

None of these books can be classified as “graduate level texts,” yet the material was completely foreign to all of the students and they were thankful for the exposure.

Meanwhile, Congress has finally approved a budget. Research organizations such as the National Science Foundation got their 2014 budget that they can allocate as research grants. Congress did not specify to which research areas the money should go; however they did add this directive: “further growth of interdisciplinary research initiatives shall not come at the expense of the core disciplines.” Many have seen this as code for do not give any more money to climate change research.

They say when it rains, it pours – but in this case, I think the situation is more of a drought.

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Bard CEP Talk

Last Wednesday, I did a talk, Desalination as Adaptation as part of Bard College Center for Environmental Policy’s National Climate Seminar. The seminar, which is biweekly, was in the form of a conference call. Unfortunately, this format is completely new to me, and we had several technical difficulties. I apologize for the poor sound quality and regret that the talk had to end early. I will be posting some of the Q&A transcripts in the comments section below, since they are so hard to understand. I welcome your questions, hope that you will join the conversation in the comments section below.

I am including below a transcript of my talking points, and my answers to several questions emailed to me by students who were listening to the talk.

Transcript of talk:

Thanks to all of you. Before I start, let me say few words about my setting here. The timing of the seminar has small overlap with my regular climate change class. I have invited the students to hear the exchange during the seminar.  As usual, many of them have conflicts and I have no idea how many will show up out of the 50 students take the class. To accommodate everybody, our IT guys helped me connect my iphone to the class audio system for everybody to hear. Two students, Desiree Dymond and Dylan Tobia are standing near me to warn me about the timing and help me in case I have difficulties in hearing your questions and comments.

I have asked Eban to be able to post the audio file on my blog so my students will be able to join all of you in the discussion.

I would like to thank you for hosting me and I would like also to thank Sonya Landau for suggesting to you my participation in this important seminar. Sonya is a graduate of Bard College and she now works in the public relations office LCG Communications with Linda Gross. In that capacity, Sonya is my right hand lady in publishing my blog and trying to help me spread the word to the furthest possible reach. Sonya has coordinated with Eban the poetic title – Desalination as Adaptation.

Friday morning I woke up with my usual breakfast and the New York Times. As usual, my wife got the first section and I got the rest. I started with the business section. One of the front-page articles started with the following intro: “The part of the past that you deem most relevant can be critical in determining your outlook for the future.” The article had absolutely nothing to do with the topic of this seminar but I have decided to go along with that sentiment.

I was born in Warsaw, Poland 3 months before the German invasion that started WWII. I was born to a Jewish family and I survived the war with my mother, spending the first three and a half years of my life in the Warsaw ghetto and the next two years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. On February 13, 1945 I was saved by a unit of the American Army. After the War I went to Palestine (now Israel) where I grew up in boarding schools to follow in the army and University. I was trained as a scientist to try to quantify the physical environment with a focus on energy.

My present work is targeted at the modest objective of trying to assure long term survival of the planet as a supportive habitat of the human race. I define “long term” arbitrarily as 1000 years – a random number that has been cited as the time needed to develop the technology necessary to move from this planet to an alternative suitable planet in case we succeed in making this planet uninhabitable. So I define myself as a “quantitative survivalist.”

When I was born the global population was about 2 billion. Less than two years ago we crossed the marker of 7 billion – that’s an addition of 5 billion people in my lifetime. Over this period the average GDP/person in constant US$ has increased from around $2000 to about $8000. The GDP per person of the US is more than $50,000. The resources to support this growth came mainly from the physical environment. The price that we are paying is that we have become part of said physical environment.

The basic ingredients that characterize such survival are population, energy, food, water and natural resources.

The main life ingredients are described in terms of three cycles: The energy cycle, the carbon cycle and the water cycle. All three of these cycles are now being directly shaped by humans. Without human influence all three cycles balance nicely. Human influence drives all of them out of balance.

Climate change is caused mainly through the imbalances that we introduce in the carbon cycle through emission of greenhouse gases that impacts our energy balance. Most of the impact of these changes comes through the water cycle. The changes come in the form of sea level rise, extreme weather events and changes in the spatial and temporal pattern of precipitation.

There is a growing interest now to find exoplanets (Planets that are outside our solar system). There is even greater interest to find planets that can accommodate life. The interest is driven by scientific curiosity about our place in the Universe and, more pessimistically, attempts to find ways to save humanity in the case that we fail and make our planet uninhabitable. For a planet to be able to accommodate life, it must first accommodate liquid water on its surface and stay around long enough for the chemistry to take shape.

The water cycle is driven by solar energy that evaporates water into the atmosphere. The salt remains in the ocean. So the water cycle is a global gigantic desalination process with total recycling capabilities on a global scale – great system. The water vapor condenses in the atmosphere and joins the weather system. About 10% of the water returns to land in the form of rain or snow. The rain and snow eventually find their way back to the Ocean. With about 70% earth covered by Ocean, we will not run out of water – so long as the planet can stay habitable.  Yet – increasingly we are running into severe shortage in the water that we can use – fresh water.

We use fresh water in agriculture to grow our food, in industry to drive our manufacturing and much of our energy needs, for drinking and for sanitation. As our numbers and our standard of living increase we need more fresh water. To satisfy our needs we borrow from storage pools and deplete our reservoirs. Water stress means that the storage pools are getting dry and that the natural water cycle cannot satisfy our needs.

What can we do?

  • We can use less
  • We can recycle
  • We can add to the water cycle through technological desalination.

We are doing all three but some of us are doing more than others

Let me elaborate a bit on desalination. We can mimic the natural water cycle by doing artificial thermal desalination through enhanced evaporation and condensation. This is an energy intensive process. In a place like Saudi Arabia where energy is low cost and money is in abundance, this is the preferred method. The largest desalination plants are the thermal desalination plants in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. A much more efficient method is the reverse osmosis method.

If I take a cup of concentrated salt water and dump it into a container of fresh water, the salt will spread around very quickly through the entire sample, making a larger amount of diluted salt water (you can safely try it). If I want to do it in a controlled way I can put a membrane on the cup that can transport only water. What will happen is: water will move from the container to the cup in an attempt to equalize the concentration. The reason for that is one of the most basic laws of Physics called the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The process is called osmosis defined as the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a partially permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration. To desalinate, I need to accomplish the reverse. To do that, I need to invest energy in the process. We know how to do that. The process is called reverse osmosis (RO).  Let’s get some numbers:

From 1990 – 2008 global desalination capacity rose from 3.7 Billion US gallons/day to 17.5 Billion US gallons/day; a rise of more than 350% or an average of 20% per year.

In 2012 global desalination capacity reached 20 Billion US gallons/day.

Largest capacity RO plants (all around 120 million US gallons/day):

Largest capacity thermal desalination Plants:

  • Saudi Arabia – 225 million US gallons/day. Under construction – SA – more than 250 million US gallons/day.
  • California – the largest desalination facility (basically the only one) – near San-Diego (Carlsbad) to be operational in 2016 has a planned capacity of 50 million gallons/day with a construction time about 20 years.

Probably the most important thing that we can do is integrate all three water saving methods with the natural water cycle. Equally important, to adapt to the great spatial and temporal variability in the natural water cycle, we have to be able to adjust our water supplement to complement the natural variability.

Israel is doing just that. My last blog details some of the issues that Israel had to confront in doing that.

What is the global situation and why should we care? Let’s go through some numbers again: Average water use in the US is about 150 gallons/person. day – in Kenya it is 13. The largest water users everywhere are in agriculture to produce our food. 70% of Kenyans are employed in agriculture as compared to 1% of Americans.

Close to a billion people lack access to clean water and sanitation. Water recycling and desalination need resources that most countries can not afford. As the situations in many countries show, water doesn’t recognize borders and when people are desperate, security threats cross borders as well. What we do in the rich world should be addressed to solve global issues and not confined to our own backyards.  In the rich world we should be willing to provide the technology and resources to address the global water stress through integration of saving, recycling and desalination.

Dear Professor Micha Tomkiewicz,

We are the graduate students from Bard CEP that asked you a couple questions during your National Climate Center talk. Our names are Emily and Sonam. Thank you again for joining our talk on Wednesday. We are currently writing our blog post as a response to the talk and we have a couple follow up questions for you. If you could answer a couple of these questions for us, whichever ones you wish to answer, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,
Emily McCarthy and Tso Sonam

I understand this question is a bit of an extreme case, but bear with me for a moment: 2 earth system scientists, Timothy Lenton and Andrew Watson, wrote a book “Revolutions that Made the Earth” that argues that large changes in the amount of energy available to the biosphere have, in the past, always marked large transitions to the way the world works. They then consider that growing availability of solar and nuclear over coming centuries may mark the greatest new energy resources since and they suggest that the energy may be used the change the hydrologic cycle with massive desalination equipment, or a whole lot of other changes that this burst in energy could cause. In our graduate studies, we have seen that humans can completely change some earth cycles by our actions …

Our question is: at what amount of world-wide desalination, would you say that we should stop? It is good to think of where you would have to expanding the quantity of water being desalinated.
Great questions. I haven’t read Lenton & Watson’s book, though I probably should. From the title, I would expect it to cover something about Terraforming (the artificial formation of a planet with characteristics of the Earth) but your explanation makes it clear that is not the case. I would be a bit more comfortable answering your questions if I could remove the descriptive adjectives such as “large transitions,” “large changes,” and “massive desalination equipment,” but I can live with them.

Solar and nuclear are the two basic forms of energy that describe everything we are using. For example, energy forms such as wind, biofuels and hydropower all derive their energy from the sun. The fossil fuels from which we get our chemical energy originally derived their energy from photosynthetic organisms, which in turn derived their energy from the sun – the difference is that they did it millions of years ago. Tidal energy is probably the only form that cannot be characterized directly as either solar or nuclear.

Solar energy drives the water cycle. However, the water cycle operates on a global scale as part of the weather system, so we don’t always get the water when and where we need it. As our demand for fresh water grows, we need to supplement the water cycle. By this, I mean that when there is a short supply, such as in drought, we can draw from the desalinated supply, and when we have enough or more than enough (floods) from the natural cycle we don’t use the desalination facility. This necessarily means that we construct water systems that can move large quantities of water whenever –to wherever they are needed. This also requires an efficient water management system to ensure that the price that we pay for the water covers the cost and that the investment in the construction will be economically viable.

In last week’s blog I described the water management system in Israel, which approximately satisfies these requirements.

We need to expand desalination only to the most necessary level. That means that if we are good with the other management tools that we have such as efficient water use and recycling, our needs will be manageable.

What progress in particular would you like to see happening? Improved technology and research? or outreach and education? Or getting industry / investors/ government involved directly?

How do you feel about combined power and desalination plants?
Combined power and desalination plants are fine but they are not necessary. They each require specific settings and we should not have any issue moving either the energy or the water to wherever it’s most needed. The main argument against using desalination is the large amount of energy that we use to operate desalination plants. We are becoming much more energy efficient with the technology but we still need large amounts of energy. The only sustainable scenario here is to find an equally sustainable energy source. This of course would also contribute to the cost.

What do you think about trying to encourage industry to desalinate instead of cities?
The way it works now is that industry desalinates and not cities. In most places the cities don’t even initiate the desalination capabilities but instead contact the water authority to supply the water when needed at an agreed price.

Do you encourage other desalination processes other than the major families of reverse osmosis and distillation?
Right now, reverse osmosis is the leading technology – one that is being continuously improved. We don’t have too many options here because the process itself is a reverse osmosis process – the real issue is how we achieve it: through a thermal process (distillation) or through application of pressure.

Have you thought about a collaboration with a separation processes engineering class about a design project? They could perform a design of a theoretical plant and then perform an economic assessment of the investment. Desalination is often covered in these classes.
As I mentioned in my chat, I don’t work in the desalination industry and I am a bit old to switch jobs but there are plenty of very gifted engineers and scientists that are doing fine work.

Do you think private-public partnerships could be useful for desalination?
Public-private partnership is not only very useful, but absolutely necessary for desalination. I don’t see any way to run an efficient water management system without such a partnership.

Do you think desalination ever poses any environmental justice threats?
Which are the highest variable costs of operation, and which parts of the equipment are the most expensive (pressure vessel, membrane) in general?
The price of energy constitutes about 50% of the cost. We are making great strides in reducing membrane and vessel cost. These are a fixed price, since they do not scale with the amount of water that we desalinate, while the energy used does.

I sort of reversed the orders of the last two questions because the issue of environmental justice is probably the most challenging issue in the discussion. I will be delighted to continue the discussion starting with your opinion on how to address the environmental justice issue. It is important here to define the scale that we are taking about (global, country, individual?).

Take care and thank you.

As always, I welcome everyone’s feedback, questions and comments – I would love to continue the conversation with you in the comments section.

Update: the Bard CEP blog just posted about desalination and my talk: Desalination as Adaptation: Energy intensive, but sometimes necessary. I want to thank them again for inviting me to participate in their National Climate Seminar.

 

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Back to Water – Israel in the Lead

I am back to focusing on water (you can use the search engine here to find the previous related blogs) for two important reasons:

  1. On Wednesday (tomorrow) I am participating in Bard College’s Bi-Weekly National Climate Seminar and will be discussing desalination.  The audio file of the conversation will be posted here (in addition to the posting on the Bard site – I am thankful to the Bard College Center for Environmental Policy for facilitating the talk). I invite you to continue the conversation through comments here.
  2. My last few blogs looked at various attempts to achieve demographic stability, as implemented by China and Israel. Unfortunately, the efforts of both countries were found to be wanting, so I am shifting back to water as I continue the search for policies that will achieve sustainable long-term human development.

Here I would like to shift to water management, using the example of Israel once again, since it has become a figure for emulation in the United States. Through its efforts in water management, Israel, which sits in a historically water-thirsty region, has gone from a country in severe water stress to one that can actually export significant amounts of water to its neighbor to achieve policy objectives. Israel is now receiving almost universal praise for its efforts in this area. I will elaborate later on the meaning of “almost.”

Agricultural Water Use in Israel

The graph above is probably one of the best testaments to the success of this water management policy. Over the last 20 years or so, water use for agriculture has been kept steady, even while crop production increases. As we will see shortly, one of the main tools for this accomplishment has been an increase in the price of the water. The graph was posted by an objective arbiter, and I am using it so as to avoid any potential political (pro-Israeli) bias.

I will introduce the Israeli water management system with the use of two documents: the first is a 2006 PowerPoint presentation by Gilad Fernandes, who served as Deputy Director-General of the Water Authority, while the second document is an article from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz that describes the present situation.

The Water Authority Document:

To make the presentation readable I have converted it into an outline in document form.

Management of the Water Section in Israel:

  1. Legal Basis – The Water Law 1959:
    1. Water availability is insufficient for needs.
    2. Water is owned by the public and managed by the Government (as trustee) for the benefit of the people and the development of the country.
    3. Administrative control over all aspects of water use (Consumption, Allocations, Productions, Pollution…).
    4. The Water Law created a balance between water scarcity and the need to provide water for the most important needs.
  2. Physical Infrastructure – The National Grid.
  3. Institutional Infrastructure – The Water Authority.

Israel Water Authority PowerPoint SlideWater Authority responsibilities:

  1. Water Authority strengthened and regulation decreased.
  2. Water Authority provides efficient organizational solutions: economic management of water system, supply and demand criteria, cancel allocation system.
  3. Water prices – express real cost.
  4. State of reservoir and supply area determine utilization limits.
  5. Stabilizing the water sector – the produced water resources are of steady production rate, the scope of utilization from natural resources depends on the status of the reservoir.
  6. Guaranteeing water supply at fixed quality for drinking and industrial needs.
  7. Efficient integration of the water resources in the regional systems while referring to development and operation considerations.
  8. Desalinated water as the source for urban and industrial provision – an examined option – while detaching networks.
  9. Establishing an operational layout – operating all water resources according to the hydrological situation, their transfer and distribution to the consumers.

Economic Background:

  1. Usable water from all sources – natural, salinated, desalinated and even effluents – are rear public resources and therefore should be regulated, using Hydrological operational and economical measures.
  2. The economic regulation is based on tariffs that cover the recognized costs of various water supply services and therefore creates an efficient use of this resource.
  3. The economic regulation is subjected to sectarian and political agreements such as the agreement with the agricultural sector and the water supply agreements with Jordan & the PA (Palestinian Authority).
  4. Unrealistic tariffs è Enhanced Demand èrisk of water supply crisis.
  5. Realistic cost based tariffs è efficient allocation of water.
  6. In the future – significant increase in water supply costs (Desalination) and therefore an increase in cost based tariffs.

Economic Policy: Methodology for recognized costs of water supplies:

  1. The Goal – creating a “transparent” methodology for analyzing recognized costs that enable an efficient supply of water.
  2. Providing resources for infrastructures needed for water supply (separate component in the tariff, separate designated fund).
  3. Defining normative expenses components (& profit) essential for providing services whilst enhancing efficiency.
  4. Creating regulatory environment that enables non-discriminatory (consumers, competition).
  5. Creating regulatory environment that encourage the use of efficient water technologies.
  6. Representing the cost (and derived tariff) methodology alternatives to the Water Authority board (Inc. public hearing if necessary).
  7. Implementing the Water Authority board decisions.

The main trend – Increase in costs & tariffs

  1. Potable water-production and transfer:
    1. Increase in Desalination increase in production costs. Currently the annual production of Desalinated water is 290 MCM (Million Cubic Meter) (= 10 billion ft3) (20% of total potable water (drinking water)). In 2013 the annual production of Desalinated water will be 600MCM (40% of total potable water).
      1. Results:
      2. Increase in water costs – Desalinated water cost about 0.6 – 0.8 US$/meter cube (1.7 – 2 US$/ft3).
      3. Investment in connecting the desalination plants to the national grid.
      4. Investments in adopting the transfer system.
    2. Creating a regulation system for Mekorot (the main water supplier) that will enable an efficient investment plan.
  2. Potable water-Agricultural Sector:
    1. Decrease in allocated annual quantities – a decrease from 1000 MCM a decade ago to 480 MCM today (the agricultural potable water tariffs are about 0.14US$ lower than the supply costs).
    2. Results:
    3. Increase effectiveness of potable water usage in agriculture.
    4. Increase of other water – treated sewage water (400 MCM) drainage and salinated water (250MCM).
    5. Increasing agricultural potable water tariffs to the average water supply cost (in 7 years span according to the agreement).
  3. Municipal water supply – Municipal authorities:
    1. The water supply system wasn’t based on authentic finance economy è ability to use water revenues for other municipal services..
    2. The municipal authority as a customer (for instance in water in parks & gardens) doesn’t pay a realistic tariff (Mekorot tariff, excluding distribution).
    3. Creating incentives for new water service corporations & creating a tariff basis similar to the municipal corporations.
  4. Municipal water supply – Water & sewage corporations:
    1. Defining tariffs that reflect recognizing water & sewage services costs.
    2. Using corporate revenues for maintenance & development of the municipal water system including additional investments in water distribution & sewage collection.
    3. Construction/upgrading sewage treatment facilities.
    4. In accordance with government policy-creating regional corporations for water distribution, sewage collection & treatment whilst enhancing economy of scale advantages.

Water Supply Costs:

  1. Natural water supply costs range from 0.15 – 0.45 US$/m3.
  2. Seawater desalination costs at the distribution system range from 0.6 – 0.8 US$/m3 (excluding connection to the main system).
  3. The average cost of the National Water Supply System is about 0.35 US$/m3.
  4. This cost will raise in the following years in 40% – 50% (grate investments).
  5. Distribution costs range from 0.4 – 0.75 US$/m3.
  6. Based on recognized costs to every Corp.

Tariffs (per cubic meter (CM)):

  1. Domestic:
    1. Corp./Municipality: $1.15
      1. Consumers:
      2. $2.4 per first 7 cubic meters
      3. $4 per additional cubic meter.
  2. Industrial:
    1. Potable water (in addition to sewage tariff) – $1.35
    2. Treated effluent          20% less than potable
    3. Saline water                15% less than potable.
    4. Inferior quality water 20% less than potable.
  3. Agricultural:
    1. Potable Water
      1. 1st. Tranche (50% of allocation) – $0.5
      2. 2nd. Tranche (30% of allocation) – $0.6
      3. 3rd. Tranche (20% of allocation) – $0.75
    2. b.      Treated Effluent
      1. About $0.35 (varies with the treatment plant)
    3. c.       Saline Water
      1. Gradual reduction from composite tariff for potable water based on salinity level.

Excerpts from the Haaretz article about the present situation:

In ancient times and even during the years of the British Mandate (1917-1948), the shortage of water in Palestine, as well as among its neighbors in the Middle East, had a decisive influence not only on the area’s economic development, but also on the political strife between Jews and Arabs. Technology has changed all this. Now, the ability to produce all the water that’s needed, whether for human consumption or for agriculture, may soon change our way of life and perhaps even, if our neighbors agree, bring peace closer.

There is now a surplus of water in Israel, thanks largely to the opening of several new desalination plants – and the development of natural-gas fields that can power them cheaply. Since water is the source of life, the well-known Israeli imperative to “save every drop” should still be respected. But the price the Israeli population is charged for its water supply should be reduced by more than the 5 percent drop announced on January 1 of this year.

Desalination in Israel began in 1973, when Mekorot built facilities that operated by reverse osmosis; these supplied the Dead Sea, Eilat and communities not served by the National Water Carrier. It was only 35 years later, in 2008, that the government decided to establish five large desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, with the aim of providing 505 million cubic meters of water a year by 2013 (a forecast met in full) and 750 million cubic meters a year by 2020. However, since 2008, two technological revolutions – both of which also have far-reaching political implications – have radically altered the water situation in Israel.

The first revolution is the immense decrease in the cost of desalination – from $1 per cubic meter to 40 cents, and even less than that in desalination plants built in Hadera, Palmahim, Ashkelon and at Sorek. The savings will grow further thanks to the use of Israeli natural gas instead of electricity to power the plants. The second revolution is the success of the plants used to purify sewage water that were built adjacent to Israel’s cities and towns. Thanks to efficient usage, this water now irrigates most of the country’s field crops

There are at least three explanations for this uncharacteristic silence, in the face of success and the concomitant abundance of water Israel now enjoys. One is that even though the cost of desalination has fallen considerably, the government promised the investors a high price for the water. The government can reduce the amount of water it buys from the desalination facilities, but it cannot pay less than what it promised.

In the next blog I will compare the situation in Israel to the one in the US, focusing specifically on California.

For now, let’s revisit the “almost” qualifier that I mentioned in the beginning of the blog. Two related events took place recently. One is the water situation in Gaza, for which Israel is partially responsible. The Gazans don’t have the power to clean their sewage and are forced instead to dump it in the Mediterranean. The northern border of Gaza is only a few miles from the large Israeli city of Ashkelon, where one of the largest Israeli desalination facilities is located. Ashkelon will not be isolated from the sea dumping for long. I detailed this situation in a previous blog (December 2, 2013), which was based on an Op-Ed in the New York Times. The article was co-authored by Alon Tal, who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and is a visiting professor at the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, and Yousef Abu-Mayla, a water expert at Al Azhar University in Gaza.

The second issue is more recent. The President of the European Parliament came to visit Israel. He was heckled during his speech in the Israeli Parliament for saying that he had heard that “Palestinians get 17 liters of water for every 70 Israelis get,” and his comment prompted the Economic Minister and his entire Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party to leave in protest.  The strong prevailing impression is that while the water management system is great for the Jewish population, it is not disconnected from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli water management system’s success can serve as an encouraging example of how to handle human development indicators for long term sustainability – provided that it is combined with a clear non discrimination policy. On the face of it – in terms of theory – the system is disconnected from short term politics. This disconnection needs to be extended to the implementation stage. More on this in future blogs.

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Top-Down Stabilization Attempts

In a previous blog (February 11, 2014) I summarized some of the current measures being taken to reverse the existing trend of fertility rates lowering to below replacement levels in countries throughout the world. These attempts include restricting abortions (although, as I have mentioned before, most of such measures have nothing to do with demographic considerations), giving families money as an encouragement to have more children and providing incentives to attract and keep women in the workforce. Additionally, attracting women to the workforce serves to mitigate negative consequences associated with a shrinking workforce. I also mentioned other plans working toward the same purpose, including incentives to keep older people in the workforce and the development of robotic technologies to supplement human labor.

On the face of it, none of these steps target demographic stabilization, but I will try to use this post to describe two possible stabilization efforts. In the February 4th, 2014 blog I tried to describe the science of stabilization, using a thermostat as an example of our goal. In short, we need to find the means to set the temperature (or in this case, population) to a desired value, lowering the temperature to that value when it goes higher and increasing the temperature when it drifts below the desired value.

The crudest attempt in that direction can be associated with China’s one-child policy, which was instituted in 1979. Many demographers consider the name a misnomer because of the many exceptions that it entails. It was enacted to alleviate the social, economic and environmental problems associated with growing populations. Indeed, China’s fertility rate is now well below replacement (See data on the January 28, 2014 blog). However, as we saw in a previous blog, about half the world’s countries now have fertility rates below replacement. This is in spite of the fact that with the exception of China, none of these countries have instituted a policy similar to the one-child policy. Over the last 20 years the total fertility rate in China was kept approximately constant. Meanwhile, in economic terms, China was developing at the fastest global rate – approaching a constant of 10% in US$. Clearly the term, “development is the best contraceptive” applies here, with the two driving forces (one-child policy and the economic development) working in parallel. To isolate the separate contributions of the two is not an easy task. The similarities between China’s decrease in fertility rates and those of other developing countries provide a solid argument that the major contribution came from the economic development.

The exceptions that demographers claim makes the one-child policy a misnomer actually make it more apt to qualify as a stabilization policy or as an attempt at a demographic thermostat. The exceptions (which can be changed, as we will see shortly) are listed along with the policy’s main negative impacts on Wikipedia, as quoted below:

Rural families can have a second child if the first child is a girl or is disabled, and ethnic minorities are exempt. Families in which neither parent has siblings are also allowed to have two children.[2] Residents of the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and foreigners living in China are also exempt from the policy. In 2007, approximately 35.9% of China’s population was subject to a one-child restriction.[3] In November 2013, the Chinese government announced that it would further relax the policy by allowing families to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.[2][4]

The policy has been implicated in an increase in forced abortions,[8] female infanticide, and underreporting[9] of female births, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China’s sex imbalance. Nonetheless, a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center reported that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.[10]

The policy is enforced at the provincial level through fines that are imposed based on the income of the family and other factors. “Population and Family Planning Commissions” exist at every level of government to raise awareness and carry out registration and inspection work.[11].

The resulting sex imbalance is shown below:

 Sex_ratio_at_birth_in_mainland_China

Jim Foreit (guest blog – January 14, 2014) emailed me an article from the Washington Post written by Lauren Sandler regarding the policy’s recent change to allow families a second child. Her article was skeptical of the ability of the changes to reverse the decline in fertility rates. She should know because she wrote a book on the topic (One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.”). In the article she claims that most Chinese share this view. It seems that development really has acted as a contraceptive, and China can now join the rest of the world by abandoning the one-child policy altogether without fear of adverse consequences.

A friend of mine is making a movie that was intended to document family life under the one-child policy. Below is part of my email exchange with him after seeing the movie.

My remarks:

I was glued in-spite of the fact that for a guy that was constantly preaching that a movie has to have a story, this movie doesn’t have a story. Similar footage in a very raw form can be obtained by attaching a small mobile camera on almost every one of the 7 billion or so global inhabitants (including your two kids). As such, the movie itself has very little of the one-child’s consequences. That means very little about sex, child prevention, issues with gender ratio, selective abortions, etc. it’s fascinating.

His response:

 Yes, the film is not about the policy—I wanted to steer clear of the heated political debates about it—the film is certainly about the consequences of a family living under that policy and all you are seeing is one third of the film. More is expected to be covered to contrast the 2nd daughter and young boy, we will see the true nature of how this family must survive in China. Last month China just fined a famous Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, for having 3 children—so this topic and penalty levy is still an active issue.

On a completely different premise, US Secretary of State John Kerry cited demographic stabilization as a driving reason for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians in some form of a two states solution.

Here is a recent quote from a speech that he made on the topic:

The US Secretary of State said that a team of American experts headed by General John Allen has “extensively analyzed Israel’s security needs in any future agreement and presented Israel with a concrete plan. According to the proposed plan, Israel would be able to defend itself against any potential threat while the United States will lead countries that will support it during an emergency.” Kerry said that “Israel needs to understand the fact that its security is associated with the two-state solution. Military force cannot defeat or defuse the demographic time bomb. The scene tomorrow will differ from today.”

The sentiment about the demographic time bomb is shared by many – both in and out of Israel – but it is wrong. It seems that the US State Department didn’t do their homework.

Here are the data:

The population is divided to the following groups (the exact borders to which this division applies to is described on the site):

Group

Population

%

Jews

5,907,500

75.4%

Muslims

1,354,300

17.3%

Christians

155,100

2.0%

Druze

129,800

1.6%

Other

289,900

3.7%

As to fertility rates:

Jewish total fertility rate increased by 10.2% during 1998–2009, and was recorded at 2.90 during 2009. During the same time period, Arab TFR decreased by 20.5%. Muslim TFR was measured at 3.73 for 2009. During 2000, the Arab TFR in Jerusalem (4.43) was higher than that of the Jews residing there (3.79). But as of 2009, Jewish TFR in Jerusalem was measured higher than the Arab TFR (2010: 4.26 vs 3.85, 2009: 4.16 vs 3.87). TFR for Arab residents in the West Bank was measured at 2.91 in 2013,[46] while that for the Jewish residents was reported at 5.10 children per woman.[47]

Fertility rate, by year and religion[42]

Year

Jews

Muslims

Christians

Druze

Others

Total

2010

2.97

3.75

2.14

2.48

1.64

3.03

2011

2.98

3.51

2.19

2.33

1.75

3.00

2012

3.04

3.54

2.17

2.26

1.68

3.05

 The ethnic group with highest recorded TFR is the Bedouin of Negev. Their TFR was reported at 10.06 in 1998 and 5.73 in 2009. TFR is also very high among Haredi Jews. For Ashkenazi Haredim, the TFR rose to 8.51 in 1996 from 6.91 in 1980. The figure for 2008 is estimated to be even higher. TFR for Sephardi/MizrahiHaredim rose from 4.57 in 1980 to 6.57 in 1996.[48]

The demographic time bomb is not necessarily between the Arab and the Jewish populations. The fertility rate of the Arab population is higher than that of the Jewish population, but it is quickly decreasing, following the trends in many developing countries. The larger “time bomb” seems to apply instead between the secular and religious nationalist Jews (presently approximately 80% of the Jewish population) which have relatively small fertility rates and the more orthodox Jewish population (the Haredim – presently around 20% of the Jewish population) with a much higher fertility rate than either the Arabs or the less orthodox Jews. It seems that there are two demographic time bombs that are in danger of “exploding,” with perhaps the most imminent one being within the Jewish community itself. Small steps are now being proposed to apply “development is the best contraceptive” to the Haredi Jewish community but few people outside Israel know much of these efforts.

From these two examples, we can see that so far the construction of a demographic thermostat has taken a lot of work, but does not show much progress. The next series of blogs will take us back to the water shortage issue. I will start with an Israeli example where the construction of a hydrological thermostat has been a bit more successful.

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Economic Impact of Fertility Rates Below Replacement

The golden rule of free enterprise economy seems to be that everything that contributes to economic growth is good, while anything that detracts from the same is bad. The rationale behind this is that as the population grows, the economy has to accommodate the growing population in order to maintain or improve the standard of living. I have argued against this reasoning before, especially as it relates to long-term planetary sustainability (see Economic Growth and Problems With My Sourdough Bread blog Feb. 11, 2013 and the series of blogs surrounding it). The previous argument was based on the idea that continuous economic growth inevitably comes at the expense of the deterioration of the physical environment, with climate change as one of the major impacts. The argument there was that for the long term (again, my standard is 1000 years) with stabilized population, the only justified economic growth is for homogenizing the economic structure to ensure that everybody can afford a decent living.

This perspective agrees with the recent quote from Dilama Rousseff, the President of Brazil, in an email correspondence with Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker: “The main aim of economic development must always be the improvement of living conditions,” she told him. “You cannot separate the two concepts.”

The conclusion I reached in my most recent discussion was that in order to be successful going forward, we must learn to shift the paradigm of the holy grail of economics from growth to stability. Here I would like to shift the focus to economic consequences of decrease in population that results from fertility rates consistently below replacement. Since, as I have mentioned in a number of recent blogs, more than half of the world’s developing countries and the majority of its developed countries currently live with below replacement fertility rates, the economic consequences need not be deduced from long term extrapolations. They should start to be visible now – indeed, we are already starting to see some of the impacts.

The issue recently gained some attention due to some comments made by Larry Summers in a short speech that he gave at a research IMF conference to honor Stanley Fischer (President Obama’s recent nomination to serve as Vice Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank). A key paragraph is given below:

It is a central pillar of both classical models and Keynesian models that stabilization policy is all about fluctuations – fluctuations around a given mean – and that the achievable goal and therefore the proper objective of macroeconomic policy is to have less volatility.  I wonder if a set of older and much more radical ideas that I have to say were pretty firmly rejected in 14.462, Stan, a set of older ideas that went under the phrase secular stagnation, are not profoundly important in understanding Japan’s experience in the 1990s, and may not be without relevance to America’s experience today.

The term “secular stagnation” is reintroduced here from its original use in the mid 1950s. The stagnation itself and the responsible driving forces are still controversial, but the demographic shift is a very likely contributor.

One important reason for the recent discussions rests on an apparent anomaly in the statistics of the recovery from the last recession. The unemployment rate is shrinking quickly, but this actually corresponds less to the addition of new jobs, and more to the increasing number of people leaving the workforce. If people are leaving the workforce because they don’t believe that they will be able to find work, it indicates an unhealthy economy that needs to be fixed. If, however people leave the workforce because they choose or are forced to retire because they have reached the retirement age, it’s a different issue. The baby boomers (born after the 2nd World War) are now starting to reach the retirement age and the economy needs to accommodate them. This is a demographic transition that is coming about because of changes that took place in the demographic pyramid caused by events that took place more than two generations ago.

The relative weight of the demographic changes compared to cyclical job availability, is a controversial issue, loaded with political arguments across the political spectrum. The dynamics (and the politics) hold similarities to the debate about climate change: i.e. whether the causes are anthropogenic (caused by humans) or “natural.” It is much more likely the two components both play important roles; attempts to differentiate between the two show up periodically across this blog.

A related discussion (and political debate) has now opened around the new healthcare law in the US (Obamacare). It has recently been projected that the law will lower the labor force by more than two million toward the end of the decade (people will not need to go to work simply to guarantee health insurance). Opponents of the law immediately started trying to brand the law as a job killing legislation. Supporters, meanwhile, have maintained that the law allows people the freedom to choose whether and how much they want to work.

A recent piece in the Economist (January 4th – 10th 2014) describes an interesting dynamic with a new building site in Battersea, London. The site is being built as a retirement village. Its 112 flats are available only to buyers over 65. It will include restaurants, gym, a swimming pool and a care home. It describes the background:

Britain’s population is ageing fast. The number of people older than 85 is expected to double by 2030. Yet Britain’s elderly are badly served by the housing market. Although 71% of people over the age of 65 own their homes outright, lots still live in large family houses, paying dearly to heat empty bedrooms and struggling with too-large gardens, broken boilers and council tax bills.

It’s bad for the old people and contributes to Britain’s housing shortage:

According to data from the English Housing Survey, roughly 49% of owner-occupied homes have at least two more bedrooms than the government deems necessary. Among those who rent—either privately or from the state—the figure is just 13%. Neal Hudson, an analyst at Savills, a big estate agent, estimates that there are almost 1.2m inefficiently used homes in London and the south-east alone.

Demographic changes have major impacts on everything that we do. We need to learn how to accommodate those changes. If our population is shrinking, with older generations outnumbering those that must care for them, it is imperative that we learn how to manage and redistribute essential goods and services. This goes double for when we take into account climate change and the resources that will be available in the times to come.

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